domingo, 25 de octubre de 2009

Interdisciplinarity and the 'doing' of history: entrevista a Frank Ankersmit

Diálogo sostenido entre Ranjan Ghosh y Frank Ankersmit, publicado originalmente en Rethinking History (vol. 11, junio 2007, pp.225-249). Los tópicos fueron variados: relaciones de la historia con la literatura, historia y memoria, el recurrente tema de la experiencia, una interesante puntualización acerca de la conexión que tiene la religión y la ética con la historia, que resulta bastante novedosa.

Ranjan Ghosh: Historians have long debated the right of non-historians to write about historical methodology, theory and discourse. Elton spearheads the field and Marwick, Braudel, Richard Evans and others would scarcely believe that Non-Historians like me should write a book on historical theory, which I am currently doing. However, as a man of literature, refusing to remain largely quarantined by the disciplinary boxes, I choose to traverse areas related to historical theory, philosophy, cultural theory, postmodern aesthetics, discourse and other relevant concepts. Hayden White, speaking to me, mentions that 'history' refers 'both to investigation of the past by professional specialists in different areas of study and to consideration of the relations between present and past and the process by which the present becomes past or the past intrudes itself into the present. The former notion belongs to the specialist, the latter one belongs to everybody—because everyone has a right to work out what he or she will make of this relationship for oneself.' I think history as a subject of understanding needs transdisciplinary lubrications and a rightful interventionist space for non-historians too.

Frank Ankersmit: I think that the phenomenon of the professionalization of history since the middle of the nineteenth century is the best point of departure for answering your question. I suppose that nobody will doubt the blessings of professionalization. Thanks to it we know far more about the past than was the case when the writing of history was still primarily conceived of as being a department of the study of rhetoric as was the case before, roughly, 1800. At that stage all that was required of the historian was (1) that he should have enough common sense to understand what generally is at stake in human affairs and (2) that he should be able to express himself clearly and convincingly in writing. Now, common sense was never the problem; think of Descartes's well-known quip that common sense is the most equitably distributed good in the world since nobody complains about having too little of it. But this is different with speaking and writing clearly: that was something for which, admittedly, one person might have more talent than another, but that was, nevertheless, considered something that could be learned. So this is why before 1800 the writing of history was often considered to be a branch of rhetoric and why until the end of the eighteenth century history was most often taught by professors of rhetoric.

This changed with the professionalization or the disciplinization of history. The life world, the sociopolitical world was now carved up into a number of domains: that of economy, of sociology, of psychology, of the study of literature etc., each having their own methods and their own subject matter. History as we know it since the eighteenth century was one of the more conspicuous offshoots of this so momentous evolution.

Now, the effect of professionalization in history (and in these other disciplines) can best be compared to what happens when you look at the world through a microscope or through field glasses. And then the story is, essentially, one of gains and losses. What you gain is a more detailed knowledge. The world is to us initially how we perceive it with the unaided eye; the unaided eye gives us the interconnection of things that we need to be aware of in order to avoid bumping into things, to lose them, to destroy them by maladroit movements etc. And one might say that all the refinement of seeing provided by the microscope and the field glasses are expected to serve, in the end, our orientation in the life-world. In this way the microscope and the field glasses may help us to deal in a satisfactory way with aspects or parts of the world that remain hidden to the unaided eye.

But you also lose something with professionalization—and the optical metaphors I used just now are quite suggestive in this respect. What you lose is a directness in your dealings with the world: what you discover about the world by means of the microscope or the field glasses will always have to be 'translated' again somehow in terms of our experience of the world as we see it with the unaided eye. Put differently, what you inevitably lose with the microscope or the field glasses is context, or the interconnection of things. One thing you see now with an unparalleled precision, but you do not know how it hangs together with what surrounds it. Think of the field glasses: the precision and enlargement that you get for the detail that is seen through the field glasses is always accompanied by a loss elsewhere. For what surrounds the detail in question will become either blurred or even no longer visible at all. And we need to fall back on the unaided eye for interpreting and for correctly locating the details made visible by the field glasses. What the metaphor means for the professionalization of history is too obvious to need clarification. And the implication is that the professionalization will always have to be placed in a wider context, which is the analogue of how we 'normally' see the world with the unaided eye. So the historian may never cease to be an active and observant inhabitant of his own social, cultural and political world—for as soon as he forgets about this, he is like someone who knows the world only as the individual glimpses of the world that the field glasses may give us.

Now, there is an interesting asymmetry here between the microscope, on the one hand, and the field glasses on the other and that will bring me to your question about transdisciplinarity. What you see through the field glasses does not remove you from the life world: what you see through the field glasses in the distance could be part of your direct surroundings. But this is different with the microscope: the world of bacteria, of unicellulars will always be an alien world to us that can never be integrated within our own. Nevertheless, we can imagine a world including us and the bacteria, the unicellulars, and atoms, molecules, and galaxies as well. This is what the scientific world-view aims to achieve, and though this world-view will be different for each of us, we do all know about bacteria and galaxies and do on. So there will be a substantial amount of overlap between your scientific worldview, my scientific worldview and that of others.

But the crucial thing to be observed is that this scientific world-view always is a constructed world-view: we somehow have put it together on the basis of what we have learned at secondary schools, what we have read in the newspapers on scientific discoveries or in popularizations of science. This is different with what satisfies the field glasses metaphor. For what we see through the field glasses is just as much part of our life world as the objects close by—what we see through it simply is too far away to be clearly and properly recognized. That's all. So in this case all you need to do is to fit what you see through the field glasses within your already existing view of the life world—and construction has no role to play here.

I think that two different kinds of interdisciplinarity correspond to the metaphor of the microscope and the field glasses. On the one hand you have interdisciplinarity—the microscope variant, so to say—where the challenge is to find out how the integration of different disciplinary approaches might affect our world-view and require us to embrace a new world-view. On the other hand you have the field glasses variant of interdisciplinarity where the question is how to fit the results of interdisciplinary research into an already existing world-view and where this world-view, as such, is not at stake. It is only further refined by the results of interdisciplinary research, but not essentially altered by this itself.

