Claes G. Ryn*
[From HUMANITAS, Volume XI, No. 2, 1998 ©
Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]
A Fragmentary Historicism
The American academy has been abuzz in recent years with a need to identify
and get rid of "foundational" thinking. There are, we are told, no suprahistorical
essences, no permanent ends, no enduring identities, meanings, or truths.
We are said to live in a "postmetaphysical" and postmodern age.
The great fuss is anachronistic in that similar assertions were made
long before and the postmetaphysical phase in philosophy can be said to
have started at least as early as Immanuel Kant. But Kant and German idealism
have long been fumbled in Anglo-American thought. The historicism of Benedetto
Croce has had only a limited impact, although Croce’s aesthetics, imperfectly
understood, has had a wide following since the early decades of the century.
The historical sense in philosophically mature form somehow never struck
deep roots in Anglo-American soil, a fact in which some American intellectuals,
though largely uncomprehending with regard to this type of historicism,
take a kind of pride.
Now historicism is being embraced with a vengeance in extreme, one-sided
postmodernist forms. Writers of generally radical temperament are making
highly selective use of anti-metaphysical, historicist elements of thought
to discredit social and intellectual structures not to their liking. Insufficient
exposure to the larger tradition of historicism together with importunate
political and other passions contributes to an often egregious lack of
philosophical discipline and balance.
Still, besides a great mass of intellectual extravagance and frippery,
postmodernism contains a flickering of historicist understanding. The emphasis
on the "situatedness," contextuality, contingency, and perspectival nature
of human existence carries intimations of the kind of historical consciousness
that has long been taken for granted by some. Postmodernism has brought
increased awareness of the epistemological naivete of philosophies claiming
a vantage outside of history.
A failure fully to recognize the historical nature of human existence
continues to retard philosophy, and the partial truths contained in postmodernism
might conceivably mitigate that situation. Even when exaggerated and unbalanced,
some postmodern critiques have been useful in exposing ideological rigidities
and generally in challenging ahistorical universalist assumptions—useful,
that is to say, for people still in need of such enlightenment. A serious
problem with postmodernism is that its heavy ingredient of philosophical
carelessness and superficiality is at the same time undermining philosophical
stringency. A lack of gravitas is indirectly admitted in postmodernist
circles, which, e.g., in celebrating "playfulness," try to make a virtue
out of weakness. There is a danger that the light touch of postmodernism
will give historicism of all types a bad name and provide another excuse
for thinkers who are clinging to retrograde ahistorical conceptions of
Postmodernism is for the most part not particularly original. It is
reminiscent, for example, of the old romantic opposition to rational and
other interference with intuition, spontaneity and freedom. Postmodernist
complaints about the oppressiveness of existing intellectual, cultural
and social structures recall Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was an early critic
of the Enlightenment—from within, as it were—as well as a critic of prescribed
form within the arts. Postmodernism has much in common with the thought
of such critics of rationalism and scientism as Ralph Waldo Emerson in
America and Henri Bergson in Europe. Sometimes it sounds similar to the
ideas of nineteenth century writers of politically conservative or reactionary
orientation, especially in Germany, who defended historically evolved particularity
against abstract universalism.
History as Synthesis of Universality and Particularity
The postmodernist criticism of "metaphysics" and rationalism is foreshadowed
in the English-speaking world in the work of Edmund Burke. This statesman-thinker
opposed "abstract" rationality and stressed the need to consider historical
circumstance, but he did not exhibit any of the fondness for extremes so
characteristic of postmodernism. Burke did not try to undermine rationality
of every kind, but defended a humble, historically informed and adapted
understanding. He did not let his acute sense of the particularity of history
overwhelm a sense of historical continuity. Neither did this Whig show
any inclination to distrust all restrictions on freedom. The civilized
freedom that he advocated is inseparable from order, although, in his view,
it cannot be decided in the abstract what amount of either freedom or order
will be appropriate in particular historical situations. It is necessary
to adjust to the circumstances of time and place. Burke was highly suspicious
of ahistorical conceptions of universality—he despised the Jacobin fondness
for moral abstractions—but he did not on that account deny the existence
of something ultimately normative in human life. There is, he believes,
a standard of good that is not a mere creature of time and place but universal.
