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Overview

The Ethics of History by David Carr (3)

What is implied by "ethics of history"? The authors of this volume, internationally renowned philosophers and intellectual historians, address this question in all its novelty and ambiguity and develop varied perspectives on the place and nature of ethics in the philosophy, enterprise, and practice of history.
 
Is the whole historical process—largely consisting of the actions and sufferings of persons and groups—subject to ethical constraint? And what of the ways in which historians present their subject matter; are these methods subject to moral scrutiny? Although they approach these issues from different directions, the contributors agree in their critique of the correspondence theory of history, tin their acceptance of an unbridgeable gap between the past and the historian's present account, and in their call for a revision of the popular appeal to historical objectivity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810120273
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 10/28/2004
Series: Topics in Historical Philosophy Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Carr is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

Thomas R. Flynn is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

Rudolf A. Makkreel is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Emory University.

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THE ETHICS OF HISTORY


Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2004

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.


ISBN: 978-0-8101-2027-3



Chapter One In Praise of Subjectivity

F. R. Ankersmit

Introduction

Since antiquity historians have recognized that the historian's political and moral convictions strongly determine the nature of his accounts of the past. In the second century AD Lucian urged the historian, just as Ranke would do some two millennia later in exactly the same words, "to tell the past as it has actually been" and again, like Ranke, this primarily meant to him that the historian should write like an impartial judge and avoid all partisanship. The kind of intuitions behind this recommendation to avoid political and moral partisanship are too well-known and too obvious to need further elucidation here.

However, there is a less obvious aspect to these intuitions that demands our attention. The words "subjectivity" and "objectivity" themselves will prove to be our best clue here. If we consider these terms, the suggestion clearly is that the historian should at all times be "objective," since his possible "subjectivity" would make him add to the "object" investigated by him, i.e., the past, something that belongs exclusively to the "subject," i.e., the historian himself. And in this way the historian would distort the past itself by projecting something on it that is alien to it. This, obviously, is the picture which is suggested or implied by these two words "subjectivity" and "objectivity."

When we think this over it must strike us as odd, in fact, that the historian's subjectivity has always been so exclusively linked to political and moral values. Why is this so, we may well ask ourselves. For it might be argued that the historian's subjectivity, i.e., his own presence in his writings, may just as well be due to many other factors. A historian may have a preference for a specific kind of historical topic, have a specific style of writing or argument, belong to a specific historical school, or simply demonstrate in his writings a stupidity that is characteristic of his well-attested lack of intellectual capacities.

But why, again, have these other causes of subjectivity so rarely been associated with the problem of subjectivity? The explanation cannot be that the traces of these other factors would be so much less obviously present in historical writing than political and moral values. For example, one only needs to open the kind of book written some thirty years ago by a disciple of the Annales school in order to recognize immediately the scholarly affiliations of its author, whereas it would probably be hard to find any identifiable political or moral commitment in it. Nevertheless, no reviewer in his right mind would criticize the book as "subjective" merely because it so conspicuously is a product of the Annales school-even if the reviewer in question would happen to hold the Annalistes in very low esteem.

And there is more occasion for wonder. For to be the disciple of a certain historical school, to write in a certain style, to be characteristically stupid, etc., these are all things that are far less part of the historical past investigated by the historian than our political and moral values, which will almost always be most intimately tied up with the vicissitudes of the historical process itself. Political and moral values have most importantly contributed to what the past has been like; they truly are an important component of the historian's "object" of investigation. So if one were to use the term "subjectivity" in a sense close to its etymological origins, one had better call the Annaliste historian "subjective" rather than the historian whose socialist or liberal values are clearly present in his work. There truly is something "objective" about political and moral values that is wholly absent from disciplinary affiliations, historical style, or sheer personal stupidity.

But perhaps this is precisely why historians tend to be so extremely sensitive to the influence of political and moral values. Perhaps they intuitively feel that these influences are so much more dangerous, and a much more serious threat to historical truth because of their quasi-"objectivity" than these ostensibly more "subjective" factors. Or, to put it differently, perhaps political and moral values are perceived to be such a threat to historical truth, not because they are so remote from it and do belong to such an entirely different world, but precisely because they are, in fact, so close to historical truth, that the two can often hardly be distinguished from each other. Moral and political values belong to the world of the object rather than to that of the subject-and the so-called "subjective" historian therefore obeys the world of the object (in the way required by objectivism) rather than what constitutes his own subjectivity and what is personal to him. Or, to put it differently, the problem, therefore, might well be that political and moral values are a way in which historical truth may sometimes manifest itself and vice versa.