I believe that in the writing of history you have almost always to do with the field glasses variety of interdisciplinary: it rarely happens that all of our conception of the social, cultural and political world we live in is changed by developments in some historical subdiscipline. I at least can think of no example. Of course, the discipline of history in its totality may effect such a change (as was the case in the transition from the enlightened to the historist conception of the world at the end of the eighteenth century)—but historical subdisciplines do not have this capacity.

And now, after a long detour, I come to my answer to your question. For if interdisciplinarity in history predominantly is of the field glasses variety, it follows that each interdisciplinary correction of existing history can only make sense and can only be a fruitful complement to what exists already, if its contribution can be justified in terms of our existing world-view (regardless of how that existing world-view came into being). It follows, furthermore, that unlike interdisciplinarity in the sciences (which will ordinarily be of the 'microscope' variant) interdisciplinarity in history will always have to take into account changes in our world-view—changes, that is, that do have their origin outside the writing of history. And this entails, again, that much is to be expected for history from literature, and from the study of literature. For obviously, the novel and poetry are about the life world—and probably even supremely successful in articulating the secrets of our life world—so, surely, literature can substantially enlarge the historian's view of the world and of what his tasks as a historian are. But it will all work here in the way as is suggested by the field glasses metaphor. This is where the contribution of literature will differ from that of the social sciences, which will be rather of the microscope variant. And, finally, all of my argument implies that the latter will always and necessarily be less decisive than the former one. For interdisciplinarity of the microscope variant will, in history, always have to be rounded off and completed by the question of how this fits into our existing world-view—hence, by what we have learned to associate with the field glasses variant of interdisciplinarity. And the conclusion should be that the historian has more to learn from literature and the study of literature than from the social sciences.

RG: The paternal figure of Ranke would try to have us believe that 'historical sources themselves were more beautiful, in any case more interesting, than romantic fiction. I turned away completely from fiction and resolved to avoid any invention and imagination in my work and to keep strictly to 'the facts.' But when you mention that the historian has more to learn from literature and the study of literature than from the social sciences could you elaborate how exactly do you figure this symbiosis?

FR: When saying a moment ago that literature has great relevance to history, one should distinguish between two things. In the first place—and this is what I had predominantly in mind when answering your previous question—literature may present us with an image of the life world of a certain time. It may show us the frame of mind of people in a certain epoch, so what their moods and feelings were, what their sensitivities must have been, what one feared and what one rejoiced in etc. So literature may be a valuable historical source. In the second place, a certain familiarity with the literature of his own time may function as a kind of temporal mirror for the historian in which he can recognize himself and his own time. And since the writing of history draws its deepest inspiration from the difference between the past and the present, one cannot write about the past without a certain awareness of the present. There never is a past as such, but only a past as different from the present. This was, of course, what Gadamer had in mind with his 'fusion of horizons' and his notorious attack on the prejudice against prejudice.

Next, in your question you carefully distinguish between literature and the study of literature. So let me now turn to the latter. Self-evidently, this is the question put on the agenda of historical theory by Hayden White with his famous Metahistory of 1973. For in this book White wanted to demonstrate what historical theorists can learn from literary theory.

So what should we say about White's innovation from the perspective of the present? To begin with, nobody can deny the significance of his contribution to historical theory. If historical theory still is a discipline attracting the interest of many scholars, this is thanks to Hayden White. If he had not rescued historical theory from the impasses in which it saw itself involved some thirty years ago, I very much doubt whether the discipline would have survived at all. Hayden White saved historical theory from complete irrelevance and whatever status it presently has in the intellectual world, is its possession thanks to White (and to Arthur Danto, as we should not forget).

What we owe to White is, in my opinion, that he has insisted that the historical theorist should focus on the whole rather than on the components of the historical text. Before White you had these debates on the covering law model and on intentional explanation (Collingwood and Dray) etc. I shall be the last one to deny the fruitfulness of these discussions. But, as we all know, the cognitive heart of the writing of history is to be found, in the end, in the historian's text as a whole and less so in its parts. And, indeed, the covering law modelists and their hermeneuticist opponents were interested in the individual statements and explanatory arguments one may find in historical texts, rather than in the text as a whole. So this shift of emphasis, and in what should primarily attract the historical theorist's attention, we owe to White. Though it should be added in all fairness that several others, such as Roland Barthes, William Walsh, Lionel Gossman, Louis Mink and Peter Munz, had come to similar conclusions before White.

More importantly, it was only White who succeeded in transforming this focus on the historical text as a whole from a mere theoretical insight into a 'research programme' for the investigation of the historical text. It is one thing to say that the text as a whole is the cognitive heart of historical writing, but quite another to operationalize this for the investigation of individual historical texts, and this is what White has given us with his tropological model. For in terms of his tropes, modes of argument, emplotment and of ideological implication, individual historical texts could be analysed; and only thanks to what Hans Kellner has called White's 'quadruple tetrad', it became possible to establish how historical meaning is generated in texts by Ranke, Tocqueville, Michelet, Braudel etc. So now a whole generation of historical theorists could make use of White's suggestions in order to map the history of historical writing. And it was, essentially, White's appeal to the instruments of literary theory which had made possible all this.

RG: It also problematizes the 'politics of memoirs'. Working lately on the question of 'representation' in memoirs and the corresponding 'incongruence' in the writing of contemporary social history, I have encountered the complex figurations of 'literarizing' history as it gets instrumentalized through the leverage of imagination, subjectivity, figural discursivity, the question of sublime in 'transcreating' and 'transposing' history—a constructivist historical representation. Thus, relating historical research and autobiographical discourses becomes an intricate operation which comes under the impress of diverse forces acting and interacting in subtle ways. How do you see the problematization of the vestibule between autobiography and autobiographical theories with proper history and antiquarianism?

FA: When thinking about historical theory and its tasks, there is one quote that always resonates in my mind. This is Burckhardt's statement in his Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen: 'was einst Jubel und Jammer war, muss nun Erkenntnis werden' ('what was once joy and pain, must now become historical knowledge'). And indeed, this is the great secret of all historical writing: on the one hand you have life as it was lived in the past, with its joys, its miseries and its horrors, and on the other you have historical discourse in which the historian tries to do justice in one way or another to these 'lived realities'. And then the big problem is, how do you make this transition?

