Responding to the World as Historical
From Nietzsche to Scott, major thinkers who eschewed metaphysics found it essential to ask new questions about the relationship between human being and history. The discussion that developed encompassed aestheticist tendencies, plausibly extreme responses, and prejudicial conflations, but also an ongoing effort to articulate a moderate orientation based on a particular embrace of the world as historical. Despite different concerns and accents, thinkers from Croce and Gadamer to such contemporaries as Richard Bernstein, David Kolb, F. R. Ankersmit, and Brook Thomas envisioned something like the same cultural alignment. Navigating between the extremes of "authoritarianism" and "play," they sought to foster openness, risk, dialogue—the ongoing conversation of humanity. And they accented the sense in which, as a result of that process, the world is endlessly remade.
That alignment included, at least by implication, a renewed understanding of the cultural role of empirical historiography. To be sure, the notion of postmodern or postmetaphysical moderation seemed almost oxymoronic to mainstream historians like Perez Zagorin and Gordon Wood. But Ankersmit, for example, sought to assemble various postmodern tendencies in a way that boxed out willful extravagance and provided a more convincing understanding of what historians offer the culture.
"Moderate" in this context did not stand in any simple, dualistic opposition
to "radicalism." Among the questions at issue was what radicalism might mean in a postmetaphysical world, in which any scope for a metanarrative of "emancipation" had apparently fallen away. A moderate orientation might specify, among other things, how a radical mode of historical questioning might affect what the world becomes, rather than serving self-cultivation, ritualistic disruption, or disengagement. But it would have to make the case without the still-metaphysical claim to privilege that some found necessary to keep radicalism alive in light of such extreme tendencies.
The possibilities remained unclear partly because intellectuals like Perry Anderson, Terry Eagleton, and Frank Lentricchia, with roots in the older, generally Marxist radical tradition, often seemed the most determined—and the best equipped—to rescue "history" from the excesses of poststructuralist deconstruction. Yet the deconstructionists seemed to uncover hidden metaphysical assumptions in conventional notions of history, including those that such radicals at least implicitly embraced. The prominence of this axis of debate contributed to the limiting bifurcation we have encountered in this study again and again. History apparently dissolves—unless it has Hegelian-Marxian buttressing. The question, then, is the scope for an understanding of history that does not posit metaphysical forms of totalization and closure, that does not claim to fix things for good, that entails a reflexive sense of historicity.
That understanding would be part of the weak but constructive culture of history that proves essential to postmetaphysical moderation. We have found elements for such a cultural component emerging during the course of this study, but the complexities of the ongoing adjustment to the postmetaphysical situation, including the postmetaphysical encounter with history, have kept the bits and pieces from coming together in a convincing way. Thus the effort to outline that moderate orientation must understand its place in the whole field of forces at work in the settling out of a postmetaphysical culture. This requires, first, pinpointing the prejudicial conflations, stemming partly from the shadow of the old metaphysical dualism, that have impeded assessment of the cultural alternatives. But even when that shadow dissipates and we find ourselves fully within the postmetaphysical space, we find room for an array of plausible responses to the world as historical, not all of them moderate. So it is also necessary to differentiate the weak but constructive strand from the plausible extremes we have encountered.
A dualistic conception of the relationship between human being and reality persisted especially in the French thinking that narrativists like White and Kellner were quick to embrace. Standing opposed to reality "in itself" is human language, which orders or represents reality yet, because of its figured nature,
always falsifies reality in the process. Because we are trapped in language, reality and truth are ultimately beyond our grasp.
From this perspective, the eclipse of metaphysics left us without the older congruence between us, with our way of knowing and need for meaning, and the world, or reality, or whatever else there is. That congruence, of course, had been the positive, reassuring side of the tradition in eclipse; the human mind apparently had access to stable being, so that truth, even meaning, were somehow grounded, really "there," apart from the contingent, finite side of human being and the human world. Bridging the gap between mind and world had always been a problem, but that gap became ever more troubling as the historicity of both the human inquirer and the reality to be known became more intrusive. Suprahistorical mind seemed to reduce to "language," which, more obviously than mind, was "embedded," cultural, merely historical.
Thus cultural modernism entailed irony, stemming from the representation problematic. For structuralism, to be sure, it seemed possible to take advantage of the sign/signified dichotomy to devise a science of signs and through language, writ large to encompass a multiplicity of cultural usages read as rule-governed systems of signs, even to gain access to mind—the mind that underlies and generates culture. But finally, with the break into poststructuralism, "history" submerged even that possibility, and claims that once seemed reassuring came to seem authoritarian pretense instead.
In one sense, then, we are well rid of the old metaphysical claims. In parading as what they could not have been, they now seem but glosses for particular ideological positions, affording a spurious privilege. But insofar as the shadow or image of congruence remained, the eclipse of metaphysics seemed to leave us with meaninglessness, nothingness, mere flux. Instead of the metaphysically grounded world, what "there is" is merely what has resulted from the aggregation of non grounded responses. Still looking over our shoulders, we experience this slipping, tension-ridden world as pale and inadequate. At best, it opens to new forms of play or self-creation. Those who claim still to find meaning and truth of any sort seem, if not simply nostalgic conservatives, authoritarians foreclosing a desirable openness for reasons of their own. For some, we have seen, such ideological purposes lurk not only in the claim to reality and truth but also in any imputation of coherence and continuity—or even in the narrative form itself.
From this perspective, then, the tendency was to perceive the postmetaphysical situation in terms of two opposing sets of possibilities. On the one hand were the witting and unwitting forms of authoritarian pretense; on the other were responses that were sufficiently playful to eschew any claim to reality, meaning, or truth.
The situation proved more complicated, however, because some of the extremes that became part of the mix responded not simply to the authoritarian preoccupation but to modes of experience that became possible when even the
shadow of the old metaphysics had dissipated. As noted, a world reducing to nothing but a particular history may seem suffocating, so that notions of unity, continuity, tradition, and truth seem limiting. Although its source was distinguishable, the response to this experience intertwined with the tendency to associate such notions with metaphysical pretense. "Authoritarianism" became the shorthand for what needed to be resisted.
We also noted that in proposing antidotes to this authoritarianism, thinkers from Nietzsche to Rorty to Kellner tended toward an aestheticism that, among other things, blurred the distinction between history and fiction. So whereas history, with the eclipse of metaphysics, was coaxed from under the shadow of science, it found itself immediately sucked within the orbit of the ascendent literary culture. But playing down the autonomy of history in this way made it hard to grasp the scope for a moderate postmetaphysical alternative.
Although "authoritarian" appeals to reality and truth still needed to be resisted, the move from metaphysics to aestheticism entailed an unnecessary overreaction, precluding the middle ground, based on a more constructive experience of the actual that did not have to be conflated with the discredited metaphysics. One thinker after another imputed strong, still-metaphysical pretensions to alternatives that could be understood instead as weak—even, for example, to the Gadamerian emphasis on the continuity of tradition. So to indicate the scope for such a middle ground, it was necessary to show that though the postmetaphysical actual is contingent, unstable, and provisional, it has a certain objectivity, consistency, and weight. And it was then necessary to make sense of the difference between the extreme and the moderate ways of experiencing and responding to that world in a fully postmetaphysical mode.
We have noted that a number of those seeking their way out of metaphysics sought to sidestep the dualism that leads us to assume we are somehow trapped in language, cut off from objective reality. In different ways, these thinkers groped toward a new understanding of language as what brings human being together with reality, truth, and meaning. Language becomes the medium through which a particular world comes to be; reality becomes the endlessly provisional human world that happens historically, in and through language.
