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History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension Author(s): Louis O. Mink Source: New Literary History, Vol. 1, No.

3, History and Fiction (Spring, 1970), pp. 541-558 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/468271 . Accessed: 19/03/2014 08:49
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Historyand Fiction as Modes of Comprehension


Louis O. Mink I
alwaysbetrayed PHILOSOPHERS historyand romance. "I knew that the delicacy of fiction have scornforboth a certain

enlivens the mind," said Descartes,explaining how he had liberated himselffromthe errorsof the schools,and "that famous deeds of historyennoble it." But in the end, he concluded, makes us imagine a numbecause "fiction these are negligiblemerits, ber of events as possible which are really impossible,and even the most faithfulhistories,if they do not alter or embroiderthings to make themmore worthreading,almost alwaysomit the meanestand so that the remainder is distorted."' least illustrious circumstances, and final word on all the tales and stories This was Descartes's first it could have servedto sum up of human life,and until veryrecently the consensus of Western philosophy.Even when Hegel discovered he gave no more comis more philosophical than poetry, that history of historicalinquirythan Aristotlehad given fortto the practitioners to the to wise poets; for in both cases it was for relative proximity firstprinciplesof philosophyitselfthat the marks were passed out. ratherthan the vivid and particular It was the universalsbodied forth details of the storieswhich bore them that commandedthe attention of philosophers. In recentyears,however,therehas come into being a new and still developing interestamong philosophers in what is called (rather misleadingly)the logic of narration.This has not been a product of as one mightthink,and it has as yet made no connection aesthetics, in such studies fiction with the sortof analysisof narrative represented Narrative. Rather The Nature it belongs and Scholes' as of Kellogg's to the analytical philosophy of history- the theoryof historical of the knowledge, that is, rather than the speculative metaphysics historical process. The philosophical problems whose coastlines are way. Since the sevenbeing explored were discoveredin the following
i Discourse on Method, tr. Laurence J. Lafleur (New York, 1950), pp. 4-5.

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teenth century, philosophyhas been dominated by the problems of the cognitivestatusof perceptionon the one hand and the interpretation of natural science on the other. The great controversies of rationalismand empiricism now appear to have been complementary to construct extendingover threecenturies, phases of the enterprise, a comprehensive accountof the relationbetweenour directperception of the world and our inferential knowledgeof thatworld throughthe discoveriesof natural science. In this epistemological there enterprise was no room for either imaginativeworlds or the inaccessibleworld of the past. The latter, in particular,appeared significant only as as In not not riot of the somethingpast. something perceptible, critical new theories realism, realism, subjective epistemological idealism, pragmatism, etc., etc. objective relativism, phenomenalism, - in which the modern epoch of philosophycame to an end within recent memory,not one took seriously the problem of how it is possible that the past should be knowable,althougheach constructed a more or less embarrassedappendix which restoredsome sort of some possibility of meaning to "statements cognitivestatusto history, about the past." Meanwhile,historians were layingsuccessful siege to the records of the past, but while they could point to notable achievements of inquiry therewas no theoryof historicalknowledge to compare with the increasingly sophisticated philosophyof science. The "theoryof knowledge"in fact was, by the implicitconsensusof philosophers,the theoryof scientific knowledge,and its veryvocabuof hypothesis and lary - the language of induction and classification, of dependent and independent variables, general laws verification, and probabilitycoefficients, and calculation - had its quantification in astronomy, referents and biology. primary physics, chemistry The clearestand most influential of the view that systematization philosophyis the logical analysisof scientific procedurehas been that as logical empiricism, A major princiself-designated nd "positivism." ple of logical empiricismis the so-called methodological unity of science, that is, the view that thereis no formalor logical difference among the various bodies of practiceand consolidatedinquirywhich can count as scientific. With respect to explanation and the criteria for adequate explanation, for example, there is a single although complex formalmodel of explanation,which consistsin showingthat the statementassertingthe occurrenceof an event or other phenomenon to be explained followsby strictformaldeduction (including mathematicaldeduction) fromone or more statements about initial conditions of the systemto which the laws apply and in which the phenomenon to be explained occurs. This is also the model of prediction;one can thinkof,say,eitherthe predictionor the explana-

