An Audience for History? Review Essay of Kalle Pihlainen’s The Work of History

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
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  • 1 Humanities Division, Department of Philosophy, University of California – Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA, USA

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Kalle Pihlainen’s book reworks seven essays published over the last dozen years. Pihlainen’s Preface and Hayden White’s Foreword articulate a cri de cœur. Both fear that something important has been missed. White’s Foreword somewhat cryptically characterizes Pihlainen’s book as “metacritical,” and locates Pihlainen in the role of being a “serious reader” for the community of theorists of history. What does it mean to be a “serious” reader? White never says. But following White’s hint, Pihlainen can be read as updating Marx’s conception of the task of unmasking sources of alienation by focusing on the reasons for the estrangement of histories from a wider audience. For him, “the core case is that the ‘historical’ (situated) nature of history itself needs to be acknowledged” (p. xiv). It remains unacknowledged so long as the source of meaning in history continues to be displaced. For even those who emphasize narrative form tend to talk as if meanings were imposed by some factor other than human intervention, as if form magically imbues content with significance. But this is one more symptom, if such is needed, of collective bad faith, a denial that only people make meaning. By taking disembodied literary forms as repositories of significance, responsibility for meaning is once again deflected or deferred. In this key regard, Pihlainen’s claim to place “decided emphasis on its [historical theory’s] ethical-political momentum” (p. xv) signals that the issues he intends to foreground are not epistemological or discursive. Pihlainen rightly suspects that all the talk of “narrativism” and “discourse” serves only to evade confronting the truly difficult moral and political challenges that writing represents. His various chapters identify these evasions and the challenges that remain.

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