Pasolini on bourgeois subjectivity

“The most odious and intolerable thing, even in the most innocent bourgeois, is that of not knowing how to recognize life experiences other than his own: and of bringing all other life experiences back to a substantial analogy with his own.”  Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, p. 87—quoted in Fredric Jameson, Antinomies of Realism (Verso, 2013), p. 178.

To Brazil & Deleuze

On Saturday we are visiting Brazil–Vitoria first, then Rio–for a conference organized by Profs. Veronica Tozzi and Julio Bentivoglio–on the 40th anniversary of what Veronica calls “the existence of Metahistory,” the book not the concept.  They have arranged for a number of my former students, friends, and “metahistoricistas” to gather in Vitoria and discuss whatever it is about history they want to discuss. Hans Kellner, Ewa Domanska, Wulf Kansteiner, Claudio Fogu, Robert Doran, Veronica herself, Maria Ines La Greca, and a number of people I do not know but am looking forward to meeting, will be there.  They have planned, or so it seems, not only good discussion but good entertainment, including a visit to a Samba school.  The conference itself will be at the University.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I no longer feel that I have any particular stake in Metahistory, the book, although I have much stake in the concept. I think the book is known more in translations than in the original.  With each new translation (with the exception of languages I cannot read, such as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Czech, etc.), I have experienced a change in the “atmosphere” of the book.  For example, “emplotment” in the German version comes across as “Modelierung.”  The French bought up translation rights years ago, but have avoided translating Metahistory altogether.   But the reason I mention the French is that in French “emplotment” comes across as “mise en intrigue,” which sounds rather sinister to my ears.  It is like that other French term for “corporation”: “societe anonyme” (I dont seem to have diacritical marks on this keyboard.) But isn’t “anonymous society” perfect for the modern corporation?  It is like Manzoni’s villain: “l’innominabile.” “The Unnamable!”  The Germans left the title Metahistory in English; the Italians changed it completely: Retorica e storia.  The Italian version is a disgrace, bearing almost no similarity to what was written in the English version. It does not bother me, frankly, since I believe that, as Terence said, “Habent fata sua libelli,” adding “according to the capacities of their readers.”  Lately I have been reconsidering some of the issues raised in Metahistory in the light of Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense.  This is a profound book, difficult to conjure with but worth the effort, no matter what one’s field. It modernizes the Epicurean-Stoic gamma, is radically materialistic and immanentist, and celebrates the differences between differences.  Among other things, it shows how “surface-depth” gets transformed into “high-low.”

Preface to Japanese Translation of Metahistory

Hayden White


After All: Reconsidering Metahistory


It is a distinct honor to be asked to introduce the translation into the Japanese language of Metahistory after all these years. I mean, why now?  Or why at all?  I had thought that Metahistory was out of date. Indeed, I am surprised that the English version of Metahistory has remained in print after all this time and after all of the criticism it has received. After all, it would seem to  belong to a genre—philosophy of history–which almost everyone nowadays  puts in the same category of pseudo-sciences as astrology and alchemy. To be sure, although I argued in Metahistory that every work of history presupposes a philosophy of history, in the same way that every work of chemistry presupposes a philosophy of science, my principal interest had been less in the philosophy of history than in the metahistorical discourse to which both historiography and philosophy of history belong, the discourse concerned to inquire about the meaning that might be derived from the study of history.    Metahistory is about historiographical discourse, about the modes and means of cultural production in and by which “history” is invented, studied, written, and endowed with meaning. It is about the process by which and in which happenings in the past are changed retroactively so as to take on a meaning they never could have had at the time of their occurrence.


So, let me stress for the benefit of of my potential readers: Metahistory is not a book about how to research history or how to explain it or how to write it or how to think about it.   It is a book about how one might read historical writings.  It begins with systematic readings of specific texts purporting to be the product of scientific or object research in and reflection on “history” or some part of it.  It asks: what are the literary, rhetorical, symbolic, or simply linguistic mechanisms, devices, techniques, concepts, figures, and tropes used in these texts to produce a specifically “historical” account of the past.  A number of critics of my work have said that I have neglected to speak about historical research which is, after all, the heart and soul of modern historians’ labors.   This is true.  But since I was trying to write a history of historical writing (historiography), I had decided to concentrate on the analysis of certain classics of historiography’s classic age—the 19th century—and to treat them as my “primary sources.”  As far as I was concerned, many historians had already written about the development of thought about history, the invention of techniques of research and methodology, philosophy of history, and historical consciousness.  But no one had studied historical writing as writing—the “graphos” in “historiography”–except in the most vague and general terms.  One sometimes said of a given historical work that it had been written in a “graceful” style or that a particular historian, such as Macaulay, was a “pleasant narrator.” As for the analysis of the content of historical writings, they were often treated as consisting primarily of an “argument” that could be summarized or paraphrased without significant loss—as if the narrative form in which the text had been cast carried no conceptual or imaginative weight or force. 


In Metahistory, I begin with the texts actually written by historians and philosophers of history of history’s “classic age” and try to educe the tactics and strategies by which a chaos of past events were given form and endowed with different kinds of meaning.  This way of proceeding gave priority to the text and appeared to some to relegate such things as the referent, the author, and the audience to secondary status. But reading a text is as difficult as writing one, and it seemed to me to be simply lazy to presume that historical texts whose artistry or literary qualities had been universally recognized were easier to read than a novel or an epic poem.


                   One commentator suggested that in Metahistory I had attempted to read historical works as if they were novels, and that the effect was to turn those works into “fictions.”  There is something to this remark, for it seemed to me that nineteenth century historical writing was still attached to narrative and narrativization and that, consequently, any adequate study of the works of this period had to utilize literary-critical methods for the analysis of the full range of their affects. But it is one thing to say that historical narratives share some of the attributes of fictional narratives and quite another to say that the recognition of this will transform fact into fiction. When it comes to texts and discourses and especially to modern literary texts and discourses, the distinction between fact and fiction is difficult to maintain.  In my estimation, the past is first and foremost a place of fantasy and the domain of imagination.  The effort to cultivate this place and submit it to the rigors of scientific analysis is quite justified for a culture that may believe that science constitutes the only kind of cognition worth cultivating. 


          But there are many different modes and means of cognition, of which the scientific is only one.  And while I certainly think that science has its place when it comes to dealing with material reality, it may not be the best way to deal with imaginary things such as the past, the dead, the absent, the oppressed, the indigent, the primitive, the archaic, the deprived, and . . .. history.

          History’s claim to the status of a wissenschaft had distracted attention from the literary (rhetorical and poetical) techniques used for the constitution of its objects of interest (real things in the human past) as “historical” in kind.  Although I did not make a great deal of it at the time, I had long believed that these techniques were active, not only in the “writing” but also in what was called the “research” phase of historical inquiry.  Anyone who thinks that research in the sources is simply a recording of what has been found there rather than a preliminary sifting, selection, and combination of data, a full operation of “composition,” does not know what he or she is talking about. The composition begins right with the choice of a possible subject of investigation.  The final writing up of the results of the investigation is merely the completion or fulfillment of the act of configuration which launched the inquiry in the first place.   The result can be treated as a report on what was discovered by research

          It has always been something of an embarrassment to history’s claims to the status of a science that its practitioners tend to remain resolutely individualistic in their operations, rather than to work in teams or collectively like their counterparts in the natural sciences.  Every great historian has his or her own style, signature, attitude, posture, or manner of expression that bespeaks a whole array of epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic preferences (Gadamer might have said “prejudices”) which constitute what might be called a grammar, syntax, and semantics of expression.  This grammatico-syntactical-semantical complex is manifested most pertinently in the way in which a given writer uses the literal-figurative relationship to create the illusion of a structure of surface-depth by which to endow “facts” with “value” and “meaning.”




          Now, recall that Jacques Derrida had just erupted on the scene of Western philosophy with his epoch-making book, De la Grammatologie (1967) which, among other things had, on the one hand, reasserted the intimate connection between history and writing, but, on the other hand, had defined writing as the key to the understanding of Western science itself.”[i]  My idea had been, from the moment I had entered upon the project of writing a history of historical writing, to concentrate on historical discourse as writing for the simple reason that, up until that time, the very idea of a history that was not written had been virtually unthinkable.[ii]  Obviously, one can think about history, reflect on it privately or publically, ruminate, even tell stories about it to oneself or others; but not until one has written it, is any of this a history.  Yet “writing” remains one of the great unremarked topics of historiographical theory.  Modernist theories of writing derive from Saussure’s strict opposition between langue (language) and parole (speech) and, within parole, the difference between spoken and written speech. The older view was that written discourse was simply a transcription of spoken (or thought) discourse into writing, without significant loss or addition.  Of course, in the process of transcription, what is lost above all is what Jakobson called “the sound sense of language” and what is added is the grid of writing which parcellates and recombines the element of speech in such a way as to endow utterance with unintended and even unimaginable connotative significances.  Such significances are in the text even if they are not in the mind or consciousness of the writer and they produce textual meanings which are quite different from the meanings pro-dicted in the speech event.


          It was a limitation of Derrida’s deconstructionist technique to leave unexamined and certainly undeconstructed that “history” which he presupposed as the reality against which written discourse raised up its various structures of meaning. Crude as it was in comparison with Derrida’s subtle deconstructions, I intended Metahistory to be doing to “history” what he had done to theology, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, ideology, politics, and philosophy.  I was not trying to destroy “history” or deny the existence of a past (although I confess that I have little idea of what it might mean to say that the past exists).  I was not trying to assert that there is no difference between fact and fiction, although I did come to think that “fact” was a kind of “fiction” inasmuch as facts like fictions existed only in language rather than in things—or, if one wishes, exist only in the thing called language.  Metahistory sought to disclose and identify the various codes, operating at different levels of historical discourse, by which the chaos of events of the past, glimpsed if at all in the fractured remains and traces of things done in an earlier time, were endowed with form, coherence, and intelligibility and, beyond that, used again as a basis or platform from which to launch programs—ideological and political–for the present and future




          It is often assumed that an interest in history is “natural”—at least for human beings who are supposed to be inherently interested in their pasts in the way that modern historians are interested in “history.”  But in point of fact, although all cultures make a distinction between present and past, they construe the relation between these two temporal “exstases” differently.  For some, such as the ancient Hebrews, that part of the past that matters is included in the present: the moments in the evolution of the Covenant between God and His Chosen People are always contemporary with and bear upon any present moment or situation requiring judgment in the Covenant’s light. 

          Greeks distinguished between the present (which included the present and a proximate past) to be studied “historiologically” and the remote past—the time of the gods and heroes—to be studied “archeologically.”  Livy gives up on the effort to study Rome’s origins historiologically and contents himself with a recoding of the myths, legends, and fables of the arché.  It is Christianity which posited a rent in the temporal continuum between the time of the Hebrew prophets and of pagan Rome, on the one side, and the era beginning with the birth of Christ which it had then to try to mend or bridge by treating the former as a prefiguration and the latter as a fulfillment—a labor that was not finished until Dante succeeded in assimilating Vergil to the role of prophet naturaliter Christianae in the 13th century C. E.  There is nothing “natural” about this interest in divining the meaning of history or rather assigning a meaning to it.  Just as there is nothing “natural” about the idea of “history” itself. 


          “History” is an invention. More specifically, it is a figure rather than a concept, as when someone says, “That’s history” or “History shows” or “History will judge” or uses the adjectival form: “historical past,” “historical reality,” “historical knowledge” etc. It is a figure of a relationship between past and present.  Not only have there been times before which “history” began to happen, but there have been many times in many places where the very concept or even the word “history” (or any equivalent) are lacking. The word “history” can be used synonymously with “the past.”  But as everyone knows, “history” can also refer to a process of change or development, a kind or genre of discourse, narrative, story, and so on. 


                   It was not so in antiquity in the West but it has become so in the West that the invention of history was coterminus with the invention of the modern conception of “the human.”  So that: to be in history (rather than outside it), to live in history (rather than outside it), to exist historically (rather than merely “naturally”), to have a history (rather than to lack one)—all this being, living, existing, and having “historically” is tantamount to living a human, rather than a non-human life.  Or at least was thought to be so for a long time in the West.  For, after all, isn’t it just as deluded to wish to know the meaning of history as it is to wish to know one’s fate or to know how to derive gold from excrement? From a modern naturalistic point of view, history can have no more meaning than the rest of nature.  And yet, as Hegel famously said,


“When we look at this display of human passions, and observe the consequences of their violence, the unreason that is associated not only with them, but even—rather, we might say especially—with  good intentions and righteous aims; when we see arising from them all the evil, the wickedness, the decline of the most flourishing nations mankind has produced, we can only be filled with grief for all that has come to nothing.  And since this decline and fall is not the work of mere nature but of the human will, our reflection may well lead us to moral sadness, a revolt of our good spirit (if there is a spirit of goodness in us).  It can be said without rhetorical exaggeration, that a merely truthful account of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities and the finest exemplars of private virtue forms a most fearful picture and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counter-balanced by no consoling outcome.  We can strengthen ourselves against this, or escape it, only by thinking that, well, so it was at one time; it is fate; there is nothing to be done about it now.  And finally, out of boredom with which this sorrowful reflection threatens us, we draw back into the vitality of the present, into our aims and interests of the moment; we retreat, in short, into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of wreckage and confusion.”  Hegel, Vorlesung (Eng. Trans., p. 25)

          To be sure, as Saul Friedlander has noted, “For most historians, a precise description of the unfolding of events is meant to carry its own interpretation.” (p.7)  In other words, the truth about the past is the meaning of the past.  On this view, historical knowledge collapses the distinction between facts and any interpretation of the facts that might endow them with meaning.  And yet surely meaning has to be added to any merely truthful account of  anything whatsoever.

So, philosophy of history, in its effort to derive some meaning in history in excess of the mere establishment of the facts is indulging in mythology.  But is the desire to know the meaning of the whole historical process any different than wanting to know the meaning of some part of it?  Friedlander is no doubt right that, for most historians,

“precise description of the unfolding of events is meant to carry its own interpretation.” But the notion of a precise description has its problems.  “Description




On a number of occasions I have said that, if I were writing Metahistory today, I would conceptualize it differently.  This statement was meant as a reminder that the book was a product of a response to a specific socio-political situation—the late 60s in the US—and that any critique of it might begin with an attempt to place it in that time, place, and situation rather than treat it as some as an effort to achieve a transcendental point of view or advance a thesis meant for the ages.  This seemed especially pertinent as the years rolled by, translations into other languages appeared, and reviewers began to perceive “contradictions” “ of “inconsistencies” between what I had said in Metahistory and what I was saying in subsequent years and in response to criticisms of Metahistory itself.   I have never tried to defend Metahistory against even its most hostile critics, precisely because I do not regard it as a perfect or perfectly coherent philosophical tract.  My position was that I had tried to conceptualize the basis for a history of historical writing using the instruments and tools of contemporary philosophy, discourse analysis, semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and structural anthropology, to account for the peculiar dynamics of history’s evolution as a “scientific” discipline in the nineteenth century.  The subtitle of Metahistory was: “The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe.”  Imagination!  How was it possible to “imagine” a past (or the past) that had the many different kinds of configurations imputed to it by the great historians and philosophers of history during historiography’s “classic age”?  I did not try to write a general history of the discipline of historical studies, the invention of new research procedures, new thought and new ideas about history, the establishment of what Michel De Certeau called the institutions of historical studies, their academicization, and so on.  That story had been told many times.  I wanted to know how people who had a vested interest in studying the past actually composed different not to say mutually exclusive, versions of what was alleged to be the same past while continuing, each in their own way, to meet standards of scholarship and cognitive responsibility generally shared by one another. 


I have stressed “composed” in the last sentence, because for me whatever it is that is called “history” is encountered, first and most directly, in the texts actually written and published by “historians.”  And I put “historians” in scare quotes in that last sentence in order to be able to define as a “historian” anyone, whatever their “discipline,” who is drawn to or driven by a need or a desire to know the past or a past or some past, wishes to cultivate ways of accessing that past, and is willing to spend the long days and nights in researching it, in order to write up their findings and disseminate them in a text, discourse, novel, lecture, film, play, or dance where they can impact other people.  


