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This research paper presents history as a fundamental factor of cultural life. It addresses its anthropological fundaments in the human endeavor to make sense out of the experience of time. It tackles the narrative form of historical knowledge and the typology of historical representation. Special reference is made to the problem of intercultural communication and the power of ethnocentrism, its danger and chances to overcome it.
- Anthropological Universals
- Conceptions of Time
- History as Event and Narration
- Memory, History, and Master Narratives
- Historical Culture
- Typologies of Historical Representation
- Problems of Intercultural Communication
On a general and fundamental anthropological level, history is the totality of the cultural practices through which human beings interpret their past in order to understand the present and anticipate the future. In other words, history is the generation of sense out of the experience of time.
But not every interpretation of time is historical. What determines the historical quality of an interpretation is the fact that time confronts human beings in two ways: as real change within the world, in which contingent events occur and are experienced, and as an interior, temporal extension of consciousness (and of the unconscious). Here, memories, imaginations, knowledge, intentions, and objectives, guided by the elemental mental forces of fear, anxiety, desire, hope, and longing, play a central role. We interpret the ‘objective’ time of real change (the present) through the recollection of another time (the past); thus the ‘subjective’ time into which we project a future is bound to our approach to past experiences. This is human culture’s specifically historical procedure for experience and interpretation. What defines the historical interpretation of time is its implicitly meaningful and thus orientative conception of the course of time. The latter comprises the past, the present, and the future and at the same time articulates experiences and intentions; it is thus empirical and normative at the same time. The philosophy of history explicates this conception of the course of time as a particular mental structure. Even without philosophical reflection or justification, such a conception of the course of time organizes historical thought, and shapes its content. History interprets the contingent events of the past and defines their significance for the present. It organizes historical narrative as a particular kind of explanation (Danto, 1965). It is this ‘explanation through narration’ that defines the logic of historical thought in its academic form as well.
Conceptions of Time
The different conceptions of the course of time important for historical interpretation employ various temporal categories in various constellations (e.g., cyclical time, linear time, the concept of the kairos), each encouraging particular expectations: decline, progress, permanence, recurrence, revolution, destruction, and so on. They relate real temporal processes to the active intentions and self-conceptions of the subjects that make use of them. In other words, history mediates the subjectivity of acting and suffering human beings with the objectivity of the temporal process of their world (Rüsen, 2007). In early societies, this is accomplished by an appeal to divine forces, which impel the transformation of the world and the human spirit at the same time; in other societies, these divine forces are replaced by humankind as a spiritual and moral being, its ability to create symbolic worlds or to plan the conquest of the natural and social world through knowledge. Finally, nature too can be invoked as a sort of metaphysical instance for the continuity between the two temporal dimensions of human historicity. Nature can thus be understood as that which compels the human race, by means of social antagonisms, to create culture (as in Kant, for example), or as struggle of the races in Social Darwinist terms. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, posits an interior, psychological nature, in order to explain the historical movement of the human world by means of the dynamics of the unconscious.
The idea of one single ‘history’ comprising all temporal change within the human world is of modern origin (Koselleck, 1985). However, it has a premodern equivalent in older cosmogonies, theogonies, and anthropogonies, as well as in the concept of redemptive history.
History as Event and Narration
In every culture and epoch ‘history’ has a double meaning. On the one hand, it designates temporally organized events in the past. At the same time, and inseparably from the first meaning, ‘history’ also means the account of these events that articulates their significance for our understanding of ourselves and of our world. The first meaning has to do with temporal succession, the second with its narrative representation.
Not everything that has happened can be called history, but rather only that which is somehow meaningful in the present: as for example the foundation of a city or a kingdom is significant to its inhabitants, as a person’s birthday is significant to him or her, and so on. Usually this event is described in a sequence of occurrences. These may often be the actions of human beings, heroes, or divine beings, as in myth or epic; however, they may also involve more complicated phenomena, such as the development of a manufacturing process, the evolution in the meaning of a concept, the epochal transformation of a mentality, an ‘axial time,’ and so on.
