Performativity and the Intellectual Historian's Re-enactment of Written Works

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
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  • 1 University of Hull

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Abstract

This article develops and defends a performative conception of historical re-enactment as a fruitful method by which intellectual historians can interpret texts. Specifically, it argues that, in order to understand properly any given text, the intellectual historian should re-enact the performative activities of the writer of that text. The first section analyses one of the most influential and powerful theories of historical re-enactment, namely that found in the later writings of Robin George Collingwood. Drawing on Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances, certain key insights are identified in Collingwood's theory. Crucially, certain limitations are also stressed. The second section argues that an alternative theory of re-enactment can be developed by drawing on Judith Butler's theory of "performativity". The interpretative implications of a writer's genre, mode of experience, presuppositions, deliberate inventiveness and unintended failures are highlighted. The particularized nature of texts is shown to problematize the writing of unilinear histories of written debates. The article concludes by summarizing briefly the key methodological implications of performative re-enactment as they have been identified in the body of the article.

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