Fragments on the Philosophy of History

By Trawny, Peter | Philosophy Today, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Fragments on the Philosophy of History


Trawny, Peter, Philosophy Today


History, the thought of history, begins today with a series of negations. History is no longer mythos, it can no longer be salvational history or a period that would need to be interpreted in messianic terms. It can no longer be conceived as teleology, not in the sense of the enlightenment and/or of the freedom of reason or even of decline. It is no longer destiny, no longer the "history of Being" (Heidegger). Every form of narration falls back on the narrator, remains within his own perspective, and loses its claim to universal validity.

Even the most challenging thought, namely, that the Shoah was a historical rupture that changed all thought and life (Arendt and Adorno1), is hardly still recognized. At times it is numbered among other epochal ruptures such as the Fall of the Wall or 9/11, which leads to their leveling. Yet this means that there is no historical rupture, but rather only disturbances that do not imperil the continuity of history.

The thought that there is no longer any historical narrative that can comprehend history appears to have itself become a narrative. Indeed: even if there is no longer any argument that speaks for a specific historical narrative, there is also none that speaks against it. The claim that there is no longer any mythos seems itself to become a mythos.2 Yet that is only a rhetorical hyperbole. There is no longer any Grand Narrative; at any rate none that philosophers recognize. Silence reigns.3

Universal validity-can history lay claim to this? Right away it becomes clear that history is primarily to be experienced when it relates to something particular, to a people, a nation, a state. History is then the gathering of a plural into the one. Would, then, only what Schiller, for example, called "universal history"4 be questionable, a history that would relate to many peoples and the connection between them and would develop into a "history of mankind"?5 No: the finitude of the one, the fateful gathering of histories into a history, is already problematic. History would have to be experienced in the infinitude of the many, in the dispersal of biographies, in the individual life that begins to tell its own story.

It can hardly be claimed that the "philosophy of history" is in crisis. Rather, it appears that the crisis of the patient took a fatal turn some time ago. The philosophy of history is itself only the object of a historiography of the philosophies of history that has come to understand its own historiographic perspective. Historiographic investigations into the philosophy of history thus themselves become traces of a historiographic consciousness that desires to know itself only in the historiographic moment, and no longer in the big picture.

These negations, this blotting out of historico-philosophical sketches, could easily be contradicted by the fact that, here and there, there are philosophers who emphasize one or another conception of history. With Benjamin messianic figures of thought are gladly taken up again, and with Habermas the spirit of the Enlightenment is invoked. That all might make sense within specific projects-yet these figures of thought no longer lead to any consensus about how to understand history. There is no justification for attributing a theological or rational motivation to history. Only the history of technologies could be narrated along the lines of progress. Yet even this history would only orient itself by the empirical aspects of these moments of progress; no one would claim any more that technology itself signifies something like a redemption from nature.

Whoever writes today about history writes about history in . . . e.g., Heidegger. To be sure, using a noteworthy philosopher to problematize a theme is an academic requirement. But in relation to history this requirement seems to shirk the difficulties.

I cannot write a comprehensive text on the problem. Perhaps the fragment is the only appropriate form. History is only still accessible in and as a fragment, as rubble, as splinters. …

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