Metahistory is an exercise in deconstruction, if by that term one means the careful and loving disassembly of a thing in order to comprehend how it was put together in the first place, what are its parts, how they are related to one another, and how the whole thing works in order to produce the meaning-effect of meaningfulness itself.  Compared to the other deconstructors of the time—Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, De Man, Lacan, but also Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye, Stephen Pepper, Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karl Löwith, Erich Kahler, E. H. Gombrich, Thomas Kuhn, and lots more—my own efforts in this direction, I have no trouble recognizing, were crude indeed. But because I was interested in the history of historical writing, I felt the need to begin my analysis with a deconstruction of what historians had actually written and presented to their publics as their best thought on their topics.  I was not arguing—as some critics thought—that “history is a text,” that “there is nothing outside the text,” that, since there was nothing outside the historian’s text, there was no past and no reality about which a history could be written.  I did suggest that what we mean by the historical past was or in the modern age at least had to be considered to be a construction of historians, that this construction was linguistic or more precisely discursive in nature, and that, therefore, analysis of historians’ writings had to begin with consideration of their status as writing, as discourse, before any assessment of their truthfulness or meaning could be determined.  I did not suggest anything like “linguistic determinism.”  Indeed, I argued that, while any given language set limits on what could (and could not) be said, within those limits the range of choices is so extensive as to make of writing the very model of what it means to be able to innovate within continuity.  It was thus ironic that, while some critics took me to be a “linguistic determinist,” others took my book to be promoting a kind of “linguistic anarchy” in which an “anything goes” and a “right you are if you say so” attitude predominate.  


I have never seen any point in responding to criticisms of this sort. They are manifestations of fear or anxiety on the part of those of advance them.   I think that it is possible to read or to misread anyone’s text, including my own.  

There is a lot wrong with Metahistory, so much that I would never think of trying to revise or rewrite it for a later edition. Moreover, I have no stake in the ideas that make it up– at least in the way in which they are expounded in the book’s original form.

I am surprised and of course gratified that a number of people have seen fit to regard the book as liberating


I believe that intellectual work is done for other intellectuals who should be free to make of it what they will and put it to whatever use or cause they believe in.  I have never claimed that the work was original and indeed I do not even claim ownership of it.  People who think that ideas can be owned are victims of that capitalist mode of intellectual production who believe that ideas are property.





 First, the title.  The title, a barabarism contrived of a Greek preposition (meta=after, beyond, with,

post-) and an English noun (history=inquiry, past, story, etc.) names—on the analogy of “metaphysics”–a topic: what comes after, beyond with, or post-history.  In other words, what do you get when you get a or some or the “history” of anything?  The book Metahistory was an attempt to study what comes with, after, beyond, and so on, what else do you get when you get history? 

[i]    Among the theses advanced in Chapter 2 of this work: “6. that historicity itself is tied to the possibility of writing; to the possibility of writing in general, beyond those particular forms of writing in the name of which we have long spoken of peoples without writing and without history. Before being the object of a history — of an historical science — writing opens the field of history — of historical becoming. And the former (Historie in German) presupposes the latter (Geschichte).”  And then: “The science of writing should therefore look for its object at the roots of scientificity,. The history of writing should turn back toward the origin of historicity. , A science of the possibility of science? A science of science which would no longer have the form of logic but that of grammatics? A history of the possibility of history which would no longer be an archaeology, a philosophy of history or a history of philosophy?” Of Grammatology.

[ii] Indeed, the notion of “oral history” was regarded as a contradiction in terms.  Oral accounts of past experiences were generally treated as “evidence” pertaining to the events of which they were accounts but not as histories. And as for visual (or cinematic) histories, the very idea was denied—the American Historical Review did not review historical films or documentaries until very late. Although composed along much the same lines as a “history,” documentary films were suspect for reasons set forth in a debate in AHR (in which I participated) in

What does it mean to live in history?


Hayden White

What does it mean to live in history?

What does it mean to have a history—either as an individual or as a collectivity?  What does it mean to be in history rather outside of it? Who or what decides whether a given group is outside or inside of history?  What are the attributes of historical as against pre-, quasi-, or para-historical entities?  If there are pre-historical entities, what would it mean to be post-historical?  Is being “historical” qualitatively superior to being pre-, post-, or a-historical?  How could a group or individual become historical?  What would be gained or lost in passing from some kind of a-historical to a properly historical mode of existence?  Finally, what kind of authority would be exercised by a member or group of members of one group purporting to reveal the true history of another group?


These are meta-historical questions in the sense of not being answerable from within the discipline of history itself but only from a vantage point of a dialectic of topoi (not concepts) which gives equal valences to the positive and negative features of whatever is set over against “history” as its antithetical term.  Such questions are different from questions of methodology, narration, representation, and the like. Historians have a perfect right to address these questions and even to claim a special competency for answering them.  But unless they want to be taken for holding that “history” is not a mode of existence but whatever it is that historians have said and done over the centuries in the West, then they have to provide theoretical grounds for distinguishing between the ways that historians deal with their subject-matter and the ways in which mythagogues, theologians, poets, novelists, dramatists and practitioners of the social sciences in general construe the idea of history in general and the specific way that modern Western thinkers, scholars, and scientists conceptualize and image it in their different ways.


         And of course, historians are perfectly justified in holding that history is a discipline with a specific object of interest (the past) and methods and procedures adequate to its study, but this would be tantamount to saying something like, “Look here, history is simply there and there are accepted ways of studying it which have proven perfectly adequate over the years.”  But then, this leaves us with the question of why this object of study was discerned only at certain times and places in world culture and why other cultures than those of the West did not invent the concept “history” and the methodologies which Western historians developed for the study of this thing?[i]


         It is not as if the theory and methods of Western historiography are exportable to other cultures in the way that Newtonian physics or Lavoisierian chemistry are.  It is rather more like Christianity or Capitalism, requiring a comprehensive conversion from one idea of “the past” to another.  Indeed, as near as I can see, “history” is of the same order as Christianity and Capitalism and is of a piece with both of them.  A “historical” notion of “the past” is like a “Christian” notion of religion or a “Capitalist” notion of value.  Both Christianity and Capitalism presuppose a particular conception of “history.”  Conversion to Christianity entails commitment to a particular notion not only of the convert’s past but also the notion of the past of the culture to which the convert is being converted. And so too with capitalism, conversion to the capitalist idea of value entails conversion to the a capitalist idea of time, temporality, and the past and its relation to any conception of the present.  When a given society buys into either Christianity or Capitalism, it buys into the (Western) idea of history as well.[ii]  And in the extent to which this Western idea of history permeates the educational and cultural endowment of the original society, it will constitute a threat to it and to the very notion of its identity.  For the Western idea of  identity itself  presupposes a particular kind of relationship between past and present.  It presupposes that the individual has a particular kind of relation to his or her own past, that the present is linked to the past as a substance that is convertible without a loss of essence—in exactly the same way that the bread and wine of the sacrament undergoes a change of substance into that of the body and blood of Christ while their attributes remain the same.  And so too with the capitalist idea of value: value is supposed to have one essence but two substances, labor and exchange.  Labor value is convertible into exchange value—a veritable transubstantiation—while its distinguishing attribute, its money value remains the same.  Like grace in the Christian dispensation, value is infinite and convertible into many kinds, each with its own attributes.  And so it is with the modern Western idea of history:[iii] Like grace and value, history can be earned and created, by the acts of agents possessing the power (potestas, virtus, auctoritas) to act in such a way as to create specifically “historical” events, historically significant events, or events worthy of being recorded in histories, worthy counterparts of those myths and legends which told of the deeds of gods and heroes, events worthy of having stories (logoi) told about them, worthy of having a history.[iv]  In this sense, the Gospels constitute a radical departure in the concepts both of identity and of historicality—although the changes effected are more in the direction of “miracle” and “mystery” (sacramentum) rather than that of intramundane event and causality.[v] The poor could become rich, the sinner become saint, the villain become hero, and so on, depending upon the mysterious workings of grace, to be sure, but creating a new kind of agent of history, the individual capable of freeing himself from the burden of his genetically determined past, choosing a new ancestry or images of the kinds of heroic or saintly persons from whom one would have wished to have been descended.[vi]  Such images can be thought of as replacements of what psychoanalysis calls “ego ideals” or contents of an “Über Ich” which presides over both consciousness and conscience to determine not only what one should wish to know but also what one had to know in order to be considered worthy of having a history.  And this provides a basis for distinguishing between the older classical idea of telos or end, on the one side, and the newer Christian idea of pleroma or fullness (of being), on the other, which in turn licenses belief in the possibility of a non-teleological purposiveness in divine and human affairs that resolves the problem of the conflict between free will and determinism for a new idea of history adequate to Christianity and Capitalism in modernity.

         By non-teleological purposiveness I mean something like the Christian or rather Pauline idea of fulfillment but shorn of its Christian providentialist basis. Recall that St. Paul’s revolution consisted of the extension of grace by election to any one who chose it and the idea of freedom of choice itself along with the idea that redemption was a possibility contained within the promise fulfilled in Christ’s own redemption. As thus envisaged, Christ fulfills the promise of redemption implicit in the fall of Adam and Eve.  Adam’s fall is a figure (typos) fulfilled in the Incarnation, death, and redemption of Christ. From this scenario a whole philosophy of history is born in the analogy with the relation between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and the relation between the Torah (the “old” Law) and the “New” Testament (the new law), on the other.

The important point for an understanding of the relation between this scenario and that “history” which, with the triumph of Christianity over paganism in late Roman times, is established as a model of a specifically historical temporality is the idea of the freedom of choice of any prior notion of human nature by a later person or group’s use of it as an element of their own constitution (diathesis).  The archetypal instantiation of this freedom of choice is manifested in Jesus’s choice on the eve of the Crucifixion to take on a full humanity (kenosis) in order to undergo his “Calvary” as a mortal man. There is nothing predetermined about Christ’s choice to endure the death of an ordinary man, just as there is nothing predetermined about Saul of Tarsus’ choice of his own election or about the choice of certain pagans, for example, Augustine of Carthage, to choose to become a Christian. No more than it was predetermined that a number of ordinary Jewish men woud choose to recognize Jesus as the Messiah (indeed, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas confirms that the recognition of Jesus as Messiah was free). All of which means that the composition of the New Testament and its recognition as a fulfillment of the “Old Testament” was dependent upon choices made by men coming after the time of Jesus to view the Jewish world from which he had derived as a figure or promise or anticipation of their own ground of being.  The New Testament is a product of the choice of men living in the “now” or modernity of A.D. view themselves as being at once descendents, heirs, and transcendents of Judaism (and later Roman paganism).  Nothing in the pre-Christian past would allow the prediction of a constitution of a specifically Christian world.  This freedom is the basis of the idea of a specific “modernitas,” a sense of living in a “now” [modo] both continuous with and distinct from everything that had come before but promising of a future “now” that will be as continuous with and distinct from any transiently present one.  This is what permits the thought of “history” as a sequence of present moments (or momentary presents), each of which is made up of a result of choices made by persons who might have chosen otherwise, of an ideal past from which they will choose to have been descended while reducing this past to the status of a “figure”of which they are themselves a “fulfillment.”  (I think that this idea of a specifically “historical” relation between any given “present” and the various “pasts” from which it might have descended, is what is conceptualized in Hegel’s idea of Aufhebung. But with this difference: Hegel thought that history evolved from earlier to later, just as it supposedly spread from East to West. Since history was the march of reason in the world, Hegel espied the end of history in Reason’s realization of its own inner essence.  He did not see that the past is transformed into a history by retrospection of the past sub specie historiae.[vii])

         An important point is that fulfillment works by retrospection, from present to past rather than the reverse.  In “What is a historical system? (1972)” I anticipated this idea of constitution of an ideal ancestry by retrospective substitution as marking the difference between a historical (genealogical) and a biological (genetical) system.  The past of a given person or collectivity of persons has to be “recognized” as history, that is to say, posited as such and thereby made into a object of a specifically historical mode of study.  It is as the poet KRS-one says: Someday we will  be some future person’s memory.  We should act in our present, therefore, in such a way as to make us worthy of respect by future persons.  This does not mean that we can foretell or predict our or their present.  Whether we in the present end up belonging to “history”–if at all– is a fate determined by others somewhere in our future. Presents provide possibilities among which our descendents will be able to choose to re-cognize us or not

[i] See Marshal Sahlins, The Theft of History.  Sahlins is concerned with the way that Western scholars have stolen the “histories” of native peoples or rather imposed some Western version of “history” on them.  I think though that by “history” Sahlins means “the past,” so what he is really critiquing is a Western propensity to confiscate native pasts and impose a Western conception of “history” on cultures for which the past was not historical to begin with.

[ii] I am not sure whether this works in reverse or not.  I am familiar with many scholars from Japan, China, and India who, having been educated under colonial regimes or studied in the West, have adopted the Western academic notion of history and how to study it, without converting to Christianity; but they tend to And

[iii] I want to stress that I am speaking about the modern Western idea of history, which, in my opinion, is radically different from ancient Greek ideas of time, the past, and so on.  This modern Western idea of history bears some similarity to its pagan Roman counterpart—as represented by Livy or Tacitus, for example, or for that matter Virgil; but here again differences are greater, especially in the ideas of the identity of subjects of historia, the lack of a notion of trans-substantiation, and therewith the lack of a notion of convertibility.  Indeed, the very notion of Latin “historia” is utterly different from its Greek counterpart, ‘istoria, which in Herodotus’s usage meant only “inquiry.” The ideas of “story” and “account” were indicated by mythos and logos respectively, which, incidentally, were regarded as nearly synonymous terms rather than the antonyms that they have since become under the hands of German philologians and philosophers of the modern period.  Cfr. Cassirer, The Myth of the State.

[iv] See Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story.  It is well-known that it was not until the advent of Christianity that workers, slaves, women, and proletariat were considered unworthy of being portrayed in the epic, tragedy, philosophy, since they were considered to be incapable of the kind of “action” of which the upper classes were capable.

[v] See my “The Historical Event,” in Differences (

[vi] Cfr. Nietzsche, “Use and Abuse of History,”

[vii] Kai Froeb, “Sublation,” one central term of Hegel, the German word “aufheben”, is usualy translated as “sublation” into English.

It has three meanings, which Hegel all means at the same time:

a) in it’s basic meaning, it stands for a picture: to raise something, from a lower place to a higher place. Usually, you would think of taking something from the floor/ground into your hand.

Out of this picture, came these meanings:

b) You can see in that picture the meaning “raising something to a higher level”, taking it a step further etc. While Hegel plays much with this meaning (in the sense that the Aufhebung / Sublation needs to take the original thesis to a higher level, think for example of Newton Physics vs. Einstein Physics), it is not really that much explicit present in the common use of that phrase in German common language.

c) You take something from the ground to examine it or to store it away. So the phrase is also used in the sense of “storing”, “saving”, “preserving” (usualy for later use). This is a common use of the word in German. Hegel uses this interpretation in the sense that the original thesis and antithesis are still present in some sense in the wider sublation (again one can think of Newton vs. Einstein).

d) Another popular use of “Aufhebung”/”aufheben” in the German common language is nearly the opposite of c): I think the English language also uses the verb “to lift” (as present in the original picture presented in a)), in the sense of “to end”, “to negate” say in the expression “to lift a ban” etc.

In German we also speak i.e. of the lift of a law, when a law of the state is expressed to be not more valid anymore.

Hegel thinks of this aspect of sublation/Aufhebung in what I tried to express in 2d of that Hegel posting. While c) lays the expression on the fact that the older thesis are not just denied, but that all what was reasonable in them is preserved in a better system (and that the better system is not better/subject to criticism in the grade it fails to implement all reasonable from the thesis), d) lays the emphasis more in the aspect in that the Sublation is also something new and also a kind of critique of the former thesis (otherwise, why would one need the sublation? The thesis would be enough). Especially, the idea here is that the implicit assumptions, borders of thesis (and probably antitheses) are “lifted”/”overcome” in a meaningful “sublation”.

In order to express these three aspects all together, Hegelians prefer to speak from “Aufhebung” instead of expansion, inclusion, synthesis or similar, which all more focus on some aspects. BTW, Hegel himself never used the term “synthesis” for the concept of “sublation” discussed here.

Top of For 

Blackwell’s HegelDictionary

“The verb heben is related to ‘heave’ and originally meant ‘to seize, grasp’, but now means ‘to lift, raise; to remove (especially an adversary from’ his saddle, hence) to supplant him; to remove (e.g. a difficulty, a contradiction)’. It enters many compounds, the most significant for Hegel being aufheben (‘to sublate’). Aufheben has three main senses: (1) ‘to raise, to hold, lift up’. (2) ‘to annul, abolish, destroy, cancel, suspend’. (3) ‘to keep, save, preserve’. The reflexive, sich aufheben , now has reciprocal force, when numbers or items in an account ‘cancel’ or ‘balance each other’, but it was used more widely in Hegel’s day e.g. for someone ‘getting up’ from his seat, and is used by Hegel for something’s sublating itself . The noun Aufhebung similarly means (1) ‘raising up’; (2) ‘abolition’; and (3) ‘preserving’. (The nominal infinitive, Aufheben , occurs in the expression Aufheben(s) machen , ‘to make a fuss’.) Usually, aufheben is used in only one of these senses on a given occasion. Schiller mostly uses it in sense (2), but in AE, XVIII, he comes close to combining all three senses, when he argues that beauty ‘combines the two opposed states [viz. of feeling ( Empfinden ) and thinking ] and thus sublates the opposition ’. But sense (2) predominates, since he adds that ‘both states disappear entirely in a third and no trace of the division remains.”


