Experience and History: Phenomenological perspectives on the Historical World

In his new book Experience and History, David Carr defends the phenomenological approach to history he developed in Time, Narrative, and History (1986) and tries to show the continued relevance of phenomenology to the basic problems of philosophy of history. During recent decades philosophy of history was first dominated by the linguistic turn and then by the themes of memory, the ethical turn and the presence of the past. Carr emphasises that his perspective differs from objectivist realism and representationalism, as well as from versions of narrativism such as Frank Ankersmit’s and Hayden White’s.

In this book the central concept is experience, rather than representation, narrative or memory. Why experience? Firstly, because the category of experience has often been left out between representations and the past, secondly, because the aspect of experience indicates alternative solutions to some of the problems of philosophy of history, and thirdly, because analyzing the experience of a phenomenon – in this case ’history’ and ’the historical’ – belongs to the phenomenological method.

In chapter I Carr distinguishes and analyzes a number of different ways of understanding experience, the most important of which are: 1) particular, immediate, passive impressions based on the senses (Locke’s ”experience”; Hume’s ”impression”); 2) long-term, cumulative and mediated experience, like life experience (Hume’s ”experience”; 3) experience of objects as synthesized, made possible and conditioned by an active mind and the atemporal understanding (Kant); 4) romanticist, mystical-religious Erlebnis, often emotional experience transcending the dull, everyday reality (Buber; James). The phenomenological understanding of experience with its intentionality, temporality and intersubjectivity that Carr then explicates, based on Husserl and Heidegger, is actually different from all of the four mentioned concepts of experience, although there are some overlapping traits. The objects of experience are mediated and constituted by the retention–protention-structure of the actively interpreting consciousness, which is itself characterized by historicity.

A general problem with the paradigms of representation and memory, according to Carr, concerns the understanding of the relation between historical narratives and what they are about, often conceived of in terms of the reality of the past. He criticizes both of these paradigms for positing a gap between present representations or memories and the past. That way of understanding the problem, as a gap to be overcome, is actually part of the problem. It usually implicitly presupposes a notion of historical reality consisting of an endless number of past singular events, in relation to which the narrative structure of historical narratives is understood as something external and superimposed on reality. That makes it necessary to address the ontological question of what kind of reality historical narratives are about, not only epistemological questions of what is possible to know about the past, whether it is possible to reach the past etc. The reality that historical narratives are about should not be understood in terms of naturalism, as something objective and unchanging, independent of the interpreting subject. In a certain sense, the relevant reality does have a narrative structure, according to Carr. This is where the question of phenomenological experience enters.

There are different ways of intending one and the same object, different forms of experience, different ways of organizing experience and its objects, different a priori conditions of experience, and in a certain sense, different regional ontologies. An historical phenomenon is experienced as historical within a time horizon, in relation to what came after, and indirectly in relation to the present of the interpreter. Just like, according to Kant, the cognitive subject and its categories of understanding make objects of experience possible, so the Husserlian structure of retention–protention participates in the constitution of the intentional object of phenomenological experience, and thus in the meaning of the object.

From a phenomenological Lebenswelt perspective, historical phenomena are experienced as meaningful phenomena related to a human world of actions and suffering, other people and institutions etc. The focus on the experience of history should not be understood as a way of analyzing the epistemological limits of our knowledge of the past, but rather a way of articulating how ”history” should be understood as ”lived history”, the kind of historical reality that matters to our lives independent of academic history. Like a parallel to Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of the

structure of the life world, the narrative structure of experience is given an ontological interpretation as opposed to either something merely imposed on reality (the narrative form as belonging to fiction) or a cognitive instrument (Louis Mink) within the sphere of epistemology. In that sense narrative structures can be said to constitute a ”metaphysics of everyday life”.