Yet, for him, that standard becomes embodied in and known to man in
The prehistoricist mind does not see the possibility of actual union,
as distinguished from accommodation, between universality and particularity.
Universality, it assumes, has to be separate from history, from that which
is forever changing. It is possible and perhaps desirable to try to make
the individual conform to the universal, but the latter, as universal,
cannot take individuality into itself; that would be contrary to its essential
character. But the historicism of Burke and of various later German thinkers
opens up another perspective. Moral goodness, for instance, can be seen
as a universal quality that an infinite number of different actions
may have. Because this unifying quality transcends all particular situations,
the older notion of universality contains an element of truth. But moral
universality, while remaining universal, also enters human experience in
historically particular form, as specific actions advancing good. The transcendent
reveals itself in history by becoming selectively immanent in it.1
Burke was not sufficiently a philosopher in the technical and systematic
sense to make this conception of universality explicit, but it lay implicit
in the intimate connection that he saw between the historically evolved
best insights and achievements of humanity—"the general bank and capital
of nations and of ages"—and what orders human existence to good.2
In Germany especially, historicism evolved in philosophically very sophisticated,
if not always fortuitous, ways. The "concrete universal" was a refutation
both of the abstract, ahistorical transcendent of old and of any cult of
the particular as self-sustaining. Even when marred by excessive intellectualism
and other flaws, as in Hegel, this historicism disproved enlightenment
rationalism and universalism and destroyed the foundations of positivism
even before that philosophically crude French and English movement spread
across Europe and began stifling humane inquiry.
The more promising elements of German idealism, notably the elaboration
of the possibility of synthesis, had pointed the way to a broad reconstitution
of philosophy, but its more questionable manifestations, such as Hegel’s
extravagantly schematic philosophy of history and his sometimes conceited
intellectualism, damaged its reputation and made possible the suffocating
reign of positivism. What is referred to as nineteenth century historicism
is often in actuality a brand of positivism applied to historical studies.
The German strengwissenschaftliche Methode, though it produced large
amounts of historical scholarship, was not itself an expression of the
authentically historical consciousness. The latter is not a disposition
diligently to gather sundry empirical materials about the past, although
it does inspire strong interest in the past as the source for human self-understanding.
Neither is historicism necessarily a claim to have discovered the ultimate
meaning of history or to have found the one right method for studying it,
or a desire to understand the past just as it understood itself, or a belief
that all points of view are historically conditioned and therefore merely
transitory. The historical consciousness is most fundamentally an acute
awareness of the past as moving in the present, a sense of the historicity,
the historical nature and context, of the here and now. Human existence
is a living whole across the generations, change and continuity together.
Though the particular individual may be oblivious of it, how he acts, thinks
and imagines is in very large measure shaped by history.
Early in the century when Benedetto Croce revived and strengthened historicism
the positivist trend was dominant. His brilliance and originality was only
partly recognized by a philosophical culture that had been badly damaged
by positivist prejudices, and, in the English-speaking world especially,
also by aversion to anything looking like German philosophy. Only Croce’s
aesthetics became widely discussed and admired, and that part of his philosophy,
too, was incompletely understood. Had Croce’s thought as a whole been generally
absorbed, many of the targets against which postmodernism has taken aim
would not exist or would look very different. Crocean historicism anticipated
many of the concerns of postmodernism, but without falling prey to its
Postmodernism carries earlier opposition to rational, moral or aesthetical
rigidity to extremes, sometimes absurd extremes. Its sense of the historicity
of human existence, though welcome in some respects, displays the kind
of one-sidedness that is one of the hallmarks of the movement. Distinctive
to it is a radical, "liberationist" obsession with discrediting inherited
norms and meanings, especially the notion of enduring standards. It expends
great energy demonstrating the changeability, flux, transitoriness, discontinuity,
and subjectivity of human existence. In a world without a lasting higher
purpose and without a commonality of meaning there is no need to struggle
with conscience, the latter having been shown to be merely an arbitrary,
historically bound imposition; no need to live up to high intellectual
expectations, these being just the preferences of a particular cultural
regime; no need to "do it right." Behind the postmodernist preoccupation
with demonstrating the historicity of all existing order one detects a
Rousseauesque desire to be rid of obstacles to living out one’s preferences
of the moment. Even when postmodernism helps expose the conceit and partisanship
of ideological and other constructs, its contribution is almost wholly
negative. By itself, it is an entirely inadequate vehicle for the transmission
of historicist thought.
