The Philosophy of History and The Binary Wasteland

Image result for dead or alive poster original
Death, the ultimate opposition, is the one we choose to disregard.

Presence or absence, with us or against us, in or out: righteousness has dogged mankind in modern times. Confidence in ourselves, in our existence, in our being, as rightful, positive entities on this planet and in this universe, has dominated the human condition. And so we seek to dominate! Assertive and strong (for to be otherwise is wasteful and somehow wrong) our existential duty is to dominate and multiply, to spawn and own. We are – nay, I am – absolute. Who denies me this? Who would argue that my existence is not infinitely significant, eternally worthwhile? Just as I shall not deny others their entitlement, I shall have mine.

The alternative, to our modern sensibilities, is unthinkable. Are we – am I – ordinary? Am I, relatively speaking, merely another carbon-based life-form, ranking alongside the elephant and the mongrel dog? Maybe I’m smarter, but surely I must be more than merely this! What if I’m subordinate? Ecology, a rejection of hierarchy, tries to explain it, but it fails to satisfy: and so we persist with our supremacism, our special/species hubris.

The enlightenment has a lot to answer for – but perhaps this particular issue pre-dates the enlightenment. The split between church and state happened before that. Habermas takes it back to classical Greece, Weber to the dawn of Protestantism (and Protestant exceptionalism). Exceptionalism is twinned with individualism, and liberal sensibilities tend to exalt the improbable exceptionalism of each individual, at least in terms of potential. This poisonous combination then of righteousness and individualism leads us to our modern problematic.

At the same time, we have denied the legitimacy of value in the abstract, and values in general, as oppressive and subjective forces that lead us astray. These, in the language of philosophers, are entirely personal interpretations of the real. Enlightenment liberalism promised freedom, liberty and equality to all, so that each of us could achieve our potential, and yet denied the possibility of alternative ontologies. This was a scientistic, rational, structualist, positivist sensibility: to borrow a term from the computer boom of the 1970s, it’s WYSIWYG ontology: what you see is what you get.

In his 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, or what was originally titled Leo Tolstoy’s Historical Skepticism, Isaiah Berlin dives deeper into this dichotomy. The eventual title of the work refers to a fragment from ancient Greece which says that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ The enlightenment was what Berlin would have seen as a Hedgehog revolution. It was a declaration of ontological victory! This was essentially the point at which Francis Fukuyama would 200 years later declare the end of history. This was what all those centuries of progress had been leading up to.

Berlin himself was skeptical of the view of the one big thing, monism, or the system view. His short book was ostensibly a criticism of Tolstoy, who he argued was ‘by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.’ This dualism persists in part at least, it seems, because of social compulsion. Tolstoy’s ‘history’ was widely criticised for being inaccurate, and even falsified. Berlin characterizes it as his ‘violently unhistorical and indeed anti-historical rejection of all efforts to explain or justify human action or character in terms of social or individual growth, or ‘roots’ in the past.’ How could a narrative of Napoleon’s Russia campaign be considered useful or important with that kind of detachment?

The belief in a coherent and unified view of history stems from enlightenment scientism, a shared and objectively universal ontology that sees the world in the same way. If I see Napoleon on a horse leading the charge into the Russian flank, and you – standing beside me – see the same thing, we unquestioningly agree on the facts. When we look at each other in amazement at the courage of the leader, there is no need for words to convey our unity of perception: we see the same thing.

Consider that we are on opposite sides of the battlefield, witnessing the same physiological occurrences. Our perspectives however are different; from my perspective, the Russian flank is not defensive or stationary; but in retreat. Napoleon from my perspective is not so much leading the charge, but in a group of well armed horsemen who are protecting him. Now, our views of the same set of events, the same individual exertions, are alternatively contextualised. Is Napoleon the fearless leader? Or the ruthless executioner? There is a third perspective: Napoleon himself. Does Napoleon himself see himself as a fearless leader, or a ruthless executioner? Is he leading his troops gallantly, with an amour propre, as Rousseau would call it? Or is he hoping to get good reports to boost his popularity back home based on an amour de soi meme?

Three personal perspectives – me, another, and the object. Each narrative is different. And yet agreement can be arrived at one single narrative that becomes a history. Consider still further that these three perspectives are physically on the battlefield; what of the distant news media, reporting on secondhand accounts? What place has rumour and suggestion, personal bias and political persuasion to play in the construction of an accepted historical narrative? One of the most important military events of the twentieth century – the bombing of Guernica by German planes during the Spanish Civil War – only became news a number of days later, and thus entered the public consciousness. By journalist George Steer’s account, ‘Waves of German-type planes fling thousands of bombs and incendiary projectiles on Guernica, behind lines, as priests bless peasants filling town on market day.’ Such a headline! Those dastardly Germans! Bombing priests! Even more recently, following the Mueller report into misdeeds by the Trump administration in the United States, the Attorney General William Barr summarised the report for public consumption, in a way that mischaracterized the findings of the report. The same facts, the same view of events, with an alternate narrative.

Do we have a history, or do I have mine? Is mine even consistent? Is today’s history the same as tomorrow’s history? The concept of linear time is a part of how we see the world, and we have a consistent view of time, give or take. Older people suffering from cognitive degeneration sometimes remember events from fifty years ago with great clarity, and yet fail to remember the names of their children. Is their view of time different? The idea of death tends not to concern younger people, and often consumes older people. Does each person have a shared appreciation for temporal systems?

Tolstoy’s ‘invention’ may have been a more accurate representation of the events of the Russian campaign than a more conventional telling, a recording for posterity of the commonly understood version of events, whatever meaning that may possess. His acknowledgement of inconsistency from subject to subject, however messy, revealed him for the fox that he was. And yet – what of Berlin’s assertion that he believed in being a hedgehog?

Being a fox is not quite the same as being a nihilist, though it’s easy to see how one might arrive at that conclusion. The fox acknowledges the possibility that there are an infinite number of realities, that no one view is dominant. That implicitly destroys the case for all but subjective, even temporal meaning. On the other hand, the enlightenment appreciation for meaning is a shared meaning, a common understanding of values in the world, represented in various declarations of human values, or human rights. It is a common ontology, a uniform understanding of reality, defined by science. On the face of it this appears to moderns as self-evident, rational. Where this breaches the limits of tolerance for post-modern sensibilities is the tendency to the absolute, the dogmatic. Here again we have another binary – as Leo Strauss defined it between the ancients and the moderns, the former accepting their place in the world with humility, the latter appearing to tend towards totalitarianism not merely in politics, but even in aesthetics.

Tolstoy (and, perhaps, Berlin himself) attempts to skate between the two oppositions. While Tolstoy interprets history as a fox, he recoils from the desert of meaning. There must be meaning, even if it remains elusive for human beings. So he believes in being a hedgehog; there is something in him that requires him to believe in being as something substantive. There must be, in other words, purpose. So Tolstoy believes in being a hedgehog, but in truth – it is an act of faith.

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