History, the Past, and the Present

by Arthur Goldhammer

Paper presented at the Harvard Center for European Studies, Colloquium on "Reconsidering French Civic Culture: In Search of New Premises," September 26-27, 1997, panel on "Social and Political Thought"



History, the Past, and the Present

Arthur Goldhammer

Why do we study history? At the beginning of his essay on "Tocqueville and the French Revolution," the late François Furet wrote that "Tocqueville was not one of those historians with a penchant for losing themselves in the mists of time or for the poetry of the past or for the diversions of scholarship; his historical curiosity was of another type entirely, in which reflection on the present served as the starting point of a quest for antecedents." This sentence contains a series of metaphorical characterizations of the past as nebulous mist, poetry, or diversion, or, alternatively, as prologue. Tocqueville, Furet says, "went to study the United States not to discover Europe’s infancy but to divine its future." Implicit in Furet’s brief paragraph is a whole philosophy of history, a republican philosophy. Its tenets, briefly put, are these: 1) history is, as the old academic division had it, une science morale et politique; 2) it is a science whose objects are defined by "reflection on the present," where the present is conceived in essentially political terms; and 3) its field of inquiry is not the past in general, and not mere events—these would be too constricting—but phenomena such as the French Revolution or the founding of democracy in America of such universal significance that interpretations of them reveal not the contingent truths of a particular national history—these are left to antiquarianism, "poetry," and erudition—but necessary and universal truths yielding an otherwise unavailable divination of the future. This insight into the future can serve as the ground of ethical political choice; hence the vocation of republican history is to form citizens.

Now, this republican philosophy of history has not in fact been the philosophy of history of most historians of the Republic. Bear with me for a few moments while I briefly recall the evolution of the historical discipline in France. Modern French historiography begins with the Franco-Prussian War. In the wake of France’s defeat, as Jacques Revel has put it, "there was broad agreement that [France] must work to outstrip the Germans in the very areas in which Germany excelled: warfare, science, and the education of its citizens." In that effort of moral rearmament, "the trauma of defeat bestowed special importance on history. It became the repository of a humiliated nation’s pride, and its instruction was to contribute to the civic rearming of the nation." History was thus both national and nationalist: national in the sense that its object was the nation, nationalist in the sense that its purpose was to rearm that nation. The durable symbol of this dual status of French historiography remains Ernest Lavisse, at once the orchestrator of history’s reconstitution as a university discipline and the author of primers in history and civics for schoolchildren.

A shift began with the methodological and disciplinary quarrel that pitted the positivists Langlois and Seignobos against the Durkheimian François Simiand. For Simiand, there could be no science where there was no comparison. Historical science must therefore apply not to a nation but to nations, or, better, to societies, to human groups in general, since the nation itself was a historical construct. This explicitly anti-national (and, in the post-World War I climate, anti-nationalist) intent would be taken up, with refinements paradoxically provided by the unabashedly nationalistic German Historical School of economists, by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, the founders of the Annales. To be an Annaliste was to take a constructivist approach to the object of historical knowledge. Nature gives only the land. Historians, instructed by geographers in the wake of Vidal de La Blache, study groups whose occupation of the land was the product of historical interaction between economic wherewithal and physical constraint; the ends articulated upon these means ultimately defined civilizations, and history was, as the eventual subtitle of the journal famously laid down, a question of civilizations built upon societies built upon economies. The accidental resemblance of this schema to the Marxian dichotomy of base and superstructure was the ruse of Reason that permitted historiography to become the queen of the human sciences in marxisant postwar France.

The tripartite Annaliste schema was a marvelously supple instrument. It scaled well, as economists say. A "society" could be defined as whatever unit it was convenient to study given the state of the archives, the historian’s location, and the time available for research. One could study "feudal society" in the Ile-de-France or the peasants and warriors of the Mâconnais or the peasants of Languedoc or the "Republic in the village" or the urban society of Rouen or the randy residents of Montaillou; one could set one’s sights as large as the "Mediterranean world" of Philip II or as small as the circle of poets around Marguerite de Navarre. There was a "society" to fit every budget, every diplôme, every publisher’s commission.

