Kant’s philosophical assault on man’s faculty of reason paved the way for the historical assault on Columbus by preventing a key avenue of development from ever occuring in Western historiography. By aborting the general study of abstractions as cognitive tools, Kant prevented historians from adopting the epistemological stance necessary to define and defend the most crucial instrument in the systematization of history: historical abstractions.
During the eighteenth century, history had been dominated by rationalism. The French Enlightenment thinkers had created the “philosophy of history,” which proposed to find in all historical developments a kernel of progress, driven by reason. Following the pattern of Christian thinkers who reduced everything to God’s will, or “providence,”they proposed to express all of history’s irregular gyrations in terms of a single determining principle. It was historical thinkers such as these, who advocated using historical abstractions to summarize the past. They used the expression “the Dark Ages”to capture an era where reason was suppressed, the “Renaissance” to propose a general reawakening of reason, and “the Enlightenment” to denote a period in history where the power of reason was widely manifested. To use these terms, however, required emphasizing certain facts at the expense of others, tracing certain causal progressions rather than others, and ultimately, viewing the whole story of man’s past as the variegated expression of one basic cause.
Empirical historians could not accept this apparent oversimplification. While progress might be occurring in one area, such as science, they reasoned, decline might be evident in another part of a culture, such as politics. Similarly, progress in one country, such as in late seventeenth century England, where parliamentary limitations on the monarchy reached new heights, might be paralleled by decline in another country, such as France, where absolutism evolved to new oppressive levels. Or, along a different vein, an element of progress–say a great invention like the steam engine–might propel men forward in one sense, but also contain a negative dimension, such as the rise of new hardships for laborers, social tensions, and political struggles. In the name of an allegiance to the facts in all their Heraclitean complexity, the empiricists of history rejected casting the past in abstract terms.
History was faced with the same basic dilemna as philosophy: to find the principle in the plethora.
But before historians could even begin to take the question seriously, Kant revoked their license to do so. He announced that even the “facts” were subjective–“phenomenal”–and that all efforts to build upon this foundation could never penetrate to “things in themselves.”
One major trend in subsequent historiography was to embrace subjectivity as a fundamental truth, and simply construct competing perspectives. The most influential exponent of this approach was Marx, who despite claiming a “scientific” status for his reasoning, basically cast history as a political weapon in the evolving class struggle. His followers would adapt this approach and use history as a means of promoting their own political agendas, such as feminism (“herstory”) or multiculturalism (e.g. “black studies”).
The other important trend was an epistemological retreat, sounded by the leading German historian of the nineteenth century, Leopold von Ranke. If abstractions were avoided, he and his followers hoped, then the problem of relating them to the concrete data of history could also be avoided. In this ostrich-like approach, the historian was to busy himself in historical archives, where he would find unprocessed, or “primary” sources. And from these, assiduously avoiding any mode of interpretation, he might craft an unbiased narrative. The past as it really was–“wie es eigentlich gewesen,” in Ranke’s words–could be channeled without distortion, if one simply avoided trying to use if for some purpose other than simply knowing it for its own sake.
That neither Ranke nor any of his followers could actually practice what they preached merely provided the first point of attack by Kant’s progeny, who were wont to point out that even if one were to allow the existence of “facts” in history, the act of organizing them into a narrative itself constituted an act of logical processing which created an “artificial” structure no less corruptive than sorting facts into periods, such as “the Renaissance,” or deploying them to support a thesis such as progress. Of course, on a deeper level, there were no “facts:” even “primary” sources involve human selectivity, and thus cannot be considered to represent “things as they were.” In the ultimate indictment, presented by Michel Foucault, both “primary” and “secondary” sources would be charged with being nothing more than the propaganda of whatever side happened to win each particular struggle in history.
In the context of such an epistemological debacle, it is hardly surprising that empirical historians progressively shyed away from the use of historical abstractions like “the Dark Ages” and “the Renaissance,” leaving the subjectivists room to attack them and concoct their own replacements, such as “the Carolingian Renaissance.” Nor is it surprising that abstractions of more limited scope, but ones enmeshed in a larger context of values, such as”the Discovery of America,” should also be besieged.
(Continued in Part 4.)