Está en la página 1de 14

History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 24-37 Wesleyan University 2011 ISSN: 0018-2656


This essay argues that concerns about historical distance arose along with modernist his-
toricism, and they disappear with postfoundationalism. The developmental historicism of
the nineteenth century appealed to narrative principles to establish continuity between past
and present and to guide selections among facts. In the twentieth century, modernist his-
toricists rejected such principles, thereby raising the specter of historical distance: that
is, the distorting effects of the present on accounts of the past, the chasm between facts
and narrative. The modernist problem became: how can historians avoid anachronism and
develop accurate representations of the past? Instead of using narrative principles to select
facts, modernist historicists appealed to atomized facts to validate narratives. However, in
the late twentieth century, postmodernists (Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White) argued
that there was no way to close the distance between facts and narratives. The postmodern
problem became: how should historians conceive of their writing given the ineluctable
distance between facts and narratives? Today, postfoundationalism dispels both modernist
and postmodernist concerns with historical distance; it implies that all concepts (not just
historical ones) fuse fact and theory, and it dissolves issues of conceptual relativism, tex-
tual meaning, and re-enactment.
Keywords: anachronism, Frank Ankersmit, historicism, modernism, narrative, postfounda-
tionalism, postmodernism, Hayden White
Historical distancethe gap between past and present, or between fact and nar-
rativewas among the most widely discussed issues in historical theory during
the twentieth century. Yet, historical distance is not a perennial problem; it does
not inevitably arise even for those who have a historicist sensibility and write
histories. To the contrary, I will argue that the issue of historical distance really
spread only with the modernist historical theories of the early and mid twentieth
century, and although it persisted through the postmodern historical theories of
the late twentieth century, it disappears once we fully appreciate the implications
of postfoundationalism.
I begin this essay by contextualizing worries about historical distance. The de-
velopmental historical theories of the nineteenth century appealed to teleological
and substantive principles to ensure continuity between past and present and to
bridge facts and narrative. In the early twentieth century, however, there arose new
modernist modes of knowing that rejected these principles. By modernism I do
not mean to evoke a contrast with medieval or early modern. Rather, modern-
ism refers here to the cultural shift in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centu-
ries that promoted more fragmented and formal approaches to art and knowledge.
Modernism had an atomistic and analytic orientation. It undermined confdence
in the continuity of past and present. Historians thus confronted more pronounced
worries about how from within the present they could develop concepts and narra-
tives capable of bridging the distance between their world and the past. Modernists
associated historical theory with discussion of how to avoid anachronisms and to
ensure their narratives were adequate to the facts. They appealed to rigorous meth-
ods to secure atomized facts, which, in turn, could justify narratives. In contrast,
postmodernists such as Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White argued that there was
no possible way of bridging the distances between past and present and so between
historical facts and historians narratives. They emphasized the ineluctable role of
metaphor and textuality in historical writing. They redefned historical theory as
the study of the ways in which historical writing relies on literary and aesthetic
devices to transform facts and descriptions into narratives and representations.
My aim is, however, not only to contextualize modernist and postmodernist
worries about historical distance, but also to dispel them. The key to dispelling
problems of historical distance is to recognize the lingering modernist themes in
Ankersmits and Whites accounts of facts and descriptions. These postmodernists
still treated facts and descriptions as atomistic knowledge and statements that pos-
sess meaningful content outside of theoretical contexts and narratives. In contrast,
postfoundationalism implies that all facts are theory-laden, for no proposition can
refer outside of the context of a wider web of beliefs. Postfoundationalism thereby
dispels both the postmodernist and modernist ideas of historical distance. It sug-
gests that historians cannot access the past and secure facts apart from the context
of their present concepts and theories. The past only ever appears in our present
beliefs; it is never given at a distance.
Perhaps there might still be a different kind of distance within our present be-
liefs between the terms we apply to the past and those we apply to the present,
and perhaps this distance might still generate worries about conceptual relativism,
textual meaning, and re-enactment. I conclude the paper, however, by suggesting
that postfoundationalism also dissolvesor at least dilutesthese worries.
Worries about historical distance spread in a particular context. In the nineteenth
century, romantic (or, rather more accurately, developmental) theories often em-
phasized the organic, meaningful, and even spiritual nature of history conceived as
a progressive unity. Developmental historicists were not hostile to facts, rigor, or
They believed that objective narratives required impartial, systematic,
and rigorous collection and sifting of facts. Yet, they collected and sifted facts
1. Throughout I use the term historicism to refer to attempts to explain human activity diachron-
ically rather than in more formal or structural ways. While this concept of historicism is widespread,
my aim is to tell a historical narrative of historicism focusing on Anglophone scholarship. This
aim may explain how and why my sub-categoriesdevelopmental, modernist, postmodern-
istoverlap with and yet differ from those associated with explorations of historicism couched in
terms of a religious impulse or disciplinary matrix.
in the context of developmental narratives. This developmental historicism arose
within a range of different modes of thinking, including evolutionary theorizing,
Whig conjectural histories derived from the Scottish Enlightenment, the romanti-
cism and idealism associated above all with Hegel, and a much broader organi-
cist emphasis on the ability of living beings to make social institutions by acting
in accord with purpose, thought, and imagination.