Hayden White








Historicality as a Trope of Political Discourse




[This paper was prepared as a keynote speech for a Conference on Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, to be held at the University of Ghent, April April 21-24, 2005.]




The topoi of our conference—Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric—combines in a series linked only by contiguity three “essentially contestable concepts.”  This is W.B. Gallie’s designation for terms like “democracy,” “nobility,” and, as I shall try to suggest shortly, “history,” which not only refer to specific domains of human action and thought but also tacitly endow the domains so referred to with a specific value.  They are signs whose signifiers contain a signified that not only attaches a concept to the designator of the referent but also assigns a value to the thing so conceptualized.  Thus, for example, the adjective “historical” not only indicates the quality of being in or belonging to “history,”  it implicitly assigns a value to this quality, since, depending upon the position vis à vis “historicality,” to be “in history” is presumed to be either a positive or a negative condition. 


         And so too with the terms “ethics,” “politics,” and “rhetoric.”  To be, act, or think “ethically” or politically can be considered to be either good or bad depending on how one views ethics and politics, whether one sees them as being two sides of the same coin of power-wielding (as Hobbes, Hegel, and Sartre) or whether one sees them as two different means of evaluating the outcome of human actions, one based on some idea of the good (however one might understand it), the other based on a notion of the possible.  Thus, ethics and politics can be said to be in the same condition as rhetoric which, since Plato, has been valorized or devalorized depending on the ends it is used to serve.  The original view, if I may call it that (thereby valorising it, since originality is usually considered a good thing, unless you are a member of a traditional society for which “originality” is an ambiguous  virtue ), the Sophistic view was that rhetoric is a neutral tactic of speech-use, neither good nor bad in itself, but useful or effective in whatever cause, good or bad, in whose service it was put.  One of the most authoritative theorists of rhetoric, Paolo Valesio (Ascoltare il silenzio; Novantiqua: Rhetorics as a Contemporary Theory), views rhetoric as a theory of the politics of language-use.  Which implies that the only criterion for assessing any specific use of rhetorically fashioned speech is that of effectiveness or utility in helping to advance the ends in whose service the speech has been made.  Putting the matter this way allows us to conceive a set of differently structured hierarchies for construing the relations among ethics, politics, and rhetorics. 


         First, ethics, politics, and rhetorics all have to do with exchange, communication, relationships: between persons, between citizens or subjects, and between members of linguistic communities.  Secondly, each of these can viewed in terms of the others in terms of ends-means relations, subject-object relations, or seducer-seducee relations.  I take the discourse of ethics to be about “obligation” or “binding” [from Greek deontikos <dein<deonto,dein=to bind], that of politics about discerning, defining, and utilizing the principles informing life in the “polis” or, as Hobbes translates it into English, “the city” [Cfr. De cive and Leviathan]; and that of rhetorics as about the “effective” use of speech in the public space created by “politification” and between the public and the private spaces thus constituted by the establishment of a “city.”


         I suppose that it is the establishment of a city that constitutes a distinction between relations that can be conceived to be governed by ethics and politics alike and relations that are conceived to be governed by only one or another of these.  The establishment of the city sets up a distinction between two kinds of morality, one  construed as “custom” and another construed as “law.”  Unless there is a transcendental authority to arbitrate conflict between the two, it falls to such immanent authorities as tradition, reason, chance, or agon to do so.  Here is where rhetoric comes in.


         “Rhetoric” I take to be the name of a particular language-use, focused less on the expressive and representational-referential functions of speech than on the poetic, affective, and above all the metalinguistic functions.  Indeed, as originally construed, by the Sophists, rhetoric was not considered to be a methodology but rather an epistemology. This is to say, as Valesio argued, that rhetoric consists of a position on how truth is produced, on the nature of the relationship between discourse and reality, the forms that truth can take, and the values—always context-specific—that different kinds of truth can bear.  Indeed, as Paul De Man always suggested, rhetoric considered less as persuasion than as trope, presupposes an ontology, an ethics, and an esthetics.  Which is to say that rhetoric has its own object of inquiry (i.e., reality), advances rules about the uses to which knowledge is to be put, and provides a phenomenology of error, delusion, falsity, and lie based on the presumption of the role that desire plays in motivating “the will to truth.”  This notion of the relation between desire and the production of truth is fully consistent with modernist (and fortiori postmodernist) suspicions of “essentialism.”  As Valesio summarizes it: Rhetoric is a theory of the production of truth and meaning by discursive means, which implies something like the following world-view, namely, that 1.) with regard to questions of ontology or metaphysics, rhetoric is indifferent; 2.) With respect to ethics, it is relativistic;  3.) with respect to politics, it is pragmatic; and 4.) with respect to religion it is agnostic.  A rhetorical approach to the threefold topic that concerns us in this conference—ethics, politics, and rhetoric itself—requires us to interrogate the rhetorical presumption that discourse produces meaning by the techniques of thematisation. How else could we begin to approach the questions which these three domains pose for us: What can I do? What should I do? What can I say?  Thus, to cite Valesio one more time, rhetoric—when it is not disposed in the service of theological, philosophical or social orthodoxy—positions itself at the shifting boundary between literalism and figurative speech and, among other things, monitors the process by which the differences between the literal and the figurative is established, which is to say, constructed, the possibility of meaning constituted.


         There is much more to say on this occasion about rhetoric, but I must move on to a consideration of my promised topic, “historicality as a trope of political discourse.”  The word “trope” is intended to refer to the rhetorical  theory of swerves, digressions, or deviations (Greek: tropos, Latin: tropus & modus; Fr. l’écart; Ger. die Wendung or Windung) in a discourse from what has been established as the literal level of its elaboration.  Any swerve into figuration serves to provide the referent of the discourse with a connotative significance in excess of what can be said about it in literal(ist) speech.  Seventeenth century rhetorical theory classfied the tropes into four general classes, each given the name of a specific figure of speech: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (or catachresis, abusio).  Late eighteenth century rhetoric correlated these four kinds of tropes with what John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States and Ambassador to France but subsequently Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard College, called principles of association common to the human mind universally: resemblance, contiguity, identification, and opposition.  overdetermine, emphasize, characterize, and/or expropriate material from a contiguous or homologous discipline (or practice) for purposes or illustration, exemplification,  illustrative,  confirmatory, or exemplary purposes.  


It’s too bad that deconstruction never got around to desconstructing history.  Too bad, even Derrida thought that deconstruction was a ground clearing operation that would prepare the way for the constitution of history as the only kind of philosophy that could be practiced after modernity.  In a number of places, he says that all he has ever done is history.  Well, unfortunately, I have news for Derrida—although it is too late, but then news is always too late—in any event, the news is: history is no more decidable, stable, or certain than philosophy. But I can understand why Derrida thought that you might begin to rebuild philosophy after it had been deconstructed by adverting to history.  Only historians know—and they prefer not to mention it—that “history” (by which I do not mean “the past”) is nothing but a construction, that the imagined genetic relationship between the historical past and the present is an illusion, and that the principal social function of historical studies, in their scientific or rather scientistic  form is to provide a basis for the belief that whatever is has good reasons for being what it is and that anyone who wants things to be different than they in fact are can be dismissed as a utopian or, worse, a utopianist. 




Derrida’s interest in history might have come to him from Heidegger. The latter, in his earlier work, thought that one of the tasks of modern philosophy was to demonstrate how the concept of historicity could be derived deductively from the human experience of temporality.  This was the project of the last section of Being and Time (1926).



As is well known, “historicality” has traditionally served as a trope by which to relativize ethical and political questions.  Although most modern historians claim to wish to serve absolutist and universalist notions of truth and truthfulness, it is an undeniable fact that the more they probe the details of specific ethical issues—such issues as, say, the (moral) right of resistance to the political tyrant—or specific political issues, such as, say, the decision to sacrifice a part of the polity for the wellbeing of the whole—the more such issues are considered in their concreteness and specificity, the more difficult it becomes to subsume the ways of resolving them under a general rule or metaprinciple: by which I mean a principle which tells us which principle to apply for the satisfactory resolution of an ethical or political dilemma.  The very decision to, as they say, “set what appears to be a dilemma actually faced by a specific group of individuals in a specific time and place in its original context,” this decision already determines the milieu within which the search for a rule by which to judge the issues involved to a limited domain of time and place. It hardly makes sense to apply a Christian ethic in the judgment of a situation arising in an Islamic society; just as it hardly makes sense to utilize modern notions of justice to assess an act of resistance in a medieval context.




So the appeal to or invocation of “the historical situation” always—in matters of ethics and politics, as in those occasions when a conflict between ethics and politics arise—the appeal to or invocation of “the historical situation” always has the effect of relativizing the issues involved therein.  I wont try to defend this generalization at this point but simply register it and proceed to my next point.  And this is: that an appeal to or invocation of “historicality” as a means of “situating” a conflict within ethics and politics or between them is a tropological move, more like a “turn” in a narrative or a poem or an oratorical performance than an exfoliation of an argument by deduction or entailment.  Indeed, the historicization of a social or political situation






Although the term historicality names a substance—the substance of “history”—it is unclear what the content of this substance might be.  As Heidegger pointed out long ago, scholars typically can posit “history” and undertake to study it before they have any clear idea of what makes a thing a historical kind of thing or what the quality of historicality might consist of.  This project of trying to derive from the study of the many histories written about history the substance or essence of history, the quality that makes the historical thing “historical,” has been the task of the nefarious philosophy of history in the modern period.  Temporality, Providence, fate, fortuna, progress, reason, spirit and so on have been offered by one or another thinker over the past two and a half millenia, much to the distress of modern professional historians who tend to feel that the search for the “essence” or “substance” of “history” has not only  proven fruitless but, indeed, violates  founding protocol of historical research: namely, concentration on the concrete individual, which existed at a specific time and in a particular place, and whose “nature” consists of the circumstance that it existed thus and so and not otherwise.  Indeed, one of the distinguishing marks of professional historical inquiry (a pleonasm inasmuch as, since “historical” originally meant “inquiry,” a “historical inquiry” can properly be only an “inquirying inquiry”) is that, unlike its everyday, ordinary, or popular counterpart, is that if foregoes the effort to identify or define the “historicality” of “history,” the essence or subtance of the “historical.”  (In favor of inquiry into finite domains of the past or specific stretches of time, not to establish the historicality of these objects of study but simply to find out what had been happening therein or what had been going on in and around them.)  The ordinarry man in the street continues to think or at least to say that he or she knows a historical phenomenon when he or she sees one.  These types appeal to history for vindication or justification.  They say things like “History teaches. . ..” and refer to certain events as “historical” or to persons as having “made history” or “changed history” or use the expression “That’s history” to suggest that some event or person or institution or idea is “over and done with.”  Michael Oakshott argued that this latter kind of use of “history” and the “historical” marked the difference between the professional historian’s notion of “the historical past” and the layman’s “practical past.”  The “historical past,” said Oakshott, is that past constructed by professional historians who follow agreed upon rules for processing evidence of a certain kind about the past so as to provide a kind of normative  version of the past of a community which has no practical use whatsoever.  Professional historical inquiry is inquiry into events over and done with for their own sakes, merely for determining what can be truthfully and accurately  said about these events in thei extent that they are over and done with and can have no further bearing (if they ever had any bearing at all) upon the present(s) of this same community. Indeed, so different in kind is “the historical past” of the professional historians from the practical past of the man of affairs and the ordinary bloke that there is really no possible conflict between them.  Professional historians may more or less tolerantly observe the man in the street’s appeal to “history” to teach a lesson, point a moral, justify an action taken, or vindicate a wrong, but recognizes–as the man who uses history for practical purposes cannot—that the past appealed to for practical purposes is not the past he is in process of revealing, representing, or constructing and that his manner of speaking is (whether he knows it or not) not literal but purely figurative and belongs to rhetoric, not to serious scientific discourse.  So averse is the professional historian to the use of historical knowledge for practical—social, economic, political—purposes that any such use of his knowledge of the past by a professional historian is what he will mean by “ideology.” 



Now this distinction between a the historical past and the practical past, the one a distinterested construction from documents of what really happened in a specific time and place, the other a motivated, interested, or prejudiced “space of experience” drawn on ad libidem for examples, justifications, excuses, and reasons for deferring judgments on current affairs, and so forth, completely begs the question of the substance of history by implying that “historicality” is a kind of mythical entity, the kind of thing one might expect from the unscientific and philosophically unsophisticated common man who still thinks that there are such things as “substances” or “essences” underlying, informing, or otherwise determining the attributes of things.  The mob believes in historicality, the proper historian believes in history—a kind of knowledge (or a mode of experience, to use Oakshott’s terminology) that has absolutely no practical relevance and no implications for understanding the events of the “present.”  And any effort on the part of a professional student of any aspect of the past to generalize findings of an explanatory kind—such as Hegel’s work in history of philosophy or Marx’s work in the history of political economy—is to be branded as reductive and reifying, ideological, the confusion of what the scientific historian can do with what the practical man of affairs would desire of historical knowledge.  Hegel, of course, insisted that both the proper subject of history and the institution which created the conditions for the foundation of a specifically historical kind of knowledge (i.e., knowledge of the past based on evidence) was political.  This assertion is quite different from his larger generalization that the informing principle of world history is Reason. No, history is, as the sayng has it, past politics, histories are about political events first and foremost, and political philosophy (or philosophy of right) is the proper organon of political history.  Then, in a move which has proven to have had, however indirectly, what we might call “world historical” implications, Hegel defined the state as the institution in which the conflict between the law and morality is sublimated into politics understood as the art of the possible.  A history of a specific people that has attained to the status of “statality” will show the conflict between the ethos (of a people) and the nomos (of the state).  This conflict is the essence of the political.  But it is of the essence of the political to find no resolution of the various conflicts between different ethoi and different nomoi.  The history of politics is the history of failure in the end.  The various states in history take on different forms, they come and go, they leave more or less of the evidence (the traces) of their vicissitudes.  And this record, this history in itself and by itself teaches nothing: the only thing anyone ever learned from the study of history is that nobody ever learned anything [practical] from the study of history.  So what is the use of history?  This was Nietzsche’s question, of course, in the Second Untimely Meditation.  And his answer to this question is, for what it is worth, my answer.  For better of worse, after the death of god and the end of metaphysics, history is all we have as the basis for a human science.  Any science based on it will not be a very good, or complete, or powerful science.  But if our inquiry is directed as what Kant projected as his fourth critique, namely, the question, “What is man,” then history is all we’ve got. 



But what has all this to do with the threefold topic of our conference: “Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric”?  And what does it have to do with the topic indicated by the title of my lecture: “Historicality as a Trope of Political Discourse”?


During the hearings in the US Congress anent the appointment of Ms (or Doctor, as she is called) Condollezza Rice to the position of Secretary of State, Doctor Rice was interrogated about her part in the decisions taken by the President and his handlers to invade Irak on the grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed, was developing, or at least desired to have Weapons of Mass Destruction. Doctor Rice, in response to this question, answered: “ I know enough about history to stand back and to recognize that you judge decisions not at the moment, but in how it all adds up.” Here the appeal to “history” is made in order to justify deferring answering a question or making a judgment on one’s own past judgment– until one can see how, as Doctor Rice puts it, “it all adds up”  (shakes down, comes out in the wash, comes home to roost, etc.).  This is an example of the use in political discourse of the trope of “historicality.”



A recent supplemental issue of the journal History and Theory was devoted to the topic of “Historians and Ethics.”




(Ethics: the singularity and situatedness of the judging subject.  Politics: the singularity and situatedness of the agent.  And rhetoric: the singularity and contingency of the speech event.  In the absence of any possible appeal to religion and metaphysics, “history” (a kind of information) may be all we have left as a possible foundation for a knowledge adequate to the challenges that “history” (a culturally specific structuration of temporality) itself poses for the West. 




And yet, it has been suggested that historical inquiry is a discipline whose practice presumes the impossibility of ever being able to grasp the shared  substance of its object of study, the quality that makes a given thing identifiable as a historical something. This is because of the way historians define (or intuit) their objects of study—as individualities whose historicality consists in their singularity and time-and-space specificity.  Since there cannot be by definition a science of the singular, there can be no science of the historical.  Which puts history in the position of identifying its own scientificity in terms of a practice of knowledge production that is radically unscientific.  It might be argued, that history is one of those disciplines which practices a kind of knowledge production necessary for the examination of precisely those phenomena which resist or which have not yet been grasped as possible objects of a properly scientific mode of inquiry.  Or to put it in Heideggerian terms, history is a discipline which produces histories even and long before it has worked out a satisfactory notion of the historical (or historicality). 




