Epilogue: Nietzsche’s influence on the philosophy of history

Even though Hegel is virtually synonymous with nineteenth-century philosophy of history, precious few serious historians or philosophers of history since Popper’s famous The Poverty ofHistoricism (1957) have held there to be some grand metaphysical scheme that divides history into progressive epochs and aims at some ideal end.[1] Even though Nietzsche has been comparatively ignored, his philosophy of history finds much more resonance on both sides of the general twentieth-century philosophical rift between continental and analytic meta-historians. Thinkers of the former tradition like Heidegger, Jaspers, Lowith, Deleuze, and Derrida tended to focus on historicity: the meaning of our human experience within a temporal horizon. Analytical thinkers like Mandelbaum, Walsh, Beard, Hempel, Dray, and Danto tended to examine epistemological problems: the nature of explanation, judgment, evidence, and the possibility of laws and objectivity. Nietzsche had a more direct and obvious influence on the continental philosophers; though among the analytics, too, there are distinct commonalities. I will be able to draw only cursory similarities to these traditions here in the hope of generating interest for future research.

Among phenomenologist and existentialist continental philosophers, most notably Heidegger, the uniquely human way of being entails the recognition of our temporality.[2] We must understand our existential condition as oriented in our birth and propelled toward our future possibilities, which fall under the inescapable common horizon of our death. Heidegger, like Jan Patocka[3] and later Paul Ricoeur,4 thought that the proper study of history would involve articulating the meaning of beings in terms of their horizonal historicity. By demarking the specifically human condition as one bound to recognize its historicity, they each share Nietzsche’s 1874 characterization of the human animal as the one unable to forget his past; being human for each philosopher meant being forever tied to a continual process of becoming.[4] A flourishing life, for each, involves a certain orientation to or horizon within that becoming.

The continental historical movement known as the ‘Annales School’ has seemingly little in common with any philosophical movement. In conscious rejection of teleological historiography, especially the Marxist variety, historians like Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, and Fernand Braudel avoided class-politics in favor of statistical analyses and the rather unreflective attempt to return to the kinds of proofs and demonstrations made famous a century before by Buckle, Mill, and Comte. Though likely oblivious to Nietzsche’s critiques on that score, there is a rough parallel in the Annales’ focus on histoire totale. Rather than trying to present an absolutist, de-subjectivized account of the past, they thought historiography should be more concerned with mentalite, or the perspectival structures that witnesses impressed upon events in their societies. Although an idea first propagated by Vico, they and Nietzsche, too, acknowledge that event- descriptions follow functionally from agents in their particular historical situatedness.[5]

Among later postmodern continental thinkers such as Barthes, Foucault, de Man, Lacoue-Labarthe, Lyotard, Derrida, and Rorty,[6] the anthropological focus increasingly shifts to an epistemological one. The view of history as a mirror of the real events of a real objective past is ridiculed as an outdated conservative ideal. Historiography has not historically been used to discover truth, and indeed cannot be, but has consisted in a set of authoritative narratives constructed to ossify existing biases and power structures. Historiography, like both philosophy and literature, is revealed to be indistinguishable from power-based fictions. Both of these bear an indelibly Nietzschean stamp.[7] And consistent with their interpretation of Nietzsche’s genealogical project, they, too, see the West in a moment of cultural crisis. Historiography’s task is thus no longer to simply record facts, they hold, but to unmask the so-called ‘objective’ systems of values by deconstructing or revealing as mythic the ideological foundations on which they were built. After those grand-narratives have been exposed, historiography’s myth-making capacities are to be refocused to allow previously underrepresented groups to construct the story from their own perspectives.[8] In this way, too, one notices a rather freely interpreted application of Nietzsche’s claim, already mentioned, that “the more eyes, different eyes we learn to set upon the same object, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of this thing, the more ‘objective.’”[9]

