jueves, 8 de febrero de 2007

Peter Munz: the story of my engagements with the past

(Auto-entrevista, publicada originalmente en Rethinking History, vol. 8, No. 3, 2004, pp. 465-478).

Munz es profesor de Historia en la Victoria University of Wellington, Nueva Zelandia. Es un historiador de las ideas, amplio en sus intereses, prolífico en la escritura, con una base de formación que agradecería cualquier filósofo analítico de la historia –pasó por el rasero de los cursos impartidos por Popper y Wittgenstein–. Ha escrito varios libros que son demostrativos de la amplitud de sus intereses: The place of Hooker in the history of thought; Problems of religious knowledge; The origin of the Carolingian Empire; Relationship and solitude: an inquiry into the relationship between myth, metaphysics and ethics; Life in the age of Charlemagne; Frederick Barbarossa: a study in medieval politics; When the golden bough breaks: structuralism or typology?; Our knowledge of the growth of knowledge: Pooper or Wittgenstein?; Philosophical darwinism: on the origin of knowledge by means of natural selection. En esta amplia obra destaca The shapes of time. A new look at the philosophy of history (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1977). Se trata de una obra sumamente interesante para la teoría contemporánea de la historia, bastante desconocida. En ella Munz hace un examen de la textualidad de la historia que es concordante con la posición de Haskell Fain y David Carr: estos autores convergen en la idea de que la filosofía especulativa, del tipo más tradicional, merece volver a tener un lugar importante en el ámbito de la teoría de la historia; los tres autores concuerdan en que el aterrizaje de la filosofía en el corazón de la historia debe concretizarse en el estudio de su aspecto narrativo.

En “Resurección postmoderna de la filosofía de la historia” (contribución a un libro de próxima publicación) hago un análisis detenido de lo que comporta el esfuerzo librado por este tipo de pensadores, en tanto diferenciado de los puntos de vistas de los narrativistas y de los teóricos postmodernos de la historia. Para conocer como llegó Munz a abrigar las ideas constructivistas (Ankermit habla de un "idealismo narrativo") ofrezco las palabras en que el autor da las razones de su posición.

My first engagement with the past was prompted by philosophical and political commitments to Plato and Marx and their theories of historical development. But these commitments were soon dislodged by the study of the history of the ideas of historical development of Burke, Locke and Hooker. Prompted by Hooker’s intellectual background, these studies, in turn, led to further but different engagements with medieval history—first with the history of medieval philosophy and, from there, with the socio-political formative centuries of the Middle Ages. And then, taking religion as seriously as medieval people had done, but myself not being a believer, I was obliged to ponder problems of the philosophy of religion. Each engagement raised further problems rather than provided solutions and therefore led to the next, which usually differed in kind. The one steady thread was the realisation that since the past has led to the present, these events must have been causally related. According to Popper, causal links are relative to generalisations. But since the generalisations used vary according to times and circumstances, events are linked in endlessly different ways so that one gets a plethora of narratives. The conclusion that all these metahistorical preoccupations required a meta-narrative, or what used to be called a philosophy of history, was logically inevitable.

The story of my engagement with the past is not so much a story of my engagement with the past as the story of a never-ending series of my different engagements with the past and how, invariably, one kind of engagement led to another kind and, in this way, to another kind of past. The only steady engagement was the conviction that the present comes out of the past or that the past has led to the present—which is like saying that there has been one event leading to another and that history is the story of these causal connections which can be reported and understood only in the form of narratives. As E.M. Forster put it, a mere sequence is not a story; but a causal sequence is. ‘The king died; and then the queen died’ is not a narrative; but ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is an intelligible narration because it contains a causal link. It is no good thinking of sequences as chronological sequences, because mere temporal succession does not put events into an intelligible sequence. One way or another, therefore, all history is narration or story-telling. However, this finding, though incontrovertible, solves nothing. On the contrary, as far as my engagement with the past is concerned, it proved a door which opened the road from one engagement to the next. But let me begin at the beginning.

