The presence of the past

One of the standard characteristics of contemporary historiography is its object: the past. Yet, as most historians are aware, this “object” has been notoriously difficult to grasp. Consider the reflections of the historian Marc Bloch and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien (1949) Bloch observes that “the very idea that the past as such can be the object of science is ridiculous. How, without preliminary distillation, can one make of phenomena, having no other common character than that of being not contemporary with us, the matter of rational knowledge?” In Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) Merleau-Ponty argues that “reflection does not itself grasp its full significance unless it refers to the unreflective fund of experience which it presupposes, upon which it draws, and which constitutes for it a kind of original past, a past which has never been present.” Both writers, then, find a gap between the past as such and the mediation of the past in the present. To Michel de Certeau in L’écriture de l’histoire (1975), modern western historiography “begins with the differentiation between the present and the past.

Bloch goes on to suggest a way beyond the existential impasse. For him change is the matter which the historian seeks to grasp, change in the human element of the past. He continues, however, by observing that in “the film which [the historian] is examining, only the last picture remains quite clear.” In the wake of twentieth-century continental philosophy, which has focused in part on the nature of temporality, this metaphor seems to miss the mark. For, as Bloch perceptively notes, change presupposes some form of background continuity. We might well wonder if the recently past is in fact any clearer to us than that which preceded it simply because of its temporal proximity.

One possible solution to Bloch’s problem can be found in Merleau-Ponty’s work. The “original past” of which Merleau-Ponty speaks is an “unreflective fund of experience” presupposed by phenomenological reflection. In the same way that the unreflective fund of experience of the primordial past is presupposed in phenomenological reflection, so too is the horizon of experience that constitutes the unity of the subject or object of experience. According to Merleau-Ponty we find this presupposed primordial layer by reflecting on the assumption in the background of the things and ideas which come to being. In order bring this primordial layer of being to our awareness, he analyzes the various modes of perception. So it is in the case of vision, for example, that our embodied gaze, our localized fixation upon a specific situation, distinct from the totality of perception as an unintelligible spectacle, is realized through an intentional or directional act. In other words, recognition in sight is realized through the common cause of our natural vision with an intentional gaze. Merleau-Ponty goes on to suggest that this bodily “attunement” or reverberation to the primordial is what enables any sort of signification to occur at all. And this attunement he calls a temporal synthesis.

When he shifts from the primary past in general to our personal existence Merleau-Ponty finds a similarly primordial background in what he calls the “prehistory” presupposed in human action. On this level the coexistence of things in space are present to the perceiving subject and “enveloped in one and the same temporal wave.” This wave necessarily entails a preceding and succeeding wave or temporal pulse which presupposes the production and retention of succeeding and preceding waves. In short, the “lived present holds a past and a future within its thickness.” These temporal horizons, which only subjectivity can unite through an intentional synthesis, enable things and instants to link up and form a world since the objective time of the earth is presupposed by and in the projection of the historical time of the world. But this historical time leaves an impression that the world is somehow outside us, for the temporal and finite perspective of man seems to presuppose a world beyond my visual field and a past beyond my present. This finitude, Merleau-Ponty contends, corresponds to a certain inherence of consciousness of a body in a world, an inherence which is my particular, incarnate perspective in the world.

The ambiguous presence of the past as a presupposed field is the background against which the whole temporal cycle is opened up through the expression of new intentions in speech or action; an acquired past in the present is directed towards a possible future. In this way the past is always carried forward with us as an ambiguous presence, more or less opaque as it is more or less consciously taken up; and Merleau-Ponty claims that through recollection we may, so to speak, “reopen time,” by re-considering a moment whose horizon is now closed. The living present opens upon a past. It similarly opens onto temporalities outside my personal living experience in a social direction, such that a collective history is taken up and carried forward in the same manner as a personal history.

Here we have one phenomenological answer to an existential question about temporality. Although this answer, at least as I have summarized it here, says rather little about the relationship between temporality and historiography, it does begin to offer a way of framing the transition from the one to the other.

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