The Past is [Not] What it is or What it Was
by Daniel A. Kaufman
My title is derived from a comment made by our own Mark English, in a recent discussion on his excellent essay on history. The thought his comment expresses is mistaken, but in the best sort of way, for explaining where it goes wrong helps us to understand something essential – and difficult – about history.
Before we get to history, however, there is a more general point I want to address. In my exchange with Mark, he also said the following:
“[You] are talking about accounts of the past (i.e. historical narratives). I was talking about whatever it is which such accounts normally purport to be about.”
If you thought this smacked of the distinction between a representation and the ding an sich or of the schism between a conceptual scheme and the content it “organizes,” you’d be right, and like these other dualisms, it must be rejected. Kant showed us that the distinction the Enlightenment philosophers made between representation and world on the basis of “mind-dependence/independence” could not be sustained, because mind penetrates the world as much as the world penetrates the mind. One can speak, generically, of the world as unperceived and unconceived, but this “thing in itself” is not the object of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. Hence, Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, with the former being the object of empirical investigation and the latter nothing more than an abstract postulate.
The point is difficult to express (and to accept) and varieties and versions of it have had to be reiterated again and again, in the centuries since Kant, as a failure to heed (or grasp) it core lesson either leaves us with something incoherent or lands us in a skeptical hole, from which there is no climbing out. We find a version of this lesson in Quine’s “Ontological Relativity,” where we discover that the “analytical hypotheses” belonging to our languages cannot be disentangled from the world itself: does the native in the radical translation scenario speak of rabbits or rabbit-stages, when he utters ‘gavagai’, and beyond that, what distinguishes actual rabbits from rabbit-stages, beyond systems of individuation or counting? The answer, of course, is “nothing,” which is why Quine says: “What makes sense is to say not what the objects of a theory are, absolutely speaking, but how one theory of objects is interpretable or reinterpretable in another.” (1)
We find a variation on a similar theme in Davidson who observes that to apply any sort of scheme to something presupposes that it already has parts and pieces, and yet, the fact that it has parts and pieces means it already is the product of an organizing scheme. “Someone who sets out to organize a closet arranges the things in it,” Davidson explains. “If you are told not to organize the shoes and shirts, but the closet itself, you would be bewildered.” His target, of course, is the “scheme/content” distinction – what he calls the “third dogma of empiricism” – something that Mark clearly seems guilty of embracing, with his talk of “the thing our accounts are supposed to be about.” There is no such thing, nor does it really make sense to speak of there being one, which is why for Davidson, talk of “the world” or the “reality” which our statements are supposed to be “about” collapses into talk about the truth of those statements:
Nothing … no thing, makes sentences and theories true: not experience, not surface irritations, not the world, can make a sentence true. That experience takes a certain course, that our skin is warmed or punctured, that the universe is finite, these facts, if we like to talk that way, make sentences and theories true. But this point is put better without mention of facts. The sentence “My skin is warm” is true if and only if my skin is warm. Here there is no reference to a fact, a world, an experience, or a piece of evidence. (2)
These are some of the most formidable arguments in the analytic tradition made by some of its most formidable philosophers. Thus far, when challenged along these lines, Mark has simply said that “there is a profound difference in the way we see the world,” but I’m afraid that won’t fly. The arguments have to be confronted straightforwardly and in a substantive way.
Everything I’ve just said applies to empirical statements as such. When we focus more closely on historical statements – i.e. statements about what occurred in the past – the situation is, of course, far worse … at least for Mark and what I will call his “neo-Empiricism.” For those of us not inclined to make the sorts of demarcations he seems intent on making or otherwise enamored with his brand of Empiricism, living with the fact that all empirical statements involve the inextricable entanglement of mind and world, representation and world, scheme and world, or what have you is untroublesome.
