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. webmaster@hegel.net

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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.”


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