I grew up in Italy and had a classical education, and in the beginning there was Plato. Since I was highly critical of Italian fascism, Plato’s ideal of justice that everybody did and received what was in accordance with their nature seemed morally impeccable. During the Spanish Civil War, when my family and all our friends were beginning to realise that some form of communism formed the only viable resistance to the ever-growing threats of Italian Fascists and German Nazis who were trying to take over the world, I used Marx to put teeth into Plato’s idealism. Marx’s maxim that in a just society everybody should contribute according to their ability and receive according to their needs gave a practical twist to Plato. Both Plato and Marx were aware that there were no such ideal societies because in the course of history all societies were subject to relentless vicissitudes which could be tracked. For Plato, deviation from the ideal was governed by the ways power was being enjoyed and exercised so that changes went from timocracy to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. For Marx, the deviations were determined by changing modes of production and therefore went from primitive communism to slavery to feudalism to bourgeois capitalism and, finally, to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Being politically naïve, I was not aware at that time that neither Plato’s philosopher kings nor Marx’s proletarian dictators nor, for that matter, anybody else, would have the knowledge required to decide who could contribute what and what was needed to be given to whom. This naïvety was compounded by my lack of knowledge of Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power always corrupts and that absolute power (of philosopher kings and proletarian dictators) would corrupt absolutely. It took Karl Popper, under whom I was reading philosophy in New Zealand, to make me understand these fatal flaws in both Plato and Marx. Instead, for the time being, I decided that the most urgent task in hand was to study history as a procession of how modes of production determined social and political structures—not in order to find out whether Marx was right, but in order to understand that he was right. This was the reason for my initial engagement with the past.

It so happened that at the Canterbury University in Christchurch (New Zealand) the set course of historical study in the second year was early modern history. And so it came about that I read in quick succession Edmund Burke’s Reflection on the Revolution in France and John Locke’s Second Treatise. When I discovered the enormous gap between Locke and Burke, I did not give up either Marx or Plato—but my attention began to be deflected. Locke had reasoned that men get together to enter a social contract; and Burke had explained that men are together because of their past and their future and that such togetherness had nothing to do with a contractual, let alone voluntary, agreement. I will never forget how deeply shaken I was by the realisation that two intelligent men could come to such contrary conclusions about human society. I tried a Marxist explanation. Either the one or the other book must have been a case of ‘false consciousness’—that is, a make-believe story designed to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes. But this explanation did not work. Over whose eyes? Burke was writing after Adam Smith whose political economy reflected aMarxist reality of the coming of bourgeois capitalism and would have conformed to Locke. But Locke had preceded Smith by nearly a century and Burke could hardly be unaware of the growth of bourgeois capitalism in an age when even the landed aristocracy, by enclosing more and more of their lands, were beginning to act like capitalists. Marxist explanations, I concluded, seemed to have their limitations.

Obviously I had to look in a different direction for the reason for the difference. In reading Locke, I discovered that he often invoked Richard Hooker, an Elizabethan theologian. In order to deepen my understanding of Locke and why he differed from Burke, I started to read Hooker’s works and study their context, the Elizabethan Settlement of the second half of the sixteenth century in England. This led to my first historical discovery. I found out that Locke had taken Hooker’s name in vain. Hooker was a truly medieval philosopher and thoughts of social or political contracts were foreign to him. Instead, he was using the thoughts of St Thomas Aquinas to justify the religious settlement under Queen Elizabeth I in the late sixteenth century. Aquinas had explained that, since reason and faith are in harmony, church and state must form one single polity which Hooker called an ‘Ecclesiastical Polity’. After writing two-thirds of his great work on this topic, it began to dawn on Hooker that the Elizabethan settlement was a monarchy which dominated the church and that there was no way in which one could say that the two, in Elizabethan England, were living in divinely ordained harmonious cooperation. This insight made him stop writing, and he left the later part of his great work unfinished because he gave up in despair when, honest thinker that he was, he realised that one cannot square a circle and use Thomism in order to justify what was in reality a secular monarchy. I discovered that Hooker had indeed tried very hard to make ends meet by going back to the writings of Marsilius of Padua, a fourteenth-century political thinker who had laid the foundations of secular republicanism. I became convinced that it was his acquaintance with Marsilius which made him realise that the exigencies of the Elizabethan constitution conformed to Marsilius and were therefore incompatible with the philosophy of Aquinas, a philosophy which he believed to be right. Hooker was stopped in his tracks when he understood that while Marsilius was compatible with the Elizabethan settlement, he was not compatible with Hooker’s mentor, St Thomas Aquinas. It was as if Hooker had anticipated all six volumes of G. de Lagarde’s La Naissance de l’E´sprit Laique of 1948 and proved them right. By the time I had reached this insight I had lost all interest, Marxist or other, in Burke and Locke and why they were so diametrically opposed.

