Hidden Dogmatism

Why is history necessary? In what sense is history constitutive of humanness? In one way, the answer to such questions is straightforward. Human beings are teleological animals. Under a determinate set of relations and conditions they formulate ends that they seek to achieve. But in what relation do these ‘micro-histories’ stand to the self-understanding of the human species at a broader level? The best way to approach this problem is to ask what micro-histories imply; that is to say, to identify the conditions of possibility for acting in a micro-historical way. Is it possible for any teleological orientation to do without ‘History’ in the broader sense? Or, to pose the question slightly differently: don’t ‘little stories’ already imply or refer to a ‘grand story’? Can they ever do without one?

To achieve clarity on these issues one must distinguish between the perspective of the actor in the micro-history and that of the observer. For the actor, meaning is fully exhausted in the particular action she undertakes. Consider, for example, the decision to take a job. Imagine the actor decides to work as an Uber driver because the hours are flexible and the money allows her to keep a roof over her head. From her perspective, the meaning of the sequence of actions leading to her employment is exhausted in her desire to pay the rent and maintain some autonomy. But the observer will interpret the sequence quite differently. From their point of view, the very possibility of employment as an Uber driver would be connected to the casualization of taxi work, the technology of the smart phone, the widespread use of digital payment systems, together with a wide array of other historical conditions. One might also connect the actor’s desire for a certain type of autonomy and flexibility with the rise of the neoliberal self and associated ethos of personal entrepreneurship. The point is that from the perspective of the observer, the meaning of the action depends on its relationship to a specific phase of historical development. (Before proceeding further, it should be emphasized that the distinction between ‘actor’ and ‘observer’ is a purely analytic one. The potential for these perspectives to overlap, for the actor to be self-conscious – where the actor herself becomes an observer, constructing herself as an object of consciousness, becoming a third party to her own actions – is itself highly variable, historically and socially.)

To historicize an action, however, is inevitably to face the question: as part of what wider shape of historical development, and what phase within it? But what if one regards history as having no shape? What if one holds to the view that history, in the larger sense, is a piling up of accidents, just ‘one damn thing after another’? The paradox of not having a theory of history is that this is itself a theory of historical development, a theory that says history does not develop or that if it does, the shape of its development is inscrutable. History, from that point of view, would be like Kant’s thing in itself, the paradoxes and contradictions of which have been well explained many times. All these critiques of Kant boil down to a fundamental question: how can one say something is inaccessible to human consciousness, that it cannot be known, when to say something is unknowable or ineffable is to say something about it? (It turns out it’s rather difficult not to talk about things in themselves and be drawn into all sorts of dogmatisms.)

Perhaps a different version of this sceptical position is possible. It would hold that one might have partial theories of development, but no ‘grand narrative’, no ‘big story’. This position – common to the Weberian tradition in sociology – seems attractive and reasonable. And yet it too suffers from paradox. In the first place, why are the Weberians so sure that partial theories of history are possible? What makes them confident that history is not total, or at least totalizing? Isn’t their scepticism just a hidden dogmatism? Then there is the second, more practical problem. If history is explicable ‘partially’, into what ‘parts’ should it be divided? Are, for example, ‘ideas’ to be treated as one causal sequence and ‘production’ as another, parallel one? Even if such a treatment were correct for a given period, would it not be dogmatic to assert that such autonomy always exists? Can it really be the case that the same conceptual framework applies across all historical epochs, or should concepts be tailored to the eras they seek to describe? It turns out that theories of history are, like many other seemingly overambitious ideas, completely unavoidable.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘Politics as Theatre?’, NLR 101.