Monday, January 11, 2021

#11 / History In Three Dimensions

Reinhart Koselleck
A fairly recent article from Psyche, on the Aeon website, has introduced me to Reinhart Koselleck, who is pictured above. The article, by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, is titled, "Repetition and Rupture." Hoffman identifies Koselleck as "the last great theorist of history," saying that Koselleck sought to find, in "the apparent chaos of events, a science of experience." 

I am somewhat chagrined to admit that I had never heard of Koselleck until I read that Psyche article. Wikipedia says that Koselleck "is widely considered to be one of the most important historians of the twentieth century." Here it is, twenty years into the Twenty-First Century, and I am just now getting the word. I guess it's a case of better late than never! I certainly recommend Hoffman's article, for anyone who cares about history and the study of history.

As I understand it, Koselleck thought that most historians were writing what amounts to "a secularised version of eschatology." Koselleck argued that any claim that we can uncover some sort of "law of history" is fundamentally in error. Those who have read a few of my blog postings will know that this is just what I think, too. Our innate ability to do things never thought of or accomplished before, stemming directly from the fact that "anything is possible" in the human world, means that there isn't any "law," or any "determinism," that can definitively predict our future.

Despite this insight, Koselleck does, apparently, want to make history into a kind of "science." Here is how Hoffmann explains Koselleck's approach to history, making clear that while Koselleck strongly opposed the idea that history moves towards some predetermined future, he still sought to find patterns that could provide guidance, and maybe even predictive power. Hoffman puts it this way:

For Koselleck, all modern ideologies claimed to have the ‘laws of history’ on their side to justify violence .... Dismantling the concept of history and coming up with a new theory of how histories actually unfold – chaotic, contingent, messy and ferocious, yet with discernible patterns – was therefore the most important task for historians. 
This remained a theme to which Koselleck would return time and again, up to his very last published essay. In ‘What Repeats,’ written the summer before he died unexpectedly in 2006, Koselleck claimed that we can make novel experiences only if there are structures of repetition within the chaotic stream of events that we call history. History is neither just more of the same – that is, constant and circular repetition (Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’) – or the experience of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, in which we start over, again and again. Both repetition and rupture are conditions of possible histories. 
The urge to understand what’s new motivated Koselleck to identify structures of repetition in history: geographical and climatic preconditions that, independent of humans, make all life possible; biological conditions, such as birth and death, human sexuality and generations; our institutions, for instance work and law, but also language that captures human experiences; and finally historical events themselves (such as a worldwide pandemic), which contain their own repetitive structures. Only by understanding what repeats can we discern what’s new and unprecedented in our present. As we find ourselves again in a world of global convulsions and crises, in which events have surprised many, Koselleck reminds us to sort out what repeats in a moment of rupture.

One of Koselleck's ideas, as I get it, is that there are patterns of "repetition" in history, and that these patterns will appear even in times of historic "rupture," when the existing state of the world is undergoing major changes. I suppose that this could be a rather comforting thought - and that seems to be what Koselleck wants it to be. However, taking our current historic situation as an example, my eye moves quickly towards the "rupture," which fills my vision first and foremost. As I watch the disintegration of the current human reality that I assumed was pretty stable, my ability to find a few repetitive elements bobbing up here and there in the floodwaters is not as comforting as I might wish.

This pairing of "repetition" and "rupture" is not the only idea that Koselleck advances, at least the way Hoffman explains Koselleck:

According to Koselleck, three basic oppositions structure all historical experience. Every possible history is conditioned, first, by before and after, for example the anthropological span between birth and death that makes each life singular and part of a shared experience distinct from other generations, times and experiences. The possibility for new beginnings is as much a part of the human condition as the necessity of death or the ability to kill. Second, all possible history can’t escape the political difference between inner and outer (or, in a conflict, friend or foe). Hence, Koselleck’s repeated critique of the idea that human difference can be morally resolved and not just politically mediated. Only the recognition of difference allows for compromise. Finally, Koselleck claims that the opposition between above and below, ‘master’ and ‘slave’ in the terminology of Hegel and Marx, structures all social relations in history. This isn’t to say that more equality and freedom can’t be gained in the course of events, but that social hierarchies permeate all forms of human community, generating new conflicts and hence new histories (emphasis added).

Koselleck, in other words, suggests that we consider history, including our historical situation and historical events, in three dimensions. That seems to me to be good advice. These "three dimensions" are tools of analysis, helping us better to observe and understand what is happening, or has happened.

The best advice on how to consider history, however, is not really touched upon in Hoffman's article, perhaps because Koselleck didn't think in these terms. Pursuing a "science" of history is to avow that we should think of historical events, and history, as something to be first observed, and then understood. The hope, of course, is that if we have observed correctly, and have learned from all that we have come to understand, we will be best able to navigate the history that we must inevitably confront in our own lives. 

In fact, though, is is possible to understand history not as something that we observe, but as something that we ourselves create. It is we who "make" history. No "law" constrains what we can do, and the tripartite tools of analysis that Koselleck provides us do not determine how we ourselves will use these tools and the knowledge that they bring us. 

Through our actions and our choices, it is we who will make history. Depending on the choices we make and on those actions that we take, we will either bring our dreams - or our nightmares - into the world in which we live. 

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1 comment:

  1. Good thinking in today's piece 1/11/21...I've read it at least three times!!! thanks.


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