Ricoeur on Historiography

The overarching objective of part 2 of the first volume of Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative is to show that it is indeed plausible to apply a literature-based notion of narrative to the writing of history. This has to be distinguished, however, from a naive notion of “narrative history”.

With his usual honesty, he dwells at length on two major trends in historiography that are typically understood to be completely opposed to a narrative approach — the French Annales school, and work derived from logical positivism. He then builds a case that in spite of everything, there is an essential narrative aspect to history, even if it is only indirect.

Ricoeur sagely observes that debates on historiography often end up in the same philosophical territory as the Latin medieval debates on nominalism and realism. He says he will apply the later Husserl’s concept of “questioning back”, concerned more with the genesis of meaning than with epistemology, to uncover the intentionality of historical knowledge.

The French Annales school is famous for emphasizing long periods in history rather than episodic events, and economics, “mentalities”, and cultural practices over the superficial drama of politics and actions of individuals. Even though he ultimately wants to push this meta-level interpretation in a different direction, Ricoeur dwells at length on his admiration for their achievements. I am myself quite sympathetic to an approach to history broadly of this sort.

From the seemingly unpromising ground of the approach to history that developed from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, he extracts the idea of what he calls, following Bachelard, an epistemological break between simple narrative and historical explanation. Historical explanation has goals of objective truth that do not apply to literature. Ricoeur says the break opened up by an emphasis on explanation is real and should be maintained, even if we end up deploying a very different kind of explanation from what those influenced by logical positivism had in mind.

He also discusses the work of Max Weber, Raymond Aron, and Hayden White.

Weber propounded a notion of what Ricoeur calls singular causal imputation in history that is worlds apart from the positivist “covering law” approach of Hempel, which looked for something analogous to mathematical-physical laws in sociology to explain history. Looking for the “adequate” cause of a singular development requires an extensive interpretive effort (Weber’s famous Verstehen method for the human sciences). Weber’s analysis of the relation between Protestantism and capitalism developed a large-scale singular causal chain that involved roles, attitudes, and institutions rather than individuals. Such imputations of cause for large-scale singular things must necessarily consider many dimensions, and many contingent developments. This reminds me of my own characterization of Aristotelian causality.

Raymond Aron famously applied to history what I would call the Kantian point that, as Ricoeur puts it, “Understanding — even the understanding of another person in everyday life — is never a direct intuition but always a reconstruction” (p. 97). No such thing as a historical reality exists ready-made. Historical explanation involves real work.

Ricoeur calls Hayden White’s Metahistory a “poetics” of historiography. White wrote at length about historical “explanation by emplotment”.

Ricoeur refers to the historian’s credo of objectivity as “a secret dream of emulating the cartographer or the diamond cutter” (p. 176) “[T]he facts dealt with in historical works, when they are taken one at a time, interlock with one another in the manner of geographical maps, if the same rules of projection and scale are respected, or, yet again, like the different facets of the same precious stone…. The final corollary is that, precisely because history has objectivity as a project, it can pose the limits of objectivity as a specific problem. This question is foreign to the innocence and naivete of the narrator” (ibid).

“[H]istory replaces the subject of action with entities that are anonymous, in the strict sense of the term…. This new history thus seems to lack characters. And without characters, it could not continue to be narrative…. It no longer seems to refer to the living present of a subjective consciousness…. [The] ‘times of history’, to use Braudel’s expression, seem to be without any apparent relation to the time of action…. [This heightens] the necessity for a new type of dialectic between historical inquiry and narrative competence” (p. 177).

However, criticism of the “covering law” model has already led to a “diversification of explanation that makes it less foreign to narrative understanding, without thereby denying the explanatory vocation” (p. 178). Meanwhile, “to narrate is already to explain…. [and] narrative is in no way bound to the confused and limited perspective of the agents and the eye-witnesses of the events” (ibid).

Ricoeur says that narrative cannot replace an explanatory approach to history. “This question must be unreservedly answered in the negative. A gap remains between narrative explanation and historical explanation, a gap that is inquiry as such. This gap prevents us from treating history… as a species of the genus ‘story'” (p. 179). History has its own explanatory procedures, its own “first order entities”, and its own time, or rather plurality of times.

He argues, however, that “the paradox of historical knowledge… transposes onto a higher level of complexity the paradox constitutive of the operation of narrative configuration” (p. 180). The first-order entities of history will turn out to be quasi-characters that “bear the indelible mark of concrete agents’ participatory belonging to the sphere of praxis and narrative” (p. 181). Weber’s notion of adequate singular causal imputation, he suggests, “constitutes the requisite mediation between the opposing poles of explanation and understanding” (ibid). The kind of contingency built into what Ricoeur now calls “historical causality” would prevent any historical determinism. Historical causality will mediate between narrative explanation and explanation by law.

Ricoeur thinks apparently non-narrative history nonetheless has an indirect narrativity. He tests this through an examination of several works of the Annales school, especially Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. He finds Braudel’s entire work to be organized by a “quasi-plot”. Braudel has “invented a new kind of plot” (p. 216) that “teaches us to unite structures, cycles, and events by joining together heterogeneous temporalities and contradictory chronicles” (ibid).

Ricoeur finds a kind of quasi-events at the level of long duration. “For me, the event is not necessarily something brief and nervous, like some sort of explosion. It is a variable of the plot…. For the historian, the event continually appears in the very midst of structures” (p. 217). Ricoeur argues that people and politics thus remain effectively important for Braudel and the other Annales historians, even though they overtly focus on structures. Looking to several treatments of the French revolution, Ricoeur concludes that their brilliant and convincing analyses of mentality and ideology do not eliminate the role of an event of taking power. “[A]ll change enters the field of history as a quasi-event” (p. 224; emphasis in original).

Earlier, while discussing the work of Raymond Aron, he says the historian in pursuing the work of explanation is concerned with a vast field of “what ifs”. In effect, this invokes something like Aristotelian potentiality, the importance of which Ricoeur has elsewhere explicitly recognized. I would definitely include the historical structures analyzed by the Annales school and others in my previous generalization that structuralist concepts of structure should be understood as defining fields of multiple potentiality, not some kind of univocal determination. Although deeper understanding requires a lengthy detour through the mode of potentiality, it never reduces away the ultimate dependence of potentiality on actuality. I see Ricoeur’s quasi-events as occurring on a plane of actuality correlative to the potentiality of structure. (See also Combining Time and Narrative).