Hayden White on the Practical Past


Podcast here.

A couple of weeks have passed now since I heard Hayden White giving a guest lecture to the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes, and I’ve had some time to digest what he said, as well as go back over the copy of Oakeshott’s ‘On History’ that a colleague pressed into my hand afterwards. White’s aim was to reclaim the ‘Practical Past’ that Oakeshott was so careful to separate out from the practice and product of the historian, in pursuit of a ‘history’ that might contribute to ethical or deliberative debate.

The best way to understand Oakeshott’s practical past is through one of his examples: his own father’s exhortations to his children, who have tired of walking and become ‘disposed to lag’, that ‘this…is not what Trojans would do.’ The Trojans were, for the young Oakeshott, ‘not long-perished people, the intricacies of whose lives, performances and fortunes only a critical enquiry could resuscitate from record; they were living and to us familiar emblems of intrepidity’ (On History and Other Essays, 1999, 42). The critical enquiry contrasted here would – for Oakeshott – constitute the practice of the historian. But this is not to denigrate the practical past: this ‘accumulation of symbolic persons, actions, utterances, situations and artefacts’ is, for Oakeshott, ‘an indispensible ingredient of an articulate civilised life.’ The point is that these emblems only ‘ambiguously and inconsequentially’ refer to the past which is of interest to the practice of history (48).

Oakeshott’s desire to separate the ‘detached’ disciplines of philosophy and history from practical areas of concern resonated with me during my years as a teacher of philosophy, since I worked in school contexts where Politics and Economics were both well-established as sixth form options. In situations which bore some resemblance, I imagine, to Oakeshott’s own experiences with his students, I often found that even the most able students of politics or economics found it very hard to think philosophically. The whole discipline of economics, at least as taught in schools in my limited experience, comes packaged with its own ready-made understanding of human nature; it only really gets off the ground as a subject, with recognisable concerns and problems, once you ‘buy in’ to that account. Economics students were encouraged, I suspect, to wear their adherence to an uncompromising view of human self-interest as a badge of academic rigour. Politics as an A Level subject is – quite rightly, I imagine – concerned with a whole raft of contemporary and pragmatic questions, which do not allow a significant amount of time for consideration of the nature of a state and the principles upon which its sovereignty might be grounded or justified. This meant that there quite often occurred in my classroom situations in which students were forced to question not only their own deeply held beliefs about human nature or the principles of ethical conduct (all part of the experience they bought into when they opted for the subject), but also the validity of whole areas of concern in which they were not only interested but also to which (at that time of their life, at least) they were required to devote significant amounts of their energy and attention.

Oakeshott’s emphasis on the detachment of the historian, which is ‘without ulterior motive,’ is not intended as a slight to the practical disciplines, but to open up a space in which – away from an immersion in a particular set of practical principles and concerns – other ways of looking at the world, other understandings of human nature, might emerge. This mode of enquiring then achieves its value precisely because it is of no use in deliberative situations; history cannot, for Oakeshott, tell us what we ought to do.

White points out that the practice of history as conceived by Oakeshott has unsurprisingly been found wanting in the social, therapeutic context. Historians have not helped us to deal with, or get over, the past. Thus we have found ourselves turning to novelists and poets to help us achieve what a simple factual description cannot. But White’s thesis is that historians can and should make an ethical contribution to social discourse, once control is wrested from a predominantly scientific understanding of the study of the past. He reminds us that a ‘generic past’ has become inseparably identified with a particular activity that we recognise as history – an activity, we should remember, which is the preserve of a particular kind of researcher who has been trained in the ways of understanding and representing past events. Events don’t become ‘history’ until they are written up in the right way. If we want to find out about them, we go and find the right book in the library. The historian who wishes to contribute to ethical discourse must give up the idea of her writing as a ‘neutral container’ of factual content and borrow the techniques of literary or artistic endeavour.

