martes, 30 de diciembre de 2008

La experiencia sublime y la política: entrevista con Frank Ankersmit

Entrevista ofrecida por el filósofo de la historia Frank Ankersmit a Marcin Moskalewicz, en Glimmen, Holanda, en agosto del 2005. Fue publicada originalmente en Rethinking History, vol. 11, junio 2007, pp.251-274.

Esta entrevista tuvo lugar poco después del lanzamiento de Sublime Historical Experience (2005). En ella Ankersmit elabora con detención, bajo la correcta guía de su entrevistador, sus nociones de ‘experiencia histórica’. Esta discusión conceptual se cierra con un análisis acerca de la situación política que enfrenta actualmente Europa. Como buen postmoderno, nuestro autor usa su interés por el pasado para abordar con una inteligencia crítica temas del futuro.

Marcin Moskalewicz: Professor Ankersmit, your last book, which has been published this year, is much different from your previous work dealing with problems of historical truth, historical representation and the logic of historical narratives [Ankersmit 2005]. It is about experience, a wholly different subject, at least at first sight. Could you please tell me how did you come to this notion and to its importance?
Frank Ankersmit: It is not wholly unrelated to the kind of things that I have been doing before, since, as we discussed a moment ago in the car when driving back from Groningen—my point of departure in philosophy of history has always been this issue, the relationship between language and the world, and, in the case of historical theory, the relationship between the historical texts and historical reality. When I wrote my first book on narrative logic [Ankersmit 1983] I was not yet aware of this now famous book by Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but after I had written my book I read the Rorty book and then I was struck by a number of similarities in his approach, and what I had been trying to do in my book on narrative logic.

So I became interested in Rorty and what especially fascinated me in his writings was his attack on epistemology. For it is the essence of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that epistemology should be seen as a most doubtful enterprise, that we should stop doing it and should start asking ourselves, as philosophers, other questions. Let's change the discussion, as Rorty likes to put it.

This is something that I have always been pondering, talking about language and the world—without doing epistemology. Now, if you look at epistemology—you have many different systems of course, as they have been developed since Descartes, Kant and down to the present—but what is always crucial to all epistemological systems is that you have on the one hand a subject, a knowing subject, and on the other an object, about which the subject has certain knowledge. And what I begun to understand gradually and gropingly, in the course of the decennia, is that if one tries to get beyond epistemology, one should not take the route that has been proposed by Rorty, which is to go back to Davidson. For if you do that, you will in the end always return to philosophy of language as it has been practiced by analytical philosophers ever since the days of Frege. In sum, what I intended to do is to pick up the thread again where Rorty had inadvertently dropped it somewhere between his Mirror of Nature book and his conversion to Davidson several years later. So something else, something more radical would have to be devised in order to achieve this aim of getting beyond epistemology.

Now, as I said a moment ago, what you have in all epistemologies is this relationship between a knowing subject, on the one hand, and a part of the world, on the other. And then I had the, in fact, rather obvious idea that what you have between the subject and the object—is, of course, experience. For if the subject does have knowledge of the world, succeeds in obtaining knowledge of the object, then it's experience enabling him to have this. So, I began to understand that if I wanted to get away from epistemology, and to do what Rorty had failed to do, I should focus on this notion of experience. But the problem is that there is a very obvious notion of experience, the kind that you find in empiricism, and which perfectly fits within the traditional epistemological model. So turning to experience is not sufficient; empiricism is, after all, also a form of epistemology. So what I was looking for was a kind of experience which would somehow move us out of this empiricist model, and where things would be possible that are impossible in the epistemological and the empiricist model. Indeed, with 'friends' like empiricism, the notion of experience needs no enemies anymore.

So I then came to see that I should have to take into account the sublime, for the sublime is always a notion of experience—you always speak about sublime experience—but it is a kind of experience that breaks through the epistemological framework. Indeed, the crucial insight is that when people in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were talking about the sublime, people like Burke in his Inquiry into Sublime and Beautiful and Kant is his Kritik der Urteilskraft, then you always see that something happens in their philosophy, which is at odds with their epistemology. For example, when Burke discusses the sublime and he has this Lockean psychology upon which all experience is to be modeled, where on the one extreme you have pain and on the other you have pleasure, but the sublime has both these things together. So what is forbidden by this Lockean epistemology takes place in the Burkeian sublime. And something similar is true for the Kantian sublime, though things are far more complicated in Kant. This is why I understood that if you want to get rid of epistemology you should focus on sublime experience.

And then, from there, it's relatively simple and merely a matter of having le courage de ses opinions. For then you will see that this notion of experience must also, somehow, transcend the powers and imperialism of subject and object. So that you only have the experience and that subject and the object, well, are, so to speak, phenomena of a later stage. And also that you will have to move beyond truth, since truth is the epistemological notion par excellence. So this is why the most important step in the experience book is the one where I dissociate experience from truth.

So that's how I came to this notion of experience, and later to that of historical experience. But mainly, it was this essentially philosophical problem of getting beyond epistemology that made me interested in the notion of experience. In the same time I also started thinking about experience as Aristotle described it in his De Anima. For there you also have the notion of experience, but Aristotelian experience does not fit within the epistemological model. This has to do with the fact that, in the case of Aristotle, you have continuity between the subject and the object that is completely unthinkable in epistemology, where you always have this epistemological gap between the subject and the object. So I began investigating the Aristotelian model of experience and then gradually moved on to the sublime notion of experience.

MM: Abandoning epistemology is explicitly announced in the book as your main goal. You write that you want to get rid of 'transcendental monstrosities'. And then you deal with many different traditions that you include in this notion of transcendental monstrosities, such divergent traditions as structuralism, semiotics, tropology, Gadamerian hermeneutics and even deconstruction. How do you feel going so fiercely against all these intellectual achievements of twentieth-century philosophy?

FA: The answer is fairly simple. From my perspective they have this all in common: that they are still feeding on the legacy of transcendentalism. A large part of the book that deals with Gadamer tries to show that Gadamer, probably the philosopher in all of Western philosophy who was, together with Rorty, a more consistent opponent of epistemology than any other, in the end also adopts the epistemological model with his notion of Wirkungsgeschichte. So they all—Gadamer and Rorty as well—feed on this legacy of epistemology. And how do you find out about this? What's the litmus-test here, so to speak?

Well, the answer is as simple as anything, for if a philosophy leaves no room for experience, or reduces it to the impotent empiricist conception of experience, then you are still within the epistemological framework. And that's even true if you think you are miles away from what bothers philosophers like Frege, Quine, Dummett or Davidson. Think, for example, of Derrida in his Margins of Philosophy, where he says that there's this notion of experience and that it should be 'erased', placed sous rature, as he calls it, and in all these other systems like structuralism, poststructuralism and in Hayden White's tropology the notion of experience makes no sense at all. So if you want to go on with experience, then you know that all these systems, not having any substantial account of experience, or even outright hostile to it, will have to be abandoned and overcome somehow.

MM: Your book has also a very clearly addressed audience, which is apparently not philosophers, but historians. It is to them that you address your plea for a more romanticized historical writing and for abandonment of the artificial imposition of scientific theories onto the historical matter. If currently the main problem of historical writing is—as you claim—its increasing incommensurability and fragmentation, in which way does the notion of experience serve as a remedy for this state of affairs?

FA: Well, let's begin once again with epistemology. It's fairly obvious that one can relate epistemology to the Enlightenment, since epistemology always wants to show how truth comes into being, how truth can be justified etc. and these are the kind of preoccupations we have learned to associate with the Enlightenment. But after the Enlightenment came Romanticism and with Romanticism you move into the world of things like feelings and sentiments etc., and for which the Enlightenment paradigm had no use. So when I wanted to get away from epistemology, this was also a move towards Romanticism. In fact, the experience book is in many respects a repetition of the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism—but often performed with the instruments of the Enlightenment, as I should hasten to add, for I have no patience with irrationality and poor argument. Anyway, this was the shift that made me interested in how we feel about the past, and also in the kind of moods and feelings that you might identify or find in the past itself, and that I consider to be legitimate topics of historical research. 'Sentir, c'est penser', to quote Rousseau.

In sum, in the epistemological model you have on the one hand the object, the past, and on the other you have a historian; these are always carefully kept apart from the other within the epistemologist's ideology—but you should not focus on these separate worlds, but on what might unite them or what lies between the two of them, so to speak. So what happens to you when you have such an encounter with the past, what feelings do you find or could you project on the past, and what feelings do you have when becoming aware of the moods and feeling permeating some part of the past. So it has, both, well, let's say the methodological dimension, as well as the dimension as far as the subject matter to be investigated by the historian is concerned. I just read Gumbrecht's book on presence [Gumbrecht 2004; and there you see much the same things, though Gumbrecht is, I believe, insufficiently aware of all the philosophical complications involved in all this.

MM: Assuming that historians after reading your book would make a move toward experience and would eagerly try to experience the past, do you really believe that it would have the outcome of unification of historical writings? We can realistically presume that each historian would experience the same part of the past differently and that would give even more incommensurability than in the case of applying scientific theories to the past.

FA: Well, let me say this. The book is not intended to announce a revolution in historical writing. I had a teacher here, Professor Kossmann, who used to say that 'History is like an elephant'. And he wanted to express with this that an elephant is a big animal and you can try to push it, but it will not move an inch in spite of all your efforts. And so it is with historical writing. That has its own tradition, its own logic, and its own way of developing. And when you have a historical theorist saying, well, you should do this, you should do that, nobody will care about what the historical theorist is saying. So I have no pretension to change the historical discipline. If I have any revolutionary pretensions (in spite of my rather conservative turn of mind), then these are for philosophy only. Indeed, there I would like to rearrange things a little.

With regard to history, and the historians, there is only this rather modest remark in the beginning of the book where I say that if some historian would have this more intimate contact with the past, he should not react by saying 'now I'm on the wrong path, this is something not to be taken seriously', but that he should welcome and embrace it, that he should try to work with it, and that he should consider it to be an extra instrument that might give him access to the past. When I am describing the two types of historical experience I distinguish between one that you can attribute to individual historians, and next sublime historical experience, which is more of a collective affair. But with regard to the former I would say that historians may sometimes have this strange relationship with the past—and that they then should trust their experience and feelings, that they should become aware that this is an extra, that this is a bonus not given to historians who don't have it, that they shouldn't do away with it, but make use of it in their writings.

MM: There is also a third type of experience, which is very rarely mentioned in the book, the kind of objective experience that is the way that the people in the past experienced their present. You seemed to abandon the hopes that you expressed many times in the early nineties connected to the microhistories, which are a mean of conveying this experience. Why is that so?

FA: Well, it's in a sense a different problem. This is the expérience vécue in the past, in history itself. And this is a topic that, well, has been addressed by a lot of writers already and you could say that even some sixteenth-century historians like La Popelinire and tienne Pasquier already did this kind of work and investigated the experience of the past, the exprience vcue, of people in the Middle Ages. So this is not a new problem and, well, I'd rather focus on new problems—and these are to be found in the two other kinds of experience. But I completely respect this as a topic of historical research that one should do. There's no problem about that.

