Preface to Historiography

Generically, historiography is writing about the writing of history. As applied to the section “Historiography for History of Philosophy”, I’m using the term in a slightly idiosyncratic way. Those articles mostly concern particular historical interpretations that I think significantly impact — or should significantly impact — other, broader historical interpretation, as well as interpretation of things in the present. Needless to say, this is difficult to divide cleanly from my other section devoted to History of Philosophy, but here the accent is more on the history, and there it is more on the philosophy.

I take historiography to be a kind of supplement to Hermeneutics (see dedicated menu section). Perhaps even especially as presented here, it stands in contrast with what Brandom calls Hegelian genealogy, which I highly value in a different context. The “historiography” here is largely concerned with things and perspectives that the retrospective teleology of a Hegelian genealogy largely filters out. It still involves all kinds of ultimately normative judgments in the process of making judgments of historical fact, but focuses mainly on discerning the irregularities, quirkiness, local retrograde movements, and specific materiality of the actual forward-moving succession of events.

Nature is full of purposes or quasi-purposes, but any appearance of pre-existing purpose or predetermination in history is an artifact of our story-telling.

Telling such a story is a delicate enterprise. There is no invisible hand guiding temporal succession, nor is there inherent unity unfolding in successive events. The raw material of history is strictly an accumulation of accidents. As much as possible, we should let the details speak for themselves. Yet we almost cannot help giving it a plot. This helps us orient ourselves. Inevitably, we select certain details as important and ignore others. We tend to give it direction and shape.

Independent of purpose, though, there is a kind of quasi-material accumulation of forms associated with temporal succession. (I mean that the accumulation associated with succession is independent of purpose, while the forms accumulated may themselves be purposeful.)

Succession has materially inherent directionality to it. Time only flows forward. Successive forms get superimposed on one another so to speak and become indistinct, resulting in something new and unintended, but cumulative. This is not progress, and there is nothing normative about it. It is a quasi-material analogue of arithmetic addition, indifferent to considerations of what is better or worse. But we may experience it as better or worse. And because it does have a materially inherent direction (the pile gets thicker, so to speak, and forms within it materially condition other forms), it is possible for us to take that direction in some purposeful way. We look at a raw accumulation of forms, and imagine a story that has some basis in the actual development.

It’s a bit mythical to speak as if there were two distinct phases to this. We don’t ever have the pure or original thing in a philosophical sense. But various kinds of accumulation are one of the significant features of temporal succession in a world, and we do have actual material cultural artifacts to which we can refer.

My use of “historiography” is also roughly synonymous with nonstandard uses of “archaeology” derived from the work of Michel Foucault, particularly as applied to the history of philosophy by writers like Alain de Libera and Gwenaëlle Aubry.

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