Postmodernism is not wrong to contend that human existence is full of
transitory structures and norms. Some of these are indeed arbitrary and/or
oppressive; they express the egotistical preferences of individuals or
groups. But postmodernism also forbids the possibility of structures of
a different kind, ones that serve as aids to an intrinsically desirable
existence. Such structures would advance a not merely partisan and temporary
objective but would be always subject to change in new circumstances. Postmodernism
is viscerally opposed to the notion of an enduring higher purpose. It wants
order to be ultimately contingent and arbitrary.
A great weakness of postmodernism, which is far from exclusive to it,
is that it cannot fathom that life might be indistinguishably both changeable
and unchangeable, contingent and non-contingent, coherent and incoherent.
That life might have an enduring purpose, but one that manifests itself
differently as individuals and circumstances are different, seems a contradiction
in terms. That there is a transindividual commonality of experience, though
marked by tension and diversity as well as consensus, is similarly unpalatable.
Deconstructionists make much of the point that no two persons can read
the same text in the same way, as if this notion were some kind of original
and recent discovery. In actuality it has long been regarded as self-evident
by philosophical historicism. What postmodernists do not know, and would
prefer not to hear, is that the uniqueness of personal experience and perspective
does not exclude the possibility of shared humanity and meaning.
Missing from postmodernism as from so much other philosophy is the possibility
of synthesis, of the mutual implication of universality and particularity.
Here is perhaps the very crux of modern philosophy, but postmodernism is
barely aware of its existence. Emphasis on the contingency and flux of
history distorts human experience unless balanced by attention to equally
present order and continuity. What postmodernism needs, granted, is not
the order and continuity of ahistorical "foundationalist" metaphysics,
but that of value-centered historicism, "value" standing for the qualities
that give moral, intellectual and imaginative form to man’s historical
existence. Understanding unity and diversity together—not as separate,
reified entities, but in their relationship of mutual implication—yields
the concept of historical universality. Historical universality? Precisely:
universality in particular form. That such an idea should elicit incomprehension
and incredulity betrays a debilitating defect in Western philosophy of
Lacking attention to what might center, anchor, and discipline it, postmodernism
succumbs to its own instability and subjectivism. Such coherence as it
is able to muster comes from parasitic reliance on the not yet obliterated
structures of language and other forms of custom belonging to an older
but despised society. As deconstruction proceeds, postmodernism loses historicity
itself. Without an implied continuity and permanence, "historical contingency"
is not a philosophical idea but a mere movement of the lips.
Another example of postmodernist one-sidedness is the tendency to stress
theory, language, text, and imagination—the contemplative side of life—to
the neglect of practice. As with many of the romantics of old what is regarded
as most significant in life lies outside of practical action. Postmodernism
likes to point out—here expecting credit for something that students of
Croce have long regarded as standard fare—that intellectual and cultural
constructs are not disinterested. They are "regimes of power," expressions
of willfulness. Postmodernism has much less to say about what the will
is and how it influences the whole of the human. Especially alien to it
is the idea that there are morally contrasting potentialities of will and
that the will might actually transcend arbitrariness or egotism. Here,
too, postmodernism resists what might center it and give it more of the
weight and thickness that marks serious philosophy.
