David Carr: Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History

Quentin Gailhac

Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History Book Cover Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History
Routledge Approaches to History
David Carr
Hardback £96.00

Reviewed by: Quentin Gailhac (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

“History is not something separated from life or remote from the present” (5). It is within the horizon of Dilthey’s affirmation that David Carr resolutely sets out to think about historical experience in a book gathering twelve of his articles, published between 2006 and 2021, under the title Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History. The book approaches the question of historical experience from various points of view, and in particular from that of the philosophy and theory of history. The classical problems of this point of view are treated here with the means of a phenomenology open to the exploration of many other traditions of thought. In the introduction (1-7), Carr follows in the footsteps of Dilthey and Ricoeur. He starts from the observation of the irreducible historicity of the human experience in order to identify the various ways in which history embraces us. For Carr, we can only make known and experience a historical event on the condition that we ourselves are involved in history.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which interrogate themes and concepts central to historical experience. The first part deals with three key concepts: historicity, narrative and time, through a fruitful dialogue with Dilthey, Koselleck and Levi-Strauss, among others. The second part confronts the problem of teleology in history, which, as is well known, has occupied Husserl and his commentators. Finally, the third part, entitled “Embodiment and Experience”, focuses on the corporeal, spatial and temporal aspects of historical existence. The relation of embodiment to intersubjectivity, the notion of orientation in history, the concept of Erlebnis in Dilthey, and the relations that exist between experience and history constitute the research directions of this third part.

In the first chapter of Part I, entitled “On historicity” (11-23), Carr attempts to grasp the meaning that the concept of historicity has had in Europe, from Dilthey to François Hartog. The central point of the chapter is to find a way of understanding historicity in the distinction made by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck between two historically attested ways of linking the past and the future. On the one hand, a relationship marked by the idea of a history magistra vitae, typical of pre-modern worldviews. On the other hand, a relationship that rather gives the future as a human reality to be constructed, typical of the Enlightenment. What François Hartog has called “regimes of historicity” (Hartog, 2015) serves here to identify the type of historicity that has gradually been imposed in Europe, thanks to the turning point constituted by French structuralism in the reversal of the relationship between the past and the future. Lévi-Strauss’s famous distinction between cold, non-historical societies and warm, historically marked societies is thus re-characterised, since we are dealing here with two very specific forms of historicity. The decline of the idea of progress in the twentieth century gradually reoriented the question of history within the horizon of heritage and memory (Ricoeur 2006; Nora 1997), to the point of suggesting, with Lévi-Strauss, that Western society, in its fear of progress and becoming, had transformed itself into a cold society. This is a step that Lévi-Strauss himself did not take, but that Carr’s study encourages us to consider, based on a study of the vocabulary of historians, particularly French historians, of the second half of the twentieth century (Pierre Nora’s “places of memory” are thus understood in all their historical depth).

The second chapter (24-33), while not directly addressing the issue of historicity, does approach it from a slightly derivative point of view, by focusing on the issue of temporal perspective. Carr does so through a study of the advantages and disadvantages of hindsight, which Arthur Danto said was the very essence of historical discourse. The main risk of hindsight is to fall into the trap of presentism, whereby the past is judged solely by the present. The present point of view, while it may have the advantage of distance from the event, also condemns us to an exit from time, since the event appears there once and for all. But the time of the past historical event is never the only one to exist, since it is in fact superimposed on the time of the person who recounts it. Thus, Carr devotes a brief section to “superimposed temporalities” (31-32) in history. Historicity is thus implicated in the historian’s own work, insofar as the writing of history is itself a temporal process that can never quite be taken out of history.

