A great deal hinges on how historical and psychological time is structured or operates. Indeed, I think the issue of historical time goes straight to the heart of a number of issues in social and political theory; for whether or not revolutionary change is possible will depend, in part, on the nature of time. Before getting to this, I’ll stipulate that by “psychological time” I’m referring to time as described by phenomenologists such as Husserl and Heidegger. I know that those working in the phenomenological tradition will find the descriptor “psychological” objectionable, but we are, after all, talking about how humans experience time. I suspect that there are deeper phenomena of psychological time that aren’t registered in lived, intentional, conscious experience, but that are increasingly being mapped by those working in cognitive science and neurology through the use of a variety of experimental methods. As another aside, I absolutely hate that I placed Dali’s painting in the upper corner of this post as it’s become so commodified. As an aside on an aside I hate that I’ve come to hate this painting because it’s become so commodified.
So why is the issue of time so important? Everything hinges on whether we adopt what I call continuist or discontinuest theories of time. Roughly– and I’m simplifying matters here tremendously –I take it that a continuist theory of time holds that for each event E^3, that event arose out of prior events E^2…E^n. This, I take it, is the premise of all historicisms and hermeneutic orientations of thought. Reduced to its barest possible form– and again, I know there are many more bells and whistles to someone like, say, Gadamer –the thesis seems to be that given any cultural artifact or social event, that event is to be explained in terms of the historical context in which it arose. This is why we are told that in order to understand Kant we have to read all of his predecessors, going all the way back to the pre-Socratics. The meaning of Kant is a product of these inheritances. Time here is conceived in terms of continuity and the thinkable is always a function of what has come before.
Within this framework, thought cannot exceed what it has inherited. Where physics preaches the preservation of matter and energy such that a zero sum can be established on each side of the equal sign in a physical transformation (no more comes out than goes in), we get a similar conservation of the past in the present where there can be no more in the present than there was in the past. At the level of individual lives, for example, a person could never go beyond their historicity or the experiences and historical lineages they’ve inherited. Here, then, it seems we get the teaching of Ecclesiastes: Nothing new under the sun. Every cultural artifact and event is but a product or variation of what’s come before and understanding always requires a return to or excavation of those historical origins.
If this is the case, then it seems that revolutionary change is impossible because we would be constitutively unable to imagine possibilities beyond those that we’ve inherited. Every praxis would be doomed to merely reproduce what has come before. Here I think we encounter the secret splendor of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. When Kant asks the austere question “how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?” and concludes that they do in fact exist, he is basically affirming the possibility of thought to go beyond historical inheritance. A synthetic judgment, Kant tells us, is a judgment in which the predicate “amplifies” the subject. By this he means that the synthesis of subject and predicate in the judgment teaches us something new (rather than merely being an analytic judgment where the predicate merely repeats in different words what is said in the subject). A synthetic a priori judgment, a judgment that is independent of experience, is a judgment that produces something new in thought that wasn’t derived from prior experience. Here, of course, “experience” is a synonym for “history” As Aristotle says somewhere, “experience” refers to repeated sensations preserved in memory producing a generalization.
A synthetic a priori judgment– if they do in fact exist –would thus be a judgment that breaks with history. It would be a judgment, an expansion of thought, that couldn’t be derived from any history or experience. Among other things, Kant’s greatness was to have conceived an aleatory power of thought capable of breaking with history (note how much he differs from Hegel here). Could we perhaps say that every true revolutionary advocates the existence of synthetic a priori judgments? If there truly is revolutionary thought and praxis, wouldn’t this entail the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments or the ability to produce the “unprecedented” or that which breaks entirely with the prior? Such would be the discontinuist thesis. The revolutionary holds that it is possible to produce an unprecedented society; a society that doesn’t simply repeat what has come before.
Paradox: If the foregoing is true, historical materialism cannot be consistent with revolutionary praxis because it’s a variation of the continuist theory of time.
Pause: There seems to be something about synthetic a priori judgments and– I’ll coin a term –“synthetic a priori practices” that always places them in doubt. “Did a real discontinuity take place in this event, or is it just a ‘natural’ outgrowth that occurred. As Badiou has taught us (and Derrida in his discussions of the trace! And Lacan in his discussions of the Act!), the central feature of the unprecedented is that it disappears as soon as it appears. The disappearance of the unprecedented does not mean that the event is phenomenally gone, only that the moment that it takes place we already begin to cast about for ways in which it was “really” a “natural outgrowth” of what came before. Continuism returns: “Descartes wasn’t unpecedented, all he said was already there in Augustine!” The hermeneuticians and historicists return and continue their tireless work of patiently demonstrating that nothing new or unprecedented ever really occurs. It’s all footnotes to Plato.
So continuism and discontinuism. Endless repetition or historical breaks. But nonetheless new things that are completely unanticipated seem to come into existence. This speaks to the discontinuist thesis. Retroactively they seem as if they were inevitable, yet “proactively” they are anything but.
We might also criticize continuism on different grounds. Despite the gorgeous work that the hermeneuticians have done in analyzing the intricate structure of temporality, in their textual practice they still seem to advocate a curiously linear conception of time (“Descartes is to be explained by scholastic philosopher x, y, and z and then these Greeks, etc”). However, a feature of biological, social, and psychic systems is that temporality need not function in this way. For example, events from the remote past can exercise more contemporaneous influence in the present than events that took place during the intervening period.
Michel Serres invites us to imagine time topologically along these lines. Take a piece of paper and draw a line across its middle. Punctuate it with dots to mark events in linear time and place an arrow on the right side of the paper to indicate the direction of time. Now notice that we can crumple and fold the paper. In folding the paper points that are disconnected when the paper is flat are now able to touch despite their separation on the flat paper. Perhaps this is how it is with historical and psychological time. Perhaps there is a folding of historical time that brings points remotely separated across history together across intervening period. If this were the case, then it would be as if that intervening period and its historical influence falls away. As Peter Gay argues in the beautiful Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, this is how it worked with the thinkers of the Enlightenment. They enacted a topological folding of time that allowed them to fold the points of their present with those of the Roman rhetoricians, the Greco-Roman materialists, the Greek sophists, and so on. This topological fold was the condition of their freedom or the condition for the possibility of their breaking with medieval Scholasticism and the pervasiveness of Plato and Aristotle within that scholasticism, by repeating the gesture of the Greco-Roman materialists, the sophists, and the Roman rhetoricians. However, this repetition was not a mechanical repetition of the same, but rather created something new through the synthesis of this remote past with the circumstances of the present. Here the crucial point is that the intervening time– the middle ages –really is annulled or erased in historical and psychological time in this gesture through this topological folding of time. It’s not that the Enlightenment thinkers repressed the thought of the middle ages while it was still really there, but rather that they really leaped over this intervening period allowing them to think in a new direction.
Sometimes I wonder if something like this isn’t going on with contemporary philosophers. For example, I see a picture of someone like the great Robert Brandom (left above) and wonder just how his temporality is structured. Has Brandom affected a folding of time through an identification with Plato or Aristotle? Is that origami of time what allows him to break with the contemporary so as to think otherwise? Does he inhabit a different time through this topological folding that nonetheless is absolutely contemporary?
When I reflect on historicism and hermeneutics, it seems to me that this capacity of time to be folded is above all what is missed; and in missing this I wonder if hermeneutics is hermeneutic enough. Yet I realize I’m not being entirely fair here either.