Here, then, was a conception of history ideally suited to the material conditions of French historical research under the old system of the thèse d’Etat, which banished young scholars to the provinces for a decade or more of labor in the vineyards to be rewarded in the best of cases by ascension to Paris. Associated with the tribulations of lengthy exile was a phenomenon akin to what anthropologists call "going native": in historians this amounted to the belief that, if only history could be made sufficiently "total," the past could somehow be resurrected and made present, perhaps even made a substitute for the present or at least a laboratory in which to perform experiments otherwise unavailable to the "human scientist." Febvre, for example, remarked that "the task of the historian is not to exhibit an uninterrupted chain of connections linking the patterns of the past … but rather to understand the infinite variety and richness of the past in all its combinations," that is, just as if it were present.

Now, this social conception of total history eventually triumphed institutionally, but not without struggle. Although the journal Annales was founded in 1929, it was not until well after the Second World War that the preeminence of Annaliste historiography was consolidated. Various circumstances abetted this consolidation. One was the confusion of social history with marxisant history that I just mentioned, a sort of historic, or at any rate historiographic, compromise that placed the Annales, for much of the younger generation of historians, strategically dans le sens de l’histoire. Another was the postwar climate: the need for reconstruction in Europe and for "nation-building" in the Third World induced ordinarily present-minded foundations to take an interest in such antiquarian matters as land tenure and suzerainty in medieval Burgundy. Georges Duby recalled being invited to participate in a comparative study of Third World peasantries funded by the Ford Foundation, whose cash the very dynamic and persuasive Fernand Braudel used to reshape the Ecole des Hautes Etudes into the institutional base of the new history. Moreover, in an influential report on the teaching of history written in the mid-fifties, Braudel sold the Ecole to its government and foundation sponsors not as a center that would promote a historiographic revolution but as a place to equip civil servants with a useful historical sense of the social ramifications of economic change. Beneath the cool scientific language of this report, however, one detects certain anxieties: France in those days was being transformed at an unprecedented pace. The exodus of the last remaining peasants from the French countryside—the celebrated fin des paysans—created a wave of nostalgia for the agricultural France of pre-modern and early modern times. Braudel’s concept of l’histoire immobile, according to which real change occurred only two or three times in human history, can be seen in retrospect as a palliative for the pervasive fear of change that haunted France despite the effervescence of les Trentes Glorieuses.

The triumph of the Annales was not without certain evasions and ambiguities, however. History having become social rather than national, its civic role became blurred. Children continued to study history from nos ancêtres les gaulois to le Général de Gaulle, while énarques and historians chewed over statistical series and demographic curves. In 1973 Le Roy Ladurie said that the "historian of the year 2000 would be a programmer or would not exist." It is unlikely that the average Frenchman understood what he meant, whereas everyone, with or without Latin, had understood Lavisse when he called upon "the future legion of historians" to collate the testimony of history’s eyewitnesses in order "to give the children of France that pietas erga patriam that cannot exist without intimate knowledge of the fatherland."

History, in other words, had ceased to belong to the world of les sciences morales et politiques and entered the world of les sciences humaines, a product of the university-administrative-media-industrial complex. Here, the ethical, the question of citizenship that had haunted the old national history, was bracketed. Paradoxically, however, the nostalgia and fear of change that I mentioned a moment ago created for the new history a vast audience, which made best-sellers of Les Paysans du Languedoc and Le Temps des cathédrales. Publishers began to propose projects to historians and to suggest new directions for research. In 1977 Le Goff and Pierre Nora, a publishing entrepreneur as well as an agrégé d’histoire, published an anthology entitled Faire de l’histoire, prefaced by a manifesto proclaiming a revolution within the revolution, dubbed l’éclatement de l’histoire.

Meanwhile, the very success of the Annales program had begun to cause it grief. As more students were attracted to history, they began to be assigned middle-range projects in the hope that the social method would turn out to be not only scalable but cumulative, yet this hope proved illusory. The bourgeoisie of Paris could not be added to the bourgeoisie of Lyons et cetera to yield the bourgeoisie of France. But there was also change of a more profound sort. After May ’68, the Annaliste—fundamentally social—philosophy of history was dethroned; the republican—fundamentally political—philosophy of history was revived. A central feature of this republican philosophy, I said earlier, was the insistence on history as the study of universal phenomena. Two such phenomena presented themselves in the wake of the May events: the French Revolution, which Furet’s "Catéchisme révolutionnaire" of 1971 again placed in the foreground of French consciousness, and World War II, which the French translation of Robert Paxton’s Vichy France in the mid-1970s opened up to fresh scrutiny.