The developmental narratives
attracted both sides in the dispute among positivists and idealists. Positivists fol-
lowed August Comte, J. S. Mill, and Leopold von Ranke in promoting rigorous
methods, but they saw evolutionary theory as the pinnacle of science and so a suit-
able theoretical context in which to situate empirical fndings.
Idealists defned the
absolute as spiritual perfection, but they relied on Hegelianism and social organi-
cism to delineate developmental contexts in which the absolute unfolded.
Developmental historicists told narratives of continuity and progress based on
teleological and substantive principles, such as self, nation, reason, and spirit.
Questions about historical distance rarely arose. For a start, developmental histor-
icists relied on teleological and substantive principles to postulate the unity of his-
tory. The principles of nation, reason, and spirit bound past and present together in
an organic whole. Different historical eras were united by a commonality of ex-
perience. In addition, developmental historicists typically understood the past by
locating it in relation to a larger whole based on their concepts of nation, reason,
and spirit. They relied on teleological and substantive principles to select facts
and give direction to their narratives. They concentrated on incremental changes
in the ideas and institutions associated with the triumph of these principles. Even
when they pointed to threats to these principles, they still conceived progress as
built into the order of things.
A loss of faith in progress and reason began in the late nineteenth century and
became widespread following World War I. Images and ideals of progress con-
tinued to appear after the Great War, but progress was increasingly portrayed as a
contingent victory of human activity, not an ineluctable feature of history.
often argued that progress depended on the promotion of new sciences to solve
social problems. World War I encouraged calls for new sciences even as it eroded
faith in developmental historicism. The new sciences characteristically relied on
modernist empiricism.
They broke up the narratives and continuities of older de-
velopmental narratives, dividing the world into discrete and discontinuous units,
and making sense of these units by means of mathematical rules and analytic
2. J. Burrow, Evolution and Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1966); J.
Burrow, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 1981).
3. M. Bevir, Sidney Webb: Utilitarianism, Positivism, and Social Democracy, Journal of
Modern History 74 (2002), 217-52; N. Capaldi, John Stuart Mill: A Biography (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 2004); D. Ross, On the Misunderstanding of Ranke and the Origins
of the Historical Profession in America, in Leopold von Ranke and the Shaping of the Historical
Discipline, ed. G. Iggers and J. Powell (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 154-169.
4. S. den Otter, British Idealism and Social Explanation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
5. J. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and
American Thought, 18701920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
6. Modern Political Science: Anglo-American Exchanges since 1880, ed. R. Adcock, M. Bevir,
and S. Stimson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); D. Ross, The Origins of American
Social Science (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), chaps. 8-10.
schemas. In the social sciences, modernist empiricism inspired the rise of ahistori-
cal correlations, formal models, and functional systems as alternative modes of
explanation to the older historical narratives.
It is important to emphasize that the shift from developmental historicism to
modernist empiricism was one of modes of explanationa shift from develop-
mental thinking to formal theorizing. Many nineteenth-century historians were
ardent fact-fnders who championed the spread of rigorous methods, and some
even conceived themselves as concentrating solely on securing facts, suggesting
that the time for narratives had not yet come; but they still typically understood
and secured these facts by explicit or implicit appeals to an existing or projected
set of principles and a developmental or teleological narrative. Similarly, some
twentieth-century modernists focused on speculative schemas rather than facts or
methods; but their schemas were formal models and correlations and synchronic
accounts of systems and structures.
Historians were less likely than social scientists to reject historical explanations,
but they too turned away from developmental thinking. Modernist historians ad-
opted a more atomistic approach to facts in the absence of substantive and teleologi-
cal principles. They thus tried to fnd a way of securing facts outside the context of
broader narratives. Historical distance appeared to be both a beneft and a hindrance
in securing facts. On the one hand, some modernist historians drew on the empiricist
legacy of Comte, Mill, and Ranke to argue that the passage of time actually facili-
tates a comprehensive and impartial perspective.