Such seems to be the opinion of the philosopher Alain Badiou, who appears to be reinventing the older position, held by Croce and R.G. Collingwood, that all knowledge—including scientfic and philosophical knowledge—is in the final analysis “historical” knowledge.  “Historical,” yes, but not in the sense of being knowledge about the past but rather in the sense of being knowledge of the singular within a situation which is itself singular—such that the subtracting and abstracting techniques of science can be seen to produce the effect of distancing us from objects of our interest rather than rendering them familiar. (Badiou builds his philosophy on the perception of crucial differences between knowledge, on the one hand, and truth, on the other, an understanding of art and poetry as a kind of knowledge production, and a view of philosophy as arbitrator among the sciences.) In any event, in Badiou’s view, truth is infinite and cannot therefore be an object of knowledge.  And this permits one to say, specifically about historical knowledge, that it can never be whole and complete, especially insofar as it seeks the truth, but that this does not invalidate history’s claim to produce a kind of knowledge that is especially relevant to humankind in its efforts to respond creatively to the multitude of “situations” within which human beings must try to work out a destiny. 




What I find worthwhile in this characterization of history’s own “situation” is that it permits us to continue to draw upon history as a source of knowledge that has special relevance—because of its nature as singular and situated—to the kinds of situations in which ethical and political issues arise.  Moreover, for our purposes here in the next few days, this “situationist” notion of historical knowledge allows us to relate the situationist discourses of ethics and politics to the “situated” kind of language-use traditionally called “rhetorical”but which, for today at least, I wish to call “pragmatic.”



I shall not ask, however, what can history or historicalization contribute to the understanding of the relation between ethics and politics.  I wish to consider, instead, the fact that historical inquiry has been, from its very beginning, focussed on the conflict between ethics understood as deontology (the science of binding or obligation: Kant’s “What ought I do?”) and politics understood as politology (the science of the possible: Kant’s “What can I do?”).  Under the conditions of sociality, this plays out as a conflict between what is thought to be prohibited and what is thought to be possible insofar as sociality is mediated by speech and language. 




Again I speak only of Western cultural traditions and only insofar as these are informed by a sense of the historicity of the social system.  Conflict between ethics and politics or between the ethical and the political are apprehendable in the West as a historically changing structure of relationships between value and action.  (Action being distinguishable from mere motion or movement by virtue of the element of intention and therefore of responsibility, more or less consciously present, in any undertaking.) The historicality of the relationship between value and action—its different structurations across time—is what makes of this relationship a specifically philosophical problem.  If the relatonship between value and action did not change or if there were some absolute rule (some transcendental principle) that could be invoked by which to measure the extent any change in this relationship deviated from or approximated to the ideal, there would be no philosophical problem to discuss. But in the absence of such an ideal or in a situation in which such an ideal cannot be specified, the possibility of a specifically historical approach to the problem of the conflict between ethics and politics is opened up.




There are, of course, other possible approachs, such as a logical analysis of the concepts implied in the notions of the ethical and the political, and so on.  But it is because there are other possible approaches to this problem that the historical approach—the decision to approach the problem by way of charting changes in the articulation of this relation over time and in space—the product of this decision, the turn to a history of the relation between ethics and politics, has to be comprehended as a tropical move—by which I mean, a discursive turn for which there is no obvious logical or ontological necessity.  Indeed, the decision to use a historical approach to the discussion of any matter of social concern is a rhetorical move insofar as it defers analysis of the problems raised by the conflict inherent in the Western formulation of the substances of ethics and politics, it defers this analysis in the pursuit of an origin of the conflict in an impossible, because pre-historic origin. 




We can best comprehend this “move”—this turn from conceptual analysis of the relation between ethics and politics to an effort to construct an account of the history of this relationship– in terms of the  rhetorics of historiography, where rhetoric is understood—in the way Paul de Man wished to do—not only as the art of persuasion or seduction but also and even primarily as theory of trope, troping, indeed, as tropology.  It is well-known that the transformation of historical studies into a science, envisioned by von Ranke, Droysen, and others in the nineteenth century, was to be achieved by their liberation of history from its status as a genre of rhetoric.  This liberation had been long in the works, indeed, was already implicit in the Father of History’s fixation on the fact (the singular event attested in some way by an observer or a document left by an observer) as his ultimate object of concern.




 Herodotus was less interested in gossip, speculation, supposition, and what might have been, than, rather, what had happened in a specific place over a specific time span.  His inquiries, his “histories,” were directed to this end.  At the same time, it is obvious that Herodotus was aware that the determination of “what had happened” was a problem rather different from the problem of presenting his findings about what had happened in a form or mode of expression that would be adequate to his stated aim of keeping alive to the memory of coming generations those great deeds and events that had led to the rise and fall of empires.  He solves the problem of presentation (Darstellung) rhetorically, by adopting the “form” of those myths (mythoi=plots, stories)  inherited from the Hellenic past as proper containers for recounting the deeds of gods and heroes. 




The union of this form (myth) with a new kind of content (or a content presented in a new way) human content (big events caused by the conflict of kings and peoples) must itself be grasped as the product of a discoursive move, a trope (an unmotivated “swerve”) within the older discussion of the identity of the Hellenes—the arbitrary nature of which was grasped by Thucydides who condemns the story-form as inadequate to the task of presenting the lessons to be derived about the nature of the city as he place where politics collides with ethics in a dama of potentially universal significance. Thucydides seeks to neutralize the effect of a rhetorical presentation of real events by making rhetoric one of the subject-matters of his own discourse, specifically characterizing the threefold relationship between ethics, politics, and rhetorics as a problem that “history” (inquiry into how things came about) could help resolve only if it were governed by “scientific” principles of diagnosis similar to those devised in Hippocratean medical practices.   Thus, it seems permissible to say that Thucydides differs from his predecessor Herodotus in his rejection of rhetoric as a means of presenting the truth about the past and the relation between the present and the past in favor of a scientific mode of presentation.  For Thucydides, rhetoric—the use of speech to persuade, seduce, and traduce—was part of the problem of explaining the fall of Athens at the hands of Sparta.  




But let me pause here for a moment.  I do not want to analyze the theoretical or conceptual content of the debate over the adequacy of “historia” (inquiry) to the truthful representation of human events.  Because Herodotus does not even present an argument to justify his using the substance of the form of mythos to treat or present the deeds of real men.  He simply does it, that is to say, launches into his story (logos=account) of the chan of events that culminated in the defeat—against all odds–of the Persians by the Hellenes.  Of course, there is a brief preface to this launching of the account in which Herodotus reports some logographers accounts of a series of rapes of Greek women (Helen and Io) by Asiatics and of Asiatic women by Greeks.




Now, at this point, I want to pause in my own presentation of “historicality as a trope of political discourse” and point out what I have been doing in presenting the problem of the relationship among ethics, politics, and rhetoric in historical or rather “historiological” terms. 








         Michael Oakshott argued that there are many pasts, of which the historical past, by which he meant the past constructed by professional inquirers into events considered to have been over and done with, is only one.  Over against this historical past, Oakshott posited what he called the practical past, by which he meant all of those fragments and snippets of memory and records of one sort or another that all of us carry around with us and to which we appeal when we need some justification for construing a problem in a particular way, some model or example by which to guide comportment, or some body of fact to support a position in an argument or on which to project a “realistic” picture of who or what we are. 




Ever since the invention of the discipline of history—or historical inquiry (a pleonasm, since in Greek at least “historia” means “inquiry”)—these two conceptions of “the past” have been at odds with one another, but in many respects, each of them actually provides a kind of antitype of the other.  The past in which historians are interested overlaps with the past which I must call up every time I wish to act on the basis of some experience of something that has happened to me (or us) before or seek to ground my wishes, desires, and actions on “experience.” And in many respects, historians construct a past that is an alternative to the practical past, although when anyone invokes “history” it is unclear whether they mean the historical or some version of a  practical past.  In any event, my argument this evening will be that the invocation of the past is always and can hardly be anything other than a trope, a turn in discourse which is intended to endow the topic under discussion with the meaning of “the historical.”




In the modern period in the West, historical knowledge has a function quite different from what it did during the times when religion or metaphysics served as the determinant of what could pass for “reality.”  In earlier times, historical knowledge had to vie with theology and philosophy, not to mention tradition, memory, and chronicle, for authority.  In the early 19th century, history was promoted to a position of prominence for providing guidance to the understanding of national (and other kinds of communal) identity, but only for a moment; it had hardly ascended in the hierarchy of disciplines before it was pushed aside by the physical and social sciences.  From the position of magistra vitae patriae, history was quickly demoted to the humble role of gathering facts about the past, especially the political past of the people or the nation, assembling them in narratives, and consigning them to the care of other, more scientific disciplines, for processing and transformation in more or less useful “knowledges.”




The discipline of history is a practice where various other, auxiliary disciplines devoted to the establishment of the facts of the past, are used to construct a record of “what happened” in the past of a given community or group.  The need of ethics for history is minimal, but ******* and cooperate.  But the factual information produced by historical inquiry itself serves an auxiliary function for other, more scientific and more synthetic disciplines.








 No picture tells the truth, but the best pictures tell much more.  This statement is acceptable because it instantiates in its diction the principle of which it speaks. Moreover, it is true because a given still photograph—as against its possible caption–does not “tell” anything; a picture is not a statement, proposition, phrase or even an utterance.  Nor does it represent anything; it is an indexical sign, like moss on a tree or thunder.  The images within the frame of a picture can be read as if they had been intended to figure forth a message.  The journalist who introduced this discussion in the New York Times, discusses the photograph which, while factual, was not “true.”  This was a photograph published recently of the President of Colombia along with a story about his problem with alcohol.  The picture in question had been taken ten years earlier.  It showed the not-yet President hoisting a mug of beer at the Vienna Oktoberfest.  The caption identified the image as that of Mr. . . . . . at the Vienna Oktoberfest in 1994.  The photo  tropes the story, therefore, by contiguity on the page and similarity to the topos of consumption of alcohol in the story,  The caption tropes the photo by tacitly undermining its status as documentary evidence in support of the story, by revealing that it is not what it might seem to be.  Etc., etc.







I am less interested in clarifying the uses and abuses of history for political discourse than in suggesting how a revision of the conventional idea of “trope” can be used to analyze the deontological relationship between two adjacent fields in the human sciences: history and political science.  I depend upon the early modern and specifically Vichian conception of “trope” as the basis of what Vico called “poetic logic”by which cultures authorize a connection between domains of human thought and action that defy conceptual connection in terms of the logic of identity and non-contradiction.  It appears to me that “history” is not a science in any significant way but that it does provide a specific kind of  information (or data) about an existentially significant dimension of a community’s identity, namely, its past, on which political discourse can draw in its effort to claim the status of a kind of science.  Of course, traditionally, the borrowing has gone both ways. History was once defined as the study of past politics and claimed “the political” along with “pastness” as the double substance of the kind of event with which it was properly concerned. Few were the historical tracts that did not constitute at least tacitly a commentary on the significance of the story it had to tell for the understanding of politics and, beyond that, ethics and/or morality.  Thus, two paradigms of the two discourses, historical and political, those of  Thucydides and Machiavelli respectively, count quite as importantly in any history of political thinking as they do in the history of historiography.    




Through their various practices, historians or investigators of reality (the world) under the aspect of its pastness produce the noton of “the-past-as-history.” But they have not because they cannot specify—either deductively or inductively–what is the substance or essence of “the historical.”  The subsumption of “the past” under the concept of “the historical” reduces the domain of the former without being able to name the principle on the basis of which the reduction is necessitated.   (The historical past is not as extensive as the past in general; only certain events in the past are identified as “historical.”  Not only that, within the category of historical events, some are more “historical” than others, at least, so it seems on an analysis of works written and published by historians.  In other words, the historical, like modern art, does not have an intensional definition.  We can identify a large number of history books because they are usually labelled as such, but if we ask what is the common attribute of their various referents or objects of study that makes of the events dealt with in them all gatherable under the rubric “history,” we must fail.  Why this is so, can be indicated: it is due to the nature of what is permitted to count as a historical event. 




An historical event must have happened in the past, have occurred at a specific place and time, be graspable as a singularity rather than as a universal or particular, be subject to commonsensical explanation, and be  construable as an element of a narrative (and not merely chronological)  account of its relations to other, similarly characterizable events. 




Natural events or meta-natural events (by which I mean such an “event” as the origination or end of the universe or such a metalaw as entropy) do not have all or possibly any of these attributes.  If historical events are viewed as events happening in “nature” however different they may be from other natural events, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or floods, then historical events must be construed as being just as meaningless as natural events are conceived to be in modern physical sciences.  However, in practice, historians or at least modern historians conceive implicitly at least that historical events can be presumed to differ from other natural events by virtue of their narratability or, as I would put it, their narrativizability.  This treatment of historical events as if they were capable of serving as elements of narrative discourses without violating canons of realism is legitimated by the principles of “poetic” (rather than syllogistic) logic, i.e., by tropology.   The “turns” in argumentation by which events can be constituted as facts, facts organized chronologically, and chronicles transformed into narratives, these turns are authorized by no principle of logic.  They are manifestly rhetorical or, as I would prefer to call them, “poetic” in kind. 




[The conventional separation of rhetoric from poetic is, as far as I am concerned, just as questionable as the separation of logic from rhetoric where the latter is understood as a science or art of troping.  History is a discourse, historicality is a product of discursive (rather than logical) moves or tropes, and by the endowment of certain events of the past with historicality, a domain of historical facts and the relationships pesumed to exist between or among them is constituted.  This historical past can be known only by way of the texts written and published by practitioners of this discourse.  And this is why the relevance of historical studies to philosophy, to literary studies, and the social sciences, on the one hand, and to certain aspects of “practical” life, such as ethics, economics, and, what interests me, here, today, political discourse, on the other.]



Now, historical discourse provides a basis in fact for political discourse in one sense insofar as it takes the latter for its subject matter and purports to show Could there be a specifically political act prior to the invention of the idea of the political?  Or is it the other way around?  Does the political idea emerge from contemplation on a body of actions that share the attribute of “politicality”?  Historical discourse is able to sublimate these kinds of questions: which are of the order of the question, is thing is good because the gods love it or do the gods love it because it is good? (Euthyphro), historical discourse is able to finesse these kinds of questions by turning them (transforming them, translating them, troping them) into questions of the order, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? 




In my view, political discourse is no less  tropological in its essence than historical discourse—however much it may feign fidelity to empirical induction, to logic and scientific method or the principle of objectivity.\




Also, political discourse resembles historical discourse in the way it mixes argumentative or demonstrative techniques of presentation, objectivist description, and moral, ethical, and ideological elements.  So, although much of traditional political discourse invokes, calls upon, borrows from, and incorporates history into its elaboration, and does for purposes of “grounding” its program in a real rather than imaginary world, the relationship between political discourse and history is purely adventitious and tropological at best.  In fact, this relationship might be called metatropological, inasmuch as it is a relationship between two tropologically structured discourses.  Thus, for example, the use of “history” as a source of examples of effective and/or ineffective political action, as if one had found “in the real world” a real specimen of a certain kind of activity, is bogus.  A “historical” event or personage or action is an event, or personage, or an action that has been constituted as such by and in the process of describing it as the kind of event that can serve as an element in a specifically historical discourse.  And the description of an event as a specifically historical event operates in conformity with the tropological principles conventionally utilized—ekphrasis, synecdoche, hypotyposis, identification, and so on—by “poetic logic” to turn natural entities into cultural ones.  The putative “historical event” which is cited by a practitioner of another scientific discipline as an example of certain general principles which he or she is interested in explicating or interpreting is already shot through with interpretation simply by virtue of having been grasped in and constituted as “data” by discursive practices more rhetorical than analytical in nature.  The rhetoricity of such events is contained in the figures and tropes used to characterize them as a specific “this or that” rather than a general “what and which.”  One might even say, with Foucault, Derrida, and other modern theorists of the “archive,” that the very process of “gathering” of a set of documents together and labelling them as a certain kind of evidence of a certain kind of practice is already interpreting them and endowing them with a historicity by utterly arbitrary methods. 



This is not so nihilistic an interpretation of the process of “historicization” as it might appear at first glance.  To be sure, it seems that, to raise the question of the adequacy of scientific procedures, objectivist description, logical analysis, and rationalistic (hypothetico-deductive) argumentation is to seem to liberate historical discourse from all of the restraints (fidelity to the documentary record, adherence to established evidentiary procedures, use of common sense and ordinary, rather than technical language) that historians have taken on to their practices in order to pose as minimally scientific, it seems to raise this question is to plunge everything into chaos—or, as it is often said these days by historians and others when confronted by the dreaded postmodernism, into an attitude of “anything goes.”  But to admit the pertinency of a “poetic logic” to the understanding of how the past, although it is irretrievably gone, over and done with, dead or nihilated by time, to admit this is not necessarily to surrender all standards for assessing, if not the validity, then at least the authenticity of one kind of historical discourse as against another. 




First, because we today have a notion of the nature of poetic utterance quite different from that of the Romantics and, for that matter, the Positivists, Idealists, Pragmatist, and other brands of metaphysical conceptions of “poetry.”  (I.e., poetic utterance is not to be reduced to its expressive, referential, and/or affective functions nor is it to be mystified as heavenly music or any other such spiritualist notion of its nature).