Why do I single out these two moments? Because they mark a turn away from the comparative mode of the human sciences and toward the hermeneutic mode of what I yesterday called Talmudic consciousness, a form of moral philosophy involving commentary upon a canonical body of sacred texts, memories, and events. Of course this shift was neither sudden nor uniform. It is worth noting that in the same year that Furet delivered his broadside against the "revolutionary catechism," he also published, also in Annales, a paper on "The Quantitative in History," a reasoned and generally quite positive assessment of the bright future in store for the quantitative methods in which he was trained and which he would soon abandon. The Revolution and Vichy: the Republic and the anti-Republic collided to inject new energy into republican historiography, thereby promising to repair the breach between historians and citizens that had grown as the gap between the history of the professionals and the history as taught in elementary schools widened.

Yet there was a problem. If Furet approached the Revolution through such "universal" concepts as "liberty" and "equality" and "violence" and "will," he did so in a hermeneutic mode. "One could imagine," he wrote, "tracing the history [of the Revolution] through the series of scholarly polemics it has fueled generation after generation for the past two hundred years." Often he constructed his own interpretation by setting those of his predecessors in opposition to one another: Tocqueville and Guizot, Tocqueville and Quinet, Quinet and Michelet, Buchez and Barnave, Jaurès and Taine, Mazauric/Soboul and Furet/Richet. This approach dissolved the putatively universal event, the revolutionary phenomenon itself, into a nebula of conflicting interpretations, at the core of which lurked the political. The explicandum of French revolutionary history thus became political philosophy, for the interpretation of which the Revolution provided a handy lexicon of symbolic moments and events: "If the Revolution is a language," Furet wrote, "it thrusts into the limelight those who know how to speak that language." His approach to the history of the Revolution is sometimes characterized as a return to the political history explicitly eschewed by social historians, but this is misleading. Traditional political historians aim to establish causal relations in series of events, whereas Furet’s problem was conceptual: "How can one conceive of an event like the French Revolution?" His answer in effect stood Simiand’s argument on its head. Simiand had said that historical science could not be based on singular historical facts but only on series of comparable historical facts; Furet, by contrast, insisted that the mise en histoire of a singular event could be based only on series of comparable interpretations of that event. The Annalistes compared social facts; Furet compared political interpretations. But the way in which he shifted the focus from the social to the political altered the very notion of universality. This alteration was in fact intentional, because for Furet the supposed universality of an event like the Revolution was a misleading abstraction with dangerous political consequences; putatively universal events have concrete existence only in the particular interpretations that observers, whether historical actors or historians, make of them. The proper business of critical history, of what Furet calls "a rigorous conceptualization of the French Revolution," is thus the hermeneutics of historical interpretation, but of historical interpretation within a particular body politic, in his case, the French. This particularization of the hermeneutic act rescued it from the mythologization of specious universality: when Quinet engaged with Tocqueville, the historian saw history; when Lenin engaged with Robespierre, he saw myth.

With respect to Vichy, the same tension between universality and particularism is evident, though at a more primitive level of methodological sophistication. World War II was arguably the first literally universal historical event, in the straightforward sense that it involved the entire world. And of course genocide made this a war different from all other wars, a war that posed the most fundamental of questions about man’s nature. In this sense, too, it is a universal event. In France, however, this universal event has been particularized, almost—almost, I was going to say, out of existence. It is as if in France the great historical question were not World War II but the Occupation, or Vichy. To date, the most influential French history of this period is Le Syndrome de Vichy, a work which, like Furet’s work on the Revolution, is fundamentally hermeneutic: Rousso’s concern, unlike that of, say, the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin in La France à l’heure allemande, is not with what occurred during the Occupation but with the successive myths that still shroud those occurrences. And also like Furet, Rousso sees a purgative function in his history. The hermeneutic historian does not purport, à la Ranke, to show what actually happened; his primary insistence, rather, is on what surely did not happen. His pedagogical contribution is not to found a science but to destroy myths.

Thus the hermeneutic historian indicts the intoxicated past in the name of the sobered-up present. In this way he seeks to restore history to its republican status as une science morale et politique, an instrument for forming good citizens, where liberal sobriety rather than republican fervor is now the hallmark of good citizenship. Healthy though this may be, a problem remains. It is the problem of the present, with which republican history begins. By present I mean not l’heure qu’il est but le temps qui court, the lifetime of the historian, say, which is distilled into a world view. Of Furet, for instance, one might say that his view of the revolutionary myth embodied an understanding, based on experience, of the workings of Communism. And of Rousso one might say that his view of the Vichy syndrome was shaped by his experience of the role of myth in the events of May ’68. Such existential understandings become the epistemological bedrock on which the historian rests his conviction of truth. That the latest reading of the event is not merely one more partial—partial et partiel—interpretation but the true interpretation is certified by nothing more and nothing less than inner conviction, wholly unanalyzed in the case of Rousso and only partially analyzed in the case of Furet in his last book, Le Passé d’une illusion, which, far from marking a departure from his work on the Revolution, was in fact a first step toward providing that work with a missing epistemological anchorage.