A Historicist Defense of History
One who has closely studied and been substantially affected by postmodernism
is Professor David A. Roberts, a leading intellectual historian who was
until recently chairman of the Department of History at the University
of Georgia. Roberts has written a broad and ambitious survey and analysis
of generally anti-metaphysical strains of historical thinking from Vico
to the present, Nothing But History.4
His purpose is to take stock of the meaning of "history" in a "postmetaphysical"
world. Roberts accepts the trend away from "foundational" assumptions and
is highly sensitive to postmodernist concerns, but also objects to extremes
in contemporary anti-metaphysical thinking. He wants to indicate the preconditions
for a "moderate" strand of historicism that "plays off" "the extreme responses
that also merit a place, but not an exclusive place, within a postmetaphysical
culture of history" (xii).
Roberts brings to his task unusual strengths. Unlike so many American
historians and philosophers Roberts knows a great deal about the wider
stream of historicism. He has previously written extensively on Croce,
most notably Benedetto Croce and the Uses of Historicism (1987).
In his most recent book Roberts examines a number of major approaches to
history in the postmetaphysical era. He places postmodernism in a historical
perspective and provides a philosophical framework considerably wider than
its own for assessing it. Roberts’s book is an excellent corrective for
the self-centeredness to which postmodernist discussion is strongly prone.
Substantial sections on Vico, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Croce, Heidegger, and
Gadamer precede discussions of such thinkers as Derrida, Foucault, Rorty,
and Habermas. Roberts considers a number of other philosophers and historians
less extensively. He summarizes and considers the pros and cons of particular
positions with a view to making his own contribution to how we should view
history. Roberts weaves his way among thinkers and ideas, continually juxtaposing
and comparing and making use of whatever seems to him promising and viable.
A survey of this scope is a daunting task, but Roberts is well-equipped
for it. Considering the difficulty of many of the thinkers discussed and
the great complexity of the philosophical issues involved, his range is
impressive. Roberts has a flair for digesting and lucidly condensing ideas.
Although he lets each thinker speak, he remains in control of his material,
pursuing his own objective. The large number of thinkers considered makes
it difficult even for the most knowledgeable readers independently to evaluate
each summary and assessment, but the reader develops confidence in the
author, sensing that he is a serious scholar striving to be accurate and
fair. Roberts is an old-fashioned historian at least in the sense that
he would never knowingly distort the work of another to facilitate his
A problem with a book ranging as widely as Roberts’s is that ideas cannot
be discussed in philosophical depth. Another thinker or intellectual current
is always waiting to be reviewed. An intellectual historian rather than
a philosopher, Roberts usually discusses philosophical issues in fairly
general terms, a habit that is reinforced by the need to cover much ground.
Really to assess his estimate or use of particular thinkers requires repairing
to the original sources. Roberts provides enough paraphrase and quotation
from the thinker under review to make his own comments plausible, but not
quite enough to turn them into full-fledged discussions of the matter at
issue. His work is a hybrid between a "history of" and a thematically argued
treatise. The book is full of observations, hints and suggestions, many
of which are helpful and intriguing, but philosophers will see a need to
unpack, explore, clarify, sharpen and extend.
History and Radical Contingency
Roberts wants fully to embrace the historicity of human existence. Discussing
Derrida, he writes, "Our world . . . cannot be stable, centered, self-identical
in the way that the metaphysical tradition led us to expect" (199). Mankind
needs to learn to live without the old certainties, without an extrahistorical
frame of reference and source of order. With the waning of metaphysics
historical particularity emerges as the ultimate reality. No matter how
hard we try to go beyond it—an effort that Roberts, in a revealing relapse
into prehistoricist thinking, assumes to be a matter of "abstracting" from
particulars—we run into yet more historicity. "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" (315). Life is, as the title of Roberts’s
book indicates, "nothing but history."