The temporality of experience is of a particular kind when the human world is concerned. The historical past basically concerns actions which are related both to goals to be achieved and to causes or circumstances which motivate the action. In a certain sense, this gives action a narrative form, reaching toward the future and being influenced by what happened before. Actions, like narratives, are goal- and endoriented, directed toward achievement. When we experience actions and events, or the results of earlier actions, e.g. buildings, institutions, laws, we do so within a temporal horizon. This gives our experience of history itself a narrative form. ”Narrative [...] exhibits a form that is to be found in everyday experience and action, prior to and independently of its being told about explicitly.” (p. 111f) In other words, whereas Louis Mink claimed that ”stories are not lived, but told”, Carr’s position is rather that ”stories are both lived and told”.

Essential to historical experience in Carr’s analysis is also its social, intersubjective character: what we experience as typically historical events is based on our membership in some community for which those events are ”historically” significant. By identification with a community, its past can become part of ”my” past, although I have no personal experience or memory of it. In a similar way, an individual can take part in a collective experience by being a member of a community, of a ”we”- subject with its expectations and memories. This is one way in which the phenomenological analysis of historical experience enables a ”direct and lived relationship to history” (p. 53) as an alternative to theories based on an original gap between the past and the representation of it. It is also a way of making sense of how events in the present, e.g. 9/11, almost instantly can be experienced as ”historical”, as turning points and challenges to previous directions of development.

This kind of experience hints at something interesting – the power of experience to challenge our interpretative frameworks of meaning. A condition of possibility for this kind of experience is thus that the meaning of experience is not constituted merely by the interpreting consciousness (be it individual or collective) or its narrative patterns, but can to some extent challenge our goals, values and categories of interpretation. That may be called a Hegelian or Gadamerian type of negative, dialectic experience that challenges and changes the subject of the experience, a concept of experience that Carr mentions (p. 18) but otherwise deals rather little with (it is partly overshadowed by the cumulative type of experience that Carr links to both Hume and Hegel). For historical thinking, this kind of experience ought to be of particular interest, since it shows a possible direction for handling the trouble with the conception of meaning as ontologically belonging to the meaning-constituting consciousness and the side of the subject in the subject-object divide (parellel to the gap between representation and the past). As far as I can see, Carr does not really address the part of Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s phenomenology that concerns the critique of instrumentalism, and the need for a more ”listening” and attending approach to historical phenomena. Instrumentalism of historical meaning is otherwise a topic for concern in present philosophy of history that deserves attention, given the tendency to understand meaning as something superimposed by the interpreting subject (or by narrative patterns). The embodiedness and historicity of consciousness, that it is always already conditioned by history before it interprets the past, does not necessarily diminish its instrumental relation to historical phenomena. Even if Husserl’s phenomenological perspective transcends the subject-object divide, to what extent does it, with its Kantian legacy, ultimately allow for other sources of meaning than meaning-constitutive consciousnesses (in the present or in the past)?

Somewhat surprisingly, one dimension that Carr discusses relatively little is actually the experience of events and actions in the past (compared to experience with a historical dimension in the present; p. 58–64), which is of course crucial for historical research. The significance and meaning of past events change retrospectively in the light of later events and experiences, but the experience of events and phenomena in the past can also challenge the present frameworks, the categories of interpretation, the general plot and the meaning of the story of oneself or the community one identifies with. Think for example of when we – as individuals or as members of communities – are confronted retrospectively by actions we performed or ideas we had years ago, that we now find embarrassing or even reprehensible. The meaning of such phenomena undeniably partly depends on its relation to larger patterns of meaning that belong to the horizon of the interpreting consciousness, since it is only