They emphasized that historians
typically have to wait for offcial papers and archives to be made public before
they can have comprehensive access to all relevant facts. They also suggested that
historians often require an emotional distance from their material if they are to be
objective. On the other hand, however, modernist historians had to be sure that time
did not hide or distort the facts. They thus tried to devise methods that would enable
them to recover lost and neglected facts. They even suggested that rigorous methods
could secure the validity and truth of the facts. Modernist historical theory thus con-
sisted largely of the attempt to use rigorous methods to establish atomized facts that
in turn could conclusively determine the truth or falsity of narratives.
It was because modernists took a more atomistic view of facts that the problem
of historical distance spread. Modernists rejected the teleological and substantive
principles by which developmental historicists had created continuity between past
and present and selected facts for inclusion in their narratives. No doubt historical
consciousness more or less by defnition involves some kind of distinction between
past and present. Equally, however, a distinction between past and present need
not entail any particular worries about the epistemic diffculties of knowing the
past given that one tries to do so from the perspective of the present; it may bring
such worries, but it need not. So, developmental historicists believed in substantive
and teleological principles that guaranteed the ability to comprehend the past in
terms set by the present. It was only when modernists rejected these principles that
7. P. Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profes-
sion (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
8. M. Bentley, Modernizing Englands Past: English Historiography in the Age of Modernism
18701970 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
they lost this guarantee of a bridge from the present back to the past. Modernists
thereby turned awareness of the distinction between past and present into problems
of historical distance. They asked, howin the absence of the continuities once
guaranteed by developmental principlescould historians understand times other
than their own? For a start, when modernists rejected the principles linking past
and present, they gave new potency to the question of how historians could know
that their concepts were not anachronistic. In addition, when modernists rejected
the principles governing selection of facts for inclusion in narratives, they raised
the question of how historians narratives related to the facts.
Generally, modernists responded to the problem of historical distance by appeal-
ing to rigorous empirical methods in order to secure atomized facts that, in turn,
secured narratives. Peter Laslett provides just one example. Laslett introduced an
edited collection, titled Philosophy, Politics, and Society, with a stridently mod-
ernist manifesto.
He evoked a positivism that equated knowledge with empirical
science and limited theory to the rigorous analysis of language-use as exemplifed
by the work of Gilbert Ryle and T. D. Weldon. Lasletts edition of John Lockes
Two Treatises provided a triumphant example of the new modernist history. He ap-
proached the Two Treatises using the favored sources and techniques of modernist
historians. He relied on archival and primary documentsLockes library, lists of
the books Locke owned, hand-corrected prints of the Two Treatises, and Lockes
diary and personal correspondence. These sources provided him with facts on
which to base his historical interpretation. Knowledge of the dates when Locke
read books suggested that Locke had written passages referring to those books
only after those dates. Lasletts work revolutionized historians view of Locke.
He showed that Locke had written most of the Second Treatise in 167980. The
Two Treatises could not possibly have been written as a defense of the Glorious
Revolution. They were an Exclusion Tract calling for a revolution.
Modernist historians wanted to use secure, atomized facts to defend the valid-
ity of narratives. They confronted the question of how to overcome historical
distance to be sure of facts. How could they avoid the distorting effects of their
present situation? How could they avoid anachronism and discover the facts?
Typically, modernist historicists appealed to rigorous methods. Quentin Skin-
nerwho set out to do for Hobbes what Laslett had done for Lockeprovides
an example.
Skinner defended contextualism as a modernist method that would
establish facts and decide the validity of narratives. He consistently described his
method as a necessary and perhaps even suffcientor more colloquially an
essentialrequirement for a proper understanding of a historical text. Skinner
argued that because the expression and reception of illocutionary force requires
shared conventions, historians must study contexts if they are to understand what
authors were doing. He implied that rigorous research can enable historians to
9. P. Laslett, Introduction, in Philosophy, Politics and Society, ed. P. Laslett (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1956).
10. John Lockes Two Treatises of Government: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and
Apparatus, ed. P. Laslett (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 61.
11. Q. Skinner, Interview by Petri Koikkalainen and Sami Syrmki, Finnish Yearbook of
Political Thought 6 (2002), 42.
build up a body of factual knowledge by which to establish what an author in-
tended to do: if we succeed in identifying this context with suffcient accuracy,
we can eventually hope to read off what the speaker or writer in whom we are
interested was doing.
For Skinner, contextualism enabled historians to avoid
anachronism and reach valid interpretations. Anachronistic interpretations present
authors as contributing to debates that knowledge of the context shows were not
around when the authors wrote. Valid interpretations recover authors intentions
to address particular questions at particular times. Skinner presented his contextu-
alist method as the only way to avoid anachronistic myths.