This, then, will determine the plot of my argument. I shall start with an exposition of some traditional views on the subjectivity versus objectivity problem and attempt to show that these views fail to recognize that the problem arises from the logical proximity of truth and value. After this has been established, it obviously follows that we shall have to look much harder for the exact nature of their relationship than has been done up till now. Precisely because (historical) truth and value are so extremely close to each other, we should develop the best philosophical microscope we can in order to accurately investigate the interaction of historical truth and value.

What we shall see, in the end, through our microscope will prove to be most reassuring: for it will become clear that "truth" determines "value" and not vice versa and, hence, that we need not fear value as much as we have traditionally been taught to do. On the contrary, it may be argued that value will often be a useful or even indispensable guide on our difficult way to historical truth.

Traditional Objectivist Arguments

My thesis that we should not worry so much about subjectivism as most of the handbooks advise has, admittedly, its antecedents in historical theory. A good starting point is William Walsh's observation that nothing need necessarily be wrong with the indisputable fact that different historians will always present us with different accounts even when writing about one and the same historical event, say the French Revolution. The handbooks often already saw in this an occasion for relativist despair, because the fact seemed to suggest that an intersubjective account of the past acceptable to all, or most historians, is an unattainable ideal. But Walsh points out that this is an overhasty conclusion. Relativism only becomes an option to be considered if these accounts should all be mutually incompatible and if, next, we had no means at our disposal to decide which of them is right and which is wrong. But nothing as bad as that will necessarily be the case when we are presented with different accounts of the French Revolution, for example. For most often these accounts will complement rather than contradict each other. An account focusing on the intellectual causes of the French Revolution and another on its economic causes can peacefully coexist together. It would require a most naive and unsophisticated conception of the notion of "cause" to presume incompatibility here. If you say that your car hit another one because the road was slippery, this explanation can unproblematically coexist with the alternative one that you had been driving too fast. And to the extent that the descriptive component of historical accounts tends to outweigh their causal component, incompatibility becomes even less likely. The statement that a chair has four legs is not in the least contradicted by the statement that it was made by Hepplewhite. Similarly, a political history of France in the eighteenth century does not contradict but complement an economic history of France in that same period. And we may agree with Walsh that this simple and pedestrian observation will already solve most of the problems that so often and so needlessly have driven relativist historians to despair.

Yet Walsh is prepared to admit that in some cases there may actually be incompatibility-and I note in passing the remarkable fact that it will be far from easy to find convincing examples of this, for outright conflict is astonishingly rare in the history of historical writing. But an example would be the conflict between the Marxist thesis that the French Revolution served bourgeois interests and Alfred Cobban's argument a generation ago that the Revolution was reactionary and hurt rather than furthered capitalist bourgeois interests. Here, indeed, we have a conflict and, next, the conflict undoubtedly had its origins in the fact that Cobban held other political values than the Marxists.

But Walsh remains undeterred by even this kind of example. And his argument is that even in this example conflict is merely apparent. Conflict disappears, he goes on to say, as soon as we recognize that a liberal might agree with the Marxist if he were prepared to consider the French Revolution within the framework of Marxist values while the Marxist, in his turn, would be ready to see Cobban's point after having embraced his set of moral and political values.

But I expect that most historians will find this an impossibly Arcadian view of historical debate; and they would probably object that in this way history would be emptied of meaningful discussion. For all that would now be required is the readiness of the historian to temporarily and dispassionately accept the values of his opponents-and all disagreement would disappear like snow under a hot sun. However, if debate and disagreement could really be banned in this way from historical writing, the same would be true for historical truth as such. For if there is no longer anything to disagree about, the search for historical truth would have become an illusion, and then there would be no room for truth anymore. Similarly, the search for something that is white is unworkable in a world in which everything is white.

We may observe in this later part of Walsh's argument this tendency (that I mentioned a moment ago) to so completely separate truth and value that the two could never come into real conflict with each other. And I would now agree with the historian's conviction that this would be a most naive simplification of the role of values in historical writing-though, admittedly, at this stage of my argument I am not yet in the position to present a convincing argument for my agreement with the historian. This I can only do after having shown how closely truth and value are really related in historical writing.

