Sneven Best The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas




© 1995 The Guilford Press

Best, Steven.

The politics of historical vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas/ by Steven Best. p. cm.—(Critical perspectives) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-89862-851-2 (Print Edition) 1. Postmodernism—Political aspects. 2. Political science—

Philosophy. 3. History—Philosophy. 4. Marx, Karl, 1818-1883—Contributions in political science. 5. Foucault, Michel—Contributions in political science. 6. Habermas, Jurgen—Contributions in political science. I. Title. II. Series: Critical perspectives (New York, N.Y.) JA74.B474 1995 320 '.01'1-dc20 94-44894 CIP

For Billie my funny valentine


This book would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of many people. For critical readings of specific chapters I wish to thank Harry Cleaver, Kathy Higgins, Kelly Oliver, and Bob Solomon. David Hall, Mark Poster, and Richard Wolin generously read the entire manuscript in its last stages and offered extremely helpful critical remarks. For their patience with my interminable delays in publication I am grateful to Peter Wissoker and Guilford Press. My friendship with Ruth Andersen, Briankle Chang, John Coker, Tom Derr, Ali Hossaini, Joe Pendergast, Renan Rapalo, Keith Hay-Roe, and Tina and Jason have been invaluable. Murray Bookchin's work and friendship has stimulated me to go in new directions that I will follow in my next book on his theory of social ecology. There were numerous occasions that I would have had to abandon this project to bartend or pump gas if it had not been for the help of Noah Khosbin and Ali Hossaini. As always, Keith Hay-Roe pulled me out of numerous computer quagmires. Jack Haddox and other colleagues rescued me from a trying three-year stint in the surplus reserve army of Ph.D.'s. Joe Pendergast, currently working in Seattle, created the eerie image for the front cover. The soulful vocals and trumpet of Chet Baker provided a soothing background for the writing of much of this manuscript, as my cat Dos kept me constant company amid piles of papers and books. I owe an immense debt to my two closest friends, Bob ("Ralph") Antonio and Doug Kellner. Without Bob's unflagging moral support, my eyes would have strayed from the prize. I will never forget our great times together in Austin and our tequila-laden respites from the performance principle of academia. Bob scrupulously read every page of this manuscript numerous times, and each of his critiques immensely improved the final product. I owe even more to Doug Kellner, my mentor and friend, who also carefully read this entire book in various drafts. Doug has helped me through various crises in recent times and his work has been a constant source of inspiration. I have learned a great deal about teaching and writing from his example. My best piece of luck of the last decade has been to know and work with him. His merciless ("Kellnerian") critiques forced me to restructure this project numerous times; whatever readability and cogency it has owes much to him.

But there is one person who has been there for me from the start; to her I dedicate this book.


Never before has it been more necessary to recover the past, to deepen our knowledge of history, to demystify the origins of our problems, to regain our memory of forms of freedom and advances that were made in liberating humanity of its superstitions, irrationalities, and, above all, a loss of faith in humanity's potentialities.


Human beings have never been without history. In the paradoxical formulation of phenomenology, the only unchanging structure of human existence is its capacity to change and evolve—its "historicity." According to philosophical anthropology, human beings differ from "merely" natural beings because their existence is not limited only to instinct and passive adaptation to the natural environment. Rather, human existence is socially and linguistically mediated, consciously created and defined, and changes throughout time. For existentialists, human beings have a history but no nature; they constitute not an essence but an open-ended existence defined by their choices and actions.

First and foremost, history is ontological or pretheoretical; it is not primarily a narrative, but a concrete reality that is lived. History is the temporal context of human evolution within socionatural conditions; it is the continuous present that instantly recedes into the past and from which we project the future. Nor is history only "what hurts," as Fredric Jameson reminds us in a statement against idealist hermeneutics: it is the structure of life itself. Secondarily and derivatively, history is a reflexive study on human events and their causes and consequences. As Sartre's character Roquentin discovered in Nausea, history is lived before it is written about and the historian engaged in narrative and biography cannot in good faith escape the flow of time and the anguish of autobiography. As a discipline, history begins when human beings first differentiate "now" from "then" in oral or written accounts, when they realize they have a past that is useful to know, interpret, relate, study, and maintain, a past preserved in various forms that have included songs, poems, verse, prose, chronicles, and "science."

Yet, in the 1980s, both Jean Baudrillard, a radical postmodernist, and Francis Fukuyama, a neoconservative State Department intellectual, declared that we have reached "the end of history"—the point at which the engines of historical change allegedly have run out of steam. For Baudrillard (1987, 1988), the modern dynamics of incessant change are over, as are modern hopes for enlightenment, progress, and reform or revolution. There is still movement and flux in history, but it is random, repetitive, and meaningless. Nothing new can happen and all we can do is accomodate ourselves to the frozen emptiness of time. Fukuyama (1992) claims that we have reached the final stage in the evolution of human thought. The end of history occurred with the collapse of Communism and the alleged triumph of capitalism as the only viable form of social organization. Unlike Baudrillard, Fukuyama believes there still may be wars, real events, and economic and political change, but he claims the main dynamics of social and political thought have run their course. The direction of future evolution is toward a steady increase in the tradition of "democratic egalitarianism" inaugurated by capitalism.

Such theories of the end of history point more to the decline in historical imagination than to history itself. The smug claims of Baudrillard were instantly refuted, appropriately, not by intellectuals removed from history, but rather by the masses making it. As Baudrillard was delivering his world-weary diatribes of doom and gloom before his black-clothed laity, the citizens of Europe had taken to the streets to tear down the Berlin Wall, to overthrow oppressive communist systems and gain sovereignty from the Soviet Union, and to wage bloody ethnic and nationalist wars. While some of these events in fact confirm Fukuyama's version of the end of history thesis, since communism is collapsing and free market structures are being universalized, ideological consensus on the meaning of freedom and the good life is nowhere at hand, and the ideals of democracy are far from secure. Fukuyama is blind to the decline of liberalism; the persistence of economic crisis; the increasingly perilous nature of egalitarian norms with the rise of neoconservativism, neofascism, and technocratic-authoritarian ideology; and the bitter historical conflicts still raging.

Besides presupposing God-like powers of omniscient retrospection and projection, concepts of the end of history are inherently conservative. If we are truly at the end of history, we need not bother with historical criticism or political activism, since there's nothing fundamental to change. However Marx's original ideals were discredited by the work of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, it does not follow that if communism (or at least one version of it) has lost, then capitalism has won. Fukuyama's claim that history has ended with late capitalism is as ludicrous and reactionary as Hegel's earlier claim that the history of freedom culminates with the Prussian bureaucracy. It is yet another example of the Eurocentric arrogance that the modern West is the center and summit of history, even now as the fulcrum of global power shifts from the West to the East.

Contemporary appeals to the end of history are part of the postmodern apocalyptic mindset that pronounces the death of the fundamental values and referents of modern thought. Appearing at the fin-de-millennium and after three centuries of explosive growth and transformation in Western society, the postmodern scene is marked by an "inverted millenarianism in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that" (Jameson 1991:1). Recent decades have seen obituaries for ideology, history, philosophy, normative epistemology, "Man," universal values, Marxism, literature, and the avant garde. Even reality itself, allegedly buried under the profusion of signs, images, and simulacra of consumer capitalism, is said to have vanished.1 The postmodern sensibility feels the dissolution of old certainties; it senses that the boundaries of the modern world are collapsing, not expanding. Few still believe, for instance, in the Enlightenment equation of reason and freedom.2 The horizon of a liberatory future is increasingly clouded by a growing sense that the fundamental dynamics of change, transformation, progress, and emancipation are over.

For all their hyperbole, postmodern visions of the end of history capture an important aspect of advanced capitalist societies—the decline of historical knowledge, consciousness, and imagination. If we are not literally at the end of history, in the last stretches of a culturally and ecologically viable existence, we are certainly in the midst of a deteriorating ability to situate the present within a larger system of historical references and to envisage an alternative future. The various forms of the rejection of history—from the avant-garde attack on narrative, memory, and the past to the neoconservative longing for a preindustrial time, from ahistorical forms of deconstruction to poststructuralist definitions of history as an undecideable text to the fragmentary and momentary consciousness of the video generation—affirm Henry Ford's claim that "History is bunk," or perhaps Voltaire's cynical jest that "History is only a pack of tricks we play on the dead."

Increasingly, we are witnessing a world without memory where, to use Guy Debord's metaphor, mere images of reality flow and merge randomly like reflections on water. In his own eulogy to History, Debord says,

History's domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent. And thus, inseparably, history was knowledge that should endure and aid in understanding, at least in part, what was to come: "an everlasting possession," according to Thucydides. In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty. It is in the interests of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring it. When social significance is attributed only to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another, identical immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance. (1990:15)

With the erasure of historical memory and knowledge, Debord argues, the cascade of images and events instantly recedes to the remote realm of the forgotten or unverifiable. The function of the society of the spectacle, the social system organized around the production of images and diversions that depoliticize and pacify social actors, is "to make history forgotten within culture" (Debord 1983: #192). Rather than concretizing history in narrative and popular memory, culture, in its degraded, commodified form, serves to induce amnesia and thwart collective action.

From cyberspace and virtual reality to infotainment, MTV, and docudramas, it is clear that today we are in something like Debord's spectacle or Baudrillard's hyperreality governed by the play of images and simulations. Under such conditions, history is little more than a sign, stereotype, or pastiched text, represented as a costume drama and consumed as a sound bite. Typically, as in so many retrospectives, the history of the past is represented as the history of popular culture, thereby erasing elements of the world not directly spawned by the culture industries. In the age of instant history, where events are reported as they unfold, where almost nothing escapes the electronic panopticon, where everything is forced into the glare of media lights, social reality is speeded up, decontextualized, and reassembled into a pastiche of representations, where it is trivialized in its juxtaposition to the advertisements that sponsor our worldviews. The paradox is that as history accelerates, historical consciousness deteriorates; change speeds up to the point where the events of last week drop into a time warp and we are nostalgic even for yesterday.

Demagogues, tyrants, and mythmakers well understand the political utility of history, and exploit it for their own purposes. They know that the ability to define the meaning of the past grants the power to define the meaning of the present and future; they understand that a people without a historical memory are easily manipulated through myths of the present. To lack a narrative of one's own past, from the personal to the national level, is to fall victim to the pseudohistorical representations of others. Each culture needs to see the present as history and to create its own narratives that secure their meaning and identities within time.

The efforts to rewrite history as fictionalized in Orwell's 1984 are now practiced on a daily basis in high-tech "democracies" where electronic media are the "fourth pillar" of government. Bureaucrats of the image plan the staged events, the photo opportunities, the press reports, and information "leaks" for the orchestration of reality. From the CBS Evening News to the New York Times to The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, corporate media powers control the parameters of political discourse and establish the codes and frames for understanding history and social reality.3 Where history is represented at all, it is decontextualized and reduced to easily consumable sound bites. In their capitalist appropriation, the technologies of film and television generally have undermined historical consciousness.4 As is clear from the insipid fare of magazines and talk shows, the American public generally is not interested in history, politics, or social analysis; rather, their passions—themselves induced by the media —are largely for trivia, entertainment, and Hollywood gossip. When television, our dominant "communication" medium, references history, it typically does so in the form of docudramas that conflate fact and fiction, or in the form of narratives that equate the changing fashions of popular culture with the determinant forces of history. If, as Lowenthal has said, "the past is a foreign country," then it is most readily accessible through Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

One of the key strategies of social control is to divorce the present from the past and to display it as timeless and eternal. The naturalization of the present obviates social criticism and change and induces a fatalistic sense: if things have always been this way, how could they ever change? In the beginning, capitalist ideology says, there was exchange-value and all human beings were warring competitors for profit. Ignorance of a time when work had profound social and individual meaning, when people were deeply connected to the land and their community, when social values emphasized cooperation rather than competition, and when the concept of the public good restrained the unleashing of private interests, serves to legitimate capitalism and its specific mechanisms of exploitation as eternal, necessary, or the best of all possible worlds. This legitimation is all the more powerful with the ideological conflation of capitalism and nature. We find this in Social Darwinism, which transforms a historical form of aggressive competition into a law of nature, or in the mechanistic world-view of modern science, which extends the operations of an emerging factory civilization into the entire cosmos, so that nature too becomes a lifeless machine.

