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Rethinking History 7:3 (2003), pp.


The Twists of the Linguistic Turn: a commentary on Graf and Jenkins

David Lindenfeld Louisiana State University

The two papers by Rdiger Graf and Keith Jenkins offer a fascinating contrast in the extremities of what goes under the name of the linguistic turn. They represent the two main traditions of Western philosophy in the twentieth century: the Anglo-American analytical approach on the one hand, inspired by Russell and Wittgenstein, and the continental European approach on the other, inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger. One stands for precision and exactitude in reasoning, and can justiably be subsumed under the label scientic, even if its protagonists rarely use that term. The other operates more at the level of suggestion and allusion, and can justiably be called poetic. The polarities of these two papers and the traditions they stand for raise the question in turn: Is there any common ground between them, despite the differences? Rdiger Grafs admirably clear paper gives us the arguments of the American philosopher Donald Davidson on truth and knowledge as a vehicle for refuting the contentions of postmodernism, which he neatly itemizes. In order to apply Davidson to history, Graf makes the assumption that the epistemological problems raised by understanding the past are the same as those raised by understanding other persons, languages, or worldviews in the present. I think that this assumption is correct, and I would agree with the rough outline of Grafs argument, that in order even to talk about others and the past at all, or in order even to disagree with someone, we must be able to understand much of that past or person in terms of its coherence and truth. As will become clear, however, I differ with Graf on the question of how much of anothers discourse is comprehensible in this way. The very clarity of Grafs presentation makes it easy to spot a point of convergence between Davidsons views and those of postmodernism. Davidsons claim that there is no appeal to reality beyond language the point of Grafs initial scenario about the length of the Nile seems to me also the nub of the argument that he gives as postmodernist point two: in Derridas much-quoted phrase, There is nothing outside the text. Graf diverges from the postmodernists, however, in claiming that this is not an argument against objectivity, because texts are constantly and unavoidably shared, rendering differences in interpretation resolvable in principle. Any Derridean differance can take place only against a background of agreed-upon meanings, which in turn are caused by the world being arranged in a certain way.
Rethinking History ISSN 1364-2529 print/ISSN 1470-1154 online 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/1364252032000135328


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Despite my basic agreement with Davidson and Graf, I do want to raise an objection in the postmodernist vein which is not quite captured by any of Grafs four points. I dont think that this objection destroys Davidsons position, but provides an important qualication to it. The objection is this: within any persons total worldview there are likely to be signicant trade-offs between truth and coherence, and in order to understand others and the past, one must make allowances for these tradeoffs. Davidsons argument, as I understand it, does not allow for this. For him, understanding depends both on truth and coherence simultaneously, at least most of the time. As Graf puts it, truth is not relative and it depends on only two things, namely on what the words in the statement mean and on how the world is arranged (Graf 2003: 393). This is no unimportant point, since, as he also states, because of . . . the assumption of coherence, truth is carried further into the more sophisticated and interesting regions of a persons web of beliefs (p. 392). In other words, the truth criterion may be adequate for two persons mutual understanding in very simple situations, like the timely entrance of the rabbit/gavagai when two speakers are trying to communicate in each others presence. But this will hardly do for more complicated scenarios involving terms with abstract or intangible references, such as those about deities. For understanding to take place in such cases one must also assume coherence, namely that the communicants belong to a world that shares common principles of organization, so that any misunderstandings about what terms like spirit or God might mean are usually resolvable in terms of this commonly shared body of knowledge. There may be exceptions, to be sure, when understanding is not reached, but to assume that such cases are the rule is to assume that successful communication is no more than a lucky accident. My notion of trade-offs, however, is based on the assumption that we may harbour multiple systems of coherent but incompatible beliefs that are of roughly equal weight, not that one is simply an exception to the others. The clearest example I can give of this position stems from my experiences in teaching, over a period of years, a class in European intellectual history since 1850 at a public university in a deeply Christian part of the world, namely the American south. It is well known that the teaching of evolution in this region continues to spark controversy, and that there are private Christian secondary schools that teach so-called scientic creationism. Students from these schools come to the university, where of course they mix with students from the public schools, some of whom have no particular religious beliefs, but many of whom are also practising Christians. Thus reading Darwin in this class not to mention Nietzsche and Freud frequently raises painful questions for these students about the truth and coherence of their beliefs. I present Darwinism in such a way as to make clear the lines of controversy

