Historicity unraveled

Historicity  unraveled


he concept of historicity in philosophy refers to the idea that various elements such as concepts, practices and values have historical origins and have evolved over time. This notion contrasts with the belief that such things, especially normative institutions or related ideologies are inherent, natural and ever present.

Historicity refers to the factuality or authenticity of past events or figures. It pertains to the question of whether something actually happened in the past and the extent to which it can be verified as historically true. One ought to bear in mind that history is the study of the past; historiography is the study of sources, methods and assumptions used by historians in writing mainstream history; and historicity is the process of separating fact from legend and recreating what actually happened.

Differently put, historicity is intertwined with the broader concepts of history, including teleology (the study of purpose and progress), temporality (the understanding of time), and historiography (the study of history). Different perspectives on historicity may highlight either a linear progression or the cyclical recurrence of past events. Historicity can thus have simpler or more complex meanings. The simple meaning is the question of whether it is a fact or not that something existed or occurred in the past; more significantly, whether its existence or occurrence in the past participates in a process of development in time involving other events or entities.

Various concepts of historicity

In the field of phenomenology, which explores human experience and consciousness, historicity refers to the way intentional objects — things we think about, perceive or are aware of — develop over time. This evolution occurs in two forms: through tradition, which includes the customs and practices passed down through generations; and through individual history, which is a person’s unique experiences and actions. While an individual’s history is often shaped by the traditions surrounding them, it can also diverge and lead to the creation of objects or ideas that are outside of existing traditions.

The 20th Century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in his path-breaking book, Being and Time, proposed that history emerges from the concept of temporality, meaning that everything is connected to its particular time and place. According to Heidegger, nothing from the past is separate from history; instead, history encompasses all things from the past. Heidegger’s views on historicity were influenced by people like German polymath Wilhelm Dilthey and Paul Yorck von Wartenburg.

Heidegger believed that understanding the interconnectedness of the past, present and future in historical actions leads to what he called authentic historicity. This authentic understanding allows individuals to grasp how their actions are influenced by the past and how they will impact the future. By recognising these connections, people can gain a deeper comprehension of the historical context of their decisions and experiences.

In his influential work, The End of History and the Last Man, political theorist Francis Fukuyama proposed a provocative argument about the course of history. He claimed that the fall of Soviet communism signalled the “end of history” in the sense that it marked the conclusion of major ideological conflicts on a global scale. Fukuyama saw the triumph of liberal capitalism as the final form of human government and the endpoint of humanity’s political and ideological evolution.

This notion of the “end of history” connects with the concept of historicity in important ways. Fukuyama’s argument suggests that human society has reached a point where historical progress in terms of competing ideologies has effectively halted. He believed that the victory of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism represented a kind of culmination of history’s teleological path — a belief in an inevitable progression towards a specific endpoint.

However, this view is debatable. It presupposes a linear and deterministic trajectory of history. Fukuyama’s thesis might oversimplify the complexity of historical development and its cyclical or unpredictable nature. It also fails to account for the potential rise of new ideologies or forms of government that may challenge the dominance of liberal capitalism.

For history students, understanding Fukuyama’s perspective provides insight into one interpretation of history’s trajectory. It prompts a discussion about the broader themes of historicity, including the ongoing relevance and impact of past ideologies and struggles. While Fukuyama’s view suggests a sort of closure to ideological evolution, it also invites students to critically examine whether history is truly linear or if it continues to evolve in unexpected ways. In this sense, Fukuyama’s argument offers a starting point for exploring the complexities and uncertainties of historical development.

Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist, philosopher and poet, with interest also in cultural studies is best known for his analyses of media, contemporary culture and technological communication, as well as his formulation of concepts such as hyper-reality. Baudrillard offered a contrasting view on the “end of history.”

In works such as Fatal Strategies and The Illusion of the End he critiqued the notion of historicity and its perceived endpoint. Baudrillard contended that modernity’s pursuit of progress, civilisation and rational unification had created an illusory goal. However, toward the end of the 20th Century, the accelerating pace of society disrupted the linear progression of history, rendering its trajectory unstable — a critique that drew criticism from physicist Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont for Baudrillard’s alleged misuse of physical concepts such as linear time and stability.

Baudrillard sardonically remarked that the “end of history” also signalled the end of history’s proverbial dustbins. Traditional mechanisms for discarding outdated ideologies, regimes and values had disappeared. He lamented that history itself had become a dustbin, much like the planet, underscoring the existential risks and challenges faced in a post-historical world.

Baudrillard’s view of history aligns with post-modern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s ideas. Both believe that society, especially Western society, has moved away from grand narratives of history, such as the rise of communism or the progress of civilised modern society. Baudrillard extends this argument by suggesting that while society may have left these grand narratives behind, the global world, as distinct from a universal humanity, is still trapped in a cycle of endlessly repeating the illusion of an “end of history” scenario.

In other words, society acts as though history has ended, but it keeps re-enacting this supposed end in a loop, creating a false sense of closure. This hyper-teleological perspective resembles Giorgio Agamben’s idea in Means without Ends, where Western society limits itself to means justified by nonexistent ends.

In contrast, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian American academic and the author of the influential work in anthropology Silencing the Past, offers a different perspective on historicity. He avers that the difference between what actually happened and how it is recorded can itself be a historical process, a subject taken up also by EH Carr in his What is History.

This perspective highlights the complexity of interpreting historical events and narratives. Historicity as a concept leaves little space for the context as well as human agency.

To conclude this piece, I want to extend thanks to Dr Afzal Khan, from the faculty of philosophy at Government College University, Lahore for drawing my attention to the pioneering role of Wilhelm Dilthey in coining the term historicism and in according it a different connotation from what Hegel and his ilk had professed.

The writer is a professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

Historicity unraveled