April 27, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Vacant God, Part IV
The Philosophy of History, cont.
TAKEN AS IT COMES, the “end of history” appears a bizarre and precipitous idea—or rather say, an intriguing and to some of us perhaps tempting idea, the adoption of which must, surely, be precipitous. For what marks this end of history, what proves it? What are the signs etched in these sands of time, by which we read its coming, its imminence, and its arrival? And does it not presuppose the exhaustion of all fundamental possibilities—or, what amounts to the same thing, the solution of all fundamental problems? But how can a philosophy ever seize on such a claim as that? History, it seems, can pronounce its end only when human things, the basic conundra of human things, have been finished and resolved. One might ask, in the first place, if there must always not be a spectator to mouth such a pronouncement? And so long as there is a spectator, then does it not follow that human things—have not ended? And then—is it really desirable for history to end? If History really were to end, would we not, as seekers, as questers, as lovers of philosophy and of art, of Yesterday and Tomorrow—would we not have to do all in our power—to make it recommence once more?
That is, as it were, the moral problem with the presumed end of history. But such concerns, no matter how much they might motivate action, of course cast no light on the truth or the falsity of the historicist claims. Very well. To say that all fundamental possibilities are exhausted and fundamental problems answered, one must first know what these are; one must have enumerated them in a complete list. I am unaware that such a list has ever been published, at least to the satisfaction of its readers. But let us suppose that such a list had been published, and had moreover been rendered up to the collective intellect and accepted by the same. It is almost a tenet of philosophy that universal approbation of an idea is not sufficient reason to adopt it. Why would we give this idea any more credence, a priori, than any other notion embraced widely or nigh universally by any given historical moment? The idea seems to be that we, with our awareness of the historical contingency of all human things, have by grace of that awareness escaped the clutches of historical necessity. But the realization of history’s power does not as such inoculate us against it. The question is simple: what is to prove to us that some future age, looking back on our own from a great temporal distance, will not identify in our own most cherished convictions, our historicism included, nothing but the frail children of our moment, every bit as destined for the grave as we ourselves? Where is the security in our conviction?
The “historical consciousness” which we have been discussing—that which we today possess so implicitly we no longer even speak of it—that atmosphere inherent to the majority of our histories, and nearly all of our “historical fictions,” to our universities and ours schools, to our science and our sciences and even to our daily lives—this historical consciousness is, so far as I have understood it, basically unhistorical in two key ways. First, it supposes in its original form, as we have seen, the idea of history as progress, which I believe can only exist side by side with a sublimated belief in a divine order, or with the inadequately deracinated vestiges of such. Second, the “historic consciousness” lacks a sense of, and even shuns, the future. The end of history—that is not the obliteration of history’s past, but rather the obviation of history’s future, just as that transformation we each undergo as the final moment of our lives, no matter where in our lives such a moment may fall. The end of history means the death of history, the adoption of deliberate neglect for tomorrow—for history being finished, what does one any longer care for what dreams shall come? Hence the two elements common to our historicism: faith in progress and denial of tomorrow: ignorant perversion of the past and willful ignorance of the future. We are not speaking any longer of a philosophy of history: this philosophy of history is, indeed, less than a philosophy, less even then an historical sense or an historical conscience, a veritable mood of history.
Now, there are generally speaking two defenses to be made of the idea of an end of history. The first is what we might call the commonplace view, which informs the better part of contemporary human action; the second, the theoretical view which informs the better part of contemporary philosophy. By the commonplace view, history is seen as a naturally progressive aggregation of human knowledge to human knowledge over the course of the centuries. Because it is normal to suppose that each new epoch learns from each past epoch, so it can be taken simply for granted that humanity now should have superior knowledge with respect to the humanity of, say, two millennia ago. Just as it is right to suppose that an old man is superior in wisdom to a young man, we may similarly suppose that a man of modernity is wiser than a man of antiquity.
This of course suffers from the very evident flaw that it depends entirely on what man one has in question. A young genius is likely to have more to teach an old idiot than vice-versa. Similarly, one cannot suppose a priori that the best minds of today are superior to the best minds of any past epoch, without having engaged both categories sufficiently to be able to compare them in all justice. It might well be that a soul of such caliber was born to the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Arabs, that it has not been equaled since; and it might be that such a soul has perceived truths about this world that we have not so much as imagined. Then, in order to claim that even the best minds of yesterday necessarily lack the knowledge that is possessed by the best minds of today, one must suppose that in the centuries intervening there have interceded events which the greatest mind of the past could not possibly have predicted, foreseen, or fathomed, which thus give the greatest minds of today unambiguous epistemological advantage over all those to have preceded them.