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between it and religion in Darwins day, and also to emphasize how and why most scientists have since come to accept his theory as true, and why they reject the arguments of scientic creationism. Faced with this, some students generally a minority will take the position that one must choose between evolution and the biblical account of creation: both cannot be true. If they choose to believe the biblical account, that entails a major sacrice of coherence with the beliefs they are exposed to in the university. But the majority of students will opt for coherence: they take the position that God the Creator works through evolution. If pressed on the truth of the story in Genesis, they will respond that it is not literally, but metaphorically true. In other words, they introduce a double standard for truth in order to preserve coherence. It is important to note that metaphorically true does not mean largely translatable into scientic language or into a common set of truth conditions, as Davidson would like to have it. Any attempt to translate the days of creation into ons of history as understood by physics and geology runs into the embarrassment of Gods creating the Earth on day three and the sun on day four. Metaphorically true means rather: answering to a different set of human needs. There are several general points I would like to make based on this example. First, if it is difcult to sustain truth and coherence simultaneously as criteria for understanding others who live in the same locale at the same time, we should expect it to be more difcult for people who live across wider spatio-temporal distances. Indeed, our capacity for getting most of the others story right might be outweighed by our capacity for getting it wrong as such distances increase. Let me cite a further example. In a 1990 issue of the journal Religion devoted to Western perceptions of African religions, several authors made the point that Christian missionaries, in their desire to understand these religions and establish commonality with them, achieved a false coherence by selectively translating indigenous terms referring to deities as homologous to their own notions of God and the Devil, leaving out much of the African religions that did not t the correspondence. Moreover, these translations have since become deeply rooted and have in fact sometimes altered, for many Africans, the reality that the missionaries initially sought to understand. African religious leaders themselves have sometimes contributed to this situation by treating Westerners as outsiders and giving them simplied versions of the more complex beliefs that actually obtain within their own communities. The leaders were accustomed to pass on these beliefs only to qualied insiders another instance of a double standard for truth (Baum 1990: 35560; Shaw 1990: 3423, 3479). One need not make the case, based on such examples, that good translations or mutual understanding between far-ung cultures is impossible. It is, however, a more arduous and complicated undertaking than Davidsons


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Principle of Charity implies. Indeed, some historians and philosophers who basically accept the Davidsonian approach, such as Richard Grandy, Steven Lukes and Fritz Ringer, have realized this, arguing that the Principle of Charity needs to be supplemented by a Principle of Humanity, whereby beliefs in another culture that appear to be false or irrational are explained in terms of the peculiarities of that culture. As Lukes puts it:
The Principle of Charity counselled Count them right in most matters. The Principle of Humanity counsels Count them intelligible or perhaps count them right unless we cant explain their being right or can better explain their being wrong. (Lukes 1982: 264; cf. Ringer 1989: 1667)

I would go a step further, and this brings me to my second general point. There is something condescending about the Principle of Charity, which the Principle of Humanity does not entirely erase: it assumes that we charitably grant the other truth and coherence in our terms, as did the Christian missionaries. To pursue the Principle of Charity radically and consistently, however, we must also allow the reciprocal assumption, namely that the others beliefs are true and coherent in ways that ours are not, and that our own beliefs may be in as much need of explanation in terms of our contingent cultural standpoint as are theirs. In other words, understanding the other or the past involves a willingness to learn from him or her or it; this is just another way of repeating the old adage that one who does not learn from the past is bound to repeat it. Of course, adopting the Principle of Charity does not mean that, after due examination, we have to accept the others belief as true or coherent. We may indeed nd it more plausible to explain it away as a delusional product of a particular pathology many early modern European beliefs about witchcraft come to mind here. But we ought to arrive at this conclusion only after having examined the others belief system in its own terms and scrutinized our own, not before. My third point is that we will nd it easier to apply this reciprocity if we are more honest with ourselves. We are likely to nd that we can and frequently do harbour multiple belief systems simultaneously, and that doing so involves trade-offs between truth and coherence, such as between scientic and poetic truths, or religious and secular truths. We generally repress these multiple dimensions of ourselves when we don our personae as scholars, but I want to suggest that doing so may be more of a hindrance to objectivity than an aid when it comes to understanding others who are really different from ourselves. In any event, the question of how to fathom the relationships between or among these multiple belief systems raises problems which I believe are beyond the reach of analytical philosophy. The phrase

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metaphorically true points to the need to explore the poetic dimensions of language as key to tackling these levels. These points bring me to Keith Jenkins paper, to which we might turn for clues on how to bring poetry to bear on history. Jenkins is an avowed postmodernist, and he writes out of an awareness of the magnitude of the cultural changes that have occurred in the past half-century, changes which render old ways of expression questionable at the very least. Given the rapidly changing, kaleidoscopic, hyper-stimulating world in which we live, the lack of credibility of the old master-narratives such as progress or modernization, and the absence of any new persuasive foundations, there is a legitimate space for the experimentation and free play which Jenkins advocates. I nd particularly pertinent Jenkins remarks about the possible benets of forgetting the past, of relieving ourselves of the burden of heritage. I say this once again as an inhabitant of the American South, where appeal to such a heritage continues to perpetuate racial divisiveness and bitterness. Jenkins reading of Derrida offers the opportunity to play the game of compare-and-contrast with the Graf/Davidson position. Both start with a contemporary encounter between self and other as the model for encountering the past. As noted above, each emphasizes different and opposite aspects of this encounter: Graf/Davidson point to the possibility of resolving contradictions, while Jenkins/Derrida point to the aporia that sustain them, arising from the clash between ideal concepts and principles (such as that of reciprocity, of nding the other-in-oneself) and the uniqueness of each new situation. But this in turn may be viewed as a division along the lines which Graf himself lays down between concepts of truth on the one hand and practices of attaining true beliefs on the other. Graf admits that Davidsons contribution to the concept is of little help in deciding particular cases. And just as Jenkins/Derrida admit that rejection of a single, closed body of truth does not mean that any interpretation is equally valid, so Graf/Davidson accept the possibility of an indeterminate number of interpretations of such a body of truth. The desire to nd similarities between the two papers should not, however, lead us to minimize the differences. These have to do with the meaning of the phrase the past as text. For Graf/Davidson, understanding a text from the past is an instance of a communicative act, involving the same triangulation between originator, recipient and the world. For Jenkins/Derrida, textuality is more complicated: any residue or crystallization of the past may be read in a variety of ways that escape the intent of the author, despite the fact that such intent does impose limitations on the arbitrariness of readings. Here I think Jenkins/Derrida are closer to the mark as far as history is concerned. For if one thinks of a primary source as an historical text, then the author/ originator is typically not intending to communicate to a reader-historian (i.e.


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posterity), but to some other person or group in his or her own time. The reader-historian thus turns the triangle into a quadrilateral: he or she observes and interprets a communication intended for someone else, rendering it more difcult to get to the past itself. On the other hand, Jenkins takes this multilayered aspect of texts and infers that the past itself has no structure whatsoever, because it lacks the element of authorial intent. This frees the historian from any limits in reading the past, unlike the texts that mediate it. This, as I have said, is the fundamental difference between him and Graf. On this point, it seems to me that Graf is closer to the mark than Jenkins. When it comes to the nal section of Jenkins paper, I must confess that I am struck by a curious paradox which pervades it, as well as much other postmodernist writing I have encountered. There is on the one hand an appeal to play and creativity, to radical otherness and newness, to the subject that is constantly being made and remade, to variety and complexity of human situations and on the other a language of duality, polarity and antagonism between the postisms and the entities they are posterior to, namely modernism, structuralism, colonialism and so on. This division of the world into self and other seems to me to go against the grain of variety and innovation and to establish instead a discourse of simplication, of accusation and defensiveness, of reductionism and rigidication, which contributes to the wearisome and seemingly interminable debate between postmodernists and realists. This contradiction comes out most pointedly in the section of Jenkins paper on Badiou, where his vocabulary suddenly seems to shift into reverse: instead of creative imagination and disobedience, we now have militancy and loyalty. Instead of continual reguring of the past, we have delity to the event. A political vision is thus superimposed upon a poetic one. It is particularly interesting that Badiou mentions the Cultural Revolution in China as an instance, for here is an event that has certainly come in for its share of reguring since the 1960s. Do Badiou and Jenkins really mean to say that one should remain loyal to that event regardless of how it is regured? One can easily think of other events in the twentieth century which had inspired a sense of being caught up in something that transcends all petty, private or material concerns (Jenkins 2003: 379) the euphoria of 1914 and the Russian Revolution come to mind. Likewise it is plausible to view fascism and Stalinism as loyal regurations of those events, with all of their dehumanizing consequences. It is also true that both of these regurations attracted their share of poets and intellectuals, who shed their disobedience and questioning posture in favour of total identication with a cause. If postmodernists want to preserve free play, would they not at least want to stake their loyalty on a vision whose sublimity is more intangible and mysterious? The event is altogether too slender a reed from which to weave the fabric of emancipation that Jenkins wants to create. And if he and Badiou