While modernist historians tried to overcome historical distance by using rigor-
ous methods, the postmodernists embraced it. Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White
insisted that historians and narratives always remain separate from the past and
They emphasized that historians construct their representations and narra-
tives not solely to ft the facts but also through metaphor, plot, and other textual
strategies. Ankersmit and White thereby staked out a distinctive approach to his-
torical theory. They turned away from both the speculative principles of develop-
mental historicists and the methodologies of modernist historians. They focused on
the literary structures and aesthetic choices involved in historical writing.
Ankersmit and White are associated with a postmodern approach to historical
theory. Their postmodernism appears in the apparently relativist implications of
their emphasis on the distance between facts and narratives and so their concern
with literary and aesthetic issues. Ironically, however, although Ankersmit and
White are described as postmodernists, their approach to historical theory echoes
modernism and implicitly rejects postfoundationalism. Ankersmit and White rely
on a modernist understanding of historical distance as a disjuncture between, on
the one hand, facts and descriptions, and, on the other, narratives and representa-
tions. They express a modernist view of atomized facts. Sometimes they even
suggest that facts are given as true or false depending on whether or not they cor-
respond to the world. Ankersmit has long suggested that single descriptive state-
ments can be true or false in a correspondence sense, and he has come explicitly
to defend pre-cognitive experiences outside language and theorization.
has long distinguished events as given chronological items from the plots that
historians impose on these events, and he has come explicitly to defend the reality
of events in the past as given independent of their literary portrayal.
12. Q. Skinner, A Reply to Critics, in Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics,
ed. J. Tully (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1988), 275.
13. Q. Skinner, Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas, in Tully, ed., Meaning and
14. F. Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: A Semantic Analysis of the Historians Language (The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, 1983); F. Ankersmit, History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); F. Ankersmit, Historical Representation (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 2001); H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth
Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973); H. White, Tropics of Discourse
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); and H. White, The Content of the Form
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
15. F. Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
16. H. White, Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1999).
The postmodernists differed from modernists not in their account of historical
distance, but in their response to it. The modernists tried to overcome historical
distance by appealing to rigorous methods to secure facts and so narratives. The
postmodernists reveled in historical distance, arguing that it constituted historical
writing as a distinctive literary endeavor, rather than one aiming exclusively at
factual truths. In their view, historical writing was distinct from factual scientifc
writing precisely because historical distance meant that historians inevitably use
literary devices and aesthetic modes of representation.
Historical distance is not necessarily a problem. It was not a problem for many
developmental historicists who used teleological and substantive principles to
guarantee historical continuity and to fuse fact and narrative. Historical distance
became a problem only when modernists rejected such principles, opening up the
possibility of divisions between past and present, facts and narratives. Modernists
wanted historical theory to concentrate on epistemologies and methodologies by
which historians might bridge these divisions. Postmodernists did not dismiss
the problem of historical distance so much as embrace it. Arguing that the gap
between past and present, and between fact and narrative, could never be bridged,
they redefined historical theory as the study of the literary and aesthetic dimen-
sions that were intrinsic to historical writing because of this unavoidable gap.
Postfoundationalists reject modernism in a way that dispels the issue of histori-
cal distance. Before I explore postfoundationalism, however, I need to address a
possible confusion in terminology. Postmodernism is sometimes defined as syn-
onymous withor at least a subset ofpostfoundationalism.
Yet, postmodern
historical theorists do not seem to be postfoundationalists. Ankersmit and White
may reject the idea that historical narratives can ever be declared true or false
simply by appeals to facts. But they do not seem to reject the idea of pure facts
outside categories and language. To the contrary, they define historical narratives
in contrast to just such facts, suggesting there are such facts but historical writing
is not fixed by them. For example, White appeals to the transition from the level
of fact or event in the discourse to that of narrative; he argues, this transition is
effected by a displacement of the facts onto the ground of literary figurations or,
what amounts to the same thing, the projection onto the facts of the plot structure
of one or another of the genres of literary figuration.
So, in historical theory,
postmodernists may challenge the very possibility of narratives being fixed by
facts, but they do not challenge, as would postfoundationalists, the very possibil-
ity of secure facts.
Let me turn to postfoundationalism and its implications for historical distance.
Postfoundationalists believe that no knowledge is absolutely certain. Often they
believe more specifically that knowledge never has absolutely secure founda-
tions in pure experience or pure reason. Postfoundationalists have varied reasons
17. For a more historically flexible view of postmodernism, see Histories of Postmodernism, ed.
M. Bevir, J. Hargis, and S. Rushing (New York: Routledge, 2007).
18. White, Content of the Form, 47.
for rejecting certainty. Some stress the unstable content of signs and the impor-
tance of the relations among signs.
