The winds of change: history and human identity

“History has meaning, but there is no pure development of ideas. Its meaning arises in contact with contingency, at the moment when initiative founds a system of life taking up anew scattered givens.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in Les Aventures de la Dialectique


So far in this thesis I have traced all human motivation and accomplishment back to the primordial trait of the questioning being, a binary trait which fuels its questioning tendency. This is not to suggest a simplistic kernel to human life but to identify the fundamental ubiquity of the human desire for significance and capacity for purpose whose harmonisation is vital for sustainable human identity. At the heart of the notion and practise of history this primordial trait is at work.

History is the human record of change, a recognition of time passing which either selects out the significant as landmarks, or chronicles the passing of life to accomplish a purposive agenda. To illustrate the former one might cite urban development, gender emancipation or territorial annexation as key significant thematics. In terms of the latter one might curate historical accounts in order to eulogise a king, to sanitise the past, to write an apologetic for divine actions or to legitimise a victor’s demands over the vanquished. I do not deny that matters of fact comprise the background of our shared lives but only acknowledge the partisan nature of histories that bring it into the foreground through selective accounts.

The historical matters of fact which comprise the background of our shared lives are brought into the foreground through selective human accounts.

The historical matters of fact which comprise the background of our shared lives are brought into the foreground through selective human accounts.

Merleau-Ponty, introducing a lecture series on Husserl, presents the Heideggerian notion of inhabitation as akin to the late Husserl’s notion of history as ideation. Essentially one could argue that partisan accounts can nevertheless resonate with each other and contain furthermore, timeless truths or historical essences in which others can participate. In my view, key to both is the appropriation of meaning which makes another’s history also one’s own, just as, for all his revisionism, Merleau-Ponty finds a road to travel by in his historical reading of Husserl.

Consider Merleau-Ponty’s use of the Husserlian example of the geometer. Euclid’s development of geometry opened up a region in which future geometers can operate and laid down a formal conceptual route one must travel by each time one engages in geometry. To this extent then, one participates in Euclid’s thought, in fact in Euclid’s history, in doing geometry. Represented by Merleau-Ponty, Husserl’s  ideation makes its ‘lateral repetition’ redundant, and instead serves ‘to launch culture toward a future… to outline a futural, geometrical horizon, and to circumscribe a coherent domain.’[1]When we participate in history we do so as travellers climbing higher. As with inhabitation one might speak of repetition, but also the possibility of a future which travels the road laid down in order to discover the new. Euclid’s historical geometric endeavours do not consign mathematicians to the occupation of a space repeated endlessly, but enable an occupation which is the very harbinger of new discoveries Illustrating the congruence between my key phenomenological thinkers, one scholar has noted, Merleau-Ponty has given us a Husserlian account that is ‘markedly Heideggerian’.[2]

History is a map of significances.

History is a map of significances.

To my mind, even with the syncretist gloss Merleau-Ponty applies, Husserlian history becomes a map of significances. For Husserl everything historical becomes ‘understandable’ in the ‘being’ peculiar to it, ‘a unity of a self-questioning interior and intelligible structuration that develops as a result of that inner motivation.’[3] Husserl admires the way most historians address this ‘spiritual’ aspect of the human, they include spiritual being, and prioritise ‘the history of ideas’ above ‘the history of events’,[4] nevertheless they mistakenly attempt to study the psychical with methods appropriate to the physical. Historians cannot penetrate true reality; simply put, the philosopher deals with the truth of essence, while natural and humanistic scientists, limited by the natural attitude, deal with facts which are necessarily relativistic.

For Husserl, phenomenology discovers the real meanings of things through a process of ideating abstraction. This is a mental act, applicable to history, in which the thinker grasps the essence of something. The abstractive act may be a generalisation whereby an approximate morphological essence is grasped, or it may be an idealisation which grasps an exact essence.[5] Thus in reviewing the meaning of history one might accomplish via an empty ideating abstraction, concepts that govern history, I have called these significances. It is readily apparent however, that I cannot submit unforeseeable historical events to ideating abstraction until they occur. Also I cannot grasp the direct presence of events through eidetic intuition, unless I have appropriated that essence for myself and the presencing fulfils that intention. Thus once again as the Danish prophet warned us so simply, ‘life must be lived forward and understood  backwards’.

Husserl’s notion of ideation, applied to history as the historically defining idea that a nation or community of people embodies, initially arose out of his dismissal of the historically contextual embeddedness of perception which forfeited timeless truth and relegated historical insights to relativity. It has been argued since that this is a false phenomenological dichotomy.[6] The historically defining idea for Husserl was, in Europe, epitomised supremely in the rationalistic questing resolve, or theoria[7], threading through European humanity to the present day. The ‘Inner history’ of Europe therefore underlies and supersedes all personal and historical events. Here is history distilled into its essential significance.