Especially in recasting language, this effort to eschew dualism reconnected with Vico, whose way of bracketing the natural and the divine made it possible to conceive the human world as utterly on its own. "Natural" is no longer the touchstone, because "reality" is nothing but this human world, which continually comes to be as language responds to what language has done. With Vico's ingenious way of conceiving human origins, human beings are "always already" caught up in linguistic constructions; no matter how far back we go, we never find anything else.
To say, with Vico, that knowing is bound up with doing means that we cannot aspire to the godlike certainty of settled knowledge because we are constantly making over the world. We can know the world we have made, but our
knowledge is inevitably partial and provisional. In accenting imagination, moreover, Vico suggested that our way of knowing is creative—or rhetorical. But rhetoric is not inimical to truth; it is simply the measure of our creativity and one aspect of the particularity of truth. Our particular creative way of knowing the world that has resulted so far helps make that world the particular way it next comes to be. So though it is partial, provisional, and rhetorical, the knowledge we can achieve is sufficient, serving our ongoing remaking. Indeed, precisely because they are embedded in the concrete historical world, our rhetorical truths are practical, serving action, in a way that Cartesian, "certain" truths are not.
Among the more recent thinkers moving in the same direction, Heidegger proved central because he addressed explicitly, in light of the eclipse of metaphysics, what human being "is" in relationship to the coming to be of some particular world. Human being is the clearing for coming to be in language. And because it is the nature of being "to be" epochally, merely historically, the becoming actual of anything at all is also a holding back. So as the happening of the particular continues, there is always an other, and always scope for subsequent deconstruction of the actual, and always more history.
Gadamer, eschewing the Heideggerian extreme, sought to characterize the potentially positive, constructive side of Heidegger's insight. More explicitly than anyone else, he insisted that language does not cut us off from reality but is the medium through which some particular world comes to be—over time, as history. The world that comes to be in language is not somehow inadequate but is reality given as particular, the particular reality to which we belong.
Derrida, Foucault, and even Rorty, however, did find something inadequate about that contingent, ever-provisional world. They could not coherently deny that such a world keeps resulting even as metaphysical foundations dissolve, but their extreme responses colored their characterizations of the postmetaphysical situation.
Derrida, for example, fastened on the fact that severing our world from reference to an external reality leaves us with a plethora of truths. But though the world at every moment admits an infinity of possible truths, infinity does not encompass every possibility. Even as Derrida conceived the postmetaphysical
situation, finitude remained basic to it. So no matter how freely I play, or how playfully undecidable my interpretation, my response is to play in some particular way, saying this and not that. Even from the mechanisms Derrida posits, a particular world endlessly results, a world with a certain consistency. The question is how we respond to it.
If instead we follow Rorty and view what once seemed stable foundations as a fountain of contingent puns and metaphors, we similarly find that our world is endlessly becoming some particular way because, in the contingencies of history, some metaphors congealed as truths while others washed away. And it matters—it is fundamental—that we belong to the world these particular metaphors have constituted and not some other. Although our particular world allows infinite possibilities for redescription, it does not allow every possibility; precisely because it is particular and finite, some redescriptions would be mere babble.
White and Kellner worried that because narrative can present things in a way that seems natural, historical accounts in our culture have seemed to do more than they can. But insofar as we more radically sidestep the old dualistic framework, there is no longer any possibility of telling it straight or establishing settled meanings. We experience any such narrative as merely particular and provisional, as tension-ridden and unstable. We take it for granted that any narrative results from encounter not with unvarnished "reality" but with other narratives, with discourse, with earlier ways human beings made sense of what had resulted from what their predecessors had done. This is not to do violence to some way things really are, because there is no such way—not even for the participants, the first to make sense of them. Things come to be as they do in particularizing language. And through our often-contested uses of language, the particularizing continues.
However it is to be characterized, there will be a particular provisional resultant, and an attendant concealing or holding back, as part of the ongoing particularizing of the world. That particular is thick, sufficiently thick to encompass whatever anyone says, the whole web of disseminations and relationships resulting from what is said. But the totality of what is said, and what results, remains particular. In shorthand terms, the element of infinity operates within finitude and results in finitude. There is no limit to the ways we, looking into the past, may sort things out, dividing and combining and relating, but not everything has happened, and thus even the totality is a particular. Still, the thickness of the particularity means that it is not to be confined to a single dominant strand—the dominant strand of the moment—but is always more even than the totality of our ways of understanding it. This is simply one more measure of the holding back that was essential to both Heidegger and Gadamer.
So an actual world remains even with the eclipse of metaphysics, but it is simply the unstable, provisional resultant of our particular history. To recognize the actuality of the present moment is not to afford metaphysical privilege to
the process that produced the present; nor is it to justify the present outcome. Our freakish, tension-ridden present is what has resulted from history so far; those aspects of the past that led to our present are privileged only in this weak sense. Things are connected but only in the comparably weak sense that whatever happens, becomes actual, responds to and grows on, what has resulted so far. There is weak continuity within a weak totality, but there is no overarching framework or telos, and there is plenty of room for contingency and relative discontinuity or rupture.
Once we adjust to such a world, the need to counter still-metaphysical pretense fades. And beginning with Nietzsche, Croce, and Heidegger, the question was how we might relate to the world of nothing but history that seemed to be left with the waning of metaphysics. To posit a postmetaphysical actuality does not establish a solution but simply opens a new universe of possibilities.
Among those possibilities were the diverse extremes we have noted, from Nietzschean edification to Heideggerian disengagement to ritualistic disruption to privileging the disembedded other. Each of these extremes entails a relationship with the world as historical, yet what they have in common—what defines them as extreme—is their way of eschewing any positive identification with the actual, any scope for experiencing action as reconstructive, or history-making. To respond in the contrasting, moderate way to the experience of nothing but history entails precisely this measure of positive identification, even with the weak, provisional present outcome. We experience ourselves as belonging to and caring about the historically specific world that envelops us.
Care, Learning, and Truth
One of Croce's themes makes this sense of caring responsibility for the world especially clear. In accenting our sense of kinship with all who preceded us, not just the dominant elites, he seemed to share the renewed solicitude for past lives as opposed to process and even to give voice to its quasi-religious basis. But, for Croce, that sense of kinship stems not from a common alienation or from some identification with the other. Rather, it serves simply as a stimulus to us to continue, to transform through our own action the world our predecessors bequeathed to us. This kind of kinship is central to the positive identification with the actual that leads to history-making action informed by responsibility. In this mode, our concern for the world leads us to build upon it rather than disengage from it, disrupt it, or play with it.
We have noted periodic waves of concern that the eclipse of metaphysics dissolves any critical tension, leaving us to acquiesce in the historical outcome,
or to accept the authority of tradition. Thus the ongoing concern to specify something suprahistorical—if not actual values, then at least criteria or decision procedures. But for Gadamer and Croce and even for Nietzsche and Heidegger, the reduction to history did not dissolve the possibility of critical response, or even what can be called the moral impulse, but simply the possibility of specifying suprahistorical "principles" or "values."