In its second meaning, history is the representation of the past in the culture of the present. Here ‘history’ is the product of historical consciousness: By the work of memory the past has come to life and meaning in a narrative form. In this way the past ‘in itself,’ that is, everything that happened, and has persisted as trace, relic, memorial, tradition, ethic, and so on becomes history ‘for us.’ I suggest to distinguish and organize the basic mental procedures involved in the following way:
- Perception of a different time that is owed to the fascination or the burdening awareness of the archaic, the obsolete, the mysterious trace, the persistent memorial, and so on;
- Interpretation of this time as temporal movement in the human world, according to some meaningful aspects (e.g., as evidence of the permanence of certain values, as examples of a general rule, as progress, etc.);
- Orientation of human practice by interpretation that can be generated in two ways – both by an external and an internal perspective. In the external perspective, human activity gets its temporal dimension relevant for shaping its intentions. Examples for this perspective are an increase of political legitimacy through political participation, or the restitution of the world before its destruction, or the renewal of acceptable life forms against the decline of morals. In the internal perspective human subjectivity gets its temporal dimension, where identity as a strong belief in belonging to and be different from others is at stake (e.g., “We are the children of the sun,” or “We as a nation stand for the universality and achievements of human rights,” or “We belong to the communion of saints,” or “We represent true spirituality in contrast to the others’ materialism”); and finally
- Motivation for action provided by this orientation (e.g., willingness to sacrifice oneself, even die for a certain ideal etc., or to kill others for the sake of historical ideas of national greatness, the missionary spirit, etc.)
Memory, History, and Master Narratives
There is an ongoing debate about the relationship between memory and historical consciousness (Megill, 1998; Seixas, 2004). Memory in the everyday sense refers to past experiences of individuals in their own lives, whereas historical consciousness primarily thematizes a past that exceeds an individual life span. Both, however – the individual memory on which individuality and social affiliation are built as well as the expansion of ‘history’ beyond the limits of a single life span back into the past – are inseparable like two sides of a coin: human beings tend to transform their own identities into temporally more comprising (including) structures, such as the community of saints, the nation, the people, the culture, and so on. The basis for the individuals’ self-esteem and their practical temporal orientation tends to exceed their life span or to outlive them. It thus usually reaches far back into the past (Assmann, 1995).
‘History’ generally performs its orientative function by a ‘master narrative’ or ‘metanarrative.’ This describes the conception and evolution of the addressee’s world in order to legitimate its normative framework. At the same time, it provides an experiential inventory that is available whenever problems of orientation require a solution by consensus. It depicts, confirms, and legitimates not only systems of politics, economics, and environment, but also the collective and individual subjectivity and identity of the people. Master narratives represent social affiliation and differentiation, internally and externally.
Master narratives generally organize social inclusion and exclusion ethnocentrically, ascribe positive normative characteristics and weight to one group (mostly one’s own) and negative ones to other different groups. One’s own life-world appears as cultured or civilized, whereas other worlds are looked upon as savage and barbaric. This difference can be articulated in different ways: as utterly opposed to one’s own, as deviation from a norm, as retarded in development, etc. Just as history presents past experiences as a ‘mirror’ in which the present perceives itself, the image of others in the same historical mirror has a contrastive function: it defines a self-image. Under special conditions of an orientation crisis, however, the ‘other’ may be ascribed admirable features, as we can find in the image of the ‘noble savage.’
The interpretative work of historical consciousness and its product called ‘history’ becomes manifest in a society’s historical culture (Karlsson, 2011). Historical culture is multidimensional, like every other part of human culture. It has religious, ethical, pedagogical, political, and rhetorical expressions; its cognitive substance always aims at the knowledge of ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ (how it really was). In an artificial way, we can distinguish five basic dimensions of historical culture as ideal types, each of which is quite different in its logic and thus accountable to different criteria of meaning:
- The political dimension is concerned with the legitimation of a political order in the context of historical thinking. Historical consciousness inscribes this order into the identity concepts of the people. Doing so the decisive principle of making sense of the past is legitimacy of power and domination.
- The aesthetic dimension is concerned with the emotional effectiveness of historical interpretations, or the domain which appeals to and affects the human senses. A strong historical orientation must always engage the senses. Pictures, sculptures, public monuments, and museums serve this purpose. Masquerades, dances, and music can all have historical content. Many older master narratives are composed in a poetic form and are ritually performed. Historical knowledge must employ literary models to become discursive. In doing so historical culture is guided by the sense criterion of formal coherence in a narrative representation and (traditionally called ‘beauty’).