Instead, driven by sheer curiosity, I immersed myself in Hooker’s background. I began to acquaint myself not only with the politics and the society and the theology of Thomas Aquinas, but also and above all, I began to read so much medieval philosophy that I started to take it very seriously. To my surprise, I was leaving my preoccupation with Kant and the scientific philosophy of the Vienna Circle behind and starting to wonder instead about the great debates surrounding St Thomas’ synthesis of Aristotle and the Bible. In this way I became more and more interested in the Early Middle Ages and also found that, being immersed in the debates surrounding medieval theology and Greek philosophy, I changed my own secular mind and began to take Christian religion in its medieval form very seriously. Having read so much about the incorporeal existence of angels, they became familiar to me and I began to understand that it was indeed important to wonder how many angels can dance on the point of a needle. I noticed to my own astonishment that medieval debates were raising urgent philosophical questions. St Thomas had espoused Aristotle; but he found an opponent in St Bonaventure who had been inspired via St Augustine by Plato. In the Middle Ages, the great debate between Plato and Aristotle presented itself as a new philosophical problem. For St Thomas, God had created man and endowed him with reason so that man had become God’s helper—a view for which there was biblical support in the statement Dei sumus adiutores. For St Bonaventure there was no chance of such harmony between God’s will and man’s reason. Instead he followed St Augustine in maintaining that, however irrationally, man has to rely on God’s guidance even for so ordinary a thing as the perception of his everyday surroundings. I was amazed at myself when I found that I was beginning to wonder whose side I ought to be on when, at bottom, I was not even a Christian who believed in God.

As an inhabitant of the twentieth century I was not able to espouse medieval or any other form of Christianity. Instead, I took it to be completely mythological so that I did not have to follow the common twentieth-century habit of dismissing it. Instead I started to take mythology very seriously. This realisation drove me in a new direction. I began to wonder how mythology in general can and ought to be related to the scientific rationalism which had dominated European thought since the times of Galileo and Newton. I could not, after having become somewhat medieval, dismiss Christianity as a myth; but instead tried to understand the nature of mythology. I therefore allowed myself to be distracted from the medieval past, but was always aware that it had been my acquaintance with that past which had stimulated my interest in mythology. Over a number of years I wrote three books on this topic. In the first book I explained how religious thinking was rooted in non-utilitarian and economically wasteful practices. It could be best understood as a conceptual formulation of those practices which preceded religious belief rather than followed from it. The truth of such beliefs was to be found in those practices, not in the mundane everyday world. In the second book I tried to show that our values were derived not from the mundane world as it is in itself but from a world of symbols (i.e. myths) which are a refinement of the ordinary, positive world. And in the third book I argued that myths were a typological refinement of ordinarily experienced events such as birth and death and storms and sunrises. As time went by these symbols, typologically related to natural events, become ever more closely and more narrowly defined typologically. I welcomed this distraction as very much part of my engagement with the past, because I could not share the belief of Gibbon and Voltaire that the medieval people with whom I had become so closely acquainted had been prey to barbarous superstitions which ought to be dismissed.

All along, I did not lose my interest in the Middle Ages and decided to investigate what conventionally is seen as their most formative years, the career of Charlemagne. Following Pirenne, I thought of him as the founder of European medieval Christianity because, as Pirenne had shown, with the closing of the Mediterranean to merchants and their shipping from Europe, Charlemagne had presided over a culture which had detached itself from both Byzantium and the Mediterranean world. My studies were guided by Fichtenau’s German book on the Carolingian Empire, which I had translated into English. According to Fichtenau, Charlemagne had been misunderstood as the founder of a monarchical Empire. In reality, Fichtenau argued, his idea of monarchy was a vision, incapable of realisation due to poor communications and the survival of indelible local structures. The more I studied Charlemagne, the more I went further than Fichtenau who had seen him as nothing more than a visionary. Instead I began to understand that his grand plan of founding a Western monarchy did not founder so much because of the conditions detected by Fichtenau, but because he was being overtaken, without his realising it, by the pressures of growing feudalism, under which a monarch was about to be nothing more than the apex of a hierarchy and a figurehead. Feudalism was becoming the order of the day because people were preferring the safety of a local and tangible feudal relationship to the not-so-long arm of an Emperor, no matter how benevolent. The realisation that he was fighting a losing battle made him especially dear to me. I dwelt lovingly on his famous dream in which the growing misfortune of his Empire was being revealed to him in its stages: he saw a sword on which were inscribed the words ‘raht, radoleiba, nasg, ente’, which means, translated roughly: at first there was abundance, then there was depletion, followed by real poverty and, finally, ‘the end’ . It was not clear whether it meant the end of his monarchy or the end of the world. Although this premonition corresponded exactly to my own analysis that his monarchy was being overtaken by the growth of feudalism, it showed that my modern way of sociological understanding differed profoundly from Charlemagne’s own purely fatalistic grasp of the decline. With this realisation I was driven into yet a different direction, for it made me grasp that modern explanations are likely to differ from explanations offered by people who were living in the distant medieval past. Who was right? And which explanation should be considered as a true account of what had happened? Was the failure of his monarchy, as he saw it, due to fate, or was it, as we modern observers would have it, caused by social pressures of which Charlemagne himself was not aware?