In the current iteration of my Philosophical Ideas in Literature course, I teach Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), which provides the perfect platform from which to talk with students about the entanglement of fact and interpretation in our talk of the past; of history. The novel describes an alternative history in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, and the United States has been divided up between German and Japanese empires, the Germans controlling the East Coast, the Japanese the West. An illicit alternate-history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies were victorious over the Axis in the war, is circulated throughout the underground. (This remarkable novel-within-a-novel structure, with its inversion of the reality and alternate-reality, is one of the reasons the book won the Hugo Award the next year.)
Without going into the details of the story, which are fascinating, we are given the very strong impression by the end of High Castle — and I would argue that it is more than that – that in fact, the Allies did win the war, the setting and plot and details of the novel notwithstanding, and in a bizarre momentary interlude, one of the main characters, Nobusuke Tagomi, abruptly finds himself in what seems to be that version of history, only to almost immediately shift back. While one of the most striking moments in the book from a narrative perspective, it’s unclear to me whether Dick was wise to include it, because it inevitably leads many readers down a silly (and boring) interpretive path, according to which the book’s setting is the product of a weird dimensional shift or some other tired science fiction trope, a reading that has the unfortunate effect of rendering the really fascinating questions the book raises about the nature of the past much more difficult to see.
So, I discourage this reading of High Castle and stipulate to my students: The world is exactly as the book describes it. And it is also the case that the Allies won the war. Then I ask them: How is that possible? What does it mean?
Some of the students immediately see the pressure that Dick is applying to the idea of an historical fact and its relationship to – and entanglement with – interpretations. Clearly the problem is far less acute with certain kinds of historical statements. “The Allied destroyer X, sank on ___, in 1940” seems relatively easy to negotiate, although the problems described in the first part of this essay still apply. But it is worth noting that the sorts of statements about the past that enjoy this relatively unproblematic status are inevitably the least interesting ones. It’s the stuff that we really want to know that poses the greater difficulty. “At the end of the war, the Allies were the victors” or “The war began in _____.” It is statements like these that really demonstrate the way in which the past is hopelessly and inextricably entangled with its interpretation.
The cleverer students ask in what sense the Germans and Japanese in the book are rightfully described as victors. Their lot, as described to us, is shit. Hitler is in the late stages of syphilitic dementia, and the members of the high command are busy knifing each other (figuratively and literally) for power. The German thirst for never-ending expansion is unhinged and self-destructive (their effort to conquer space is depicted as particularly deranged), and they are planning to go to war with the Japanese, which will almost certainly be catastrophic. The Japanese, meanwhile, are stagnant and superstitious, ossified in their rigid hierarchies and formalities, and weirdly preoccupied with the ancient oracle, the I-Ching, which they compulsively consult prior to every important decision they make. Significant portions of the world remain unconquered and a substantial resistance flourishes in the US, in the unoccupied Midwest and Mountain States. So, did the Germans and Japanese “win”? Well it depends on what you mean by “win.” Is a Pyrrhic victory a victory? It depends on what you mean by “victory.”
One needn’t turn to fiction to raise this crucial cluster of issues. Whether the Americans won or lost the Vietnam war was a divisive, sore point in American politics for the greater part of my life, and the issue only really lost its capacity to raise hackles after the end of the Cold War, decades later. What started it and when it started was almost as divisive a question. Was the Tet Offensive a victory for the North or a defeat? It depends, it depends, and it depends. And notice that the problem is not one of a lack of sufficient evidence; that if we just had more information, we’d know the answer. With respect to questions like this — who won? who lost? when did it start? why did it start? — the very fact of the matter is bound up with how one interprets key terms and in what light one considers key evidence.
Mark has told us that “the past is what it is or what it was,” suggesting – no, implying – that there is some fact of the matter with regard to it, independent of our interpretations; that there is an historical “reality” independent of our conceptualizations; that the past is part of “the world” that our narratives are “about.”
So what is/was it? Did the Americans win or lose in Vietnam? Were the Axis or the Allies the victors in The Man in the High Castle?
Which past is or was?
The answer, of course, is “All of them. And perhaps a bunch more that we haven’t yet considered.”
(1) For my thoughts re: Quine on this point and others, see:
(2) For my thoughts re: Davidson on this point and others, see: