IS THE PAST A MIRROR?

In a recent post at Big Questions Online entitled A Not-So-Distant Mirror, Alan Jacobs suggests that the 18th-century might be a mirror to our own by drawing on the work of Roy Porter. This is, actually, quite a contentious claim. Some of the more important debates about English/British history in the last 50 yearsindeed, history-writing generallyhave been about whether or not we should understand the early modern period as a kind of road leading to modernity. Porter certainly leans that wayhis book on the Enlightenment was titled The Creation of the Modern Worldwhile other notable historians, such as Linda Colley, would likely express serious reservations about any such linear analogy. Indeed I suspect Porter himself, in his more tentative, reflective moments would hesitate as well. In his review of Porter’s work on the British Enlightenment, “Highway to Modernity,Colin Kidd specifically identifies these contrasting movementsliberal whig progressivism and scholarly reticencein Porter’s own thinking. And then we have the important work of Jonathan Clark as a contrasting voice.

The sin of anachronism in historical method is a mortal one because it rearranges the ideas and values of the past in ways which make past actions inexplicable except as attempted anticipations of the present. The historian is always condemned to see the past through a glass, darkly; the introduction of anachronistic categories turns that glass into a mirror. (J. C. D. Clark, English Society, p. 13)

Quite obviously the nature of the relationship between the past and present is highly debatable. Jacobs seems to suggest here that there is something particularly important about seeing a moment in the past as a mirror, perhaps that we can somehow learn a specific set of lessons because of this similarity. By contrast, many historians today would insist on seeing the past as a “foreign country,” as David Lowenthal has put it. Indeed, Bernard Williams suggests that what marks the possibility of history, at least in terms of the history of philosophy, is preserving a sense of “strangeness” about the past (“Descartes and the Historiography of Philosophy,” The Sense of the Past).

At least one potentially worrying aspect about seeing the past as a mirror, without addressing the important points Clark raises, is an inability to be critical about certain of its features. But we can move in the other direction as well. If the past is in fact foreign to the point of complete strangeness, to become wholly other, there seems to be, by definition, no way in which we could actually recognize or understand it at all. It seems to me that a substantial part of the challenge of critical history understood as an activity that generates representations of the past, that constructs discursive mediations of something that once was but is no longer (i.e. “the past”), lies somewhere between these two poles.