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tion of an eclipse as a clear example in which this model is realized. Now to apply such a model of explanation to human action or social change raises grave problems; few if any explanations in psychology or social sciencecan be shown to have thisform, not least because the laws have not been general formally required empiricallydiscovered. the claim was not that the deductive or "covering-law" Nevertheless, model of explanation can be discernedin everyputative explanation but that it represents a rational demand by comparisonwith which The methodologmost "explanations" reveal themselves as defective. social sciences ical preoccupationsof psychology, and other sociology, in recentyearshave in effect resultedfromthe adoption of positivist as imperativesfor the organizationof research.In hisprescriptions have seemed least applicable and these prescriptions however, tory, also least able to account for the fact that some historicalaccounts seem to explain and illuminatealthough theycannot by any Procrustean efforts be restatedin such a way as to exhibit the required form. is strong."Do you claim to have explained Yet the case for positivism it asks. "Well, then,you are claimingmore this event occurred?" why than thatit happened; you are claimingthatgivenwhatever you refer to as bringingit about or causing it to occur, it musthave happened as it did, in fact that it could not have not happened. The forceof and necessity can be explanation lies in the recognitionof necessity, antecewith its the event connected that is shown only by showing law. Until thatis done, thereis dentsby a generaland well-confirmed of what an explanation would be no explanation but only a sketch like if there were one."2 At this point historianshave been known to say somethingabout historybeing an art rather than a science. Some philosophers,however, agreeing with the positiviststhat the task of philosophyis to which inform of rational inference make explicit the patterns complex thinkingof all sorts,but unlike the positivistswilling to entertain the hypothesisthat there are different patterns of rationalitynot reducible to a single and fundamentalpattern,have taken historyto be a possibly autonomous and in any case rich and logically unanalyzed mode of inquiryand knowledge.As ArthurDanto has said,
The classic statement is by C. G. Hempel, in "The Function of General Laws 2 in History," Journal of Philosophy XXXIX (1942), later weakened to accommodate probability laws in "Deductive-Nomological vs. Statistical Explanation" (Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. III, ed. H. Feigl and G. Maxwell), and in "Reasons and Covering Laws in Historical Explanation," Philosophy and History, ed. S. Hook (New York, 1963). There are also characteristic statementsin Karl Popper's The Logic of ScientificDiscovery (London, 1959) and Ernest Nagel's The Structureof Science (New York, 1961).

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not casually but prefatory to a detailed analysisof historicallanguage and science is not and explanation, "The difference between history that historydoes and science does not employ organizing schemes has to do which go beyond what is given. Both do. The difference with the kind of organizingschemesemployedby each. History tells stories."3 So here thereis a beginningof an attemptto carryout the program originallysignalled by Collingwood: that while "the chief business of seventeenth-century philosophy was to reckon with seventeenthnatural science . . the chief business of twentieth-century century is reckon with to twentieth-century By "history," philosophy history."4 of course,Collingwood did not mean the course of public events (as in history vs. nature) but ratherthe inquiry,practicedby professional historians but not limited to them, into institutionalchange and purposive human action (as in historyvs. natural science). The change is froma preoccupationwith theoryto an interestin narrative: "narrativeexplanation" is no longer a contradiction in terms. But there is also a shiftfromthe concept of explanation,definedin termsof a formalmodel, to the concept of understanding, perhaps indefinablebut clarifiedby reflection on the experiencesin which it has been achieved. in this directionthan W. B. Gallie, in his No one has gone further book Philosophy and the Historical Understanding.I shall review his argument briefly, at the expense of doing scant justice to its intrinsicinterest, for the sake of calling attentionto what I thinkto and suggestive be an unusually interesting mistake. Gallie observes, that no critical (that is, post-Kantian) philosopher quite correctly, has worked out a clear account of "what it is to follow or construct an historicalnarrative."5 History,he eventuallyis to conclude, is "a of the But to understandwhat a storyis, is to species genus Story."6 know what it is to follow a story, that is, not merelyto have done so (as everyonehas) but to know what in general are the featuresof a storywhich make it followable.And this in turn is not significantly
3 Other discussions of historical narrative are by Morton White, The Foundations of Historical Knowledge, ch. vi (New York, 1965); A. R. Louch, "History as Narrative," History and Theory, VIII (1969); Maurice Mandelbaum, "A Note on History as Narrative," History and Theory, VI (1967); replies to Mandelbaum by Richard C. Ely. Rolf Gruner, and William H. Dray, History and Theory, VIII (1969); and W. B. Gallie, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (London, of a working historian: G. R. 1964), which is discussed below. For the reflections Elton, The Practice of History, Ch. iii (Sydney and New York, 1967). 4 R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford, 1939), PP- 78-79. 5 Philosophy and the Historical Understanding,pp. 12-13. 6 Ibid., p. 66.