in relation to the story of ourselves that it can become a challenge. At the same time, the meaning of such phenomena seems to have a relative autonomy, in the sense that their meaning is not just constituted by a larger horizon of meaning of the interpreting consciousness, but challenges – and in a certain sense participates in the constitution of – that horizon. Historical experience with challenging meaning content is not necessarily as dramatic as an Hegelian negation, but sometimes merely hints in another direction and gives the interpreter reason to re-evaluate earlier historical judgments and future goals. Consider when we make new discoveries about the causes, aspects and consequences of the French revolution that confront the meaning of the revolution and, indirectly, the narratives of the French Revolution that we live by. This kind of experience of the past does not initiate in an experience in the present that is co-constituted by a retention-protention structure. Rather, the discovery itself suggests a revaluation of the subjects and objects of experience in the present. If there is one chapter in the book that I miss – or look forward to! – it would be one about this type of historical experience. What does it mean to listen to what the intentions, causes and consequences of the French revolution have to tell us about ourselves and the narratives we live by, and how does the meaning of this kind of historical experience work? It does not correspond exactly to the Hegelian negative experience, nor, it seems, to any of the four concepts of experience Carr characterizes. It is not reduced to sense data, not accumulative like life experience, not necessarily an extraordinary existential Erlebnis, and more characterized by receiving content of meaning than the Erfahrung of the lawgiving and actively constitutive Kantian consciousness. The general problem to which Carr’s analysis of historical experience responds is the idea of a gap between representations or narratives and reality. As explained above, another important aspect of the problematics of the concept of historical experience would thus be how historical phenomena can contain a content of meaning that makes it possible for them to challenge the meaning-constituting consciousness of interpretation, its horizon, narrative patterns and criteria of meaning.

An interesting feature of Carr’s perspective is the re-interpretation of substantive philosophy of history in practical rather than purely theoretical or cognitive terms. The kind of questions that classical philosophies of history (Hegel, Marx) give answers to are thus not so much what the past or humanity’s historical development is as an object of knowledge, but rather questions about meaning that are related to action and to goals to be realized: Which future development is desirable in the light of our history? What ought to be done? The structure of action with its teleological dimension serves as a model for interpreting various examples of philosophy of history. The dimension of meaning, crucial for the field of substantive philosophy of history, is interpreted as related to action and prescription, not to some ultimate or objective telos of history. The master narratives of Hegel and Marx are thus re-interpreted as historically situated and prescriptive, action-orienting narratives, as opposed to how they have been interpreted by many critics of substantial philosophy of history. What this all adds up to is a rehabilitation of substantive philosophy of history in a self-reflective, practical and historically situated form. The more controversial implication of this is that the practical questions of meaning also concern history as an academic undertaking and thus, reasonably, need to be addressed by historians. Carr does not discuss the implications of his perspective for history as an academic discipline, but that would have been interesting and made the scope and significance of his perspective clearer. At one point, he claims that it is not so much the understanding of narratives among historians as among philosophers of history that he wants to challenge (p. 196f.), but that seems a little too humble. In general, historians do not treat their own narratives as prescriptive and practical narratives and do no integrate the dimension of substantive philosophy into ordinary historical research. Perhaps such a practical turn will actually take place in historical thinking?

It is striking how much Carr’s perspective has in common with the perspective on historical consciousness developed by Jörn Rüsen, although Carr hardly mentions him: Husserl’s Lebenswelt perspective as a starting point for the understanding of historical knowledge rather than the established ideas of academic history; the centrality of the concept of meaning for historical knowledge; the idea of a constitutive consciousness of meaning (Rüsen’s Geschichtsbewußtsein); the idea of the historicity of the cognitive subject as developed by Heidegger; the practical character of narratives. But there are also differences. In Rüsen’s perspective a dimension of conflict and Habermasian communicative rationality is systematically integrated, whereas Carr tends to describe the community of interpretation as a community of cooperation and identity (p. 48–52). Another aspect of Rüsen’s project is to formulate criteria for discussing the plausibility of narratives, a question that Carr briefly touches upon

but does not discuss systematically. How should conflicts of interpretations of historical experience be handled?

Carr’s book is an important contribution to contemporary philosophy of history and an antidote both to the positivist heritage and the neorealism that currently seems to be spreading in opposition to so-called ”postmodernism” and to the kind of representationalism that has lost contact with historical experience and the practical value of historical knowledge. In several of the chapters Carr gives historical summaries of the debate on the problem discussed. Even if these summaries do not contain too many news for researchers within the field, they refresh the memory of the reader and support Carr’s argument. They also make the book valuable as a general overview of what phenomenology has to offer philosophy of history today. Carr shows the relevance of thinking about historical experience and presents an analysis of how it can be understood. The distinctions he makes and the phenomenologically inspired analyses of historical experience he provides will hopefully stimulate further reflection on the topic.

Martin Wiklund, University of Gothenburg, Sweden