- The cognitive dimension is concerned with the knowledge of past events significant for the present and the future. Without the element of knowledge, the recollection of the past cannot effectively be introduced into discourses concerned with the interpretation of current temporal experience. Mythical master narratives, too, have a cognitive status, though scientific method and practice may deprive them of it. They lose their orientative power when confronted with a knowledge of the past that possesses a more elaborated relation to experience. In this dimension historical thinking refers to the sense criterion of truth.
- The ethical dimension is constituted by norms and values which stem from the social context of the historians. Here the past is subordinated to the judgments of the present. This relationship can be intensified to a concept of historical responsibility (Bédarida, 1995; Carr et al., 2004) that is based on an intergenerational connection between forefathers and offspring. The sense criterion in this dimension is the distinction between good and evil.
- The religious dimension refers to the temporal extension of sacred elements of human life. Here history is shaped by the sense criterion of redemption. Traditionally it opens up a perspective of transcendence in the representation of the past, but in modern times it may achieve a highly ideological form of innerworldly or secular religion (as developed in Marxism or fascism). Today, historical culture is characterized by an unreconciled relationship between secularism (most effectively manifested in historical studies as an academic discipline) and still powerful religious approaches to human life.
The interrelationship of these dimensions is complex, flexible, changeable, and full of tensions and conflicts. The different sense criteria try to dominate and instrumentalize each other. They need a discursive mode of interrelationship within which they may complement each other. A unifying principle of this discourse may be gained out of a cultural anthropology of historical thinking. It has to emphasize the potentials of overcoming ethnocentric factors in historical culture by referring to fundamental and universal values inherent in the cultural nature of every human being (Antweiler, 2012; Rüsen, 2012).
Typologies of Historical Representation
Synchronic and diachronic typologies of the historical can be generated out of the particulars of historical thought, and inquire into its carriers, functions, class and gender specificity, and other factors within the context of the social framework of determinations (Rüsen, 1996). Yet they only become historically specific, when they are capable to differentiate the specific interpretative work of historical consciousness and of its product – ‘history.’ Here history appears as the cultural orientation system of temporal consciousness – constructed according to the different potentials of historical meaning. Such a differentiation gained by a metatheoretical perspective has yet been little tackled. Previous efforts have usually focused on functional and formal aspects, and have less thematized the total domain of human temporal interpretation but simply the domain of historical writing. If at all only the Western tradition was considered. Nonetheless, such typologies can be used as analytical tools for the research in the wide areas of historical culture, especially for intercultural comparisons.
Nietzsche, for example, distinguished the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical uses of history in terms of their advantages and disadvantages for life (Nietzsche, 1985).
Hayden White (1973) presented a very influential model for the analysis of historical writing, and applied it to the most significant historians and philosophers of history in the nineteenth century. It consists of a complex strategy of creating historical meaning by emplotment (with its variations of romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire), formal argument (with its variations of formalist, organicist, mechanistic, and contextual thinking), ideological implication (with its variations of anarchism, conservatism, radicalism, and liberalism), and tropes of historical discourse (with their variations of metaphorical, metonymic, synecdochic, or ironic uses of language).
White developed this typology for the analysis of historiographical texts; nevertheless, it can be applied to other manifestations of history, such as historical museums (cf Bann, 1984).
Rüsen (2005: pp. 9–19) also developed a universally applicable typology of historical sense generation according to its most basic principles: its particular references, its conception of temporal movement, its communicative form, and its identity concept. All these factors are communicated and constituted by the principle of historical sense:
- The traditional type recalls the origins grounding present relations. Traditional history represents the course of events in terms of the persistence of these origins and their normative power, and represents identity by affirming previous interpretive models of human subjectivity (e.g., social roles).
- The exemplary type recalls past facts that concretize the rules of human conduct. Exemplary history represents a course of events in terms of the transtemporal applicability of these rules, and constructs identity as rule-based competence. This narrative type is represented in Europe by the classical motto historia vitae magistra, in China sometimes by the metaphor of the mirror. This type is predominant in the historical thought of great civilizations up to modern times.
