Published Humanitas, Volume XIII, No. 1, 2000

A Wayward Ally?

In his “Defining Historicism,” published in these pages in 1998, Claes G. Ryn notes that a renewal of historicism has been central to the postmodern turn. But though potentially valuable, historicism in its postmodernist guise has seemed to invite overreaction—from the authority of “foundations” to a combination of relentless negativism and irresponsible “play.” In assessing the recent embrace of historicism, Ryn devoted particular attention to my Nothing but History, generously crediting its range and offering a number of perceptive characterizations of its argument. He clearly finds me an ally up to a point, for each of us seeks a kind of middle ground between “ahistorical ‘foundationalist’ metaphysics” and aspects of postmodernism that we both see as an overreaction (91). Whereas, as Ryn puts it, historicism in its deconstructive postmodern form becomes “almost wholly negative” (90), obsessed “with discrediting inherited norms and meanings” (90), we both find scope for a more constructive orientation. Thus my emphasis, as in my book’s subtitle, on the scope for ongoing historicist reconstruction, stemming from responsible ethical response, which can even be responsibly rational insofar as it is informed by historical understanding.

In the last analysis, however, Ryn finds my way of recasting historicism wayward, partly because of a prejudicial tilt toward radicalism reflecting academic fashion, and typical of deconstructive postmodernism (96-97). But part of what is at issue, as we seek to think without foundationalist philosophy, is the meaning of such categories as radical and conservative, extremism and moderate, and their interface with the cultural possibilities before us. A measure of inflexibility on this score leads Ryn to misconstrue my argument at several points—and thus to magnify our differences. But more interesting are some genuine differences in orientation, which would seem worth pinpointing and exploring. Most importantly, Ryn holds that I place such emphasis on contingency, particularity, and finitude that I have difficulty explaining the basis of the continuity and coherence, weight and responsibility, that I myself find necessary for the reconstructive middle ground (95-96). As one of the editors of this journal, Ryn was good enough, even before finishing his own piece, to invite me to respond, and I gratefully accept the chance to do so.

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