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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 37-41

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Peace and Mind
Seriatim Symposium On Dispute, Conflict, And Enmity Part 4: Secret Accomplices

Jeffrey M. Perl, Linda Hutcheon, Roxanne L. Euben, William Weber, Rom Harré, Nikki Slocum, Manfred Frank, Christopher Jones, David Nirenberg

Implications of Ambivalence

Atheism in France is no special interest of mine, but Atheism in France is, and has been since its publication in 1990. Volume 1 of Alan Charles Kors's study is subtitled The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief, and its contention—that the learned culture of Catholic orthodoxy generated "its own antithesis, the possibility of which it always had carried within"—impressed me as only too plausible. I had myself written, some years before, about romantic and modern aesthetics as a function, effect, or even objective of the internal logic of classicism (an upshot of this redescription being that romantics and classicists could be adversaries only cluelessly or in retrospect). That theologians and atheists of the Enlightenment were natural enemies seemed, as Kors's book showed it to be, an idea too lucid to be likely. Catholic learning in seventeenth-century France was Thomist, hence Aristotelian; every thesis, in Aristotelian dialectic, entails a well-defended antithesis; assertion, therefore, of belief in God demanded an expert denial. In the absence of actual atheists (Kors holds that atheism in the relevant sense did not exist in 1650), it was churchmen who devised the arguments against divine existence—arguments so cogent that various colleagues were persuaded to abandon belief. [End Page 37]

At the time I read Atheism in France, a dozen years ago, I was arranging the first symposium for Common Knowledge—a seriatim symposium on ambivalence—and Kors's book led me to suppose that intellectual and cultural historians might make significant contributions to it. There were of course ideas—theoretical fragments, unmethodically arranged—about ambivalence as a feature of human psychology and behavior, but next to nothing in circulation about the implications of ambivalence for history, philosophy, and other disciplines where the theory of ambivalence might be decisive. Uninterested in French atheists, I read Kors's history as about the unexamined motives of his clerics: he had placed them exhaustively into context, and I was and remain a contextualist (if an unhappy one). But Kors seemed to invite contemplation of wider themes: the ambivalence of orthodox minds, their projection of covert antinomian desire, and the not infrequent appearance on the historical scene of "secret accomplices" (the phrase as I am using it comes from Jürgen Habermas).

In methodological terms, Kors left me imagining the agreeable havoc that historians' attention to continuities of ambivalence could wreak on periodization. Other forms of historical essentialism might be pleasantly at risk as well. J. G. A. Pocock complains, for example, that he has been made a "straw man" for suggesting that "all serious thinkers in the eighteenth century accepted commerce, and all had doubts about it." To range political thinkers such as Jefferson as wholly for or wholly against commerce is, Pocock says, "to miss the reality of the debate. Are historians incapable," he asks, "of counting higher than two? . . . I found I had blasphemed against icons of American liberalism, when all I wanted to say was that the icons were unsure of themselves." If the serious thinkers on all (more than two) sides of a debate are ambivalent, then focusing intellectual history on debates (and focusing political history on wars, elections, and other conflicts) becomes less a valid method for historians to apply than a subject for their diligent investigation. We invent historical periods, moreover, on a winner-take-all system—"whose army won?" "whose style of painting, whose thought style, won out over whose?" are the kinds of questions we ask. But if the ambivalence of all parties involved continues beyond the dates of transition, then is the transition more or other than one between complex tissues of ambivalence? In which case, why view the transition as into anything so portentous as a new period, episteme, paradigm, or context?

Taking ambivalence...


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