- The genetic type recalls qualitative changes in the past by which other and strange conditions become familiar ones in the present. The genetic construction of meaning presents a course of events as evolution, in which conditions change in order to become dynamically permanent. It constructs identity as the synthesis of permanence and change, in other words as a dynamic process. This type predominates in modern societies.
- The critical type recalls past events in order to use them as counterfacts against established patterns of historical orientation. Critical history constructs identity by negating pregiven identity-forming interpretive models, in other words, as the power to say ‘no.’
The diverse manifestation of history, in its dual significance as fact and as interpretation, crucially depends on the medium through which temporal experience and interpretation is communicated. Language is always predominant, although there are other creative areas of historical perception and representation, such as the visual and musical arts, architecture, and dance. The modes by which language puts human communication in order are decisive for the expression of historical consciousness.
History was originally communicated orally, as it is done now – in the private or informal sphere. In preliterate cultures, history becomes oral history or oral tradition (Vansina, 1985). Such a history is usually politically conservative: the traditional world order becomes obligatory; new experiences have to be integrated into it so as to confirm the collective’s basic norms and identity. Such representations are sensually appealing to the senses and concrete; they are communicated face to face and correspondingly have immediate effects. The criteria of reference are of a mythical nature. Its validity claims are raised and made plausible through ritual and repetition. In modern historical research, oral history is the method for gaining historical knowledge from the recollections of people as actors and witnesses. Thus bit provides an important source for research about the mechanisms of biographical memory as an element of historical culture in the intersection of the public sphere and individual biography. The memories of witnesses about historically significant events, communicated orally, have obtained an important role in public historical culture – especially by the testimonies of survivors of great catastrophes such as the Holocaust (Langer, 1991).
The medium of writing has dominated for thousands of years and continues to dominate contemporary historical culture (in which, of course, oral elements continue as important and effective). Written history frees from the immediacy of the communicative situation and creates a distance between history as content and history as a form of communication (Ong, 1982). This distance increases the experiential horizon of historical consciousness to a large degree; it facilitates new methods for accumulating as well as managing experience. It provides new opportunities for objectivation in the approach to historical experience and it discloses new opportunities for subjectivation through historical interpretation as well: the narrator can become an author, and readers can obtain an expanded scope for critical readings. Validity claims are raised either through canonization, or become an opportunity for discursive justification. In either case, interpretation becomes a discrete practice of historical meaning construction; here lies its potential of specialization and the corresponding strategies of mediation and popularization. The original relationship between poetry and truth is dissolved; mythology has now become the potential subject for fundamental critique. Explicit conceptualization has received an essential cognitive element in the historical interpretation, so that history can, at least in the long run, become an object of study and theory.
Entirely new media have recently transformed the historical mode of thought. We cannot yet distinguish distinct lines of development and stable structures, but we can certainly indicate new developments from which we may expect transformations of the most basic kind.
The Internet has provided historical culture with an enormous input and enlargement of information and communication. It has opened up new possibilities of constructing individual historical perspectives according to the specific life situation of different people. It offers unlimited access to accumulating knowledge of the past and challenges the recipients to give it a peculiar meaning for their lives. By using this possibility everyone has become his or her own historian (Foner, 2002). This could lead to an anarchic fragmentation of historical culture and at the same time to an intensified communication with new chances of participation. It weakens pregiven (e.g., national) borders and limits of historical identity thus opening up new horizons of awareness: to be part of humanity as the broadest scope of placing one’s own life into the temporal change of the human world.
This enlargement of the realm of historical culture goes along with a fundamental change in making sense of the past. In the historical culture of the public sphere, collective memory is flooded by a torrent of historical images. The forms of consciousness elaborated by scholars and literates (literacy) – and above all by the distancing work of rationality – are in danger of decreasing in significance, and especially in political efficiency. The grammar of history is progressively becoming imagology of presentations in which every era is contemporaneous, and the fundamental idea of a fundamental linear movement of time is disappearing. The constitutive difference of temporality thus might be suspended into a universal contemporaneity that can no longer be narratively put into order. Whether there can then be a specific ‘historical order’ within the orientative temporal continuity between the past, the present, and the future has at least become a problem. The very term of posthistoire, and the related discussion of a mode of life without genuinely historical interpretation (Niethammer, 1992), suggests that these questions are now open. At the same time, there has been an immense increase in access to data. New storage media allow new modes of historical experience, and radically call into question previous criteria of significance. At the same time, new media of communication – such as the Internet – permit no isolated, politically sanctioned decision about the meaning of history The abundance of possibilities and the diversity of new voices require new strategies, new forms, and new contents of historically grounded participation and exclusion. In each case, fixed ideas of the permanence and substance of individual and collective identity are being outstripped by the diversity of global communication, in favor of more dynamic and more open differentiations. This process then provokes reactions, which stubbornly insist on ethnocentric distinctions, often expressed through these new media as well.