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fromfollowinga game in progress, different such as a cricketmatch, and understanding the featureswhich make it followable.In followas in being a spectator at a match,theremustbe a quickly ing a story, establishedsense of a promisedalthough unpredictableoutcome: the county team will win, lose or draw, the separated lovers will be reunited or will not. Surprises and contingenciesare the stuffof stories,as of games,yet by virtue of the promisedyet open outcome we are enabled to follow a series of events across their contingent relationsand to understandthem as leading to an as yet unrevealed conclusion without however necessitatingthat conclusion. We may follow understandingly what we could not predict or infer.At the and same time, followingrequires the enlistment of our sympathies the which account for one's "basic antipathies, directing feelings" we are being pulled along by a story;in fact, "what discontinuities able follow the set or to or to willing accept depends partly upon of the kind of sympathy that has been established."7Stories may be followed more or less completely, as a wise old hand at cricketmay notice nice details which escape the spectatorof average keenness, and therecan be no criteriafor followingcompletely.8 But the minimal conditionsare the same forall. The features which enable a story to flowand us to follow,then,are the clues to the natureof historical An historicalnarrativedoes not demonstrate the necunderstanding. events them of but makes the essity intelligible by unfolding story which connects their significance.9 History does not as such differ fromfiction, insofaras it essentially therefore, depends on and develour and in skill stories. subtlety following Historydoes of course ops fromfictioninsofaras it is obligated to rest upon evidence of differ in real space and time of what it describesand insofar the occurrence as it must grow out of a critical assessment of the received materials of history, of otherhistorithe and analyses including interpretations of arduous and technical, however ans.10But the researches historians, amount and the of of only increase precision knowledge factswhich
7 Ibid., pp. 44-478 Ibid., p. 339 "What is contingent . . . is of course, per se unintelligible. But in relation to a man's life, or to a particular theme in a man's life, it can be understood as having contributed to a particular, acceptable and accepted conclusion," p. 41. While this sums up a notion of intelligibilitywith which I would quite agree, it does not support what Gallie thinks it supports, namely, the "intellectual indispensability of the act of following." As I try to argue below, it is not following but having followed which carries the force of understanding. to Ibid., pp. 56-64, 71.

orientation of our sympathy . . . and partly upon the intrinsic nature

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remaincontingent and discontinuous. It is by being assignedto stories that they become intelligible and increase understandingby going beyond "What?" and "When?" to "How?" and "Why?" in Gallie's adventurousaccount is not, I believe, in The difficulty his emphasison narrativebut in his assumptionthat its essentialfeatures are revealed by a phenomenology of "following."What he has provided is a descriptionof the naive reader, that is, the reader who does not know how the storyends, and who is "pulled along" by and curiosity.It is not incidental but essential interest,sympathy, eventsare made acceptable and intelto Gallie's view that contingent directsthem towarda promisedbut far as the so insofar story ligible is an experiencewhichno historian of course this Yet conclusion. open and no moderatelyknowledgeablereader of historicalnarrativecan time nor have. Nor can a criticreading King Lear for the twentieth find carried reader for the himself second along by sympathetic any about the fateof Lear and Cordelia. It may be thatnarrative curiosity theirstoriesin order to lead construct more or less artfully historians the readersthrough routes towards requiredbut as yetundis"possible closed conclusion," but of the many historianswho regard Garrett Mattingly'sThe Defeat of the Spanish Armada as the unsurpassed I have never heard one complain recentexample of narrativehistory, that his reading of it was marred by knowinghow it all came out. someon the contrary, familiarity Among both historiansand critics, timesbreedsrespect. betweenfollowinga What I mean to suggestis that the difference than the incidental differa is more storyand having followed story and ence between present experience past experience. Anticipation attitudesor vantage-points are not simplydifferent and retrospection which may be taken (or must be taken) toward the same event or betweenpast and future courseof events.We know that the difference is crucial in the case of moral and affective attitudes;we do not fear somethingthat is over and done with,nor feel regretfor something is crucial as well not yet undertaken.My thesisis that the difference for cognition: at least in the case of human actions and changes,to difis categorically, not incidentally, know an event by retrospection ferentfromknowingit by predictionor anticipation.It cannot even, case in any strictsense,be called the "same" event,forin the former the descriptionsunder which it is known are governed by a story to which it belongs,and there is no storyof the future.But to give this thesisplausibilityrequires a considerationof what the "logic of narration" neglects: not what the structureor generic featuresof narrativesare, nor what it means to "follow,"but what it means to have followed a story.

