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VIII: The Nature of History (A)

VIII: The Nature of History (A)
The Problem of Hermeneutics (The Interpretation of History). The Question of the Objectivity of Historical Knowledge.

(1) We have not yet raised a question which was not felt as a problem in the interpretations of history we have reviewed although it is a question which should be discussed first. It is the so-called hermeneutic question of how to understand historical documents delivered by tradition. They must be understood if we want to use them to reconstruct a picture of the historical past. They must speak to us. In fact every interpretation of history presupposes a hermeneutic method. This holds for the interpretation of history by the Enlightenment as well as by Hegel or by Marx or by Toynbee. But usually the historians do not reflect upon this presupposition. In our time the hermeneutic question has come to the fore. In the discussion about the essence and meaning of history there was bound to come to light the problem of how it is possible to know history whether indeed it is possible to attain objective knowledge of history at all. This second question can only be answered when we have first found an answer to the hermeneutic question: what is the character of historical knowledge?1

The question about the understanding of history can be specialised as the question about the interpretation of literary documents of the past. In this form it is an old question which has played a rôle in philology since Aristotle and also in jurisprudence. Philology has developed hermeneutic rules. Aristotle already saw that the interpreter has to analyse the structure of a literary document; he has to understand the details from the whole and the whole from the details. This is the so-called hermeneutic circle. When the matter in question is a text in a foreign language then the interpretation has to be according to the grammatical rules of that language. Further the individual usage of language and the style of an author has to be studied as well as the usage of the time. The latter depends on the historical situation; therefore the knowledge of place and time and culture is also a presupposition of interpretation.
Schleiermacher (1768–1834) already recognised that such hermeneutic rules are not sufficient for the real understanding of a text. He demands the completing of the philological interpretation by a psychological one and he calls it an interpretation by divination. A literary work has to be understood as a moment in the author's life. The interpreter must reproduce in himself the incident out of which the work which he has to interpret grew. He must so to speak produce the work again. Schleiermacher thinks that this is possible because the author and the interpreter share in the same human nature. Everyone has an ‘Empfänglichkeit’ (susceptibility) for all others and therefore he can understand what others have said.
Schleiermacher's view was continued and taken further by W. Dilthey (1833–1911). The art of interpretation was extended by him to other than literary documents to the documents of art and music for instance. He calls all such documents ‘firmly established utterances of life’. The interpreter has to ask for the psychological life which expresses itself in documents which are given and perceived by the senses. That is possible because ‘nothing can appear in an individual utterance of some other personality which is not contained in the perceiving vitality’. For ‘all individual differences are in the last resort the result not of qualitative differences of the personalities but only of differences of degree in their psychological accidents’.
We must ask whether this definition of hermeneutic is sufficient. It seems to be obvious with regard to the interpretation of works of art or of religious or philosophical texts. But when I have to understand a mathematical or astronomical or medical text is it necessary then that I imaginatively put myself into the particular frame of mind of the author? Is it not my task to repeat or to think again simply the mathematical or astronomical or medical thoughts of the texts? Or when I have to understand historical-chronological documents for example the Egyptian or Babylonian inscriptions recording the deeds of war of the rulers or the famous Res Gestae Divi Augusti2 is it necessary that I reproduce again the psychological events which occurred in the soul of the authors? It is obvious that I need only have a certain knowledge of military and political affairs in order to understand such texts. Certainly it is also possible to read such documents with a different interest as is shown by G. Misch in his History of Autobiography3 in that the feeling for life and understanding of the world of a certain time and culture finds its expression unintentionally in such documents.
Hence it is evident that each interpretation is guided by a certain interest by a certain putting of the question: What is my interest in interpreting the documents? Which question directs me to approach the text? It is evident that the questioning arises from a particular interest in the matter referred to and therefore that a particular understanding of the matter is presupposed. I like to call this a pre-understanding.
