Comments on F. R. Ankersmit's Paper, "Historicism: An Attempt at Synthesis"

My differences with F. R. Ankersmit's essay are historiographical and theoretical. On the historiographical plane I disagree with the sharp distinction he draws between the "ontological realism" of Enlightenment historiography and the historical outlook of classical historicism. An examination of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire shows that Gibbon indeed takes into account internal changes in the Roman Empire. Ranke and Droysen on the other hand assume that the subjects of their study, whether the Papacy or the Prussian state, preserve their identity through time. And in their attempt to "raise history to the rank of a science" (Droysen), historicists in seeking to show wie es eigentlich gewesen (Ranke), go farther in the direction of realism than do Enlightenment historians who are keenly aware of the role of perspective and of the literary and aesthetic aspects of historical writing. On the theoretical plane, although I agree with Ankersmit that metaphor occupies a central role in historical discourse, I disagree when he writes that "coherence has its source either in reality or in the language we use for speaking about it. There is no third possibility." I argue that while reality can be approached only through the mediation of language and metaphor, these presuppose a reality which can be known, no matter how complex and mediated the process of cognitive approximation may be. Rejecting historical realism, Ankersmit nevertheless wants to "encounter the past with the same directness with which anthropologists encounter the alien culture," and thus to escape "all the ideological and emancipatory pretensions of its historiographical predecessor." Yet the very "new cultural history" he takes as an example shows that this cannot be done.
ISBN: 
ISSN: 
00182656

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