Others stress the impossibility of ascribing
meaning and truth conditions to isolated propositions outside of a wider web of
For whatever reason, postfoundationalists agree that there cannot be any
pure experiences. Experiences are necessarily theory-laden. They are constituted
in part by prior categories, traditions, discourses, and languages.
Fully to grasp the implications of postfoundationalism for historical distance, we
need to understand how it alters the notions of fact and objectivity.
tionalism does away with certain facts, whether these facts derive directly from pure
experience or indirectly by way of rigorous methods. Acceptance of a particular ex-
perience or rigorous method necessarily depends on prior theories that are fallible.
For postfoundationalists, a fact is not given; it is a piece of evidence nearly everyone
in a given community either accepts or perhaps has good warrant for accepting
given the other intersubjective beliefs of that community. This defnition of a fact
follows from recognition of the theory-laden nature of experience. Because theory
necessarily enters into experience, we cannot describe a fact as a statement of how
things are. Facts always entail prior categories. They are not certain truths. They are
things we currently agree to accept as true given the other things we believe.
A postfoundational analysis of facts suggests that they are always entwined
with narratives. A fact acquires its character as a result of its relationship to other
facts. A narrative does not just explain facts by postulating signifcant relation-
ships among them, it also thereby reveals the character of those facts. Again, nar-
ratives do not just reveal the character of facts, they create their character and they
guide our decisions as to what counts as a fact. Because there are no pure observa-
tions, historians partly construct the character of a fact through their narratives.
Postfoundationalism undermines the possibility of treating facts as secure out-
side of theories and narratives. However, to insist on the theory-laden nature of
facts is not necessarily to adopt relativism. Postfoundationalists can redefne ob-
jectivity in terms of a reasonable comparison among the available narratives. In
this view, objective knowledge depends on historians criticizing and comparing
narratives in relation to the agreed facts. Historians cannot say that a narrative
is proven or falsifed by facts, but they can compare narratives in terms of their
relative success in relating facts to one another by highlighting similarities, dif-
ferences, and connections. Sometimes there might be no way for historians to
decide between two or more narratives, but this will not always be the case, and
even when it is historians still can decide between these two or more narratives
and many inferior ones.
A concept of objective knowledge as a product of a comparison between rival
stories raises the question of what criteria should guide the comparison. My own
view is that we might derive such criteria from the assumption of postfounda-
19. J. Derrida, Of Grammatology, transl. G. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
20. W. Quine and J. Ullian, The Web of Belief (New York: Random House, 1970).
21. M. Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,
1999), chap. 3.
22. Actually, I think a fact is something that we accept as an exemplary perception, but what
follows does not depend on this more specific definition.
Because the question of defning criteria of comparison arises spe-
cifcally for postfoundationalists, we may reasonably assume a postfoundational-
ist perspective in answering the question. Postfoundationalism itself might then
generate criteria such as accuracy to agreed facts, comprehensive coverage of the
relevant facts, consistency and compatibility with agreed standards of evidence,
and a progressive, fruitful, and open relation to other narratives. For now, how-
ever, the important point is that whatever criteria postfoundationalists adopt, they
will conceive of objectivity as the result of a practice of comparison rather than a
confrontation between a narrative and secure facts.
This postfoundational analysis of facts and objectivity dispels the problem of
historical distance. In general terms, postfoundationalism undermines the idea
that facts about the past are given outside present theories and narratives; it fuses
past and present, facts and narratives. Consider, more specifcally, the modernist
concern with historical distance. Once modernists gave up on the principles of
developmental historicists, they tried to justify narratives by appealing to atom-
ized facts. The separation of facts and narratives seemed crucial if facts were to
justify narratives. The problem for modernist historians was then to overcome
historical distance, avoid anachronism, and secure facts. Their solution was rig-
orous methods. Yet, postfoundationalists deny the possibility of separating facts
from narratives and so past from present. The content of facts necessarily refects
the narratives in which they are located. There cannot be facts outside narratives.
There cannot be access to the past outside of our present reconstruction of it.
Modernists might worry that giving up on the possibility of secure facts outside
of narratives leaves postfoundationalists with no way to justify historical knowl-
edge. Postfoundationalists will respond that this worry mistakenly assumes that
justifcation requires a kind of certainty that we simply cannot have. They will say
that historical knowledge is objective not by virtue of its correspondence to given
facts, but by virtue of its being the best account currently available.