The third chapter, “Stories of our lives. Aging and narrative” (34-45), focuses on the unity to which our life in time can aspire, despite differences and by virtue of consciousness and experience itself. It is about bringing out the temporal aspects of awareness and self-awareness. We live in the present, and it is of this that we are aware. The question is, however, to characterise the awareness we can have of the past and the future. Carr thus proposes to distinguish between “awareness of past and future, on the one hand, and our memories and expectations and plans, on the other” (35-36). Through a phenomenological approach that the author himself calls “undoctrinaire”, the question of the relationship between life and time is extended by a study of the narrative, in its link with life, which leads to questions about biography and autobiography. The author insists on their difference by considering the impossibility for the autobiographer to possess a complete point of view on his or her life. The writing is always situated in a point of time of the life, and that this irreducible situation implies that the point from which one speaks determines the very interpretation of events as well as the (re)construction of the unity of the life itself.

Autobiographical reflection is thus confronted with two pitfalls, that of an insufficiently coherent succession, and that of an overly coherent succession. This is why the search for coherence amounts to rewriting a story. The concept of autobiographical reflection is therefore not unrelated to the idea of a narrative identity, and it is regrettable that Carr makes no study here of Ricoeur’s philosophy (see however, Carr 2014, 223-231). Narrative identity is described at length, notably in Time and Narrative (Ricœur 1984-1988). For Carr, Narrative identity, far from being fixed in stone, is always being rewritten, and this is due to the fact of the ever-changing temporal situation from which identity (i.e. also uniqueness) thinks itself, tells itself in autobiographical reflection. Narrative identity thus implies, in the horizon of the philosophies of authenticity (Heidegger 1996; Sartre 2003), thinking oneself as the author responsible for one’s own life, to the point of giving Charles Taylor’s “ethics of the authenticity” (Taylor 1991) to be understood in narrative terms (44). The third chapter closes with a reflection on the notion of aging, which the author tells us is in fact the main topic of the whole chapter, since it designates, not an accumulation in time, but the very becoming of the point of view we can adopt on our life. In this sense, the notion of aging must be understood in the perspective of narrative identity and autobiographical reflection. It also implies that the awareness of our finitude is itself changing and cannot be fixed once and for all. Aging is therefore a personal and creative way of thinking about the relationship between past and future on the scale of an individual life. The phenomenological point of view adopted here by Carr comes close to a hermeneutical perspective. Aging, together with narrative identity and autobiographical reflection, could constitute the bases, not indicated by the author, of a new phenomenological hermeneutic of our individual life in time.

It is to a theme of wider scope that chapter four, “On being historical” (46-58), is devoted, as it attempts to answer the question “What is it to be historical?” This question emerges from the inadequacy of the philosophies of history, in its two main orientations. The first orientation, of the Hegelian type, wants to find a global meaning to what happens in history, ultimately seeking to give a moral meaning to events as a whole. This metaphysical orientation is rivalled by a second, epistemological one, which is more concerned with the conditions of possibility of historical knowledge. However, both orientations assume in the same way that the past concerns us, without explaining why. The concept of historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) comes into play precisely in order to answer this question left unanswered by the philosophy of history. The discussion shows Dilthey’s perspective, developing the idea that the historical world “is always there” (47). What it is to be a historical being. Our interest in the past is thus explained here on the basis of the difference in principle between the past and the future, a difference that has its origins in Jewish thought. By showing in what sense interest in the past is not unique to all societies, Carr thus questions the fundamental cultural presuppositions of our relationship to the past.

The question of historicity then takes a more properly phenomenological path. Carr considers the unity of the subject in time, not as a given, but as an act of projection, with regard to my own temporal coherence and my relation to others. The question of my being with others is therefore not primarily a relationship between an I and a Thou, but is inscribed, as Husserl and Heidegger already wanted, in the horizon of the concept of historicity. Carr, translator of Husserl’s Krisis into English (Husserl 1970), briefly returns to the role given to intersubjectivity in the theoretical investigation, insofar as the research of others forms the starting point of the present research. The notion of group thus appears fundamental to understanding in what sense scientific enquiry can be linked to intersubjectivity, since this research is first and foremost that of a community, and not that of a set of isolated individuals. Carr thus engages in a brief phenomenology of “we”, understood as the capacity of an individual to identify with a group (53-56), and to maintain a direct and living relationship to history. The very suggestive character of this chapter would have deserved, it seems to us, more extensive developments on Husserl and on the generative horizon that the thesis of the chapter seems to imply. If it is true that “to be historical” is to be integrated into a “We” that possesses its own heritage, then we find precisely Husserl’s reflections on the necessity of a generative orientation of the phenomenological method, as an explicitation of the “at home”, of the familiar and historical world carried by a succession of generations that form the unity of historicity (Husserl 1973).