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II
As we have known since Kant, one of the most difficult of all tasksis to discernand describecorrectly those genericfeaturesof experience which we do not attend to and which we have no appropriatevocabecause theirubiquity leaves themunnobulary to describe,precisely with theirabsence or ticed; theirpresenceis not signalled by contrast with competingfeatures.It is only by the most intense conceptual effort that the structure from of all experiencecan be distinguished the vivid details of particularexperiencewhich commonlycommand our attention.It is perhapsfor this reason that theoriesof knowledge have unaccountably neglected the significanceof the simple fact that experiencescome to us seriatim in a stream of transienceand yet must be capable of being held togetherin a single image of the manifoldof eventsin order forus to be aware of transience at all. It is a contingentfact of empirical psychology that the "specious present" - that duration in which we seem to be simultaneously aware of actuallysuccessive eventssuch as the seriesof sounds that make up a spoken word - is of the order of between half a second and a second. But it is a necessarytruththat we could not even formthe concept of the specious presentwere we not able to hold in mind, throughthissequence of presents, rightnow, the thoughtof past and of and futures future future, past pasts. Memory,imagination,and all this whateverelse theydo: they serve function, conceptualization are ways of grasping togetherin a single mental act things which or even capable of being so experienced, are not experiencedtogether, because they are separated by time, space, or logical kind. And the condition ability to do this is a necessary(although not a sufficient) of understanding. A few random examples may help to bring out the way in which the act of "graspingtogether" can be found in everyvariety of experience. For one case: in hearing the first movementof an unfamiliar one may "understand" the development in the Haydn symphony, sense thatmelodic motionand harmonicmodulationsare familiarand anticipatable. But of course this would be the case even if we had entered the hall or set down the needle in the middle of the movement. There is a different and more appropriatelynamed kind of "understanding"when we hear and assimilate the expositionof the themesfromthe beginning,and then hear the developmenttogether of the themes.Without the abilityto hold with the retainedmemory in mind the sequence already passed through, one would simplynot in any senseof "understand," musical passagessuch as the understand, minuet of Beethoven's seventhsymphony, in which the trio returns

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for a third appearance but is cut offabruptlyaftera few bars. Or again: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury begins with the firstperson impressionsand recollectionsof the cretin Benjy. No one "understands"thesepages on a first reading; no one is expected to. It is not until later in the book that theseopaque pages become intellione must read the later pages with the earlier in gible in retrospect; mind, and in factreread the earlierpages with the later in mind. But of a character of course this is merelyan especiallyvivid illustration observationthat which everynarrativehas in some degree.Aristotle's a play must have a beginning, a middle, and an end is not a trivially formaldescription but a corollaryof his principlethat a drama is an imitation of a single action, that is, that both action and mimesis must be capable of being understoodas a single complex whole. It is also the sense in which Weigand said of The Magic Mountain that "the whole novel is presenton everypage." But the phenomenonof graspingthingstogether is not limited,as these examples might suggest,to the temporal arts. Consider logical inference,as representedin the following simple argument: All creaturesare mortal; all men are creatures;all Athenian citizensare men; Socrates is an Athenian citizen; hence Socrates is mortal. Now suppose that we infer from the firsttwo premisesthat all men are mortal, and then destroyour notes and forgetthe premises; and conclusionsand similarlywith the premiseswhich yield intermediate been drawn. This is final conclusion has with when the these again the earlier to addition a column of the of forgetting figures, analogous with each and also to more sub-total, every figures complex instance In such hypothetical cases it is clear that of mathematicalinference. we have lost the special quality of understandingthe conclusion as still followingfrom the premises.We could in such a circumstance but could not see it. That grasping test the validityof an argument, a complex sequence of inference is possible is attestedto by together as a who are to see a demonstration able mathematicians, commonly than a of transformawhole rather as merely sequence rule-governed tions; and most probably the ascription of "elegance" to a proof in such a way as the especial neatnessof its presentation acknowledges to facilitateone's seeing it as a whole. In all of these instances, and in indefinitely manymore,therethus kind of understanding which consistsin seems to be a characteristic a a in or in cumulative seriesof acts,the single act, thinkingtogether which can of be experienced only complicated relationships parts seriatim.I propose to call this act (for obvious etymological reasons) It is operative,I believe,at everylevel of conscious"comprehension." and inquiry. At the lowest level, it is the grasping ness, reflection

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togetherof data of sensation,memoryand imagination,and issues in perception and recognitionof objects. At an intermediatelevel, it is the graspingtogether of a set of objects, and issues in classification and generalization. At the highestlevel, it is the attemptto order togetherour knowledge into a single system- to comprehendthe world as a totality.Of course this is an unattainable goal, but it is can as an ideal aim against which partial comprehension significant such comit is unattainable because be judged. To put it differently, prehension would be divine, but significantbecause the human to describe project is to take God's place. Naturallyenough, attempts have alwaysbeen put into theological the aim of ideal comprehension does not limit God's terms.Boethius,explainingwhyhuman freedom knowledge,describedGod's knowledgeof the world as a totumsimul, in which the successivemomentsof all time are copresentin a single perception, as of a landscape of events. The omniscient scientist envisioned by LaPlace, knowing the laws of nature and the position could and velocityof everyparticleof the universeat a single instant, world at the of detailed character retrodict the and any predict when Napoleon remarked momentof time. (So, in the classic story, to LaPlace that he had found no mentionof God in the System of the World, LaPlace replied, "Sire, I have had no need of that hypothesis.") And Plato, who thoughtdivine knowledgenot unattainable, vision of a set of essencesgrasped as regardedit as the contemplative - a "comprehensive a single intelligiblesystem view," he calls it in in VI of the Republic, Book Rulers of the the education discussing which bind all the sciences "of the mutual relations and affinities together." are of the ideal aim of comprehension These different descriptions not merelyvisionary.Rather theyare extrapolationsof several different and mutually exclusive modes of comprehensionwhich run There are, I throughour more mundane and partial understanding. to each other or irreducible fundamental such three modes, suggest, to any more generalmode. I shall call these the theoretical mode, the mode. They are roughly categoreal mode, and the configurational of natural sciassociated with types of understandingcharacteristic identical means are not but and ence, philosophy by any they history; and the artificial differences their real in and fact with these, expose is the It classifications. academic of nature configurational misleading but the issues mode alone which is relevantto the conceptof a story, which it may illuminate cannot be clearlystated except by contrasting it with the alternativemodes. What are the different ways in which a number of objects can be comprehendedin a single mental act?