The myth of the eternal present has been a hallmark of Western philosophy. Traditionally, philosophy has defined itself in opposition to history, which it considered to be an inferior mode of knowledge. As early as Plato, philosophers separated themselves from historians by claiming that the philosopher's task was to discover Truth in the eternal and universal aspects of reality, while historians labored in the illusory world of the contingent and emphemeral. From Hellenic to modern culture, history has been divorced from truth and associated with rhetoric, narrative form, and the study of mere appearances of reality, while philosophers set out to grasp the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Descartes spoke for the Western philosophical tradition when he said, "History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind but does not deepen it."

With the rise of the natural sciences, however, philosophy was dethroned from its role as "queen of the sciences." Under the spell of Newton and the triumphs of the natural sciences, positivist historians in the nineteenth century overturned philosophy's traditional claim to superiority by renouncing metaphysical speculation, limiting knowledge to the realm of the visible, and insisting that history was an empirical science grounded in observation of facts. With the methods of the natural sciences promoted as the only valid form of knowledge, positivists demoted philosophy to the role of conceptual handmaiden of empirical methodology (a position first voiced by an obliging philosopher, John Locke). Yet both philosophy and science were subject to a forceful critique in the nineteenth century with the emergence of a new evolutionary outlook that began with the geographers Hutton and Lyell and continued with Hegel, Darwin, Marx, and others. With the rise of historicism, the view that all forms of human understanding are temporally situated and shaped, both philosophy and science were resolved into history and interpreted as historically produced modes of knowledge.

Since human beings, their cultures, and their social institutions are nowhere the same and are constantly changing, they can only be understood through history and historical knowledge. Dilthey argued correctly against Descartes that "Man knows himself only in history, never through introspection" (1962:138). To foist positivist models onto the study of human beings and to search for the invariable laws governing human behavior and social change is to distort the dynamic, contingent, mutable, and indeterminate character of social action. The historicist insight into the local, time-bound, and variable nature of social phenomena is the basis for genuine knowledge of human beings and for a critical theory of society. The impulse to think, to question, and to challenge the current state of affairs begins with awareness that social reality is historical and contingent in nature, with the knowledge that things have not always been this way and therefore could be otherwise, with the realization that what has been constituted can be deconstituted and reconstituted. Historical memory and historical knowledge therefore are potential forms of empowerment, which threaten the legitimacy of political rule that tries to maintain itself as eternal or necessary: "Forgetfulness closes history whereas remembrance keeps open both the past and the utopian future of man. Remembrance is the womb of freedom and justice and must be cultivated long before men are able to name their slavery within the discourse of rational freedom and consensus" (O'Neill 1976:4).

The three theorists I have selected to study—Marx, Foucault, and Habermas—all uphold the importance of historical knowledge for social criticism and political change. As interdisciplinary social theorists, they employ historical methods and analysis to gain critical perspectives on capitalist modernity, to grasp its continuities and discontinuities with the past, and to develop political resources to change its various aspects. In quite different ways, each develops a critical theory with liberatory intent, and their historical work is directly informed by political values and goals— hence my title "The Politics of Historical Vision."5

As Sheldon Wolin (1960) has analyzed it, the term "vision" has two different meanings: an empirical, descriptive sense that refers to the phenomenon of the eye transmitting sense data from the world to the brain; and a normative, prescriptive sense that refers to the act whereby the imagination constructs a particular reality that may or may not accord with the "objective world." These meanings articulate two fundamentally different approaches to history: a "traditional" or positivist approach that claims to represent historical reality through theory-free observation sentences without intending to change it, and a "critical" approach that denies the possibility of purely objective theory and uses theory to promote social change.

In this latter sense, "historical vision" refers not to a cold and detached description of the past, but to a theoretical analysis of history and social reality informed by an imaginative vision of an alternative future that is grounded in knowledge of real historical dynamics. To have such a vision of history is to look beyond the given and obvious; to challenge the ideas, values, and institutions of the dominant social powers; and to envisage new possibilities for the future. As William Blake insisted, vision is the active force that shatters the limitations of mere sense perception, such as is enforced by the Lockean reflection theory of knowledge, in order to see higher realities. Vision is the precondition for imaginative creation. In the dialectical tradition from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx, Marcuse, and Bookchin, the "is" of given reality must be distinguished from what should or could be. But just as history without vision is blind, so vision without history is empty, devoid of concrete grounding, merely romantic and utopian.

Critical theories therefore have strong normative underpinnings which involve commitments to human freedom from forms of oppression and domination. The political vision of critical theorists relates to their understanding of what domination is, how different power systems have emerged, how they can be challenged, and how a different social world can be brought about that creates the conditions of human freedom. Marx, Foucault, and Habermas all write a history of the past to challenge the legitimacy of the present and help envision and create a different future. All three theorists break from the positivist historiographical tradition that is based on a rigid separation of fact and value. Avowedly political in approach, they analyze history not for the sheer sake of historical knowledge, but rather to advance critiques of the present era, to show the historical constitution of present modes of social domination, and to further the cause of human freedom.6 Their historical vision, inextricably linked to their political vision, seeks to identify historical continuities and discontinuities, progressive and regressive features of history, and forces of domination and liberation. The critical power of their theories is dependent on their ability to contextualize historically present values and practices, to point to possibilities for change, and to stimulate new modes of thought and action. While each theorist gives methodological issues their due (to varying degrees), there is nevertheless a primacy of the political insofar as their historical analyses are informed by practical commitments to freedom from domination.7

Thus, the difference is not between critical theory that is political and "objective" theory that is not, but between overt and covert politics, between open and suppressed normative-political commitments. The distinguishing feature of a critical theory is that it can unapologetically bring out its normative commitments and avoid a false separation of theory and practice, whereas positivist theories fail to clarify, and thus necessarily to defend, their own normative assumptions.8 Ultimately, the phrase "politics of historical vision" points to the specific theoretical and political visions that inform social theory and history. It is meant to underline the now generally accepted belief that no understanding of history is innocent; that all historians impose an intelligibility on history that is not inherent in human actions themselves; that all "facts" are selected and interpreted from a specific point of view; and that each interpretation of history is inevitably political in its representation of events, in its stance toward the present social reality, and in the practical implications of its narrative, method, and vision.


1. For the most eloquent dirges for the death of the Real, see Baudrillard (1983a, 1983b); and Kroker and Cook (1986).

2. See, for example, "On Reason and Freedom" in Mills (1959).

3. For an analysis of the media's orchestration of reality, see Hertsgaard (1989); for a study of how this process was employed during the Gulf War, see Kellner (1992).

4. There have been a few notable exceptions to this rule, as when the U.S. television miniseries Holocaust precipitated a national debate on Nazism in West Germany in 1979. More recently, Schindler's List has played an important role in reviving historical memory and promoting critical debate. Such contributions are invaluable in the midst of the attempts by historical revisionists to whitewash or deny Nazi genocide.

5. Throughout this book, I use the term "critical theory" in the most general sense, designating simply a critical social theory, that is, a social theory critical of present forms of domination, injustice, coercion, and inequality. I do not therefore limit the term to refer only to the Frankfurt School, an obvious absurdity if the term also includes Marx and Foucault. Despite his crypto-positivism (see Chapters 2 and 4), I still read Foucault as an engaged social critic, rather than, as Richard Rorty claims, a "stoic, a dispassionate observer of the present social order" (1985:172). The whole purpose of historical analysis for Foucault is to loosen the grip of established reality and to open up a "space of concrete freedom, i.e., of possible transformation" (Foucault 1988d:36). As will be shown, Foucault is certainly not practicing "critique" as something that unmasks falsehood or "repression" in the name of truth, universal values, and "emancipation," but rather as a critical historical study that problematizes the present and is judged according to its political utility rather than being grounded in a universal set of normative values (Dean 1994).

6. See, for example, Diderot's praise for Voltaire's philosophical history: "Other historians relate facts to inform us of facts. You [Voltaire] relate them to excite in our hearts an intense hatred of lying, ignorance, hypocricy, superstition, tyranny; and this anger remains even after the memory of the facts has disappeared" (cited in Becker 1964:91-92). Renier, by contrast, provides an example of a noncritical history: "The task of the historian is simply and exclusively to keep available for social use the knowledge of the past experiences of human societies" (1965). For historians like Renier, the "social use" of history is limited to the acquisition of knowledge, independent of its strategic use in social struggles.

7. I hold this to be true even of Habermas, whose work frequently bogs down in metatheoretical issues, but also has been engaged in numerous political debates and struggles (see Chapter 4).

8. As I show in the chapters below, however, Marx and Foucault do not state and defend the normative assumptions of their theories and this creates difficulties for their projects.



From Providence to Progress: The Future's So Bright 3

Positivism and Its Discontents 11

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Postmodern Countervisions 19

1. MARX AND THE ENGINES OF HISTORY 32 Models of Historical Continuity 38 Discontinuity in History 44 Political Interlude: Marx's Changing Political Vision 48 Economic and Technological Determinism 52 The Mode of Production Interpretation 56 Rational Abstraction as Methodology 63 Precapitalism and the Limits of Historical Materialism 69 Visions of Reconciliation 72


The Critique of Rationality 89

Archaeology as Postmodern Historiography 93

The Order of Things: Modernity and the Deconstruction of 100 Marx

Postmodernity and the Death of Man 107

Genealogy, Historical Materialism, and Politics 109

Ethics, Freedom, and Transgression 120

Philosopher or Historian? 129

3. HABERMAS' THEORY OF SOCIAL EVOLUTION 144 Communication, Rationality, and Democracy 148 Labor, Language, and Social Evolution 154 The Critique of Marx 163 Modernity as Unfinished Project 174

Postmodernity and the Critique of Foucault


Misreadings and Counter-Readings


The Habermasian Vision




Science, Truth, and Objectivity


Causality, Abstraction, and Generalization


Critique and Normative Validity


In Defense of Metanarrative


The Hermeneutics of Historiography


Theory and Politics


Toward a Multiperspectival Vision


Twilight of a Dualism





271 282


Modern historiography originates in the fifteenth century with the Italian Renaissance and the break from Christian-influenced medieval historiography. Before (and sometimes into) the modern era, historians gave largely haphazard accounts of political events and figures or dogmatic Christian interpretations of a universal history whose meaning was the salvation of humankind. In Christian historiography, "truth" was found in biblical revelation, and the role of the historian was to show how divine law informed secular events, to periodize history according to major stages in God's plan, and to glorify his will. St. Augustine drew a sharp distinction between the earthly city and the City of God, between profane and sacred time, and he located truth, meaning, and stablity only in the divine kingdom. In such schemes, human actions and events were reduced to a religious meaning. It was still possible in the seventeenth century for historian Jacques Bossuet to claim that the "long sequence of particular causes which make and break empires, depends on the secret commands of divine Providence" (quoted in Hampson 1968:22).