Dilthey is right in saying that there must be a connection between the author and the interpreter and he sees this connection in the relationship of the psychological life. But if we consider that interpretation must always be guided by a preceding understanding of the matter in question then we should rather say: the possibility of understanding has its ground in the fact that the interpreter has an actual relation (‘Lebensverhältnis’) to the matter which finds its expression in the documents be it directly or indirectly. I suppose this will be clear if we consider how knowledge of a foreign language is to be gained. That happens when the matters the things the actions which are designated by foreign words are known to the interpreter by use and intercourse in life. A foreign word designating a thing or an action which is absolutely unknown in my own life cannot be translated but only picked up as a foreign word. For instance the German word for window ‘Fenster’ is the Latin fenestra; for the old Germans did not use windows or know about them. In such a way also each child learns to understand and to speak words at the same time as he becomes familiar with his surroundings with its objects and their use. The condition of all interpretation therefore is the simple fact that author and interpreter are living in the same historical world in which human life is enacted as a life in surroundings in the knowing use of objects and the intercourse of men. To this naturally belong also the common interests and questions the problems the struggles the passions and the joys.
I have said that the interest in a certain matter gives the reason for interpretation because from this interest the putting of the question arises. I will now show by a few examples how different questions may arise. The interest may be that of an historical scholar. He will reconstruct the continuity of past history and his special interest may be the political history or the history of the social problems and forms or the history of mind and of universal culture. In those cases the interpretation will always be determined or at least influenced by his conception of history and of the matters referred to. Or the interest may be that of a psychologist. He subjects the texts to questions of the psychology either of the individual or of the nations or masses. Or he seeks for the psychology of religion of poetry of technics and so on. He is always guided by his pre-understanding of soul and psychical phenomena in general. The interest may be that of aesthetics. The texts or the works of art are analysed formally and asked for their structure. The interpreter is guided by his pre-understanding of beauty or even of the essence of art. Perhaps he is satisfied with a stylistic analysis perhaps he asks for the psychological incident which expresses itself in the work of art. In every case he is led by his pre-understanding and the conceptions deriving from it.
Finally the interest may be to understand history not in its empirical course but as the sphere of life within which the human being moves within which human life gains and develops its possibilities. Or briefly stated the interest may be the knowledge of man as he is and was and ever shall be. In this case the interpreter reflecting on history reflects at the same time on his own possibilities and endeavours to gain self-knowledge. His question then is the question about human life as his own life which he endeavours to know and at the same time to show to other men. This questioning is only possible if the interpreter himself is moved by the question about his own existence. And then a certain knowledge of human existence is presupposed perhaps a very vague and indistinct one which guides him in putting the questions to which he hopes to find an answer.
If it is true that every interpretation every questioning and understanding is guided by a pre-understanding then the question arises whether it is possible to gain objective historical knowledge at all. To this question we now turn.
(2) Certainly as a rule the subjectivity of the historian colours his picture of history. It depends for instance on the ideal which a historian has of his country and on his image of its future how he describes its history how he judges the importance of events how he estimates the greatness of historical persons how he distributes worth and worthlessness. According to their different values different pictures will be produced by a nationalist or a socialist an idealist or a materialist a conservative or a liberal. And therefore the portraits of Luther or Goethe of Napoleon or Bismarck vary in history. Or we may remember the completely subjective picture which Gibbon gives of the decay of the ancient culture.
So far as such pictures are the result of unconcealed bias and partisanship we do not need to take account of them for instance those of the Nazis or the Russian communists. Our question is whether genuine historical science can attain objectivity. And on the first impression it seems that it may be possible for it seems true that the events and actions of the past are fixed by the historical documents. Indeed strict methodical research can recognise objectively a certain part of the historical process namely events in so far as they are nothing but occurrences which happened at a certain place in space and time. It is possible for instance to fix objectively the fact and the time at which Socrates drank the cup of hemlock the fact and the time when Caesar crossed the Rubicon the fact and the time when Luther affixed his ninety-five theses to the doors of the Castle-Church of Wittenberg or to know objectively the fact that and the time when a certain battle was fought or a certain empire was founded or a certain catastrophe happened. “With regard to this it is no real objection to say that in many cases the certainty of historical statements is only a relative one. Of course there are many events which cannot be fixed because the evidence is not sufficient or not clear and also the sagacity and the ability of every historian have their limits. But that has no systematic importance; for in principle methodical historical research can attain objective knowledge in this sphere.