This is where biography and, even more so, autobiography is the first thing to come to mind. For 'Jubel und Jammer' undoubtedly refers us to the level of how human individuals have experienced their lives, and the historical world they were living in. And it is no less indisputably true that the (auto-)biography must be expected to remain closest to what this life experience must have been like.

This certainly sounds most plausible. On the other hand, one might argue that even in (auto-)biography we have already passed through this mysterious domain between 'Jubel und Jammer' and 'Erkenntnis'. This brings me to the absolutely crucial issue that Louis O. Mink famously put on the agenda—and I'm thinking here of his one-liner 'that stories are not lived but told'. And I think that in historical theory everything depends on whether you can, or cannot agree with Mink here. Mink argued that most of us are still, wittingly or unwittingly, believers of the idea that there should be a 'universal history', that is to say, that there should be in the past itself some kind of 'untold story' and that all the stories that historians tell about the past try to approximate as well as possible. Put differently, we believe that historical reality is a narrative itself and that this narrative of the past itself can function as a kind of ontological or epistemological anchor for all that historians might decide to say about the past.

Mink's slogan (also defended by White and Danto—you may also add me to the list) was attacked by David Carr. Carr argued, not implausibly, that narrative is not something that we project on life (and on history) but that it is really part of them. We experience the life world narratively, we organize our lives and our plans for the future and our memories of our past narratively. This essentially phenomenological argument (and, indeed, Carr often refers to Husserl) can also be found in Ricoeur's magisterial trilogy Time and Narrative.

Now, it certainly is true that we often are the historians of our own lives (when thinking about our present past and future for whatever reason)—so much is undoubtedly the correct intuition behind Carr's argument—but that does not mean that the intuition itself is correct. For Mink was right, in my view, when saying that there is no 'universal history' either of our collective or of our individual past. There is no unshakable narrative foundation underneath how we experience life—as is already obvious from the fact that any narrative organization of our collective or individual life may be questioned and be replaced by another. Put differently, and in agreement with Mink's and White's view, narrative is a cognitive instrument we use for organizing the chaos of how life presents itself to us in experience. Admittedly, it is an absolutely indispensable instrument. Nobody could live without making use of this instrument. But it is an instrument that we bring to life and it is not part of life itself—just as time and space are for Kant aesthetic forms ('Anschauungsformen') we project on the world while not being part of the world itself.

To return, then, to your question, the essential step has already been made when we move from life as it is, or has been lived to (auto-)biography. For narrativization has then already taken place. To put it in Burckhardt's terms, we have then moved already from 'Jubel und Jammer' to 'Erkenntnis', however deficient and provisional this 'Erkenntnis' may be at this early stage. So the truly interesting question is how we move from what is not yet narrative to narrative. And, as you may surmise, this is large part of what makes me so much interested in the notion of historical experience. For experience precedes narrative and one might even argue that the two radically exclude each other: where you have narrative, (pre-cognitive) experience is not, and (pre-cognitive) experience is essentially a-narrative. As we know from trauma: the traumatic experience ceases to be a traumatic experience as soon as we succeed in subsuming it somehow into the narrative of our lives.

And, once again, this is true both for the level of individual and of collective life.

RG: Frank, I know very well about your governing interest in historical experience as you wrote to me saying that it took you more than ten years to write Sublime Historical Experience. When I mentioned it to Hayden White he expressed his great admiration for your work but he wasn't too enthusiastic about seeing experience as solving problems of 'representation'. The generative dialogics between experience 'about an event' and experience 'of an event' is the conflation between 'memory' and 'history'. For me, both full-blooded experience and 'inheritance' of an experience stand to be 'artified' and, eventually, aesthetic representation comes to be problematized. I would be interested to know how you perspectivize this problematization. What intrigues me is the fact about how we can 'represent' what we inherit from memory directly (as sufferer and perpetrator) and how we engage with representation when we do not have direct experience of the event. Don't you think language plays a vital role in the latter? Experiencing an 'experience' and artifying an experience cannot be identical things, as also 'experienced truth' and 'discursive truth' that springs from our understanding of the 'sublime' in representation. How can we discount language then?

FA: If I am not mistaken you are well acquainted with the work by Richard Shusterman, whom I also hold in high regard. When discussing the relationship between experience and language Shusterman scathingly criticizes all those philosophers (of language) for whom there could be no experience without language and for whom, in the words of Richard Rorty, 'language goes all the way down'.

Challenging this near to unanimous consensus amongst contemporary philosophers of language, Shusterman advances the claim that we must recognize the possibility of experience without language:

… we philosophers fail to see this because, disembodied talking-heads that we are, the only form of experience we recognize and legitimate is linguistic: thinking, talking, writing. But neither we nor the language which admittedly helps shape us could survive without the unarticulated background of pre-reflective, non-linguistic experience and understanding.
(Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics, Blackwell, 1992, p. 128)

And, obviously, he is right about this. We need to think in this context only of animals, or of children not yet having acquired the faculty of speech. Who would dare to deny that animals and these 'infants', in the most literal sense of that word, have the capacity to 'experience' the world in the true sense of that word? Is an experience that can, or has not been rendered in language—either because the subject of experience lacks the capacity to speak, or because it cannot find the right words for expressing his or her experience—simply because of this no experience? Or perhaps even something that could not possibly exist at all, and whose very notion is a contradiction in terms?

To put it provocatively, I would turn this around. I mean, for me an 'experience' is precisely the kind of experience having an essentially problematic relationship to language, whereas the kind of experience that lends itself easily to translation into words is, for me, only a bastard variant of experience. Or, at least, a variant of experience that will not give us access to the full philosophical richness of the notion of experience. Think, in this context, of the scientific experiment—that gives us, as I shall be the first to admit, an experience of the world. As Bacon so perceptively argued, the scientific experiment is, in fact, a question that we ask of nature. We have a certain theory about some aspect of nature; we then devise an experiment to test this theory and, by doing so, we necessitate nature to answer us in the 'language of the theory in question'. So, indeed, if you have science in mind, you might well say that there 'that language goes all the way down' and that there is no experience without a language in which the experience can be expressed. But I would agree here with Walter Benjamin when he wrote in his essay on 'The future program of philosophy' that the experimentalist conception of experience is a mere caricature of what experience can be.