History pertinent to the phenomenologist Husserl concludes, is that ‘culture of truth’ which discloses founding intuitions and meaning-giving acts.[8] Not the diverse experiences of actual people at various times, but the ‘primal wellsprings’ from which current tradition was originally drawn.[9] For Husserl, historical reflection becomes all of a piece with the phenomenological search for the things themselves and ‘historical, backward reflection… is thus actually the deepest kind of self-reflection aimed at a self-understanding in terms of what we are authentically seeking as the historical beings we are’[10].

Heidegger in contrast held that history is an element of the ‘factical’ thrownness to which we are tethered, and by implication as concernful beings, to the purposive lives we appropriate for ourselves. Fundamental to Being and Time is his portrayal of the worldhood of the world, an ‘all-pervasive background of meaningful relations’ wherein we find ourselves already thrown. As being-in-the-world, Dasein is inextricably bound up with a background of inherited significance and relevance relationships it must appropriate purposively.

For Heidegger this shared world is accessible only through the interpretations and practices of a linguistic community, a theme echoed in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. The linguistic community however represents for Heidegger the indeterminate perspective of ‘anyone’. Dasein is bombarded by this dominant ‘interpretedness’ which disseminates ‘the possibilities of average understanding and of the state of mind belonging to it’[11]. Socialisation necessitates imbibing this everyday standardisation of language and practices. Thus again we no longer encounter the things themselves spoken about, but instead a superficial linguistic commonality in the form of I-said-because-she-said-because-he-said.

History is an element of the ‘factical’ thrownness to which we are tethered.

History is an element of the ‘factical’ thrownness to which we are tethered.

Dasein is that concernful being, directed towards the future in undertaking projects fuelled by the past, and ‘making present’ that which it attempts. This temporality is the very condition enabling history. ‘It is because Dasein is a ‘movement’ or ‘happening’ with a distinctive structure that historical unfolding and ‘world history’ is possible’.[12] History takes the form of a ‘tradition’, the ‘calcified set of uprooted and groundless presuppositions’ that constrain the parameters of judgments and behaviour. Too often this ‘tradition’ overwhelms and obscures those originating ‘primordial wellsprings’ Husserl spoke about. Historical investigation has legitimacy in drawing us back to the sources.

Here Heidegger diverges from Husserl. If one can find and maintain personal integrity in the public commonality of the linguistic community one can be authentic; in appropriating it for oneself, ‘tradition’ becomes ‘heritage’. The importance of history for both Husserl and Heidegger lies in the ‘authentic happening of human existence’ arising out of the future meaning-conferring projects one adopts.[13] Being authentic in one’s historical context means for Husserl the identification of ‘one overarching project’, the significant inner history of one’s community, and for Heidegger ‘experiencing oneself as a participant in a range of purposive undertakings defined by one’s heritage’.[14] For the lives we lead the world is ready-to-hand as are its inherited significances, for Heidegger it is the appropriation for oneself of contextualised history as purposeful in one’s Being-towards-death that history is authenticated, as ‘heritage’.[15] For Husserl history is distilled into a significance that transcends lives, for Heidegger history is that personally appropriated purposive  existential meaning. Either way, one must make history one’s own if it is to enrich one’s identity.

In my view Merleau-Ponty, with his reinstatement of embodiment as essential to the subject offers a link between Husserl’s history as the sedimentation of significance and Heidegger’s history as purposive. Merleau-Ponty like Heidegger, argued that the philosopher must not be construed as a detached ‘spectator’, but as a ‘situated’ participant in a shared world. Intersubjectivity, raising inevitably questions concerning the relationship of the self with ‘the other’, is consequently a matter of ‘history’, for history is the negotiated human record of change and of time passing; indeed, the theme of history is fundamentally the same as the theme of the other.[16] As I have noted already, the question of ‘the other’ arises essentially because ‘the other’ is always my potential negation, the place in which conflict arises. Though I am indebted to intersubjectivity for my identity, intersubjectivity is inevitably conflict.

