Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lilti contra Gordon

I want to tackle the next two pieces in RMEIH as a pair. They are, in order, Peter Gordon on “Contextualism and Criticism in the History of Ideas” and Antoine Lilti’s “Does Intellectual History Exist in France?” At the end of Lilti’s text, he responds to Gordon’s essay. (I am, incidentally, curious about how this sort of exchange is managed practically speaking). Gordon, Lilti writes,

defends the idea of approaching philosophical texts of the past with present-day preoccupations in mind, and he cautions against he danger of excessive contextualization. By contrast, the whole tradition of cultural history in France was built upon the premise...that an insurmountable distance separates the present of the historian from the past found in sources...This commitment to contextualization is what distinguishes the historian’s approach, and it cannot be abandoned without sacrificing the specific contributions that historians make to our understanding of cultural objects. (69)

Now, Lilti agrees with Gordon that “attentiveness to the temporality of knowledge is especially important for intellectual history,” and certainly also agrees that when confronting a given object, the intellectual historian must bear in mind what has become of this object between its initial creation and the historian’s engagement with it. Lilti’s example is Lucien Febvre’s classic account of Rabelais. Febvre’s work there is a pradigmatic insistence on the alterity of the past. But it was also premised on the continual presence of Rabelais in French cultural life between his 16th century and Febvre’s 20th. But, at least this is my reading, Lilti will not follow Gordon onto what looks to Lilti like philosophical, rather than historical terrain.
The two essays contrast in many ways. Lilti, although of course he generalizes and makes conceptual points, is basically concerned to synthesize historiography. He answers the question posed by his title in the affirmative, but explains why and how this is only relatively recently true. Gordon, in contrast, cites very few works of historiography. The essay is ostensibly primed by Skinner’s 1969 “Meaning and Understanding,” but the real interlocutor is German critical theory.

I may be projecting, but my sense is that Lilti is somewhat taken about by Gordon. The latter maintains, in his own words, that “intellectual historians should not endorse contextualism as a global and exhaustive theory of meaning, that is, the view that a specific context can fully account for all the potentialities of an idea” (33). Gordon insists that what he is against is contextualism understood as “the epistemological and normative (and implicitly metaphysical) premise that ideas are properly understood only if they are studied within the context of their initial articulation. This idea has for some time enjoyed a default status that quite often passes without argument or defense, since it is presumed to be merely the common sense of the profession at large” (36). Gordon proceeds to destroy this idea. And I entirely agree with him that it is debilitating in a number of ways, limiting and simply bad practice, to make such assumptions. I agree that the original temporally and geographically proximal context of articulation is not the exclusive or exhaustive bearer of meaning for an idea. On the other hand, I am not convinced that historians have ever seriously maintained that it was, or—and here Gordon agrees—acted like it was. Indeed I vividly retain the impression (if not exactly the memory) of reading Dominic LaCapra’s classic (anticontextualist?) extended list of possible contextualizations for a given text. That was written 30 years ago. And I am puzzled by Gordon’s use of the term “idea.” His essay is after all about the history of ideas, but it seems to me straightfowardly the case that intellectual historians work with many objects that they would not describe as “ideas,” a term that many, although of course not all, would regard with suspicion. In short, it seems to me that Gordon waves his hand over the gathered masses of intellectual historians to abstract from their practice a disavowed appalling metaphysics, but then, having dismantled this metaphysics, he admits that actually historians also do not act as though they believe it: “the irony is that, whenever they venture into a more critical style of analysis, intellectual historians typically violate the principles of exhaustive contextualism to which they claim allegiance” (51). No evidence is ever offered for such allegiance—unless the mere reference to Skinner’s programmatic essay. Perhaps if I went back and re-read Skinner, the objections would seem more just. As it is, I am somewhat at a loss. I am perhaps missing something. 

There is nonetheless much that is interesting in the way Gordon stages his argument. Particularly the issue of temporality. For Gordon, the strong contextualist (bad) position amounts to a containment and a slowing down. It finds its ultimate model in a Hegelian system, a closed system of Geist with its own logic, the spirit of the age. There may be events, but the flow of time itself is not disruptive. The critical perspective that Gordon wants to endorse is eruptive. It is a differential time, as opposed to a punctual one (the reference here is to Benjamin). I tend toward skepticism of temporality-talk. And yet reading Gordon made me want to go back and pick up the work of a philosopher radically at odds with the tradition on which Gordon relies: Herni Bergson. Bergson, after all, in a much more sustained way than Benjamin, attempted to think about a mode of temporality—la durée—that would be different from the regularized, essentially spatialized, time of the natural sciences. Indeed one might—I won’t here—juxtapose Gordon’s Benjaminian distinction between punctual and differential time to a Bergsonian one between duration and extension.

This brings us back to Lilti. He explains, in the broadest terms, why there isn’t anything like ‘intellectual history’ among the French academic disciplines. Startlingly for me—but sensibly—Lilti begins by pointing out that there was nothing comparable to the Italian and the German traditions of philology in France. So that “In France, the theory and practice of history has not been guided by a science of texts so much as by the tension between narrative and knowledge, and between literature and social science” (57). Parenthetically, I’ll point out that here we have Lilti speaking of texts, lamenting the epochal failure of French historians to attend to them as such, where Gordon spoke of ideas, drawing on an absolutely philosophical German tradition—not the philological one. However that may be, Lilti goes on to point out that, in France, the history of philosophy belonged fully to the philosophers, and so was carried out in a radically non-historical way (that is, decontextualized). It is not entirely wrong, although also not entirely fair, to lay all the blame at the feet of the Annales—Febvre, mentioned above, is an example of the potential openness of this tradition. In any case, most of what looks and feels like intellectual history in French has been written not by historians tout court, but by historians of literature. Standouts here include Daniel Mornet and Paul Hazard.

Far be it from me to argue with Antoine Lilti, but. I think it is telling that Foucault turns out to be unavoidable for Gordon as well as Lilti. Was Foucault merely an intellectual historian? I would suggest that it is more interesting to ask what traditions Foucault was drawing on to do whatever it was he was doing. At least part of this is the French tradition of philosophical engagement with science. This might be said to have begun in the later 19th century (and Bergson was an enemy for this tendency). In order to take the claims of science seriously, philosophers found that they had also to take seriously the historically variable nature of scientific truth. Variable according to what? At least sometimes, the rest of society. And in fact, even outside this subdiscipline, there were scholars trained as philosophers writings things that are very like intellectual history around 1900—I’m thinking of Élie Halévy on English Radicalism and Henry Michel’s L’Idée de l’État.  

Needless to say, I’m leaving aside much that is valuable here from both Gordon and Lilti. That Gordon has encouraged me to go back and read Bergson again (which actually I’m going to have to do for other reasons) is, according to some people, a terrible condemnation—but it pleases me. And Lilti’s essay—which, as all good historiographical/methodological essays should, has in its final footnote a citation for Lilti’s own brilliant reading of Rousseau—is one I would have liked to read perhaps before setting my prelim lists.

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