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mean to say that delity to it means that there is no going back to previous ways of thinking, then they remain prisoners of the very linear view of history they profess to abjure. The fable of emancipation betrays their kinship with the likes of Acton and Croce. Genuine emancipation from the burden of the past, I would argue, means the ability to selectively go back to it as well as forward from it. I am also intrigued by Jenkins picture of the intellectual as outsider, the one who welcomes relative exile in order to preserve his or her freedom to see the world as radically different. Given my belief in the self as the locus of multiple belief systems, I would suspect that this is but one aspect of many intellectuals lives, others of which are likely to be incorrigibly bourgeois. It is probable that people today who think of themselves as critical intellectuals are academics, who draw a steady salary and probably retirement benets and group health insurance to boot. This is actually an illustration of Davidsons point: disagreement and dissent is a guration which occurs against a background of shared assumptions. Of course, one can think of examples of intellectuals who have spurned such compromises and have lived their lives consistently against the grain. To my mind, the historical gure who most closely approximated Jenkins idealized picture was Nietzsche, and the end result for him was madness. My own current research on Carl Gustav Jung stems in part from this problematic, for Jung was an intellectual who certainly thought outside the box of Western civilization if ever anyone did. He also had a few brushes with insanity himself, which he nevertheless overcame. For him, Nietzsche was both an inspiration and a warning. His memoirs convey one of these brushes:
The unconscious contents could have driven me out of my wits. But my family, and the knowledge: I have a medical diploma from a Swiss university, I must help my patients, I have a wife and ve children, I live at 228 Seestrasse in Ksnacht these were actualities which made demands on me and proved to me again and again that I really existed, that I was not a blank page whirling about in the winds of the spirit, like Nietzsche. (Jung 1989: 189)

Jungs struggle against insanity was a struggle for multiplicity, a dynamic balancing act involving a continual play of conventionality and radical innovation and a precarious one, which, for many poets and intellectuals, can easily topple over into its opposite: simplistic identication with a political cause. I further nd that Jenkins portrait of modernist history contains elements of simplication and caricature. Certainly the notion that history is dependent on a subjective point of view is no invention of the linguistic turn. It could also be seen at the turn of the last century precisely in the idealization of


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historicism, that own-sakeism which Jenkins disparages. In the hands of Dilthey and Collingwood, understanding the past in its own terms came to mean understanding the minds and experiences of others, which likewise dissolved the notion of a hard-and-fast reality. Listen to old Dilthey for a minute. How similar he sounds to Jenkins, writing a century later:
The historical consciousness of the nitude of every historical phenomenon, of every human or social condition and of the relativity of every kind of faith, is the last step towards the liberation of man. With it man achieves the sovereignty to enjoy every experience to the full and surrender himself to it unencumbered, as if there were no system of philosophy or faith to tie him down. Life is freed from knowledge through concepts; the mind becomes sovereign over the cobwebs of dogmatic thought. . . . The continuity of creative forces asserts itself as the central historical fact. (Dilthey 1962: 1678)

I rst encountered this passage, and was inspired by it, as a graduate student in staid old academe. The notion that history as presented there was nothing but empirical, factual, objective and documentary is just too simple. My point is that for poetry and enchantment to re-enter history, free play should not operate only on one side of the battle lines that divide postmodernists from modernists, but across that no-mans land. Once again, one should presume that the other is as multiple and complex as the self. Free play should not pit poetry against coherence and truth, but should consist precisely in the interplay of all three. This is true to what I think Dominick LaCapra meant when he called for a dialogical relationship to the past as distinct from a documentary one (LaCapra 1982: 54). This attitude opens up a number of possibilities. To put it in Jenkins language, the before-now need not be merely a projection of the now, a throwing our voice backwards, but the before-now can also serve as the projector forward. The play between present and past entails ever-shifting combinations of what we see in the past: some of it looks familiar, as if history were repeating itself, some of it will look different and genuinely new. Again, Dilthey put it well: Interpretation would be impossible if expressions of life were completely strange. It would be unnecessary if nothing strange were in them (Dilthey 1962: 77). How can poetry, or the radical reconguration of language, facilitate that play? What clues can Jenkins examples from Jean Baudrillard and Elizabeth Ermarth give us? I must confess that I drew a blank on Baudrillard. His language is so thoroughly metaphorical as to virtually obliterate any glimmer of coherence and truth. One either nds that his images, which are drawn largely from chaos theory, ring true, or they dont. But there isnt much room for dialogue, for agreement or disagreement. I cannot make much sense of