The new "humanist" approach to writing history that began in the fifteenth century situated itself in opposition to the "dark ages" of historiography and in alignment with the classical past. Contradicting the Christian tradition, humanist historians believed that human beings were makers of their own history and not mere pawns of God's design. Humanists generally acknowledged God as the first cause of history, but they believed his will was unknowable and his direct interventions into history too few to have major significance. While the basic tenets of the Christian faith were still accepted by humanist historians and even by many subsequent Enlightenment figures, history was now oriented toward identifying human actions and their causes and consequences, rather than trying to discern the operations of a divine plan.

With the emergence of humanism and the secularization of knowledge, historiography was established on a critical rather than a dogmatic basis. As early as the beginning of the fifteenth century, historians worked to overcome a "scissors and paste" history (Collingwood) that uncritically combined diverse historical accounts into a patchwork narrative (see

Breisach 1983; Collingwood 1956). On the lookout for biased reports and false documents, historians began to interrogate the credibility of their sources. New standards of historical accuracy appeared, conventional accounts of the past were rejected, and scholars tried to build new interpretations based on original research of primary documents and the use of "textual criticism." As evident in the work of Voltaire, who proposed a critical secular history that depicted numerous facets of human existence, historians also widened the scope of historical inquiry, away from the drum and trumpet history of kings and their armies to include a study of culture, economics, the arts and sciences, and various social institutions.

The full purview of human activity, unavailable to the blind eye of religion, was coming into focus in the modern historian's sight. By the nineteenth century, history had severed ties with literature and moral philosophy to become an autonomous discipline, and by midcentury it had widely conferred on itself scientific status. The role of history was defined as organizing facts into laws, rather than as educating through narratives. The modern historian's vision was considerably sharpened by a growing methodological sophistication, which led to the understanding that the role of the historian was to reconstruct objectively the past wie es eigentlich gewesen, as it actually occurred (Ranke). But as historical method became more rigorous, historical vision became more narrow and history became a highly specialized and fragmented field of study. Critical and interdisciplinary visions of history were abandoned in the name of science.

Yet it was developments within history itself that greatly affected historiography and sparked the emergence of classical sociology and modern social theory. By the time of the French Revolution, the secularization and modernization processes that produced humanism, democracy, individualism, technologically advanced industry, capitalism, and the nation-state also created a powerful sense of rupture in history, of a present fundamentally different from the past, of a new era based on incessant change and innovation, a modernity that shattered all forms of tradition and stability. A new time consciousness was emerging that pervaded everyday life, the arts, and eventually science and philosophy. Nearly all modern social and political theorists, beginning with Machievelli, More, and Hobbes, laid claim to a new vision of a new world.1 They tried to assess or criticize the novel social conditions and intended their theories to intervene in social reality for the improvement of humanity.

As is explored in detail below, modernity generated a proliferation of conflicting historical visions that in turn yielded competing political ideologies and strategies. Yet the historicist vision unleashed in modernity— the modern tendency to see things as changing rather than eternal, as evolving rather than static—all too often was realized in partial, contradictory form that reproduced the ahistorical, metaphysical elements of medieval thought. It is the metaphysical themes that haunt modern thought, and the dubious political programs these have informed, that provoke new postmodern visions and politics.


Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.


The moment will come... when the sun will shine only on free men on this earth, on men who recognize no master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in history or on the stage; when men will study the efforts and sufferings that characterized the past only to guard vigilantly against any recurrence of superstition and tyranny.


A central vision of modern social and historical theory is that of a novel present that realizes the forces of historical progress and freedom. Under the secularizing influences of modern rationality, Enlightenment philosophers interpreted historical events in terms of improvement in the human condition rather than the realization of a divine plan. History was thereafter understood in terms of progress, rather than providence, where progress signified cumulative advances in human learning, morals, happiness, and freedom. The belief that the modern mind was becoming liberated from dogma, ignorance, prejudice, and superstition, in conjunction with new discourses of liberty and equality and immense advances in science, technology, and medicine, allowed Enlightenment thinkers to compare favorably their own era with all past history.

As asserted in the famous querelle des anciens et des modernes, French philosophes declared their age and culture a historical advance over all others. Typical of the movement, Voltaire confidently declared the modern world to be "the most enlightened age of all time." For Voltaire, the primary use of history was to recover the immense lineage of human crime, cruelty, and ignorance in order to prevent the repetition of such folly in the future. With d'Alembert, Diderot, d'Holbach, and others, he applied norms of rational analysis to society and claimed that the task of human beings was to develop their critical powers. The philosophes attacked the ancien regime, despotism, privilege, religious dogmatism, and superstition; they championed individualism, tolerance, reason, reform, cosmopolitanism, and in some cases democracy as liberating forces.2 Kant answered the question, "What is Enlightenment?" by defining it as having the courage to think for oneself. In the optimistic spirit of the time, Rousseau, Kant, Condorcet, Leibniz, and others adhered to the Christian ideal of the perfectability of human beings, and believed that advances in reason, science, and technology could bring proportionate moral dividends as well as increases in freedom, material well-being, social stability, and universal harmony among nations. The key assumptions of Western thought since Plato and Aristotle have been that reality is rational in nature, that reason can discover the fundamental principles or laws on which to base human behavior, that these principles are timeless and universal in nature, and that, if followed, society can be peaceful and orderly and all moral conflicts can be resolved. Through obedience to the voice of Reason, Enlightenment figures believed that a social order could be born that would reflect the order and harmony of Newton's heavens.3

As Rotenstreich holds, the modern doctrine of progress implies "a cumulative advance [in human knowledge], throughout all regions of history, toward an all-encompassing encounter with a universal norm and its realization" (1971:197). There are two major assumptions that typically inform modern concepts of progress. First, the structure of human time is unified and continuous; different cultures and nations ultimately belong to one and the same historical process. Rather than separate, diverging histories, there is only one grand, or universal History that encompasses all human beings and is represented by a single theory.4 Thus, Comte speaks of a "necessary identical development" of all humanity and Spengler states that "there are not several kinds of Evolution having traits in common, but one evolution going on everywhere after the same manner" (quoted in Manicas 1987:68).

Second, the continuity of historical time is governed by a purpose, by a teleological movement where human beings advance from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality. History is seen to be the process of the civilization and education of the human species, of the realization of universal norms such as freedom, equality, and reason. This process is motivated and defined by cumulative advances in science, economics, morality, and politics, which occur through the gradual rationalization of social and personal existence. For Kant and Hegel, history is determined by underlying forces that use human will and conflict to achieve the goal of ration al freedom. Kant sees the entire history of the human race as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about a peaceful cosmopolitan order wherein human capacities can be developed, while Hegel's more violent vision regards the slaughterbench of history as the sacrificial site where Reason produces a universal order of freedom. Such progressivist accounts employ a stage theory of history that traces the evolution of human knowledge, charting a trajectory from "primitive" or "savage" cultures to modern society. Each era advances the progressive movement of history more than the preceding one and the whole process culminates in European modernity with the moral improvement or perfection of human beings. For some modern thinkers, moral progress is a necessary and inevitable effect of the march of reason and science. To cite Spengler again, " not an accident, but a necessity.. As surely as the tree becomes bulky when it stands alone, and slender if one of a surely must evil and immortality disappear; so surely must man become perfect" (quoted in Manicas 1987:70).

The speculative nature of the progressivist vision has earned it the title of a "philosophy of history." For Voltaire, one of the first to use the term, it simply meant critical, non-Christian history. The term later assumed a more general meaning and designated those philosophies of the modern tradition—from Kant, Hegel, and Marx to Comte, Toynbee, and Sartre— which sought to grasp the meaning, dynamics, and goals of history. As defined by Lowith, a philosophy of history seeks "a systematic interpretation of universal history in accord with a principle in which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning" or end state (1949:1). Whether history is viewed as linear, cyclical, or a hybrid of both, philosophies of history seek a unifying principle that unravels the mystery of human time. All such theories posit a teleology, or at least a developmental tendency, of history toward reason and freedom. Generally, they are purely philosophical and speculative in nature, although speculation can be conjoined with empirical or "scientific" reasoning, as in the case of Marx.

Although Enlightenment thinkers rejected the Christian narrative in content, substituting human agency for divine fiat, progress for providence, and the values of dignity and autonomy for humility and sin, they appropriated and transcoded the religious form and poetic force of Christian historiography into a secularized framework. In their speculative nature, their attribution of meaning and purpose in history, their positing of a final stage of history, and their appeal to natural law and a timeless rational structure of reality, such Enlightenment narratives are deeply religious and metaphysical in character. In Becker's words, "the Philosophes demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials" (1964:31).5 The religious vision of much modern theory is most explicit in the case of Comte, who, while rejecting all forms of theologism and religious authority, set out to construct "the true Providence" through "the renascent Priesthood of Positivism" and "its true disciples" (in particular, women and the working class, those least harmed by the "vicious system" of modern education). Together the new Priests and their laity will bring a new "Religion of Humanity," "a true spiritual power" of science that will allow "human regeneration."

The very attempt to distinguish among past, present, and future and to construct a stage theory of history is the product of the Jewish and Christian historiographical tradition. Instead of cycles of misery and happiness to be borne in a tragic manner, the historical view of ancient culture conveyed in the Judeo-Christian narrative posits a forward-moving direction in history, beginning with the Fall, continued in the nonrepeatable death and resurrection of Christ, and culminating in a future state of human redemption. History moved forward in linear fashion, directed toward a goal and informed by a purpose. Universal histories that posit the unity of humanity ultimately stem from the Christian emphasis that all human beings are equal before the eyes of God and belong to the same divine community and plan.

In both Christian and Enlightenment narratives, history thereby acquires a meaning that transcends specific events and local contexts, culminates in a universal framework, has a rational structure, and is informed by a basic principle or teleological impetus. This is not, of course, to deny significant discontinuities between modern and medieval thought. Enlightenment thinkers, for example, rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin and saw human beings as inherently good, or at least as malleable enough to be morally educated. Moreover, the religious halos of modern thought would not have been possible without the secular reality of advances in scientific knowledge and technology. As Blumenberg (1983) insists against Lowith, the modern notion of progress is derived not only from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also has an empirical basis in the growing ability of the modern world to control external reality. This was an important component in the self- consciousness of the modern mind, for, as Buckle says, "the measure of civilization is the triumph of the mind over external agents" (1973:132).

Still, the optimistic outlook of the Enlightenment has been greatly exaggerated (Gay 1969:98-122). Kant's claim that his was an age of Enlightenment rather than an enlightened age helps to recover some of the skepticism and even pessimism that pervaded the eighteenth century. No one thought that human powers of reason were unlimited, in either the ethical task of influencing human action or the epistemological project of grasping the nature of reality. Voltaire ridiculed Leibniz's doctrine of the best of all possible worlds and claimed that evil was a pervasive force in the world. Rousseau thought the natural goodness of humanity declined as social institutions advanced.6 Reactionaries like De Maistre claimed that human beings were aggressive and evil by nature and were not fit for freedom. Materialist philosophes such as La Mettrie, Holbach, and Helvitus denied the existence of free will and progress in history. Even the most ardent proponents of progress such as Condorcet saw progress as a mixed blessing and displayed ambivalence about human nature. Linear models of history as the progression of the rational mind frequently contained within them a cyclical vision of history as an endless battle of progressive and regressive forces whose oscillations could potentially cease in a genuinely enlightened era. But faith in the masses to become educated and rational was very limited. Despite great scientific progress, few Enlightenment thinkers saw evidence of significant moral progress beyond the fact that witches and heretics were no longer burned at the stake.

