I just encountered an interesting take on the study of history from Bakunin’s idiosyncratic work, “God and the State”:
If it is justifiable, and even useful and necessary, to turn back to study our past, it is only in order to establish what we have been and what we must no longer be, what we have believed and thought and what we must no longer believe or think, what we have done and what we must do nevermore. –Mikhail Bakunin, “God and the State”
After reading this skeptical attitude toward all hitherto existing reality, I was initially struck by the similarity of Bakunin’s approach to the study of history to Nietzsche’s in Untimely Meditations. The Bakunin quote above emphasizes the critical appraisal and negation of the past–which is dead to the present–as the point of doing history whereas Nietzsche’s seeks to judge the value of historical inquiry on the basis of whether or not it is life-affirming.
Bakunin is arguing against theist histories and justifications of authority that come out of state- and theo-centric historical study. For Nietzsche, the correct theory of history can be distinguished from two others: academic history and naivety.
For both of these thinkers, historical study should be made to serve emancipatory ends in the present. I’m looking forward to delving further into Bakunin’s works (which can be slow reading) to see if and where he fleshes some of his insights out, but for the meantime I’d like to focus on how Nietzsche can contribute to a more philosophical historical craft.
To begin, Nietzsche argues that thinking historically is a way of thinking politically, also a way of thinking philosophically.
I think that Nietzsche’s approach in these two works is really also the point. What strikes me initially about Nietzsche’s untimely meditation is how his concern is framed in the title, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”.
It seems we are accustomed to taking history for granted. Historians are not even the least susceptible to this. We understand the present to be conditioned by the past; it is a historicist outlook on the present that goes largely unquestioned, in fact. Nietzsche, on the other hand, in interrogating the value of this history approaches the matter altogether differently. He leaves aside the question of how the past constitutes the present (for him, as for Goethe who he invokes in the opening line, our understanding of the past may or may not instruct us, but such a question is irrelevant if the answer does not help us to shape our becoming. Let’s bracket the issue of what Nietzsche’s conception of the true individual may be, suffice to say that Nietzsche’s individual is an agent acting in the present. The banal type of historical thinking that Nietzsche is criticizing is one which posits an individual whose future (and present) potential is a foregone conclusion because of its historical development.
Nietzsche describes this as “knowledge not attended by action”. Indeed, it is sometimes our knowledge which precludes our action.
(Historians are usually guaranteed a professional project if they take recourse to adding little empirical bricks to the historiographical edifice. Nietzsche sees this as symptomatic of a deadened antiquarian history which is “a restless raking together of everything that has ever existed.” (75) For him this is not life-affirming; it is an academic exercise–a simulacra of life.)
What I would rather like to point to right now is how Nietzsche wants historical thinking to be political. In this regard we may compare him to another German philosopher of the 19th century, Marx, who famously wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach that the philosophers have only interpreted the world but the point was to change it. Obviously there is a limit to comparing Marx and Nietzsche; very soon in this endeavor we would have to confront the prime difference in that Marx used historicism to construct a positive theory of liberation while Nietzsche… well, Nietzsche seems to suggest that living unhistorically (his word) might be the way towards liberation (happiness is forgetting).
In simplest terms, Nietzsche is arguing against a tendency to hold the present and the future hostage to the past. The past, if it is to be useful to us, can be used in a few ways that inform and actively shape the present. Our study of history should not just be a justification for the perceived progressive nature of the present, not should we be such slaves to the past that we cannot move forward without its shadow hovering over us.
Nietzsche is today known as the intellectual forerunner of postmodern and post-structuralist philosophy. His students include Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard, each of whom have engaged with problems of theoretical history. Moreover, Nietzsche was a classicist, and in this sense his study of past thought resembles our present task of reading into the record of the past and telling its stories. If we place him within these theoretical and disciplinary boundaries, we might be able to see how his arguments still speak to the present. He is a twenty-first century philosopher.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, I’d like to again compare Nietzsche to Marx, who arguably is another twenty-first century thinker. They represent two perspectives that continually reappear in social thought. Above all, it is worth noting the difference between the subject of history that Nietzsche is dealing with and the Hegelian subject of Marx (and Bakunin’s) history. How do they differ in their capacity for agentic action? How are they constituted by their pasts? Certainly Nietzsche speaks of the Nation as subject, but is this consistent with his theory of subjectivity? What does this say about the difference between Marx and Nietzsche’s scope for subjectivity? Is Marx more about collective subjectivity and the individual is simply a “character mask”? Is Nietzsche more about the individual and the collective is merely an abstraction?
If this untimely meditations is an attack on the academic establishment of historical writing, how could academics respond? How do we justify our scholastic work in light of Nietzsche’s critique (and what points of this are most salient?)? Further, I ask us what criticisms of Nietzsche’s essay can we offer? Do these alleviate the severity of the attack? Finally, what is needed: a synthesis of academic work and Nietzschean politics; or should we only take one side in the debate? Nietzsche’s articles were geared towards a certain delimited reading public, do academics have arguments that may answer Nietzsche’s critiques in terms that Nietzsche and his reading public might be partial to? How do historians interact with those outside of our field? Should we be alarmed that in light of the declining rates of interest in history and the increasing specialization within the field that historians are only just speaking to themselves? That all of our historical debates are merely academic?