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him, or of how anagrams, acrostics, spoonerisms and so on can be applied to history. Ermarth is a different story. Rather than sinking into a sea of metaphors like Baudrillard, she presents a few images and develops them in depth. Her choices strike me as often fruitful for thinking about history in new ways, because they preserve that interplay between self and other, between sameness and alterity, while emphasizing its fragility and delicacy. The notion of anthemion is a good example, the recognition of patterns that are inter-laced, ower-like, involving iteration without repetition. Ermarth uses this coinage of Nabokov to illustrate how individual identity can be conceptualized in a postmodern age. Rather than being seen as a transcendental or unifying subject, individuality is the singular set of intersections of the multiple codes and cultural inuences that comprise a life, ever-changing, but out of which these anthematic patterns emerge. Identity, writes Ermarth, consists in the unique and unrepeatable sequence of complex enunciation (Ermarth 2000: 412). Nabokovs image of the past as a liquid medium, and of the accomplished historians allowing the past to shine through the transparent surface of the present, rather than by breaking the tension lm and sinking down, immersing oneself in the past, suggests that such patterns cannot be apprehended solely by the conventional tools of empirical research: that is the naivety of the novice. The picture of that novice falling into the water is reminiscent of the quantum physicists attempt to observe a photon that appears in popular presentations of the uncertainty principle: the very act of observation disturbs the phenomenon one wants to observe. Yet Nabokov and Ermarth believe that the experienced poet can do what the scientist cannot: defy physical laws and walk on water, not disturbing the surface. Ermarth stresses that the great avant-garde artists, writers, composers and cinematographers of the twentieth century were able to grasp this subtle individuality in ways that eluded the philosophers (including, one might add, Derrida with his aporiae). Thus it is the artist rather than the scientist or social scientist from whom the historian true to the project of understanding the individual other can learn. I can render this prospect more specic by turning to another image which Ermarth presents in her book Sequel to History but which Jenkins does not mention in the paper. That is an image from music, namely jazz improvisation, based on the idea of a theme with variations (Ermarth 1992: 4554). Improvisation is a combination of sameness, an old theme repeated, and alterity, the spontaneous gurations of the moment. How is this applicable to history? I believe that the increasing interest of historians in rituals, commemorations and memory may be seen as examples of the theme-withvariations principle. Ritual is not narrative: it does not establish continuity with the past by enquiring about how the present came to be, but rather by


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deliberately repeating material from the past in the present. Yet, as in jazz, the past is never literally repeated in ritual or memory, but is, as it were, refracted to t the demands of the present. The fact that historians are turning to these topics may be seen as a way of lling the vacuum created by the absence of meaningful narratives in our time. It may be seen as a genuine and healthy new way of conguring poetry coherence, and truth.

Baum, Robert M. (1990) Graven images: scholarly representation of African religions, Religion 20: 35560. Dilthey, Wilhelm (1962) Pattern and Meaning in History, ed. and trans. H. P. Rickman, New York: Harper Torchbooks. Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds (1992) Sequel to History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds (2000) Beyond the subject: individuality in the discursive condition, New Literary History 31: 40519. Graf, Rdiger (2003) Interpretation, truth, and past reality. Donald Davidson meets history, Rethinking History 7: 387402. Jenkins, Keith (2003) On disobedient histories, Rethinking History 7: 367385. Jung, C. G. (1989) Memories, Dreams, Reections, ed. Aniela Jaff, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Vintage Books. LaCapra, Dominick (1982) Rethinking intellectual history and reading texts, in Dominick LaCapra and Steven L. Kaplan (eds) Modern European Intellectual History, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 4785. Lukes, Steven (1982) Relativism in its place, in Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes (eds) Rationality and Relativism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 261305. Ringer, Fritz (1989) Causal analysis in historical reasoning, History and Theory 28: 15472. Shaw, Rosiland (1990) The invention of African traditional religion, Religion 20: 33953.