Nor is poetic utterance and its structuring principles to be restricted to use in “poetry” especially of the lyric and romantic variety.  The poetic function of language-use can be found just as readily in extended, realistic prose discourse as it can in “poetry.”  And, indeed, one cannot account for the effectivity on the emotions, the passions, and the whole imaginary dimensions of human consciousness without recognition of the poetic logic informing a literary prose that purports to be, in spite of its literariness, quite as realistic as its non-literary counterpart.  This is especially the case with historiographical prose put to use, not only to promote the cause of a given politics, but to constitute the political as a dimension, itself perhaps constitutive, of human species being.



My argument is that political discourse draws not so much on “history” as on historical discourse for some of its “data” (because the only “history” there is, is that constructed in and by the discourse of historians), just as  historical discourse draws upon political discourse in order to identify a specific (and in modern historiography, a canonical) subject-matter. But this relationship between the two disciplines is not as symmetrical as it might seem.  Why?  Because “history” is a phantasm, an imaginary, even delusional realm of human existence, while politics, however enigmatic it may appear to be in certain of its incarnations (especially its democratic form), names a real structure of relationships.  Relationships mediated by differential power positions, the law, the struggle for the legal right to use violence (and not merely force) in the prosecution of personal and social programs, and, as Schmitt has it, the possession of sovereignty.   There may be phantasmatic elements in political thought, imagination, and action, but there can be no doubt about the this-worldly nature of any given politics and the criteria to be used in assessing its effectiveness: these are the possession and use of power.  Historical discourse has conventionally rejected so pragmatic a notion as effectiveness for assessing its validity because it is thought, and quite rightly, that  But history is another matter.  Its very use of the past as an object of study, its commitment to the use of written documents as the evidence of choice, and its use of a narrative mode of presentation of its findings, all this renders historical discourse fated to remain something less than a science and something other than a “free” art.  It is what also accounts for the peculiar kind of disciplinarity which historical inquiry enjoys: historical description is not bound by rules, any more than poetic utterance is.




I should, I suppose, at this point in my discussion of “Historicality as a Trope of Political Discourse” give some examples of what I have in mind, although I believe that the provision of examples is fraught with problems of both an epistemic and ethical kind (as Kant argues in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. 


In this address I will try to discuss certain aspects of our conference topic—Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric—by considering the  rhetoricological relationship between historical discourse and political discourse.  I raise the question of ethics only implicitly, in the way in which I treat rhetoricology.




I am going to argue that political discourse and historical discourse have been intimately connected since the beginning of both.  But I want to stress that I am less interested in the connection between professional historical discourse and political discourse than in that between practical historical discourse and politics.  I am interested in a trope or rather a tropological “move” in which, in the course of a political dissertation or discussion, the speaker invokes “history” or “the historical” in order to provide an alibi or a justification for a generalization or some statement of principle.  Permit me to say that, I do not think that it matters whether a speaker invokes “history-in-general” or the work of a specific professional historian for these purposes.  Professional historians often note the misuse or misunderstanding of their accounts of the past but usually to little avail.  After all, “history” belongs to everybody, and, as Valery said, nobody ever proved anything by appeal to history, adding that [because] anybody can prove anything by appeal to history. Following Oakshott, I will distinguish between what he called “the historical past”—the past constructed by and in the writings of professional historians (a modern genre, I hasten to add, since historiography was, until the early 19th century, purely an amateur enterprise–and “the practical past” which is that inchoate and confused bag of memories, impressions, errant facts, and incomplete book learning most of us carry around as a simulacrum of that “past” fleshed out in detail and ordered so neatly by our professional historians.  When some practical man or woman, politician, lawyer, doctor, of Indian chief, invokes “history” as a surety of the truth of his or her observations about any aspect of the human condition, including the political aspect, you can be sure that this move is a purely rhetorical one.   Not because this is duplicitous or merely persuasive gesture, only a trope, but because this “history” that is being invoked is fragmentary and inchoate in its professional version as it is in is practical equivalent. 



I agree with Oakshott and most professional historians that there is nothing in the professional (scientific) study of the past or indeed of the relation between the past and the present that is of any practical use to the present.  We are, as Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht puts it in his brilliant essay “After learning from history” in a post-historical age.  Not because “history” or even a particular (Hegelian) version of it has come to an end (Fukayama), but rather because historical studies have been “scientized” (which means, really,  professionalized and domesticated, derhetoricized and deprived of its original resources in artistic creativity), detached from in any aim to pass for “philosophy teaching by examples” and dissociated from the vocation of moral “magistra vitae.” Professional history has become nothing but the effort to determine the truth about the past and is, consequently, no longer relevant to the philosophical quest for understanding the nature of our humanity. I presume that the masses of the literate Western democracies intuit this as well, if they ever took it seriously in the first place. In any event, the professionalization of historical studies in the West has driven a wedge between the historical past and the practical past—to use, again, Oakshott’s terminology—that gives to politicians and other interested parties the right to use “history” as a topos full of the kinds of tropes and figures useful in bridging the gap between the “what is” of information and the “what ought to be” of ethical or political exigency. 





 From Greek times, the connection between rhetoric and politics has been taken for granted, with rhetoric serving as a value-free (anethical) theory of (the politics of) language-use.  And from very early on, there has been a consistent effort to bind or restrain rhetoric by subordinating its practice to service to some ethical or deontological ideal of the good.  The use of rhetorical language was conventionally thought to be permissible only in service to the good, on this both Plato and Augustine agreed.  The unbinding of rhetoric from service to the good was an achievement of the Renaissance, as represented in the thought of Valla and Machiavelli.  In detaching politics from ethics, Machiavelli implicitly freed rhetoric from service to any conception of the good, remanding it, as he had done for political discourse itself, to a purely pragmatic notion of public action.  This Machiavellian gesture was, however, rejected in the 19th century, with rhetoric being identified with inauthenticity, dissimulation, or “mere” adornment by the mainstream philosophical tradition descending from Kant (and before Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, etc.).  This subalternation of rhetoric was of a part with the identification of figurative language with improper, deviant, or errant discourse.  Within the discourse of philosophy as it develops from Hobbes and Descartes, through Locke, Kant, and on to Russell, early Wittgenstein, and Husserl, figurative language has been excoriated as the cause of all error in thought and of all impropriety of language use in discourse. (Cfr. Ryle among others.)  Only with the recent re-invention of a semiotic model of discourse has rhetoric been able to reclaim its function as the theory of the political uses of language.  (Cfr. Valesio and De Man) 




The notion of rhetoric as an anti-ethics, as merely a means of language use without an end proper to itself as a practice, was taken over into historiology (the theory of the historical) in the early nineteenth century.  The discourse of the historian was to have nothing of the rhetorical about it.  Since historians were supposedly committed to telling the truth (and nothing but the truth) about the past, only the most modest rhetorical flourishes, for purposes of adornment or moral instruction, were permitted in their practices.  But this devotion was belied by historians’ commitment to the narrative (rècit, fabula, story) mode of presentation of their objects of study.  Although historians were permitted to advance arguments about their objects of study—designed to specify the “natures” of the events and agents of which they spoke: revolutions, civil wars, rebellions, constitutions, military campaigns, social classes, institutions, and the like—and to draw lessons of a political, civic, or military kind from their contemplation of their referents, they were prohibited from casting their discourses in anything but the declarative or interrogative modes.  Or I should say, they were prohibited from casting their discourses—whether presented in narrative or demonstrative form—in the optative or subjunctive mode.  After all, it is in desire (optation or subjunction) that parti pris is revealed.  And since historical discourse was institutionalized in the service of the nation-state taking shape in the nineteenth century, it can easily be seen how historical discourse could develop only by the systematic suppression of any desire that was not cathected onto the social and political status quo.  It was in this sense that historical discourse in its modern form served to undermine and disauthenticate every merely utopian, by which I mean radical and transformative, politics.  




In its political function, historical discourse tends to be doubly duplicitous.  Insofar as it pretends to scientificity, it is committed to eschew every ethical and political impulse.  On principle, it can serve neither the (ethically) good nor the (politically) useful.  In practice, the great historians—the paradigms or models of what constitutes “proper” historiography—vacillate between the two ideals, systematically advancing this or that form of sovereignty, this or that person or institution, as either adequate to its time and place and therefore “guiltless” before God and man or as possessing transcendental (idealized) value as a model (or exemplar) of what “ought to be” (E.g., the Greek polis, the Roman oecumene, the New Model Army, the Parisian mob, the Church, etc.).  It is by its unavoidable (unavoidable because it is inherent in its form, the narrative) idealizing strategies that historical discourse reveals its basis in rhetoric.  Though, I hasten to add, rhetoric understood in the de Manian mode, as theory of language, theory of the ultimately figurative nature of language, theory of the political uses of language, etc.  The ultimate function of historical discourse in modernity or in modernizing societies is to provide the basis for the theorization of historicality, understood as the ground and basis of politics.  It is no accident that the schema of thought gathered in the phrase “the end of history” comes to prominence alongside and in support of another schema just as pervasive, “the end of politics.”



About historicality:  I assume (with Heidegger) that since the notion (as well as the practice of) “history” makes its original appearance at a given time and place in Greece, in the West, and only there, it cannot be considered inherent in human consciousness, is not a human universal, and in both its concept and practice is culture-specific.  The same might be said of modern science, to be sure, but scientificity is transportable and translatable in a way that historicality is not.  [I believe this to be empircally true, but we have to research the migration of historical consciousness from the West to elsewhere objectively.  I personally believe that the modes of historical consciousness originate in Western Christian religion and cannot take shape with any firmness where Christianity is not practiced.  In this respect, historicality is rather like a Western notion of citizenship, which presupposes a particular and culture-specific idea of the person in order to be established as a basis for a democratic political practice.] Thus, the term “history” must be seen as naming a practice (of research and of writing) that presupposes an object or referent which is unclear (the past, the relation between past and present, “history”) and which, because it is “ambiguous,” requires successive clarification and redefinition.  In this sense, the notion of historicality resembles that object “history” the nature of which is to be constantly undergoing a clarification and redefinition as people who study it and try to grasp it contribute to its identification. I would call historicality the condition of those who believe in or believe themselves to be existing in history or who act as if they could “make history,” think that they particpate in historical events or processes, and act accordingly.  But this historicality is not discernible and can only be inferred from consideration of the discourses that historians produce. 




Philosophical hermeneutics of the kind practiced by Paul Ricoeur seek to derive “historicality” from “temporality”—such is the burden of Ricoeur’s meditation on Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit in Volume 3 of Temps et rècit.   But I am interested less in whether Ricoeur succeeds or fails in this effort than in the pertinence of his argument that historiography, the study and writing of history, and historiology, the analysis of the discipline of history writing, both precede—analyticlly and existentially—the determination of the “nature” (the historicality, the substance or essence) of that “history” which is the object of historians’ research and the referent of their discourse. In other words, anyone who is told that they exist in history or that such and such an event is a hsitorical event or that history holds a key to some problem of general human concern, has to take the “nature” of this history on faith—as a “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” [Hebrews, 11.i]  In any event, historiography proceeds as much by the effort to identify the substance of history (historicality) as it does by the study of history. 




Of course, the same thing could be said of both philosophy and politics and the discourses they foment.  But in modern political discourse, history is foundational in a way that it is not in philosophical discourse.  Insofar as modern politology seeks to be empirical and inductive rather than aprioristic and deductive in its procedures, historical data are all that political discourse has as a basis for its reflections.  The longstanding identification of history as (the study of) past politics encourages the symbiosis of political and historical discourse.  But this relationship is primarily a tropical rather than a logical one.  And it is this condition that makes it possible to interpellate the topic of rhetorics into an analysis of this relationship in order to explain or account for in some way the aporias of political discourse.




Let me stress that in this talk I shall not introduce the notion of the historicality of these three topics nor that of the historicality of historicality itself.  I believe that historicality today constitutes one of the possible alternatives to the lost foundationalisms of religion and metaphysics.  The notion of history may very well be a secularized form of the Christian doctrine of progress.  Indeed, I believe that the idea that we might find some meaning in the study of history by which to found an ethics or justify a given political form, I find this little more than a kind of “religious” move.  But this is because our current conception of history encourages this search in history for meaning while continuing to insist that history has to be studied in an empirical and positivistic manner.  This is obviously self-contradictory, since empiricist study of phenomena can never yield meaning.  The solution of this problem is not to abandon historical research and study but to change our notion of how to study history, with what instruments of analysis, and what kind of expectations we can realistically expect to be fulfilled by this study.  But a historical study of the history of historicality can tell us very little about these matters in our time (in the West) which is manifestly—in matters that count—a historical when not anti-historical.  I agree with Hegel that no one ever learned anything from the study of history except that no one ever learned anything from the study of history.  I must confess that I feel the same way about philosophy which, except for the subfield of logic, had its utility limited to the attempt to mediate between metaphysics and the various versions of science that have appeared since the pre-Socratics.  Modern, post-Galilean science has no need of metaphysics: science is properly concerned only with what is the case with nature; it does not and cannot tell us how we ought to live.  Needless to say, the social sciences insofar as they are sciences in the mode of the physical sciences, cannot tell us how we ought to live either.  They cannot even—or at least they have not thus far been able to—provide therapies for the social ills that they have succeeded in identifying.  Nor will any version of historicality do any better in this regard.  But at least insofar as historical studies have remained a discourse rather than a science, they at least have the virtue of being this worldly rather than other-worldly or metaphysical; they are committed to the study of earlier versions of social arrangements that might or might not indicate lost opportunities for social reform and reconstruction in the light of changing circumstances, and they place emphasis of human agency and responsibility for choices rather than upon abstract “forces,” “trends,” and “processes” that excuse political constituencies as well as their leaders for mistakes and errors that could have been avoided with a little thought and imagination.







         I am not interested in comparing (or seeking to derive) modern ideas of the relations among ethics, politics, and rhetoric with ancient, medieval, or even early modern Western ideas thereof. I want to concentrate on the ethics of the modern subject of society deprived of both religious and metaphysical certitudes about the ultimate nature of “reality.” As far as I am concerned, there is a reality but it posseses no meaning apart from that which is imposed upon it by human agency.  This reality is given specificity and endowed with conceptual attributes by the various discourses set up in a society to cultivate, manage, and police specific notions of group identity, origin, and end.  As for politics, I am interested only in the problem of constructing a viable democratic community, constructing a state that will serve the interests of fairness for its citizens and practice a policy of respect and open mindedness vis a vis other kinds of communities, and serve as referee to assure fair practices among the various groups that make up what is called civil society and provide safeguards for the least privileged of its members.  Of course, this conception of politics in our time must imply an interest in the various threats to such a model: religious systems of all kinds (fundamentalist as well as enlightened), the various totalitarian systems spawned by the 20th century and beyond, and what I take to be the greatest threat to a democratic polity, the global corporatist business system. 




On this conception, politics includes the efforts to transcend the appeal of certain residues of earlier political systems, such as monarchy, aristocracy, republicanism, and so on, and stave off threats to democratic systems as well.  I regard rhetorics (sic) as the art or science of the public uses of discourse, as less properly concerned with what the old rhetoric called “persuasion” (or “seduction”) than with the various techniques found in discourse by which fact and value can be united in a single, aesthetically compelling practice of communication, exchange, and negotiation. 




Here I follow the lead of my friends Richard Rorty  and especially Frank Ankersmit who, in his Aesthetic Politics (1996), examines the problem of an ethics and a politics without ontology and beyond ethics.  I think, by the way, that the attempt to construe the state as either the incarnation of moral norms or as guardian of an ethics—in other words, to confuse politics with the search for “the good”—has been disastrous.  I do not think that one can construct a logically consistent system that combines fact as that term is understood by modern (post-metaphysical) science and value, but that does not mean that one has to succumb to irrationalism.  What we need to do is redefine our notions about what counts as rational thought and action under the conditions of (Western) modernity.  This is where rhetorics, considered as a theory of the pragmatics of discourse without appeal to transcendental norms or universal values, comes in. 



The connection between rhetorics and the title of my paper, “Historicality as a Trope of Political Discourse,” is this:  if history, insofar as one can conceive it as a body of knowledge and/or a mode of existence in the world, if this history is a construction of thought and imagination, the “logic” of which is more tropological than logical, then any appeal to it as a basis for grounding thought about the relation between ethics and politics must be considered as a turn (trope) that is strictly rhetorical.  It is obvious, I think, that when, in the course of a dissertation on ethics, or politics, or the relation between them, as for example when one is trying to establish the “justness” of a war in which one is engaged, when in the course of such an argument, one (usually, suddenly and quite without necessity) invokes a argument from “history,” one is always acting only paralogically—by which I do not mean “irrationally.” I take discourse to name a kind of language use in which a referent in the real or some imagined world is n some sense idealized by djectivization and substituted for that referent as an object of desire.