To give substance to this claim has been a large part of my effort when writing the book on historical experience. I have been well aware, all the time that I was writing the book, that I was attacking a most powerful enemy when trying to rescue experience from its reduction to what we may associate with the scientific experiment. For almost all of Western philosophy—and especially all of the epistemological tradition from Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant down to contemporary philosophy of science and of language—is wholly on the side of the experimentalist conception of experience. However, when realizing this myself, I was struck by the fact that there is one weak spot in the everywhere else so strong and impenetrable harness of the epistemological tradition. This weak spot is the notion of the sublime.

Recall here that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are the Golden Age of both epistemology and of speculations on the sublime. Recall, next, how strange and paradoxical this, in fact, is. For in so far as the sublime is suggestive of an experience of the world that is somehow at odds with how experience and knowledge come about according to the epistemological explanation of experience and knowledge, one would infer that such a thing as sublime experience is simply impossible and unthinkable. Is it not ruled out, eo ipso, by the very framework of epistemology itself? Think, for example, how Burke's notion of the sublime as a going together of the pleasant and the terrible is strictly forbidden by the empiricist psychology of Locke that had been Burke's philosophical point of departure. Think, moreover, of how in Kant's notion of the mathematical sublime the imagination appeals to the faculty of Reason, whereas the Kant of the first Critique ties the imagination to the categories of the understanding.

So then you begin to ask yourself, why is this so? Why do these epistemologists, why did a Kant (who has certainly been the epistemologist par excellence in all of the history of Western thought), suddenly feel tempted to propose a notion of (sublime) experience that seems to run counter to all that they have been arguing for as epistemologists? The answer is, I think, to be found in a reflection on the perspective, or point of view, from which epistemological systems are constructed and developed. If the philosopher is telling us how experience and knowledge (can) come into being, he does so from a perspective from which experience and knowledge can be objectified. That is to say, he assumes a perspective that is outside experience and knowledge itself. And only after having assumed that (sublime) point of view can he explain to us how all 'the ropes and pulleys of the faculties of the mind' (to use Gilbert Ryle's amusing characteristic of the Kantian system) succeed in nicely cooperating together in order to achieve experience and knowledge.

But—and this is the crucial insight—to the extent that all this is the case, we have created for ourselves with this perspective also a platform for conceiving of an illegitimate behaviour of these faculties of the mind. Put differently, an epistemological system can only be formulated on a level that is outside the domain where epistemology is operative and where irregular epistemological behaviour can be expressed and be meaningfully discussed. In this way epistemology has an inbuilt tendency to deconstruct itself; in this way, all epistemology has a natural penchant for the sublime and, in this way, we can understand why the triumphs of epistemology are also the triumphs of its own denial, namely of the sublime. Indeed, the standpoint itself of the epistemologist is sublime.

Now, once we have attained this insight, it is all very simple, and merely a matter of having 'le courage de ses opinions' and of resisting to surrender again to our epistemological reflexes. I mean, once you have assumed the position from which the epistemologist ordinarily argues—and thus the position of the possibility of sublime experience—as we have seen just now, then you should not return to the nuts and bolts of the epistemological machinery. So this is why I say that one should radically cut through the ties between sublime experience and truth. Truth is an epistemological notion—and as soon as you use it you will inevitably be reduced again to the experimentalist conception of experience and have abandoned the standpoint of the sublime. This may serve as an answer to the last part of your question.

The next problem is, of course, what all this should mean for (sublime) historical experience. In order to deal with this question I shall first make a somewhat general remark; and then I shall turn to sublime historical experience itself. My general remark can be formulated in an admittedly regrettably intuitive way as follows. Sublime experience is squeezed out of existence in epistemology by leaving no room whatsoever between the knowing subject and the known object. Epistemology is all the more successful to the extent that the frontiers between the subject and the object become infinitesimally thin so that all that happens in the process of having experience of the world and of acquiring knowledge can be explained in terms of the subject and the object. Think, again, of the scientific experiment: on the one hand you have the subject with his theories, his language, his categories of the understanding etc., and on the other hand there is nature. There is nothing, a mere empty vacuum, between the two of them, and as soon as there would yet be something between them, the epistemologist will immediately rush up and divide this 'something' again into a part that will be handed over to the subject and another part that will be given to the object. And, indeed, if this film between subject and object has become so thin as to be no longer perceptible with even the strongest microscope, then we may well say (with Rorty) that 'language does go all the way down' and that experience can never escape the scope and imperialism of language.

The lesson we may learn from this is that sublime (historical) experience is to be situated in this domain between subject and object; and that we can only do this on the condition that we grant to (sublime) experience a certain independence, autonomy, or even priority to both the subject and the object.

This, then, is essentially what I have been trying to do in my book on historical experience; or, to put it provocatively, for me sublime historical experience is an experience without a subject and without an object of experience. There then is just the experience; sublime experience is not an experience of something by somebody. Experience then has acquired a logical status of its own, next to and apart from that of the subject and the object (and, in order to avoid a new item on the already long list of how I have been misunderstood by my colleagues, I hasten to add that I am not in the least wishing to deny the existence of subject and object under more ordinary circumstances—I am talking here exclusively about the sublime, and not everything is sublime, of course). This brings me to your question and where you speak of an 'experience about an event and experience of an event'. For the funny thing is that you could not say something like this in the case of sublime historical experience: in the case of sublime experience there is just the experience and not an object or a subject of experience (just as in the case of a terrible pain there is only the pain—you then are the pain, so to say, and there is nothing but the pain).

And this clarification in terms of pain is far from being beside the point: for when I speak about sublime historical experience in the book, this is mostly in the context of the pain of having lost a former self. The past only comes into being as a trace of this pain. But it all begins with this pain. Next, there may be the trace. This is why I would distinguish between sublime historical experience in the proper sense of the word and the kind of nostalgic experience of the past that I had discussed in the last chapter of my History and Tropology. As I explained there, the nostalgic experience of the past is an experience of difference (between the present and the past, to put it somewhat bluntly). But as such, this nostalgic experience of the past presupposes the existence of this difference. And this is different with sublime historical experience: here this difference comes into being, so to say, the past and the present grow apart. And the mechanisms of this growing apart have, in my view, best been captured by Walter Benjamin with his notion of the aura.

