Academic journal article Humanitas

Characterizing Historicist Possibilities: A Reply to Claes Ryn

Academic journal article Humanitas

Characterizing Historicist Possibilities: A Reply to Claes Ryn

Article excerpt

A historicist reconstruction.

A Wayward Ally?

In his "Defining Historicism," published in these pages in 1998, Claes G. Ryn notes that a renewal of historicism has been central to the postmodern turn. But though potentially valuable, historicism in its postmodernist guise has seemed to invite overreaction--from the authority of "foundations" to a combination of relentless negativism and irresponsible "play." [1] In assessing the recent embrace of historicism, Ryn devoted particular attention to my Nothing but History, [2] generously crediting its range and offering a number of perceptive characterizations of its argument. He clearly finds me an ally up to a point, for each of us seeks a kind of middle ground between "a historical 'foundationalist' metaphysics" and aspects of postmodernism that we both see as an overreaction (91). Whereas, as Ryn puts it, historicism in its deconstructive postmodern form becomes "almost wholly negative" (90), obsessed "with discrediting inherited norms and meanings" (90), we both find scope for a more constructive orient ation. Thus my emphasis, as in my book's subtitle, on the scope for ongoing historicist reconstruction, stemming from responsible ethical response, which can even be responsibly rational insofar as it is informed by historical understanding.

In the last analysis, however, Ryn finds my way of recasting historicism wayward, partly because of a prejudicial tilt toward radicalism reflecting academic fashion, and typical of deconstructive postmodernism (96-97). But part of what is at issue, as we seek to think without foundationalist philosophy, is the meaning of such categories as radical and conservative, extremism and moderate, and their interface with the cultural possibilities before us. A measure of inflexibility on this score leads Ryn to misconstrue my argument at several points--and thus to magnify our differences. But more interesting are some genuine differences in orientation, which would seem worth pinpointing and exploring. Most importantly, Ryn holds that I place such emphasis on contingency, particularity, and finitude that I have difficulty explaining the basis of the continuity and coherence, weight and responsibility, that I myself find necessary for the reconstructive middle ground (95-96). As one of the editors of this journal, Ryn was good enough, even before finishing his own piece, to invite me to respond, and I gratefully accept the chance to do so.

Postmodernists neglect Croce.

Ryn and I agree that postmodemists have tended to overreact partly because, not knowing their own history, they have failed to engage earlier thinkers who explored much the same ground that the postmodernists themselves now breathlessly discover. [3] Central for both of us is the once influential, long misunderstood, and now neglected Italian thinker Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), who ended up propounding what he called an "absolute historicism." But we differ radically over Croce's center of gravity, even as we each claim him for our respective brands of reconstructive historicism.

Significance of Croce's categories at issue.

Most immediately at issue is the place in Croce's intellectual biography of the relatively systematic moment, centering on his circle of distinct spiritual categories, or attributes of human being, that he outlined in the core volumes, published from 1905 to 1908, of his "Philosophy of the Spirit." [4] For Ryn, this moment was central to Croce's enterprise, for in elaborating these categories, Croce "discerned a permanent structure of human consciousness" (100)--and the basis for the "enduring meaning" that Ryn finds crucial. Because, from Ryn's perspective, I downplay the enduring categories, I end up slanting Croce too much toward postmodernism--and end up too postmodernist myself.

Although I surely do not neglect the categories to the extent Ryn suggests (97), it is surely true that I do not feature them as he does. …

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