The situations to which human beings must respond are radically concrete, but evaluating does go on, because human being entails care for the happening of the world, and some of the time, at least, individuals respond to the world on that basis. On one level, that is all that can be said—or needs to be said—because the capacity for such response is a defining attribute of human being. Rather than referring to some transcendent dimension, the ethical is simply our name for one of the things we do, or that happens when we do one of the things we do. The possibility of critical response to the ever-provisional actual is immanent, built into human being. At the same time, the scope for endless moral response suggests that tension between human being and the actual is built into the human condition.
In emphasizing care, Heidegger pointed toward this constructive sense of belonging and responsibility, but it fell to Gadamer to draw out the positive side of Heidegger's notion. Gadamer accented the sense of belonging to some particular tradition that leads us to work within it in a positive, constructive spirit, expanding it through dialogue, participating in its coming back together, or gathering. By implication, moreover, we necessarily affirm some part of the actual world even as we seek to replace some other part of it. No matter how deep the rupture we find necessary, we start with what has already come to be and, even as we change it, build upon it.
Care and the resulting moral response are not "rational" in the sense of telling us what to do in advance, but neither are they irrational, affording the license for some sort of free play. Genuinely to care is to discipline moral response by asking historical questions in an effort to understand the particular situation to which we must respond. What is rational, in postmetaphysical terms, is historical inquiry that seeks to learn, thereby preparing the way for criticism and action.
Moreover, the fact that, at every present moment, we are confronted with something in particular means we need a true account of the historical emergence of what now enmeshes us; edification or propaganda will not do. In Rorty's terms, the tool we need is a special kind of redescription—which we characterize as true to distinguish it from an array of contraries, from fiction to
play. Redescriptions aiming at edification need not be true, and insofar as they are not, they will not be useful in the same way. And the human capacity for inquiry that is open to learning makes such truth possible.
Whereas many of the narrativists played down truth in accenting what historical narratives have in common with fictional narratives, Croce, Heidegger, and Gadamer insisted precisely on truth as they confronted human being as historical. Because they more fully eschewed the shadow of metaphysics than did those within the French orbit, they were less preoccupied with undercutting authoritarian conceptions, and they could simply cease worrying about "representing reality." Once the dualism of language and reality falls away, truth cannot entail representing even an unstable, provisional reality, let alone an original moment of full presence. So these thinkers were able to turn in another direction and consider the scope for a weak, postmetaphysical conception of truth, bound up with what human being is and does and stemming ultimately from care, or ethical capacity. The capacity for the happening of truth is simply an ongoing human attribute, and truth is what results when human beings approach the actual in a certain mode, seeking to learn.
Heidegger made the point most explicitly: truth comes to language through the clearing that is human being. Conversely, it is only in or through us, with our capacity for language, that truth comes to be—comes to language. This abstract notion becomes clearer when translated into the mode of caring, constructive engagement with the world as historical that is implicit in Croce's conception and explicit in Gadamer's.
As noted in chapter 7, Croce and Gadamer each responded to the generally pragmatist challenge by showing that interest and involvement do not undermine truth but make it possible. Because our inquiries have practical stakes, we do not make up just any story about how our world came to be but the particular kind of story we call "true." Our need to learn leads us to eschew the edifying or aesthetic or even moralistic concerns that would lead us to get it wrong. To be sure, as Gadamer recognized in accenting "prejudice," historical inquirers already have some idea of what they expect to find, but insofar as they are doing history, they are open to a range of answers—because they need and seek to learn. Rather than having completely decided on some particular political agenda, they are still deciding what to do next and seeking illumination.
At the same time, both Croce and Gadamer distinguished the forms of presentist bias that undermine historical understanding from those that make it possible. Their ways of framing the distinction help us flesh out recent efforts like those of Thomas Haskell to point beyond Peter Novick's neorelativist resignation by showing that "objectivity is not neutrality." Because, in Croce's terms, we are not only truth-seeking and cognitive but also aesthetic, moral,
and utilitarian, we may prefer an edifying account when we write history, or we may overplay whatever evokes a sense of uncanniness. Although truth is useful, the utilitarian quest for immediate advantage—to secure a promotion by pleasing the reviewers, for example, or simply to avoid effort and risk by sticking to convention—may compromise the happening of truth. And although openness to truth is itself ethical, any attempt to make the historical account serve a particular moral purpose will get in the way of truth. Insofar as such utilitarian and moral concerns creep in, the inquiry is not history, not the sort of thing that can yield truth.
In fact, aims that do not invite learning are always at work, so no one account is pure, unadulterated truth—even in the weak, finite, provisional sense. But even though, as the narrativists showed, ethical and rhetorical components structure any historical narrative, in principle the scope for truth enables us to differentiate historical accounts according to cognitive as opposed to moral or aesthetic criteria.
Although the capacity for truth, for both Croce and Gadamer, is simply an attribute of human being, it is crucial that human being is differentiated into finite, historically specific individuals who ask only particular questions on the basis of particular experiences, concerns, and needs. So our truths do not pretend to be exhaustive, pure, final, or even free of contradiction. What each of us comes up with will be at best only a true redescription—partial, provisional, to some degree idiosyncratic and contingent. Such weakness means, moreover, that there is no limit to the number of true accounts that we might find it illuminating to construct at any present moment. The responses of individuals like us determine which in fact get constructed.
What comes to language through any of these individual inquiries is only one linear narrative strand. To say that any such strand may be true is not to claim that the past is really linear in the way our historical narratives are. Only if we remain tied to notions of correspondence and representation do we assume we must find such linearity in the way things really are, or in the structure of human experience. Once that ideal has dissipated, any historical account claims to be no more than one constructed linear strand, but that is enough. In Gadamerian terms, what comes to language through dialogue, as the world continues its particularizing growth, is a linear narrative.
As noted in chapter 9, Rorty suggested that a genealogical account of our contingent present is precisely what we need, but his concern that such a genealogical history would look like a description of eternal relations led him to pull back from any premium on a distinctively historical approach. However, a history that claims no more than weak truth no longer even looks like a description of eternal relations. Yet though it will be both "metaphorical" and personal, such a genealogical account is not simply generic redescription or literature but a particular kind of redescription—"history," a true redescription.
The Process of Interaction
Still, the notion of weak, postmetaphysical truth opens up an array of questions. By definition, weak truth must get by without epistemology or any theoretical basis for adjudicating truth claims. So even though, in principle, the scope for truth affords cognitive criteria of differentiation, how, in practice, can we distinguish the true from the false, or from whatever else it is that might turn up in redescriptions of the past? And if every offering of truth is partial and provisional, what is the relationship among the various finite, particular truths that in fact come to language? Unless such questions admit plausible answers, the truth at work in historical accounts may seem too weak to play a constructive cultural role.
Instead of decision procedures enabling us to judge the process from above, we have only the ongoing interaction that endlessly results in some provisional, tension-ridden cultural self-understanding. Much rests on the quality of that process and the competition and conflict it entails.
Our particular truths do not remain idiosyncratic and personal because care entails a desire to affect what the world becomes. So individuals keep interjecting new accounts, seeking to influence. As part of that process, truth is winnowed out; some of what would lead us to get it wrong is washed away as a particular way of getting some of it right is established. In this sense the happening of truth is an ongoing, supraindividual process to which we all may contribute as we enter into our particular dialogues and write our particular histories. Because the finite totality of true accounts at any one time is tension-ridden, the conflict continues.