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First,theymay be comprehendedas instancesof the same generalization. This way is powerfulbut thin. It is powerfulbecause the refersto thingsas membersof a class or as instances of generalization a formula,and thereby embracesboth the experiencedand the unexperienced,the actual and the possible. It is thin because it refersto them only in virtue of theirpossessionof certaincommon characterof each. I else in the concreteparticularity istics,omittingeverything discover,let us say,that a piece of paper igniteseasily,and repeat the experimentwith an old letter,a page from a calendar, a sheet of music, and an unpaid bill. Thus I quickly reach the generalization "Paper burns," by which I comprehend an indefinitenumber of similar observations.By analogous experience of needles, fenders, boathooksand washingmachines,I can comprehendan equally great numberof instancesunder the generalization, "Steel rusts."But then it occurs to me that both processesmay be the result of chemical combination,and I am on the way toward explaining both combustion and rusting as instances of oxidation. And in this way I can both classessof phenomena,superficially veryunlike each comprehend of a This theoretical as instances law. mode of compreother, single and its ideal hension is also often called "hypothetico-deductive," type is that expressedby LaPlace. A second and quite different a number of way of comprehending a Thus both objects is as examples of the same category. paintingand and Edna St. Vincent a geometryare examples of complex form, "Euclid hath alone looked on beauty bare," Millay's famous line, issues from categoreal comprehensionin which the categoryof the aestheticis linked with the categoryof form,and both subsume not merelyworks of art but all formalcomplexes in a scale of degrees. resemblestheoreticalcompreCategoreal comprehension superficially hension and is oftenconfusedwith it, but such confusionis virtually the definingpropertyof philosophical obtuseness.The relation of theoryto its objects is that it enables us to inferand coordinate a about that kind of object; the relation of body of true statements categoriesto their objects is that theydetermineof what kind those objects may be. Thus a set of categoriesis what is now oftencalled a of conceptsfunctioning a priori in conceptual framework: a system giving form to otherwiseinchoate experience. Perhaps the simplest examples of categoreal comprehensionare those cases in which a concept belonging to a developed theory- e.g., evolution, equilibrium, repression- is extended to cover a range of instances for which the theoryitselfhas no validityin principle. Thus we come, forexample, to thinkof the "evolution" of ideas, as a way of conceiving what counts as an idea rather than as a theoryabout natural

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variation and selection. It is categoreal comprehension,of course, - envisioned which Plato - and, in fact,mostsystematic philosophers as an ideal aim. Yet a thirdway in which a numberof thingsmay be comprehended is as elementsin a single and concretecomplex of relationships. Thus a letterI burn may be understoodnot only as an oxidizable substance but as a link with an old friend.It may have relieved a misunderraised a question,or changed my plans at a crucial moment. standing, a narrativeof eventswhich As a letter,it belongs to a kind of story, to it. But to explain this, would be unintelligiblewithout reference but would, of letters or of friendships I would not construct a theory of events rather,show how it belongs to a particular configuration mode that like a part to a jigsaw puzzle. It is in this configurational in a poem, or the combination we see together the complex of imagery and of motives,pressures, promises principleswhich explain a Senator'svote, or the patternof words,gesturesand actions which constiof a friend.As the theoreof the personality tute our understanding so to what Pascal called l'espritde geometrie, tical mode corresponds mode correspondsto what he called l'esprit de the configurational finesse- the ability to hold togethera number of elementsin just balance. The totum simul which Boethius regarded as God's knowledge of the world would of course be the highestdegreeof configurational comprehension. Now it may seem that what I have tried to call attention to is merelyan arrayof techniquesor "approaches" fromwhich one may select now one, now another as is appropriate to the subject-matter at hand and its particularproblems.It is true that one may do this, and also that each mode may enterinto a processof inquiry- which howevermust culminate in a single mode. But theycannot be combined in a single act. One reason for such a conclusion is simplythe observation that notable intellectual achievementsand the style of undeniably powerful minds are characterizedby a kind of singlemindedness: the attempt to extend to every possible subject of theoretia single one of the modes. One notes that eminently interest cal minds attemptto apply to political problemsor even to personal relationshipsthe techniques of abstractionand generalizationwhich enable messyparticularities to be strippedaway fromthe formulary type. Configurationalminds on the other hand organize whatever theyuse their theyknow of biologyinto a senseof place. As ecologists, theoretical knowledgeto illuminate theirgrasp of the concreteinterfor actionsof individual plants and animals in a specific environment; a population biologist,on the other hand, the foxgloveand the hare are countable units of their species. A more general reason for con-

