The Historic Turn in Western Thought

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The Historic Turn in Western Thought

Most philosophers have noted the linguistic turn at the end of the nineteenth century. Few, if any, have noted the historical turn in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Living in a time of anxiety in which the universe and life present problems to be solved, the problem for this paper can be stated as: Why was history so imprtant until recently, and is narrative so important now? I examine the advent of irrationalism in order to provide some explanation for the substitution of story for history. Some find the origins of modern humanism in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's contention that human beings have been given the wonderfully unique ability to choose for themselves. But Pico still limited the options for humankind to provisions of the traditional hierarchical ontology of the Middle Ages. Thus, for him, the journey of humankind to itself was not a historical one, but rather the choice between a vertical descent into vegetative or brute state of being, or a mystical ascent along the hierarchy to the angelic or even divine level. But Modern thought relinquished this hierarchy in favour of a human centred teleology, framing the ontology in between nature (individuality, non-rationality) as the origin and culture (reason, the social) as its outcome. Thus the ontology became historicised from Defoe, Lessing, Rousseau, through Kant down to Marx. In irrationalism this became a mythical movement remaining within the non-rational, as in Nietzsche, and Mussolini, and finally story, as in Virginia Woolff, and films such as Dead Poets Society and A River Runs Through It, or New Age neo-romanticism.

From Hierarchy to History

Most philosophers have noted the linguistic turn at the end of the nineteenth century. Few have noted the historic turn in the late seventeen early eighteenth century: With modern humanism the traditional, normative, hierarchical ontology was replaced by a human centered ontology. This ontology was teleologically human centered — it focused in humankind and its (progressive) cultural mastery of nature. Thus the culture-nature dialectic became the new historical ontology. The transformation of a hierarchical ontology (focused in the supreme good) into a human-centered teleological one, can be characterized as the historic turn.

Modern humanism substituted the Medieval supratemporal focus on the divine with a focus in human rationality itself. Knowing full well that humans beings are factually not in rational control of the world, this focus was constructed in terms of a historical teleology.

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History was supposedly unavoidably taking humankind towards this destiny — a destiny of full control over nature. This could only be conceived of in terms of a dialectical ontology: humankind in progress was a product of nature, driven to its destiny by nature; and yet autonomous rational human beings were supposed to be in control of nature. This dialectical ontology is the nucleus of what I would call the historic turn. "Reality" in this conception more or less coincides with "history."

The historic turn by and large explains the peculiarities of the philosophies of Defoe, Lessing , Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin. It runs right through the literary works of the Romantics, D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolff and others. It explains some important tendencies in New Age thinking. It is the basis of a film like Dead Poets Society.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Defoe, in Robinson Crusoe, gives an early expression of the historicizing of reality into the nature-culture dialectic. One can gain a feeling of the changing view of reality, by comparing the framework of the novel with strategically selected other writers form the same era. Hobbes, for example, seemingly expressed himself in terms of the same dialectic by contrasting the state of nature with the civil state, but he did not relate the two states to one another as earlier and later historical phases respectively. In Hobbes the "state of nature" represents the hypotethical, realizable, horrible, alternative to the "civil state" — it is the specter of violent human nature with which Hobbes frightened citizens into obedience (cf. Venter, 1996a, 177). Defoe, in Robinson Crusoe, allows the "state of nature" to be realized by letting Crusoe suffer the consequences of following his natural inclinations, but he also historicizes the process of cultural mastery of nature by story — cizing the slow, rational, technical (tool-based), mastery of nature and recovering of the protection and comforts of civil society, whereas Hobbes, still adhering to Cartesian scientism, axiomatised politicology through a static comparison of the civil state with the natural state (cf. Venter, 1996a, 177ff). The character, Crusoe, ironically a Puritan theist, claims to have become the sovereign king and lord of his world — a claim suggestive of Kant's later blunt statement that mankind has advanced from animality to "equality with all rational beings." A quote from Defoe:

My Island was now peopled, and I thought my self very rich in Subjects; and it was a merry Reflection which I frequently made, How like a King I look'd. First of all, the whole Country was my own meer Property; so that I had an undoubted Right of Dominion. 2dly, My People were perfectly subjected: I was absolute Lord and Law-giver; they all owed their Lives to me, and were ready to lay down their Lives, if there had been Occasion of it, for me. It was remarkable too, we had three Subjects, and they were of three different Religions (Defoe, 1990, 241; cf. also Roets, 1996, 14-22).

The historicizing had its antecedents in Lessing's Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, in which Lessing's implicit "neo-platonist" downward emanation is neglected in favour of the mystical conversion, here represented as a history of the progress of the human species under God's guidance. In some later modern "neo-platonist" philosophies this sustained itself, for example in the works of Goethe and Teilhard de Chardin's form of evolution theory.

Rousseau it was, however, who restructured the Hobbesian contrast into a historical dialectic of (civil) culture versus nature. Already in his early discourses, On the moral effects of the arts and sciences, and the discourse On the origin of inequality¸ Rousseau wrote about humankind in terms of a historical progress towards practical rationality, feeling his way between a return to nature and the inevitability of progress. In On the social contract he, very briefly and densely, summarized the changes which occurred when humankind moved from the natural to the civil state. This implies a progress from:

(i) instinctual behaviour to justice/morality; (ii) physical impulses/right of appetite to the choice of duty; (iii) following one's inclinations to consulting reason; (iv) a stupid, unimaginative animal to an intelligent being and a man; (v) natural liberty to civil liberty; (vi) unlimited right to everything to limited proprietorship; (vii) liberty determined by strength to liberty determined by the general will; (viii) slavery to impulse to obedience to self-given law as moral liberty.

Rousseau undoubtedly conceived of the above contrasts as historical phases in human progress:

Ce passsage de l'état de la nature à l'état civil produit dans l'homme un changement très remarquable, en substituant dans sa conduite la justice à l'instinct, et donnant à ses actions la moralité qui leur manquoit auparavant. (n.d., 250-my italics-J. J. V.)

Significantly, Rousseau did not bother to give an exposition of a metaphysical ontology. When referring to the role of God, he rather focused on denying any permanent God-given social structure (as supposed by the Catholic hierarchists); in stead he proposes the autonomous rationality (Defoe's "absolute Lord and Law-giver") of social contract and the public reason of the state as the structuring principles. He even established a civil religion on this basis, thus the state decides what God is rather than the other way round (cf. Venter, 1996a, 184 ff.). Rousseau's world is concentrated in that history which leads up to "public reason" — a totalitarian organism based on the model of the ancient city state (cf. Venter, 1996a, 187 ff.). In fact, the individual human being has no other destiny than to mature into an organ or public reason (1916, 268).

The significance of representing the national state as all-encompassing, autonomous, public reason, can only be understood against the background of the history of "rationality" in the West. From Xenophanes of Colophon's idea of a single, simple, perceiving-thinking divine entity, via Aristotle's view of the supreme as "thinking of thinking" — the intellectual (dominated by the logical) was awarded the priced ontological place of the "supreme aspect" of "being"; suprahistorical, eternal. This was maintained all through the Middle Ages: the summum bonum, summum ens, was always considered to be characteristically the "supreme reason" or the "supreme intellect," while human beings were conceived of as images of or analogical to the supreme reason. Any one of Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, or Thomas Aquinas could provide examples of this. Clement of Alexandria (Protreptikos 10, for example), could introduce reason into history only through the representation of an "image" and a "likeness." "Reason Itself" remains above history.

Rousseau, however, in setting the autonomy of public reason over against any structuring principle for society, situated Western divine rationality within history (embodied in the state). Thus he substituted the idea of a supreme, eternal, rational being in control of destiny, with the idea of a summit of historical progress (suggesting that he himself was expressing the final phase of history). This is part of his heritage to Kant, Hegel, and Marx. It concerns more than simply an influential view of the state or of society — it was a step in the direction of a novel view of reality as historical. (This leaves us also with the question of the Archimedean point: Whence is it possible for a historical, social, individual to have an overview of history while situated inside history ?)