But even this is insufficient: for who is to say without prior inquiry what a great mind is or is not capable of predicting or foreseeing? Certain it is, that no one of classical antiquity could possibly have begun to imagine that Russia in the twentieth century would produce a revolution of such scope that it would overthrow the entirety of an aging aristocratic monarchy, and establish in its place a series of murderous dictators who would abolish the lives of millions of their own people. But it could certainly have been foreseen by the greatest minds of classical antiquity, that tyranny is a possibility amongst human societies, that aging aristocracies and monarchies may perish on account of certain definite internal weaknesses, and that a tyrant may arise from the strife of the resultant civil war, and may bring hideous suffering and death to many beneath his reign. The specific events could not be predicted; but the principle was eternally accessible.
Then one must go further. In order to defend the commonsensical historicist position, which is the position taken up unthinkingly by most human beings in the contemporary Occident, one must claim that an event or several events took place in the recent past which revealed, to predisposed human minds, precepts or principles fundamentally inaccessible to even the greatest minds before them. One must claim, in short, that a revelation has issued from the dark inscrutability of history itself, and that we dwell presently in the novel light it has shed.
But here already, we have crossed the threshold of theoretical historicism.
The nature of the revelation upon which our day-to-day historicism is built is fundamentally problematic. It presents itself as a truth, an indisputable or self-evident truth, into the nature of history. Now, as a truth it may be of one of two kinds; it may be a truth which is argued for, a truth deduced from other truths; or it may be axiomatic in some way. The truth supporting historicism cannot be, for the reasons we have already seen, deduced from premises that stand very far from it, for the simple reason that it could not then have the character of self-evidency. More than this: if it is deduced from other facts, this makes it philosophical, and not historical in character. It would be accessible in principle to all minds in all times. Yet this is clearly the contrary of an historical principle, which must be the founding principle of historicism.
Then the basic premise of historicism must be axiomatic, in the sense that it cannot be derived from any other facts or any other truths. It cannot be axiomatic, however, like the axioms of logic; it is not axiomatic in the sense of being available to the human mind as such. It comes to certain human minds at certain unpredictable historical junctures; it has the character, not of an a priori truth, but rather of an insight or of an experience which provides insight into the nature of history, and thence into the underpinnings of human life as such. This experience of history, which issues in the historical consciousness, is nothing but awareness of the necessary historical contingency of all human opinions. Because this experience issues directly from the mysterious womb of history itself, and because it is thus not an opinion, it reveals itself as the one experience which is not contingent on that history, the one experience which proceeds, as it were, directly from the noumena.
Yet—what is the epistemological value of such an experience? The experience at the bottom of historicism must be an experience of such power that it unilaterally convinces its experiencer of its fundamental truth. But this conviction cannot have any philosophical value as such. Even the claimants to faith, even the great spiritualists, have had their experiences—experiences of deities, of angels and demons, of the afterlife, of first and last things—none of which experiences can be justified with reason alone. Yet the historicist, as any philosopher, would not accept these experiences simply because of their internal power or the self-evidency which their owners ascribe to them; the historicist would submit them to all the rigorous investigation of which philosophy is capable. What, then, privileges the historicist experience over any other such experience of the numinous? How can it be taken as the legitimate basis of an entire philosophy, while an “out-of-body” experience or the direct spiritual perception of the word of God is not so taken? And, in permitting this experience to be the guiding principle of all historicism and the fundamental axiom, does historicism not erode the fundamental distinction between philosophy and faith, and prepare the way to chaos utter in the halls of thought?
Historicism is forced to defend itself thus: the experience from which historicism is born is subjectively adequate to the experiencer to demonstrate the reality of historicism to him, but cannot be admitted as the philosophical basis of historicism. The philosophical basis of historicism instead takes its directionality from that experience, but not its premises. Our commonplace historicism, through its basic experience, asks the following scientistic question: assuming that the historicist experience is true, what would follow from it? And applying this question to the world, it derives the philosophical justification for its basic experience in ex post facto evidences extracted from experience of phenomena as such. Contemporary historicism is radically empirical.