Analytic philosophers of history of the first half of the twentieth century took their point of departure from Buckle’s and Comte’s attempts to construct nomothetic laws by which historiography, like science, might deduce the behaviors of agents or the outcomes of events. The most important twentieth-century analytic philosopher to take up their banner was undoubtedly Carl Gustav Hempel, whose covering law model remains the clearest formulation of nomothetic historiographical explanation.[10] W. H. Walsh put forth an alternative view of explanation known as colligation, which aims to uncover the conceptual bonds that hold related historical phenomena together in a sort of contextual pattern, “a whole of which they are all parts and in which they belong together in a specially intimate way.”[11] But Walsh was drawing more on William Whewell’s alternative to positivism13 than on Nietzsche’s. Maurice Mandelbaum14 and William H. Dray15 criticized Hempel in terms of the applicability of covering laws to the actual cases working historians endeavored to explain. Karl Popper16 and Isaiah Berlin17 set out from the position that what Hempel called laws were nothing more than trends, which both lack the explanatory force necessary for positivist deductions and simply are not, in comparison to what is unique and particular in the past, the real focus of historians anyway. While each is consistent with Nietzsche’s claim that, “there neither are nor can be actions that are all the same; that every act ever performed was done in an altogether unique and unrepeatable way, and that this will be equally true of every future act,”18 both Popper and Berlin came to their positions independent of him.

The same is almost certainly true of a group of twentieth-century antipositivists as well: Benedetto Croce, R. G. Collingwood, Theodor Lessing, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Though for quite different reasons, each found the positivist ideal of objectivity untenable within their more subject-sensitive philosophies of mind. Historiography should not strive to examine facts in a detached and disinterested manner. It “cannot be made to square with theories according to which the object of knowledge is abstract and changeless,”[12] claims Collingwood. Indeed history “must vibrate in the mind of the historian,”[13] must be a reflection of the hopes, values, and norms by which we understand ourselves as the authors of it. We need the mirror of history to understand ourselves; at the same time we must acknowledge that in that same mirror we can ever only see our own image. In Croce’s words, “All history is contemporary history.”[14] And in Lessing’s, history is a “Sinngebung des Sinnlosen [giving meaning to the meaningless]” according to an historian’s contemporary concerns.[15] Gadamer focused on how an interpreter’s historicity precludes the possibility of reaching an ‘objective’ timeless interpretation of texts and indeed of the world itself. Historiography correctly practiced, for Gadamer, is a sort of fusion of historically situated horizons: not an exposition of what an author intended to write, but an acknowledgment of the intertwining of the original authorial aims with our own contemporary interests. Roughly this same conclusion was reached by Nietzsche in 1874, though again the lines of influence cannot be demonstrated sufficiently. “The history of his city becomes for him the history of himself; he reads its walls, its towered gate, its rules and regulations, its holidays, like an illuminated diary of his youth and in all this he finds again himself, his force, his industry, his joy, his judgment, his folly and vices.”[16] Key for both is the way present-day subjective interests impact the apprehension of past phenomena.

Contemporary philosophy of history is dominated by the figures of Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit, and Keith Jenkins. The inaugurator of the ‘linguistic turn’ in postmodern historiography — not to be confused with the same phrase in earlier analytic philosophy — White draws attention to the form of historical writing, revealing the various modes of ‘emplot- ment’ by which historiographers constructed their accounts. Presuming that they had equal access to the relevant evidence and that both met standards of professional responsibility, if Michelet and Tocqueville tell vastly different stories about the French revolution, then this reflects the fact that they had differing aesthetic or evaluative perspectives that led to a ‘romantic,’ ‘tragic,’ ‘satirical,’ or ‘comical’ narrative. Events themselves have neither meaning nor order; both are imposed upon the past rather than discovered in it. In this sense, for White and the linguistic postmodernists, the historical text is a literary artifact, and should be evaluated in terms of its communicative efficacy.24 Frank Ankersmit is equally anti-realist in allocating the source of historical order to colligatory narrations rather than an inherent quality in the events themselves. “The structure of the narration is a structure lent to or pressed on the past and not the reflection of a kindred structure objectively present in the past itself.”25 In this respect, both White and Ankersmit owe something of a debt to Nietzsche’s skepticism about representational realism. “It is only a superstition to say that the picture given to such a man by the object really shows the truth of things. Unless it be that objects are expected in such moments to paint or photograph themselves by their own activity on a pure passivumI”26 But, as I argued in Chapters 6 and 7, the similarities between Nietzsche and postmodern historiography cannot be taken as an identity.