Given the idea of history advancing to a summit of autonomous rationality, a vexing question comes to the fore: who is the agent or what is the driving force of history? We e confronted with the Lukacs question: where is the agent of history? The direction taken (as we shall see from Kant), is that the agent of history is inherent in the making of history by humankind.

Characteristics of the Enlightenment

It is necessary to give a concentrated exposition of some traits of Enlightenment thought with regard to this thesis, in order to unpack the nature-culture dialectic — the ontological foundation of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was the first era to elevate the ancient problem of the relationship between "nature" and "culture" to the level of historical, dialectical ontology.
God was sublimated into "nature" as an impersonal power, while human beings, on the one hand seen as children of "nature," was on the other viewed as progressively liberating themselves through their own rational powers.
Progress was supposed to take place between the poles of "nature" and "culture" (or "reason"), correlating with "individual" versus "social" and "freedom" versus "being determined" )by the aggregate of choices).
Comfort was found in the faith in progress itself , with "nature" as superhuman initiator, yet the progress was realized through a human centered teleology. (Enlightenment "nature" is an ambiguous concept.)
"Evil" itself was conceived as an instrument for progress — and, being also a counter-example of progress, stamps the belief in progress as a basic faith.
The metaphorising of Newton's gravitation theory into a counter-weight theory of choices, introduced equilibrating as a process, and thus included temporal duration and process dynamics in the conception of social reality.
Immanuel Kant

Kant was more than an Enlightenment philosopher — he was part of the process of transforming the praxiological philosophy of the Enlightenment into the more abstract format of Idealism. From the Enlightenment, however, he adopted the idea of a teleological, human-centered "nature" in dialectical tension with "culture," as well as of evil (such as conflict) as mechanism of progress.

In the usual (textbook type) summaries of Kant's thought, the focus is pointed at the synthesizing or unifying functions of consciousness as found in Critique of Pure Reason. But not much attention is paid to the fact that Kant framed his analysis of consciousness into the historical setting of the faith in progress: in the original state of animality, consciousness is said to be dominated by instinct; in the later, cultural stage, the same consciousness comes under the control of reason.

Kant, finding no rational pattern in the history of mankind, supposed a natural pattern, implying (in spite of the dynamics of history having its origin in human rational freedom), a natural law for history (represented in turn in anthropomorphic or theomorphic terms) (1975a, 33).

This provides the philosophical basis for a historiographical method which had already become popular by then (and which was implicit Defoe, Lessing and Rousseau): retropolation into the past, and extrapolation into the future — expanded from the human sphere into the animal kingdom by evolutionists from the eighteenth century onwards). For the reconstruction of the past, Kant seems to have adopted the principle of uniformity of the geologist, James Hutton (1975a, 38):

Kant, therefore, considered it viable to predict eternal peace and a league of nations (for which he even wrote a draft constitution) for the distant future, on the basis of an understanding of the natural law of progress (1975a, 45; cf. also 1975b, 92). He dared to divide human history into (at least) four phases: (1) the domination of instinct and the awakening of reason; (2) the development of labour; (3) the development of an urban culture; (4) the development of nations, ending in a league of nations under international law. The idea of the disclosure of the full rational potential of humankind is already present in the very basis of this reconstruction of all of human history.

But the last of the four phases is accompanied by its own methodological difficulty. The dynamics of progress is caused by conflict — which seemingly subverts progress through the downfall of nations, empires, and civilizations. Again, it seems, Kant adapted a theory from the natural sciences — the catastrophism of Bonnet, according to whom organisms advance when natural catastrophes transform embryo-miniatures into higher species. Thus the revolutionary vision of history (as adapted by Marx, Toynbee, Spengler, Thomas Kuhn, and Fritjof Capra ) was born — through and after each catastrophe, a higher civilization emerges (cf. 1975a, 48-49).

