On intertwining history and the Other

Who is our other? In Time and Narrative, vol. 3, ch. 4, 109-116,  Ricoeur seems to give a surprising answer. At least that’s how I understand it. Here, he examines historians’ use of time. He discusses how they bridge the lived time of human beings and cosmic time through three different reflective instruments: calendars, the succession of generations and archive traces; with the caveat that it is not the historian who spends much time reflecting on these instruments, but the philosopher of history.

While his reflections on calendars, archives, documents and traces are fairly straightforward, Ricoeur’s meditation on the succession of generations is less easy to fathom at first glance.

We certainly do know what is meant when we speak of generations, such as the Victorians, the Edwardians, the Baby Boomers, the ‘68ers, the Millennials and others, and ascribe certain general attitudes to them. Attitudes deriving from common influences and shared experiences.

According to Ricoeur’s reading of, among others, Alfred Schutz, Karl Mannheim and Dilthey, a generation is a combination of biological and social time, hence birth, ageing and death, along with the social activities of individuals. A generation has certain traditions from the previous one, i.e. continuity, yet at the same time, is defined by the acquisition of the new, which marks it as different from the parent generation. Thus, Ricoeur understands Dilthey’s concept of generation as being both open and closed, tradition and innovation, something acquired and yet having a common orientation (p. 111).

When time is added to this mixture of influences received and influences exercised, according to Ricoeur, it helps us to understand the idea of a succession of generations. He sees it as a chain arising from the intertwining of new possibilities and transmission of that which is already acquired. In other words, the passing generations carry traditions with them, while at the same time being open to new innovations, with the dead being replaced by the living.

Ricoeur discusses (p.110) how the idea of a generation, according to Kant, in the 3rd proposition of his Idea of a Universal History on a Cosmopolitan Plan, is the interweaving of human history and the human species in the ethical task of creating a civil society, where the previous generation makes huge efforts and sacrifices not for their own well-being, but that of succeeding generations.

Historians use the idea of the succession of generations in a more practical sense.* Thus, for instance, in terms of history’s outermost limits in the relations between the self and the other, the Shoah or Holocaust, historians such as Saul Friedlander, enquire into how it is perceived by succeeding generations (e.g. Introduction to Friedlander (ed.), Probing the limits of representation (1992).  And archive collections around the world, whether witness testimonies from the Holocaust and 20th century genocides, or, e.g. on World War I enable succeeding generations to obtain a glimpse of the lives of previous generations in times of strife.

It took me a while to understand Ricoeur’s thoughts on the succession of generations, but upon long reflection, I believe, that he illustrates how our other is none other than past and future generations, in other words, our predecessors and our successors, thus implying that we who are alive today belong together as a generation.

*cf Wulf Kansteiner, Moral pitfalls of memory studies:The concept of political generations (Memory Studies, 5(2) 2012, 111–113, ) for a critical view of use of the term generation.


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