As epistemology has faded, those seeking a moderate alternative to irrationalism have devoted much attention to the procedures whereby particular disciplinary communities make the crucial distinctions, determining what counts, for example, as a respectable work of history. Americans from Thomas Kuhn to Stanley Fish have been especially prominent in this aspect of the overall humanistic discussion. But the fact of such communities and their rule-bound practices does not in itself provide an answer; rather, it invites a particular set of historical questions, because disciplinary communities operate within the weak but constructive framework.
Any set of disciplinary rules will prove relatively solid and effective at some times, problematic and in need of reconstruction at others, depending on changing historical circumstances. There will even be crises, occasioning revolutions—or relative discontinuities. It is precisely such a situation of questioning and revision that historiography has experienced in recent years. And because any system of rules is itself historically specific, when such a system begins to
lose its force, we can only repair to historical deconstruction to understand where it came from and how it became bound up with our present practices—so that we can begin reconstructing the rules.
However solid they are at any one moment, the paradigms and rules prove to be merely provisional, historically specific crystallizations, more or less effective for dealing with what they have been called on to deal with so far. From a longer-term perspective, they are ragged, weak, never to be fixed but themselves historical, changing partly as the community finds it necessary to understand new, historically specific situations. The disciplinary communities themselves prove comparably ragged; thus, for example, the boundary setting off those who are to be recognized as "real" historians shifts as the rules change. By conceiving such communities as themselves caught up in the ongoing process, we invite openness and risk and avoid the temptation to treat any such community as static and privileged.
But if the insight into the import of disciplinary communities simply takes us back to the process of interaction, the obvious questions about the quality of that process become even more urgent. Even if the process can yield the happening of truth, it does not necessarily do so. It might be fair and efficient, or distorted and limiting. Effectiveness and truth seem to require "communicative competence" and a willingness and an ability to listen, to be open to persuasion. If distortions are built into the process, then the outcome is not truth but an instance of illegitimate domination. And if we can only act within the world that has resulted from a distorted process, we seem doomed simply to reproduce the distortion. Under such circumstances, a human situation reduced to history seems a kind of confinement, calling forth extremity, or a renewed appeal to something suprahistorical, or some combination of both.
The essential point about the process of interaction revolves around the relationship between the critical-deconstructive and conservative-hermeneutic elements at work in the culture. Attention to the concerns of Jürgen Habermas, Christopher Norris, and John Caputo will enable us to identify that point and show its import for a weak but constructive culture of history.
Bothered by "the hermeneutic claim to universality," Habermas sought to hold to the possibility of rational or enlightened critique by preserving criteria of distinction between distorted and undistorted forms of communication. Writing in 1979, Richard Rorty found something all too metaphysical about Habermas's enterprise: "we need to know more about what counts as 'undistorted.'
Here Habermas goes transcendental and offers principles." As his thinking developed, Habermas backed ever further from the sort of substantive claim that would require such a transcendental turn, but even in 1988 Rorty noted that "Habermas would like to ground moral obligation, and thus social institutions, on something universally human." What troubled Habermas was the claim that on every level there is nothing but hermeneutic interaction, nothing but history.
Rather than seek to lay down rules, principles, or criteria of rationality, Habermas sought to establish a regulative principle empty and abstract enough to transcend historical specificity and claim universality. As noted in chapter 7, he held that in interacting at all, we presuppose "a theory of communicative competence" and recognize a regulative principle of undistorted communication. Insofar as we find distortions in present forms of communication, we act to remove them, so our goal is an "ideal speech situation" of undistorted communication.
Habermas, then, was not content simply to criticize what he took to be present distortions, seeking to persuade others. If we rely on nothing but the interaction itself, we seem doomed to acquiescence in a tradition embodying myriad contingent distortions. Thus Habermas's insistence on a quasi-teleological regulative principle to do some, at least, of what we used to believe a universal criterion of rationality could do for us. What unites us, making communication possible, is not simply the tradition but the regulative principle itself, "the formal anticipation of an idealized dialogue."
Although Habermas was critical of Derrida, Norris, one of Derrida's most prominent advocates, offered an explicitly Habermasian reading of Derrida, seeking to show that Derridean deconstruction affords an essential complement to the enlightened or rational critique that Habermas sought to warrant—and that Norris, too, found essential. Norris's immediate aim was to secure the critical bite of Derridean deconstruction against what he took to be the wayward appropriation of Derrida among American literary deconstructionists, who found in Derrida a warrant for loose, undisciplined play. Peeling away the literary excess revealed the rigorously critical, Habermasian Derrida that Norris found essential to counter an array of more worthy cultural adversaries, from Gadamerian hermeneutics to the permissive postmodern neopragmatism of
Rorty and Jean-François Lyotard. The thinking of each seemed prejudicially conservative in implication.
According to Norris, Habermas established the "basis for a critical theory independent of prevailing consensual norms," while Gadamer seemed to leave reason powerless to criticize the context of prereflective meanings in which all understanding is embedded. But Norris's concern emerged especially in opposition to Rorty, whose way of separating the wheat from the chaff in Derrida was essentially the opposite of Norris's own. Norris worried that the thrust of Rorty's neopragmatism, including his way of reading Derrida, was "to give up any hope of informed rational critique." And for Norris, this denial of "enlightened critique" was "implicitly conservative," because "for Rorty, as for Lyotard, the only justification that truth claims can have is their persuasive efficacy, their power to convince in the context of existing belief systems." More generally, Norris found in Rorty and Lyotard "a form of unprincipled pragmatism which renounces the very possibility of reasoned critique. And in doing so they are effectively depriving thought of any power to engage with social and political realities on other than passively conformist terms." Simply to collapse the distinction between ideology and criticism, as the neopragmatists seemed to advocate, was to give up all hope of rational understanding, limiting us to acquiescence in the myths and ideologies of commonplace wisdom—precisely what Lyotard seemed to welcome. Thus, for Norris, the great value of deconstruction, which afforded a critique of "explanatory systems without giving way to a 'post-modern' outlook of passive liberal consensus."
Norris might simply have settled for "critique"—and actually criticized something, seeking to persuade us to change the world. But much like Habermas, he pulled back to insist on the scope for rational or enlightened critique, out of fear that plain old critique is not enough, would become but another element in the blandly liberal babble. If some particular critique could be enlightened, it would enjoy a special claim to our attention. Conversely, Gadamer and Rorty did deny what Norris, like Habermas, found it essential to preserve—any scope for "reason" that is not merely consensual and historical.
I have noted certain limits in both Gadamer and Rorty, and it is surely plausible to seek in deconstruction at least a critical complement, if not a full-blown alternative. Although "play" was more prominent in Derrida than Norris admitted, the critical potential of Derridean deconstruction remains fundamental. But does that side of Derrida require a Habermasian gloss or admixture? And is the relationship between Derridean deconstruction and Gadamerian hermeneutics, or even Rorty's neopragmatism, necessarily as antagonistic as Norris assumed?
Before addressing these questions, let us add Caputo, whose stimulating Radical Hermeneutics similarly sought to use Derrida for critical purposes. Caputo, however, moved in the opposite direction from Norris and rational critique, for he was concerned with what seemed an ongoing authoritarian tendency to freeze the present outcome and stop the play. And rather than opposing deconstruction to hermeneutics, he sought to bring them together in a postmetaphysical way. In the final analysis, however, Caputo's thinking stemmed from much the same family of concerns as Norris's, for he, too, was worried about the process of interaction and the possibility of domination or distortion. And he was comparably nervous about the implications of leaving everything to history. Moreover, Caputo, like Norris, sought to box out Gadamer as prejudicially conservative.