MM: In Martin Jay's recent book [Jay 2005] on the notion of experience in the Western modern discourse your conception of historical experience serves as a transition from the discussion of the more differentiated notions of experience to those more totalizing. Jay argues that you have wholly abandoned epistemology for a purely aesthetic alternative that ultimately results in the dissolution of the subject. Do you find this reproach justifiable or do you consider this as a reproach?

FA: Yes, I think this is a correct description, for this dissolution of the subject, well, that's part of what you get when you get beyond epistemology. Then there's only the experience. That's what I tried to show in the chapter on Gadamer; namely, that this notion of experience that you get when you cut through the ties between experience and truth is always a kind of experience which is non-epistemological and therefore indifferent to the separation between the subject and object. In this way one might, perhaps, say that it is totalizing. But this is not how I would describe it, for this term 'totalizing' is part of the epistemologists' vocabulary. 'Totalization' is what you get when the subject is completely subsumed by the object—or vice versa—and such a situation could, of course, never occur when you abandon, as I want to have it, both subject and object in favor of experience. I had a lengthy correspondence about this with Martin Jay, but I never succeeded in making this clear to him.

In fact, I would rather say that the focus on experience would be the very opposite of 'totalization', since it's a movement of withdrawal within experience. Everything is taken together in the experience and, so, there's a movement from the totality of the world into the experience and that would be the opposite of what is suggested by this notion of totalization, I suppose. But with regard to aesthetics, I think that's a perfectly correct association for historical experience is explicitly related to aesthetic experience. So that's also correct, yes. Anyway, when I talk about aesthetics, it is not primarily the arts I am thinking of, but rather of what philosophical sub-discipline should take the place of epistemology—for example, if we have to do with a discipline such as historical writing.

MM: The sublime experience is meant as a means of liberation from language, from the violence that language does over the world, which is the opposite of totalizing. But on the other hand this is the experience that is constitutive for a certain civilization or culture. It does not seem to depend on our will, but it's rather a super-individual force that comes from nowhere and that shapes us following its own unattainable logic. And therefore, if we are in this kind of experience, forced by it to forget the past, shouldn't we speak not only about the liberating side of the sublime experience, about the liberation from language, but also about the kind of violence that sublime implies with itself?

FA: Violence I would associate rather with epistemology, since epistemology does violence to the world by forcing it to fit within its own framework, with unpleasant consequences for disciplines such as historical writing, since this discipline stubbornly resists subsumption within the epistemologist's framework, as we know by now. So this tends to turn the epistemologist into a person with a penchant for 'violence', as we know so well from the history of historical theory. Anyway, it's wholly different with the sublime and the kind of experience I model on the sublime, for in the sublime you are overwhelmed by reality, so if any violence is being done, it's violence being done to … well, I wouldn't argue to use the term 'the subject', for I've just been saying that the kind of experience that I have in mind is an experience without a subject of experience—but this is nevertheless what it comes closest to.

And, because of this, it is certainly not accompanied by a feeling of liberation. I mean, we feel free in language; language is what we like. We do not feel happy with the sublime. I have this chapter on the prison-house of language, and it's true that in the world of epistemology we live in this prison-house of language. But we should be aware that we like to live in this prison-house of language. It's so very comfortable there. That's why we have language: it makes the world accessible, and it enables us to domesticate the world, to be its undisputed master. Because we can then exert its violence on reality and give to reality the form that suits us best. So, it's comfortable to be in the prison-house of language. Whereas it's very cold and uncomfortable in the indifferent and outside world of the sublime. For then you are in the hands of reality, and without help and means to defend yourself against it. That's why the sublime is directly related to trauma, and why it is terrible. If you stand face to face with reality that's only terrible and the sublime does not have any pleasurable element in it.

MM: Could you explain more precisely the difference between the subjective historical experience and the sublime historical experience? And then, especially, do you really believe that in the subjective experience we can see the past as it really was, the past itself, or—following your own metaphor that it is love without a climax—isn't it just an experience of the past breaking away from the present? And therefore in this experience we recognize only the difference and the loss, and after all there is no touch, we come very close to this touch of the past, but we can only feel the loss. So, how do you relate the two?

FA: I think the basic form is the sublime kind of experience, so the collective type of experience. For then you have this breaking away of the past from the present. Or, let me put it a bit more clearly, you begin with having a kind of indiscriminate present, or, rather, a situation in which the present is not yet experienced as 'the present', a situation of a certain historical naivet, so to speak. Then some overwhelming social or political upheaval takes place, something in the order of the French Revolution, or what happened in Italy after 1494, and that was so singularly traumatic to Guicciardini and Machiavelli. And that may tear this still indiscriminate present apart into a past and a present. The past comes into being only then—and the present as well, as we should not lose from sight. There is no past without a present, as this account makes clear—and as Hegel has so brilliantly shown. Past and present are the two sides of one and the same coin, of this indiscriminate present, so to speak.

That's the basic form of historical experience and which is, therefore, basically, an experience of loss since you lose that part of this indiscriminate present that has now become your past. That may be a large part of a civilization's identity; so that's why a civilization dies a partial death under such circumstances. But this always has to do with history on the grand scale, with things such as the French or the Industrial Revolution, the Death of God etc.

But the same may also happen on a much smaller scale and in the domain of the less conspicuous and less important aspects of human life. Now, precisely because these are the less conspicuous parts of human existence, nobody may really perceive that the past is breaking, or has already broken away from this indiscriminate present.

