Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Turning ontological

One of my preoccupations is the difficulty of how the discipline of history – in its modern, quasi-scientific, secular garb – can engage seriously with profoundly different worldviews. Given my own interests, I am thinking in particular of how history can deal with the religious faith of past societies and individuals, and do so without condescension or dismissiveness. But the point applies more widely. I tried to address some of these issues in the introduction to my most recent book, although the best extended consideration of it that I know remains Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Hearing Things.

So when I see an article in the new American Historical Review,* in which the ancient historian Greg Anderson argues for an ‘ontological turn’ in which we take the reality of what he calls other historical ‘lifeworlds’ seriously, I ought to be delighted. And in many ways I am. I am certainly very stimulated by it (as you can tell). Much of what he says seems like obviously good sense, especially if, like me, you tend to think that all history is in the end history of mentalities. And, indeed, if his description of some of the crudely anachronistic histories of ancient Athens is fair, I am kind of shocked that respectable scholars are still doing that sort of thing.

So why does the whole thing leave me feeling a bit queasy?

Anderson is rightly critical of history-writing which takes what he calls a ‘God’s-eye, “etic” (outsider)’ view of the past, urging us instead to inhabit those past worldviews. But he does not directly address the problem which seems to me fundamental here, namely that historians do not inhabit the past. We inhabit the present. And this is not a liability. Very good historians can sometimes inhabit both past and present, stretching their minds to multiple worlds. But the point of doing history is not to inhabit the past for its own sake, but to understand it from the perspective of the present, to make it intelligible to the present, and to use all the resources we have (necessarily, present resources) to interrogate it. Historians are, at best, the conduits between ages. We need to have a foot in each one.

Failing to recognise that we ourselves are and must be rooted in a particular historical moment, pretending that we and we alone can transcend our historical particularity and inhabit other worlds – that seems to me the ultimate ‘etic’ viewpoint.

Instead, should we not recognise that our present and its knowledge can bring real value to reading past societies? Take, for example, an event in ancient Athenian history which Anderson does not mention, the plague of 430 BCE. It seems to me historically sensible to use modern ideas such as germ theory in order to analyse that event, even though they were not part of the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’. Sometimes we just know stuff they didn’t. And naturally, they knew stuff that we don’t. The point of a historical conversation with the past is surely that both we and they are allowed to bring insights to the table.

I am also a little troubled by the sealed, stable ‘lifeworlds’ that he implies, a bit like native reservations, in which exotic peoples can be admired in their pristine habitats. It is not simply that modern ideas can sometimes be powerful analytical tools for examining past societies, but also that past societies themselves were not stable. I kept expecting Anderson to talk about my old friends Herodotus and Thucydides, whose views on this particular question seem to me relevant. Herodotus, famously, used divine agency as an explanatory tool in his Histories. A generation later Thucydides, very deliberately, refused to do so. Without getting into who was right, that suggests that the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’ was pretty plural and unstable. Perhaps the truisms Anderson lists – gods, land, demos and household – were not so universally held. In particular, perhaps the women, slaves and other voiceless peoples of ancient Athens did not accept them.

I think Anderson would respond that this is part of his point: that lifeworlds are contingent and fluid, and that this extends to our own. But this troubles me too. I mean, he is right, obviously. But one of the plainest features of this essay is its distaste for modernity. His description of the modern post-Enlightenment lifeworld – materialist, secular, anthropocentric and individualist – reeks of disapproval. Fair enough, you might say, although I am not sure quite which variety of collectivism and supernatural agency he would like us to adopt instead. But his final line, that an ontological turn in history may lead us ‘to imagine less exploitative, more equitable, more sustainable lifeworlds of the future’, gives the game away. That’s not a historical project, it’s a political one (and is profoundly presentist, ransacking the past for what it can give us). Historically, studying the past can reveal to us how deeply contingent, and indeed weird, our own society is: although I think he overdoes the present’s absolute exceptionalism, a little narcissistically. Whether that makes us want to critique the present, or, alternatively, to consider how lucky we all are nowadays, is a political matter. A perfectly legitimate one, but if you’ve a constructive critique of modernity to make, let’s have it openly stated, not assumed and framed as history.


*Greg Anderson, ‘Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:The Case for an Ontological Turn’ in American Historical Review 120/3 (2015): 787-810. 

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