No sooner had Enlightenment ideology began to develop than there emerged critical reactions against it, precipitated by the debacle of the French Revolution and gathering tremendous force by the end of the eighteenth century. An initial and formidable challenge came from the German counter-Enlightenment, originally connected with the Lutheran Reformation, which adopted a hostile, defensive stance against the political and cultural hegemony of France and its modernizing influences (Berlin 1982, 1992).7 Led by Hamann, who had a major influence on later German Romantics like Fichte and Schelling, the counter-Enlightenment waged war against scientific materialism, utilitarianism, ethical naturalism, secularism, and universalism. It stood every core tenet of the Enlightenment on its head and championed the particular over the general; the national over the cosmopolitan; the concrete over the abstract; direct sensation and lived experience over the construction of conceptual systems; imagination, instinct, and intuition over logic, reason, mathematics, and the natural sciences; the genius and free individual over community and social conformity; and traditional religion and faith over agnosticism, deism, or atheism.

From various critical quarters, including Enlightenment thinkers themselves, Enlightenment principles were attacked on three different grounds. First, a philosophical argument questioned assumptions concerning the existence of an immanent logic in history, historical laws, and the unified nature of history and humankind. Vico, Herder, Spengler, Nietzsche, Weber, Marx, and others in the modern tradition subjected totalizing and teleological visions of history to sharp critique, advocating countervisions of historical plurality, nonevolutionism, or cyclical theories of history. More vehemently than anyone, Schopenhauer advanced a vision of the world as blind, purposeless, aimless will. Second, an existential argument denied the supremacy of reason over the emotions, will, imagination, and intuitive insight. Romantics like Schelling, Fichte, Wordsworth, Coleridge, as well as existentialists like Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard argued that human beings are not primarily rational beings but rather are governed by more powerful emotional, instinctual, volitional, and unconscious urges. The French archreactionary De Maistre saw reason as a feeble instrument incapable of managing the primal human instinct for violence and self-immolation. Both romantics and existentialists alike deplored the decline of emotions, imagination, vitality, spontaneity, individuality, and freedom that resulted from the rise of rationality, technology, scientific calculation, and mass society. They denied that reason could construct conceptual systems that reflected the nature of reality. Romantics held that artists and poets, not scientists, had privileged access to reality through intuitive insight and direct imaginative apprehension. Thus, Hamann proclaimed, "God is a poet, not a mathematician," and Herder cried, "I am not here to think, but to be, feel, live!"8

Third, there was the empirical argument that Enlightenment principles and institutions have led to historical regression rather than progression.9 While liberal theorists like Locke, Smith, and Spencer championed the emerging capitalist order with its property rights and free markets as convergent with both human nature (defined in terms of competitive instincts) and the general welfare, empirical critiques of the Enlightenment came mainly from the Right or Left. French conservatives such as Burke, Tain, and Tocqueville decried the secularism, liberalism, and individualism of the modern era as a loss of order, and called for a return to religion, family, tradition, community, and heredity-based rights.10 De Maistre— whose reactionary stance is so extreme he makes Hobbes look like an anarchist and Schopenhauer seem more sanguine than Dr. Pangloss— resurrected the doctrine of original sin, professed hatred for all intellectuals, called for the total subordination of the individual to the state whose central authority was the executioner, and celebrated the ubiquity of suffering and violence as deserved punishment for the corrupt human species. As Berlin notes (1992), he stands in a league all by himself and should be seen not merely as a conservarive, but rather as the founder of twentieth-century fascism.

On the other hand, anarchists, socialists, and other critics railed against the brutality and inhumanity of the modern world and the coersive nature of modern reason. In a critical tradition stretching from Nietzsche and Weber through the Frankfurt School to postmodern theory, nineteenth-and twentieth-century critics linked advances in modern rationalization processes and "instrumental reason" to increases in domination rather than freedom. Hence, we find accounts of modernity as an "iron cage," a "one-dimensional society," or a "disciplinary archipelago." While such critiques sometimes focused exclusively on the repressive and exploitative aspects of capitalism, Marx, Habermas, and others seek more dialectical arguments, arguing that capitalism has also brought advances in democracy and freedom that can be appropriated and advanced in a new social context (see Chapters 2 and 4). This dialectical vision of history mediates between the conservative negation and liberal celebration of capitalism to criticize its core features while appropriating other features and seeking to advance them in a "higher" stage of history.

The Enlightenment also has been attacked for its racist, Eurocentric, and ahistorical positions. Where some thinkers like Hobbes, Condorcet, or

Rousseau posited a natural equality among human beings, and Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau saw features of non-European cultures (such as Tahitian sexual freedom or Chinese tolerance) as superior to their own, others denigrated premodern and non-Western cultures as inferior to the "civilized" cultures of the modern West. With few exceptions such as Wallace and Darwin, racist arguments dominated nineteenth-century evolutionary theory such that "savages" and "Negroes" were considered closer to apes than Europeans (Eiseley 1958). In Kantian terms, premodern cultures belong to the ontogenetically equivalent stage of childhood, while only modern Europe matured into rational adulthood. "Enlightened" figures such as Locke, Hume, and Kant, even while recognizing cultural diversity, believed in the superiority of the West and defended slavery and genetic racism. Despite his sympathetic remarks about Chinese, Indian, Persian, and Islamic cultures, Voltaire privileged the rational norms of the West. Leopold Von Ranke thought philosophers of history would "very wisely restrict their views to only a few [European] nations in the history of the world, while regarding the lives of all the others as naught, as a mere supplement" (1973:58). Comte claimed that Europe was "the theatre of the preponderant evolution of humanity" (1974:205), and that there France stood center stage. History, Comte believed, should focus only on "the development of the most advanced peoples" and avoid those cultures "whose evolution has so far been, for some cause or another, arrested at a more imperfect stage" (1974:199). For Comte, "the West alone is charged with the glorious and difficult mission of laying the foundations of human regeneration" (1973:3).

In their equation of "higher" with "more rational," such evolutionary schemes are inherently racist. Ironically, Eurocentric theories of historical progress are rooted in ahistorical assumptions. From Descartes to Kant, modern philosophers constructed theories of knowledge informed by a static view of human nature that converted different culturally shaped modes of knowledge and experience into a predetermined, universally given form. This assumption was given its classic form in Hume, who grounded his empiricist epistemology in a science of human nature that sought to grasp the "secret springs" of all human knowledge and belief: "Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature" (1955:83). Like Descartes and Kant, Hume took the ahistorical paradigm of the natural sciences as the proper model for philosophy and psychology.

As Collingwood observes, the search for a theory of human nature necessarily obscures historical diversity and is possible "only to a person who mistakes the transient conditions of a certain age for the permanent conditions of human life" (1956:224). Collingwood thinks this was an easy mistake for Enlightenment thinkers to make, given their limited knowledge of cultures other than their own. The result of such historical ignorance was that Enlightenment thinkers "could cheerfully identify the intellectual habits of a western European in their own day with the intellectual faculties bestowed by God upon Adam and all his progeny" (Collingwood 1956:224).

The proclivity of the white middle classes of European descent to proclaim themselves the representatives of all humanity and to project their own values and interests onto other cultures is aptly described by Solomon (1988, 1993) as the "transcendental pretense." Through appeal to universal principles, above all to the idea of human nature, many in the modern tradition sought to represent their ideas as the only valid ones, as grounded in nature itself. Knowledge of nature provided the means to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, the natural and the artificial, and thereby to bring society into harmony with the universal natural order. Whatever differences divided camps like rationalists and romantics, they were one in their appeal to nature, human nature, and universal values. On the occasions when modern theorists analyzed cultures outside of the temporal and spatial boundaries of central Europe, they typically came armed with a host of ready-made, a priori assumptions that sought universal conditions and characteristics of "man in general." They thereby found in the mirror of history only their own reflections. "The seemingly simple ideal of 'humanity' turned out to be a simpleminded gloss over irreconcilable differences between people, and a denial of real historical change" (Solomon 1993:xvi). Far from innocent, the modern universalist vision of history disguised personal interests, devalued other cultures, and "became an aggressive intellectual and cultural platform meant to pound alternative conceptions of human nature into submission" (xi).11 Where Eurocentrism is the theory, imperialism is the practice.12

Thus, although the modern world unleashed new historical impulses, they often were limited in their scope and ahistorical in approach. In the new naturalist discourse—the appeals to human nature, natural law, natural sentiment, natural philosophy, and so on—modern theory preserved the foundationalist fervor of providential history.13 It was not until the end of the eighteenth century, as a result of evolutionary thinking in geology and biology, that such static schemes would be overturned in favor of evolutionist outlooks.14 But despite the ideas of development, change, and evolution that pervaded the nineteenth century, some modern theorists found it necessary to appeal to ahistorical and teleological grounds to anchor their descriptive and normative claims. The ahistorical bias behind eighteenth century theory took a more extreme form in the oxymoronically titled "science of history" that emerged in the nineteenth century.


History is not entertainment, but science.. Its aim is not to have us make a pleasant acquaintance with such and such a period of our choice but to have us know man completely in all the phases of his existence.


One of the most important running debates in historiography is the question of whether history is merely a literary or narrative form, designed for political and moral edification, or a science, designed for explanation of the past and prediction of the future. Beginning with the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, and continuing through the recent work of narrativists and analytic philosophers of history, theorists have distinguished between truth and fiction and have placed historical writing on one side or the other. For positivists, history is distinct from fiction in its concern for empirical facts, objective truth, deductive logic, and lawlike forms of explanation. Narrativists deny that history can have an objective basis and see it primarily as literary form, a poetic interpretation of the past imaginatively reconstructed in the form of narrative. Still others, like Ricoeur (1984), seek a middle ground by arguing that all historical writing is informed by pretheoretical narrative and poetic structures, but nevertheless can attain legitimate objectivity and explanatory status.