Much of this is well taken. Historians do well to remember that a historical account is ‘composed’ and that such accounts would be better constructed self-consciously than unconsciously. But the question that strikes me then is what contribution historians really have to make to this therapeutic endeavour? Why should they move into an area that has been successfully occupied by writers and poets, who we have long acknowledged as possessing the ability to ‘tell the truth’ on matters of great importance? Does the historian, because of some particular relation to the past (it cannot any longer be the detached relation) have something distinctive to add to the therapeutic task? Does she have the right to speak with any additional authority? Or is it simply that, having been exposed to be not as ‘detached’ as she claims, tied as she is to a whole raft of contingent disciplinary concerns, the historian finds that she must give up her claim to speak with any kind of distinctive authority over the past and may as well ‘throw in’ with the writers and poets? This is the question White was addressing, I think, in his discussion of the dangers of aestheticisation and his insistence that historical writing needs to be both factually and essentially true. Although he did not develop this in detail (and here, I think, he failed in his talk to do justice to what is the crux of the matter), he was working toward a solution in his brief discussion of poetic statements, which we do not view as either factual or fictional.

A colleague in the school of education has produced ‘narrative research’, which draws on qualitative empirical collection methods but presents the data in a self-consciously composed narrative woven with fictional elements. Here, in a similar move to that advocated by White for historians, he is borrowing the techniques of literary writers. Such research faces a similar question to the one I posed of historians. What motive informs the move from traditional methods of data presentation? Is it simply the recognition that social scientists, under the weight of the critique of positivism and the post-modern assault on foundations, must give up their claim to a privileged methodological take on the ‘facts’, and recognise that their role is simply to produce alternative accounts, to emphasise that there are histories rather than a history, to problematise, to subvert, to proliferate diversity? Or is it the recognition that we do aim to speak the truth through our research, that we do seek the assent of our readers, but that this claim to assent needs to be accounted for and worked through in ways other than the discredited methodologies that have prevailed until now within the discipline? Are we giving up on the truth, or are we seeking the higher truth of the poets?

My contribution to this question would simply be, as it often is, to point to Heidegger. Unlike many of the continental thinkers who took up his work, Heidegger was thoroughly engaged with the issue of accounting for the happening of truth, not least when attempting to understand the claims made on us by the truth of the work of art. In ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, Heidegger emphasises the potential of the artwork to ‘set forth a world,’ to disclose vistas of meaning hitherto concealed. Artworks have the potential to inaugurate new ways of being in those who encounter them, but our assent to their truth relies crucially on a recognition – the work of art is important because it helps us to discover something that was already a possibility in our being. I think Heidegger’s insights here can be extended beyond self-consciously artistic or poetic endeavour (arguably, his key example, the Greek Temple, is not primarily produced as a self-conscious artwork). The great ‘histories’ also, I think, have the potential to found worlds. So it might be with educational research that aims to have an ethical impact on its readers – it commands their assent because it gives words to something they already knew, they recognise its truth in a way that opens up new possibilities for future action.

The question of the distinction between poetry and research, if it is important, might have been illuminated if White had further developed his account of the ‘generic past’, that dark matter, if you will, from which historians and other users of the past forge their competing narratives. I think Heidegger might have something to offer here also, in his elaboration of the tension between the ‘world’ opened up by a work of art and the ‘earth’ that grounds it. The earth resists attempts at calculative and descriptive thought, and is simultaneously concealed even as it is disclosed in some of its aspects. But it is an inseparable component of the artwork. I don’t have time to develop that now, but I will return briefly to the issue of detachment. I think Oakeshott had a legitimate point there, but that he over-egged it. My hope for my own students would be for their philosophical studies to enable them to call into question their practical assumptions, and that this itself would have practical benefits. I think we would do well here to recall Plato’s practical, political concerns. Whereas Oakeshott believes that a philosopher can be rightly considered to be doing philosophy inasmuch as he remains detached, Gadamer writes of the detour that is philosophy. ‘For that detour decisively changed the concept of the statesman for Plato: Socrates himself and his elenctic, disturbing existence now appear to Plato as performing the true political task. Thus Plato’s Republic is not a reformed constitutional structure that is supposed to have a directly political effect, like other proposals for political reform: instead, it is an educational state.’ (Plato’s Dialectical Ethics, 1991, 2-3)

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