         Let me give an example—not from history as I write this, for it came to me today, in the newspaper [although it will seem like a historical example by the time I speak to you, today], Sunday, January 2, 2005)—from a discourse by U. S. Central Command Commander General John P. Abizaid,[1] as he seeks to anticipate and thereby foreclose criticism of the growing length of the American war against Irak.  General Abizaid says many interesting things in his remarks on what he calls the “Long War” against “extremism” (itself a figure masquerading as a concept). But it provides the General with an occasion to invoke history for clarifying the issues at stake in this new kind of war.  First of all, the General (who is characterized by reporters as a “well-read man who analyzes contemporary issues against the background of history”) likens the leadership of what he calls “Salafist  jihadists” (aka Bin Laden and Company) to the Bolshevik leaders (Lenin, Trotsky, etc.) of the Russian revoluion.  Next, he asks readers to “think of today’s Islamic world, wracked by waves of violence, as akin to Europe in the revolutionary year of 1848. The Arab world’s spasm of anarchy and terror, like those in Europe 150 years ago, are part of a process of social change—in which an old order is crumbling, and a new one is struggling to be born.”  Such “historical analogies,” we are told by the journalist who reports this report by the General, “are helpful because they stretch our thinking.”  And how do they “stretch our thinking”?  According to the journalist (David Ignatius): “People tend to see current problems as unique and overwhelming, and that has been true for America in the traumatic years since September 11, 2001.


But,” he continues, “through the long lens of history, contemporary problems come into better focus.”  And what does this “better focus” reveal? “The wealthy jihadist  bin Laden begins to seem a bit like the 19th-century  anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, who similarly wanted to use revolutionary violence to purge what he viewed as a corrupt order.  On this broad canvas of historical change, the time horizon isnt’ years, but decades.” “This broad canvas” not of change but of “historical” change. . .  What is the force of this “historical” put before the term “change”?














In this address, I am going to use the concept of “historicality” or “the historical” as a topic around which to organize one way of construing the relations obtaining among “ethics, politics, and rhetoric,” the announced  topoi of our conference.  I want to try this because I want to question the ideological view that “history” constitutes the ontological foundation for any realistic consideration of the relation between notions of ethical obligation (deontology=theory of binding. Cfr. deoneration=act of unbinding. Cfr. Laplanche on “binding” of emotional and existential anxieties as reaction to hysteria, panic, obsessive compulsive behavior, etc.), on the one side, and political theory or the science (art) of government, on the other. One relationship we might conjure up as obtaining among Ethics, Politics, and Rhetoric is that The relation between ethics and politics is conventional and in essence only historical, in the sense that the concept of ethics, however construed, does not imply “politics.”  Only with the advent of the ethical state in the West . . . . etc.  The politics that interests me is that which seeks to deal with different kinds of sovereignty: monarchy, democracy,




         I realize that ethics and politics are “essentially contested concepts” and that, therefore, my definitions of terms must be taken as, first, provisional and, second, as having only the instrumental function of opening up a subject for further discussion.  In our time (and in this place) history has to be taken for granted as both the ground on which the specifically human being arises and as providing the only possible object of any science of the human.  Neither religion nor metaphysics can be entertained as anything other than delusory enterprises which seek to solve political and social problems and resolve cultural paradoxes by deflecting attention from their historicity (or time-and-space-boundedness) onto some imagined transcendental domain of a supernatural or metaphysical kind.  [By ethics I mean the kinds of obligations we feel to persons near to us and bound to us by ties of affection, blood relation, friendship, and respect. Ethics, as I understand it, is thought about these kinds of obligations within the context of a belief that they must be worked out in situ rather than abstractly.  Morals, or morality, I take to consist of the kinds of rules and procedures both prohibitive and prescriptive) laid upon individual persons by virtue of their membership in groups, institutions, and at the outer remove a species.]




         “History” names the space where conflicts between natural existence and cultural exigency are played out.  In this respect, we may say of history what Levi-Strauss famously said when considering whether the incest tabu belonged to either nature or culture.  The tabu, he said, belongs neither to culture nor to nature but constitutes the place where the one separates out from the other, thereby creating the zone of existential ambiguity within which man (=humanity) is indentured to define his (its) own substance.  At its broadest extent, history names this place of separation, ambiguity, and conflict and reveals its irremediably temporal nature.  Thus, I propose that we consider as  the effective substance of historicality the human experience of temporality but as culturally organized so as to generate those enigmas of existence for which “historical knowledge” is supposed to be the resolution, cure, and solution. 




         Now, it is because historicality arises on the basis of the experience of temporality as culturally organized that historical knowledge, the knowledge of history, the historical knowledge of history, the knowledge of historical history, generates as many ambiguities, enigmas, and paradoxes as it purports to resolve.  The more historical information we have about a given historical phenomenon, the less scientific comprehension we can have of it.   For historical information is always and can only be—by the rules of the history  game—detailed information, and the more refined, the more concrete, the more meristic, the better.  Historical information cannot be generalized because it is by definition particularate, time and place specific, and focussed on the thought and action of concrete entities, whether collective or individual.  Modern efforts to constitute history as a science of laws and causation have failed, or have been able to claim success only by dissolving the discipline of historical studies into the protocols and procedures of other real or soi-disant sciences. 




         In fact, or at least it seems to me (after many decades of observing the history beast), history gives pleasure (or satisfaction) and seems to enlighten us precisely by virtue of its status as a non-scientific consideration of a real world, a world which is both past and present, both dead and alive, both determined and contingent.  Frederic Jameson has asserted that history is the (Lacanian) “real” which means that history must be the absolutely unsymbolizable dimension of human existence.  Which means that what we can actually know of history must be only a “version” (in Nelson Goodman’s sense of the term) of this dimension of human existence which can never be compared with the reality of which it is a version but can be compared only with other versions thereof.  In this respect, any given account of any part and especially of the putative whole of history will inevitably display all the attributes of metaphysics, product of an effort to symbolize and thereby endow with meaning the unsymbolizable dimensions of human existence.




         If we understand, then, historical discourse as symbolic or more precisely symbolizing or symbolating discourse, we can see the relevance of rhetorics (by which I mean the theory and practice of figurative expression and of the relation between this mode of expression and any “literalist” counterpart thereof) to historical, political, and ethical discourse alike.  For if, after what Marcel Gauchet[2] calls “our exit” from religion and metaphysics, all we have left as an object of existentially “concerned” inquiry and reflection is “history,” then it is obvious—at least to me—that we must historicize, by which I mean recognize the “historicity” of all the discourses in which ethics and politics constitute the principal subject-matter.   But as we recognize the historicity of ethics and politics, we effectively remove both of these from any possibility of universalization or even generalization.  Their true “content” is nothing but their histories.  Whence the tendency, in both ethicist and politicist discourse, to become hung up on such questions as “What is ethics?” and “What is politics?”  These questions show the tenuousness of the notions of the ethical subject, on the one hand, and of a substantialist politics, on the other. Which accounts, in my estimation, for the popularity for a pragmatist approach to these questions in our time.  (With the death of the transcendental subject, both ethics and politics lose their object of study.)




         And: the rebirth of rhetorics[3] conceived as the theory of the relation between the constative and the performative dimensions of language use in the fields of ethics and politics. 




I propose that we treat historicality (or “the historical”) less as a concept than as a figure which names a domain of human existence inhabited by persons and institutions which function as relatively free (which means also, relatively bound) agents engaged in purposive activities of various kinds but the political dimension of which consists in the effort to constitute stable and, insofar as appears possible, equitable communities of beliefs and practices.




The word “historicality” falls heavily on Anglophone ears; I do not find it in my Oxford English Dictionary, though I do find the awkward and seldom used “historicalness,” defined as “the quality of being historical.” The adding of the –ity ending to the adjective “historical” (“of, belonging to, or pertaining to history”) gives me a term by which to indicate the way in which a concept or figure such as “history” can be metaphysicalized by simply nominalizing the adjectival form of the noun.  Thus, history as the name of a zone or region of existence, one can use “historical” to name the objects inhabiting that zone, and it is a short step from this to the creation of a new noun which names the substance of the quality shared by these inhabitants.  a process which proceeds through  adjectivization (“historical”) to re-substantializ[4]ation (“historicalness”) such that the essence of the thing is supposed to be identical with existence. There is no substance of history except in a religious worldview such as Christianity or in any of those many philosophies of history such as Hegel’s and Marx’s which purport to have discovered history’s secret and to be able, as a consequence, not only to predict the future but to bind society to the effort to make a particular future come about.  Philosophy of history is as illusory as religion.


Accounts of history or historical accounts of the world are constructions of thought and imagination, though not constructions made out of nothing. They are constructions made out of local materials of meaning production, the common attribute is their forms and modes of articulation.  It is the forms and modes of articulation that determine the “historicity” of a given account of the world or any part of it.  One can say much the same thing about politics and the discourses which political life generates.  It is conceivable that, with the advent of advanced or late capitalism, the capitalism of the multinationals with their global sweep, the era of politics—the political organization of society– has come to an end, that politics has been absorbed to the structures of economic organization and is little more than an epiphenomenon of the latter.  If this is so, then the traditional discussion about the relation between politics, ethics, and rhetoric—the ethics of political actions, the use and abuse of rhetoric in politics and ethics, rhetoric of politics, and the ethics of rhetoric considered as a technique of persuasion or seduction—all of these topoi would have to be re-considered.  For if, as seems to be the case, man is not quintessentially a political animal, and if there is no indwelling moral sense in the human animal, and if rhetoric is nothing but the art of persuasion, then there is very little to discuss under the topoi that comprise the rubric of our conference.  




         I am not, however, going to try to talk about this condition, but rather address a relationship somewhat less pressing, namely, that between politics (or more specifically, the discourse of politicality) and history (or more specifically, the discourse of historicality).  Politicality names a domain of meaning production in which ethics or certain ethical systems are given practical application.  The field of meaning privileged by the discourse of politicality consists of the pairs: inside-outside, dominant-subordinant, friend-enemy, and included-excluded.  



         It is a commonplace of contemporary political theory that totalitarianism, and especially the kind of totalitarianism bred by the twentieth century, was inspired in large part by the grandiose philosophies of history fomented by Hegel, Comte, and Marx in the nineteenth century.   These ideologies of history (for that is what they were—imaginary relations to the real social conditions of existence in the early industrial age) were used to justify practices, racist, genocidal, revolutionary, repressive, unimaginable prior to their inauguration.  The political theorists (from Friedrichs, Shklar, Popper, Talmon, Arendt and a host of others) who have analyzed the relation between totalitarian political systems (and they are or were political systems) and philosophies of history uniformly presumed that a reliable antidote to the excesses of these ideologies was history per se, history tout court, history as it really happened, the historical facts, the true story of the past, and so on.  In other words, insofar as totalitarian regimes were inspired by or drew upon philosophies of history (now called “grand narratives” of history) to justify their actions, they represented “distortions” of either “history” (what really happened in the past) or “historical truth” (what has been established by historians as the truth about the past).  But since there is no “historical reality” to which one can go in order to compare different versions of “what happened in history,”  “what history teaches,” or “what we can infer from a properly historical understanding of history,” the conflict between a philosophical (or ideological) treatment of history and a properly professional historian’s treatment thereof is a conflict between different ideological treatments of the same historical phenomena (ideology being understood to be, in this instance, an imaginary relationship to that part of the past that matters to a given community or social group). This why any appeal to “history” as a way of discrediting any putative ideology of history must fail.  Because in such disputes, it is less a matter of “what are the facts?” than one of “what are we to make of the facts?”—especially when the point at issue is one of national or community identity.  There are many formal differences between philosophy of history and professional historiography, between the effort to grasp the “reason” or “drift” or “meaning” of the historical process in general and the labor of finding out “what really happened” in some circumscribed area of the past.  But from a philosophical standpoint, the (synthetic) effort to grasp the meaning of history in general is not less legitimate than the (analytical) task of finding out what happened in discreet domains of “historical” occurrence.   Thus, the derogation of philosophy of history not only because of its service to totalitarian regimes but also because it is—putatively–a distortion of true history, this is nothing more (and nothing less) than a rhetorical move.  By which I do not mean that this move in itself is any more “persuasive” than any simple negation of an opinion.



It is a commonplace of historical theory that the word “history” can be used to indicate both an object of study (the past, past events, etc.) and a kind of discourse (narrative, account, rapporto, recit, etc.) conventionally used to present what has been found out in a specific investigation of this object.





But the word “history” also indicates not only the pastness of history’s object of study but also the generic identity of this object.   Not all past events are historical or belong to history.  Only certain events or kinds of events are or can be considered “historical.”  And this because the possess the “quality” or “substance” of historicity, a particular mode of being in the world that distinguishes them from other kinds of worldly (or natural) events and utterly differentiates them from any kind of preternatural event.  It is held, by thinkers like Michael Oakshott and Professor Frank Ankersmit, for example, that history is utterlay anontological, that in fact one might define historical inquiry privatively non-metaphysical (this is what it shares with modern science) and non-systematic (which is what distinguishes it, among other ways, from modern science).In fact, Professor Ankersmit goes so far as to characterize historical inquiry as an aesthetic activity, by which he means an activity of representation (of the human past) unbound by ontological commitments but ,like painting especially,[5] indentured to the task of inventing every new and preferably “original” representations of the past.  Ankersmit thinks that history has no metaphysical basis or foundation.[6] And because he regards art as intrinsically antimetaphysical too, he regards historical inquiry, research, and writing as essentially aesthetic.  It is the freedom of artistic activity that appeals to him: there can be no system or set of rules or procedures by which to produce a genuine work of art.  The genuine work of art is one of a kind, produced by the utterly unpredictable and inexplicable actions of an artist in process of trying to render his perceptions of a scene or person or event into the concrete stuff of paint on canvas.  Like the artist, the historian has no need of a theory, an epistemology, or an ontology.  For the historian, like the artist, is interested only in representing effectively (i.e., with aesthetic force) of aesthetic what his senses receive in the way of information from the past.  And this is why, according to Ankersmit, historical research has no need of an ethics.  Historians are no more bound to service to the ought than are modern scientists, neither in their practice nor in their theory. Historians want to know (merely?) “what happened” in the past including the unforeseen and purely contingent consequences of actions undertaken for the most base as well as of the noblest of circumstances.  But they are under no ethical obligation either to their objects of study or to their own societies.[7]  They are “free” to use whatever means they hit upon to depict the past in all its color, concreteness, particularity, and strangeness. And not even the contents of the documents constitute a constraint on historiographical invention, because the documents are always subject to interpretation, indeed, demand interpretation if they are to serve as specifically “historical” documents.  So not all documents from the past are “historical” documents; they are transformed into such by the historian.  But this means that the attribute of “hisrtoricality” does not inhere in the object of the historian’s inquiry but has to be imputed to the object by the historian’s action as a representer of the historical past.[8]





I want to begin with a hypothesis, namely, that (modern,Western) historical inquiry is intrinsically anti-metaphysical, anti-epistemological, anti-theoretical, and  anethical, but inherently political insofar as its privileged object of interest has been past politics and its specific social function has been to provide a genealogical legitimation for the modern nation-state.  However, if historical inquiry is anethical, it is conventionally governed by considerations of a moral kind.  These moral considerations appear in the guise of talk about historians’ obligations to the past or to the dead, the necessity of respecting past agents who, being consigned to “history,” are to have their most diabolical acts dispassionately contemplated.  And they are expressed in the topos of historical consciousness as more a mode of understanding (Verstehung) than of explanation (Erklarung).  In this respect, historical knowledge resembles what moderns have generally considered to be the nature of political knowledge.  Since Machiavelli and the proponents of the raison d’etat, politics has generally been thought to be anethical (the “an-“ here is privative), which is to say free of any  obligations to values of a metaphysical kind.  Which does not mean that politics has nothing to do with morality: even the amorality of Machiavelli’s Prince is considered to be a political “good.”  It is just that the qualities of good and bad are assigned to the category means rather than of ends.  It is immoral for a prince to be governed by ethical considerations in the founding, maintenance, and prolongation of his rule.  By the same token, it is immoral for the (modern) historian to show favoritism and too much sympathy for his objects of study. 




It is very difficult to speak coherently of historicality, because although history has always been associated with inquiry into the past, the modes of construing the nature of the past, the methods best suited for studying it, notions of the kind of knowledge one can draw from such study, and the modes of presenting this knowledge have varied since the time of the ancient Greeks.  Moreover, whatever is meant by the term “history”and the substantive “historicality,” historical consciousness appears as a specifically “Western” invention.  All other cultures have conceptions of “past”and all of those of which I am aware have an interest in their own “past.”  Thus, it must be concluded that neither a consciousness of pastness nor even an interest in the relation between past and present suffices to define what in the West has been, since 1550 or thereabouts, understood as a specifically “historical” conscioiusness.