Any conceivable answer to these questions was for the time being postponed by a problem with the sources about the actual coronation of Charlemagne in Rome, Christmas AD 799. The story is told in a number of different and independent sources in different ways, and ever since historians have wrecked their brains in order to work out how these different stories could be reconciled with one another. I decided on a novel approach. Instead of seeking to make these stories compatible with each other, I took it that each source represented the views of persons or a person whose views were incompatible with all the others. The differences were not due to the fact, as conventional historians were inclined to assume, that some observers were badly informed or careless or biased. I started, on the contrary, from the assumption that the differences in the sources reflected a political debate and a struggle as to what kind of coronation was in order and how it ought to be carried out or whether it ought to take place at all. I spent a couple of years in this pursuit even though it involved me in a kind of close preoccupation with sources I was not usually engaged in.

I also pursued my interest in Charlemagne’s failure and in the impossibility of the task he had set himself, in a different direction. The Franks over whom he ruled were a tribe, so called. But in reality they had come to Gaul and settled there not as a unitary tribe, but as a horde of warriors with their families. Charlemagne’s predecessors, Merovingian as well as Carolingian, had really been warlords assembling under their rule a conglomerate of people who had become known as Franks—all people who had become detached from their original tribes. The old tribes themselves had vanished. I kept wondering how this process of social erosion could have been started and was fortunate to come across the books of E.A. Thompson who had explained how the disintegration of the small, original tribes in the Rhineland had started. The disintegration was the direct result of the arrival of the Roman conquering legions and the accompanying merchants who had offered entirely new opportunities of gain. The natives had been eager to take up these opportunities and so the corrosion of tribal structures had progressed as a result of Roman imperial advances. I extended Thompson and theorised that eventually more and more people, drifting away from their original tribes, had assembled under warrior leaders into war gangs—falsely identified by Roman observers as kingdoms— and started to invade the older territories of the Roman Empire either as armed gangs nominally in the service of Roman Emperors as the so-called Ostgrogoths had done, or as freebooting invaders in their own right, like the Lombards or the Franks. The Roman Empire finally broke up as a result of this social disintegration and the formation of these new war gangs. This development had been caused by the Roman Empire so that the fall of the Empire in Europe had to be seen as self-inflicted and as the direct result of Roman imperialism. Needless to say, my interpretation of the lead given by Thompson was guided by my observation of the fate of the British Empire in Africa. The people who rebelled against British imperial rule were not the indigenous tribes rebelling against British rule in order to preserve their traditional social structure and culture. The traditional structures and cultures had been eroded by colonisation. The rebels consisted of the political and military groupings which had been formed in Ghana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and so on under entirely new leaders who were attracting followers who had been alienated from their traditional tribes as a result of the opportunities offered by British colonisation. These thoughts were not the result of a study of the sources of Carolingian history, but were suggested by modern political experiences.