I mean, if a French Revolution is going on, nobody can fail to notice this. But when something similar happens in the domain of daily life and our experience of it, we may simply not be aware of it. But, then, all of a sudden, we may then see some representation of what some aspect of daily life used to be like in the past, and then, we may suddenly realize ourselves for the first time how very much different the present is, in fact, from the past. This is the Huizinga type of historical experience.

You can say two things about it. One, that it will always announce itself on those domains of human existence that we somehow naively think to be resistant to historical change. And, second, we may then suddenly realize ourselves that even this aspect of human existence has changed out of recognition. This gives you the historical experience in question. You might well compare it to a piece of elastic that is stretched ever and ever more, until suddenly it breaks, because it has been stretched too far. It's fairly complicated, but this is, more or less, how it is with the Huizinga type of historical experience. You might say that it's a kind of 'deferred historical experience'.

MM: How often does this break that you are talking about happen? I mean, do you claim that we can become aware of the past as such only thanks to the sublime experience, of the past as something different from the present? Is this experience the only thing responsible for the desire of being that is constantly being substituted by the knowledge of the past, as you claim?
FA: I find it hard to answer. I think that's scattered all over society and that one should take care not to restrict the notion of historical experience to what goes on in historical writing and to historians. I think that many people may have a historical experience, when they become aware that their world has changed. For example in your world in Poland or in Russia, that you suddenly become aware that the world has become completely different since 1989 or what happened in 1917 or in the United States during the Civil War. And it may even be that ordinary people are more susceptible to historical experience then historians, since historians, well, are always subject to this professionalization of their discipline, and always tend to distrust historical experience.

So, how frequent it is, I think that's a very difficult question to answer—nevertheless, I would like to add the following speculation. Suppose you have a civilization in which you have no huge social and political upheavals, like the French Revolution, but only these small-scale developments one must associate with the Huizinga type of historical experience. But where the number of these small-scale historical changes is huge; so large, in fact, that their total sum may amount to little less than a permanent French Revolution, to a French Revolution that is going on and on, so to say. Well, I think this is what our contemporary world is like. And if that is true, historical experience surely is a figure of the future. I mean, nobody can fail to see a French Revolution—and then the historian may start to write about it. But if you only have these small-scale developments, you will really need historical experience in order to become aware of historical change at all.

MM: Would you therefore be willing to give a more liberal, so to say, status to this notion of experience and to allow telling more than one story about it? It seems from your account that it is rather a rare phenomenon. What do you think for example of giving the status of the sublime dissociation and radical rupture with the past to that which Poland experienced in the wake of the nineties?

FA: I think that you made a very important point at the beginning of your question, when asking if there are many variants of historical experience? And I should wish to emphasize that this certainly is the case. I mean, if you wish to avoid epistemology, then you should avoid any kind of legislation for how we relate to the world. So it would be a very poor way of getting beyond epistemology, if you would come up with another kind of legislation of what historical experience should be like. So, what I tried to do in the experience book is to say, well, there are a certain kinds of historical experience—and I gave a number of examples of Herder, Goethe etc., then Huizinga's historical experience, and I also mentioned two experiences that have been important to myself—and you can also think of the large-scale kind of historical experience having to do with the French Revolution. But this is not delimitative, and not meant to be so. There may be many more kinds of historical experience and I hope that one of the reactions to the book will be that people will say that Ankersmit has been far too restrictive, and that there are many more kinds of historical experience than I described. And then I would say, well, this is interesting so let's explore this and see what can be done with these other kinds of historical experience. So, it's the last thing that I would try to do with the book is to give some kind of legislation for historical experience.

MM: It's very hard to get rid of epistemology. Even your book is, after all, an epistemological enterprise, since we want to know something about experience. This is paradoxical and we may say that the book is one big paradox, since it attempts to convey in language some truths about something that—by your own definition—is beyond language. My question is: was it your intention to use the figure of paradox so often to show that it is ultimately impossible to give a coherent and non-paradoxical image of experience by the linguistic means?

FA: No, it's part of the whole program, part of the whole idea. There is, for example, the chapter on Burckhardt that deals with what kind of sublime historical experience one may associate with him. And then one of the fascinating things is that Burckhardt does not reject professional historical writing, even though he is very much opposed to it. That's the paradox, so to speak, in his writing. And you have the same with Huizinga: they did not reject professional historical writing, but only wanted make us aware of what you might lose with it.

But this writing in the margins of professional historical writing (to put it in a Derridean manner) suggested by Burckhardt and Huizinga is absolutely of the greatest importance in the context of my argument. The argument is, roughly, that you need professionalized historical writing in order to become aware of what you inevitably lose with it. But it is precisely this awareness that may reveal the past to you in historical experience. So historical experience parasitizes on professional historical writing—and in this way depends on it. So the paradox is that you need professional historical writing in order to be open to the revelations of historical experience. This, then, is why you will find paradoxes throughout the book. Historical experience is born from paradox.

MM: One of the most important figures in your book is Walter Benjamin. His notion of aura is the main means to convey the meaning of the dissociation, the fact that we can recognize something only after we had lost it. But there is also the main difference that in Benjamin the redemption was possible and the past could enter the present, while in your argument …

FA: … it's the other way around, yes …

MM: … it's the other way around. It is the movement of disunion and not toward the union. Does the sublime experience give us any promise of redemption?