It is, moreover, an eminently Husserlian question that underpins the whole of the second part, namely the question of teleology in history. The fifth chapter, “Teleology and the experience of history” (61-74), starts from the observation that the idea of teleology has a certain longevity, from Hegel and Marx to Francis Fukuyama or Niall Ferguson, via the last Husserl of the 1930s. It is therefore a question of understanding the reason for the maintenance of teleology despite his numerous factual and theoretical refutations. The idea supported by Carr is to assert that teleology functions as a transcendental illusion, in the Kantian sense of the term. Beginning with a brief history of the idea of teleology since Hegel, he then focuses more specifically on the experience of history, which he clearly distinguishes from the representation of history (to which the idea of teleology belongs). The question of the experience of history is thus first of all that of its possibility and its distinction from other types of experience. Our experience is both temporal and intersubjective, and the experience of the most common objects is always linked to a horizon of the past that we experience in the present. History is thus a dimension of our very experience. Here Carr uses the Husserlian concept of retention to explain how this history and past are involved in all present experience (67-69), even though retention is different in nature from memory. Indeed, retention is not dealing with past itself (Husserl  1991). On the other hand, the end of the chapter proposes an interesting re-characterisation of the idea of teleology. Doubly determined by the past and by the future, by our memories and by our expectations, the present must be thought of within the framework of a temporal structure which is also, by its very orientation, a teleological structure: “we can call this temporal structure a teleological structure in that the whole complex of mutually determining meanings is oriented toward the fulfillment of our expectations and plans” (73). This structure must thus apply not only to individual experience, but also to social experience. Historicity is thus understood from a reorientation of the controversial notion of teleology.

Carr expands his reflection on teleology in the sixth chapter, entitled “Husserl and Foucault on the historical a priori. Teleological and anti-teleological view of history” (75-85). The title of this 2016 article is very close to the title of an article, not mentioned by Carr, by Wouter Goris (Goris 2012), also on the subject of the historical a priori. Despite the proximity of the title, Carr takes a significantly different view and method. Goris proposed a very precise reconstruction of the notion of historical a priori in Husserl and then in Foucault, showing that the variations in the meaning of this notion to Husserl corresponded to the different stages of the internal evolution of his phenomenology. On the contrary, Carr looks “from a broader perspective at the views of history that are reflected in the different uses of this expression” (75). The aim is to understand in what sense this expression was born from the topicality of a Europe in crisis, to which Husserl gives an epistemological meaning, by proposing a reconstruction of the birth of European science. In doing so, Carr gives an account of Husserl’s subjectivation of teleology, as opposed to Foucault’s antisubjectivism, which he considers incoherent and based on an apocalyptic vision of history. Goris note that the difference in the meaning attributed to the historical a priori in Husserl and Foucault stemmed from the fact that both diagnosed the crisis itself differently, and that the Husserlian solution of a reactivation of meaning was, for Foucault, the very consequence of the crisis to be overcome. Carr, who more explicitly takes sides against Foucault, nevertheless seems to want to reconcile the two authors on certain points, despite the strong differences between them and criticisms that he addresses to the French philosopher. Indeed, Foucault’s rejection of the teleology of history is related to the subtlety of the Husserlian thesis on this question, to such an extent that Carr seems to bring the two philosophers closer together in their understanding of what a historical a priori is:

“As for Husserl, while he seems at first glance to subscribe to a teleological view of history, his position, as we’ve seen, is actually much more subtle. He sees that his own historicization of the philosophy of science could open him to the charge of historical relativism, as if he were arguing that each historical epoch or people has its own truth and can never escape its boundaries. On this view, “every people has its ‘logic’ and, accordingly, if this logic is explicated in propositions, ‘its’ a priori” (Husserl 1970, 373). What Husserl describes here is, I think, very close to Foucault’s idea of the “historical a priori.” Husserl’s use of scare-quotes makes clear that such a historically limited a priori is for him a contradiction in terms. For him such historical configurations would be instances of a genuine historical a priori, that is, an essential structure of any and all historical configurations: “historical present in general, historical time generally” (372). That is, any array of historical a prioris in Foucault’s sense (he uses the plural) would presuppose the historical a priori which is not itself historically variable” (84).

By considering the historical a priori as an unexplained presupposition, Foucault would thus only be reiterating Husserl’s essentialism. That is why the critique of teleology is studied through a very critical reading of Foucault, and this allows us to understand the status of Carr’s essay on the question of teleology. In the review of the collective book intitled Historical Teleologies in the Modern World (Trüper, 2015) which constitutes the seventh chapter of his book (86-96), Carr considers that the various authors of the collective work (among them Peter Wagner and Etienne Balibar) have not engaged, unlike him, in an evaluation of the teleological view of history. Far from reducing teleology to a question of the history of ideas or the history of philosophy, which would consider the notion obsolete, our author really seeks to examine it as a living notion, even giving it validity under certain conditions.

The question of teleology has been intimately linked to the philosophy of history since the 19th century. This is why the second part closes with a chapter entitled “On the metaphilosophy of history” (97-111), devoted to a study of the classical philosophy of history, based on a new characterisation of the “metahistory” of the famous American historian Hayden White. In his book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe (White 1973), White defined historical work as a narrative discourse, focusing on the interpretation of the works of nineteenth-century historians. However, by showing that White’s sources were not only historians, but also philosophers of history such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche or Croce, Carr proposes to rename White’s enterprise as “metaphilosophy of history, or the philosophy of the philosophy of history” (98). Rather than a reading of White’s work, this chapter is a study of the philosophy of history, after its critics, and aims to overcome the idea that the philosophy of history is dead. This implies, moreover, a slightly different understanding of the philosophy of history, moving us away from the idea of a purely speculative philosophy to one of a practical enterprise. The philosophy of history is thus brought closer here to the historical discipline, contrary to the traditional opposition. The idea of a philosophy of history “not as a cognitive or theoretical embodiment of the teleological structure, but as a practical embodiment of it” (105), allows Carr to read the philosophy of history in a different way, first by opposing the speculative orientation of Hegel to the practical orientation of the philosophy of history and teleology of Kant and Marx, and finally by re-reading Hegel in the sense of a practical narrative, directed towards the realisation of human freedom. Although White’s theses are not directly discussed for their own sake, they guide the whole chapter, and especially this new and very suggestive reading of Hegel. This reading could be the subject of a whole book, by taking into consideration the work of Hegel on the philosophy of history.