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cluding that the modes are incompatibleis that each has ultimately the totality the "worldof fact," of human experience, or ifone prefers, as its subject matter.There is nothingwhich cannot in principle be broughtwithineach mode, althoughof course it will be modifiedby being comprehendedin one mode ratherthan another.Of course it would be a mistaketo tryto understandsub-atomicparticlesin the mode of configurationalcomprehension;but this is because subatomic particlesare not objects of directexperiencebut hypothetical constructs whose verymeaningis given withinthe mode of theoretical Moreover,the practice of each mode is an object for comprehension. of philosophyand a philthe others;hence therecan be a psychology of of and a psychoanalysis a Freud of osophy psychology, biography the biographer.Each mode tends to representthe others as special cases or imperfectapproximationsof itself.And those to whom a singlemode has become a second naturetend to regardthe otherslike Gulliver's Houyhnhnm master,who thought Gulliver's forelegsimwere too tender to bear his weight. practical because his forehooves the intellecreasonsforacknowledging One of the more convincing tual functionof comprehension and distinguishing its modes, I have and explaincome to think,is that it providesa way of understanding and the schools the of the misunderstandings ing rationally disputes abounds. One can see, in this light, in which intellectualcontroversy that what are called "disciplines" are actually arenas in which the partisansof each mode contendfordominance,each with its own aim and privilegedlanguage. identification of problems, of understanding, that human action the claim for is Behaviorism, example, essentially and social realitycan be understoodonly in the mode of theoretical as against the more traditionalhistoricaland institucomprehension, of organization aim was to grasp configurations whose tional schools, and stagesof change.Or again thereare the differences among psychothe who seek to understanda poem by psychoanalyzing analyticcritics New Crireader theoretical the comprehension), (seeking poet or the of the ticism,whose aim is to achieve configurational comprehension and who critics, archetypal poem alone in all its internalcomplexity, unlike which a categorealsystem unfortunately, apply everywhere the categoreal systemsof philosophy,fails to include concepts of logic. If it is true that the threemodes are incompatibleas ultimate aims, we must abandon hope of achievingan eclectic or panperspectival outcome, but we might hope for an increase in intellectual fora rational defenseagainstthe imperialism and be grateful charity, of methodologies. modes of comI have said in the attemptto distinguish Everything of course,is in the categorealmode. prehension,

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III
It is not a theoryof knowledgewhich is at issue. Comprehensionis not knowledge,nor even a condition of knowledge: we know many things as unrelated facts - Voltaire's full name, the population of Rumania in 1930,the binomial theorem, the longitudeof Vancouver. On the other hand, a pseudo-scientific theorysuch as "hollow-earth" theoretical as is an instance of much is as astronomy comprehension than other to standards It is by reference comprehension astrophysics. that we must decide what is true and what is false. Knowledge is througha community; essentially public and may even be distributed we know collectivelywhat no one individually could possess. But and only is an individual act of seeing-things-together, comprehension that. It can be neitheran input nor an output of data-retrieval sysreference. forconvenient transformed tems,nor can it be symbolically As the human activity by which elementsof knowledgeare converted it is the synopticvision without which (even into understanding, and partially attained) we might foreverpass in though transiently reviewour shardsof knowledgeas in some nightmare quiz show where identitiesof to "fact" "fact" the relates fragmented nothing except the participantsand the mountingtotal of the score. Some physicists thatthe physics of the futuremaybe entirely speculatein conversation unlike the physicsof the past, since computationat electronicspeeds permits the developmentof theories too complex for any mind to of physics grasp as a whole. In the past, of course,the achievements whethof the construction have been distinguished models, elegant by er visual or just sets of equations, which were intellectually satisfying a vast range because theycould be so graspedand seen to comprehend of otherwiseunorganizeddata. So it may be that the possibilityand even the desire for comprehension may disappear fromsome kinds of and techniquesof controland theoreticalinquiry,as problem-solving of understandthe satisfactions dissociated from become manipulation ing. that it seems not unimportant It is in the lightof such a possibility to make a just estimateof the nature and autonomyof other modes mode. And it is the configurathan the theoretical of comprehension tional mode which seemsmost oftento be confusedwith the othersor regarded,so to speak, as one of the shadows where their light has failed to reach. Implicit in the classical positivistaccount of explanation as it was summarizedabove is the theoreticalprinciple that it is typethat an eventor action can only as an instanceof a law-governed be trulyunderstood.From this standpoint,a narrativemay enliven sensibility (if it is fiction)or recount facts (if it is history),but it

