From the Vault – The End of History: The Postmodernist Challenge

Here’s something I wrote for my Philosophy of History class back in 2009. I found it last night while scanning one of my flash disks. In the essay, I examine the theories of post-structuralism, as well as postmodernism, and the challenges they present to orthodox approaches to the writing and studying of history (and, by implication, of literary and philosophical texts). Is history objective or is objective history a myth? Is history simply a story told from a subjective point of view, usually that of the powerful who wish to perpetuate their rule? Grammatical and technical errors that I might have overlooked have been retained. I leave it as it is. Enjoy.

The End of History: A Postmodernist Challenge

AB Philosophy, Silliman University

Since the whole enterprise of the writing of history began, philosophers and historians have provided the theories, concepts, reasoning and methodologies with which one ought to examine the past, and of the possibilities and limitations of obtaining reliable knowledge about it. From the ancient Greek historian Thucydides to historical scholars of the Enlightenment and the Romantic periods such as Edward Gibbon and Leopold von Ranke, they have argued for and maintained a fundamental distinction between history and myth, objective knowledge about the past and poetic reinventions of it, historical fact and historical fiction.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, however, this distinction was challenged by a number of literary theorists, critics, writers and philosophers, mainly from the disciplines of literary and linguistic schools. Taking their cue from French linguistic theories grouped generally under the label of “post-structuralism,” these writers have argued that since the human mind is capable of representing reality through the medium of language, and therefore understanding everything through it, everything could be regarded, in some sense, as a text. Nothing, indeed, could be shown to exist outside texts – that is, it is posited that practically and virtually everything that exists and happens in reality is contextual. Moreover, the language of which texts were composed bore no demonstrable, direct relation to the concepts of the things to which it referred; it took its meaning from the linguistic context around it.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche identifies many of the errors in traditional philosophy with a misunderstanding of and a heavy reliance on grammar. One of Nietzsche’s particular complaints is the misunderstanding of the subject-predicate form. When Nietzsche attacked Descartes’ infamous proclamation “I think therefore I am”, it is nevertheless for the reason that because one can separate sentences like “I think” into a subject and a predicate, one comes to see the subject and predicate as distinct. There is the subject, “I,” and then the act of thinking is a predicate tacked onto it so that the “I” is some entity distinct from the thinking itself. If one were to ask what this “I” is, one might say that “I am a thing that thinks” or “I am a human being,” but in each case, one would be attaching a predicate onto the “I,” a predicate that can also be detached. “…am a human being” is just one thing one can say about “I,” but it doesn’t necessarily defines what the “I” itself is. In a linguistic quandary like this, ultimately, there is nothing that is inseparably attached to this “I,” and, according to Nietzsche – one of the few thinkers to whom the postmodernist theory of language could be traced back, including present continental themes and tropes in the philosophy of language – one comes to name this nothing a “soul.” Furthermore, semantics and grammatology alike will argue that the word in question is only understood to have such a reference because it forms part of a larger system of words, namely, a language.

This semiotic system of meanings is not fixed, or objective, however. On the contrary, it is constantly being reinvented every time a text is read. Thus, in approaching texts, meaning is thus constituted and generated by the reader, not by its author, whose purposes and intentions in writing it are rendered irrelevant.

The implications of such ideas in the study of philosophy, literature, and history can indeed be seen as subversive. If meaning is put into a text by the reader, then literary, historical, and philosophical texts – the sources on which scholarship and inquiry has traditionally depended – have no meaning apart from what an individual reader puts into them. This implies that philosophers in fact do not discover anything about the universe, nature or reality: they simply invent it. One philosopher’s view is therefore as good as someone else’s views; there are no reliable criteria for assessing which of two opposing philosophic or literary interpretations of, say, Aristotle’s Logic or Dante’s The Divine Comedy is correct. The point and purpose, and indeed the only possibility, of philosophy as a subject is thus to study language; about reality itself one can know nothing, since, the post-structuralists say, reality is not objective. So it is with the study of history, the past being gone.

So far, these arguments have proved widely influential in the growing specialist area of speculative thought, literary analysis and criticism. They have also had a vaguer but nonetheless clearly discernible influence on the study of philosophy itself. These ideas have encouraged the belief among many literary theorists and analysts, especially in Europe and in the United States, that the concept of objective language, and therefore objective reality, is a myth invented by ruling groups or classes in society in order to suppress alternative versions of what is that express the aspirations of oppressed minorities. As a consequence, for example, women will have a different view of the past from men, African-Americans from White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, gays and lesbians from heterosexuals, and so on; and far from it being the case that one of these views is true and the other false, the fact is that each of them is true according to the perspective from which it is seen: African-Americans have their truth about the American past, for example, just as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants have theirs. The only criteria for choosing between these different views are aesthetic and above all linguistic.

Put in this extreme way, however, such views are obviously self-contradictory. To begin with, presumably all post-structuralists think that their own view of language, history, and truth is true and correct, not just from their own perspective but in a generally “valid” sense. They maintain, for instance, that the view that there is a clear distinction between history and fiction is a false view. In order to maintain this position, one must concede that there are such things as truth and falsehood that are independent of any perspective. Once the principle of truth is conceded, it follows that there must be criteria by which truth can be distinguished from falsehood, in history as in everything else; criteria such as, say, whether or not a proposition fits the evidence to which it applies.