         And yet the terms “history,” “historical,” and (less commonly)  “historicality” are used with relative ease in Western languages, as if they designated respectively: 1. an object of knowledge; 2. a quality inhering in things and events of a certain kind; and 3.) an essence or substance shared by all such objects and things and events.   Michael Oakshott used to distinguish between “the historical past and “the practical past,” the former being that idea of the past constructed by the labors of professional historians pursuing knowledge of the past as an end in itself rather than for use of it for some practical purpose.  On the other hand, he recognized that everyone and every group—in the West at least—had need of some notion of the nature of the past as a kind of archive of past things and events to be drawn upon to suggest or justify actions in the present.  And Oakshott went on to suggest that one could recognize a proper history and distinguish it from ideology or myth by virtue of its status as a knowledge from which no practical rules, principles, or procedures could be drawn.  Indeed, the hated “philosophy of history” of the kind produced by Hegel and Marx showed its misuse of historical knowledge in the extent to which it purported to have identified a specifically “historical” process, found a key to the understanding of this process, and offered recommendations on how to act in the present so as to bring about a future of a particular kind.  History taught no lessons of a practical kind, the historical past was distinguished from the present by its difference therefrom, and the height of historical wisdom consisted in the effort to keep the one isolated from the other as a source of models, paradigms, or exempla of comportment. 




On this reasoning the proper function of historical knowledge was to discourage the construction of grandiose “grand narratives” of the history of the world or of the human race or the spirit of reason or the class struggle, and so on and to show their inadequacy to the factual record when they appeared on the horizon of politics or any other aspect of the practical life. This view is reminiscent of that of Roger Chartier, who rejects the idea that historians ought to try to reconstruct the past in favor of the task of dissolving myths about the past and dispelling lies about it proffered in support of utopian schemes and revolutionary plans for the future.  On this view, history stands over against myth, fiction, and every form of ideology based on a substitution of “what should have been” for “what was.”  According to Chartier, history is principally a “critical” activity, a study of the sources to check out, confirm where possible, but to above all to  disconfirm any account of the past (or present) at odds with what the documentary record as vetted by professional historians prohibits the living to say about the dead.  Thus, in its relation to politics—to which it has always been connected—history and historical knowledge has a purely negative function.



The call for contributions to our conference, with its enigmatic title “Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric,”suggests that we might take “the legacy of post-structuralism seriously, that is to say, literally,” entertain the idea that “identity is principally linguistic and language instrumental in shaping our realities,” ask ourselves whether “there is an ethical and political dimension inherent in language itself” and then go on to consider “the thought that certain tropological constellations map out distinct avenues for change and action.”




         Frankly, I do not know whether identity is or is not “principally linguistic.” I have no trouble with the idea that language may be “instrumental in shaping our realities,” although I am unclear about the nature of this instrumentality.  I believe that it is possible to impute an “ethical dimension” to language itself, especially in its modal and diathetic aspects, and that one can derive a model of political relationships from reflection on the ways in which language presumes dominant and subordinate, active and passive relationships as possibilities for defining places and functions of communication.  Whether this ethical and political dimension  is “inherent” or not, I do not know; it certainly seems to be implicit.  As for the question of whether “certain tropological constellations map out distinct avenues for change and action,”I would want to know what the metaphor of “mapping” implies regarding the relation between any given  map, on the one side, and the territory of which it claims to be a map, on the other.  Finally, about tropology, I believe that one can plausibly hold that tropology—the paralogical “turns” of discourse analyzed in rhetorics–can be used to understand the ways in which constative statements are related to perlocutionary utterances in various kinds of discourses, of which the political would be emblematic.[1]



         Now, underlying all such considerations as these is the enigmatic relationship between words and things or words and states of affairs which has worried philosophers since time immemorial.  But I want to suggest that this problem or this question of the relation between words and states of affairs has taken a different turn with the advent of our modernity.  The difference is this: whereas it was once conventional to raise the question of this relationship within the context of a belief in the reality (or at least the possibility) of a divine  or metaphysical foundation by appeal to which the ideal relationship between language and world could be conceptualized, now or rather after, structuralism-poststructualism, no such foundation is imaginable.[9] All this is commonplace, and I will not even try to provide justification for this disbelief in foundations which I share as a truth which “goes without saying.”  But I want to suggest—rather than argue or attempt to demonstrate, for want of time and ability to do so—I want to suggest that since the dissolution of the grand systems of religion and metaphysics, that is to say, since about 1780 or thereabouts in the West, I want to suggest that since that time, it is history that has stood in for and provided a substitute for  the foundational function of mediating the relation between language and politics and between language and ethics and even, to a certain extent, between language and reality (by which I mean, social reality, human reality) itself.  This is why, among other reasons, to be sure, the field of historical inquiry—of inquiry into the past and of inquiry into the relation between the past and the present—the field of historical inquiry has been resistant to every effort to disciplinize it—to turn it into a science or domain of even systematic inquiry.  And this is why the field of historical inquiry has remained or tried to remain adamantly “empirical,” has  resisted or denied the constructivist interpretation of its objects of analysis.  Even the most skeptical of philosophers stop short of recognizing in historical knowledge that element of “fictionality” which they are willing to impute to genuine sciences. 




As a matter of fact, the Western conception of history presumes an important difference, if not a metaphysical gap, between the past and the present; it presumes that the past can be made to respond to questions put to it by or from the present; it conceives historical method as a means both of bridging the gap between past and present and providing answers to the questions put to the former by the latter. 



Since human nature is conceived to be manifested in humanity’s activity of self making, historicality cannot be said to be undergirt by a metaphysical reality.  Or if there is a metaphysics of historical existence, it one that is constant process of becoming manifest.  Modern historicality  has no ontological basis.  Consequently, historical inquiry has no formal ethical principles. There can be said to be a morality of historical inquiry—there are moral and immoral historians, just as there are moral and immoral politicians.  But no ethics of historical inquiry, because ethics has to do with familiars not with “others.”  History as only to do with “others”—human beings and events remote in time if not in space.  The investigation of these human beings is to be carried out in good faith, not with respect to the others themselves but with respect to other historians.  But historians’ morality is not the same as politicians’ morality. 






At a minimum, history is a form of inquiry posited on the belief that the best approach to an understanding of human nature and human society is to inquire into the human past to discover what human beings in other times, places, and circumstances did when faced with specifically human problems.  In this formulation, one cannot say what the meaning of the adjective “human” is because, in the modern humanistic variety of historical inquiry, the nature of the human is in constant process of articulation and elaboration, so that one can say, with Ortega y Gasset, that man has no nature; what he has is a history.  A specifically historical characterization of humanity, then, would hold that humanity is what human beings have thought and done over the whole course of human species evolution.  Modern historical theory ties historical inquiry to the documentary record of human existence.  But since it is a peculiar characteristic of humanity to be constantly “making itself,” there is no one attribute of humanity which defines it except this capacity for self-making.   











One of the objections I have to modern philosophical discourse is the way it pretends to discuss a problem of ethics or epistemology or aesthetics but almost always diverts attention from the problem as met with in real life in order to divagate into considerations of what other philosophers living or dead have had to say about the problem before them.  This is a form of philosophical troping.[10]  As a result of this troping, errance, divagation, or Windung, we usually tend to get a discussion of texts or other discourses about the matter in question rather than a consideration of the matter itself.  Sometimes, in order to avoid the textualist move, the philosopher, especially if s(he) is  of a skeptical termperament, like, for example, David Hume, will advert less to texts than to what Hume himself calls “experience.”  This would seem to put the discussion on more concrete and empirical terrain since an appeal to “experience” is a much more democratic procedure than an appeal to “authority.”  But in the majority of cases and in Hume’s case in particular, when the conflict between ethics (he calls it morality) and politics is at issue, the experience Hume appeals to is an “experience” of “history.” Thus, in his witty  “Essays Moral and Political,” when dilating on the question of whether politics can be reduced to a science, Hume turns at one point to a passage in Machiavelli which, he says, “may be regarded as one of those eternal political truths which no time nor accident can vary.”  (Hume, p. 300)



         The “eternal political truth” in question has it that, in the maintenance of rule over a conquered territory of the “Eastern” (oriental) sort, “in every respect a gentle [rather than a harsh] government is preferable and gives the greatest security to the sovereign as well as to the subject.”  (Ibid., p. 301)  Hume’s authority for this observation is Machiavelli’s remarks on the stability of the Hellenistic monarchies that succeeded the death of Alexander the Great. In other words, Machiavelli (called a “politician” by Hume) is cited by Hume as both a practical politician and a historian.




But in a note attached to this passage, Hume states:


         I have taken it for granted, according to the supposition of Machiavel, that the ancient Persians had no nobility, though there is reason to suspect that the Florentine secretary, who seems to have been better acquainted with the Roman than the Greek authors, was mistaken in this particular.” (Ibid., 300, note 8) In short, Hume cites Machiavelli who uses the case of the Persian Empire to support of his view of the best way to govern a conquered Asian nation, only to take issue with the appropriateness of this example.  There then follows in this long note a succession of citations to prove that Persia at least was an exception to the rule advanced by Machiavelli.  He then cites Xenophon who described the Persians as “a free people” possessing a “nobility.”  “Their ‘omotimoi, Hume observes, “were preserved after the extending of their conquests and the consequent change of their government.” And then to nail down the fact of the matter, Hume states: “Arrian mentions them in Darius’ time.”  Then, in an extension of this note, which goes on for a full page, Hume says: “Historians also speak often of he persons in command as men of family.  Tygranes, who was general of the Medes under Xerxes, was of the race of  Achaemenes. Herod. Lib vii. Cap 62. Artacheus, who directed the cutting of the canal about Mount Athos, was of the same family.  Id. Cap. 117.  Megabyzus was one of the seven eminent Persians who conspired against the Magi. Machiavelli’s reasoning, Hume remarks, “seems solid and conclusive” but adds: “though I wish he had not mixed falsehood with truth in asserting that monarchies governed according to Eastern policy, though more easily kept when once subdued, yet are the most difficult to subdue, since they cannot contain any powerful subject whose discontent and faction may facilitate the enterprises of an enemy.” (Ibid., p. 301)




It is obvious that Hume appeals for examples and illustrations of the principles he purports to discover not so much to history as to historians.  It is to other texts and discourses that he appeals, although he elides the differences between what a given historian says about his referent (the subject of his discourse) and the referent itself.  It could hardly be otherwise, to be sure: Hume could hardly go into the archives to confirm or disconfirm the political or moral principles he has devised by a priori reasoning. 











Our topic: Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric surprises by its omission of the term truth.


Foucault said: “Schematically, we can formulate the traditional question of political philosophy in the following terms: how is the discourse of truth, or, quite simply, philosophy as that discourse which par excellence is concerned with truth, able to fix limits to the rights of power?. . . . My problem is rather this: what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth?”  [Passions de l’ame, 3:152, quoted in Stanley Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics (Oxford: O.U.P., 1987), p. 188.]  Delirium of the philosopher: the Plato syndrome, that the tyrant will heed the philosopher—and tailor his program to truth.  What are our moral obligations to “the truth”?  For: there may be a morality of truth, but not an ethics of truth. 



Why is history still a passionate area of investigation when the kind of knowledge it yields is often contradictory and, in any event, has no possible practical application?  Recent discussions of the epistemology of historical inquiry have succeeded in establishing the inconsequentiality of historical knowledge.  As Valery was fond of saying.  You can prove anything by history, nobody ever proved anything by history.  And Hegel: The only thing one can learn from the study of history is that no one ever learned anything from the study of history.  So, historical inquiry is not really a science—in spite of its claim to with to be objective—and it is not quite an art even though it is an object of artistic interest.  Nonetheless, in the West at least, history is—after the decline of religion and metaphysics—all we have left. What are its consolations, its sources of psychological investment?  This is the question I want to pose today in order to open up inquiry into the topic indicated in my title: “historicality as a trope of political discourse.”



Today I wish to examine the function of a rhetorical trope that I shall call “historation”[11] which is the interruption of a demonstration in order to cite, invoke, describe, or otherwise advert to “history” in order to justify, confirm, or legitimate a particular position, point of view, or argument.  As in the phrase: “Heute scheint es undenkbar, dass je wieder eine Revolution Geschichte machen könnte.”  In this example, “history” is personified as an agent or engine or cause of political change, itself a figure which, according to Reinhart Koselleck, comes into general usage only in the early nineteenth century. We encounter this figure in such commonsensical phrases as “History will justify. . . . “or “History will prove . . . “ or “History tells us . . . . “







Ethics and morality::  ethics is to thick relations as morality is to thin relations as familial relations are to political relations.




An ethics of discourse would deal with discourse among friends, family, and one’s community.  A morality of discourse would deal with discourse among enemies.  Politics can be assessed in terms of the problematic moral v. immoral.  Morality here is calcuable.  Politics has nothing of ethics in it.  There can be good and bad politics, but an ethical politics is a contradiction in terms. This is why we expect and can forgive immorality in politics. 



In a recent study of the modernist discussion of the nature of history (or historical reality and the knowledge we can have of it and the uses we can make of it), Andrew Baird, in a work of rare intelligence, dilates on the pleasures and pains of “historicization.”  Following upon an analysis of the existentialist notion of “throwness” (Geworfenheit) in Heidegger’s Being and Time and the concept of “belatedness” (Nachtraglichkeit) in the work of  Jean Laplanche, Baird treats “historicizing” as a kind of theraputic move intended to “bind” the kind of “intellectual and existential anxiety” aroused by consciousness of the condition of “being-with-others in time.” Not everyone, as Michael Roth observes, is disturbed or oppressed by a sense of the past or feels burdened by the legacy handed down from the ancestors.  But for a time-obsessed culture such as that of the modern West, “history” consists of much more than all the events of a past that is more or less well-known and is in principle knowable on the basis of a rational and rule-governed examination of the sources.  If for some, history is a source of consolation and object of reverence, for modernist intellectuals, it is, as it was for Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, a ”nightmare” from which one would wish to awaken.  Baird points out that for Heidegger, the key to the understanding of history considered as the relation among “past, preent, and future” was the “situation” which requried “vorlaufige Entschlossenheit”  for its resolution, for Laplanche this relation offered itself to consideration as an “enigma” for which “historicization”was a palliative.  And indeed, if you think about it for a moment, what else could cause the kind of extreme interest in the past be. 










I would like to begin my consideration of “historicality as a trope of political discourse” with a few definitions of what I mean by the terms of my title and some specification of what I propose to do and not do. I will give a few examples of how historicality functions 




The relation among politics, ethics, and rhetoric: By politics I understand a practice; by ethics, a theory; and by rhetoric, a performance.  Each of these terms can be characterized—to use the language of W.B. Gallie—as “essentially contestable  Which means that they are terms which designate dimensions of human being which, in any description of them, will be ambivalently valorized.  Politics is both “a dirty business”or the activity which distinguishes human beings from the other animals.  Ethics is both an idealistic illusion or the highest aspiration of humankind.  And rhetoric is both “the glib and oily art” of persuasion and seduction or the science of the public use of discourse. 






Modern political discourse offers itself as realistic (purely political, using power without ethical concerns to realize certain goals but also primarily to maintain power) or idealistic (using state power to realize ideal aims, such as community identity, security, territorial claims, etc.).  In both kinds of political discourse, there can come a moment at which the speaker will “turn” to history for an example, analogue, or paradigm or invoke the concept of “historicality” to suggest a kind of connection between a given set of events and its context.  This is a customary move, sanctioned by conventions dating back to Thucydides, and it is practiced in both the artistic (oratorical) and scientific (rhetorical) modes of political speech.  But the appeal to history and/or historicality as a moment in discourse is a tropical (or tropological)





First, about the abstract pseudo-substantive “historicality.” It is of course derived from the adjective “historical” which, if it means simply “past,” adds nothing to the characterization of the nouns “event,” “past,” “process,” and so on that it is often used to modify.  If “historical” is understood to mean ”past,” then the expression “historical past” is a pleonasm and does not distinguish the kind of past so designated from another past or kind of past that might serve as its antonym. I agree with the late Michael Oakshott who suggested that the “historical past” is a construction of a certain modernity which recognizes the right and duty of a group of professional students of “the past” to estblish what can be plausibly said about the past on the basis of evidence treated in a particularly critical way.  Oakshott argued for a distinction between “the historical past,” that part of the past that has been subjected to critical scrutiny by the guild of professional historians, and “the practical past,” the past that each of us carries around with him or her and draws upon in one way or another to submit our perception of situations in the present to a kind of “reality testing.” Koselleck calls this past, “the space of experience.”



         This distinction between “the historical past” and “the practical past” is a modern or rather a modernist distinction.  It corresponds roughly to the difference between a past that has been reconstructed scientifically and a past that has been studied and investigated for exemplary models of comportment or examples of possible kinds of responses to some kind of situation.  This bespeaks a difference between a professional interest in the past as such and a practical interest in the past as a reserve of instances that can be used to suggest a more or less “realistic” response to a present problem.