But we must ask whether history is sufficiently seen when it is only seen as a field of such events and actions as can be fixed in space and time. I do not think so. For at the least history is a movement a process in which the single events are not without connection but are connected by the chain of cause and effect. Such connection presupposes powers at work in the historical process. It is not difficult to become aware of such powers. Thucydides already knew how human impulses and passions are moving powers especially the striving for power and the ambition of individuals and groups. Furthermore everyone knows how economic and social needs and distresses are factors in the historical process but that is also true of ideas and ideals. Of course the understanding and appreciation and valuation of such factors is different and there is no court which can give a final judgment.
Finally a historical event or action as historical includes its meaning or importance. What is the importance of the fact that Socrates drank the cup of hemlock; the importance for the history of Athens; even for the history of the human mind? What is the importance of the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; the importance for the history of Rome; even of the West? What is the importance of the fact that Luther affixed his theses to the Church doors; the importance for the political as well as for the religious history of the following generations? And is it not the case that the judgment of importance depends on the subjective point of view of the historian?
Does it follow from all this that it is impossible to attain objective historical knowledge? Well that would be so if objectivity in historical science had the same sense as objectivity in natural science. But we must distinguish between two points of view in historiography so that we may recognise what objectivity in historical science means. The first is as I may call it the perspective or viewpoint chosen by the historian; the second is as I like to call it the existential encounter with history.
First I will try to explain the question of perspective or viewpoint. Each historical phenomenon can be seen from different points of view because man is a complex being. He consists of body and soul or if one prefers of body soul and mind. He has appetites and passions he feels physical and spiritual needs he has will and imagination. He is a political and social being and he is also an individual with his own peculiarity and therefore human community can be understood not only as political and social but also as personal relationship. In consequence it is possible to write history as political history as well as economic history as history of problems and ideas as well as history of individuals and personalities. The historical judgment may be guided by psychological or ethical interest and also by aesthetic interest. Each of these different views is open to one side of the historical process and from each viewpoint something objectively true will appear. The picture is falsified only if one single viewpoint is made an absolute one if it comes to be a dogma.
Historiography begins once the chronicles and novels are left behind with the interest in political history for the course of history first comes into consciousness through political changes. Then in reaction other views become prevalent and histories of ideas and of economics arise. Lastly modern historians often try to combine the different views and to build up a universal history of human culture or civilisation. In fact the different historians are usually guided by special interests and questions and that does not matter provided that this question and this point of view do not become absolute and if the historian is conscious that he sees and shows the phenomenon from a special viewpoint and that it must also be seen from other viewpoints.
Truth becomes manifest objectively to each viewpoint. The subjectivity of the historian does not mean that he sees wrongly but that he has chosen a special viewpoint that his research starts with a special question. And we must remember that it is impossible to trace out a historical picture without any question and that it is possible to perceive a historical phenomenon only from a special point of view. To this extent the subjectivity of the historian is a necessary factor of objective historical knowledge.