Now consider the postmodern approach to historical distance. Postfoundational-
ists might seem to line up with postmodernists in that they reject the possibility
of justifying narratives by reference to secure facts. However, postfoundationalism
differs signifcantly from the postmodernism of Ankersmit and White. The post-
modernists accept a modernist account of historical distance. They accept the sepa-
ration of facts and narratives and so of past and present. It is just that the postmod-
ernists argue that there is no way to overcome this separation; historical narratives
necessarily involve literary tropes that distinguish them from chronological records
of events. Yet, postfoundationalists reject the possibility of facts outside theoretical
contexts. All knowledge incorporates both facts and theories. Even chronologies
of events are inherently theory-laden. Postfoundationalism thereby undermines the
postmodernists emphasis on the allegedly peculiar tropology of historical narra-
tives. All knowledgeincluding natural science as well as historyinvolves a kind
of theoretical or literary construction of the facts.
Postfoundationalism thereby
23. Bevir, Logic of the History of Ideas, chap. 3.
24. The difference between postfoundational and postmodern views of knowledge was one of
the main issues in my debate with Ankersmit. Ankersmit argued historical knowledge requires us to
make concepts whereas everyday knowledge requires us to match our concepts to something out-
renders irrelevant that a narrative entails a type of projection; relevant instead is
the reasonableness of the form of projection that a narrative entails. By dissolving
historical distance, postfoundationalism removes the grounds on which the post-
modernists tried to redefne historical theory as the study of the peculiarly literary
and aesthetic nature of historical narratives and representations.
As postfoundationalism dissolves historical distance, so it challenges the two
main twentieth-century approaches to historical theory. For a start, postfounda-
tionalism challenges modernist theory with its focus on facts and its methodolog-
ical ambitions. Historical theory need not be about devising rigorous methods
to secure facts. No method can possibly secure facts independently of a fallible
and contestable set of background theories. Objective knowledge depends not on
methods and facts but on a process of comparison. In addition, postfoundational-
ism challenges postmodern theory with its focus on the study of the literary and
aesthetic features of historical writing. Historical theory need be no more about
tropology than need the philosophy of science. No doubt the presentation of all
types of knowledge can involve literary devices; but the ways in which histori-
cal narratives go beyond facts and incorporate theories does not distinguish them
from any other type of knowledge.
Postfoundationalism points toward a new approach to historical theoryless
methodological, less literary, and more philosophical. Historical theory might ask
epistemological questions about knowledge and belief: What is knowledge of his-
tory? How should historians justify their beliefs about the past? Historical theory
might ask ontological questions about the objects historians postulate when de-
scribing the past: What kinds of objects make up the past? Should historians con-
ceive of varied objects in terms set by realism, nominalism, or constructionism?
And historical theory might ask metaphysical questions about concepts relevant
to historical explanation, including cause and effect, will and determinism, and
time and identity: Are human subjects capable of innovative agency? What forms
of explanation should historians adopt to explain beliefs, actions, and practices?
A postfoundational approach to historical theory would differ from modernism
and postmodernism. Unlike postmodernism, it would not focus on written histo-
ries to explore their literary construction. Instead, it would return to philosophical
questions about the forms of justifcation and explanation that historians should
adopt. However, unlike modernist historicism, it would not tell historians how to
do their researchwhat methods to adopt or forego. Instead it would explore the
grammar of our concepts in an attempt to free historians from the bewitching ef-
fects of modernism.
My argument about historical distance exemplifes this postfoundational ap-
proach to historical theory. It draws out the conceptual implications of postfoun-
dationalism in an attempt to liberate historians from any lingering, modernist
worries about the relationship of past to present or fact to narrative. It does not
side them. I replied that all knowledge involves makingwe can never match concepts to given
facts. See M. Bevir and F. Ankersmit, Exchanging Ideas, Rethinking History 4 (2000), 351-372.
obliterate the distinction between past and presentjust worries about that dis-
tinction. Indeed, although postfoundationalism allows us to dismiss worries about
historical distance, it does not remove the distinction between past and present.
Postfoundationalism guarantees overlaps and continuities between past and pres-
ent by locating the past in our present webs of belief, but it retains a distinction in
our webs of belief between past and present. Again, to put the point the other way
round: postfoundationalism distinguishes past and present, but like developmen-
tal historicism, it provides us historical consonance. Postfoundationalism negates
the idea that there could be an unbridgeable gap between past and present, fact
and narrative. As developmental historicism established a bridge from the present
back to the past by means of principles, so postfoundationalism does so by locat-
ing them both in a single web of beliefs. For postfoundationalists, the possibility
of the past being utterly foreign to the present does not even arise; the past just is
the past as we comprehend it in the present.