Although Caputo, in attempting to develop a radical hermeneutics, made Heidegger too much like Derrida, he offered superb characterizations of each, and he had enough room for their differences to explicate the tension between them. His aim, plausibly enough, was to use each as a check to the other. Taken together, Derrida and Heidegger undercut claims to privilege and invited ongoing conversation or dialogue—precisely, it would seem, what I have been pointing toward in this chapter.
Yet Caputo's premium was ultimately on disruption at the expense of the moment of agreement, of coming back together, that Gadamer represented. Caputo valued in Derrida's thinking "a deconstruction of hermeneutics as a nostalgia for meaning and unity"—which is what he found in Gadamer. And Derrida, Caputo went on to say, was more Nietzschean than either Heidegger or Gadamer, more suspicious, with "a greater sense of the fragility of our thought constructions and the contingency of our institutions." Following Derrida, Caputo warned against taking ourselves seriously, thereby putting an end to the play, so that disagreement means "drawing blood." Indeed, our major concern must be to resist the authoritarian tendency to draw blood that seems to lurk everywhere in a world endlessly reducing to something in particular; thus Caputo invited us to play "out of bounds."
But Caputo's way of aligning Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida betrayed the blurring, the combination of prejudicial conflation and plausible extremity, that we have found in a number of efforts to adjust to a postmetaphysical perspective. As a result, there was something limiting about his way of conceiving the intersection between deconstruction and hermeneutics.
Between Rational Critique and Disruptive Play
In thinkers like Habermas, Norris, and Caputo, concerns about the process of interaction and the nature of its outcome led to a premium on rational critique, on the one hand, and disruptive play, on the other. But there is scope for aligning hermeneutics and deconstruction in a weak but constructive way, so that we no longer feel the need either to grasp for a rational admixture or to play out of bounds. By pinpointing three intersecting problems with Norris's way of infusing a dose of Habermas into Derridean deconstruction, we begin to discern that alternative alignment.
First, Norris claimed to seek, with Habermas and against Gadamer and Rorty, a form of rigorous critique that does not repair to metaphysically based "principles." But the questions Rorty asked of Habermas intrude themselves immediately: How do we decide what is "informed," or "rational"? Who decides what counts as distorted or enlightened, and on what grounds? If, in a playfully deconstructionist mood, we were to seek an example of rhetoric disrupting the philosophical text, we would need look no farther than Norris's, which consistently offers characterizations of the alternatives freighted with his particular political orientation. Part of what Derrida showed was that some such freighting is inevitable—even when we claim to specify what counts as rational or enlightened.
Second, insofar as Norris was seeking not to claim privilege for some particular critique but to avoid passive acquiescence, his Habermasian admixture was simply unnecessary. Those like Norris insist on "enlightened critique" because dualistic thinking leads them to misconstrue the effects if we do without it. Their reading of convention, tradition, embeddedness in some particular history leads them to assume that the only alternative to enlightened critique is a pragmatist mishmash, ultimately passive and conservative. But there is a moderate alternative, which specifies simply that the process continues, on all levels, and invites whatever critique anyone cares to offer.
Third, Norris's conflation of deconstruction with enlightened critique is not true to Derrida—even to the radical side of Derrida. Although Norris was central in bringing out the critical, reconstructive potential of Derridean deconstruction, his effort to make Derrida congruent with Habermas required
marginalizing much that is essential to Derrida's thinking. Indeed, a deconstructionist number is easily done on Norris's own "margins"—the asides, the parentheses, the "to be sures" that tend to play down everything in Derrida's text that overflows the Habermasian mold. Norris tells us, for example, that "the issues [Derrida] raises belong within the tradition of Kantian enlightened critique, even while pressing that tradition to the limits (and beyond) of its own self-legitimizing claims." Norris makes the "and beyond" seem merely parenthetical, yet in fact it is essential, for it entails a denial and a flip-flop into something quite different from that Kantian tradition.
To be sure, Norris had good reason for dissociating Derridean deconstruction both from the "anarchist," relentlessly negative, sometimes apocalyptic side of Foucault and from the frivolous or methodical literary deconstruction prominent in the United States. But it was not necessary to invoke Habermas or to play down Derrida's departure from enlightened critique to avoid such limiting conflations.
To combine critical theory and deconstruction in opposition to Gadamer's relative conservatism was to miss what Gadamer and deconstruction had in common—and thus the scope for a radicalism no longer relying on metaphysically scented conceptions of reason and enlightenment. The radical side of Derridean deconstruction, insofar as it could serve the reconstruction Norris had in mind, was congruent with Gadamer and, up to a point, with Rorty but not with Habermas—or Norris himself. The key is that, in its critical mode, deconstruction meshed with Gadamerian hermeneutics and not enlightened critique.
Much like Habermas, Norris made leaving it to the "power to convince in the context of existing belief systems," which he associated with Rorty and Lyotard, more restrictive than it is. Indeed, those like Norris tend to view such "belief systems" as a fixed grid or box, rather than an unstable, tension-ridden, and thus moving historical constellation. Norris worried, for example, that Rorty mistrusted all those grand theories, including even the tradition of Kantian enlightened critique, "that claim to know more and see further than current beliefs would allow." What a curious worry. "To know more and see further than current beliefs would allow" is surely impossible a priori. But that is merely to confine us to our particular, finite, but still open and moving history, not to some rigid, fixed structure.
The sense of suffocation that may result from the experience of nothing but history was at work in Norris's way of characterizing the alternatives. The present set of beliefs or "principle of reason" allowed any critique Norris could come up with; once he had actually offered some such critique, it would be possible to ascertain if it had been sufficiently persuasive to connect with the
actual and help transform it. From within a weak but constructive culture of history, we see why "power to convince" is enough, why we need not claim some enlightened or rational admixture.
Caputo's fear of the authority of tradition was comparable, though it led him to accent play rather than the scope for enlightened critique. Because he linked Gadamer to a combination of nostalgia and metaphysically buttressed authority, Caputo could not find room for one of the essential dimensions of Gadamerian hermeneutics—the moment of cohesion, consensus, coming back together within the kind of postmetaphysical framework Caputo seemed to want. Gadamer showed how to conceive both sides of the coin: Some particular outcome endlessly results from the dialogue, the endless conflict of interpretations, so there is a measure of agreement, and the tradition maintains some measure of authority. Nevertheless, the outcome is not authoritarian and menacing, requiring a premium on disruption, but sufficiently weak to invite our creative and reconstructive engagement with it. To posit play, even play "out of bounds," as the alternative to drawing blood was to preclude precisely the weak but constructive alternative that Caputo first seemed to be seeking.
Just as Habermas insisted, we have a common interest in undistorted communication but what leads us to interact is not the ideal of agreement based on undistorted communication but the desire to learn about this particular world from our need to act within it. We know ourselves to be partial and incomplete, yet in belonging to the totality of the actual, we have something in common with others. Care entails the need and the willingness to learn from them. Although each individual must decide which of those others might offer most, in principle we might learn from everyone else who shares this whole growing particular world with us, everyone both past and present. Thus the rational and moral willingness to learn encompasses a willingness to engage in dialogue, an openness to persuasion.
