The Nonfixity of the Historical Past

By Weberman, David | The Review of Metaphysics, June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Nonfixity of the Historical Past


Weberman, David, The Review of Metaphysics


In a book that first appeared in 1965 entitled Analytical Philosophy of History, Arthur Danto argues that historical inquiry cannot be conceived as an attempt to reconstruct the past along the lines of an "ideal chronicler."(1) The ideal chronicler "knows whatever happens the moment it happens, even in other minds. He is also to have the gift of instantaneous transcription: everything that happens across the whole forward rim of the Past is set down by him, as it happens the way it happens."(2) Historians cannot aspire to this ideal because they inevitably use what Danto calls "narrative sentences," that is, sentences that describe one event by referring to one or more later events. For example, "The Thirty Years War began in 1618" is a sentence typical of historical inquiry but unavailable to the chronicler because it goes beyond what could have been known at the time it occurred, that is, that the war was to last thirty years. Danto reasons that because of the indispensability of narrative sentences to historical understanding, we can never (even in principle) give a complete description of past events since this presupposes knowledge of all relevant later events. The consequence is that our descriptions of past events will inevitably change as history unfolds. This discovery is remarkable and incontrovertible: descriptions of past historical events will and must always be reconceived not just because of the unearthing of new documents or the changing interests of the historian but because of the peculiar narrative structure of historical understanding.(3)

I want to show that there is more to Danto's discovery than meets the eye and more than he himself saw. I will argue that it is not merely that our descriptions of the past inevitably change, but also that the historical past itself is, in an important sense, not fixed. While Danto's claim was epistemological, mine is ontological. It is a claim that violates our common-sense intuition that the past is, as C. S. Peirce once put it, "absolutely determinate, fixed, fait accompli, and dead, as against the future which is living, plastic and determinable."(4) Briefly, my thesis is that the past is unfixed or plastic because later events reshape not just what we know or how we describe what happened, but indeed what happened in the first place.

I

Let me begin by presenting a few more examples of past events described in terms of later events. The first three examples are from Danto. After presenting them, I will briefly restate Danto's point and the reasoning behind it, then offer four examples of my own, a statement of my position and its underlying rationale.

1. In 1713 the author of Rameau's Nephew was born.

2. Aristarchus anticipated in 270 B.C. the theory which Copernicus published in A.D. 1543.

3. Petrach opened the Renaissance.(5)

Danto's point is that these sentences are typical of history as practiced but unavailable to the ideal chronicler because they describe earlier events in terms of later events. He also insists that the later events did not in any sense transform the earlier events. The only thing that changed, on his account, is that we describe those earlier events differently in light of the later events. Danto writes:

[A]n event at t-I acquires new properties not because we (or anything)

causally operate on that event ... but because the event at t-I comes to

stand in a different relation to events that occur later. But this means

that the description of E-at-t-I may become richer over time without the

event itself exhibiting any sort of instability.... The Past does not

change, perhaps, but our manner of organizing it does.(6)

Thus, for Danto the existence of narrative sentences does imply a fact about our epistemic relation to the past, but it does not have any ontological implications. Whatever action or event occurred is not at all affected by later events. …

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