Having pushed back my engagement with the past from the Middle Ages to the last centuries of the Roman Empire, my interest in myth made me take a great step forward into the twelfth century. Aware of the power and enduring importance of mythology I fastened on the Kyffha¨user legend according to which the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, after his death, was sleeping in a cave on the Kyffhä user mountain. One day, so the myth ran, the ravens will stop flying around the mountain and then the Emperor will awake and restore the medieval Empire to the glories people imagined it (falsely !) to have had. I then also pursued the myth which Boso, the biographer of Pope Alexander III, Frederick Barbarossa’s great opponent, had used in order to present Alexander to posterity. But myth or not, it dawned on me after a close perusal of the extant sources that in real life, Frederick Barbarossa had been a truly intelligent and critical statesman who had tried one scheme after another and always dropped it when he found that it was becoming counterproductive. A marvellous example to other politicians who remain wedded blindly to one and only one ideology. My picture of Barbarossa’s incessant self-criticism was greatly influenced by Karl Popper, my philosophy teacher and friend, who had taught me that the mark of genuine intelligence is not to be dogmatically wedded to one single plan or ideology, but to be able to experiment and drop a course of action or thought when it turned out to be unpractical or destructive. I admit that the source material by itself was not conclusive on this point; but, at the same time, there was nothing in the sources to falsify or contradict the picture of Barbarossa’s behaviour I had formed in the image of Popperian philosophy.

I had left my Carolingian researches with doubts about truth. Should one believe what Charlemagne himself had thought about the end of his monarchy or should one prefer my own, modern sociological analysis— something Charlemagne himself could not possibly have come up with. In the case of Frederick Barbarossa I devised a way out. During the twelfth century people had been living in expectation of the Second Coming which, according to religious authority, had to be preceded by the coming of the Antichrist who would wreak havoc all round. I thought of a way in which this twelfth-century self-identification, which is unacceptable to a modern reader because the havoc was said to be caused by the impending arrival of the Antichirst, could be preserved by being modernised typologically. People in the twelfth century had been experiencing genuine havoc. The attribution of this havoc to the impending arrival of the Antichrist was a twelfth-century belief, which, to a modern mind, was superstitious. But there were twelfth-century events which could be seen as a typological extension of the coming of the Antichrist. There was, in that century, an unprecedented growth of population which was indeed wreaking something like havoc, even though people at that time did not understand the havoc to be the result of population growth. The reign of the Antichrist and the disturbance due to population growth were of the same type. In this way the modern understanding of the havoc reflected an indigenous twelfth-century understanding because it was typologically related rather than an arbitrary modern attribution. In adopting this theory I was not brushing twelfth-century opinion aside and substituting a modern opinion. I merely reinterpreted a twelfth-century opinion.

By the time I had spent nearly ten years studying Frederick Barbarossa and his times and had written a large book on the subject, it struck me that my choice of subjects for research always seemed governed by a strange unconscious preference. All the people I had concentrated on—Richard Hooker, Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa—had been failures. Valiant failures, but failures none the less. Hooker had tried to explain and justify the Elizabethan Settlement in terms of Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy and had had to give up the attempt because that Settlement, to put it simply, could not be explained in the terms dear to him. Charlemagne had tried to transform a barbarian gang of warriors into an orderly, law-governed monarchy and was overtaken by the feudalisation of societies because people preferred the security of feudal submission to the not very long arm of Charlemagne’s very distant good monarchical intentions. And Frederick Barbarossa, convinced like almost everybody else in the twelfth century, that the Second Coming of Christ was near and could be speeded up if the Emperor hung up his sword and shield on the Tree of Life in Jerusalem, had embarked on a crusade to the Holy Land and was drowned on his way in Asia Minor in a river when he tried to cool down on a very hot day.

During all these researches I kept on reading primary sources as well as secondary literature on the subjects I was studying and I noticed that I was slowly but firmly becoming medievalised. That is, I started to have a mind very similar to the minds of the people I kept reading about. The generalisations I was using to interpret the sources and the chronicles were close and ever closer to the generalisations used by the people I was interested in. Eventually it dawned on me that the great historian Gibbon, whom I admired for all sorts of reasons, had been guilty of a mistake. He had written that his military experience as a grenadier in the Hampshire guards had greatly helped him to understand the management and behaviour of Roman legionnaires. I had to concede that my own vision of how the Roman Empire had been brought down by the hordes which its presence had created was based on Gibbon’s method, for it had been the experience of the modern British Empire in Africa which had enabled me to see this causal connection. But in all my other engagements with the past I had not only not followed Gibbon’s method, but had actually contradicted it. In becoming medievalised, I was leaving my modern mind and its experiences behind, rather than using it in order to understand what had happened in the past. I was beginning to see the medieval past in the way in which medieval people had seen it.

