Thinking The Historical (and The Non-Historical) “Historically”


The main reason that people don’t think history “historically” enough is that what separates the historical epoch from others is not the existence of written records. Many written records exist in earlier times and other cultures from what is considered “historical”.  This failure also results in non-historical texts not being thought in an appropriately historical way.  The “historical record”, initially based on analogy with bookkeeping, is largely built from records written with a projected future historian as the intended reader. This is the root of Hegel’s point that history is by definition rational, since the act of recording it was always guided by a specific, ‘rational’ notion of history in the first place.

Thus history proper is not simply an accidental record of events, but a back and forth projection. It changes somewhat insofar as our own assumptions change and project what has been differently, but is always guided by the presuppositions of those who recorded it and thus projected what will have been from their position in it. Trying to apply that interpretive framework to texts not written with the notion of the historical in mind results in the kinds of misinterpretations that fuel both ISIS and Islamophobia.

Under ‘rational’ assumptions, such texts as those of early Islam can be taken as either literal or symbolic (and the notion of “literal” itself, meaning “as written”, adds a further problematic dimension to interpreting something written), but those texts were in fact written as neither literal nor symbolic, but as revelatory. The same is true of Christian and Jewish religious texts, and in fact of most religious texts worldwide. Revelatory texts, to be understood, require an experience of the revelatory itself, and in fact many such texts were intended precisely to provoke the experience necessary for understanding them.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Mind) is in fact a revelatory text, but the content of the revelation is the nature of revelation itself as reflexive understanding, and as such attempts to provoke not only the experience, but the experience of understanding the experience of revelation. There is no guarantee, though, as with any other revelatory text, that it will in fact be understood by any given reader. Other reflexively revelatory texts include Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Thus Spake Zarathustra and Martin Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (from Enowning) . All three are considered among the most “difficult” texts in philosophy precisely because approaching them with the usual, rational, interpretive apparatus of philosophy itself will get the reader nowhere.

As a projection, though, the rational on its own cannot give any guidance as to what to record content-wise, since it can only account-for something already given.  As a result while history is by definition formally rational, its content is tacitly determined by something else.  This something else, in the western world, is factually a priori revelation, for the most part in the west revelatory texts associated with the Christian religion and its immediate antecedents, but also with those of Islam, with which we share antecedent revelatory texts and with whom there has been significant mutual influence over the past millennium,  and with specific westernisations of eastern revelatory texts.  Thus the underlying assumptions of the most formally rational thinking are inherently revelatory and religious in nature, while our rational interpretation of revelatory texts themselves as either literal or symbolic completely misses the thrust and intent of the very texts that underlie our basic thought processes.

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