But we must reflect on a further point. The subjectivity of the historian goes further than simply choosing a special viewpoint for his research. Already in choosing a viewpoint there is at work what I may call the existential encounter with history.4 History gains meaning only when the historian himself stands within history and takes part in history. As R. G. Collingwood says: the object of historical knowledge is ‘not a mere object something outside the mind which knows it: it is an activity of thought which can be known only in so far as the knowing mind re-enacts it and knows itself as so doing. To the historian the activities whose history he is studying are not spectacles to be watched but experiences to be lived through in his own mind; they are objective or known to him only because they are also subjective or activities of his own.’5 In the same sense Erich Frank says: ‘The object of historical understanding is not a thing in itself independent of the mind which contemplates it’. ‘In the field of science we have to do with an object which is essentially different from ourselves: we think but nature does not. The object of historical knowledge is man himself in his subjective nature. In this sphere an ultimate distinction between the knower and his object cannot be maintained.’6
This does not mean that the historian ascribes a meaning according to his own liking to the historical phenomenon. But it means that historical phenomena are not what they are in pure individual isolation but only in their relation to the future for which they have importance. We may say: To each historical phenomenon belongs its future a future in which alone it will appear as that which it really is—to speak precisely we must say: the future in which it evermore appears as that which it is. For ultimately it will show itself in its very essence only when history has reached its end.
Therefore we can understand that the question of meaning in history was raised and answered for the first time within an outlook which believed it knew the end of history. This occurred in the Jewish-Christian understanding of history which was dependent on eschatology.7 The Greeks did not raise the question of meaning in history and the ancient philosophers had not developed a philosophy of history.8 A philosophy of history grew up for the first time in Christian thinking for Christians believed they knew of the end of the world and of history. In modern times the Christian eschatology was secularised by Hegel and by Marx.9 Hegel and Marx each in his own way believed they knew the goal of history and interpreted the course of history in the light of this presupposed goal.
Today we cannot claim to know the end and the goal of history. Therefore the question of meaning in history has become meaningless. But there still remains the question of the meaning of single historical phenomena and single historical epochs. To speak more exactly: there remains the question of the importance of single historical events and deeds of our past for our present a present which is charged with responsibility for our future. For instance: what is the meaning and importance of the decay of the uniform medieval culture in face of the problem of the relationship of the Christian denominations especially with regard to education? Or what is the meaning and importance of the French Revolution in view of the problem of the organisation and authority of the state? Or what is the meaning and importance of the rise of capitalism and socialism in face of the problem of economic organisation? and so on. In all these cases the analysis of motives and consequences gives light for the demands of our future. The judgment on the past and on the present belong together and each is clarified by the other.
It is by such historical reflection that the phenomena of the past become real historical phenomena and begin to reveal their meaning. I say they begin—that is to say objectivity of historical knowledge is not attainable in the sense of absolute ultimate knowledge nor in the sense that the phenomena could be known in their very ‘being in themselves’ which the historian could perceive in pure receptivity. This ‘being in itself’ is an illusion of an objectivising type of thinking which is proper in natural science but not in history.
I must repeat: this does not mean that historical knowledge is subjective in the sense that it depends on the individual desire or pleasure of the subject. On the contrary: the genuine historical question grows out of the historical emotion of the subject of the person who feels his responsibility. Therefore historical research includes the readiness to hear the claim which meets one in the historical phenomena. And just for this reason the demand for freedom from presuppositions for an unprejudiced approach which is valid for all science is also valid for historical research. The historian is certainly not allowed to presuppose the results of his research and he is obliged to keep back to reduce to silence his personal desires with regard to these results. But this in no way means that he must annihilate his personal individuality. On the contrary: genuine historical knowledge demands a very personal aliveness of the understanding subject the very rich unfolding of his individuality. Only the historian who is excited by his participation in history (and that means—who is open for the historical phenomena through his sense of responsibility for the future) only he will be able to understand history. In this sense the most subjective interpretation of history is at the same time the most objective. Only the historian who is excited by his own historical existence will be able to hear the claim of history.
It is in this sense that R. G. Collingwood says that ‘historical inquiry reveals to the historian the powers of his own mind’.10 ‘History is thus the self-knowledge of the living mind. For even when the events which the historian studies are events that happened in the distant past the condition of their being historically known is that they should ‘vibrate in the historian's mind”.’11 But about Collingwood we have to speak in the next lecture.

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