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answersno questionsexcept,"And then what happened?",and affords no understanding beyond such answers.In replyto this,"narrativists" and like Gallie have had a firm sense that storiesproduce a different sometimes indispensable kind of understanding.But they have, I the genus to which narrativebelongs, and believe, failed to identify have tried to find it in the sequential formof stories,in therefore in the experithe techniquesof tellingand the capacityforfollowing, and resolution. ence of interest, expectation,surprise,acceptability, But as we saw, this cannot be an illuminatingaccount of the historiof his own narrative.One must set against it the an's understanding an eminent of historian,in whose considered judgment testimony Lord Acton was an amateur, even though a prince of amateurs, because "he was for ever expressingdistressor surpriseat some turn Elton goes on to in the story."The professionalhistorian,Geoffrey in immerse himself his than period until he say, must do more just their creationsand must "read hears its people speak; one them,study to are what thinkabout themuntil one knows they going say next."" It is worthreflecting, too, on thosestorieswhichwe want to hear over of and over again, and those which shape the common consciousness or of Hector a community, whetherthey end with the funeral rites before the empty tomb. Why do storiesbear repeating?In some cases,no doubt, because of the pleasure theygive, in others because of the meaning they bear. is right,because they of comprehension But in any case, if the theory in which the act of understanding aim at producingand strengthening as occurringin the order of actions and events,although represented time,can be surveyedas it were in a single glance as bound together of the totumsimul which a representation in an orderof significance, we can never more than partiallyachieve. This outcome must seem of a narrative either a truismor a paradox: in the understanding the thoughtof temporalsuccessionas such vanishes- or perhaps,one mightsay,remainslike the smile of the CheshireCat. It is a paradox, of course, if like Gallie one fixes one's attention on followingthe developmentof a storyor the courseof a game. But in the configurational comprehensionof a storywhich one has followed, the end is connectedwith the promiseof the beginningas well as the beginof the backward ning with the promiseof the end, and the necessity cancels out, so to speak, the contingency of the forward references means to thinkof it in references. To comprehendtemporalsuccession both directionsat once, and then time is no longer the river which
11 The Practice of History, p. 17; italics added.

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bears us along but the riverin aerial view,upstreamand downstream seen in a single survey. also loses its The thesisthat time is not of the essenceof narratives commonly say (if they paradoxical air if one considersthat historians are asked) that they think less and less of chronologyas they learn an more and more of theirfields.The date of an eventis functionally artificial mnemonicby which one can maintain the minimumsense of its possible relation to other events. The more one comes to understand the actual relationsamong a number of events,as expressedin the storyor stories to which they all belong, the less one needs to remember dates. Before comprehensionof events is achieved, one one understands, reasonsfromdates; having achieved comprehension, understandsthis to and a action a an certain as event, say, response to that the eventpreceded could reason the conclusion one So directly. this would be the action, but fromthe standpointof comprehension for someone else who did not already trivial,except as information understand what the action was - who, that is, did not know its story. would mean describingit as a Even to describe the action correctly in a story.Otherwiseit would as an element therefore and response not even be representedas an action (that is, as intentional and having a meaning for the agent), but as an opaque bit of behavior waiting for its storyto be told. It is implied by this account that the techniquesby which narraironies of the fictivenarrator who fails to see in his own tale a which author and reader share - can be regarded as, in significance of the storyas a for facilitating the comprehension instruments part, whole. But one should ask at this point: what are the connections of the events arrayedin a single configuration? Accordingto Gallie, the between events connection of a storyis their the fundamental end. toward the mutual orientation According to Morton promised historical account of White's well-known narration,the fundamental connectionis causal: antecedenteventsare presentedas contributory There is also the unreflective or decisivecauses of subsequentevents.12 view that the connectionis simply that of temporal succession,but of this connection our whole argumenthas been that the significance evanesces between the activityof following a storyand the act of it. comprehending The example given above of an action in response to an event of the internalorganizaunderstanding suggestsan entirelydifferent tion of a comprehendedstory.For we do not describe the action
12 The Foundations of Historical Knowledge, pp. 223-25, and ch. iv.

