Thursday, October 29, 2009

Taking Up History as the Decisive Universal Moment

Meaning for Husserl is the result of a transcendental realm accessible by suspending our worldly relation. Heideggerians, instead, think that we cannot circumvent the historical situation we find ourselves. From their viewpoint, Husserlian phenomenology is a turning away from the concrete historical world. Thus, perhaps, if anyone thinks that Heidegger contributes to our understanding of philosophy, it is in showing that the descriptive efforts of philosophy are essentially bound up with the history it takes up.

This same Heideggerian tendency to see philosophical problems embedded in a horizon of intelligibility that proceeds from our relation to history produces a view that amounts to a historicism. Philosophical problems only make sense given we can still speak and make sense of the very history in which we find ourselves. However, I want to argue against this view. For me, this is only one layer of the problem, and is distinct from asking if what a philosopher has said is true. Moreover, this also explains a key difference between styles of doing philosophy (and perhaps why Husserlians are alone on this). In truth, we need both, but the dynamic of doing philosophy doesn't bear on the problem that we can still carry on as if history does not matter. I don't think this is just some philosophers being dismissive about history; it speaks to our abilities to philosophize on our own in our own historical situation.

So, in this brief post, if we can still carry on as if we do not require history, then I want to ask is it a product of our historical situation that we can abstract from history? Perhaps, the pressing question I want to ponder is what is it about our historical situation that makes it possible to carry on in anglophone philosophy as if history doesn't matter as much as asking whether or not what a philosopher says matters to us?

I don't think there is any easy answer to these questions. But, I have an inclination as to where to start. First, the fact that Anglophone philosophy has largely been a project of centralizing the epistemological subject in a variety of problems is on track. In centralizing the epistemological task, philosophers make philosophy about both our historic situation as knowers and establishing formalistic criteria that transcend the very history we find ourselves. We can identify those structures of subjectivity in a variety of contexts, but we must see it is these objective conditions that establish our ability to make sense of meaning. Therefore, we might want to consider that identifying the epistemic conditions of our knowing stand over and above the historical situation. However, such a move is replete with problems.

My second move is to address that though we have access to what the subject qua epistemologist is, such a subject needs grounding in the history of its occurrence. It doesn't make sense not to make history a level of analysis. As Gadamer shows, we are beholden to history since it is the very possibility of making sense of what is handed down in tradition, yet that doesn't mean that we are bound to that history since we take it up. We take up history and that is the moment we can see that there is something universal, something transcendent in that we can speak about our ability to take up history. In this way, we can see that a universal subjectivity does come into our concrete experience, it is just that if you stand on one side of doing philosophy than the other, you miss both dimensions to philosophy. That's an oversight on both our parts.

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