FA: No, no I wouldn't say. This is what I've been saying in the last chapter about the notion of myth. And that what I describe as the cold heart of the civilization, all that you, that part that you attempt to historicize, but you are unsuccessful in historicizing. And that's the world that we have lost, it's always painful. And you won't get back to this idyllic past that you try to historicize, but the more you do it, the less you can get access to it. I just discovered a wonderful passage in Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragedie when he says this, I could show it to you. But therefore, well, there is in Benjamin the dimension of a messianic optimism, so to speak, he has this hope of redemption, whereas I have the reverse model and for me it can only get worse. The more you try getting hold of this mythical past, the more you will lose it for that very reason. It's much like what Rousseau said about how history has started. We began with living in the state of nature and we want to get back, but the more we try to get back to it by creating civilization, with notions like truth and virtue etc., the further we will be removed from it. It's this metaphor of this ten-lane highway and that only moves in one direction and that gets you away, well, from the ideal or myth that you are always striving for. Whereas Rousseau argues that you only have these crooked little back roads that might get you back to it—hence, the kind of uncertain and twisted accounts such as we find in his Confessions and where he tried to retrace the route to his self, while being well aware of the utter impossibility of the task. This is also how it is in the experience book and why it is a very somber and pessimistic book.

MM: There is clearly a certain movement that the sublime implies. I mean the fact that we can abandon the past and acquire a wholly new identity. But would you say that sublime implies also a progress?

FA: A progress in a sense that the tension, the sublime tension between these two directions, historicization and the myth, tends to grow ever larger. So that the more we move away from this mythic past, the more we will try to get more closer to it; so it's a kind of alienation effected by the effort to overcome alienation. And, in the end, our alienation from this mythic past will only increase. So there is progress, in a certain sense, but it's a progress in the increase of tension.

MM: Progress that is at the same time a regression?

FA: Yes, it moves in the opposite directions. And that's what you have with paradox and with the sublime that you always have these opposite directions and it always grows even worse and worse.

MM: Let me make a slight move now from sublime to politics, which is your second main area of interests. In your work on political philosophy you observed a truly captivating historical relationship between the existing paradigms of historical writing and the concurrent paradigms of the political exercise of power. Could you please tell me more about this relationship? I mean the relationship between historicism and parliamentary democracy, and narrativism as up-to-date version of historicism and the aesthetic politics that you pronounce as a proper model for the twenty-first century.

FA: Yes, well, actually I think I should go back to the time when I studied history here. I had a teacher here in Groningen, I mentioned his name already, Professor Kossmann, 'the man of the elephant', so to speak, and he taught here political philosophy, political theory. I admired him a great deal, we could get on very well with each other, though intellectually rather than personally, I should add. He had an unusually strong and fascinating personality—I never met anyone even remotely coming close to what he was like. Just to give you an idea: he was all that one might associate with Franois Guizot, very much aloof, very intelligent, both impossible to get close to and yet very much accessible and blessed with the rhetorical powers of a Pericles. If he had decided for a political career, the recent history of my country would have completely different from what it is now. It rarely happened, but if he really felt that this was necessary he could raise a rhetorical storm blowing away everything and everybody. Indeed, when thinking of him, I never am sure what impressed me most, his scholarship or his personality. He was a truly wonderful man. Anyway, he very much wanted me to continue his interests and to start doing political theory as well. So he was deeply disappointed by my choice for philosophy of history. I did consider giving in to his wishes, but in the end I opted for historical theory. Well, I regret this decision right now, for philosophy of history has not given me what I had hoped from it. But as Gibbon said, 'But, alas, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless'.

Anyway, I have always kept this fascination for political philosophy that I had inherited from Kossmann. So when I am doing historical theory, I always have at the back of my mind the question, what might this mean for politics? And for a long time I couldn't relate the two of them in any clear and meaningful way. But then I moved in historical theory from narrative to representation. Since then it was fairly obvious, for, on the one hand the historian offers a representation of the past, but you also have the phenomenon of political representation. So, this notion of representation was the link between my preoccupations as historical theorist, as philosopher of history on the one hand, and what I've been saying since then on political philosophy, on the other. Since then, I've always been, well, kind of shuttling back and forth between political theory and historical theory. So each time I want to make a certain move in historical theory, I ask myself what implications could or should this have for political philosophy and vice versa.

MM: So putting this analogy forward, let's think about the sublime now. If the sublime as a collective experience is taken seriously, it is a kind of experience that serves as a recurrent historical foundation of our collective identity. And we can—thanks to this experience—recognize ourselves as being in a certain moment of history. Having in mind this whole idea of dissociation, a kind of suicide that civilizations may undertake—what kind of politics would follow from this?

FA: Yes, that's a very important question you are addressing there and I think that the first sub-question, so to speak, that you would have to deal with is to what extent this kind of sublime historical experience can or ought to be translated into the sphere of politics. For sublime historical experience is a total involvement in a new way, a new kind of cultural and historical experience. And if you would try to translate it to politics, then it would be only possible on the presupposition that politics should have to deal with this. But I'm not sure about this. I mean, politics is only an aspect of our lives. And I would, well, with the memory of totalitarianism at the back of our heads, be very wary of having the world of culture and history being invaded by politics. Nevertheless, it's an important problem. And in fact I shall be giving a talk in Finland in January next year on political representation and experience, and I will then try to move this notion of experience from the sphere of history to that of politics. But I still have to find out about how to do this. So I am afraid I haven't answered it yet, but maybe when you will be back here next year, I can tell you more about this.

Speaking more generally, this is how I proceeded in my intellectual career. I mean, there has been very little outside influence on my intellectual development—apart, then, from that of Rorty. I am always dealing with questions that have been occasioned by previous phases in my development and I use the work of others only insofar as it may be of help to me in this process. But I never have much interest for their work as such; when reading my colleagues, I always ask myself: what can I do with it. So I'm a kind of intellectual plunderer, so to say. That's also why I am much of a solitary. Not coincidentally did I make Descartes's motto into my own: 'bene vixit bene qui latuit'. That's also why I have never felt compelled to advertise my ideas; I live in my own world and that suits me well enough.

