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12 Historically Speaking · May/June 2005 1.Arthur C. Danto, Narration and Knowledge, including the integral text ofAnalytical Philosophy ofHistory (Cambridge University Press, 1965), 168. 2.Lucien Febvre, A New Kind ofHistory and Other Essays, ed. P. Burke, trans. K. Folca (Harper and Row, 1973), 41:"history is a way of organizing the past so that it does not weigh too heavily on the shoulders ofmen." See also Michel de Certeau, The Writing ofHistory, trans. Tom Conley (Columbia University Press, 1988), xxvxxvi , 46-47, 85, 99-102, 218-19, and passim. Fasolt cites neither predecessor, and to all appearances arrived at his conclusions independently of them. Response to Constantin Fasolt's Limits of History Gabrielle M. Spiegel s I read it, The Limits of History A presents itselfas a profoundly moral intervention into the question of what it is historians do—the illocutionary acts they undertake that constitute the writing of history—and the moral posture, or absence thereof, with which they conduct themselves. At the moral center of the book lies a concern with responsibility, a concern that is directed as much at us, the contemporary practitioners of a kind of history first generated by the humanists, as at the humanists and their successors in the Enlightenment, for whom Hermann Conring stands as an exemplary case study. The principal finding of the book is the need to take personal responsibility for the activity we call history. Indeed, a primary thesis of The Limits ofHistory is that our current practice is haunted by moral compromises made centuries ago and long since forgotten . The book's central argument is that our attitude to the past remains governed by a view of history first born in the humanists' struggle against the authority of medieval universalism—in both its papal and imperial guises—a view that matured during the Enlightenment and was finally objectified in the 19th century with the rise of historicism and positivism. In Fasolt's opinion, the moral core of history derives from its irreducibly political character, political in the sense that, in challenging the divine authority of pope and emperor, the humanists crafted a vision of history that engendered nothing less than a new kind ofhumanity, entailing a beliefin the free, autonomous subject in charge of his or her own self with the power to affect the fate ofothers. No longer dependent on the authority ofthe past incarnated in God's representatives on Earth (pope and emperor), human beings were seen as free and independent agents oftheir own destiny. As a result, whatever history can or cannot do—whatever its limits, that is—it can never, Fasolt contends, "absolve human beings from the responsibilities of freedom," for "history does nothing more effectively than to assert that liberty that is a necessary precondition for responsibility —and politics" (xvii). The politics ofhistory are, therefore, the politics of freedom and responsibility. The embedded political character of history , in turn, derives from its technological operations, which consist in submitting the past to historical investigation, an act that at the same time pronounces the past "dead"— absent and immutable—-and liberates humanity from its bondage to authority, creating the possibility of an unlimited and illimitable future by freeing humanity from time itself. In that sense, the very practice of history forms part ofthe history ofmankind's liberty. History underwrites the freedom of the self that is engaged in its examination and thus, Fasolt seems to argue, is critical for our survival "as the human beings that we have made of ourselves." I confess that my most outraged marginalia were devoted to these sections of the book, since they suggest an understanding of history in the 20th century (and especially its latter half) that I find incomprehensible. Surely this was a time when freedom and autonomy, personal responsibility and dissent from authoritarian powers were, in many parts of the world (including Europe), conspicuous by their absence and, indeed, their impossibility. I say he "seems" to argue, because, in the end, it is precisely this idealized vision of history and its operation that Fasolt wishes to limit, thus relieving us of our bondage to time, though not of our responsibility for history. One reason for so...


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