A similar strategy for explaining away the problem of historical subjectivity by putting truth and value miles apart can be found in the well-known "reasons versus causes" argument. The main idea in this argument is that we should always clearly distinguish between what caused a person to hold a certain opinion (such as his moral convictions) and the rational arguments or reasons that this person may have, or fail to have, in favor of this opinion. And since these are completely different things, the argument goes on to say, it may well be that certain political or moral values cause people to have certain beliefs, but this fact alone is completely irrelevant with regard to the question whether the belief in question is right or wrong. For example, three decades ago a person may have believed that Mao's China was an awful mess simply because his conservative values caused him to believe so; but nevertheless the belief was completely correct. Hence, even if we can explain what values have caused people to hold certain opinions, these opinions may well be correct and true to actual fact. Or, as Arthur Danto once so succinctly put it: "there are few more pernicious beliefs than the one which suggests that we have cast serious doubts upon an opinion by explaining why someone came to hold it."

This surely is a most effective way of dealing with the problem of subjectivism; but it shares with most knockdown arguments of this type the disadvantage of being, in practice, a bit too effective. For, as each historian will be able to tell you, this philosophically neat and convincing distinction between causes and reasons will simply not work in practice. In actual historical debate, the arguments in favor of or against certain views of part of the past cannot be carved up into what belongs to the world of political and moral values on the one hand, and what belongs to the world of fact and of rational argument on the other. What is objective truth to one historian may well be a mere value judgment in the eyes of another historian. Hence, as was already the case in Walsh's argument, the fatal weakness of the reasons versus causes argument is that it fails to take into account how close historical truth and political and moral values actually are to each other.

Historical Representation

For a more detailed exploration of the interconnections between historical truth on the one hand and political and moral values on the other, it will be necessary to start with a few general observations on the nature of historical representation. I am intentionally using here the term "historical representation" instead of alternative terms like "historical interpretation," "description," "explanation," "historical narrative," etc. For as will become clear in a moment, the relevant secrets of the nature of historical writing can only be discerned if we see the historical text as a representation of the past in much the same way that the work of art is a representation of what it depicts-or, for that matter, in the way that Parliament or Congress is a representation of the electorate.

The most widely accepted theory of aesthetic representation presently is the so-called "substitution theory of representation." According to this theory-and in agreement with the etymology of the word "representation"-a representation essentially is a substitute or replacement of something else which is absent. And, obviously, precisely because of the latter's absence we may be in need of the substitute "representing it." To take the example made famous by Ernst Gombrich-who was one of the most influential proponents of the substitution theory-a hobby horse may be a representation of a real horse for a child, because it may function in the child's eyes as a substitute or replacement of a real horse. Similarly, because the past is past-and therefore no longer present-we are in need of representations of the past; and we have the discipline of history in order to avail ourselves of those representations of the past that may best function as a textual substitute for the actual, but absent, past.

There is one feature, or implication, of this account of aesthetic and historical representation that especially deserves our attention within the present context. Namely, that a representation aims at being, from a certain perspective, just as good as the original that it represents. To be more precise: in the first place, the representation attempts to be such a believable and effective substitute or replacement of what it represents that differences between the represented and its representation can safely be disregarded. Yet, in the second place, there will and always must be such differences. For as Virginia Woolf so aptly summarized the nature of artistic representation: "art is not a copy of the world, one of the damn things is enough." So the paradox about representation is that it combines a resistance to difference with a love of it. A paradox that can be solved as soon as we recognize the logical affinities between the notions of representation and identity: for just like representation, identity somehow attempts to reconcile sameness and difference (by change through time) and is expected to do just that.

(Continues...)



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Table of Contents

Introduction

Part 1. Historical Representation
In Praise of Subjectivity by F. R. Ankersmit
Representation, Narrative, and the Historian's Promise by Edith Wyschogrod
Some Aspects of the Ethics of History-Writing: Reflections on Edith Wyschogrod's An Ethics of Remembering by Allan Megill
Prudence, History, Time, and Truth by Arthur Danto

Part 2. Postmodernist Challenges
No Tear Shall Be Lost: The History of Prayers and Tears by John D. Caputo
The Tomb of Perseverance: On Antigone by Joan Copjec
The Confession of Augustine by Jean-François Lyotard
The Limits of Ethics and History by Joseph Margolis

Part 3. History and Responsibility
Responsibility and Irresponsibility in Historical Studies: A Critical Consideration of the Ethical Dilemma in the Historian's Work by Jörn Rüsen
An Ethically Responsive Hermeneutics of History by Rudolf A. Makkreel
Committed History by Thomas R. Flynn
History, Fiction, and Human Time: Historical Imagination and Historical Responsibility by David Carr

Notes on Contributors

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