MM: We can also think about the subjective kind of experience and its possible application to politics. You very often emphasize in your political texts the importance of the recognition of the gap between the representatives and the electorate, which is constitutive of aesthetic politics. It was also a central claim of your main book on political philosophy from ten years ago [Ankersmit 1996], where the importance of the gap lies in the fact that it enables our self-recognition …

FA: … and I think it was also a source of legitimate political power. That legitimate political power is born in this gap between the representatives on the one hand and the electorate on the other. And with the implication that you cannot attribute the source of political power to either of them. That's why I would be against the notion of popular sovereignty.

MM: So how does sublime relate to this? I mean the subjective historical experience. Isn't your last book a kind of promise of the contact between the represented and the representatives that is not mediated, analogically, to historical experience? And do you believe in any attempts to overcome this representational gap in politics?

FA: Well, as I said a moment ago, this is simply what I still have to think about, but I would say my first intuition would be that it might be very dangerous to do this kind of thing. I think that the notion of the sublime requires you to do away with the notion of subject and object. But transposing all this to politics is like playing with fire. It would certainly pull you away from the domain of daily politics, from politics as a going concern. And since I am in politics what you might characterize as a conservative liberal—and rather a Tocqueville than a Mill—I am much afraid of this kind of move. Freedom is for me the alpha and omega of all politics. On the other hand, when trying to explain the historical sublime, Tocqueville's reaction to the French Revolution always is what I first have in mind. So, perhaps there is a connection after all.

MM: When you claim that representation is as insurmountable and intrinsic in historical writing as it is in politics, you are making use of the narrative philosophy, of the philosophy of the text as a whole. But what would you think of making use of the analogy with the contemporary analytical philosophy of common language in politics? I mean, in the philosophy of common language that deals with single sentences translatability is—even if not wholly possible—it is much more possible than when we think about historical representation. So would you see this analogy useful or fruitful to explore in a sense that it would enable us to achieve in politics what we cannot achieve in history?

FA: So you are speaking about ordinary language and you're thinking of people like Austin and Gilbert Ryle?

MM: And issues like Davidsonian radical interpretation. When we deal with single sentences—as in daily life—we can to a large extent understand each other. And things like the charity principle really work in daily life. And politics is about daily life. So what would you think about this?

FA: That's a question I can fairly easily answer. I think that's how politics is quite often made nowadays, in a sense that one takes science as the model for politics. Just look at contemporary politics and perennial reduction of politics to economic theory and to econometry. That's doing politics as suggested by this model of Anglo-Saxon philosophy of history, which focuses on the statement and the scientific theory. So that's what we have already, but I think that's dangerous, for it's then you lose the grasp of the whole.

One of the more curious paradoxes of our contemporary world is that the individual citizen has a better and more secure grasp of the whole than the state and official politics. And having such a grasp of the whole is an indispensable condition of all meaningful politics. One cannot make responsible political decisions as long as one does not have some intuition, however tentative, about how all the segments of society hang together and what the consequences for one segment might be if you change something in another. But 'scientific politics', the kind of politics we presently have, tends to blind you to this kind of question.

MM: And what about the possibility of overcoming the gap between the representatives and the electorate?

FA: Well, 'scientific politics' attempts to overcome the gap by ignoring the gap. But I think we live in a 'broken universe'—aesthetically 'broken' in the sense that there is an aesthetic gap between the representative and whom he represents. The basic fact in politics is not what things are like, and what the economist, the social or political scientist might say about how things are—not truth is what counts, but how we relate to each other in terms of how we represent each other. Politics has not to do with how we can describe each other in terms of individual true statements in the way the scientist might do this. At the level of, well, human, ordinary human interaction this level of representation is present already. And it gets an extra impulse and demonstrates itself in a far more dramatic way when you reach the level of, well, how the electorate relates to its representatives. All these things were perfectly clear already to the Machiavelli of the Discorsi. But now we tend to forget about this. There presently is a strong tendency to try to box, so to speak, politics within the scientific model. For that seems to suggest that all our political problems would permit, would allow our scientific answer in the end. In this way much of contemporary politics is an attempt to do away with politics. That's one of the funny things about politics: that it tries to make itself superfluous and therefore creates new problems and then it has to subsist for another period.

But one of the most forceful attempts to make politics superfluous has been this attempt to, well, to use scientific models. You have this essay by Carl Schmitt, Politik im Zeitalter der Neutralisierungen and where he shows that you have all through the centuries, since the sixteenth century, this attempt to neutralize politics. And in our own time one hopes to achieve this by economics and the sciences. And think for example of Daniel Bell with his The End of Ideology. So this is where I would completely agree with your hero, Hannah Arendt, when she criticizes the politics of our time for its exclusive interest in the domain of the oikia, that is, in economics. Politics and politicians will have to learn again to recognize the face of the other. This is what only representation can teach us—and this is the only safeguard of political and civil liberty.

MM: Let me now make a slight move to a more practical level and ask you how your political theory goes together with your practical political preoccupations? You are a co-author of a recent 'Liberal Manifesto' of the Dutch Party VVD, of which you are an active member. My question is, how do you define liberalism in regard to your previous answer? Liberal individualism seems at odds with your praise of the state and of this clear-cut distinction between the state on the one hand and the civil society and economy on the other.