But because some seem unwilling or unable to learn from us, or incompetent to teach us, so that we cannot learn from them, the dialogue and conflict may be distorted, and thus the process may seem inadequate. We may suspect that those who persist in disagreement are not open to learning and persuasion. And it is true, of course, that any of us may resist, clinging to our own prejudices—from laziness or egotistical interest, from fear, from various forms of contextual interference. So openness and learning must operate not only "horizontally" but also along a vertical axis. Although we cannot establish criteria that would enable us to distinguish the distorted from the undistorted once and for all, our present rules and criteria are subject to contest, so it is possible to appeal from the level of conflict to the more abstract or theoretical level where the particular conflict might be adjudicated. In shifting to that level, the effort to persuade becomes an effort to point out and to account for the element of distortion or
blindness that informs the competing position. Indeed, we may find it necessary to step back to suggest why our opponents do not recognize such distortion even when it is pointed out to them. There is room for contest all along this axis.
Habermas proved an especially worthy contestant as he probed for distortions in our present communication and interaction. Rather than simply charge distortion, he backed up to talk about what distortion might mean, starting with his fruitful recasting of Marx and Freud. And thus he, more than anyone, taught us to look for systematic distortion even in the contingent rules that have come to govern our present forms of interaction.
But fearing acquiescence in the authority of a distorting tradition, Habermas offered his critical diagnosis in the guise of an abstract regulative principle, not simply as a higher-level effort to persuade. Although he made that principle as empty as possible, his conception of what counts as enlightened or rational stemmed partly from his particular understanding of present obstacles. His way of postulating an ideal speech situation betrayed his understanding of "distorted"—and thus of "undistorted," "ideal," and "competent" as well. Despite the gloss of neutral abstraction, Habermas, too, was seeking to persuade. Many efforts to adapt Habermas or Derrida, like those of Norris, or Michael Ryan, or even Richard Bernstein, similarly slipped something substantive, resting on some particular conception of human needs and present inadequacies, into what purported to be an empty regulative principle. Whether consciously or not, such efforts sought to preempt the discussion by specifying in advance what counts as such and such. In the test of history so far, those particular critiques have proven especially fruitful, but, inevitably, each was too specific to merit the last word.
We can maintain the distinctions that Habermas and Norris found essential—between ideology and enlightened criticism, for example—without assuming there are suprahistorical criteria that some, at least, might know in advance. Those criteria are continually being hammered out within history, as part of the interaction. Deciding on the rules is part of the game, the particularizing, the test of power. The same is true even for deciding on the rules for determining the rules—take it as many steps as you like. All along the vertical axis, the debate continues as part of the history. There is no way to transcend the process of interaction and specify what counts as rational or competent once and for all. But though the ongoing interaction never yields suprahistorical rules or criteria, its weak, provisional resultants afford the measure of coherence necessary for dialogue and learning—and for a continuing history.
In positing the ideal of undistorted communication as a regulative principle, Habermas suggested that history is wound around an ongoing effort to free up human being from distortion. Despite its quaintly old-fashioned quality, Croce's dictum that history is "the story of liberty" is similar in important respects. Although Habermas was far more helpful than Croce in pinpointing present obstacles to freedom, comparison with Croce's unrelenting historicism indicates the residually metaphysical tendency of Habermas's thinking.
Croce emphasized that obstacles and distortions recur endlessly and thus our endless effort to free up human creativity. There is nothing anomalous about the fact that we still need to address distortions; present distortion is simply another historically specific challenge. And there is nothing anomalous about the fact that agreement has not been reached, that we still disagree in our diagnoses and priorities. In contrast, Habermas implied that there ought to be undistortion, even, on some level, agreement. Present distortion is anomalous; to undercut it is to be in touch with the ideal and to merit privilege. Thus the tendency to "go metaphysical" that continued to lurk in Habermas's thinking, even as it became ever more historicist.
We can be persuaded to view aspects of our historically specific framework as distorting without assuming that we should be able to agree, or that we are working toward an ideal situation in which distortion is overcome for good and agreement becomes possible. In a world of nothing but history, distortion is endless, always taking historically specific form as an aspect of particularizing or concealment. And thus disagreement and conflict are built in, endless. But so is the impulse to free up the human capacity for fruitful interaction; and so is the process of persuasion; and so is the coming to provisional agreement. We simply proceed, embracing interaction at all levels within the immanent totality. Meshing with the world as historical in this way, we do not acquiesce in some flawed outcome but participate in the endless overcoming and growth.
Because that process encompasses all conceivable levels, it obviously includes not only Derrida and Habermas and Norris and Caputo but Croce and Gadamer as well. Croce and Gadamer do not specify what counts as distortion-free interaction or how we are to decide on the provisional rules. They, too, are simply part of the interaction, seeking to persuade. Croce made this point explicitly, but his reflexive self-consciousness led not to a paralyzed acquiescence in the actual, nor to play, nor to a renewed quest for something suprahistorical. Rather, he outlined a framework from within which he could offer his own contribution in a constructive, history-making mode.
In seeking to link Derrida with Habermas, Norris did not do justice to the reflexivity that distinguishes deconstruction from rational critique and places it squarely within the terrain that opens with the reduction to history. Knowing itself to be radically immanent, deconstruction invokes no "rational" principles, procedures, or standards. Derridean "undecidability" means precisely that there can be no such enlightened basis for decision, because although things
do get decided, in and as history, they cannot be decided in advance . Deconstruction understands any claim to reason—including Norris's—as suspect precisely as a claim to suprahistorical privilege.
To be sure, a reflexive preoccupation with the status of its own enterprise led deconstruction, in some of its forms, to retreat into the playful self-deconstruction that Norris plausibly feared would undermine the critical force of the Derridean insight. But the key to rescuing the reconstructive potential in Derrida is not to marginalize his relentlessly playful side but rather to account for it historically. A historical account enables us to distinguish the several sides of Derrida's thinking and to keep the elements of both plausible extremity and unnecessary excess from compromising the critical, reconstructive potential. At the same time, it is necessary to grasp the Gadamerian complement that adds the essential measure of weight to deconstruction by showing that endless gathering accompanies endless slippage; the results even of our ongoing deconstructions continually come back together—and even, in one sense, last.
While Norris wanted sharply to distinguish the critical bite in deconstruction from play, Caputo found deconstruction's playful, endlessly disruptive, out-of-bounds tendency essential to the radical role he believed necessary. Caputo's accent was so different because the obstacle he saw, even in hermeneutics, was not bland liberal consensus but authority. He assumed that hermeneutics and historicism somehow play down contingency so that what results from their mechanisms is strong enough to arrest the play. To counter this tendency, Caputo found necessary an exclusive emphasis on the deconstructive side of the equation. But he was missing the scope for a middle term as he conflated the authority that results from Gadamerian mechanisms with still-metaphysical authority.
It is certainly true that persuasion and coming to agreement are essential to the historicist-hermeneutic conception, and they entail power and even authority. But whatever has resulted is contingent, merely provisional, more or less riddled with tensions, and does not claim determinate meaning or final authority. As we have emphasized, the happening of a particular world entails the ongoing competition of interpretations, and this encompasses ongoing judgment about the particular power and authority, even ongoing judgment about the way we go about judging. In this framework of contingency, weakness, and provisionality, deconstruction need not be confined to the task Caputo had in mind, appropriate to a still-metaphysical culture; it can play a more constructive critical role in tandem with the Gadamerian emphasis on the sense in which we continually come to some measure of agreement.
To put it simply, because hermeneutics can be weaker than Caputo assumed, deconstruction can play a more constructive role. At the same time, deconstruction, to play that role, need not be so strong as Norris believed necessary, claiming a privileged enlightened status. If there remains a tendency to stop the play, justifying Caputo's fears, it lies in some a priori claim to rationality, not in the provisional authority of a merely historical tradition.