         Prior to the nineteenth century there was, properly speaking, no such thing as a professional historian.  What is today called “historical research” could be undertaken by anybody with access to libraries and archives and the languages requisite for reading what lay therein.  There was no such thing as an orthodoxy in what has since come to be called “historical method” and the notion of “historicality” —-the substantive made out of the adjective “historical” which in the early modern period had come to mean simply “past”—-hardly existed.[12]  [As is well-known, the term “history” derives from Greek ‘istoria which originally meant only “inquiry” and implied “inquiry into the recent past” (rather than the remote past); only over time did the term ‘istoria come to designate an account of the past and only later than this did it come to be synonymous with “narrative,” the form of discourse proper to “stories” about the past.]  Retred generals, professional storytellers, politicians, condottieri della penna in the houses of nobles, bishops, and popes, maiden aunts, local antiquarians, schoolmasters, and more—-all and every one had a right to do historical research, write it up, and publish the result as a “history,” with no one to say him or her nay. 




During this period of history’s evolution as a discipline, one could not, again properly, distinguish, as Oakshott did, between the historical past and the practical past.  By the “practical past” Oakshott appears to have meant something like what Koselleck calls “the space of experience”, an organized or at least  archived memory of the  offically credited (or internally authorized) notion of that portion of the past organized for use to guide action in the present, much like “tradition,” “convention, or “custom.”  Koselleck’s “space of experience” can stand for either the historical past or the practical past, depending on the uses made of the information and examples contained therein. 




Oakshott insists—as most historians, when confronted by instances of theoretical history or philosophy of history or, indeed, of commonsensical notions of history used by historians, pedagogues, novelists, and the like—Oakshott insists that the historical past not only is not constructed by professional historians to be used for practical purposes (even pedagogical), he also insists that when professional historians do their work properly, there is nothing in professional historical accounts of the past that can be used for practical purposes.  This is quite different from the situation in the professional natural sciences, wherein one test for the scientificity of knowledge consists of the possibility of applying it to the world of practical-technical affairs. The upshot is the following: the practical past and a fortiori the kind of knowledge contained in this version of the past must deviate in both form and intention from the kind of knowledge contained in the historical past.


This does not mean that people operating in practical affairs can be impeded from going to, drawing on, and adapting the “historical past” constructed by the professional historians (and other professional social scientists) to support and advance their practical interests, needs, and programs.  But it does mean that, according to Oakshott, we must view “the historical past” as having nothing to do with and no utility for the practical life of a society.  A proper “historical past” conceptualized (rather than found, to be sure) by professional historians teaches nothing of any practical use to anybody. 




         And indeed if properly construed, “the historical past” teaches nothing of theoretical interest either.  One cannot generalize about the historical past for it consists of particularities—so there are no general principles to be derived from its study.  One cannot derive “laws” of historical change from the study of history’s processes, because every historical phenomenon is an individual entity, the nature of which is time and place specific.  And because of this individuality, one cannot derive models of comportment from one historical milieu to apply to another.  As Oakshott has it: The historical past is “a complicated world, without unity of feeling or clear outline: in it events have no over-all pattern or purpose, lead nowhere, point to no favoured conditon of the world and support no practical conclusion.”[13]  



         Now, I believe that this characterization of the kind of knowledge professional historiography presents about “the historical past” is correct and that, on the basis of it, we can understand why it was that the long conflict  between historians and philosophers of history during the twentieth century came to naught. But we can also understand why the use (and abuse) of historical knowledge (of the professional kind) in the modern age (in the West) has been opposed by professional historians (at least, when this use runs against these professional historians’ own values and ideological preferences).  Historical studies were transformed into an academic discipline (and it is only that) and professionalized in the nineteenth century in such a way and in order to undermine all of those ideologies and political programs advanced by radicals of a number of stripes that claimed to have found their justification precisely in a past that could be used for “practical” aims and purposes.  In the eighthteenth century, there had been a general expropriation by radical thinkers of historical knowledge for the purpose of serving as a ground or basis or a radial critique of the status quo.  After the French Revolution had run its course,



What is the therapeutic use of historical knowledge, of the historical past or of the practical past.  Some years ago, in an essay entitled “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De Sublimation,” I suggested that the social function of professional historiography since mid-nineteenth century was domesticating.  Since that time I have learned from studying the work of Andrew Baird that official versions of the historical past of a society may have (for some people and groups, not all) the function of “binding” the “intellectual and existential anxiety” produced by the peculiarly modern experience of “historicality.”  Baird defines the feeling of “historicality” as a sense of the condition of “being-with-others in time.” (Baird, p. 232.) [Baird equates this condition, the condition of existing “in history,” of living “historically,” as equivalent to the kind of condition that Heidegger calls “thrownness” [Geworfenheit].”  Just as in the psychotherapy, one ai might be to calm the panic and hysteria that comes from being at the mercy of some memory that one can neither live with nor completely repress or sublimate, so too in the condition of raw within-time-ness (as Riceoru calls it), one might wish for a way of thinking about this condition that would override and allay the feelings of ontological panic arising from it.  Of course, religious and metaphysical beliefs might serve this purpose, but historical thinking or a grasping by consciousness of this condition in historiological terms would serve for the community or the purpose lacking in religious or metaphysical beliefs. To grasp the condition of being with others in time as a problem for which the solution is historicization is the equivalent of working trough the effects of a traumatic situation in psychoanalysis.  To historicize a given condition of being with others in time is to endow within-timeness with structure, form, pattern, purpose.  And this is what it means to possess historical consciousness.  This is what it means to live successfully in history.      



Trope: In calling historicality a trope, I wish to indicate the extent to which any appeal in an argument to    “historicality” can only be a tropological move.  By trope, I refer to a “turn” in a discourse that violates the rules of grammar and logic but still succeeds in producing a meaning in commonsensical or aesthetic terms.  Proust’s turn from images of water to those of stone in order to figure the phenomenal form of a jet d’eau would be a case in point.  “Water” fashioned in a jet to resemble the stones of an ancient building would constitute a turn from one figure to another that is sanctioned by no rule of logic or science.  The notion of a “past” that is “historical” (rather than what?) is a similar turn.  To be sure, historical can be viewed as a signifier of “humanly caused” or “intentional action,” as well as having the signified “past.”  But in this respect, “historical” differs from “natural” in the extent to which the latter connotes a domain of causality non-mystical in kind.





Finally, politics.  For a long time, I have regarded historical studies in their professionalized or academically disciplinized form as an ideological formation (or world view) designed to neutralize the social effects of the kinds of political ideologies (Marxism, Utopian Socialism, radical thought in general) generated by industrialized and capitalized society.  Nineteenth century historical thinking develops within the matrix of the national-state system which took shape at that time.  It took politics or the development of the modern European and American state system as its principal subject-matter and it derived its authority from its effort to provide a genealogical legitimation of the nation state, on the one hand, and to show the impossibility of improving on this construction (so “natural” could it be shown to be), on the other.  Modern politics I take to be a product of the effort to legitimate the power arrogated to the state apparatus in the absence of any possibility of appeal to a universal law (divine or natural, as the case was thought to have been).  As the administrator of the law and arbiter of the rights of citizens under the law, the state ends up as a law unto itself once the authority of God and that of nature have been deprived of their function as source of the law of the law.  The international civil war of the period 1914 to 1945 and beyond revealed that there was no authority to mediate between the claims of one nation against another other than the lex talionis or Hobbesian war of all against all.  Positive law was left without any legitimating source or origin.  Whence the effort of Carl Schmitt and his ilk to theorize a law based on national self-interest and hatred of the neighbor.  “Sovereign is he who can name the exception.”  Until the time of the Nurenburg trials, when it became obvious that justice was what the victor demanded of the vanquished,” it was thought by liberals that positive law could be legitimated by appeal to the process of negotiation among interested parties by which the law was formulated.  This was the pragmatic (and ultimately utilitarian) theory of the law as a code worked out by trial and error among contending parties driving by needs but restrained by principles of (instrumental) rationality.  Modern technology provides the means not only to defeat but also to destroy whomever is thought to be one’s “natural” enemy (which usually turns out to be one’s neighbor—when the necessity to determine who is “inside” a given neighborhood and who is not).  But there is nothing “natural” about neighborhoods, they are ideological constructions of the kind that permits the European union to contemplate admission of a nation like Turkey or Morocco and ultimately even India to its confines if these are construed as having the same interests (in markets, resources, and procedures).  Whence the function of historical recosntruction as providing a genealogical justification (tantamount to the use of “nature” during the period of “natural” law’s hegemony.  This is what I mean by the domesticating effect of conventional modes of historicization of the pasts of communities.  Historicization is a discourse of idealization, by which I mean, a process of description in which a community can at once be naturalized –shown to be “in the nature of things,” “it has always been thus,” or this is the way things have always been”—and idealized, i.e., shown to have always been meant to have been. History can be used to naturalize and idealize any political position—including fascism, nazism, and stalinism, the currently fashionable betes noire of historical theory insofar as all three are deemed to have been products of a fundamental misunderstanding or distortion of “history.”




Now, if we put these three topoi together in the consideration of the politics of our time, the time of global and globalizing capitalism and the time of electronic empires like the US (and China, India, and Russia), we can perceive the extent to which the notion of “historicality” can function as a trope of discourse in all of those sciences designed to appear to be realistic in an age of lawlessness.



Obviously, here I consider “trope” to name not a specific figure but to indicate the very essence of modern neo-rhetorics which abandons the older moralizing conception of rhetoric, returns to the nihilism of the Sophists, and elevates rhetoric to the status of “war by other means.”  Rhetoric as persuasion or rhetoric as trope?  The formulation is that of Paul De Man.  He set up the contrast in order to suggest the ways in which modernist notions of language, discourse, and meaning-production went beyond the older notion of rhetoric as the glib and oily art of persuasion or seduction to concentrate on rhetoric as the theory of the means provided by language to seduce and persuade.  Rhetoric as tropology and tropology as the science-art of troping, understood not as the product but as the processs of com-position by which “meaning” is established.  De Man again: “Language can posit and language can mean, but language cannot posit meaning.”  Language cannot posit meaning, but it can produce it or can produce its effect (the so-called “meaning effect”).



By historicality as a trope of political discourse, I indicate first that there is a political discourse that rises up alongside of and as a supplement to political action understood as the gathering in and use of power in the interest of a constituency of one kind or another.  The establishment of this constituency as deserving of the use of power in its name can and can only be a product of discoursivization and in the instances relevant to our concerns historiographical discoursivization.  Modern scientific historiography especially always assumes that every state of affairs (every “present”) has good and sufficient reasons for being what it is. If it did not, it would not be what it is. Historical research presupposes that its own present “what is” is exactly symmetrical in its conditions of possibility to “what was.”  Thus, when one addresses a political problem—such a “what are the grounds for granting privlieges to one group within a community at the expense of another?”—the question of “justice”—by suggesting that we put it in “historical perspective” or simply looking at the historical background of this problem,  this move has to be considered tropological rather than logic or theory driven insofar as this “turn” is utterly contingent, is governed by no rule of necessity, either of argumentation or logic.  It is a rhetorical move, a trope in my (and De Man’s) sense of the term. The move may be defended by a metadiscursive argument such as: it is fitting that, at this stage in our discussion, we should pay attention to the ways in which this problem took shape, emerged, and came to require our concern to resolve it.  But this appeal to what is “fitting” in a given inquiry or discussion is itself a tropological rather than a logically determined turn from the matter at hand to its background, history, or development. 


Moreover, the turn to history will always presuppose that the result of the inquiry that is indicated as being necessary or desirable at this stage of a discussion will consist of a certain kind of story—a narrative which, after it locates the beginning or origin of the conflict that has emerged in the present, will proceed to reveal by a process of sequentiation, not only why this conflict has taken the form that it has done but will also prefigure the desirable form of the outcome of the conflict in the near future. Why?  Because in the historical inquiry, the establishment of the facts of the matter is followed by the redescription of the facts in a deontological mode, such that the two parties in the current dispute are provided not only with a genealogy of their identities but these identities are themselves endowed with variable values. 









Professional historical inquiry, composition, and writing is governed by conventions rather than by theoretically defined procedures and principles of selection and combination.  Professional historiography is governed by a certain commonsensical world view, of the kind systematized by Aristotle.  Aristotle’s ideas about history are about the practices of historical writing at his time and place.  So are his ideas about “substances.”  The conventions in question are advanced as proper on the basis of the authority of the profession.  Among these conventions are those that decide what will count as figurative language, on the one side, and what as literal language, on the other.  In reality, literality is a formalization of the proper.




The historical method is the genetic method, a method which is perfectly appropriate for biological populations, but utterly mythical when applied to social formations.  One generation of a group may be linked to a prior generation genetically but a given period of an institution’s existence is not related genetically to any prior phase of its development.


[1]Such that one could argue that the sequence: A is the case, and B is the case, therefore you  should or must do x, is comprehendible tropologically though not logically. Tropology trumps (or tropes) logic as the modus productionis of the kinds of actions that we (in the West) recognize as being specifically political.  Thus, “This act is not an act of war; it is terroristic” constitutes an instance of authoritative political description.  Carl Schmitt’s idea that “sovereign is he who has the right (or power) to declare the state of the exception,” this declaration is tropical in nature.  Example: The law is suspended until further notice.  For it is in the nature of law, to be changed, yes, but suspended? No.  The law in its origin turns out to be as arbitrary as language in its origin.)


[1] The title of the speaker of the discourse already indicates its ideological origin: “United States Central Command Commander General etc.”  The General is the Commander of the Central Command

[2] Marcel Gauchet, La condition historique: Entretiens avec Francois Avouzi et Silvain Piron (Paris: Editions Stock, 2003), Ch.  X.

[3] I follow Paolo Valesio’s practice in using the term rhetoric to indicate the theory of the public use of discourse for practical puposes and “rhetorics” (on the model of “poetics”) to indicate the theory of such practice

[4] It is the same with the notion of “homelessness” in contemporary social service discourse.  A person without a home (or fixed abode) is declared to be “homeless”; he or she can be then assigned to the category of “the homeless,” the substance of which can then be characterized as “homelessness.”

[5] English has the (archaic) verb “to history, historiate,” which meant “to relate in a narrative” and/or “to decorate with figures.”

[6] “Metaphysics is an intellectual device to eliminate those surprises with which history likes to confront us.  This is why history is the most antimetaphysical of all intellectual disciplines and why metaphysicians have always discovered in historywhat they recognized as their ultimate and most interesting challenge.  A metaphysics of history is the analogue in the humanities of that ‘theory of everything’ that contemporary theoretical physicists are so arduously looking for.” Ankersmit, Aesthetic Politics, 66.

[7] Historians have no ethical obligations to their own societies but insofar as they are members of a guild or profession of historians, they have moral (and in some cases, such as the misuse of a colleague’s work, a legal) obligation.  In this respect, the historian differs from the artist who, technically, eschews both ethical and moral obligations

[8] Heidegger makes a distinction between the objects and especially the tools already inhabiting the world prior to the subject’s advent.  Some of these objects and tools seem immediately useful and obviously pertinent to the accomplishment of certain practical tasks that one is assigned in life while others not.  And yet both sets of objects and tools, those that appear immediately useful and those that do not, possess “historicality” inasmuch as they have been “passed down” from the past to the present as things that were once useful to someone somewhere and somewhen and therefore might potentially be taken to be useful to someone else once more or again.   It is not that these objects and tools possess the quality of utility or that they are inherently useful. It all depends on what the human subject or agent decides to use them for. The same can be said of historical inquiry, research, and writing, just ias it can be said of a given style of painting or of the media (oils, tempera, canvas, wood, gilt, etc.) used by painters to render a world accessible to the senses.  We in the West have had handed down to us the procedures and practices of history-writing.  No one is under any obligation to use them or, if one finds them useful, must use them in a particular way.  Because there is nothing inherent in the historian’s object of study that requires or obliges us to treat them one way rather than another.  Because it is not man, man as a manifestation of “human nature,” that is the historian’s object of study, it is man in the process of realizing himself by means of his thought and action that interests the historian.  There is no metaphysical basis for arguing that everyone everywhere and everywhen ought to be interested in this activity of human species self-definition.  That metaphysical basis disappears with the assertion that man makes himself over time and in many different ways.

[9] I hasten to add, at least to me.  I recognize that there are people who still believe in God and others in a transcendental ontology.  I believe they are deluded.

[10] Which leads Evezai Margalit to distinguish between i.e. thinking and e.g. thinking.  The one proceeds by multiplying synonymous meanings, the other by adverting to instances or examples.

[11] Which is to be distinguished from “chronographia” a schema of thought which consists of the arrangement of a presentation according to chronological or calendrical protocols. 

[13] Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” p. 182, quoted by Timothy Fuller in the Foreword to Oaksehott’s On History and Other Essays, p. xix