Friday, November 02, 2007

Kant vs. History

When I look back at my study of history, I'm stuck over how a critical aspect of my intellectual development was more or less an accident. I was seven during the American bicentennial celebration and my family went on a vacation throughout New England. Much of that vacation was spent visiting Colonial-era sites and recounting the history of the American founding. At this early age I came to the view that the American founders were simply men of extraordinary high merit who put their heads to the task of defining their freedom and defending it from encroachment. Unlike any other civilization in human history, Americans were a people of both virtue and action. This lesson would not be repeated with as much moral and intellectual force until I discovered Edward Cline's epic Sparrowhawk series.

So how then does the truth of the American founding get so obscured it is reduced to a dispute about taxation waged by men who gleefully enslaved their fellow men? Scott Powell offers an interesting essay (parts one, two, three and four) on how philosophy killed history, and, by implication, how philosophy can bring it back. Speaking of the Enlightenment's impact on the study of history, Powell writes:

Newton's genius had shown the power of man's mind to penetrate nature's inner workings, but no one had been able to articulate on a more abstract level the nature of the Newtonian triumph in science, and explain how it could be reproduced in other areas.

If historians were to pattern their work on the successful model of the physical scientists, they would need to find a means of transposing the methods of physics into the domain of history. The way to do this, however, was unclear. The historian, for example, could not create the controlled conditions of a laboratory to test his ideas, nor could the actions of human beings be reduced to mathematical principles. And yet, the challenge of deriving general knowledge from historical data is in some ways the same as that of finding general laws from observed physical phenomena. It is the challenge of transforming a plethora of concrete information, by some process of abstraction, into an intelligible system. The importance of this project was evident to the more philosophical historians. If natural science could find laws and a natural order in the physical world, could a social science not achieve the same for civilization (and thus derive the proper foundation of social systems)?

Unfortunately, in their quest to give history a Newtonian clarity, historians found no worthy ally among philosophers.
Thus, as Powell intonates by the title of his series, history has become a duel between Columbus and Kant; that is, between men animated by rational ideas toward action and the proponents of a philosophy that says all man's ideas are inherently suspect simply because they come from man. Powell writes:

Kant's philosophical assault on man's faculty of reason paved the way for the historical assault on Columbus by preventing a key avenue of development from ever occurring in Western historiography. By aborting the general study of abstractions as cognitive tools, Kant prevented historians from adopting the epistemological stance necessary to define and defend the most crucial instrument in the systematization of history: historical abstractions.
Yet these abstractions are absolutely necessary if one is to understand history. Powell explains:

When integrated into "the Renaissance," Michelangelo's David, for instance, ceases to be a single artistic datum in an unintelligible flux; it becomes a representative of a wider European cultural reawakening following the suppression of classical ideals. When George Washington's crossing of the Delaware becomes a part of "the American Revolution" it no longer exists merely as a miscellaneous military factoid; it becomes a pivotal action connected to a chain of revolutionary events giving rise to the birth of a new nation. Seen in the context of "the Civil War", the Gettysburg address becomes more than a speech for the dedication of a cemetery; it becomes one of a number of steps forward in the violent, climactic overthrow of slavery in America.
In history, context is everything, so how then can such a power fail to be appreciated and investigated? Powell writes:

The answer is two-fold. First, it is not entirely true to say that historians have remained ignorant of the power of historical abstractions. Sadly, it is the subjectivists in history who have best understood this power and wielded it most effectively. Kant's offspring have taken up the philosophical tools he provided to dismantle the historical identification of key developments in Western civilization, including Columbus's unmatched efforts.