We saw that Caputo, in his uneasiness with a world endlessly becoming particular, invites us to play "out of bounds." Surely anyone may seek to do so, but if you are really out of bounds, you will not connect; no one will notice. If you do connect—as has Derrida, for example—then even if you started out of bounds, you end up helping to expand the boundaries. You are not really out of bounds at all but rather part of the particular growing tradition. To say you become part of the tradition, however, is not to make you safe or reassuring in the limitingly conservative sense that troubles Caputo. You may play a fruitfully deconstructive, disruptive role within the totality of the particular history—precisely one of the possibilities in Derrida.
The terms of a weak but constructive culture of history enable us to see through the extreme characterizations of the situation that the contingent interaction of the hermeneutic and deconstructive elements often occasioned. To emphasize the moment of consensus, the endless renewal of the authority of tradition, is not to leave us paralyzed within some particular historical outcome. Rather, it simply enables us to continue, without futility, in a postmetaphysical mode. At the same time, deconstructive disruption need not become so all-encompassing that we are left simply to play—or to long for an impossible alterity. While remaining radical and critical, it becomes constructive, serving the endless remaking of the tradition. Tradition makes possible, invites, even demands, its own criticism, deconstruction, reinterpretation. We are constantly affirming as well as deconstructing, looking for what we share, as well as competing. Things slip but continually gather and cohere as particular as the world is endlessly remade.
To bring human being together with history in this way, based on a recasting of truth, continuity, and totality, need not be viewed as nostalgic weakness, stemming from an inability to bear the "real" meaningless of things. Rather, it is to find an even keel after the giddy or despairing overreaction, so that we do justice to the sense in which, even with the eclipse of metaphysics, we are participants in the ongoing happening of a particular world in history.
Openness and Risk in Historiography
Understanding the weak but constructive framework makes it possible to confront more deeply the imperative of historiographical openness and pluralism that we encountered in the preceding chapter. There seems scope for expanding the kinds of questions we ask, the range of answers we are prepared to hear, even the levels of abstraction on which historical inquiry can usefully operate. A greater sense of our own historicity seems to entail, above all, putting more of ourselves and our world at risk. Even the assumptions, categories, and commitments that inform our historical inquiries are merely historical resultants, and they are implicitly at issue whenever we ask historical
questions. A willingness to put them at risk would balance the renewed emphasis on present involvement in historiography—which easily leads to excess. Yet how much have we been prepared to put at risk?
Although the narrativists' attention to figured language was invaluable in expanding the sphere of reflexivity and risk, their concern to show the "crooked" constructedness of any historical account tended to neutralize the bite of the reflexivity they opened up. Much like deconstruction in its formalist or weak textualist guise, the narrativists kept finding the same kinds of tensions and oppositions in the historical accounts they analyzed. A certain methodological insight afforded privilege to the present inquirer. At the same time, the narrativists' preoccupation with authority led them to accent the need for every historical text to question its own authority. Such fastidious self-deconstruction could easily become merely playful, and the whole narrativist approach could result in a kind of cynical leveling. If what ultimately matters is the rhetorical constructedness of any historical account, no discrimination is possible, so nothing is genuinely at risk.
Gadamer, especially, pointed historical self-consciousness beyond any such limiting preoccupation with historiographical crookedness. In denying method, he foreclosed any possibility that we might find some privileged way of deconstructing our predecessors. Rather than see through them, we enter into dialogue with them, hoping that they might help us dissolve or overcome some of the tensions in our own constructed world. In suggesting that any truly historical approach thinks its own historicity, Gadamer invited us genuinely to test ourselves, attending to the embeddedness of our questions and categories in the processes we study. Insofar as the historical text understands itself in Gadamerian terms, as part of the ongoing process of interaction, it makes no strong claim to truth and need not be preoccupied with explicitly questioning its own authority.
The new historians, too, invited reflexivity and risk as they expanded the focus to encompass not only excluded groups but forms of experience not formerly thought to be historical. But there was something restrictive about the conception of the historical field that resulted. Even as they invited greater risk in one sense, the new historians tended to pull back from risk in another.
As noted in chapter 10, historiographical conflict yields a particular way of unifying the historical field, a particular cultural self-understanding, a thick, tension-ridden curriculum, canon, or master narrative. With the inflation of history, more strands come to seem historical, and the conflict intensifies. But however great the expansion, any way of arranging the historical field entails downplaying, neglecting, or precluding other ways of looking at those who came before us—their experience and even their connection with us. Even what
counts as power, elite status, or marginalization depends on our assessment of the relative import of the several spheres at issue. To make gender or ethnicity the focus of concern and grouping is to preclude other possibilities. As with those recent emphases, we arrange the field in a historically specific way in response to present needs. But the process of arranging the field is continuous. There is no end to the ways we might usefully relate to those who came before or to arrange, in a hierarchy of importance, our innumerable connections with them.
The new historians were not only expanding the historiographical focus but fruitfully reshuffling our sense of what was most important in our own history. But they were quick to assume that a suprahistorical moral sanction attached to their particular categories of understanding, their ways of connecting us to our predecessors, and their hierarchies of importance. In emphasizing gender, or popular culture, or social modes of explanation, they implied that we have at last found the right way of understanding what had been marginalized, the right way of ordering the historical universe. But this was to avoid putting at risk their own choices and categories. Genuinely to democratize our historical culture, in contrast, would be to expand the contest, inviting discussion of all aspects of our present connectedness with what went before.
Especially as we accent the broadly political contest at work in historiography, it is tempting to dismiss competing views through the strategies of political reductionism. Political difference becomes an excuse for avoiding engagement and risk. The antidote is to look beneath immediate political differences, to cut as deeply as necessary to find what we share within our common weak totality. Charles S. Maier has noted that "historiography need not simply echo ideological conflicts uncritically"; rather, it can mediate them insofar as historiography is "a shared project of knowledge" that transcends political conditioning through open-minded self-reflection and a "sociable" willingness to listen. To be sure, we may prefer to keep ourselves immune from risk, but our care for the world and our need to learn invite us to seek a basis for discussion, to enable us to profit from difference. The quest for risky dialogue stands opposed to political reductionism.
What we need, then, are riskier histories that more explicitly implicate the categories that inform our own historical questioning. Jane Caplan has astutely invoked deconstruction to show the scope for a riskier history even of fascism; our binary oppositions—starting with rational/irrational—would themselves be at issue in such a history. More generally, as we stress that history is always
written by the victors, we would do well to ponder the fact that the very terms of our present inquiries recapitulate and implicitly endorse some contestable winning, some aspect of the provisional present outcome. And of course we, too, are seeking to win, and we are among the victors insofar as our historiographical contributions prove influential—and thereby enter history. This dimension of historical reflexivity need not paralyze us; it simply expands our capacity to learn through historical inquiry and to adjust our present commitments on the basis of what we learn.
At the limit, openness and risk mean that when we question some aspect of what we have become, we are open to answers that prove not to undercut the actual. Radical historical questions can yield answers with conservative implications, suggesting, to put it simply, that some actual state of affairs is not so bad after all. To uncover the contingencies and preclusions entailed in the coming to be of the actual does not in itself demonstrate its illegitimacy but simply affords a rational basis for moral response. Insofar as the range of historical answers is restricted a priori, precluding those that seem conservative in implication, the enterprise slides from historical inquiry to edification or propaganda.
