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Response to Review of Frank Ankersmit’s Lost Historical Cause: A Journey from Language to Experience

Having closely read Adam Timmins’ forthright review of my book, Frank Ankersmit’s Lost Historical Cause: A Journey from Language to Experience, I would now like to respond to some of the points that he has raised, prefaced with a few comments on what might be seen as our respective theoretical positions. In doing so, and as an act of charity, I will endeavour to ignore Timmins’ ad hominem slights and put-downs which infect his text and diminish its academic status.

Taking my position first then, and drawing here on Timmins’ own text, I see that I am to be placed squarely in what he calls the ‘postmodernist camp’ of historical theory and labelled accordingly, a label which I am prepared to accept. So, how is one to very briefly sum up the substance of this position which was, let us be guarded and say ‘arguably’, first comprehensively weighed and valued by Jean-François Lyotard in his famous ‘Report’ (1) of 1979, and thereafter continuously evaluated, monitored, explored, and so on down to the present day. Well, if I am to attempt to pin down postmodernism in a few short sentences I would have to say that at bottom its philosophy rests on both the acceptance and the absolutely necessary working of the understanding that there are no foundations. That we humans live and function in a ‘human’ reality which is pragmatically constituted by us, exclusively for us, through our particular use of language and, further, that this language-bound reality cannot be taken to rest on or to be fastened down to any absolutes or fixed locations outside its autonomous self. Human reality, in short, lacks foundations and when this realisation is actually worked it raises to the level of consciousness what Derrida called ‘the aporia’, the undecidability of the decision, and the multiplicities of far-reaching considerations subsequent to that realisation.

With regard to Timmins’ clearly oppositional theoretical position, I would have to say, again drawing on his own text, that he probably sees himself as something of a post-postmodernist. And it would appear, so far as I can grasp the notion, that a post-postmodernist rejects postmodernism for an ill-defined (has it ever actually been defined?) and ultimately untenable position which summarily dismisses without supporting arguments, and thus illogically circumvents, a whole genre of important and persuasive arguments which it really should, if it takes itself seriously, be confronting and addressing. The post-postmodernist has surely taken a gigantic step backwards, spanning perhaps a 100 or so years, and I think that at least some of Timmins’ comments might be better understood in this light.

Turning to the actual substance of his review, and discounting Timmins’ already noted invectives, I will now raise just a few of my previously mentioned points while maintaining the order in which they crop-up in his text.

Accordingly, referring first to the middle of paragraph three, here I would much rather go along with Richard Rorty who pointed out that truth lies only in our sentences which are human constructs. His position is that truth for us is simply not ‘out there’ awaiting its discovery (or partial discovery) and appropriation by us.(2) Thus Timmins’ statement that the truth of the ‘world out there’ can ‘never be wholly captured through language’ appears to already suggest that the truth of the ‘world out there’ can at least be partly captured by language; a proposition that, for me, lacks validity. My next point emerges a few lines further on in the same paragraph – really just a minor comment in passing – where I am accused of selectiveness in some of my quotations, but how can one avoid being selective when making a selection? And to complete my comments concerning this particular paragraph, I would draw attention to its final sentence in which Timmins, on the subject of truth, presumes to find a ‘tangle’ in the postmodern position, a tangle which is in fact all his own. For historians and historical theorists deal in propositions and arguments which are constructs of an aesthetic kind and, as such, cannot be subject to truth claims. A proposition or an argument, which constitutes ‘a way of seeing’, rests – as Frank Ankersmit convincingly pointed out in his brilliant argument for the narrative substance – on metaphor and may stake claim to validity but not truth. This whole subject is comprehensively addressed in my book.

Moving on to paragraph four, I have just one comment to make with reference to Timmins’ contention that in my own theorisations I appear to have no criteria of preference for one theory over another. My comment is that I am clear throughout my argument that preference turns on the pragmatic question of utility; that is, if a theory works, use it and if it doesn’t work, reject it.

In the middle of paragraph five Timmins suggests that scientists ‘will quite happily settle for a standard of proof less severe than absolute proof’ without explaining the nature of the distinction that he strikes between proof and absolute proof, whatever that might be. But surely proof is simply proof regardless of attached adjectives and my position, certainly in the context under discussion, is that it is unobtainable. And in the last sentence of this paragraph Timmins demonstrates his failure to grasp the thrust of Ankersmit’s early argument for a certain aestheticisation of theory which constitutes a move away from the epistemological and absolutely not, as Timmins seems to be claiming here, an attempt ‘to keep historical writing on some sort of epistemological footing’. How he could have missed this very basic and well understood Ankersmitean development of position, frequently elaborated by Ankersmit himself (3), is beyond me.

