From: PHILosophy OF HIstory and theoretical history
Sent: Wednesday, January 12, 2000 11:27 PM
Subject: History and Identity

History and identity

A dialog from the PhilOfHi list, January 2000

On Behalf Of John Randall Groves

Dear Nikolai:

Interesting response to my view that aesthetics is important in the writing of history. Your view seems to be that the essence of history is to formulate hypotheses, test them and ultimately establish laws. The aesthetic aspect is mere epiphenomena in your view. In your view, it has the same role it has in the writing of science.

Your arguments are formidable, but I think I can muster a response. First, History has a role in the constitution of individual, social and cultural identity. History tells us who we are. This need not involve the delineation of essences in the same way deciding who we are as individuals in our lives need not imply that we have an essence (a little of my existentialism coming through here). That is why narrative is so important. We are the stories we tell about ourselves, true or false, although I admit that the phenomenon of self-deception is very real. So just as our individual lives may be regarded as works of art, so may our collective lives. Hence my use of historical biography in my last post as a counter-example to your views. The same is true of national histories and the histories of civilizations, although the larger the entity, the more amorphous and differentiated the identity.

This all becomes even more clear in the case of cultural history: the history of art, music, theatre etc. We might want to be able to predict the future course of these arts (good luck!), and we might want to discern laws of historical development in these areas, but it simply doesn’t seem to be what historians in these areas are interested in. You reduce these sorts of inquiries to the stating of “impressions,” but that doesn’t really get to the heart of what they are doing. I can point to at least three things: (1)aesthetic judgment of various works, and (2) attempting to understand or formulate just what the aesthetic is that will make sense of works of art, and this is actually back to my point about identity. Correctly and thoroughly identifying a work of art necessarily involves identifying the aesthetic that makes sense of it. (3) Periodization: even though periodization in these areas does not involve the use or goal of laws of development, it is still useful to know how Chinese art changes from Tang to Song to Yuan, for example. I could say more, but this is probably enough for the moment.


Randy Groves

Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2000 16:51:03 -0500
From: Ed Brown II <>


I’ve been following the thread, which started back in mid-December. Below is an excerpt from the essay ORAL HISTORY: Landmark’s of a Tour(ist’s) Guide. The excerpt, I think, congeals the argument concerning the process(es) of history as science, as well as a philosophy, and about how we identify with history, the nature of history as THE event (and the study of events). The entire essay is available online at;. Here’s the excerpt:

The monition of conditions is the registration of structural (traumatic) shifts in daily interactions. Registered (factualized) are the interactions that maintain the composure of what is happening in (mainstream, marginal and fringe) communities. From the registration of interactions comes information that tracks and validates any addition to or subtraction from a community’s heritage. These procedures of registration are degrees of testimony, parole used to benchmark the officiality of the information. The monitoring procedures listed top down hierarchically/hegemonically are: committee documentation, which regulates confirmed facts; council review/trial, which conducts hearings to gather facts; consumer survey/electorate poll, which collects statistics to manage facts; social study/scientific research, which determines a series of consistent facts; interview/correspondence, which reports from a source of current facts; and congregational memorialization, which monographs facts that are to be “kept in perspective.” The above mentioned procedures are filters, criteria facilitators that offer “valid” reasoning. Each procedure allots folk the ability to build credibility and rely not only on the nature of one’s own sense of humour, but also on the sentiment of a norm, a non-fiction “marking the land” as a point of reference that designates a value to the present conditions. These procedures are used to signify the rest of the story, to explain the shifts in folk’s current manner. However, these conventional purviews of trauma mentioned above are not the most frequently used procedure of information registration (i.e. landmarking). What registers information in the populace-and is the impetus for structural shifts within a community-is gossip amongst folk.


Edward K. Brown II
P.O. Box 2160
Philadelphia, PA 19103 <> <>

Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2000 10:06:04 EST
From: julia derew <juliaderew@USA.NET>
Subject: Re: [History and Identity]

Dear John!

It`s really interesting to read your message, but I still have some hesitations.

Yes, history tells us who we are. The problem is, how history does it. First, in other words, who really does it? Collective soul without any rationality? A number of collective souls (collective lifes, as you write) during their interactions? Specialists—during making their narratives?

So we have here a serious problem with a subject or an actor of history. I mean, who really makes history?

Another serious question may be the followingis: is history totally subjective (we can make our narrative as we wish) or is it objective (so there are some kind of true and false things in our perception of history, so our story about history depends mostly on history itself, but not on us).

Finally, you say almost nothing about how to make such narrative (if it’narrative). What kind of method is useful? Is it just free creation—or something else? And if so, what kind of concepts are more useful?

And the least. You speak about aesthetic values in history. It`s very interesting. But when we speak about art, it`s more clear, that the main value is beauty ( in differeant senses). What about history (real and as our story). Is real history beatiful? I`m afraid, that sometimes not at all. Must it be beautiful? The whole problem : what kind of values are really more usefull, when we speak about history? Are some values realising within historical process?

Best wishes!

Julia Wertheim

Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2000 17:08:58 -0500
From: John Randall Groves <John_Groves@FERRIS.EDU>

Julia: you ask who makes history. In my view, both individuals and collectives, but no collective souls—no such thing (in my view, no individual souls either). Does rationality operate collectively? Sometimes, but the rationality might be difficult to apprehend as rationality as someone’s or some groups’ self-interest.

Is history totally subjective? definetly not! Actually, I agree with Nikolai that there is a lot of science in history, and that the projects he (and me too!) is pursuing are eminently worthwhile and productive. I just quibble over the completeness claim, that all history worthy of the name can be understood as science. I do not see the aesthetic aspect as opposed to the drive toward truth at all.

So how does history tell us who we are? By chronicling and describing our actions and thoughts within narratives. We do something similar as individuals. But others have a role in the construction of our personal narratives as well, so it certainly is not completely with our control.

On the goal of aesthetics being beauty, I reject that. The sublime is a higher category. That being said, it applies to history when an historian truly captures the reality of a given episode. Now, is there an unmitigated ding-an-sich? No, like Gadamer, such accounts are in my view always fusions of horizons. But horizons don’t always come into play that much. Questions like, was there a canoe present at sunrise at a certain place are pretty straightforward with little room for the ambiguity that often arises in interpretation. Others, like “Napoleon’s ambitions were fueled by his problems with whats-her-name,” that is a bit more open. Or even more, “Chinese politics have always operated with the fear of external (generally northern) invasion.”

All for now. Thoughts?

Randy Groves