Positivism, of course, derives its name from its founder, Auguste Comte, who developed a "positive philosophy" that broke with the "critical" and "negative" mode of modern thought. This new "science" sought to grasp the laws structuring social phenomena, to construct a positive system of knowledge, and to order society on that basis. Comte claims to have identified the general law of history—"the actual march of the human intellect," "the final bent of the human mind toward positive studies"—in the gradual liberation of reason from the darkness of myth and fiction. The postmetaphysical, postcritical stage of knowledge designated as "positive" is the end result of a three-stage evolutionary process where the mind learns to overcome theological and metaphysical schemes in order to become strictly rational, factual, and empirical in its outlook. As Comte says, in the final, positive state of knowledge,

the human mind, recognizing the impossibility of obtaining absolute truth, gives up the search after the origin and hidden causes of the universe and a knowledge of the final causes of phenomena. It endeavours now only to discover, by a well-combined use of reasoning and observation, the actual laws of phenomena—that is to say, their invariable relations of succession and likeness. The explanation of facts, thus reduced to real terms, consists henceforth only in the connection established between different particular phenomena and some general facts, the number of which the progress of science tends more and more to diminish. (1988:2)

This passage demonstrates Comte's debt to Hume, the father of modern positivism, and succinctly summarizes the positivist approach to social theory and historiography. Inspired by the stunning triumphs of the natural sciences, Comte and his successors, such as nineteenth-century historians Buckle and Bury, sought the same order and rigor of knowledge in the social realm. In their drive to overcome metaphysics and close "the wide and dreary chasm" (Buckle) between the natural and social sciences, positivists broke with the philosophy of history, narrativist theories, and the literary and hermeneutic traditions. They tried to ground the study of society and history in the norms and methods of science, and set out in search of historical laws.15

With Comte's contribution still too recent, Buckle lamented the primitive state of historiography compared to the advanced state of the natural sciences: "The most celebrated historians are manifestly inferior to the most successful cultivators of physical science: no one having devoted himself to history who in point of intellect is at all to be compared with Kepler, Newton, or many others that might be named" (1973:125). Yet, Buckle thought the lack of such a state of knowledge need not be cause for despair: "Whoever is at all acquainted with what has been done during the last two centuries, must be aware that every generation demonstrates some events to be regular and predictable, which the preceding generation had declared to be irregular and unpredictable: so that the marked tendency of advancing civilization is to strengthen our belief in the universality of order, of method, and of law" (125).

Buckle's work evinces the drive of much modern theory for order and science, for reconstructing reality into tidy conceptual systems. Human actions, he believed, are never chaotic or capricious, but rather "form part of one vast scheme of universal order" (1973:127). Buckle thought the historian's task was not simply to write volumes replete with "the most trifling and miserable details" of anecdotes and unrelated events, but to collect the most relevant historical facts and discover the physical laws, such as those relating to climate, food, and soil, informing them. With such an approach, Buckle held "little doubt that before another century has elapsed, the chain of evidence [for constructing historical laws] will be complete, and it will be as rare to find an historian who denies the undeviating regularity of the moral world, as it now is to find a philosopher who denies the regularity of the material world" (127).

Thus defined, the historian's enterprise, like that of the natural scientist, is the "explanation" of history, which means the subsumption of facts and events to more general determining laws—what Popper and Hempel later termed the "covering law model."16 The natural and social worlds are governed by the same mathematical and quantifiable logic. The belief that the science of history deals with invariables and universals repudiates the Aristotelian theory that history deals only with particulars. Since explanations restrict the knowable to the observable, they also renounce appeal to origins or causes of phenomena.17 Following Hume, positivists claim that causality, material or final, entails appeal to occult phenomena ("power, force, energy, or necessary connection" [Hume]) and mysterious essences hidden from the empirical gaze. Since causes are unknowable, historical laws are constructed from observable relations among facts or events; they are linked together in general laws by identifying universal relations of "succession and resemblance" and "constant conjunction" (Hume). As Comte says, "We do not pretend to explain the real causes of phenomena. we try only to analyze correctly the circumstances of their production, and to connect them by normal relations of succession and similarity" (1988:8). The denial of causality requires the rejection of psychologism and idealism (employed by Collingwood and others) and the categories of motive and intention that these traditions employ to explain human behavior. Since the interior processes of mental life are nonobservable, explanatory appeals to them would be metaphysical. Rather, intentionality is subsumed to the general, invariable, objective laws of history.

Like the natural sciences, the goal of historical explanation is prediction: given a true statement about empirical conditions, an event is logically deducible from a law. Assuming knowledge of initial conditions, we can say that the event had to occur. Contingency and indeterminancy are erased from social action; the appeal to the irregularity or variability of events is merely a sign of impoverishment, of the historian's inability to identify deeper, underlying laws. From the philosophes to scientific Marxists, many modern theorists believed in the necessity and inevitability of history, a determinism in logical continuity with the providential theory of history. Such a vision of history unavoidably entailed the self-aggrandizement of elites and the depoliticization of the masses, for "science" is the rightful property of the cognoscenti.

As we shall see, in quite different ways, Marx, Foucault, and Habermas all reject the positivist program of seeking timeless, universal laws of history and assimilating social phenomena to the explanatory logic of natural events. But the rejection of modern determinism and scientism comes from within early quarters of modern theory itself, pointing to a deeply divided tradition over the possibility and desirability of a science of history. The first modern argument that social disciplines have their own logic was developed by Vico in the early eighteenth century. In his New Science (1968, orig. 1725) Vico challenged the first scientistic doctrine—not Comtean positivism, but Cartesian rationalism—that saw the entire world as mathematical in nature, that upheld geometry as the model for all forms of knowledge, and that attempted to deduce true principles from clear and distinct ideas expressed in rational terms. Vico argued not only that this model did not apply to the realm of history, but that historical reality can be known with more certainty than natural reality since only history is created by human beings. In fact, he argued, since nature is a divine creation, only God can know it. Vico's argument is based on the epistemological doctrine verum et factum convertuntur ("truth and fact are interchangeable"), which claims that the condition of knowing something truly is that the knower itself has made it. Since only history is a human invention, it alone remains the proper object of human knowledge and it cannot be illuminated using models imported from the natural sciences, being an entirely different ontological and epistemological domain.

The thesis that the social sciences have their own logic was further advanced by neo-Kantians and the German hermeneutic tradition. Kant's distinction between the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity served to bifurcate the inner life of the human being itself and, by extension, the natural and social sciences. The methodological dualism between the natural and social sciences was a given not only for neo-Kantians of the nineteenth century, but also for early figures of the German hermeneutic tradition such as Wolff, Rickert, Schleiermacher, and Dilthey, as well as for key twentieth-century figures like Collingwood, Dray, Gallie, and Winch.

Appropriating Mill's concept of the "moral sciences," Dilthey distinguished between the Geisteswissenschaften, which were based on a logic of interpretation or understanding (Verstehen), and the Naturwissenschaften, which were based on a logic of explanation (Erklaren). Like positivists, Dilthey rejected all metaphysical interpretations of universal history and insisted that history is an empirical discipline: "Hegel con structed metaphysically, we analyse the given" (1962:125). While both the natural scientist and the historian deal with facts, regularities, and even forms of prediction, Dilthey insisted that history has a distinct logic, method, and subject matter that cannot be assimilated to those of the hard sciences. For Dilthey, events in the human realm are the result of will, intention, and volition and are not subject to laws, whereas events in the natural realm are strictly physical, nonconscious, and determined in character. Unlike the natural world, the human world is "mind-affected"; it is suffused with values and meaning that the historian can reconstruct in its general patterns of intelligibility: "Though there is nothing like 'the meaning' of history, the situations with which the historian deals are already meaningful, that is, they have received interpretations from the people involved in them" (65). The task of the historian is to grasp the meaning of actions from the standpoint of historical subjects themselves; to discover how this meaning is embedded in institutions, communities, and historical processes; and to discern the patterns of meaning underlying historical diversity made possible by "the regularity and structure of general human nature" (112).18

Thus, the historian is concerned with meaningful relationships, not causal relations. The natural world is to be explained, while the human world is to be understood. Dilthey believed that the proper way to understand human action was through an imaginative and empathetic reinvention of the thoughts and motivations of a historical person, accessible in the forms of texts and documents, while situating this person within his or her society. Similar to Vico, Dilthey argued that we can know the human world better than the natural world because the data of consciousness can be known directly. Whereas scientific explanation deals with sense perception of external data, historical understanding seeks a subjective standpoint. The norms of pure rationality and objectivity impede the emotional and imaginative contact required of the historian; whatever objectivity is possible in historical understanding, it requires a subjective standpoint and a dialectic of facts and imagination, in which imagination allows us to determine relevant facts and in turn itself is based on facts. Later hermeneutic thinkers like Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur would argue that the "lifeworld" of beliefs, values, and meaning existed prior to any reflexive operation or explanatory logic.

In his 1903 essay, "Clio Rediscovered," George Trevelyan issued a powerful critique of Bury's A Science of History that anticipated later postmodern notions. For Trevelyan, facts do not exist independently of the imagination, which selects and arranges them in general patterns or narrative order. With Dilthey, he insists that no historian devoid of emotion or understanding could understand the lives and culture of past peoples. The notion of scientific history "is due to a misapplication of the analogy to physical science" (Trevelyan 1973:230). This is so primarily because history is too complex, irregular, and contingent for the construction of universally applicable causal laws. "The law of gravitation may be scientifically proved because it is universal and simple. But the historical law that starvation brings on revolt is not proved; indeed the opposite statement, that starvation leads to abject submission, is equally true in the light of past events. You cannot so completely isolate any historical event from its circumstances as to be able to deduce from it a law of general application.. An event is itself nothing but a set of circumstances, none of which will ever recur" (231). Writing against the grain of modern determinism, Trevelyan argued that a "true conception of history" is one that realizes "that the history of mankind is not simple but complex, that history never repeats itself but ever creates new forms differing according to time and place" (241).

Besides being context bound, Trevelyan claimed that historical interpretation is incomplete and perspective bound. No one interpretation of a historical event like the French Revolution is exhaustive; several perspectives, all imperfect, are necessary, and the best interpretation will be informed by emotional understanding and acute imaginative powers. As postmodernists would later do, Trevelyan privileges the literary over the scientific aspect of history. There is science in the collecting and weighing of evidence and facts, but there is art in their imaginative arrangement and literary presentation: "It is the business of the historian to generalize and to guess cause and effect, but he should do it modestly and not call it 'science,' and he should not regard it as his first duty, which is to tell the story" (1973:233). The ultimate purpose of history is educative, not scientific, the moral and political training of the mind of the citizen. It is the narrative itself, "the tale of the thing done," not technical cause and effect relations, that educates minds and trains political judgment. Trevelyan draws an important political consequence from the two different visions of history: where scientific history issues from an elitist concern for specialized knowledge, literary history seeks to promote public enlightenment and is therefore more democratic in character and result.

In the debate over the methodological status of the social sciences, two polarized positions emerged. At one pole, the reductionist, positivist, or "naturalist" tradition tries to subsume the social sciences to the logic and methodology of the natural sciences; it denies the historical and subjective constitution of knowledge in order to construct abstract nomological models. At the opposite pole, the autonomy, Verstehen, or "antinaturalist" tradition posits an irreducible gulf between the two fields of inquiry; it rejects the validity of causal explanations, laws, and observational techniques for the study of human reality. This tradition claims that the social world is open and contingent, while the natural world is determined. Since human events are such that they could not have happened, that other actions and outcomes are always possible, there is indeterminacy in history. Where nature is governed by unchanging laws, human beings and social dynamics change throughout time. Unlike natural events, historical events are unique and nonrepeatable. The predictions made in the natural sciences have the character of necessity, while those in the social sciences can be at best merely probable.