Now, given that the basic experience of historicism is valid, one might expect to find two confirmations, one in the human past and the other in the human future. In the past, one would expect to find that all the philosophies which precede the birth of historicism are chained radically and inseparably to the dogmatic historical assumptions of the periods in which they were formed, or that all past philosophies were historically contingent and incapable of emerging from the cave of their particular historical periods. Looking forward, on the other hand, into the future, one might expect to find that the realization of historicism permits human beings for the first time to live free from the shackles that previously bound them, liberated from the historical contingency in which they had previously blindly wallowed, empowered by the basic liberating insight into the historical contingency of human life, to mastery over their destinies, their histories, and the natural world itself. In the future one might expect to find, put otherwise, continual progress in the realm of human knowledge, in the realm of human technology, and in the realm of human politics.
In simplest terms, if historicism is true and the experience at root of it valid, a commonsense application of these ideas would expect to perceive in retrospect, the historical failure of all philosophy hitherto, and in prospect, the continual and continually expanding victory of science over all the realms of human knowledge, and liberalism over all the realms of human politics.
Let us take stock. It appears now that both of the consequences which we have asserted issue from contemporary philosophy—namely, the condemnation of past philosophy and the embrace of scientism—are in fact the hypotheses of that same philosophy. These hypotheses as hypotheses are not proven but supposed; in their demonstration they would form the necessary empirical proofs of the our historicism.
This insight explains to us the remarkable tenacity of both our present-day triumphalism in the face of the past, and our scientism. For if either of these hypotheses proves false, its negation would cast our historicism into deep doubt, and the consequence of this could only be catastrophic for our modern ideologies, for it would suggest that all we have built is founded on friable foundations. It would become necessary therefore to reevaluate the philosophies of the past, and to reevaluate that modern science which has brought such boons, temptations, and briberies upon the life of man. Science would be dethroned from its seat of unquestioned authority, and would become in principle subject to rulership beneath a greater power—subject, that is to say, to higher prescriptions and proscriptions, and no longer at absolute liberty to pursue its researches or to produce its technologies as it lists. The philosophies of the past would resurrect from their unearned graves, and would present themselves anew to the minds of men, and similar changes would be wrought on all other aspects of human life over which historicism presently has sway.
This possibility must be loathed by the lesser theoreticians of historicism, those who do not propose its demonstration but who presuppose its truth—and these as ever vastly outnumber the true philosophers of historicism, who, as philosophers, are willing to entertain the possible falsity of their doctrine—as much as by the majority of contemporary human beings. It is thus clear that historicism, which has been accepted as the official doctrine of our day, has been elevated to its privileged position, not from any internal power of the doctrine itself, so much as on account of the way it plays to human vanity, and, through science, pleases human appetite and eliminates human need. The theoretical aspect of historicism thus recedes behind the much stronger powers which govern the larger part of human beings. The hypotheses posited by historicism cease to be hypotheses, becoming first postulates and then finally presuppositions, of a power equal to the forceful appearance of historicism’s own basic experience; and what began as a philosophy ossifies into a dogma—a dogma which one cannot question without risking heresy. And this dogmatic historicism busies itself everywhere with bolstering its own foundations, fossicking through all experience in the hunt for evidences, interpreting all facts and all phenomena of both past and present as though they were unambiguously supportive of it.
And thus we are not only permitted but obliged to turn our backs on all thought prior to the last two centuries, as though it necessarily formed but a great ossuary for the antiquarian pluckings of academic buzzards. We are not only permitted but obliged to consider the triumphs of science to be but the single possible issue of science, to believe that the crises science causes can be solved through science and science alone, and to suppose that all those riddles of existence which science has not yet resolved, it will soon resolve. We are not only permitted but obliged to look upon the past with a posture of unabashed superiority, and on the future with an attitude of unflinching optimism, notwithstanding the crises that might emerge about us, notwithstanding the glimmer and glow of greatness still visible past the veil drawn round these past two centuries, notwithstanding our own skepticism, or our wondering at the unflinching certainty which seems so monolithically to uphold to many aspects of our age.
We are all of us with very few exceptions indeed living beneath the burden of this dogma, which was perhaps bearable enough when it still appeared to be justified by the technological and political progress every day coming to new fruition around us. The crisis into which we are presently entering is a great question mark placed after the presumed end of history—a great chance for us to awaken a moment to our historical premises, our historically contingent ideals and ideas, our historically bound moment. It is indeed not only an opportunity to this effect, but an obligation: for the very continuation of our Occident now hinges decisively on its willingness to turn the question back upon its most cherished contemporary ideals, and to open itself, in all the terror of its basic vulnerability, to new possibilities and to the reformation of old questions.
And strange to say, but this opening, this forward looking forward leap, can only be approached by first confronting our dogmatic prejudices regarding the past. It, like all great leaps, can only be prepared—by first going back.
Return to Part III