Experience as the Invisible Drive of Historical Writing

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History


From time to time our tiny intellectual worlds are simultaneously shaken by big ideas – ideas that, however big they are, have their expiration-date. Such is the case with the idea of the impossibility to find life outside language. In this essay, I picture what I think is the current state of the philosophy of history after the so-called linguistic turn and what I think the direction is where the philosophy of history might be headed by taking into account the important job done by linguistic theories. I regard the abandonment of epistemology and the arrival to the realm of aesthetics as a point of no return, and conclude that a new philosophy of history has to have an aesthetic character. However, due to the omnipotence of language I also detect a narrow constructive potential in linguistic theories and argue that a new philosophy of history has to have the dual task of searching for life outside language while remaining in the realm of aesthetics. As a next step, I identify Frank Ankersmit’s notion of an individual historical experience as a move towards the fulfillment of this dual task. Finally, because Ankersmit’s experience remains mute, in the second half of the essay I attempt to present an outline of the possibility of a fruitful cooperation between the philosophy of history and phenomenology. More precisely, I am trying to synchronize Ankersmit’s notion of an individual historical experience with László Tengelyi’s phenomenological experiments with experience and let Tengelyi speak where Ankersmit “stops talking”. As a result, with the help of Tengelyi, an aperture can be found in language through which experience might worm its way. Due to this fissure, experience might be regarded as an invisible driving force behind linguistic expressions, and thus behind historical writing.

  • 1)

    H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

  • 3)

    M. Roth, “Ebb Tide,” History and Theory, 46 (2007) 66.

  • 4)

    See, for instance, G. Spiegel, “The Task of the Historian,” American Historical Review, 114 (2009) 3; or N. Partner, “Narrative Persistence: The Post-Postmodern Life of Narrative,” in F. Ankersmit, E. Domanska and H. Kellner (eds.), Re-Figuring Hayden White (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) 82.

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  • 9)

    F. Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

  • 11)

    Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, 306–312.

  • 12)

    Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, 278.

  • 13)

    Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, 128.

  • 16)

    See recently K. Pihlainen, “What if the Past Were Accessible at all?” Rethinking History, 16 (2012), 323–339.

  • 18)

    E. Domanska, “Frank Ankersmit: From Narrative to Experience,” Rethinking History, 13 (2009), 191. This is why it makes no sense to compare or confront Ankersmit’s experience with Joan Scott’s otherwise brilliant essay, in which Scott pulls the rug from under any epistemological, foundational notion of experience. An aesthetic notion of experience does not ascribe any authority to experience and so does not intend to serve as a foundation of historical writing. See J.W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry, 17 (1991), 773–797.

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  • 19)

    Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, 122–123.

  • 20)

    Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, 264–266.

  • 22)

    Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, 280.

  • 23)

    L. Tengelyi, Tapasztalat és kifejezés [Experience and Expression] (Budapest: Atlantisz, 2007) 283–296.

  • 24)

    D. Carr, Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3 vols., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984–1988).

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  • 26)

    L. Tengelyi, Élettörténet és sorsesemény (Atlantisz: Budapest, 1998) 28. The above English version of the quotation can be found in a book translated by Géza Kállay and Tengelyi which contains some chapters of the Hungarian edition. See L. Tengelyi, The Wild Region in Life-History (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2004) xxiii. (emphasis in the original) All further quotations will be my translations from the Hungarian editions of Tengelyi’s books, but in case relevant passages can be found either in the aforementioned English edition or in the German editions of Tengelyi’s books, I will refer to them as well.

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  • 27)

    G. Agamben, Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience (London and New York: Verso, 1993) 50.

  • 29)

    Tengelyi, Tapasztalat és kifejezés, 28; L. Tengelyi, Erfahrung und Ausdruck: Phänomenologie im Umbruch bei Husserl und Seinen Nachfolgern (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007) 136. (emphasis in the original)

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  • 30)

    Tengelyi, Tapasztalat és kifejezés, 25. (emphasis in the original) For a detailed discussion of the relationship between experiential sense and consciousness see Tengelyi, Erfahrung und Ausdruck, 109–137.

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  • 31)

    See Ankersmit, Meaning, Truth, and Reference, 37–40. Even though his way is not the way presented in this essay, Carr also warmly welcomes the emergence of the notion of experience and offers his contribution in the following paper: D. Carr, “Experience, Temporality and History,” Journal of the Philosophy of History, 3 (2009), 335–354.

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  • 34)

    Tengelyi, Tapasztalat és kifejezés, 30–31. The distinction (in a slightly different context) can be found in the German edition as well. See Tengelyi, Erfahrung und Ausdruck, 247.

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  • 35)

    Tengelyi, Tapasztalat és kifejezés, 31.

  • 36)

    M. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968); M. Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973). For a detailed discussion of Merleau-Ponty and for an elaboration of the idea about an experience intertwined with the experience of expression, see Tengelyi, The Wild Region in Life-History, 28–42; or Tengelyi, Erfahrung und Ausdruck, 201–216.

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  • 37)

    Tengelyi, Tapasztalat és kifejezés, 31.

  • 38)

    Tengelyi, Tapasztalat és kifejezés, 263–266. See also Tengelyi, Erfahrung und Ausdruck, 201–216.

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