Where positivists claim that the purpose of history is scientific, providing explanations and predictions, hermeneutic theorists and others argue that the primary purpose of history is educative, providing moral or political knowledge. Activist uses of history reject the allegedly disinterested perspective of the positivist and seek to use the past to improve present and future life. As Habermas notes (1971), the different emphases on explanation, understanding, and critique entail different "interests" and practical strategies: the control of reality, the search for consensual dialogue, and the goal of human emancipation.19 The positivist vision of an orderly, controlled, and predictable social reality entails the suppression of diversity, dissent, and personal spontaneity. These implications were fully present in the frightening visions of Saint Simon and Comte, who both attacked democracy and dissent as anarchic forces that had to be supressed in favor a social order maintained by an elite group of scientists, engineers, and industrialists (Comte's new "Priests of Humanity"). The unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from Comte's call for "Order and Progress" is that the rational society is best organized like a military barracks, that enlightenment is not the courage to criticize but the need to submit, both to the laws of Fact and the facts of Law. As Habermas notes (1973), positivism effaced the moral and critical aspects of Enlightenment rationality to reduce it to mere technical rationality allegedly purified of any subjective taint.20

In contrast, the hermeneutic or pragmatist vision of a social reality constructed in dialogue and interpretation promises to yield more liberty and democracy in its abandonment of a privileged position for truth and its emphasis on intersubjective communication and mutual understanding. But, as the critical interest points out, one cannot accept cultural traditions at face value or see forms of communication as free of distortion; rather, theory must locate the forces of ideology and domination that block communication and understanding and inform a politics that seeks the elimination of such distorting influences.

We see that the dynamic forces of modernity generated a plethora of conflicting historical visions and political programs. There were sharp divisions between positivist and antipositivist approaches to history and society; between those clinging to tradition, religion, and community, and those favoring reason, secularism, and individualism; between those embracing modernity as progress and those rejecting it as regress; between those endorsing pluralism and relativism and those defending universalism and foundationalism; between those advocating democracy and those espousing monarchy, aristocracy, or technocracy; between those championing egalitarianism and those proclaiming natural inequality; between those who pessimistically denied the freedom and value of human beings and those who optimistically envisaged their potential perfection.

Very simplistically, the different visions of history and politics can be divided among conservative, liberal, and radical approaches: the first approach, which comes out of Burke and is realized most extremely in De Maistre and Bonald, rejects modernity and seeks the renewal of tradition. The second approach, which stems from the philosophes, utilitarians, and political economists, embraces modernity and promotes Enlightenment ideas, individualism, and capitalism. The third approach represented by socialists and anarchists also embraces the Enlightenment and individualism as historically progressive, but argues that capitalism develops them in dangerous and incomplete ways, and that the liberatory aspects of modernity must be developed in a noncapitalist form. Seeking neither to remain within the present order, nor to go backward in time to a mythical

Golden Age, the radical vision foresees a liberatory post-capitalist modernity of the future. This alternative, dialectical vision must also be distinguished from a vision of a postmodernity that is not always progressive or emancipatory in nature (see below).

Hence, one needs to use caution when using terms such as "the Enlightenment" or "the modern era," insofar as these labels imply a homogeneous worldview or movement that never existed. Although Enlightenment thinkers shared certain general tenets—such as embracing freedom, secularism, and critical reason over dogma, superstition, tyranny, and tradition—they differed greatly over specific issues. Holbach rejected the existence of the divine rule of nature, while Voltaire insisted on it; Kant championed reason as the ground of moral judgment, but Hume made it the slave to the passions; where Diderot limited enlightenment to an elite, Rousseau favored the education of the majority; Jefferson and Paine believed in self-evident natural principles, while Bentham ridiculed them as "nonsense on stilts" and advanced an empirically based utilitarian ethics. As analyzed by Hawthorn (1990), Enlightenment philosophies assumed different forms in France, England, and Germany, and among and within these countries there was wide disagreement over the nature of history, society, and theory. As Marx saw, the Enlightenment produced abstract philosophy in Germany, but fomented revolution in France.

Similarly, there is great diversity within "modern social theory." Not all modern social theorists, for example, adhered to a positivist program or a realist epistemology. Following Antonio and Kellner (1994) one can distinguish between two opposing traditions: a "critical" tradition (e.g., Marx, Weber, and Dewey) that qualifies the modernist faith in rationality, attends to the complexities of historical generalizations, rejects the belief in theory-free knowledge, complicates the linear vision of progress, and situates the subject within history; and a "dogmatic" tradition (e.g., Comte and Spencer) that uncritically champions science and rationality, produces overly totalizing theories, seeks purely objective "facts" and knowledge, posits an essentialist model of the subject, and formulates elitist political programs.

One needs to keep in mind that the first substantive critiques of the Enlightenment and modern social theory came from within the modern tradition itself, from both its conservative and its progressive wings. Just as the philosophes rejected the extreme claims of Cartesian rationalism, arguing that reason is not the only or fundamental motive of action and is limited in its ability to grasp reality (Gay 1966), classical social theory sought to reconstruct key Enlightenment concepts and ideals (Antonio and Kellner 1994). A key "performative contradiction" (Habermas) of postmodern theorists is that their rhetorical celebration of difference, plurality, discontinuity, and incommensurability is not put into practice methodologically when they analyze modern theorists. Rather, they construct a straw model of "modern theory" as a unified movement informed by a host of naive and erroneous assumptions; they fail to examine the historical context (the reaction against feudalism and Christianity) that led to the excesses of rationalism; and they typically do not refer to specific figures or texts. While many modern theorists do articulate the themes attacked by postmodernists, others were critical of these tendencies and sought more complex positions. Where a thinker like Descartes thought he could reconstruct the universe given matter and motion, Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Gibbon, Wieland, and others rejected totalizing claims of reason and, anticipating a favorite postmodern thesis, advocated philosophical modesty. As Holbach claimed, "It is not given man to know everything; it is not given him to know his origins; it is not given him to penetrate the essence of things or to go back to first principles" (cited in Gay 1966: 144-145).

As we turn now to the postmodern theories themselves, we see that they too are highly diverse in nature. Although some theorists, like Foucault or Laclau and Mouffe (1985; Laclau 1988; Mouffe 1988) can be read as still working within the modern tradition, others, like Baudrillard or Lyotard have burned any bridges connecting them to modern theory and have crossed over into a radical postmodern territory. In general, postmodern social theories are predicated on visions of history alternative to those typically found in modern theory, and these visions generate quite different political responses to modernizing processes.


One may say almost anything one likes about history except that it is rational. The very word sticks in one's throat.


No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one that leads from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.


The ancients have stolen all our best ideas.


The connection between postmodern discourse and history is direct insofar as the very identity of the postmodern is premised on a historical break with preceding modern movements. The sharp historical consciousness of postmodern theory informs its methodological attack on universalist, foundationalist, and essentialist theories that abstract from changing sociohistorical conditions to ground theory in a timeless norm or standpoint. Moreover, the first major discourses of the postmodern emerged in the field of historiography, where Somerville and Toynbee posited a new discontinuity in history, a post-modern era that was said to differ significantly from the modern era.

The prefix "post" is ambiguous to the extent that it has temporal and philosophical meanings, signifying both a movement after and rejection of modern movements in theory and the arts. We also need to distinguish among "postmodernism," a critical movement within theory and the arts; "postmodern theory," a theoretical development within philosophy and social theory that breaks from core tenets of modern theory; and "post-modernity," a term that implies a larger, more systematic claim that we are in a new historical era (see Featherstone 1988; Best and Kellner 1991). The argument of Jameson (1991) that we are in a new postmodern culture but not a new postmodernity that allegedly has superseded the main dynamics of "modernity" demonstrates that these claims are independent. Yet the accumulation of so many postmodern discourses in fields ranging from architecture and anthropology to philosophy and social theory leads one to wonder if indeed we are not in a new "post-culture" (Steiner 1971), a "post-modern period" (Mills 1959), or a "postmodernity" (Baudrillard 1984), where the hallmarks of the modern world—humanism, rationalism, progressivist theories of history, discrete nation states, and so on— are historically obsolete or philosophically bankrupt.21

Still, it is important to realize that "postmodern" tenets are not wholly new or original. Indeed, new theoretical developments always have important anticipations in earlier times. The "new science" of the seventeenth century, for example, was not a total break with the past but a continuation of twelfth-century Greco-Arabic natural science (Randall 1976) and of some fertile ideas of fourteenth-century European medievalism (Butterfield 1957). Similarly, many "postmodern" moves replay long-standing dissatisfaction with Enlightenment concepts and values. Long before Foucault and Lyotard, Burke and other conservatives attacked the Enlightenment for its alleged superficial rationalism, naive optimism, and reckless utopianism, and some of these critiques were first voiced within the philosophe community itself (Gay 1966). From Toulmin's account (1990), we see that many key postmodern themes, such as the emphasis on particularity, rhetoric, and the context-bound nature of theory were already present in sixteenth-century Renaissance humanism. Voltaire, Condillac, Hume, Kant, Comte, and Spencer assailed rationalist faith in the unlimited powers of "pure reason" to know the world. Critical quarters of modern social theory and art issued further challenges to the universalism, foundationalism, and realism, as Nietzsche did in the nineteenth century and Dewey, Heidegger, Rorty, and others have done in the twentieth century. Nearly every major tenet of postmodernism, such as the embrace of diversity over uniformity and desire over thought, was powerfully prefigured by existentialism and Romanticism. In fact, one could find anticipations of postmodern theory with the first appearance of relativism and skepticism in the arguments of the sophists or Pyrrhonists, or with the Heraclitean critique of the static Parmenidean ontology.

Thus, postmodern theory should be understood not as an absolute rupture or break with modern theory, but rather as a continuation of the critical aspects of modern thought itself and the skeptical, relativist, pluralist, and pragmatist underground tradition of Western philosophy. As a prefix, "post" has more meaning as a philosophical than a temporal designator, pointing to an attitude skeptical of the powers of reason that appears throughout both Western and Eastern history. Thus, the postmodern belief that nothing is new and everything has been done can be applied to postmodernism itself. Advocates of the postmodern tend to exaggerate the novelty of their theories and to dehistoricize their work in relation to preceding traditions of thought. Such hyperbole leads Gerald Graff, for one, to puncture "the myth of the postmodernist breakthrough" (1973).22 In social theory and historiography, we can point to the critique of totalizing, universal histories by Von Ranke, Herder, and Weber; the denunciation of radical and utopian schemes of change by Burke; the rejection of foundationalism and timeless truths in favor of relativism by Montesquieu, Herzen, and Dilthey; the attack on the notion of a fixed human nature by Vico, Rousseau, and Marx; the abandonment of metaphysical theories of history by Dilthey; the disavowal of grand narrative schemes as illusory or dangerous in favor of a strict empiricism by Hume and Popper; the celebration of incommensureable cultural differences by Machiavelli, Vico, Montesquieu, Montaigne, and Herder; the adoption of a multicausal model that analyzes a complex interrelationship of numerous social forces by Montesquieu and Marx; and the emphasis on the literary nature of historiography by Trevelyan. The list is hardly exhaustive.

What is new in postmodern theory, therefore, is not so much specific tenets or claims, but the coalescence of various issues in one discourse and the emergence of a Zeitgeist, mainly confined to certain intellectual and artistic circles to be sure, that is skeptical toward claims that reason can bring freedom or truth. Despite the various continuities one can find between postmodern and modern theories, the term "postmodern theory" is not necessarily wrong or superfluous because the critical elements in modern theory that were marginalized in relation to the dominant models have become increasingly strong and prominent in recent theory. This is not necessarily to agree with Jameson's claim (1991) that the tenets defining postmodern thought are now primary and dominant rather than secondary and emergent (in philosophy, for instance, the modern Anglo-American tradition still prevails), but these tenets have taken on greater cohesion, force, and influence in contemporary times. The keystones of Western rationalism are simply no longer tenable for an increasing number of contemporary thinkers in various fields, and the "modern period" in culture and thought appears to be ending in significant ways. Nevertheless, any discussion of postmodern theory has to grasp both continuity and discontinuity with previous modes of thought. The alleged "rupture" of postmodern with modern discourse is not incompatible with continuities with prior theories, since what is at issue is not any specific tenet but a whole family of concepts, issues, styles, and methods that align themselves in a new conceptual framework. It is in this light that we can understand Lyotard's cryptic remark that "the postmodern is undoubtedly a part of the modern" (1984:79).

In the fields of social theory, philosophy, and historiography, postmodern theorists break with any attempt to situate reason outside of history. Many modern theorists seek to ground epistemological and normative claims in timeless, universal foundations rooted in clear and distinct ideas, a priori categories of the mind, purified structures of consciousness, human nature, or the laws of history or nature. Postmodern theorists deny that such foundations exist and seek to complete the break with premodern essentialism and foundationalism that many modern theorists failed to accomplish. The "quest for certainty" (Dewey 1979) such foundationalism validates is overturned in the certainty that such a quest is groundless. Rejecting all static, ahistorical conceptions of phenomena, postmodern theorists—following Hegel, Marx, Weber, Dewey, and others—adopt historicizing, contextualizing approaches to culture, literature, philosophy, and other "texts," reading them as artifacts produced within specific social, historical, and linguistic conditions. For postmodern theorists, everything is historically constituted, even desire and the body, dimensions of human life that typically have been considered pregiven and invariable.23 In particular, postmodern theorists abandon essentialist and idealist analyses of the subject as a unified consciousness that projects its intentions onto the field of social action. They reject not only simplistic Enlightenment models of a rationally motivated subject, but also the more general ideal of a conscious, autonomous self. By extension, they break with the notion of humanity as an evolving, unified macrosubject. There is no collective agent of history in the form of Hegel's Spirit or Lukacs' Proletariat, only different historical groups and individuals.

This detotalizing move informs the postmodern critique of evolutionism and the philosophy of history. Postmodern theorists argue that history is not a continuous, linear path of development that encompasses all cultures within one great movement and culminates in universal harmony at the impetus of teleological laws. Rather, history is a discontinuous, fractured plurality of micronarratives governed by an indeterminant play of contingent forces devoid of purposes, immanent logic, or coherent direction. The deconstruction of history follows the same movement as the dismantling of the subject, author, and text. Rather than seeking a universal history that subsumes disparate peoples into the abstraction of "humanity," postmodern theorists acknowledge temporal discontinuity and celebrate cultural diversity. Lyotard's (1984) declaration of war against totalizing metanarratives that reduce difference to uniformity is the battle cry of the postmodern movement that seeks to liberate the full plurality of historical and cultural voices. Thus, following the lead of Rousseau, Herder, Weber, and other modern dissenters from Eurocentric progressivism, postmodern theorists reject the devaluation of premodern cultures, sometimes—as is true of the early work of Baudrillard and Foucault—going so far as to evince nostalgia for past eras uncorrupted by instrumental reason. The core political vision of postmodern theorists is that of the liberation of difference and plurality from the oppressive and homogenizing effects of modern theory.

In their critique of speculative, metaphysical conceptions of history, postmodern theorists have ironic similarities to the positivist tradition, but they depart radically from positivism in their rejection of the unity of the sciences, the search for historical laws, and the belief in truth, objectivity, and determinist models of cause-effect relations. Renouncing the possibility of a science of society or history, postmodern theorists claim that historical theory is nothing but rhetoric and narrative "with moral intent" (Seidman 1991). Where the scientistic versions of modern historiography emphasize universal laws, order, necessary causal connections, and the continuity of history, postmodern accounts of history emphasize chance, contingency, plurality, and indeterminancy, and firmly oppose the a priori reduction of change to regularity and universal law, such as is evident in the work of Buckle. Postmodern theorists reject both idealist emphases on history as the outcome of human intentionality as well as determinist emphases on the inevitablity of actions and events. Frequently, this circle is squared by granting chance and indeterminancy for social and linguistic structures, while seeing the subject as determined by these forces.

Postmodern theorists abandon the modern sociological belief in society as an ordered whole that can be grasped through systemic theory. They believe society is too dispersed, fragmented, differentiated, and complex to be adequately represented or mapped in a coherent theory, and they therefore produce partial and fragmented accounts of the world. They reject Marxian dialectics as a totalizing device and instead, with Hume, tend to see things as "entirely loose and separate." Like Toynbee, they tend to see history as merely "one damn thing after another." Ironically, while they reject modern foundationalism, they retain modern individualism, both epistemologically (the isolated knowing self) and politically (the desiring monad). For Perry Anderson (1984), the postmodern emphasis on discontinuity, indeterminancy, and contingency results in "the randomization of history." Postmodern theorists, he claims, fail to grasp important continuities, developmental trajectories, and underlying causal mechanisms behind historical change—such as Marx and Habermas both attempt to theorize.

Postmodern theorists also deny the modern norms of truth and objectivity and claim that knowledge is unavoidably subjective and partial. Embracing a skeptical, ironic, and relativist viewpoint, they see all interpretations as equally good or bad, relevant or irrelevant, and they reduce historical "facts" to fictional constructions. Some postmodern theorists speak as though historical events have no independent status beyond the linguistic fictions of writers. Influenced by the Nietzschean-Foucauldian critique of the modern will to truth, postmodernists regard the real significance of truth and objectivity as their political function of legitimating scientific and political authority. Where many modern theorists have championed science and Enlightenment rationality as emancipatory, postmodern theorists attack these forces as repressive, pointing to the disastrous consequences of the rationalization of the social world, such as the production of new modes of destruction, violence, and social control.

Thus, the modern linkage between reason and freedom comes un done in the postmodern description of rationalized domination. Rather than rethinking this relationship, as do critical modern theorists, many postmodern theorists reject the ideals of both reason and freedom and find nothing but the seeds of a totalitarian order in modern utopian schemes of a rational transformation of society and humanity. The realization of the ideals of the French slogan "Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!" in the Reign of Terror and Napoleanic invasions, the social engineering scenarios of St. Simon and Comte, or the catastrophic outcome of the Bolshevik revolution are precisely the kind of examples postmodern theorists have in mind when they refuse modern activist programs based on abstract, utopian, global, or elitist visions of change. Accordingly, Lyotard (1984) finds the main characteristic of the "postmodern condition" to be "incredulity toward metanarratives." For Lyotard, a "metanarrative" is similar to the narratives produced by the philosophy of history tradition. It is a modernist vision of history as progress, as a linear, teleological movement of events toward the confluence of reason and freedom, grounded in foundationalist principles. For Lyotard and others, the metanarratives articulated by Leibniz, Kant, Turgot, Condorcet, St. Simon, Comte, Hegel, Marx, and Habermas are no longer credible in the wake of the deformation of reason in history and the philosophical critique of assumptions concerning the unity of history, the perfectibility of humankind, and the teleology of reason and freedom.

While they may reject metanarratives and lack positive normative conceptions of freedom, many postmodern theorists nevertheless use historical analyses to historicize modernity and promote political resistance to domination. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari and Lyotard in his early work analyze how capitalism tries to colonize desire and the libido, and they seek ways of escaping psychological and bodily repression. The early work of Baudrillard studies modern rationalization processes, which he thinks reduce the individual and forms of communication and exchange to crude utilitarian functions. Foucault's genealogies seek to expose how our identities have been constititued by normalizing powers so that they may be recreated in less coercive forms. Postmodern feminists attack essentialist theories of gender identity in order to free subjects for new social roles and psychological identities.

Postmodern critiques generally focus on the oppressive effects of modern rationalization processes, particularly as they constrain individual identities. Socially conscious and politically radical postmodernists, belonging to what Foster (1983) calls a "postmodernism of resistance," are interested more in changing society than playing with language. Where Foucault serves as a model, such theorists use postmodern categories to overcome the deficiencies of modern theory, to eliminate the idealist and metaphysical aspects, to politicize historical theory and knowledge, and to help create new political forms. While postmodern theorists like Baudrillard and Kroker/Cook lapse into nihilism and break all links between theory and practice, and Rorty limits the role of the intellectual to being a private ironist, Foucault and others stand within the modern activist tradition, while renouncing the specific forms it has adopted.

We see that postmodern theories are predicated on a rejection of the cardinal features of the modern traditions of historiography, philosophy, and social and political theory. Modern theory in various forms has come under attack for the allegiance to narratives of historical progress; the embrace of science, determinism, and objective laws of history; the search for necessary and universal foundations for theory; the humanist belief in free, creative agency; the ahistorical appeal to human nature; the equation of freedom and rationality; totalizing forms of theorizing; and global and elitist models of social change. In place of such claims and tenets, postmodern visions of history typically see no progress or directional tendencies in history, deny the authority of science and validity of facts and causal and objective analysis, reject foundationalism and universal values, decenter the subject to determining social or linguistic forces, link rationalization to domination, reject global, utopian, or systemic forms of theorizing and politics, and abandon normative language and epistemology.

Today, the core concerns of the modern era—rationality, freedom, progress, individualism, truth, and objectivity—are being challenged by postmodern theorists. Amidst the bloody turmoil of the Middle East and

Bosnia-Herzagovina, the resurfacing of global tensions in areas such as North and South Korea, and the spectacle of suffering in places such as Rwanda, Kant's and Condorcet's visions of a future marked by universal reason, peace, and happiness seem hopelessly naive. There is no doubt that modern values have received problematic philosophical formulation and political embodiment, and therefore that postmodern critiques can—as they have—contribute toward the revaluation and reinvigoration of modern values and theory (Best and Kellner 1991). Yet, all too often, the aim of postmodern critiques has been to destroy the modern intellectual and political traditions, with the result that they have failed to redeem its important resources and have offered little or no positive alternatives to modern theory and politics. Rather, postmodern theories have done much to disarm effective social critique, while contributing to a climate of pessimism, skepticism, relativism, and a loss of faith in human potential to organize social and individual existence on a free, rational, and peaceful basis. The postmodern countervision sees modern history as the bearer of a new dark age, rather than the harbinger of progress and enlightenment. In postmodern culture, the modern sense of change, novelty, dynamism, and unrealized possibilities of the future gives way to a gloomy pronouncement of stasis and exhaustion of historical energies. The end of history thereby signifies the end of liberatory visions and struggles or, voiced differently, the eternity of capitalism.

In the shadows of the Enlightenment, can the notions of progress, freedom, rationality, selfhood, truth, and objectivity be reconstructed and salvaged, in a politically progressive rather than conservative orientation, or are we truly moving toward the dystopian visions of Orwell, Huxley, and the cyberpunks? The contrasting theories and politics we find represented by Marx, Foucault, and Habermas point to competing responses to the secular forces of science, technology, individualism, and Enlightenment that define the modern world. At least since the French Revolution, battle lines have been drawn between enemies and champions of the revolutionary forces of modernity and the crucial issues that arose there are still hotly debated and far from resolved. Marx and Habermas represent quite different positions on the side of those who wish to advance liberatory aspects of modernity, while Foucault represents a "post-modern" approach that seeks to construct theoretical and political alternatives to modernity and modern theory. Yet, as is detailed in subsequent chapters, these lines of distinction cannot be drawn so simply: Marx and Habermas represent competing positions within the modern framework; and Foucault, in addition to offering postmodern alternatives to both Marx and Habermas, also draws from many of the same modern elements that inform their work. He straddles the borderline between modern and post-modern theory, rather than taking the leap of unfaith into the extreme postmodernism of Baudrillard, Lyotard, and others.

The question, therefore, is not what we can create ex nihilo in our allegedly new postmodern epoch in order to produce wholly new models of theory and politics, but which resources remain within the modern tradition that are useful for conceptualizing our historical present and creating an alternative future, and which elements are obsolete or problematic, and can be improved on by the postmodern critiques. This is precisely what is at stake in the modern/postmodern debates, and a critical comparison of Marx, Foucault, and Habermas promises to yield valuable insights into the important theoretical and political issues and conditions that confront us today.


1. As Germino notes, "Machiavelli wrote of charting a 'new way not yet travelled by anyone'; both Luther and Bodin propounded concepts related to temporal government which they claimed could be found nowhere in the political thought of the past; Hobbes modestly insisted that 'civil philosophy' was 'no older' than his book De cive; Vico entitled his major work The New Science; and a long line of writers—Condorcet, Comte, Mazzini, Marx— presented themselves as har bingers of a new age of enlightenment and progress about to dawn for mankind" (1972:8).

2. Of course, modern thinkers retained many traditional and conservative elements in their new theories. As is obvious in the case of Descartes, "radical" methods of doubt only served to better secure prevailing customs and belief. Few broke with Christianity, and many like Kant and even Voltaire continued to curry the favor of the old regime.

3. The idea that the social order mirrors the natural order and that the social body can be governed with the same precision as natural bodies leads to the vision of a "cosmopolis," of a society governed by natural laws (see Toulmin 1990). Although this idea was held by ancient Greece and China, and other premodern cultures, it held a special attraction for modern thinkers obsessed with the problem of social order. Hence we find Machievelli's notion of a science of government, Hobbes' vision of a social physics, Condorcet's plan for a social mathematics, and Comte's goal of a positive science or sociology. All four theorists demonstrate the powerful influence of modern mechanistic philosophy and the natural sciences on social theory.

4. Not all modern universal histories are insensitive to cultural and historical differences, Leopold Von Ranke, for example, sought a universal history that represents "the human race in all its variety" (1973:59). While Ranke searches for a universal order and continuity in historical development, he claims that "history can never possess the unity of a philosophical system" (1973:60). Each nation and stage of history has its own character, but they are linked in a universal history characterized by the struggle between freedom and necessity. Ranke's Eurocentrism, however (see below), casts serious doubt on his success in representing a dialectic of unity and diversity.

5. Becker's account is helpful for identifying key continuities between modern and medieval history, but it does not also analyze their fundamental discontinuities.

6. Rousseau is a wonderfully ambivalent thinker whose tensions reflect the dialectic of the Western civilization he analyzed. Where Rousseau the Romantic and author of the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality saw civilization as the corruption of the natural goodness of man, Rousseau the philosophe and writer of The Social Contract saw the gradual refinement of the human animal through social institutions.

7. It is an interesting historical irony that today it is Germans like Apel and Habermas who are trying to defend the Enlightenment, while French theorists like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Baudrillard are the most aggressive proponents of the postmodern attack on the Enlightenment. There are, of course, countertendencies in each national tradition, both then and now, for French thinkers like De Maistre spearheaded attacks on the Enlightenment, and German conservativism, led by the Christian Democrats, is currently seeking to dismantle its progressive heritage.

8. Another false stereotype of the philosophes is the claim that they reserved no place for art or the imagination in human life. As noted by Gay (1969), many emphasized the value of imagination and the arts. Thinkers like Lessing and Mendelssohn cautioned that reason could deaden emotions and self-awareness. Hume was not the only Enlightenment figure who understood that reason was not neces sarily lord over life, for as Diderot said far before Freud, "There is a bit of testical at the bottom of our most sublime sentiments and most refined tenderness" (cited in Gay 1969:189-190).

9. Many critics point out that the modern era is not a simple linear progression of knowledge. As Toulmin (1990) has shown, the seventeenth century did not represent a time of peace, prosperity, and tolerance compared to all preceding eras. He claims that there was less, not more, toleration of rational viewpoints compared to earlier periods in the seventeenth century, as is evident in the different receptions of the work of Copernicus and Galileo. Toulmin holds that the relative peace and prosperity of sixteenth-century Europe came to an end in the seventeenth century, which was scarred by economic depression, social illness, and the social, political, and intellectual chaos created by the Thirty Years War. He also argues that seventeenth-century thinkers produced a considerably more narrow and truncated version of rationality than employed by earlier humanists. Where sixteenth-century humanism merged theory and practice and grounded rational inquiry in local, particular, and concrete contexts, philosophers, beginning in the seventeenth century, severed reason from any contact with rhetoric, poetics, ambiguity, paradox, diversity, regionalism, skepticism, and relativism. Thinkers like Descartes and Kant inaugurated the modern project of abstracting reason from these contexts and seeking timeless, universal foundations for truth. The question remains, however, whether the ideal of progress can be reconstructed in a more viable form (see Chapter 4).

10. As Gay notes (1969), many Romantics rejected the standard Enlightenment view of the medieval era as the dark ages and emphasized positive qualities such as community they found to be lacking in modernity. Gay observes that

some Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Gibbon also rejected a strictly negative view of the medieval era.

11. Hampson argues that the Eurocentric construction of history, based on ignorance of other cultures, began to change in the sixteenth century, with increasing colonial contact with other peoples and published accounts of these cultures (1968:25ff.). Before such accounts, European knowledge of other cultures was limited to classical antiquity and stereotyped images of non-Western savages. As cosmologists reduced the earth to one planet among many, and anthropologists brought Europe and its Western heritage into a larger family of diverse cultures, "Homo Europeenis came gradually to believe that neither the world nor the universe revolved entirely round his collective person" (27). The European fascination with the exotic led some like Rousseau to exhalt early or foreign cultures as more pure and closer to nature. But knowledge of extra-European cultures did not spell the end of Eurocentrism; thinkers like Hume attempted to assimilate differences into a universal sameness that reflected the image of modern Europe.

12. Certainly not all modern thinkers adopted the transcendental pretence that seemed mainly a temptation for philosophers. Against the imperialist implications of universalist visions, Gay (1969:461-462) notes that many Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Bentham were political relativists who thought that different countries at different stages of development required different social institutions. The Enlightenment belief in tolerance and self-determination must also qualify Solomon's idea of a "bully culture."

13. As Becker notes, "Most eighteenth-century minds were too accustomed to a stable society with fixed ranks, too habituated to an orderly code of manners and a highly conventionalized art, to be at all happy in a disordered universe. It seemed safer, therefore, even for the enlightened ones, to retain God, or some plausible substitute, as a kind of dialectical guarantee that all was well in the most comfortable of commonsense worlds" (1964:49-50). This marks an important point of difference with the postmodern outlook, which goes so far as to celebrate chance and contingency. The search for order and foundations in the modern tradition unites otherwise opposing viewpoints. Whether guided by rationalist or empiricist frameworks, or a Kantian hybrid of both, the hallmark of modern philosophy, even in skepticist form such as Hume's, was to find the rational foundations for knowledge that were universally valid and were grounded in the isolated subject. It didn't matter whether modern philosophers appealed to innate ideas, experience, human nature, or a priori categories, since in each case the goal was to ground knowledge in universal principles—a move possible only through an erasure of social and historical determinants of knowledge.

14. As well described by Eiseley (1958), the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were dominated by the medieval notion of a Chain of Being that posited a fixed, immovable hierarchy of life ascending from minerals through human beings to angels. Evolutionary thinking began in the late eighteenth century with James Hutton's theory of uniformitarianism, which claimed that the earth was not the product of a singular Divine creation, but rather the long, steady outcome of natural forces such as wind and water. The evolutionary outlook of geology carried over into biology where it influenced Cuvier, Lyell, Wallace, Darwin, and others. The age of the earth was dated in million rather than thousands of years and life forms were seen to be the products of change and evolution. In the Origin of the Species, Darwin argued that animal species themselves change as a result of "descent through modification." In The Descent of Man, he claimed that human beings too have evolved from other animal species and as a result of the same forces such as natural and sexual selection. The new evolutionary Zeitgeist clearly influenced the work of Spencer, Hegel, Marx, and others.

15. Needless to say, the Comtean vision of history was itself pervaded by narrativist, speculative, and metaphysical elements. Comte's three-fold stage of mental evolution and social emancipation—following the lead of Vico, Turgot, d'Alembert, and Hegel—is one of the great metanarratives of modern theory. This scheme is as speculative and metaphysical as that of Condorcet, from whom Comte tried to break. As I show below, it was hardly an "objective" analysis in its deeply partisan stance against democracy in favor of technocracy.

16. For the classic account of this model, see Hempel (1942).

17. There is an important distinction to be drawn between a strict positivism, which rejects all appeals to nonobservable phenomena, such as "causes," and realism, which allows such appeal (e.g., to "gravity" or "quarks") as potentially legitimate principles of explanation, or "transdiction." On this distinction, see Manicas (1987).

18. Despite his acute historicist outlook, Dilthey makes numerous references to "human nature." The tension lessens according to his definition of human nature: "Man is only given to us at all in terms of his realized possibilities. In the cultural systems, too, we seek an anthropologically determined structure in which an 'X' realizes himself. We call this human nature but this is only a word for a conceptual system constituted by an intellectual method. The possibilities of man are not exhausted by this either" (1962:138). Thus, Dilthey appears, like Marx (see Chapter 1) to have a historical concept of a human nature defined in terms of general possibilities, but which are realized or not only in specific historical forms.

19. All historical writing is predetermined by distinct aesthetic and political values. Brown (1992) notes that historical visions are typically informed by a guiding metaphor, such as that of society as an organism, machine, or cybernetic system. Rorty's work, for example, is shaped by the metaphor of social interaction as a conversation; Foucault sees society as a war or battlefield. In his magisterial analysis, White (1973) undertakes a formalist study of the "deep structure of the historical imagination." In exhaustive detail White shows that historical writing is determined by a poetic act that prefigures the historical field and how it will be represented. A given historical "style" represents a combination of modes of emplotment (such as tragic), argument (such as mechanistic), and ideology (such as radical).

20. By the disastrous fiat of positivism, "interest and inclination are banished from the court of knowledge as subjective factors. The spontaneity of hope, the act of taking a position, the experience of relevance or indifference, and above all, the response to suffering and oppression, the desire for adult autonomy, the will to emancipation, and the happiness of discovering one's identity—all these are dismissed for all time from the obligating interest of reason. A disinfected reason is purged of all moments of enlightened volition" (Habermas 1973:262-263).

21. For a more detailed genealogy and discussion of postmodern discourse, see Best and Kellner (1991).

22. See also the analysis of Huyssen, who defines postmodernism as the "the search for tradition" while pretending toward innovation. "Despite its radical and legitimate critique of the gospel of modernism, postmodernism, which in its artistic practices and its theory was a product of the 1960s, must be seen as the endgame of the avantgarde and not as the radical breakthrough it often claimed to be" (Huyssen 1986:168).

23. Some poststructuralist interpretations of history are extreme idealist reductions of real events to language. The classic case of the textualization of history is Hindess and Hirst's claim that "by definition, all that is past does not exist. To be accurate, the object of history is whatever is represented as having hitherto existed" (1975:308).