Skipping forward now to paragraph nine, Timmins makes the perhaps slightly indignant point that ‘the fact that we cannot gain unmediated access to the past does not mean that we cannot find out anything about it at all’. Well, all right. No postmodern theorist is likely to claim that we cannot know, for instance, that the ‘Storming of the Bastille’ took place on 14 July 1789. However, the point is that such singular statements carry within them no entailed meanings. They are in a sense empty vessels at the disposal of the historian who is then free to impose meanings onto them, or into them, through his or her individual style of narrativisation worked up (emplotted, troped, etc.) on the back of what Ankersmit identified as a uniquely chosen narrative substance or point-of-view regarding the event (or situation) to be historicised. A point-of-view which has no linkage to the past itself, yet which governs the narrative meaning imposed on that event/situation. The narrative substance, then, has to be seen as an arbitrary element of the conceptual apparatus that the historian, not necessarily consciously, brings to the task of reading, and working-up into narrative form, his or her chosen ‘traces of the past’; that choice, in circular fashion, also being governed in the first place by the historian’s narrative substance. Any history is thus an autonomous proposal by its author on how some aspect of the past might be seen, and as such it will always find itself unresolvedly procrastinating with rival historical accounts of that very same event/situation. The foregoing, I hope, briefly gathers together the central weight of and the consequences for history and historical theory of Ankersmit’s argument for the narrative substance and thus provides a ‘postmodern’ clarification of Timmins’ above statement.

Paragraph ten takes me to task for failing to critique Ankersmit’s 2001 publication, Historical Representation, while itself failing to notice my numerous references to the book and at least a couple of lengthy critiques of parts of it, those of Ankersmit’s two central propositions; his ‘experimental garden of historiography’ and his ‘fact/value argument’ (his belief that one can move seamlessly and unproblematically from a fact to what is presumed to be its definitive entailed value). It is interesting to note that during his interview with Ewa Domańska for her publication Encounters (already referenced above), Ankersmit affirmed that Narrative Logic was, in fact, the best thing that he had ever written and that since its publication he felt that he had not added a lot to it.(4) At the time that he made this statement he would, I believe, have been working on Historical Representation and for me this book is, as Ankersmit seems to indicate here, an expansion of or supplement to his first book and it thus doesn’t fit nor does it need to fit the trajectory of Ankersmit’s move from language to experience which can be effectively traced from Narrative Logic to History and Tropology and thence directly to Sublime Historical Experience.

Now to the penultimate sentence of paragraph eleven where, it is curious to note, Timmins appears to have worked out to his own satisfaction that my book is actually an expansion of a paper of mine which appeared in the December 2010 edition of Rethinking History and not, as he had already previously remarked, a reworking of my PhD thesis. Anyway, this is an easy one to put right. The paper referred to is titled ‘Frank Ankersmit’s narrative substance: A legacy to historians’ and at the time of its writing my PhD thesis was close to completion. Furthermore, this paper was never intended to be a critique of Ankersmit’s early theorisations. Rather, I was using his eminently defensible concept of the narrative substance primarily to demonstrate the inescapable centrality of ‘language’ in historical theory, and in order to do this I drew in part on a small selection of arguments which were already fully formulated in my thesis. In short, Timmins’ ‘expansion’ argument is wide of the mark.

Finally, referring in this instance to Timmins’ last paragraph, I must query his suggestion that I am trying to ‘co-opt memory studies into the postmodernist camp’. Let us be clear, memories are of a natural kind, we all have them and they are ontologically different from histories which are positioned human constructs and not natural at all. Central to my book’s thesis is the ‘journey’ metaphor reflected in its title, Ankersmit’s journey from a language-based mode of historical theory to a memory-based way of thinking about the past. A journey which ‘loses history along the way’ as it migrates, apparently without noticing it, from the sphere of historical studies into the sphere of memory studies. And, indeed, in the book’s conclusion I try to disentangle Ankersmit’s conflation of history with memory, to separate out these two distinct ontologies. How this attempt to highlight what I see as a particular problem with Ankersmit’s theorisations can be taken as, or construed as, a co-option of memory into the postmodern camp remains an unfathomable mystery to me.

Now to conclude and to more agreeably ‘balance the account’, so to speak, I would like to thank Adam Timmins for his appraisal of my book and, bearing in mind that we are arguing from incommensurable theoretical positions, for his occasional complimentary remarks. Moreover, I think that this exchange, notwithstanding my critique of Frank Ankersmit’s journey from language to the experiential sublime, again brings to the fore those parts of Ankersmit’s writings which I most like and admire and which, I am convinced, will have a lasting impact on history and historical theory.

Notes

  1. J. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, (Minneapolis, MN, 1984).Back to (1)
  2. R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989), p. 5.Back to (2)
  3. For just one instance of this mentioned elaboration, see E. Domańska, Encounters: Philosophy of History After Postmodernism (Charlottesville, VA, 1998), pp. 74–5.Back to (3)
  4. Domańska, Encounters, pp. 70–1.Back to (4)