Roberts discusses the postmodernist stress on contingency, incoherence,
and instability at great length and even with deference, but he is not
prepared to surrender coherence and meaning. History as an intellectual
discipline has a future. It is no longer credible to search for a single,
correct theory of history or prescribe once and for all how to study it,
but scholars open to persuasion and willing to engage in intellectual exchange
can still advance knowledge and understanding. They can do so by becoming
aware of and resisting obstacles to openness such as egotism, laziness,
fear, and "contextual interference." It is possible for the historian to
weed out distortion and blindness. "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" (309). Roberts reacts against the purely negative
import of so much recent thinking. "The Foucault and Derrida currents converged
in their mistrust of authority and their premium on disruption" (205),
but more is needed, Roberts believes, than subverting existing order. Although
he treats deconstruction with respect, he bemoans "frivolous" forms of
literary deconstruction in vogue in America (307).
Roberts wants to be constructive. Wishing to preserve coherence and
meaning, he shows himself willing in the end to make concessions to a "conservative"
position. Intellectual openness requires, he argues, that in questioning
what we have become we leave open the possibility that the actual may have
something to recommend it. We do not have to assume that what has come
to exist is illegitimate. As if concerned not to damage a radical image,
Roberts introduces these concerns unobtrusively and tentatively, brings
them in by the back door, as it were, but towards the end of the book he
states them more affirmatively:
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 (315).
Making his contribution towards rethinking and rebuilding the discipline
of history in the postmetaphysical era, Roberts draws on a large number
of thinkers, but throughout the book the influence of Croce is evident,
although, as shall be discussed later, Roberts’s use of him is rather truncated.
Roberts is also attracted to Gadamer, who, while advocating openness, "viewed
the fact that we are fundamentally historical creatures to be an invitation
to a creative encounter with our tradition, an encounter that leads to
ongoing growth" (166). Roberts points to what he calls "one of the essential
dimensions of Gadamerian hermeneutics—the moment of cohesion, consensus,
coming back together within [a] postmetaphysical framework" (308).
According to Roberts, the kind of "undistorted communication" that Habermas
desires can be reconciled with a society in which tradition still maintains
"some measure of authority." This will be the case if "the outcome is not
authoritarian and menacing, requiring a premium on disruption, but sufficiently
weak to invite our creative and reconstructive engagement with it" (308).
Towards the end of his book Roberts gives a summary of the "weak but
constructive" approach to history that he advocates. His statement is meticulously
balanced and attentive to diverse considerations discussed earlier in the
book. It should appeal to a rather wide range of thinkers, though it may
do so in part precisely because of its very breadth and generality. Some
will think that, even in the context of the book, it begs too many questions.
The position favored by Roberts 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 (317).
Questions that arise, even here at the end of Roberts’s book, are: Why
exactly, on his showing, should we "take ourselves seriously"? What precisely
is the meaning and source of the mentioned "responsibility"? Whence the
"weightiness" attributed to our efforts?
Roberts’s book is a most welcome attempt to tame the extremes unleashed
by postmodernism. His painstaking, even-handed review of types of historicist
thinking and his careful, balanced judgments should shame the flimsiness
and carelessness of too much current academic writing. In its intellectual
seriousness and scholarly ethos the book can be seen as an embodiment of
the kind of approach to history that Roberts recommends. Yet so strong
is his emphasis on the theme of contingency, particularity and finitude
that he has difficulty explaining the sources for the continuity and coherence
that he deems desirable. He posits the possibility of a "rational and moral
willingness to learn" and of "adjudicating" conflicts on "the more abstract
or theoretical level" (showing a predilection for the abstract that is
curious in a historicist), but these possibilities are assumed rather than
supported with sustained argument (308).