FA: To begin with, why did I become a member of this committee writing the liberal manifesto? Well, there is a statement by Tocqueville somewhere in De la démocratie en Amérique that I like a lot and that goes like this: 'in politics nothing is as unproductive as an abstract idea'. And I think he's completely right with this. That's also why I hate people like Rawls, Dworkin, Ackerman and Brian Barry and their likes so very much. For this has nothing to do with actual problems. I think that political philosophy, which does not have any concrete application to a real problem, is wholly useless, that's a mere academic plaything and we should stop doing this as soon as possible.

If you look at the history of political philosophy, then you will find that all the great political philosophers, people like Machiavelli, Jean Bodin, Hobbes, Locke or a Tocqueville, were always people who were dealing with some contemporary social or political problem that they believed to be very, very urgent. And then they said, well, if we fail to solve this problem, that might be the end of our society, well, maybe even of civilization. That's why Hobbes wrote his Leviathan, because he was having in mind the wars of religion and collective suicide that people were getting close to because of this disastrous conflict.

I think this is what political philosophy should do. So, political philosophy should never be a merely academic discipline, but always try to deal with real problems that we encounter here and now. And that's very difficult, for that—and there's a link with history here—it presupposes that the political philosopher should be able to identify these problems and do this sooner and in a more satisfactory way than many others. And that's also where the power and the success of these people like Hobbes and Montesquieu and Kant has been: that they saw the problem before anybody else saw it, and that they succeeded in conceptualizing it in a superior way. So you have to begin with a certain quasi-historical perception of what time am I living in, what are the real problems of our time.

Well, this has been my motivation to participate in this manifesto for the liberal party, since I've been pondering these problems for a long time already, and I am worried about the amount of disintegration that you see in the contemporary political domain and which I had best describe as a kind of return to the feudal system. I mean, when liberalism came into being, fundamental to all liberalism has been the distinction between private law and public law. That really meant the end of the feudal world, that you say, well, there is a public reality, that's public and it cannot be privatized, this is a part of the world that cannot and should not be owned by individual persons. What you now see everywhere in the Western world and probably also in the East, I suppose, is that you have this confusion of public law and private law. And that you have everywhere this most objectionable ideology of privatization.

This results in a strange renaissance of the world of feudalism. I have in mind here what are called in this country the ZBOs, or Quangos. I don't know whether you know this notion of Quango, Quasi-Non-Government-Organization. So it's something between the government and something which is also a private company. But it is not either. You get these Quangos when the government is too lazy or incapable of taking care properly of one of its assignments, and then it will say, well, 'we privatize it and then a private company may deal with these nasty problems that we are incapable of solving'. Then they give to the people in these privatized companies a number of their public competences, they give them this part of what used to be part of the legitimate government, and leave them free to deal with them as they please.

What you see, next, is that in all these privatized Quangos the salaries of the directors are skyrocketing, service declines, nobody feels responsible anymore for anything, and then you get this feudal situation again. Then you get feudal lords all over the place again. In my country, in the Netherlands, you now have already more Quangos than municipalities. There are by now some 600 of them and together they comprise some 60% of people working in the public services. All these people live in a kind of constitutional limbo, responsible neither to the market—for you have no competition here—nor to the government, so nobody can get hold of what they are doing. Well, once again, that's the world of the Middle Ages. I find this profoundly worrying.

Then there are a number of people saying, well, 'this is how it should go'. This is the case above all with a German scholar whom I very much admire, as I hasten to add, and who in my view can even be seen as the most interesting political philosopher at this moment, namely, Helmut Willke. But he's the man who says that this is the direction we should opt for, that we must acquiesce in this kind of thing, for better or for worse since this is the course of history. He rejects the view that you should have a well-defined state, with a well-defined central power in which decisions are made in a clear and transparent way. His argument is that all this is something of the past, that we have had, and that we now live in a completely different world. Now the state is merely a primus inter pares, merely the first among its equals. These 'equals' are the social (sub-) systems, the networks in civil society. But it cannot claim to be more than that. That's the argument.

Now, if you believe this, I think that means the end of democracy. Democracy is the democratization of the absolute power it inherited from the governments of the ancien régime. It gave to the people the competences that had been in the possession of the absolute monarch. This origin of democracy is not something to be regretted, but to be rejoiced at. So thank God for absolutism. For by shifting absolute power from the King to the people the subjection of the state to the people is no less absolute. And then the biggest political sin is to alienate competences again from the people by investing them in our new feudal lords, these Quangos and their self-serving masters. The exercise of political power is no longer controlled, power is distributed all over society in such a way that nobody is properly aware anymore of the sources of power and how it is organized—and that means the end of responsibility and accountability.

Moreover, a number of much similar problems are occasioned by the European Union—similar in the sense that the European Union is also sadly incapable of organizing political responsibility in a rational and transparent manner. Take for example this ridiculous constitution drawn up by Giscard d'Estaing and in which you have the two legislative organs, the council of ministers on the one hand, and these people in Strasbourg, on the other. Who gets it in his mind to create a state with two legislative bodies, that's insane! We were supposed to vote for it, in favor of it. The only thing that you get is that you get confusion. And we should not forget that there are quite a lot of people for whom this constitutional confusion is a most pleasant windfall and who will most warmly welcome it. These are all these politicians who are walking in these impenetrable constitutional clouds and thus may succeed in hiding themselves from public control. That is, of course, the realization of the politicians' dearest dream. So what is evolving in Europe, both on the national and the supra-national level, is a return to the medieval state. What we call here a Polish Landtag, a Polish Diet. You know a Polish Diet, everyone's talking but no decision can be made. So we should get rid as soon as possible of this disastrous and profoundly illiberal confusion of private law and public law.