Moreover, with the expansion that follows from the inflation of history, there is room for contest over the levels of abstraction on which historical inquiry might operate. The distinctiveness of history has long been based partly on the historians' visceral sense of the drama of the particular case, in its naked individuality. But historical individuality came to connote a certain class of events, on a delimited range of levels, understood in contrast to speculative philosophy of history and to science, which seemed to make higher-order knowledge out of historical events. Thus relatively abstract levels were excluded from historiography through conflation with Hegel or those like Arnold Toynbee who sought laws or regularities. Or those levels were left to the more ethereal, quasi-religious speculation of thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin. To be sure, such efforts to fashion something grandiose from historical material appealed to the wider culture, but they remained suspect, especially because they were always in tension with the historians' emphasis on the particular, in its naked contingency.
With the eclipse of metaphysics, however, the contingencies on what had seemed the merely historical level come to seem ultimate, making the role of the particular all the more dramatic. Insofar as we abstract from those particular events, each higher level, as we become ever more abstract, is shown up to be merely historical as well. Even when we reach the level of what had seemed the suprahistorical frame—metaphysical, teleological, or scientific—we find but a different level of history, itself particular, riddled with contingency. So what is offered to the culture as historical understanding can no longer be confined to the formerly delimited range of frequencies.
Those higher levels can be apprehended only through historical inquiry,
which thus has expanded to encompass them. In expanding along that vertical axis, historians encountered those from other disciplines who, with the inflation of history, found themselves compelled to ask historical questions of their own. To be sure, the historical questions of philosophers like Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Rorty were quite different from those typical of professional historians, but disciplinary lines blurred, and it did not matter whether those who wrote these more abstract histories called themselves historians or not. Although relatively abstract, the "bigger" histories that resulted from their inquiries were not teleological or Hegelian, nor was their aim suprahistorical generalization. They were simply efforts to illuminate the present in the most helpful way possible, by laying out its historical genesis. An expanded and open culture of history will grasp the scope for historical inquiry on such higher levels, but it will also welcome the debate, or contest, that develops along that axis. In any one instance, we will not agree about the level of abstraction that is most likely to afford answers and so is most worthy of our attention.
Questions about levels of abstraction were at work in the disputes over contextualism that marked intellectual history as the scope for historical inquiry expanded. David Harlan and David Hollinger, for example, disagreed not, as it first seemed, over whether intellectual history should be contextualist but over the levels of context that might be appropriate. Hollinger found to be acontextualist the texts by Rorty and Michael Walzer that Harlan admired. They may seem so at first glance, but only because we have grown accustomed to a relatively restricted range of "proper" contexts for understanding ideas. In fact, Rorty and Walzer had filtered out more immediate levels of context in an effort to ask more abstract historical questions—and thus, they hoped, to deepen our understanding of particular aspects of the present. Hollinger proved unnecessarily conservative in this debate partly because, fearing Whiggish deformations, he associated contextualism with the imperative of getting at the past on its own terms. Thus he afforded privilege to a certain level of context, taken as the "original" context. From within a weak but constructive culture of history, it is possible to open and expand in the way Harlan wanted but without inviting the ahistorical anticontextualism that Hollinger feared.
The Extremes and the Middle Ground
Our tendency to think in dualistic, either-or terms has made it difficult to grasp the elements of the moderate postmetaphysical orientation, which proves
to rest on a weak but constructive culture of history. The reduction to a particular history may seem to freeze the world in a static sameness. Anything that can possibly result from what we do will connect with and reproduce what has come to be so far. Croce and Gadamer can seem conservative partly because each invited us to accept, and work within, such a world of particularity and finitude. An experience of the finitude of the totality of things can induce a sense of limits, even a grim sense of claustrophobia, which perhaps we all feel in some of our moods but which some feel more intensely than others.
Yet whereas finite particularity means sameness in one sense, it does not preclude novelty. The world continuously changes, or becomes other, although the process is bland indeed. Endless human response is the reverse side of the endlessly provisional and tension-ridden quality of what has come to be so far. So the element of continuity does not mean sameness; difference and novelty do not require discontinuity; openness does not require disengagement.
The weak but constructive alternative is weak enough to avoid charges of authoritarianism yet strong enough to avoid aestheticism; it is weak enough to be convincing in light of the wider displacement but strong enough to serve ongoing reconstruction. It establishes a place between play and domination, between endless subversion and enslavement to the tradition. It entails neither innocence nor disengagement but responsibility, weight, and risk. We take ourselves seriously even while recognizing our contingency and finitude—and thus our need for interaction and the impossibility of completeness and the last word.
There is scope for rationality within this framework, but it turns out to mean not "enlightened critique" but historical understanding, stemming from our active involvement with the provisional present world, and it encompasses a deconstructive questioning as radical as we can muster. Indeed, the path opens to a more varied and significant historical questioning even as the pretense of a definitive historical account or master narrative falls away. At the same time, we understand, from within the weak but constructive framework, why a presentist departure from realist representation need not warrant falsified documents or politically prejudiced readings, why others can hope to learn from our historical accounts, partial and provisional though they are.
Our way of realigning the forces at work suggests that as we grow accustomed to the departure from positivism, metaphysics, and modernity, the alternatives before us are more complex, but ultimately more promising, than many have indicated. "Crooked" is not the only alternative to "straight," fiction is not the only alternative to the strong, authoritarian understanding of truth, and Scott's form of politicized presentism is not the only alternative to Himmelfarb's limiting neopositivism. A pinched privilege to excluded groups is not the only alternative to a celebratory master narrative. An appeal to "enlightened critique" is not the only alternative to passive acquiescence, and an invitation to endless subversion is not the only alternative to "drawing blood."
In the weak but constructive mode, we endlessly respond to the actual, or
our tradition, in a way that is by turns deconstructive, dialogical, and creative. But at each moment, we may bump up against the limits of the reconstructive impulse and begin to experience the extremes that become possible in a postmetaphysical world. Rather than experience our tradition as an invitation to creative response, we may feel our embeddedness in a particular tradition as limiting, even appalling and grotesque. Rather than seek dialogue, we may afford privilege to the disembedded other. A sense of capriciousness and futility may undermine any premium on historical inquiry to serve history-making action, leaving us to concentrate on self-creation instead. Understanding those extremes enables us to see, in a postmetaphysical world, why we sometimes peer into history in a nonconstructive mode, what happens when we do so, and what role the resulting experience, or form of understanding, has in our lives.
In a postmetaphysical culture the reconstructive strand and the array of extremes can play off each other, working in fruitful tension. Even historical writing can depart from the effort of ongoing reconstruction to foster, or respond to, the extreme experiences of the world as history. And of course there is scope for disagreement and contest even at the intersection of reconstruction and the array of plausible extremes.
The cultural moments issuing from Nietzsche, Croce, and Heidegger are at once competing and complementary. If we experience our postmetaphysical world as nothing but history, we can grasp with Nietzsche the sense in which each of our moments is a timeless culmination, an end in itself, and need not be experienced as simply adding more history to the pile already there. We may, in some of our moments, feel the point of Heidegger's religious disengagement, with its posthistoricist openness to a dimension beyond this particular world and the moments of individual experience that it makes possible. As we have seen, an array of plausible variations have developed on the Nietzschean and Heideggerian extremes. But, conversely, interaction with those extreme responses may reinforce our sense of the scope for a constructive orientation to our merely historical world.