With regards to that particular issue, for example, they have labored to elevate the irrelevant wanderings of the Vikings to a status equal to or greater than Columbus's discovery, and they are striving to raise awareness of the even more nonessential narrative of America's pre-Columbian neolithic primitives in people's minds. This shift in emphasis to a new groundwork of facts is designed to permit the fostering of a new perspective on the history of America, where every element of progress is underplayed and the focus is then placed on America's brutal conquest by Europeans. The ultimate purpose of this revision is a general historical indictment of Western civilization that includes the characterization of Europe's discovery and colonization of America as the greatest example of "genocide" in history.
So rather than serving as a tool for understanding how man's ideas shape his actions, history becomes a tool for distortion and for propagandizing someone's pet cause. In this light, outrages such as the University of Delaware's residence hall program, where students were to be indoctrinated in the view that all white-skinned people are inherently racist, becomes less surprising, if not less shocking. After all, the cashing-in has been going on for years and it will take a new generation of heroes to overthrow it. After all, such is the pregnant hope with those who study history . . .


Apollo said...

They teach history in school? I didnt know that.

Bill Bucko said...

Against such odds, only history's greatest philosophy--Ayn Rand's--can save the world. And given the SUCCESS of ARI's programs to increase readership of her books, I am very hopeful.

It is an ominous sign to the other side (if they had the wit to comprehend it) that their days are numbered.

Burgess Laughlin said...

"[...] a duel between Columbus and Kant; that is, between men animated by rational ideas toward action and the proponents of a philosophy that says all man's ideas are inherently suspect simply because they come from man."

Strictly speaking, Kant distinguished between "ideas" and "concepts." Kant did not say all of man's ideas are suspect. To the contrary, he said that certain ideas (used in a semi-Platonic sense) were crucial to understanding anything about the world of appearances. Which ideas are those? The ideas that come, mysteriously, a priori from inside the mind somewhere and somewhow. Examples are "space" and "time" -- which are ideas, Kant says, which we impose on appearances in order to create objects. They are ideas having "necessity," an abstraction which we could never induce from the contingent world of appearances. (This is the payoff of holding [false] dichtomies such as necessary vs. contingent.)

See, for example, Kant's discussions in the "Transcendental Dialectic" section of Critique of Pure Reason beginning c. B366, but especially at B370.

Scott Powell's main point remains: Kant disintegrated reason, making it largely impotent as a faculty of being able to abstract from sense-perception and therefore come to know reality -- or, in this case, past reality, that is, history.

Burgess Laughlin

P. S. Howard Caygill, A Kant Dictionary, in the "idea" entry, has a three-page summary of the historical uses of "idea," from Plato onward, as well as Kant's various and confusing multiple uses of that term.

Rick Wilmes said...

The Father of Historical Transcendentalism in America

I would start with taking a look at George Bancroft and his oration, The Office of the People in Art, Government, and Religion which can be found in Literary and Historical Miscellanies by George Bancroft. It can also be found in Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy, Edited by Joseph L. Blau.

Russel B. Nye has this to say about George Bancroft in his biography George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel

The 1835 oration, The Office of the People in Art, Government, and Religion, provided an exposition of the philosophy that motivated all of Bancroft's constructive thought in politics, incriticism, and most of all, in his writing of history.(p. 100)

But when Bancroft spoke in Williamstown, there were as yet no transcendentalists. Emerson, who was to become the leader of the movement, was simply a retired Unitarian minister living and writing in concord; his essay, Nature, the seed from which the philosophy grew in Massachusetts, was not to appear for another year. Emerson had read Coleridge, Swedenborg, Plato, and a smattering of German philosophy; his ideas were forming in 1835. Bancroft, saturated in idealistic and transcendental philosophy since 1817, had studied with Schleiermacher, had read Kant, Novalis, Fichte, Jacobi, Schelling, Hegel, and the other Teutonic romantic thinkers who first gave the system its shape. What Emerson, Ripley, Thoreau, Dwight, Clarke, Osgood, Brownson, and the other New Englanders knew later at secondhand, Bancroft knew fifteen years earlier; he had become acquainted with the essentials of New England transcendentalism before they had left the shores of Europe to take on an American coloring.(p. 101)

Russel B. Nye's biography on Bancroft was awarded the second Alfred A. Knopf Fellowship in Biography.

Two books listed in the General Biography are from J.W. Burgess, The Middle Period, 1817-1858 and Reconstruction and the Constituton, 1866-1876. Both books are on Scott Powell's recommended reading list.