Both the (logical-)positivist and the hermeneuticist approach to historical writing felt a greater affinity with the parts than with the whole of the historical text. This is because both approaches tended to focus on the issue of historical explanation. And explanations are typically given of events, which we may expect to find at the level of the components of an historical text rather than on that of its whole. This is not to deny that historical texts as a whole can properly be said to explain. But when that is the case, neither (logical-)positivism nor hermeneutics can clarify the historical text’s explanatory force.
We owe to Hayden White the recognition that it is necessary to address the issue of the historical text as whole. However, neither White nor his many followers ever discussed the problem of the relationship between the historical text as a whole and that part of the past represented in it.
This, then, is what I hope to do in my presentation. I shall argue for three claims. In the first place, Donald Davidson’s argument against conceptual schemes (as in his ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’) applies here as well. Next, that little is to be expected from an epistemological analysis of the relationship between the historical text and the past it is about. And, finally, that past reality should be seen as a model of the historical text and not the other way round. This is where the writing of history comes strangely close to mathematics and theoretical physics and where the relationship between model and reality is basically the same.
Frank Ankersmit was professor of Intellectual History and Philosophy of History at Groningen University from 1992 until his retirement in 2010. He has published fifteen books and more than 220 articles in the fields of philosophy of history, political philosophy and aesthetics. He is a member of the Dutch Royal Academy of the Sciences (KNAW) and of the Academia Europaea. He is founder and chief editor of the Journal of the Philosophy of History and holds an honorary degree in the humanities of the University of Ghent. His writings have been translated into many languages. His most recent book, entitled Meaning, Truth and Reference in Historical Representation, came out with Cornell UP in May 2012.
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The lecture is part of the ICI Lecture Series Constituting Wholes. After the disenchantments of the postmodern post-cold-war period and in the face of global crises – be they financial, economic, political, or ecological – the critical need to include a holistic perspective is felt with renewed urgency, as is the concern that the situatedness of any such perspective and the multiple, incommensurable ways of constituting wholes may be forgotten.