A Paradigm Case of Polemical History: Terry Eagleton's 'The Ideology of the Aesthetic.'

By Lord, Timothy C. | CLIO, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

A Paradigm Case of Polemical History: Terry Eagleton's 'The Ideology of the Aesthetic.'


Lord, Timothy C., CLIO


The historiography of philosophy has become a prominent area of study for analytic philosophers. Notable anthologies dealing methodically with "doing philosophy historically" have appeared.(1) On the other hand, since the late 1970s works of Michel Foucault have increasingly influenced philosophers working in the continental tradition. These recent interests in the historiography of philosophy and the writings of Foucault have led to proliferating concepts of historically based philosophical genres. Richard Rorty's "Geistesgeschichte," Charles Taylor's "creative redescription," Jonathan Ree's "integral history," Daniel W. Graham's "schematic history," and Foucault's "genealogy" illustrate original interesting genres of philosophy that go beyond historical or rational reconstruction in doing philosophy historically.(2)

At the same time as these theoretical historiographic and generic interests emerged in philosophy, a number of actual works appeared that pose philosophical arguments in historically based texts. Books such as Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Alisdair Maclntyre's After Virtue, Jean Bethke Elshtain's Public Man, Private Woman, and Terry Eagleton's The ideology of the Aesthetic share many characteristics with the genres previously mentioned; yet they also exhibit characteristics not subsumed by current generic conceptions. My project in this paper is to theorize a genre of doing philosophy historically that more adequately accounts for the characteristics of certain actual recent works offering Philosophical arguments in historically based texts. I call this genre, polemical history.

Polemical history differs from Foucault's genealogy and the various genres articulated by analytic historiographers of philosophy. However, this is not readily apparent. Preliminary definitions and distinctions concerning these genres are necessary before taking,, up a more elaborate description of polemical history with analysis of a paradigm case. What immediately follows is an attempt to characterize the above genres, keeping in mind that they oftentimes overlap. They are not discrete, but exhibit family resemblances. Polemical history itself shares qualities with the other genres.

Foucault's genealogy rejects history and historiography as they have usually been pursued, questioning the possibility of a continuous and coherent tradition and demonstrating how discontinuities permeate academic disciplines if they are viewed as spanning historical periods.(4) It affirms fragmentation and heterogeneity in history, denying causality as well as positive or negative forms of teleology. As is the case in Discipline and Punish, genealogy neglects polemics and. argumentation in favor of confronting the reader with the circular relationship of power and knowledge that has emerged in the oppressive institutions and practices of modernity, institutions and practices whose effect on the body could be refigured and deabsolutized. Like genealogy, polemical history is critical of modernity, interested in uncovering its buried presuppositions and revising its standard tenets. However, polemical history retains more of conventional history's notions of continuity and tradition than genealogy, often focusing on particular subdisciplines of philosophy and their coherent development-or, more accurately, regression-throughout modernity. It is much more reliant on argument than genealogy, primarily concerned with persuading the reader to adopt a philosophical conclusion by revealing a revisionist history of a philosophical tradition.

Diametrically opposed to Foucault's genealogy, Graham's shematic history is founded on the unity and coherence of a philosophical tradition, drawing out relations between the thought of individual philosophers by elucidating the "larger historical pattern" or "developmental scheme" that connects them (140). In this regard, schematic history is similar to polemical history, written retrospectively in a teleological manner such that "the sequence is conditioned by the final stage" (142).

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