Some of the "liberal" rather than radical academic powers-that-be may
like Roberts’s mild and limited advocacy of "conservatism." After all,
would not the kind of society preferred and constructed by modern "liberals"—including
the welfare state, "gender" equality, and "gay rights"—be placed in jeopardy
without retaining some respect for "tradition"? But Roberts also tries
throughout his book to maintain a generally radical image. He repeatedly
signals to the reader that being suspicious of existing social, cultural
and intellectual structures is a good thing. He is in favor of "democratizing"
historical culture, is highly respectful of "gender" studies, careful to
give Marxism its due, and so on. Radical ideas, even at their most extreme,
are treated respectfully and given the benefit of the doubt. Ideas that
will strike the academic powers-that-be as "conservative" are treated differently.
Roberts is quick to point out when thinkers are, in his repeatedly used
phrase, "prejudicially conservative." One strike against Croce, for example,
is that he "tended to be overtly elitist" (108). A non-egalitarian or merely
open-minded reader may ask, "so what?" In a scholarly rather than a political
context, why should a "conservative" leaning be automatically suspect?
Roberts does not worry as much, at least not in his published text, that
a thinker might be "prejudicially radical."
In view of Roberts’s desire to defend continuity and coherence it is
unfortunate that he does not more fully explore their possible sources.
One obstacle to his doing so is the general bias just discussed. He holds
it against Gadamer and even Croce, thinkers he nevertheless admires, that
they are "prejudicially conservative in important respects" (17). Gadamer,
Roberts contends, seems "to overemphasize the moment of agreement,
the authority of tradition, and the ongoing reestablishment of consensus,
at the expense of the scope for questioning and criticism" (171). Croce
is superior to Gadamer, Roberts contends, in that Croce "overcomes an essentialist
and prejudicially conservative tendency in Gadamer" (172). Roberts may
well be right in this judgment, but his own larger purposes would have
been better served by in-depth exploration of the differences between the
two thinkers than by intimations that Croce is more compatible with radical
Roberts’s apparent desire to accommodate postmodernism wherever possible
affects his approach to Croce, which highlights his "absolute historicism"
and his denial of definitive truth (85). Roberts rather conspicuously downplays
the systemic core of Croce’s philosophy, as put forth in his three seminal
works Aesthetic (1902), Logic (1905) and Philosophy of
the Practical (1908), books that provide the philosophical context
for all of his other writing. These works develop his philosophy of the
forms, or categories, of the human spirit—imagination, thought, and practical
action—and their relationships. Reluctance to delve into these ideas slants
Roberts’s view of Croce and produces some incomplete or questionable interpretations.
Roberts is still able to offer many very apt and felicitous summaries of
Croce’s thought. His book shows how, on issue after issue, Croce anticipated
and dealt in depth with concerns made fashionable by postmodernism much
later in the century. He did so not only with respect to historicism in
general, but with respect to particular philosophical questions that have
received much attention in recent decades. For example, Croce was far ahead
of Derrida and others when, in his 1902 Aesthetic, he set forth
"a radically antipositivist view of the world, based on imaginative language
as the cutting edge of the growing spirit. Worlds come to be in language,
which is inherently poetic and creative" (91).
That Roberts does not explore Croce’s philosophy of the categories is
surprising considering its centrality in Croce’s thought and how much it
can contribute to our understanding of continuity and coherence in history.
It may be that as a historian Roberts has spent more time on Croce’s large
number of studies of special historical topics and on his numerous short
essays than on those more "technical" philosophical works that systematically
integrate his ideas. Roberts may also have been deterred by the suspicion—strong
not just in postmodernism but in older Anglo-American thinking—that "systematic"
thinking represents an arrogant claim to final knowledge. Postmodernism
also resists any suprahistorical interference with openness. But, as Roberts
himself points out, "Croce came to insist that no philosophy, including
his own, could be definitive. Indeed his repeated attacks on system building
and any pretense of definitive philosophy are among the most striking features
of his thought" (84). Robert’s comment is correct and yet could easily
mislead the reader. An important clarification is needed. True, Croce opposed
"system-building" as Roberts understands that term. But he was very much
a systematic philosopher and regarded himself as such. Being systematic
after Croce’s fashion means something quite different from being a "system-builder."