Now, from a philosophical point of view, this is a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. If successive interpretations of an event can be used, as Furet uses them, to deconstruct each other’s truth claims, it seems unreasonable to ascribe any particular privilege to the interpretations of the present. Suppose we agree with Furet that the mark of seriousness in a historian is the ethical concern that makes, as he said of Tocqueville, "reflection on the present … the starting point of a quest for antecedents." But if the truth of the present is no more immediately accessible to us than the truth of the past, the ground of the problem shifts to the way in which one reflects on the present. This is where I think the practice of historians like Furet and Rousso is problematic: for all their engagement with universal questions, their reflection on the present, upon which they construct their interpretations of the past, is irretrievably particularist. The fault is not theirs alone: it is the general defect of republican thought when it mistakes France for the universe. A more religious spirit than I might go further and call it a defect of the human condition. But can it be remedied?

In search of an answer, one might look at the development after 1970 of French historical practice in areas other than the history of the Revolution and the Second World War. The éclatement de l’histoire was more than just a metaphor. Perspectives on the past proliferated at a vertiginous pace. Medievalists became archeologists and anthropologists. Duby even applied Dumézil’s tripartite Indo-Europeanist schema to the political ideology of the Middle Ages, extending the longue durée back to prehistoric times. Lepetit imported the methods of economic geography into the study of eighteenth-century urban development. Agulhon’s concept of sociability burgeoned into a tool for rethinking the notions of public space and public opinion that Habermas’s celebrated essay did so much to stimulate. Revel and others applied Norbert Elias’s concept of the civilizing process to the study of the royal court. The history of the book became an area of active research. New constituencies—women, immigrants, children, youth, families, prostitutes, even the dead—found their historians. To say nothing of animals: I can think of at least one fat volume on the history of porcine symbolism and another about a greyhound who became a saint of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church. Et j’en passe. The problem, as I see it, is that this explosion of the past proposes at best a disciplinary particularism in lieu of the particularism of political experience. If the truth-maker, to borrow Donald Davidson’s terminology, of Furetian history was the political experience of François Furet, then the truth-makers of l’histoire éclatée were the discursive norms of each subspecialty. What Furet called le dépaysement dans le temps was the inevitable result.

As for la poésie du passé, there was no shortage of that, either. Alain Corbin conjured up first the smells and then the sounds of the past. One could vicariously experience the old age of older ages and the generosity of ancient givers. One could savor the first cup of coffee served at the Procope or wander the roads of the Tour de France in the company of an eighteenth-century glazier with a fabulist’s imagination. And one could refight the battle of Bouvines or experience a crusade alongside Saint Louis as even Annalistes discovered the charms of the événementielle and biographique—not, to be sure, without mouthfuls of alibis. More recently, microhistory, an Italian import, has been touted as a way forward.

But where does this leave us? On the horns of a dilemma, apparently. Yet perhaps there is something still to be learned from the original project of the Annales. How did the Annalistes escape from the particularism of national history? By substituting for the nation a less fraught concept, society, which made comparison possible. Once again a broadening of the horizon seems essential. But that is not all: one needs to look more intently inward as well. This is where the subspecialties may help, by adding complexity and depth to what Furet rightly described as the "starting point" of serious history, namely, reflection on the present. We must understand, however, that the present is not what is closest to us but what is most remote. We must not merely reflect on our political experience, as Tocqueville and Furet did, we must get outside it, transcend it. When it comes to the illusions of the past, we must be foxes, not hedgehogs. If, to speak plainly, the illusions of communism produced tragedies, so did the illusions of anti-communism, as a glance at the literature on the decision to Americanize the Vietnam War demonstrates. It is in order to grasp the present that we need not only the multiple perspectives of the new disciplines but also a substantial dose of dépaysement, poésie, and diversion érudite. If we can overcome our deceptive certainty about the present, we may come a step closer to tracing the antecedents of our inescapable uncertainty in the past. Then we can cease to judge the past, which is a futile passion, and make it serve the present in the only way it really can serve, not as prologue but as caution.