The transformation in the media of historical thought as sketched above suggests a transcultural, macrohistorical transformation that will ultimately leave no culture unaffected. This may provide us with a cognitive mean for a diachronic classification of historiographical variety. Such a classification could be organized in terms of epochal distinctions, with still a typological quality. For example, White’s or Rüsen’s typologies could both be used to characterize historical processes. White’s sequence of tropes can be understood as cyclical, and Rüsen’s distinction between traditional, exemplary, and genetic historical thought can describe the great transcultural epochs where the critical type of historical thought mediates the transition between the other types.
One of the most important distinctions concerns the relationship between myth and ‘history,’ where the latter treats worldly affairs. Myth on the contrary, relates to a divine prehistory as the source of meaning (Eliade, 1991). In contrast, ‘historical thought’ in the stricter sense discerns the meaning of history in the immanent dimension of a chain of events (res gestae). The Judeo-Christian sacred history mediates between these two modes of thought, and allows events in the world to appear as the manifestation of God’s power and God’s will. In other cultures, the divine and the mundane are mediated differently: mundane but somehow significant events have to be integrated into a comprehensive cosmic order. History becomes meaningful through nature, which is conceived as divinely ordered. With increasing complexity in human praxis, more and more mundane incidents are integrated into this order until it is finally ‘historicized’ and ‘denaturalized.’ Yet this process is often opposed by attempts to renaturalize it as biological racism.
Comprehensive large-scale developments of historical thought have very often been conceptualized as leading to the current status of historical studies. This has often been criticized as too one-sided, so the diversity of the new media and the different dimensions of the historical culture are emphasized instead. Nevertheless, plausible accounts of a developmental process can be articulated (in the form of typological hypotheses). These accounts can be used to discern and analyze transformations of historical thought in the diversity of different cultures.
Max Weber’s conception of a universal process of rationalization and disenchantment appears as relevant as ever (Weber, 1988). The classical philosophy of history of Voltaire, Kant, and Hegel presented these criteria in the form of the actual course of events. Since historical studies acquired increased competence in investigating and representing real events in the past, the question of meaning was investigated within the framework of a logic of historical thought (Dilthey, Max Weber, Rickert). Presently this question is perceived primarily as the concern of the central verbal procedure of historical thought, as historical narrative (Danto, 1965). Issues of scholarly standards and truth claims (Evans, 1999) might be obscured by only focusing on the rhetorical and poetic strategies of historical writing (Rigney, 1990).
Despite this formalization of historical understanding the structures of real historical processes remain important points of reference. Here the global and often conflictual transformations brought about by modern industrial societies are in the foreground. Their developmental dynamics can be understood only by a concept of time in which the horizon of experience and expectation structurally diverge, and which can only be reconnected by a fundamental temporalization of the human world (Koselleck, 1985).
Narratives of progressive rationalization and disenchantment must, of course, be complemented by an account of a critical and transcendent re-enchantment resistant to methodical rationality, such as the endlessly renewed rationality of sense (value rationality); it refuses to dissolve in the methodical rationality of the control of experience. Historical studies, the development of which in Europe from the eighteenth century until now has been the most effective factor in the modernization of the historical culture, must employ sense criteria that methodical rationality alone cannot generate (Iggers et al., 2008).
The rationalization of modern historical culture is constituted by a universalization of the norms and values that render the past significant for the present. In the realm of these values, the ethnocentric logic of identity formation plays an enormously important role. It has always had a universalizing tendency, insofar as it describes its own world as both unique and normatively obligatory. In order to overcome the conflict-bearing power of ethnocentrism, one should emphasize the concept of ‘humanity.’ Humanity is a common frame of reference for historical identity. In the focus of historical experience, humanity is extended to the limits of the known world. In the logical framework of ethnocentrism this universality creates a fundamental, structural conflict of cultures in historical thought that has repeatedly led to violence, to the legitimation of domination, and even to genocide.