RG: Now, I want our conversation to step into the moot terrain of 'ethics' and our 'doing of history'. For me history, ethics, religion and politics have a pregnant relationship where we come to confront several intricate issues like communalism, impositionalist ideology and sociocultural prejudice. The greatest upheaval in communal politics (after partition) in the Indian subcontinent is the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, and the entire bloody conflagration in the wake of it left behind an indelible scar. (The Hindu - Muslim skirmishes have often exploded into mass carnage and has left behind tumultuous and tormenting memories no less deep seated and scary than the holocaust.) Scores of writings on it followed but the lid on the controversy has still not been put; rather, it got aggravated by the recent report of the Archaeological Survey of India (2003) which declared the Masjid site as originally belonging to a Hindu temple. This, however, does not validate the destruction. The destructive vandalism of the mosque should be made the target of vociferous condemnation for such dastardly acts can propel other efforts of demolition violating the ethics of archaeology. Would it mean that any vestige of Buddhist and Jain establishments beneath a temple structure would legitimize its destruction? Quite truly, such acts would negate one of the constitutive principles of archaeology and historical retribution and repossession can become the most dangerous of arguments for the country's vast architectural inheritance.

But such monstrous appropriation apart, interrogations as to the 'status' of a site can make a 'thoughtful' difference to our ever growing transdisciplinary matrix of historical studies. Even if remnants of a temple remain beneath the mosque or traces of a mosque are found underneath a temple it does not cast a 'real-life' difference to our existential configurations, but it does create a difference to our understanding of history and the fibre of historical discourse, initiating invigorating explosions within the hypostasized and crystallized historiography. Why can't we have a history that questions the existence of a Hindu temple or a Masjid, looks into the intermeshing patterns of religio-cultural-political emblazonment that makes the texture of historiography more problematic and thereby more interesting? Why can't such 'ethicalization of history' outdo all efforts to over-politicize such issues that fan the fires of religious scrimmages? Recharging the nature of history with such communicative praxial intersubjective validity would beget the ground for a politics of tolerance that is respectful of others' sentiments and volition and lend the right foundation to a collaborative ethics that suspends all baleful judgments to raze a masjid or mandir down to simply voice a disagreement with a certain historical truth. The discipline of history and its teaching and dissemination need to imbibe such an ethics of tolerant disagreement where truth cannot be apodictic and trenchantly foundational, discounting 'all' efforts to run little narratives that cut through the rugged singular face of what we call universal history. Don't we then need to reorient our 'historical attitude' so that history comes to be learnt and taught as a space that is not for the virulently prejudiced or politically manipulative or communally blindfolded?

FA: It surely is a fascinating story that you told about a Hindu temple being underneath the Muslim mosque and I can quite well imagine the conflicts that were provoked by the destruction of the mosque in a country where Muslim and Hindus are still not living easily together. All the more so, since we are now getting this kind of problem here in Europe as well.

I am not a religious person myself, and very much aware of the immeasurable disasters created by religion in our past. So I believed the disappearance of religion and the triumph of the Enlightenment (over religion, at least) a very good thing indeed—in so far as I paid any attention to it, which hardly was the case, as I must admit. But now, to my deep regret, religion is all over the place again and resuming its dismal career; think only of what these 'reborn Christians' have done to the USA. It gave us Bush, a War on Terrorism, a clash of religions; in sum, it looks as if we are returning the Middle Ages again (which is a fairly terrible prospect, taking into account the very un-medieval and modern machines of mass destruction that we presently possess). I think we simply cannot afford in our time the luxury of irrationalist, fundamentalist religious creeds. And one can only hope that mankind will return again to the Enlightenment tradition, before it's too late and we commit a religious collective suicide. From that perspective, religion may well prove to be worse than even Marxism.

Anyway this brings me to your questions: 'why can't we have a history that questions the existence of a Hindu temple or of a Masjid [mosque] etc.?' I think that it will not be difficult to give a fairly easy and straightforward answer to this question and those following it: it's religious fanaticism that creates these problems and that stands in the way of careful and impartial historical research and writing.

Perhaps I should still add the following. Some thirty-five years ago J. H. Plumb published a nice little book entitled The Death of the Past[Plumb 1969. There is one aspect of his argument that deserves mention in this context. He said that one of the peculiar features of the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been that both Catholic and Protestant theologians realized themselves that merely repeating their own orthodox religious certainties would not do, if they sincerely wanted to convince their religious opponents. More specifically, if you wanted to convince your opponents, you had to adduce arguments that even your opponents could not reject right away and that would, therefore, possess a certain kind of 'universal' validity. You would then need arguments that transcend the religious opposition and that are, in a way, neutral. Put differently, you would have to appeal to a domain of Truth, lying outside and beyond the two warring religions themselves, in order to 'prove' that your religion is the right one. In my book on Aesthetic Politics I have said a few things about Pascal's amazing insights in the peculiar logic of this type of discussions [Ankersmit 1997, pp. 253 - 254]. And one can agree with Plumb that, because of all this, intellectual warfare in the wars of religion had the unintended consequence of making Truth victorious over religious belief.

I do hope that this scenario may repeat itself in your country—and in my own as well, now that we have to fight again these religious wars of four centuries ago!