MM: I was not able to read your Liberal Manifesto, but what I read was a program of the liberal party from the early eighties, where its main goals very briefly stated. And these were almost exactly the opposite of what you are saying. Especially, they were underscoring the importance of weakening of the state, what seemed to me like a traditional idea of economic liberalism.

FA: Weakening the state is not the issue here. My argument is not an argument in favor of investing more power in the state than it presently has already, on paper at least. What I want is that public power will not be squandered any longer by irresponsible politicians and absolute clarity about political responsibilities and accountabilities. This is what presently the danger is. This is what liberal parliamentary democracy has always been about. And you see now coming into existence all kind of procedures, which try to evade these mechanisms of parliamentary democracy. This is worrying. Not from the perspective of individualism. I mean everybody is individualist; even socialists are individualists right now, so fighting for individualisms is fighting for something that nobody is against, so that this fight makes no sense anymore. One should fight for things that you consider important and that others consider to be unimportant. These are the kind of fights that decide the course of history.

MM: You expressed quite a strong opinion about the European Union. Don't you think that the idea of the European Union is evolving in the right direction?

FA: Well, I am very much in favor of the project of the European Union. But it should be undertaken on a sound basis. This is what the European Constitution did not succeed in doing: it's an exemplification of the problems of Europe, but no solution of them. Of course, I'm willing to grant that the Constitution is better than the Nice Treaty. But under the present circumstances this is not sufficient—the main problem with the European Union has always been what the relationship is between the communitarian level and the national level; we have been wrestling with this problem since 1955, since the very day that the European Community came into being. Somehow one always succeeded with a mere muddling through and in the hope that thing would become better and more manageable in the future; but now that the EU comprises more than twenty states, a clear-cut decision has to be reached about this dilemma. For otherwise the EU will disintegrate into an unworkable Polish Diet. And, once again, the Constitution failed to present such a clear-cut decision. So, are we going for a federal Europe or are we falling back on the nations? That's the all-decisive question. Both things are possible and, I think, workable, Europe on both bases is thinkable. But one has to make up one's mind about this right now! Muddling through is now no option anymore.

As for myself, I think we should be realistic and prefer the national option. And if you consistently think out this option, you can develop a kind of constitution for Europe defining how power and political responsibilities hang together. It would probably mean the end of the European Parliament and require us to accept the Council of Ministers as the legitimate source of communitarian political power. And all legitimacy would then come from the nation-states, not from the Europeans, as a people. That's the fiction of the European Parliament we will then have to abandon.

The obvious objection would be that decision-making on a European scale would then be impossible. You cannot continuously make treaties with 22 nations. That's absurd. This is true of course. So I think you will then need an extra instrument in order to keep things moving. This would, for me, be the old idea of a L'Europe deux vitessess—and I have never understood what is wrong with this option. The idea is that you should abandon the hope of taking decisions unanimously, on a European scale. Instead we should exhort each country to make as many individual agreements as possible with as many other EU countries as possible. If there is some truth in the ideology of a united Europe, it automatically follows that every nation-state will indeed aspire to be involved as much as possible in agreements that are reached between all the others. If, for example, Poland has some agreement with England that is beneficial to both, then all the other nations will investigate whether they could also join this agreement. In this way you keep the pressure on—and, in the end, perhaps a federal Europe may then even become possible. So this idea of L'Europe à deux vitesses, that's the incentive that would be the motor behind European unification. But if you continue with the system that we presently have—the system of either there is a law or rule for all of Europe, or there will be no such law or rule—that's absolutely hopeless, and that will kill everything.

MM: It's time to ask my last question, so I will try to go back to the sublime from the European level. I very much like your remark in your sublime book, where you wrote that it is not only a book for historians, but it is a book for a continental audience, for a European audience. You quite often underline this difference between the continental and Anglo-Saxon history in regard to the sublime experience and our collective suffering. And you make a claim that the current predominance of the United States may be interpreted as the ultimate victory of the ancien rgime over the revolution. So, is this current, really overwhelming domination of the United States a kind of price that Europe has to pay for its traumatic past? And what kind of consequences would it have for our future?

FA:I guess, from what you've said, that my impression should be that the ancien régime has won in the end. I mean, since 1789 it made sense to say that post-revolutionary Europe is in many ways, and especially from a social point of view, more modern then the United States. And, well, it's always my impression, if you go to the United States and if you talk to the people there, there is a certain kind of ancien régime civility still existing there that is no longer around here on the European Continent. And, well, the answer why this has come into being is historically too obvious to be stated. I mean, the United States came into being in 1776, they had their constitution, and they still idealize this constitution as, well, as if it's a spoken word of God himself. So, an ancien régime society is, and has always been, the model for the United States. Think also that the American Revolution was not in the least a social revolution in the way this is true of the French Revolution. It was a war of independence against King George the Third, but it had no substantial social dimension. So that's why this ancien régime could subsist in the United States down to the present. It's a pre-revolutionary ancien régime society.

And we, in Continental Europe, are, therefore, the people of a fundamentally later dispensation, and for a long time we also had reason to believe that our type of society would be our best bet for the future. A very natural reaction, of course, if you observe in the United States this huge and ever-increasing discrepancy between the people who are rich and the people who are poor. This is often too painful to look at for a European, so to speak. But I now realize myself that one cannot infer from this who will have the future, the USA or Europe. Europe undoubtedly is a better world, but the very reasons that make into be a better world may also be the reasons that, well, will remove it from the course of history. And the United States are a less good world, but perhaps that's why they will be able to show us the way to the future.

MM: So in the end the gains of the traumatic experiences dominate over the losses that these imply?

FA: Yes, that's how you could look at it, yes.