It is wholly compatible with intellectual humility, may indeed be integral
Roberts is both right and wrong when offering the following summary:
"For Croce philosophy would always be with us, but it would always be ad
hoc and provisional—hardly foundational" (84). He is right in that for
Croce the work of philosophy is never done. It cannot be "foundational"
in the sense that it is able to separate itself from history and achieve
final, incontestable insight. And yet, some philosophical insights, though
they must be expressed within the limitations of time and place, are not
merely provisional and ad hoc. Good philosophy tries to capture the enduring
traits of human existence, not as something existing apart from history
but as giving form to particularity. In so far as philosophy is successful,
it both possesses and does not possess lasting truth. Though always falling
far short of definitive, comprehensive Truth, what it humbly and gropingly
knows, it does know. That knowledge is not negated by the fact that it
is at the same time tentative in the sense that particular formulations
of what is known can be forever improved, extended, and applied. Life goes
on, and it continually offers new material for examination.
Philosophizing, then, is a condition of both knowing and not knowing
the truth about our own existence, which is another way of saying that
the philosophical mind is dialectical. Oriented by what he knows but bothered
by what he does not yet know, or cannot yet express with conceptual clarity,
the genuine philosopher is always striving to remove obstacles to a fuller
Croce distinguishes between philosophical and pragmatic thought, and
shows how science exemplifies the latter. In one of his many admirably
concise and correct summaries of Croce’s thought, Roberts writes that "though
science is essential to us, its laws and generalizations are only rough-and-ready
abstractions from particular cases, based on questions we have formulated
for practical purposes" (86). Croce is an epistemological pragmatist in
so far as some thought-processes, those serving practical utility, are
concerned. What Roberts does not delve into is that Croce is not
a pragmatist in his view of what he considers philosophical rationality.
The latter is able to discern, among other things, the pragmatic nature
of science. In so doing it observes something about the enduring forms
of man’s historical existence: pragmatic rationality—one of the "categories"
of human activity without which there would be no human consciousness.
Philosophical examination of human experience tries faithfully to record
what is actually there. Unlike pragmatic thought, it does not simplify
the experiential evidence or take such short-cuts or liberties with the
facts as is compatible with achieving a particular practical objective.
Philosophical rationality is not aimed at achieving practical purposes.
It is an attempt to know—faithfully to know as much as it can about
life in all its complexity—to improve our cognitive, conceptual hold on
what persists in the midst of change and particularity.
For Croce history and philosophy ultimately become one and the same,
though the historiographer is more concerned to record the details of history
than is the philosopher. The philosopher studies history in order better
to understand himself and his own time. In Croce’s phrase, quoted by Roberts:
"all history is contemporary history." Philosophical rationality seeks
understanding about human life, expressed with the greatest possible conceptual
clarity, but it is not trying to jump to some extrahistorical vantage believed
to be protected from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence.
Philosophy does not pursue abstraction, metaphysical or otherwise, but
seeks conceptually to articulate the categories of man’s actual, historical
life. These forms are indistinguishable from their particular content,
and they interact in every moment of life. Roberts writes correctly, if
only in passing, that for Croce they are "an endless ‘circle’ of related
but distinguishable forms of the spirit" (88).
As an effort to articulate the continuity and coherence of human life
while recognizing its inescapably historical character, Croce’s philosophy
of the categories could have substantiated and strengthened Roberts’s rather
tentatively stated notion of what might hold the study of history together
in a postmetaphysical intellectual culture. Not least, Croce’s distinction
between pragmatic and philosophical rationality is highly relevant. The
same is true of his ethics and aesthetics, though they relate less directly
to Roberts’s primary concern. In Croce’s claim to have discerned a permanent
structure of human consciousness, there is, to repeat, no implication that
philosophy might now come to an end. Neither does Croce in his affirmation
of enduring meaning appeal to an extrahistorical order. History, whether
as an intellectual discipline or as the arena of human action, derives
its coherence from the ongoing interaction of universality and particularity.