RG: So when you mention about Truth getting victorious over religious belief the historians' ethics becomes a matter of serious concern. Romila Thapar, in her exhilaratingly scholarly research on the politics of presentation and representation of the temple at Somanath, points out how multiple voices of history can challenge an event that has got ingrained in the historical consciousness of the subcontinent with an accent on religious discrimination and injustice. In 1026, Mahmud of Ghazni raided the Hindu temple of Somanatha in the state of Gujarat in western India and is 'narrated' as having ransacked it much to the 'roughed up' sentiments of a community. The history of this raid and subsequent events at the site have been reconstructed in the last couple of centuries primarily on the basis of the Turko-Persian sources. But sources like 'local Sanskrit inscription, biographies of kings and merchants written from a Jaina perspectives, epics of Rajput - Turkish relations composed at various Rajput courts, popular narratives of the activities of pirs and gurus' force us to rethink what we thought was hitherto an established truth. To get at different ways of thinking, different mentalities, requires a careful use of source material. It may demand reading the material in a way in which its creators never intended, for meanings they never considered. The question is 'who is remembering or recording what, and why'. What politics of texts are we made to encounter? Forsaking periodization that freezes the understanding of a time-bound history historians' ethics demands that the 'emphases is on multiple sources and their juxtaposition, oral traditions, methods of analyses highlighting cultural and economic history and the social role of religion'. So if narrativization of history is contradictory, should we encourage the 'contradiction' with the message that our reading of history has moved away from simplistic monocausal explanations and that the search for truth is prismatic without being reckless? Is then 'impartial' historical research possible when the sources one needs to work on are intelligently prejudiced? How often are we successful to see through the guise of objectivity? Rather than asking truth to have an unchallenged establishment can we not ask one to accept that challenging truth is the current ethos of history, and religious ideologies need to perspectivize history in such a light providing, thereby, more congeniality for a non-ideological and non-communal quest of historical knowledge?

FA: Once again you raise a number of fascinating and important issues. I think that your question covers most of the problems involved by the issue of historical truth, of narrative and of objectivity. Needless to say, I shall not be able to deal with all of them peremptorily.

But let me start with saying a few things about truth and narrative. When formulating your question you link the notions of truth and of narrative; for example, when you write that 'sources like local Sanskrit inscription, biographies, epics of Rajput - Turkish relations composed at various Rajput courts … force us to rethink what we thought was hitherto an established truth'. And, self-evidently, on the face of it nothing is wrong with this. Who would object to our qualification of a story, or narrative, as being either 'true' or 'false'?

Nevertheless, I venture to disagree with this seemingly so wholly unproblematic use of language: if the notions of truth and/or falsity and of narrative are used in a philosophically responsible way, it can be shown that there are no such things as narratives that are either true or false. In order to defend this untoward claim a momentary 'reculer pour mieux sauter' will be required. And I hope that you will forgive me the following excursion in what I can only see as one of the strangest shortcomings of twentieth-century philosophy of language.

Twentieth-century philosophy has predominantly been a philosophy of language, and of how language relates to the world. It carried on the Kantian epistemological tradition by asking itself the question how language hooks onto the world and what criteria the use of language has to satisfy if language is to be true of what it is about. This has inspired the writings by Russell, Wittgenstein, Tarski, Goodman, Popper, Strawson, Quine, Davidson, Rorty and so many others. It gave us logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, pragmatism and all of the philosophy of science. So no one could possibly doubt how immensely powerful and successful twentieth-century philosophy of language has been. Surely twentieth-century philosophy of language has been a golden age in the history of philosophy.

But there is something strange about philosophy of language; and one can only be amazed by the fact that this has so rarely, if at all been noticed. For though we can only be deeply impressed by the acumen and precision with which it investigated the problems it addressed, we should be no less perplexed by its agenda. Surely, it cannot fail to strike us that philosophy of language has always had a most limited conception of what uses of language demand the philosopher's attention. To put it into one formula: twentieth-century philosophy of language has been a philosophy of the statement, or the proposition, whether we think of how language is used in daily life or in science. That is to say, it has never addressed the problem of the text or of narrative, of how these relate to the world and what criteria have to be satisfied if these are to be true of what they are about. This is all the more remarkable since most of our use of language has the character of being a text or narrative. We need only think here of the stories that we tell each other (or to ourselves, for that matter) in daily life, of what we will find in books, in the newspapers, in judicial reports etc.

Why is this so? One may surmise that the explanation is to be found in a methodological prejudice of twentieth-century philosophy of language. The prejudice in question is that the difficult problem of how language hooks onto the world can only be solved if we begin with the simplest examples of language use. And, indeed, this will certainly reduce us to statements of the 'the cat lies on the mat' type. Looking for something even more elementary than this kind of statement will yield phrases like 'the cat' or 'lies on the mat'. But of these phrases we can no longer say that they are meaningful in themselves, though they are part of meaningful utterances. So the singular true statement came to be regarded as the most simple building block of the temple or our knowledge of the world. And it was believed, albeit tacitly or implicitly, that as soon as the logical problems occasioned by the singular true statement had satisfactorily been solved, narrative would no longer pose any interesting or difficult problems. For what is narrative other than a series of singular statements about certain states of affairs? Think of the writing of history, that prototypical variant of narrative. What is the historian's narrative other than a long and complex sequence of statements about events that have taken place in the past?

But this assumption is wrong: the issue of narrative and of how it relates to the world cannot be reduced to that of the singular true statement. This can be shown by taking into account the two following considerations. In the first place, historical narratives are representations of the past. Think of the etymology of the word 'representation': a representation makes present again, 're-presents', a represented that is absent. This is what historical narrative does: it is a substitute, a replacement of the absent past. And the whole of the historian's effort is to see to it that it does this job of being a substitute of the absent past as well as possible. So if we wish to understand (historical) narrative and how it relates to (past) reality, we shall have to ask ourselves how a representation is related to what it represents. (Historical) narrative can only be understood within a logic of representation.

In the second place, this logic of representation can never be understood in terms of a logic of the singular true statement. For, there is a decisive difference between the two of them. Think of a singular true statement, i.e. of descriptions such as 'this cat is black'. We can then always discern in such statements or descriptions two components: a component that refers ('this cat') and one that attributes a property to what is referred to ('… is black'), and it may well be said that reference and predication are like two screws firmly tying the true description to the world. But these 'screws' are absent in the case of representation. Think, for example, of a photo or painting. One cannot indicate on the photo or the painting components that exclusively refer and others that exclusively attribute certain properties to what is referred to. It is exactly the same with historical narrative. For example, it would be impossible to indicate what elements in a narrative on the French Revolution exclusively refer to that historical phenomenon and what other elements exclusively attribute certain properties to it.

