On naively encountering the Other in History

Back in 1982 in a class on Ottoman history at SOAS, I still remember the feeling of shock when encountering Gallipoli as an Ottoman victory – an event I had always considered a huge defeat and tragedy. A similar feeling arose when I recently considered 1864 (or the Second Schleswig War), a monumental tragedy in terms of Danish history that still haunts the country. Yet, it was one of Bismarck’s earliest triumphs in his efforts to unite the German principalities into a single nation state.

Today when historians around the world compare and contrast historical events and movements in an effort to understand history on a global scale, this dichotomy, an almost zero-sum game, where one’s loss is the other’s victory can seem to be a stumbling block.

Ethan Kleinberg in his two interviews given to André da Silva Ramos in 2016 admits that the “conflict between the desire to find commonality while also embracing difference is an unresolvable one”. Yet Kleinberg foresees that, it is “in this intersection and in this tension” that “the future of the philosophy of history” lies and that “it is theory that provides the meta-language to address both sides” (André da Silva Ramos, “Ethan Kleinberg: Theory of History as Hauntology”, 2017, p. 228 , see also brief Youtube interview from the 2nd INTH conference in Brazil).

Another possible way of addressing the issue, one that is arguably an almost impossible exercise, although worth thinking about, is to use our imagination. And imagine that in the far distant future, humans were to live outside planet earth. How will they tell our history? The history of the human race? Would it then be possible to narrate a common history?

The astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and his colleagues developed messages to be sent with the spacecrafts Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager into deep space.  To my knowledge the history of the human race was not a topic that was addressed, although according to an article by Megan Gambino, photographs of wars were not included, despite war being “a reality of human existence”.

In my academia.edu profile, I once wrote that, ‘the concluding chapter of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative contains two phrases which inform my thinking: “one time, one humanity, one history”  and ”…life itself, a cloth woven of stories told”’ (English translation, vol. 3, p. 258 and p.246). What type of history would human beings living in outer space recount to their offspring? Or even to an Other they may encounter?












On enigmatic traces

Marc Bloch states in The Historian’s Craft that the primary characteristic of historical observation lies in the reconstructing of knowledge from tracks or traces:

Whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern, what do we really mean by document, if it is not a “track”, as it were – the mark, perceptible to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible, has left behind? (1953,54-55).

Thus, the trace stands for or takes the place of the past. An indirectness, which according to Ricoeur gives an enigmatic character to history from a philosophical point of view. Something that does not concern historians much, as their priority lies in their engagment with verifying the value of a documentary trace to a past event (TNIII, 143; MHF, 278).

Yet, history based on documents is meaningful, according to Ricoeur, so long as historians, in contrast to collectors of mass data banks, hold on to the idea of a debt “to people of flesh and blood to whom something really happened in the past” (TNIII, 118).  He sees the historian as providing a useful and nuanced corrective to collective memory, the final result of mass data collection. In view of today’s huge collections of big data and data mining, it is salutary to remember Ricoeur’s reflections from the mid-1980s.

The concept of traces was something Ricoeur reflected a great deal over in both Time and Narrative as well as Memory, History, Forgetting with the help of the writings of, among others, Bloch, Le Goff, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Bergson and Lévinas.  In his notion of historical time, as a connecting bridge between phenomenological time and ordinary time, he sees time as being refigured by historians through reflective instruments, such as calendars, generations, and archives, documents and traces.*

Of these, a trace is accepted as one, only when historians can recognize it as such, by rethinking, re-enacting, and retracing its significance, thus enabling a return to the past (TNIII, 146, 183, 77).

Traces are fragile. They may be altered, effaced, destroyed, made inaccessible or forgotten (MHF, 415-416, 472, 284). They indicate a here and now – of past events or activities of human beings. They mark the passage of time;  give a temporal distance. They are datable, and thus inscribed in time (TNIII, 229).

Ricoeur identifies 3 types of traces: the physical, material trace, which along with archived documents and the questions of historians constitute the basis of historical knowledge (MHF,177); the affective, the existential that we experience as impressions through encountering traces; and the cerebral, cognitive traces of memory (MHF, 415, 427).

Traces disturb, by their very presence. With Lévinas**, Ricoeur believes that traces imply an Other, a historical Other (TNIII, 124-126), thus attesting to Bloch’s “evidence of witnesses in spite of themselves” (Bloch, 61).

*See also my previous posts: On Calendars and Historical Time, and On intertwining history and the Other.

**Levinas, “La Trace”, in Humanisme de l’autre homme, 1972,  57-63.

On a moment in history

As historians, we look backwards, as human beings, we live life forwards, but sometimes we hold our breath, for a long moment in the present.

Who forgets the first time one casts one’s vote? The very first time I used my vote was as an 18-year old in 1975, more precisely the 5th June as Wikipedia reminds me, in the UK referendum to remain in what was then called the European Community or Common Market. As part of a voter turnout of ca. 64%, and as one of the 67% who overwhelmingly voted yes: 17,378,580 others + me.

It was perhaps another Britain 41 years ago, but some of the arguments were the same as now, and as a brand new voter, though I knew in my heart and head how I would vote, I still reflected over the arguments of the other side and admitted that one or two  of their points did make sense. However, my decision to vote yes then was made with a look at history, geography and politics: Britain has always been part of Europe both historically (and archaeologically), as well as geographically. And the best way for Britain to maintain its influence in the world  was, I believed, through its membership of the EU.*

Today this first referendum is part of history. Just as the results of the referendum of the 23rd June will be. How will this decision be seen in a year’s time? In 10 years? In 41 years? And thereafter? How will its impact influence events in time to come? In the UK? In Europe? In the world?

No one knows. A moment can seem a long time. The moment a politician was tragically murdered in her constituency; the moment a sitting prime minister gave his notice to resign; the moment a vote was cast – history is made of such moments.

Change is part and parcel of being human, as Ricoeur** reminds us. Our personal histories are entangled with those of others. As individuals we have the capacity to say, to engage in conversation with others; we have the capacity to act; we have the capacity to recount our histories and those of others in ever changing ways; we are able to take responsibility for our actions, when others are harmed by our actions, we have the capacity to make reparations; and we are able to make and keep promises about the future. All this we do in the company of others.

For we need the recognition and good will of others to function as human beings in society. To continuously negotiate our differences of opinions, to generously concede a point when we have a difference of opinion, and equally generously hold out a helping hand. In the face of the other, we see our fragile selves. Without the other, we cannot be in this moment in history.

*Four decades later, I’m still of the same opinion and would have voted to remain, if I had been eligible to vote this time.

**In its original French, this speech was more elegantly titled Devenir capable, être reconnu.


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.