Though there are family resemblances, contemporary postmodern historiographies have broken out into more specialized sub-disciplines. So- called constructionists like Eric Hobsbawm and John Tosh aim at the attainment of a real past, while acknowledging that contextual categories contemporary to the individual historian largely (but not wholly) constitute historiographical discourse. Deconstructionists like Greg Dening, Robert Rosenstone, and Dipesh Chakrabarty deny the constructionist belief that a real past has any impact on historiographical reconstructions. What historians present is only a literary narrative that reflects their current aims, biases, and power interests. Self-proclaimed ‘endists’ like Jean Baudrillard, Jean- Fran^ois Lyotard, and Jenkins deny that traditional historiography should even be practiced as typically construed, that is to say, as passing off congealed power structures as if they were objective and inviolable truths.27 But, like many of the twentieth-century philosophers of history whom we have mentioned in our brief overview, these contemporary and nearcontemporary thinkers came to their positions largely independent of Nietzsche.

Reflecting on the differences between twentieth-century philosophy of history and its forefather the nineteenth, Frank Ankersmit locates the difference in two of the latter’s universal assumptions. Nineteenth-century philosophy of history, he claims, is summarily obsessed with either “objective representation” or else trying to see the past as governed by “supra-individual forces.”[17] To whatever extent my present work can alter the legacy of Nietzsche’s importance for philosophy of history, I hope at the very least to have made clear that by his critiques of the nineteenth century Nietzsche anticipated many of the most fundamental meta-historical positions of both traditions in the twentieth century. Clear I hope it is, too, that Nietzsche’s representational anti-realism and perspectival theory of explanation offer potentially rich insights into the enduring problems of the past today.

  • [1] Exceptions are Arnold Toynbee and Francis Fukuyama, though the degree to which they areconsidered serious historiographers is debatable.
  • [2] See Heidegger (2003). See also his unpublished (1998). For an examination of the latter, see Caputo(1998), 519—546. See also D. Carr (1986), 100—121.
  • [3] See generally Patocka (1996). 4 See Ricoeur (1984—1988); and his (2000).
  • [4] See, for example, HL, 1, KSA 1, 248ff.
  • [5] The first expression can be found in Bloch (1924); though it was only formalized a generation later byDuby and Mandrou (1958).
  • [6] See Barthes (1981), 3—20; Foucault (1970); Derrida (1978); and Lyotard (1984).
  • [7] An account of Nietzsche’s narrative forms of philosophy from a postmodern perspective is de Man(1979). For critiques, see Clark (1990b) and Staten (1990).
  • [8] For a sampling of readings from these authors, see Jenkins (1997). 2 GM111, 12; KSA 5, 365.
  • [9] 11 See Hempel (1942). 4 Walsh (1951), 23. 13 See Whewall (1967).
  • [10] 14 Mandelbaum (1967); and his (1961), 229—242. 15 See Dray (1980). 16 Popper (1957), 6—8.
  • [11] 17 Berlin (1959), 320-328. 18 FW355; KSA 3, 593ft.
  • [12] Collingwood (1946), 234. 2 Croce (1966), 497ff. See more generally, Croce (1941).
  • [13] 21 Croce (i960), 11—15. For systematic defenses of historical relativism on this score, see also Teggart
  • [14] (1918), esp. 208ff and Lessing (1927), section 15.
  • [15] A phrase coined in the title ofLessing (i927). For an intriguing comparison ofLessing and Nietzsche,see Born (2009).
  • [16] HL 3; KSA 1, 265.
  • [17] Ankersmit (2001), 151.
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