History Versus Historiography: The Transcendent Craft Beyond the "End of History".
Reading the Great Books is a constant process of becoming aware of the shortcomings of my previous education. Because "my" thoughts have already been thought through in far greater detail and greater conclusiveness and power, the initial dismay and overwhelm at being exposed to the Great Books gives way to a reasonable respect for them and an excited desire to discover truth. Once one gets over the shock of being overmastered intellectually, humility, wonder, honesty and a desire for mastery arise; after all, the writers of the Great Books are human too, so what they have become, one can also become! This admiration, wonder at, and desire for truth begins practically, then, with seeking accuracy and verification of statements. What kinds of statements can be made, checked, and verified as true? What kinds of truth arise in this process? What are the imitators of truth which arise, and how can they be checked as inaccurate and verified as false? What precisely do we mean and not mean when we use the word "truth"? The Teacher of the Great Books, Mortimer J Adler, expresses the view that three schools are "transcendent" sources of truth - that is, they bear significance greater than their own information, warranting lifelong emmersion. What are the three transcendent schools of truth? They are history, poetry, and philosophy. Why history? Because history constantly deepens ones wisdom about the present and the future outside world. Decartes' res extensa, or outward reality, is colored and reshaped by these impressions from the deep past. Men and affairs are illuminated by the study of history. Why poetry? Because poetry constantly deepens insight into subjective reality and emotional truth. Decartes' res interna, or inside reality, is likewise enlightened with reason and emotion. Living poetry brings life because it lights up the human spirit within us. That human spirit which poetry illumines in turn gives meaning to philosophy. And philosophy? Alternative suggestions for philosophy as a transcendent school is metaphysics and theology; I would also add that dialog is another version of the same school, one which I prefer. (Another way of looking at it would call this transcendent school "yoga", or the Confucian cultivation of being a gentleman, but that is another conversation altogether!) Regardless of the truth or falsehood of the above statements (and since Professor Adler is a lot smarter than me, I am inclined to hold them as probably true until my opinion become either falsified or solid knowledge!) the area of history is the simplest to master. Pareto's principle applies to the mastery of a school of knowledge. Out of every hundred books, 20 of those contain 80 percent of the significant information needed. Likewise, out of those twenty books, four books contain the essential information needed. So, by identifying which books have been absolutely significant and essential to a school of study, one can quickly master more than half the area of that field. In the school of history, the field has been in existence for 2600 years and the 4% are well established. They are Herodotus and Thucydides, primarily. The other indisputably great books in history are Plutarch, Tacitus and Gibbon. Having read and discussed these books gives facility in discussions of history. They are primary. Having read in these books in detail, it is with delight that I read Keith Windschuttle's "The Killing of History". It seems that the study of writing histories (historiography) has become more important than doing researches (the word history means "research") into men and events. I pass over the postmodern chapters without comment on their self-evident absurdity. The significant sections of Windshuttle's work for me are in his bromide on grand narrative histories. Windshuttle wisely notes that the successors to Hegel (Marx to Heidegger) are basically pessimists about human nature, positing an end to history according to their own biases. "Posthistory" Windshuttle writes "is a pessimistic reaction to the end of utopian politics." Very true! Instead, Windshuttle asserts the empirical in human history. Empirical history is fact- and feeling-based, sensible and worldly. I have not read Hegel's book, The Philosophy of History, fully, but I have read in it and I understand it asserts the Absolute, the principle of Reason in human affairs. The superiority of reason to unreason seems to be indisputable. Windshuttle gives as counterexamples the invasions of the Roman empire on horseback, and the kinship struggles in the 10th and 11th centuries. Clearly, he says, these are not based in the Absolute. And he is right. They are based in negation and denial of the Absolute. But that does not mean the Absolute does not exist; it simply means it is subtle and difficult to detect in human affairs. We agree more than disagree, Windshuttle and I. Both of us believe in the progress of reason through dialog. I believe it is progress towards an Absolute, whereas Windshuttle seems to hold the question open. I hold an Aristotelian view of history - that it tends towards greater reason, but this is not inevitable so I agree with Windshuttle despite holding in mind a definite end in the Absolute. So despite efforts to the contrary, there would seem to be no other contender for a universal history who is integrous after Hegel! Despite his inaccuracies and misinterpretations, inevitable in any history work, he asserts the principle of history as the unfolding of the Absolute in human affairs. The trouble perhaps lies in the ineffability of this Principle, which itself is transcendent of thought and can only be inferred.