Critics might suggest that postfoundationalists still confront worries akin to
those related to historical distance; postfoundationalists still might worry about
the adequacy of using present concepts to convey the rather different concepts
that they ascribe to people in the past. Yet, this criticism fails to recognize the
extent to which postfoundationalism undermines worries about historical distance
by recasting them as matters of translation or redescription within our own web of
beliefs. The diffculty is no longer to reach from the present back to the past; it is
just to describe what we believe about the past and, at least sometimes, to convey
our beliefs about the past to others using concepts with which they are readily
familiar. Postfoundationalism dissolves the problem of historical distance into the
more general and far more manageable one of describing and communicating one
set of beliefs and concepts using another set.
To see how postfoundationalism recasts dramatic worries about historical dis-
tance into prosaic ones about redescription, let us look briefy at three specifc
issues. The frst issue is conceptual relativism, or the legitimacy of treating our
ideas as valid for other times and places. The second issue is textual meaning, or
the legitimacy of attributing to actions meanings they could not have had at the
time. The fnal issue is re-enactment, or the legitimacy of using our concepts to
cover very different ideas from the past.
Conceptual Relativism
Conceptual relativists question the legitimacy of treating our concepts as valid for
other times. Their position seems obviously implausible with respect to knowl-
edge of the natural world. Surely if historians discussed the eruption of Mount
Vesuvius, they could draw on our knowledge of volcanic behavior even though
this knowledge was not shared by the people in Pompeii at the time of the erup-
tion of Vesuvius. Historians can draw freely on our current knowledge of volcanic
behavior because this knowledge is, in our view, about universal laws.
Conceptual relativism appears more troubling when historians discuss human
life. If historians describe or explain the past using our concepts of action and
meaning, do they do violence to people who did not hold those concepts? If peo-
ple did not conceive of themselves as subjects acting for reasons of their own, can
historians legitimately discuss their actions in such terms? Historians can apply
our concept of action to others provided our analysis of that concept suggests it
applies universally. However, the relevant idea of universal applicability is one that
cannot be provided by any amount of empirical evidence. (Empirical evidence can-
not support such universality partly because of the familiar problem of induction,
and partly because the empirical evidence would embody the analysis to which it
was supposed to lend support such that a justifcation of the analysis by reference to
the evidence would be tautological.) If historians want to give universal applicability
to our concept of action, they have to do so by philosophical argument. Historians
have to show the grammar of our concepts is such that our concept of action applies
to other times. Again, historians can fend off conceptual relativism by showing that
intentionality and agency are invariant features of our concept of action.
A conceptual relativist might complain that our conceptual analysis of action, with
its related notion of intentionality, might be false. But this complaint misses the point.
The point is not to defend our concepts as True in any grand metaphysical sense. It is
merely to show that our belief in these concepts commits us to certain other positions.
Once we grant we cannot conclusively prove the Truth of our conceptsa point to
which relativists give great weightthe fact that our beliefs might not be True need
concern us very little. What will concern us is, frst, that our concepts are ones we
deploy for good reasons, and, second, that these concepts entail the reasonableness of
applying our conceptual analysis of action whenever we discuss actions.
Textual Meaning
Philosophical appeals to the grammar of our concepts enable historians to defend
their use of abstract concepts referring to universal human capacities. It is harder to
imagine such philosophical arguments applying to concrete concepts that prescribe
content to these capacities. The grammar of our concepts may justify a historian
treating people as agents even if they did not understand themselves as such, but
it does not seem to justify any claim that agents universally act in a particular way.
Again, it may not be anachronistic to discuss people as having a capacity for agency
even if they do not have such a concept, but perhaps it is anachronistic to discuss
Shakespeares agency as expressed in Julius Caesar in a manner that involves ascrib-
ing to him our concept of a wristwatch.
Historical distance often gets discussed in relation to the legitimacy of attribut-
ing to actions meanings they could not have had at the time.
Because Aristot-
les notion of the polis differs from our concept of the state, it would perhaps be
anachronistic to refer to his text as if it were a treatise on the state. Are the only
legitimate readings those that evoke the intentions of the actors? Almost all at-
tempts to address this question fall foul of a fallacy of textual meaning.
proceed as if texts had intrinsic meanings, whether these meanings are single or
plural. Much might be gained from insisting that meanings are always meanings
25. Skinner, Meaning and Understanding. Although Skinner presents himself as discussing
anachronistic textual interpretations, I think he mistakes his target; his actual concern is anachronistic
26. Another issue in my debate with Ankersmit was the validity of equating meanings with the
intentionality of individuals. See Bevir and Ankersmit, Exchanging Ideas.
for people. A text is just a physical movement, ink on paper, or oil on canvas. A
text gains meaning only if one or more individuals ascribes meaning to it. The
grammar of our concepts precludes us from postulating meanings we cannot attribute
to specifc people.