I now get to the part of your question addressing the issue of historical objectivity and of the relationship between historical writing and ethics or politics. For me the essence of this issue is as follows. Ordinarily one constructs a hierarchy between the notions of truth and that of the adequacy of historical narrative or representation—a hierarchy in which truth is the arbiter of the adequacy of historical narrative. Furthermore, the idea always is that the presence of ethics or politics in historical narrative excludes truth. So truth is presented here as a peculiarly self-centred arbiter: whereas we ordinarily expect from a fair and impartial arbiter to see the relative strengths and weaknesses of both parties he has to decide upon, in this case the arbiter is interested in no such thing and only sees himself. This already suggests that truth is not the philosophical forum to turn to if we have to decide upon the merits of historical narratives. Truth is too categorical a criterion: it is not the case that we have, on the one hand, true narratives and, on the other, value-laden narratives and that we should try to find out to which of these two sets a given historical narrative belongs. The picture is not as simple and clear-cut as that. All historical narratives are value-laden, though some are less so than others and though we like some of these values whereas we dislike others. And on top of all this there is the fact there is no clear demarcation line between truth and value. As we all know from the history of historical writing and from the facts about historical discussion, the truths of one historian often are mere values in the eyes of another historian, and vice versa. Think of what we consider to be 'normal': here generalization of how we think people behave imperceptibly shades off into how we think that they ought to behave—and there is no foolproof way to tell the two apart.

But against the background of what I said before, I think there is no reason for despair because of inadequacies of the notion of truth here. I argued that we should avoid applying the notion of truth to historical narrative. It makes sense to say of a historical narrative's individual statements that these are either true or false. But one is guilty of making a category mistake (or of speaking unclearly or elliptically) when saying of a historical narrative that it is either true or false.

Nevertheless, as I have also pointed out, that does not imply that we should be helpless when having to decide about the merits of a historical narrative, its adequacy, or whatever way one would wish to call it. But—and this is my main point—the criteria we then rely upon are aesthetical rather than those that we have learned to associate with (cognitive) truth. I mean aesthetical, in the sense that the metaphorical coherence achieved by the narrative in question will be decisive. Historical narrative convinces much in the same way that we may be struck by the aesthetic beauty of a painting and its capacity to suggest a new way of seeing the world.

One last word, then, about the relationship between truth, narrative and ethics. If, in the end, aesthetic criteria are decisive for assessing the relative merits of individual historical narratives, it follows that these aesthetic criteria may also enable us to decide about moral or political disputes. Aesthetics precedes ethics, to put it all into one formula. For if most, if not all historical narratives are value-laden, and if aesthetic criteria are decisive for narrative or historical adequacy, it follows that we can test moral and political values by establishing whether they inspire good or bad historical narratives. If historical narratives inspired by the set S1 of moral and political values can systematically be refuted by historical narratives inspired by those inspired by the set S2, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that the set S2 is to be preferred to the set S1. In this way aesthetics may help us to discover what ethical and political values we should adopt. The writing of history is, from this perspective, a kind of experimental garden for moral and political values. And this is no small thing: for now we need no longer first put into practice moral and political values or run the risk of getting lost in empty philosophical speculation about them. Our compass here is historical writing: write histories inspired by these values, next see which of them are best—and then you will know what moral and political values you should adopt.

RG: It is very well put. I have always believed that the culture of 'writing history' within the fluid and volatile force field of the Indian subcontinent where I work, and which is quite different from the 'historical space' within which you work in the Netherlands, needs to grow an attitude around these nodes of realization. The historian's duties primarily stem from his or her understanding of the valuational investment in historiography. For me, then, there lies the potential problem of growing a 'historical attitude' in the Indian subcontinent amidst the duress of religion and intransigent myths, shifting ideologies, the convoluted matrix of politics and diplomacy, the institutional dictation, peer pressure, ethics of archaeology, politicization of evidence and history textbooks, manipulation of discourse and other related interdependencies and intricacies. The historian's job, to put it straight, is very tricky as she/he needs ideally to steer clear of all such distractions and convolutions. To what extent is that possible? Can our 'historical attitude' really be unalloyedly objective, non-ideological and non-impositional to the core? Are historians totally vaccinated against such encroachments? Despite our best efforts, I think, our 'historical attitude' and hence the future of historiography cannot but be tainted, albeit faintly, by the inevitability of such 'contamination'.

FA: You say that the historian ought to steer clear of all the distractions and convolutions that determine the social, political and religious context in which the historian is working. This concerns, of course, the old question of whether the historian can and should be 'unalloyedly objective', as you put it yourself, or not, of course. The issue has been discussed since Lucianus in the second century AD down to the present day and the discussion has always been most predictable. For the simple fact is that the notions of subjectivity and objectivity themselves already indicated what is at stake in this discussion, while suggesting, furthermore, more or less spontaneously what kind of arguments one had best appeal to. Take the term 'subjectivity': clearly the term suggests that the subject, that is the historian, will always be present somehow in what he writes about the past and that, hence, his writings will always be, to a greater or lesser degree, 'subjective'. Reversely, the term 'objectivity' no less clearly suggests that the historian ought to let the objective facts speak for themselves—as Lucianus and Ranke, in almost identical wordings, had argued: it is the historian's task to show the past as it has actually been ('er muss bloss zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen'). Right from the beginning of the discussion—two thousand years ago—these were the two positions taken in the debate; and since then, the debate has been little more than an endless, and somewhat fatiguing see-saw between the two of them and in which only rarely really new arguments were introduced.

Nevertheless, such a new element can be added to the old debate if we ask ourselves whether it is correct that the notions of the object (and objectivity) and of the subject (and of subjectivity) are, or should be, the only two protagonists in this discussion. At this stage I would like to introduce again the notion of experience. Obviously, we should locate this notion somewhere between the subject and the object: Thanks to experience the subject (the historian) can get access to the object (part of the past).