Problems of Intercultural Communication
This leads us to a fundamental problem in contemporary historical thought. It is shaped by the rationalism that culminates in historical scholarship and related human sciences (Bentley, 1997). This rationalization of history as scholarship corresponds to the modern rationalization of all knowledge, without which the organization of modern societies would be inconceivable. Is historical thought inseparable from the value system of Western culture in its current form along with this methodological rationality? If so, how can it conceive history in such a way that it accounts for the diversity in different cultures’ articulations of ‘history’ as the orientative framework of human praxis? Does this diversity, once it has been researched and analyzed by scholarship, not always appear in the light of a particular interpretation – namely the interpretation to which methodological reason essentially belongs? (Seth, 2004)
Current tendencies in historical thought (postmodernism, postcolonialism, the ‘cultural turn’) are determined to overcome modernity in this sense. They want to create a pluralism of ‘histories’ that can break the spell of a uniforming rationality and a generalizing normativity. They thereby destroy the orientative power of modern historical thought with its notion of a unified direction of development, or ‘progress.’ At the same time they problematize the claims of scholarship that describe the laws of such development along with the desire for mastering them, e.g., as we can find in Marxism.
In the age of globalization, in spite of the critique of the claim for hegemony inherent in Western historical thought, we cannot do without either methodological rationality or the universal regulative of communication. We need this regulative to understand the present by the interpretation of the past, to define inclusion and exclusion, and to act in anticipation of the future. If the ethnocentric logic of such a universalization is to be broken or overcome, the truly universal regulative of historical thought and of historical culture can only be a mutual and thereby universal recognition of difference and particularity. The practice of this recognition is based upon and guided by a fundamental and universal idea of human dignity, and this idea serves as a generally acceptable principle of criticism. It is and will remain counterfactual, even utopian; nevertheless, it may disclose new dimensions of historical experience and lead to new and politically significant orientations of human life in time (Kozlarek et al., 2012).
Ethnocentrism is still effective in historical thinking. It is mainly criticized as an established form in the tradition of historical studies as they have emerged in the West since the end of the eighteenth century. Here universalistic concepts of historical interpretation can be deciphered as generalized cultural peculiarities of the West. Postcolonialism therefore contradicts these ideas, but by doing so it uses the logic of ethnocentrism by negation. Other attempts of refusing Western traditions in historical thinking replace them by non-Western ideas, and by doing so, they create new ethnocentric attitudes that are becoming visible, e.g., as Sinocentrism (Huang, 2007; Sato, 2007).
There is no neutral standpoint beyond different cultural orientations. Postmodernism therefore proposes a relativistic idea of history, where every human is his or her own historian, and where the general validity of historical cognition is only a ‘noble dream’ (Novick, 1988). But this relativism destroys any possibility of critical argumentation in intercultural communication. It prevents a cognitive achievement, which may meet the challenge of globalization, which has to bring cultural difference into a new mode of thinking beyond the destructive power of ethnocentrism. In this new mode, difference and unity have to be recognized and synthesized at the same time.
This is possible by referring to anthropological universals in historical thinking. They frame the diversity of human life forms in time and space by a new idea of humankind (Antweiler, 2012; Rüsen and Laass, 2009). In difference to the tradition of philosophical thinking about history, which has unified it as one encompassing development of human life forms, this idea makes the unity visible in the diversity of life forms and their changes. The unity of humankind can only be understood by referring to the diversity and changeability of civilizations. By historical thinking and its hermeneutical approach to cultural difference this synthesis of unity and diversity can be brought about and achieved.
This new way of historical thinking, by which it meets the challenge of globalization, has to answer another challenge as well. The terrors and catastrophes of the twentieth century, such as the Holocaust, demand for new categories of historical thinking and new forms of historical narration. Without the categories of inhumanity and suffering historical thinking will miss this challenge. And without applying the possibility of integrating senselessness into its meaning – construction concerning the past, historical thinking will miss the dark side of human history, that cannot certainly be overlooked any longer (Friedländer, 1998).
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