Unfortunately, Roberts does not bring into focus just how Croce both synthesizes
and maintains the distinction between them. Closer attention to those of
Croce’s philosophical works that deal systematically with the subject might
have lessened the appeal that some postmodernist conceptions of historicity
have for Roberts. Croce’s historicism may be in one sense "unrelenting"
(310), which is what Roberts wants it to be, but this does not mean that
for Croce history is ultimately reducible to mere contingency and finitude.
Respect for History
It is unfashionable to take seriously the possibility of enduring order
or unity, but what is unfashionable may be philosophically required. Although
the attacks on "foundationalism" are not without justification, there is
something obsessive and therefore disingenuous about the categorical denial
of lasting structure and meaning. Postmodernists would have us think that
only now, after the likes of Derrida, Foucault and Rorty have spoken, is
it possible to view the world without illusion. Transcendence, universality,
and higher purpose and meaning can no longer be given any credence. The
conceit of this blanket rejection of old notions is all the more striking
because it emanates from people laying claim to extraordinary intellectual
openness. For many centuries, mankind’s best minds, often a good deal more
learned and brilliant than their critics today, have taken these notions
very seriously. Yet we are supposed to believe that, while they succumbed
to illusion and delusion, those who now pronounce on their limitations
are sufficiently free of such encumbrances to know what they are talking
about. Only those older thinkers held beliefs on flimsy grounds. But, again,
did not think that their grounds were flimsy. Postmodernists generally
assume that in the end contingency, incoherence and meaninglessness are
the whole of life, but mankind over the generations emphatically disagrees.
Granted that philosophy has made new discoveries over the centuries—though
postmodernists would have a hard time defining progress—must not earlier
thinkers be credited with some intelligence and discernment? They, too,
were trying hard to understand human existence. If earlier generations
thought that they felt the authority of conscience or the presence of the
divine, does not that sense of a center or ultimate ground of human existence
deserve respectful attention? If almost all thinkers prior to the ones
now in vogue were prone to "foundationalist" assumptions, is that not an
argument for carefully considering the possible justification for that
strong and persistent tendency? The postmodernist habit of simply ignoring
or dismissing what humanity has long believed suggests just the kind of
willfulness that postmodernists like to condemn in others. They attribute
to themselves openness, respect for "difference," playfulness, and flexibility,
but with reference to beliefs that they spontaneously dislike, that is,
beliefs different from their own, they are typically close-minded, rigid
To return to "foundationalist" and metaphysical conceptions in their
old form would indeed be philosophically retrograde and anachronistic,
but to explore what valid elements are contained in them and how they might
be retained in revised form would seem to respect human experience. There
is a historicist approach that is compatible with the notion of transhistorical
order and probably even with the notion of transcendence, understood in
a new way.5 Philosophy needs to
encompass as much as possible of mankind’s experience and reflection in
order comparatively to assess what should be carried forward and to consider
how it might be done—in the interest of human well-being. This task requires
the opposite of intellectual self-absorption and of haphazard, merely "playful"
selectivity. It requires a historically well-founded sense of direction
or gravity derived from genuine openness, fairness and balance.
*Claes G. Ryn, Professor of Politics at The
Catholic University of America, is Chairman of the National Humanities
Institute and Editor of Humanitas. [Back]
1 Cf. Joseph Baldacchino, "The Value-Centered Historicism
of Edmund Burke," Modern Age, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Spring 1983). [Back]
2 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in
France (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 76. [Back]
3 For an article-length explication of value-centered
historicism, see Claes G. Ryn, "Universality and History," Humanitas,
Vol. VI, No. 1 (Fall 1992/Winter 1993). [Back]
4 David D. Roberts, Nothing But History: Reconstruction
and Extremity after Metaphysics (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1995). [Ed. note: recently published. xiii+324 pp. $40.00.]
5 For an extended argument for this kind of historicist
position, see Claes G. Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce
and the Problem of Reality, second expanded edition (New Brunswick
and London: Transaction Publishers, 1997). [Back]
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