Note: the progressive rationalising through catastrophic growth was supposed to happen according to a plan of nature, and yet: from another perspective, the inherent powers of humankind itself (nature as reason and reason suppressing nature) were believed to determine the progress. Nature's plan consisted in shortchanging humankind regarding natural abilities, leaving it no other option than to advance by reason (1975a, 36).

In analyzing the progress of humankind, Kant played around with the paradise story in Genesis. The fall into sin is read as the coming of age of reason and choice (it is progress and catastrophe at the same time). Initially reason did no more than compare the possibilities of satisfying biological urges and needs (which already created a "Kierkegaardian" Angst); secondly it assumed the dominance over the drives and needs; next it began to focus on the future (in prediction, expectation, and self-conscious fear of death), expecting a better future for their offspring as the only comfort in their misery.

The final phase in the emergence of a dominating "reason" is the most important. According to the Genesis story, humankind instrumentalised other living beings, by using them for own survival. For Kant this implied a realization that it is not acceptable to instrumentalise fellow human beings (your equals in rationality). This realization, rather than love or benevolence, provided the basis for social formation. This humanizing coming of age completed the pre-social epoch of human history, which implies that Kant, like Rousseau, viewed the social setting as more rational than the pre-social. It also explicitly points to the equivalence of ontology with history in Kant's thought:

The fourth and last step, (lifting humankind totally above the companionship with animals) which reason took, was that man (although quite faintly) came to understand that he himself was actually the goal of nature, and nothing which lives on earth can compete with him in this respect. ... And thus man ascended to a certain equality with all rational beings, to whatever rank they may have belonged, namely with reference to the claim that he himself is the goal, to be appreciated as such by every other being, and to be used by nobody simply as a means for other ends (1975, 90-1).

This really is crucial — humankind as the goal of nature; humankind as himself the goal; humankind as the equal of all rational beings; therefore to be used by nobody as a means for an end. Pregnant discourse: the Aristotelian and medieval God as the summum bonum, and the final goal (causa finalis), here find its equal in humankind as the goal of nature. The desiderium naturale has lost its transcendent focus. On the one hand Kant proclaimed nature to be the voice of God and the supreme planner; on the other hand he set rational man as equal to God in rationality. Given the position of reason in history, surely this is historicizing a complete vision of reality (or ontologizing history).

In Metaphysic of Morality Kant used radical terminology to express the idea of man as the goal — expressions such as "something, the existence of which has absolute value in itself; something which, as an end in itself, can be a ground of definite laws" (1901, 245-6), while on the theoretical level he had already stated that reason imposes the natural laws onto the physical universe (1968, 3). (The relationship between culture and nature in this case remains an extremely complicated dialectic.)

Kant explicitly related his ontology of historical progress to the nature-culture dialectic in a defensive interpretation of Rousseau, playing the history of nature (as God's work) out against the history of freedom (man's work; evil), and explicating Rousseau's idea of moral education in harmony with the natural species (cf. 1975b, 94-5).

In Kant's terse discourse one can feel something of the historical ontology of Marx (the utopian harmony of culture and nature in the disappearance of the division of labour). An early "romanticism" surfaces here — finally the power of culture over nature (the consciousness that for reason nature is no more than a phenomenon) returns to a position of culture in nature and nature in culture — an almost Hegelian unification of thesis and antithesis.

A Few Nineteenth Century Branches of the Dialectical River

Progress towards rationality — reality as history — finds expression in the dialectic of Idea, Nature, and Spirit in Hegel (cf. Venter, 1995, 169-179).

Comte's three stades law expresses the subjection to the yoke of nature inverted into the control over nature in positive science and social engineering, culminating in the historical summit of the religion of Humanity in Catechisme positiviste (cf. Comte, 1957).