tives are shaped - from "Meanwhile, back at the ranch .. ." to the

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and then add the statementthat it was a response ("Next morning he sent offa telegram.I forgotto say that he had received an offer in the company,and the telegramwas the day beforefor his interest his reply to the offer, actually . . ."). Rather we describeit correctly and next morning as a response ("He consideredthe offer overnight, accepted it by telegram.. ."). There are two points here. The first action is "accepting is that the correctdescriptionof the significant action but and "sending the telegram"is not a different the offer," the offer" that is already first. is of the second The "accepting part It refersto the storyof which what mightbe called a story-statement. about it is a part and overlaps conceptuallywith earlier statements a is not and the like. a the offer, storyreceiving "Sending telegram" statement.It suggeststhat there is a storyto which it belongs, but it does not referto that storyand tells us nothingabout what sort of earlier statements if any it may be linked to. describableonly Not all parts of a storyare about actions correctly this paradigm if we from of course. But generalize by story-statements, as a we can say that the actions and eventsof a storycomprehended And whole are connected by a networkof overlappingdescriptions. the overlap of descriptions may not be part of the storyitself (as one of it as a whole. but after only of the comprehension thing another) of "discovery":we followOedipus function For considerthe narrative on the road fromDelphi to the crossroads where he is insultedby a and in And then kills him. we follow him along the stranger anger With road to Thebes and across the years to his dreadfuldiscovery. before. not much but truth before we know the Oedipus does, Jocasta, But since we alreadyknow the All this occurs in followingthe story. of the we can only play at followingit. In the comprehension story, no have and descriptions storyas a whole, there are no discoveries, is tense. For comprehension,the incident at the crossroads fully which jointlyreferto all the describableonly by a set of descriptions rest of the story.The doomed man is a noble strangerto Oedipus, but he is also king of Thebes, the fatherof Oedipus, the husband of Jocasta,the predecessorof Oedipus as husband of Jocasta,the man whose house is cursed,the man who sent Oedipus to be bound and exposed as an infant,the man whose wifeis a suicide, the man whose son blinds himself, and above all the man whose identity is discovered afterhis death by his slayer.He is alive and he is dead, and he could not be elsewherethan at the crossroadsin the sunshine. For comprehension, of course, there is a similar array of descriptionsforeveryincidentand character. The blinded Oedipus is the son of the king of Thebes, the man who broughtthe plague to the city, and the one who killed the strangerat the crossroads.Thus in the

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of any array of descriptionsgrasped togetherin the understanding incidentor character, each overlapswith at least one in anotherarray, and at least one overlaps with a descriptionin everyother array.13 But this is only a formal account of a complex act of mind which directlyapprehends its tableau of objects in their concreteparticularityas well as in theirmanifoldof relations.

IV
"Narrative," Barbara Hardy has said, "like lyricor dance, is not to be regardedas an aestheticinventionused by artiststo control,maniact of mind transferred pulate and order experience,but as a primary to art fromlife." More importantthan the artifices of fictionare the of lived experiqualities which narrativeshareswith the story-telling ence: "For we dream in narrative, remember, daydreamin narrative, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize,conIt is true,I have struct, gossip,learn, hate, and love by narrative."14 argued, that narrativesare in an importantsense primaryand irreducible. They are not imperfectsubstitutesfor more sophisticated nor are theythe unreflective of explanation and understanding, forms or first steps along the road which leads toward the goal of scientific aim at which narratives philosophicalknowledge.The comprehension act of mind, although it is a capacitywhich can be indeis a primary and subtlety. But to say that the finitely developed in range, clarity, to art fromlife seemsa hysteron qualities of narrativeare transferred proteron. Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, but the startof an affair middles,or ends; thereare meetings, belongs to the storywe tell ourselveslater, and there are partings,but final partingsonly in the story.There are hopes, plans, battles and ideas, but only in retrospective storiesare hopes unfulfilled, plans miscaris it America ried, battlesdecisive,and ideas seminal.Only in the story which Columbus discovers, and only in the storyis the kingdomlost
13 Descriptions of course must belong to the narrative and not to our interpretation of it. It is not a description of Creon in this story that he is the man who condemns Antigone to death, nor a description of Oedipus that his downfall comes about as a result of a flaw in his nature. But we could not very well discuss the latter claim unless we already had the whole storyin mind; and I even suspect that many interpretationsor "readings" have very little point except as an aid to achieving or maintaining comprehension.In any case, comprehensionis a necessarycondition of interpretationbut not vice versa. 14 Barbara Hardy, "Towards a Poetics of Fiction: An Approach Through Narrative," Novel, II (1968) , 5.

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for want of a nail. We do not dream or rememberin narrative,I think,but tell storieswhich weave togetherthe separate images of recollection. (One recountsa dream: "And then suddenlyI was in the Piazza Navona - now how did I get there?") So it seems truerto fromart to life. We could say that narrativequalities are transferred or fromculturelearn to tell storiesof our lives fromnursery rhymes, and fiction that we learn mythsif we had any, but it is fromhistory how to tell and to understandcomplex stories,and how it is that stories answer questions.
WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY

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