It then occurred to me that the study of history leads to a form of objectivity which is absent from all the natural sciences. If one is studying atoms and rocks, one can ascertain how they appear to other atoms and other rocks—that is how the observer determines they should be studied. But neither an atom nor a rock can make their voice heard and demand to be studied as it is in itself or as it sees or feels itself to be. In other words, when the subjects to be studied cannot speak, there cannot be objectivity. There can only be subjectivity in the sense that one can say how they appear to somebody other than themselves in relation to something else. Although at first this realisation that there was something special about our knowledge of human history which was absent from the study of nature filled me with great pride, it later made me aware that this kind of objectivity was ultimately stultifying.

To give an example. In the Middle Ages it was widely believed that political power resulted from the possession of relics thought to have a magical quality, and as a result people would go to endless lengths in order to secure relics. Eventually a real trade was set up between Rome, where relics were to be found most plentifully, and the rest of Europe. As was to be expected, fraudsters and forgers were setting themselves up in Rome to supply the ever-increasing demand. This was due to the medieval idea that relics were the road to worldly success. Medievalised as I had become, it nevertheless struck me that the idea was actually absurd. I was able to reach objectivity about many people by explaining how they themselves saw their relation to the relics they were eager to get hold of. But at the same time it began to occur to me that they were actually wrong in believing that the possession of relics is useful. Political power, wherever it does come from, believe it or not, does not come magically from relics. At least this is our modern conviction. I was then faced with a strange choice. If I wanted to be objective about my medieval people, I would have to believe something which they believed but which I, for my modern part, definitely did not believe to be true. If, on the other hand, I wanted to look at the Middle Ages in order to understand them, the only way I could do so—by interpreting them in terms of what I myself, in modern times, believed to be true—I would have to abandon objectivity and look at them from my vantage point, that is, look at them subjectively. At first this seemed an odd choice between objectivity and subjectivity. On the face of it it was clear that the former was to be preferred to the latter—at least by all standards of what counts as knowledge. And yet, on second thoughts, it was clear that the subjective, modern interpretation was, in a sense, ‘truer’ than the medieval objective interpretation. The only way to cope with such a conclusion was to say to myself that the modern way of looking at the origins of political power might, in turn, have to be superseded in a hundred years’ time by yet another different way. In other words, there was no chance of finality—only successive interpretations. The only fixed interpretation was the original, objective interpretation because it reflected objectively what medieval people thought about themselves. Such interpretations could claim to be real objective explanations, because they reflected what had gone on in the minds of the people the story was about. This kind of objectivity was what Ranke had dreamt of when he had said that a historian has to find out ‘what really happened’—as distinct from bias, folklore and propaganda. What he had failed to add was that that kind of objective truth revealed beliefs which we today can often enough not accept as truth and as a convincing explanation of how events used to hang together.

I was well acquainted with the writings of Collingwood on this topic. Collingwood, following Benedettto Croce, explained that when one is studying other people, and especially when one is studying other people of the past, one has to use empathy in order to reach what I called an objective understanding. But the concept of empathy seemed very woolly. One could claim to be empathic when one was doing no more than simply making something up and imagining that one was inside somebody else’s mind. The people to be empathised with were all dead and one could therefore never know whether such empathy was genuine or not. Empathy was itself a purely subjective phenomenon which was far beyond the reach of any kind of test. In order to put teeth into Collingwood and Croce, I started to make use of the philosophy of Karl Popper. Popper had explained that the only way to understand people is to provide a causal explanation of their behaviour. By ‘cause’ he did not mean an absolute, single causal agency. He meant instead that causality is relative to a general law or a generalisation. If one believes that all stones can speak, then one might be led to think of a stone as the cause of the noise. If one does not believe that stones can speak, one will not take a stone to be the cause of the noise. While one can never be sure that one’s empathy really gets into the other mind, one can ascertain, with a fair degree of assurance, what kinds of generalisations are used by other people, even by people in the distant past. One can garner such knowledge either directly from the documents they left behind or infer such knowledge by looking at how they made the facts hang together. And so it was that I started to use Popper’s notion of causality to give substance to Collingwood’s idea of empathy. Instead of empathising with people who believe that the magic of relics is the cause of political power, I took it that these people had a generalisation about relics and power, and therefore inferred that relics were the cause of political power. But change the generalisation and the causal ascription falls to the ground. Again, in modern times, we might be prone to a generalsation that charisma with or without a large bank account is the cause of political power and in this case will look for the cause of political power enjoyed by medieval people not among their relics, but among the medieval equivalent of a bank account; that is, landed property. It follows then that if one changes the generalisations one is using, one is also changing the way the single facts hang together and, as a result, one will get a different story every time one changes one’s generalisation. To put it differently: the single facts always remain the same. There is power, there are relics and there is landed property. These facts are not in doubt. What is in doubt is the way they aremade to hang together. According to one generalisation, the relics and the power will stand in a causal relationship; and according to a different generalisation, the landed property and the power will stand in a causal relationship. This means that the facts by themselves do not matter. The three facts are always present. What matters in historical understanding is the generalisations one is using to make them hang together to form a causal relationship, that is, a story which can be told. It is the generalisations one is using which determine which of the three facts is to be left out of the story.