Although texts have meanings only for people, these people need not be the au-
thors of the texts. They, including ourselves, might be readers. Thus, historians le-
gitimately can attribute to texts meanings their authors, and even their authors con-
temporaries, could not have intended them to bear. Historians just have to be clear for
whom the text had these meanings. Historians might say that Aristotles text meant
something to readers in the nineteenth century, or even that it means something to us,
and they might do so even if that meaning is not one Aristotle or his contemporaries
could plausibly have ascribed to the text.
Perhaps problems of historical distance arise not because historians apply our
concepts to the past, but because they ascribe to people beliefs that these people
could not have entertained. Yet, we have no philosophical grounds for ruling out
the possibility of someone having held a belief. We just have empirical grounds
for regarding it as highly unlikely they did so. Properly speaking, therefore,
anachronistic fallacies occur when we ascribe to people beliefs that empirically
we believe it to be extraordinarily unlikely they held. Historical distance appears
when historians use our concepts to refer to the rather different concepts they
ascribe to people in the past.
The analysis of historical distance remains complex even after we narrow it
down to attempts to re-enact past beliefs. Complexities surface when we recall
that past beliefs are not objects to which historians have direct access. They are
objects historians postulate on the basis of evidence. Even more complexities
surface once we realize the process of postulating beliefs inevitably creates a gap
between these beliefs and the words in which they are expressed. When historians
just record the words Aristotle used in his Politics, the result is a transcription;
when historians postulate beliefs, they select the words to do so. In this respect,
re-enactment is better described as ascription.
We might distinguish, therefore, between the ascription of anachronistic beliefs
and the use of anachronistic words to evoke beliefs. Only the former is a problem.
Anachronistic errors arise when a historian ascribes to people beliefs about things
that did not exist at the time they lived. But even these errors are sometimes
just cases in which historians have not been suffciently clear about the level of
abstraction at which they are describing the relevant beliefs. For example, if his-
torians write of Aristotles view of the separation of powers, a critic may object
that Aristotle could not have had beliefs about the separation of powers. If these
historians are using the phrase separation of powers in a narrow sense to refer
to the executive and judicial branches of government being institutionally distinct
from the legislature, the critic would no doubt have an excellent point. However,
if these historians are using the phrase in a more abstract sense to refer to constitu-
tional theories in which no single body has the fnal say on all collective decisions,
it seems far less clear that Aristotle did not hold the beliefs needed to consider
such matters. The issue here is not re-enactment across historical distance but the
adequacy of abstract concepts to more particular cases given certain purposes.
I hope I have dispelled the problem of historical distance. How did I perform this
trick? My general argument is that worries about historical distance arose only
when modernist historicists wanted to secure their narratives by appealing to ato-
mistic facts and rigorous methods. Modernists worried that distance from the facts
might undermine the truth of a narrative. In sharp contrast, I argued that postfoun-
dationalism undermines the idea of pure facts not just in historical theory but for
all knowledge. It poses a general problem of how to defne objective knowledge
without appealing to pure facts. I suggested that we do so by conceiving of objec-
tive knowledge as a product of a comparison among the rival accounts on offer.
This concept of objectivity removes the need for pure facts. It enables us to dispel
worries about historical distance as a bewitching effect of the modernist idea of
atomized facts.
Postfoundationalism thereby overturns a common account of historical dis-
tance and anachronism. Historical distance is conceived in terms of the relation-
ship between past objects and present contexts. Anachronism is typically thought
to appear when an object is placed in an inappropriate context; the appearance of
a wristwatch in a play about ancient Rome is a paradigmatic case. Yet, postfoun-
dationalism suggests that we do not have objects and contexts with the degree of
fxity presupposed by this analysis of anachronism. I thus transformed historical
distance into a relationship between our concepts and the beliefs we ascribe to
people in the past. When we think about historical distance in this way, three is-
sues stand out. First, we need to clarify the conceptual reach of our concepts. I ar-
gued that we can rebut conceptual relativism using philosophical arguments about
the grammar of our concepts. It is the apparently clear lack of universality of our
concept of a wristwatch that would make the appearance of one in Julius Caesar
liable to charges of pernicious anachronism. Second, we need to ask whose beliefs
we want to narrate. I argued that we can legitimately ascribe to actions meanings
they did not have at the time provided only that we are clear that the relevant
meanings existed for later readers. A producer of Julius Caesar might defend the
appearance of a wristwatch in the play by saying his production was about the
meaning the play had for him as a story about absolute power. Finally, we need
to ask how accurately our concepts capture the beliefs that we want to narrate. I
argued that the requisite degree of accuracy varies with the purpose and level of
abstraction of the narrative. A producer might argue that his production attempted
to address questions of power at a suffciently abstract level so as to translate what
Shakespeare believed into our terms.
University of California, Berkeley