"Contradiction" and "revolution" are the Marxian equivalents of Kant's "defects" and "catastrophes" and his "mind" versus "matter" dialectic reflects the tradition of emancipation from and rational control over nature (1977, 160, 172, 189-191).

Darwin's metaphor of "natural selection" through "the war of all against all" (cf. Darwin, 1968, 115-6; Venter, 1996b, 214 ff.) provides the avenue for his retroprojective method from present-day culture (selective breeding) into millions of years of linearly progressing "natural history," in which humankind's lower functions are included, but which (again!) the socio-moral function somehow immanently transcends (cf. Darwin, 1906, 945-6). And Freud compressed the nature-culture dialectic back into the personal psychological history of the individual in terms of the struggle between the superego and the id.


Reality as history in the format of the nature-culture dialectic remains at least one important form of Western thought after the eighteenth century. The inversion of progress, i.e. the idea of a return to nature or the dominance of the natural, became stronger as irrationalism took hold. The a priori acceptance of progress became doubtful; in some cases this ended up in a pessimistic atmosphere of decline (Spengler); in others in an activist attempt to create progress (e.g. Pragmatism). And with irrationalism the belief in universal norms (inherent in the first meaning of "ideology" as the science of Idea) and in man as the moral species, collapsed, and was displaced by "realism," "naturalism," the brutalisation of "ideology" as the truth of the leader; and technocratic managerialism as the kindest form of "personality cult."

The "feel" of irrationalism and the consequences mentioned above are already found in Nietzsche. The theory of (past) evolutionary progress (with its retroprojective method) is here organismically complemented by a theory of (future) decline, completing the self-repeating historical cycle of eternal recurrence (Nietzsche, 1964, 241-7). But one could also divide the cycle into the Dionysian lower half (nature) and the Appollinian upper half (culture) (cf. Nietzsche, 1920, 20 ff.), — progress overcoming the natural (as animality) and romantic return to nature represents the complete reality for Nietzsche. Nietzsche's eternal recurrence nears pantheism in its organismic representation of history (also expressed in occult symbols such as the eagle and the serpent in Zarathustra), and thus also nihilism: for if everything is divine, then the arbitrary will of the most powerful in the struggle upward holds — as D. H. Lawrence concluded (cf. Venter, 1996b, 220 ff.). Reality is a self-enclosed mystical historical cycle — no more.

Along another line irrationalism found expression in the feminist literary ridicule of male rationalism, and the recovery of nature in the depths of the stream of female experiences and the search for a deeper experiential link with the environment both as brute and as bride, in the works of Virginia Woolff, notably Orlando and To the lighthouse. The attempt to recover the natural may explain the focused interest in bodilyness in the twentieth century. Rationality has made itself "unnatural"; the "logical" struggles for legitimacy in the face of the biotic life as the only "natural."

And if one combines Rousseau's belief in the educative power of the state with Nietzsche's idea of the governing will to power, the main tenets of Mussolini's historical ontology (the state as the spiritual, eternal; the individual as the transient material) are there (Mussolini, 1935, 7-12, 141; cf. Venter, 1992b, 202). The universal norms of rationalism are concentrated in the leader as the personification of the will to power of the state. The Sartrean form of historicized reality, situationist individual world construction (as in Qu'est-ce que la litterature), knew no way with the ideology of the state (or nation) concentrated in the leader.

Neo-romanticism, expressed in the film, Dead poets society, may unmask the dead bones of rationality, tradition, convention (culture), but it leaves us also with the catastrophe of simply following pleasure and passion (nature), and yet idealizes the nature-recovering, hedonistic teacher. Whereas some forms of Post Modernism still contend that rationality and universality are oppressive per se, we are nevertheless left to the gut feelings of those in power in social reality, especially the international corporations, and given the absence of normative criteria, the managerial person and his technique, and his objectives become the rule. The world focused in male rational power became the world as history, the world as relativity, the world as inhuman.


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