The evidence would seem to suggest, moreover, that language did not – does not – evolve arbitrarily, but in an attempt to describe (perhaps define) the “real” world; and that there are real limits to the possible interpretations that will fit the evidence of the language assembled in a given philosophical or literary text. Thus, for example, if a text written by some European monarch in the 17th century states that he is not going to do something, a reading of the text that argues that it states that he is going to do it is, to say the least, highly implausible. The documents, in other words, have a kind of right of veto over what the historian can say. They impose the limits within which historical argument and interpretation have to remain if they are not to stray beyond the bounds of historical objectivity. Such limits do not exist in the worlds of poetry and fiction, wherein the author can write more or less what he likes in order to achieve a satisfying aesthetic effect and, above all, to concretize his metaphysical value judgments.

Philosophers, in my view, do not normally use the evidence of reality simply to shore up the ideas and interpretations they bring to it. On the contrary, the evidence is used to test these ideas and interpretations and to discard them if they do not fit, or amend them and modify them until some kind of defensible fit is achieved, by which time they have often become virtually unrecognizable. If one ransacks the intellectual record left by a thinker from the past to support a political argument in the present, then what one is writing is not history or a critique, but propaganda.

Presumably, authors writing from, say, an African-American perspective do not simply believe that what they are writing is as valid as what White Anglo-Saxon Protestant authors are writing, but no more so; they believe, on the contrary, that they are right and those whose views they criticize are wrong, and that there are objective criteria by which the issues at stake can be resolved. Moreover, once the floodgates of total relativism are opened, they cannot be closed against ideas we do not like. If everything is true according to the perspective from which it is seen, then how can we refute racist or fascist views of the past? How indeed can we refute the ugly phenomenon of Holocaust denial, the belief that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and that there was no systematic extermination of the Jews by the Nazis during World War II, if not by an appeal to criteria of evidence that transcend perspectives of any kind?

In practice, too, it has often been the case that when challenged, writers of post-structuralist texts have alleged that they are being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misrepresented. In taking this stance they are in effect stating that authors do have some control over the way their work is read, and that the meaning of the texts they write is put there by themselves rather than by their readers; otherwise they would have no grounds for saying that some readings of their texts are correct and others are not. And if texts of this kind are only susceptible of a limited number of legitimate interpretations, then why not the texts left to us by the past as well?

If the post-structuralist critique of history is so self-contradictory, then why did it become so widespread in the late 20th century, and even more widespread to this day? Answers to this question can only be speculative. Post-structuralism places enormous power in the hands of the interpreter, the critic, and the reader, and perhaps this compensates for the loss of real power and influence which academics, and above all left-leaning academics, have experienced over the last quarter of the 20th century. Clearly, too, the spread of post-structuralist ideas has coincided with the decline and fall of the concept of objective reality and the rise of subjectivity and “perspectivism,” as the notion of the laws of historical progress towards a future has become steadily more questionable.

Here, however, we can also find a stimulating and beneficial aspect of the impact of poststructuralism on historical studies. By emphasizing language, discourse, and textuality, it has successfully challenged the widespread assumption, that historical causation worked upwards, as it were, from economy and society through to politics, art and culture. Instead it has liberated historians and thinkers to look at causation in a more complex and fruitful way, to take beliefs and ideologies seriously on their own terms, and to treat culture as a causative factor in history in its own right.

It has also led to a mass of exciting new work in cultural history, not least by directing historians’ attention away from the search for the progress of reason in society and towards the attempt to understand the irrational, the marginal, and the strange in the past. It has put a question-mark under the social historian’s obsession with quantities and averages and let back the individual into history, the ordinary individual, that is, the representative, or emblematic, or indeed the eccentric and the peculiar individual, not the “great man” so beloved of the mainstream political historians of the past.

These developments can be seen as part of a broader reorientation of historical studies towards the end of the 20th century. Theories, whether linguistic or non-linguistic (such as deconstruction) which measured everything in the past according to whether it furthered or impeded progress towards economic prosperity, political democracy, and equality of social opportunity, have been sharply challenged as the costs of economic progress have become clearer, from environmental degradation to social alienation. Class, whether based on economic position or social consciousness, has given way to a more complex mode of social cleavage, including gender, religion, national identity, and sexual orientation, none of which can easily be shown to be based purely or even principally on economic factors.

History in this postmodern mode has become a multifaceted discipline in which the old priorities of the political, the economic, and the social no longer obtain. Historians now study a staggering variety of subjects, from love and hate to smell and taste, from aesthetic beauty to what is not art, from health and sickness to madness and fear, from childhood to old age, from water to smoke, from crime and justice to sex and pleasure, from tiny villages to great cities, from obscure individuals to huge collectivities, from seemingly irrational folk-beliefs to constructs of collective memory and forgetting. History has always been a diverse subject, but the sheer range of its concerns at the beginning of the 21st century is surely unprecedented.

All these are – however “subversive” one may view them – developments that have been greatly accelerated by the advent of postmodernism, of which post-structuralist theory is merely one among many different aspects. Many thinkers have greeted the spread of extreme skepticism and relativism about epistemic knowledge with alarm and even despair, but it too can be turned to good advantage, if it is treated as a challenge to professional philosophers and writers alike to rethink the way they do things and the theories of knowledge on which a large portion of their work implicitly rests.

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