I would now like to remind you of what I said in an earlier phase of our discussion about experience and about how experience always runs the risk of being mangled between the subject (which is what happens in empiricism). This philosophical strategy of allowing experience to be the witless plaything of the subject and the object may be OK for the sciences, I don't know. But it is certainly wrong for history and the humanities. For in the humanities you have no clear distinction between subject and object (as always is the case in the sciences)—and then experience has the occasion to emancipate itself from both. Just as a nation situated at a place where the influences of two other powerful nations cancel each other out has the occasion to become an autonomous factor in world politics. And so it is here. Think, for example, of the impossibility of indicating in history and the humanities where the subject ends and the object begins (a question that never confronts us with insoluble problems in the sciences). Where do you, as a subject, end and where does your history begin? One might even argue with Locke and Freud that we are our histories. And much the same is true on a collective scale: we could say that 'History' exists only in so far as it lives on in our minds, or in our collective mind. So here the demarcation between subject and object behave most irregularly, and this will also enable experience to reassert its rights.

Now, think of the following passage from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

When I say 'I am in pain', I do not point to a person who is in pain, since in a certain sense I have no idea who is. And this can be given a justification. For the main point is: I did not say that such-and-such a person was in pain, but 'I am …'. Now in saying this I don't name any person. Just as I don't name anyone when I groan with pain. Though someone else sees who is in pain from the groaning. What does it mean to know who is in pain[emphasis added]? It means, for example, to know which man in this room is in pain: for instance, that it is the one who is sitting over there, or the one who is standing in that corner, the tall one over there with the fair hair, and so on.—What am I getting at? At the fact that there is a great variety of criteria for personal 'identity'. Now which of them determines my saying that 'I' am in pain? None.
(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigation, 1974, p. 404)

Wittgenstein make here the point that saying 'I am in pain' should be distinguished from statements like 'it is raining now' or 'I am the boss here' since the former is, unlike the other two, not an expression of certainty, of having and/or expressing knowledge. Hence Wittgenstein's at first sight amazing claim that, in a certain sense, you have no idea of who is in pain if you say 'I am in pain'. The difference is that we only use the phrase 'I know that p' in contexts in which I could, in principle, be mistaken about the truth of p. And obviously this is not the case with being in pain.

Hence, from a logical point of view, the statement 'I am in pain' could be exchanged by a simple groaning from pain and where the latter certainly does not have the pretension to express a certainty or true belief. So in the case of the experience of pain the statement expressing the experience—though it seems to give a correct description of a certain state of affairs—has, in fact, the same status as an inarticulate groan. All that we normally associate with true statements and what true statements may express about what they are true of is then most misleadingly relied upon if we try to read in statements such as '(I know that) I am in pain'more than the inarticulate groan. But the groan does not express a truth; and because of the equivalence of groan and the statement '(I know that) I am in pain', the same is true of the statement, in spite of what it seems to say. So the groan should not be modelled on the logic of statement—it is the reverse, the statement should be modelled on that of the groan.

We can take this a little further. In the case of statements like 'it's raining now' or 'I am the boss here' we have no difficulty in finding out who is the subject making the statement and the state of affairs that the statement is about—its 'object', so to say. But this is different with the groan and, hence, also with its logical equivalent, the statement 'I am in pain'. The groan is not a statement about the pain (its alleged object) and has no subject either (as Wittgenstein argued: 'when saying I am in pain, I do not point to a person who is in pain, since in a certain sense I have no idea who is'). Subject and object have been relegated to the background, so to speak, and there is only the experience of pain and the groan in terms of which the experience speaks to us. Indeed, the experience is given language here. One may find much the same thing in Bataille and Blanchot—and the idea then always is (again) that in the case of a terrible pain, there is only the pain and no longer a subject (the person having the pain) and an object (the pain itself). Subject and object then coincide with experience or have been subsumed in it—and experience now reigns supreme over the two of them.

Now, if we bear this in mind, we will recognize that the issue of objectivity and subjectivity will present itself in a completely new and different way if we leave room for the notion of experience—and when speaking of experience here, the experience of pain should be our model (and not, for example, the experience of a book presently lying on my desk). This, then, is what I dealt with at great length in my book Sublime Historical Experience that has just come out [Ankersmit 2005. I focus there on certain stages in the history of the West (such as the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern World of the French Revolution), which all involved the loss of a previous world and the birth of a new historical identity—an identity that was, to a large extent, an abnegation of a former historical identity. And where the new identity is, to a large extent, this abnegation of a former identity, so that one can say that 'one has become what one is no longer'. The idea has been marvellously summed up in a short poem by Emily Dickinson: 'The heart cannot forget/ Unless it contemplates /What it declines'. Such phases are the most painful in the history of the West (and recall, in this context, that Emily Dickinson wrote her poem after having recognized the man she loved most would never love her).

Think, then, of the historians writing about these most painful phases in our history; historians such as Guicciardini, Machiavelli, and all these French historians wrestling in the first half of the nineteenth century with the terrible legacy of the Great Revolution. What they wrote, their many books, are much like this groan that Wittgenstein was talking about: they gave voice to an experience of the past, they made historical experience speak.

And then we are, just as with Wittgenstein's groan, far removed from the safe and trusted kind of historical writing where the historian (subject) gives us information, or knowledge, about some part of the past (the object). For here is neither subject nor object, nor truth, and hence the whole machinery of the objectivity or the subjectivity of historical writing simply lacks application here. What should we say about the groan? That it is subjective since it is has been produced by the person who is in pain (and therefore to be 'doubted')? Or that it is objective, since now the pain literally speaks itself to us here? Both options sound fairly ridiculous. And so it is with these historians I just mentioned: if historical writing has been provoked by a historical experience the issue of subjectivity and of objectivity simply makes no sense any more.

One last word, in this exposition I have continuously emphasized this relegation to the background of the categories of the subject and of the object in the case of the experience of pain. Now, recall that these categories of the subject and the object are always the main dramatis personae in epistemological thought: epistemology always asks the old Kantian question of how the subject can acquire knowledge of the object, of the world. So when experience drives out the subject and the object—and, hence, the epistemological schemata defining their relationship—we can only conclude that experience (as understood here) has brought us to the level of the sublime. And this is why my book—dealing with these terrible phases in the history of the West—is entitled Sublime Historical Experience.

RG: Thank you, Frank. It was truly an intensive engagement!