The questioning being is not merely a psychical thing nor is its identity-sense merely that of a discrete reflecting consciousnesses placed alongside the world of objects. I sense my identity holistically through the body that I am and the world of things is always and necessarily present in me through my body. Though an external object certainly ‘stands before me,’ says Merleau-Ponty, ‘I am not in front of my body, I am in it, or rather I am it’.[17] Thus as I have already rehearsed, to exist is to be one’s body and to be one’s body is to be a ‘body-subject’’, a unity transcending the dichotomy of mind and body, subject and object. This concept invokes a paradoxical and ambiguous relationship, in which consciousness and materiality, subjectivity and the world of ‘things’, are co-extensive. Because of this ambiguity one’s identity requires harmonisation, between a desire for significance as subject, and one’s practical and participatory purposiveness in action as a part of the world.

That world of things is always and necessarily present in us for our bodies question the world as to its purposiveness for us. Through our bodies we have a world, and our existence is inseparable from our inherence in things; an inherence in a world that is both shared and changing. I am the history I appropriate. My sense of history, in general and also personally, relies on thought grounded in the fact of this changing world. Thus as Merleau-Ponty shows, it is through my body as a unique and ambiguous, but nevertheless really objective thing in the world of things, that I can ‘know’ that I exist from day to day and in some particular context. My body, this proof of my historical existence, lies in part beyond myself in things and verifies my existence only when grasped in action toward the external world. In significations that I find as givens I work out a purposiveness and attempt a harmonisation which can never be entirely my own exclusive possession. Thus is my identity won.

As subjectivity I encounter the world as that realm, Husserl memorably contended, in which I do not hold sway, that thing I do not pervade or control. Nevertheless I am not pure subjectivity, distinct from the world in the transcendental manner Husserl invokes, nor as in the bleak Sartrian radical bifurcation of things. The reason for this Merleau-Ponty explains, is that like a temporary ‘hollow’ or ‘fold’ made in being, I am simultaneously part of being and distinct from it. I share the historical purpose of things yet my significance transcends them. My identity is historically embedded just as my empirical being is embedded in the Lifeworld; this is not a static petrifying status but the very reason my identity evolves and the source of meaning on which it feeds.

History... initiative colliding with contingency.

History… initiative colliding with contingency.

For Merleau-Ponty the ‘body subject’ is characterised in a quite particular manner as dialectical and he notes, ‘The dialectic … is the tending of an existence towards another existence which denies it, and yet without which it is not sustained’.[18]  Just as the questioning being is a recursive or dialectical reality, so too its situation is also dialectical, it can both affirm and negate; ‘it is both the field of my freedom and a limit to my freedom, since it is ‘other’, as well as being mine’.[19] My historical situatedness is ambiguous because I grasp the unity of my bodily existence through an intentional perception of objects yet something always transcends that perception. My situation commits me, not to a transcendent grasp of things-in-themselves, but to a perspectival grasp of the objects of history seen from one adumbration which disallows others to me whilst revealing that in this shared world other perspectives are tenable; indeed I find it is so in colliding with them.

[1] Accessed 31st May 2014, 23:47

[2] Accessed 31st May 2014, 23:47

[3] Husserl, Philosophy as a Rigorous Science, in William Casement, Husserl and the Philosophy of History, History and Theory, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Oct., 1988), 230

[4] Casement, ibid

[5] Drummond, J. J. Historical Dictionary of Husserl’s Philosophy, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 2007, 104-105

[6] Kaufmann, F. The Phenomenological Approach to History: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Dec., 1941), 159-172

[7] Husserl, The Vienna Lecture, Crisis, 1970, 285

[8] Guignon, C. History and Historicity, in Blackwell Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Malden, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, , 548

[9] Guignon, ibid, 549

[10] Husserl, 1970, in Guignon, ibid, 551, italics mine, ‘what we are authentically seeking’ echoes our sensibility of human identity as the embedded desire for significance which often is obliged to transcend that embeddedness.

[11] Heidegger, BT, ibid, 211

[12] Guignon, ibid, 552

[13] Guignon, ibid, 553. NB, ‘history has its essential importance… in that authentic happening of existence which arises from Dasein’s future’. Heidegger, 1962, 438

[14] Guignon, ibid

[15] Heidegger, BT, 435, in Guignon, Ibid

[16] Merleau-Ponty, M. (1966). La philosophie de l’existence. Dialogue 5(3): 307-322. Originally a lecture

given in Paris, 1959 in Kruks, S. Marcel and Merleau-Ponty: Incarnation, Situation and the Problem of History, in Human Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1987), 225

[17] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 1962, 150, in Kruks, ibid, 236

[18] Merleau-Ponty, (1962: 167-168) in Kruks, S. Marcel and Merleau-Ponty: Incarnation, Situation and the Problem of History, in Human Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1987), ibid, 238

[19] Kruks, ibid,  239


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