I was then confronted by a strange situation. If I wanted to be objective I would have to use a generalisation about power which was used by the people I was studying. But in our modern times, such a generalisation could not ring true. If one replaced it by a generalisation about power which would seem true in modern times, one would cease to be objective, but—strange though this may sound—have a true understanding of the cause of power. This seemed like a paradox: either one is objective but is telling a story (i.e. putting together a sequence of facts) which is not true; or one is subjective and therefore able to tell a story which is true, or at least appears to be true.

The advent of postmodernism has led to a further confusion. According to postmodern thinking, the only truth there is is the truth as told by the people the story is about. This would mean that the objective story about power in the Middle Ages is also, by definition, the truth about political power. If Foucault, for example, were to write a history of Frederick Barbarossa, he would believe it to be a true history if it was objective, i.e. consisting of a collection of facts which could have been or was assembled by Frederick Barbarossa himself according to the generalisations about causal connections which he believed to be true. I cannot see that such postmodern thinking is helpful. I prefer to stick with my own distinction. An objective story does not seem true to us moderns; and a story which seems true to people in modern times is a subjective story.

As time went by I felt more and more uneasy with such a laconic conclusion. I had to accept that there were many ways of connecting facts causally and that those many ways depended on the many different generalisations people were having in their minds in different ages and different places. I realised then that there must be a meta-narrative, something which used to be called a philosophy of history. A metanarrative would accept that in different ages and different places people would use different generalisations and thus get different stories. There is no way in which one can explain away those differences by showing that some are due to false generalisations and others are due to true ones. But a meta-narrative would be able to explain why at certain times and in certain places people used the generalisations they were using and why, in different places at different times, different generalisations were or are being used. The objective stories put together in terms of the generalisations which were used by the people the stories were about would remain in place. But they would, contrary to the postmodern way of looking at them, not be final but be supplemented by an explanation why in that place at that time those generalisations were in vogue and also explain why, as times and circumstances were changing, different generalisations had been gaining the upper hand. My final insight was greatly stimulated by Hayden White’s Metahistory which had appeared in 1973. I agreed with its main thrust, but felt that he had not pushed the argument to its logical conclusion. For Hayden White remained satisfied that there is an endless multiplicity of stories and that there is no conceivable meta-narrative which would connect them and, in connecting them, explain why and how each story was related to all the others. My own thoughts on this topic went, I like to think, to put the finishing touches to Hayden White’s book. I finally wrote a book about this conclusion which was published in 1976 under the title The Shapes of Time. This book explained the difference between explanation (i.e. an objective story which is told in terms the people it is about would have used) and interpretation (i.e. a subjective story which is told so that modern readers can feel comfortable with it). An explanation rarely tells a ‘true’ story; and an interpretation is more likely to tell a ‘true’ story; that is, it tells what really happened as against what the people at the time thought had been happening. The meta-narrative finally explains how the interpretations are connected to the explanations. However, since metanarratives are highly speculative, I listed a number of postulates which would have to be fulfilled for any narrative, including a meta-narrative, to be acceptable.

All this shows that every engagement leads to a yet different engagement and that every solution—as both Hegel and Popper said—creates a new problem which, in turn, necessitates a different engagement. But I cannot share Hegel’s conviction that this insight is the mark of the absolute spirit beyond which there can be no further engagements. Nor can I agree with Popper that as solutions replace earlier solutions, we are edging closer to a final truth. Rather I would quote Hegel in one of his more sober moods, ‘that the owl of Minerva takes wings only as the twighlight falls’; and hold firm to the one and only certainty which stands at the centre of the turning wheel—the certainty of doubt.