The interest in the philosophy of history will continue in the third part, although the general orientation of its four chapters is quite different. Indeed, this third and final part, “Embodiment and experience” (113-167), returns to what is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of historical experience, namely the question of the body. Historical experience is essentially an experience of the common. It is phenomenology that has studied, since Husserl, the role of the body in the question of intersubjectivity. This evidence is however questioned here by Carr, in the ninth chapter that opens the third part, entitled “Intersubjectivity and embodiment” (112-127), and which constitutes a deepening of the phenomenology of the “We” outlined in chapter 4. This chapter establishes the question of whether the body is always a necessary condition of intersubjectivity. While the experience of the face-to-face encounter with another has become a classic starting point in the problem of intersubjectivity, it does not resolve the question. The face-to-face encounter is indeed an encounter of my body with the body of another, but this direct bodily relationship cannot be applied to the we-experience, which requires a different point of view. Where the face-to-face encounter started from the first-person experience, the we-experience implies expanding this starting point to the idea of a non-metaphysical, but properly phenomenological Gemeingeist, in the way Husserl tried to think it. This superpersonal subject is, in fact, linked to the possibility for the I to identify itself with a group, and which precisely characterised the “we” in the fourth chapter, “On being historical”. Therefore, the we-subject, instead of being thought of as a metaphysical hypostasis, is rather phenomenologically constituted by the individuals who produce it. However, what role exactly should the body play in such a subject? By means of numerous examples taken from recent and contemporary history, Carr attempts to determine phenomenologically the role of the body in the we-subject, starting from different Husserlian points of departure (the organism, the community of will), in order to finally attest to the intentional character of the embodied we-subjectivity. The embodiment thus appears essential to collective subjectivity, although it is not necessary for all forms of intersubjectivity, as can be seen, for example, in the communities that are created in the Internet sphere.

Without an explicit transition to the question of embodiment, the tenth chapter, entitled “History as orientation. Rüsen on historical culture and narration” (128-143) is a review of two books of the German historian Jörn Rüsen, respectively Geschichte im Kulturprozess and History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation (Rüsen 2002, 2005 respectively). The connection is actually ensured by the starting point of Rüsen’s research, in that knowledge of the past, far from being of interest only to historical studies, must be understood in its context, which is that of our historicity and our intersubjective historical experience. The three concepts of Rüsen on which Carr chooses to focus thus find the fundamental themes of the whole book. The concept of “historical culture” is linked to the developments on historicity, as is the concept of “orientation”, which implies inscribing our present in a certain relationship to the past and the future. Finally, the concept of “narrative” is intimately linked to Carr’s developments on historical knowledge and consciousness. Moreover, the typology of modes of narration proposed by Rüsen allows, according to the German historian himself, the deployment of a theory of the “ontogenetic development of historical consciousness” (132), within which the form of critical narration constitutes a historical pivot, between pre-modern and modern historical thought. In this sense, Rüsen’s study gives decisive importance to nineteenth-century historicism in its various forms (especially Ranke and Dilthey). Carr emphasises the links between Rüsen’s three concepts in the historical context of the nineteenth century, since the upheavals of that period were significant. The way in which history is told is thus linked to the way in which we orient ourselves in it, which in turn shapes our historical culture. By recalling the many criticisms that have been levelled against historicism since the beginning of the twentieth century (starting with Husserl himself), Carr attempts to go beyond the postmodern critique of historicism and to find a way to make it more effective. In order to do so, Carr defends the compatibility of narrative and objectivity, against the idea of a pure fictionalization of historical narrative, but also against the idea of an opposition between historical objectivity only interested in the restitution of the past for its own sake and the concept of orientation. According to this concept, knowledge of the past is linked to our future and to our situation in time.

These considerations lead Carr, in chapter 11, entitled “Erlebnis and history” (144-152), to clarify the meaning of the phenomenological emphasis on experience for history. This involved first returning to Dilthey’s relationship to the philosophy of history. Indeed, Dilthey is not a speculative philosopher of history in the sense of Hegel, but a philosopher of history in a much more contemporary sense which, rooted in a critique of historical reason, is understood as an epistemology of our historical knowledge, close to what the analytical philosophy of history does. Working on the key concepts of representation and memory in the contemporary philosophy of history, from Ricœur to White, Carr asks “the problem to which the philosophy of history addresses itself: how does history bridge the gap, overcome the distance, which separates it from its object, the past?” (147), in order to find a way out in the phenomenological approach, based on experience. Critiquing the linguistic turn in the philosophy of history, this approach restores the notion of experience to history, but not without ambiguity. According to Carr, it is Dilthey’s concept of Erlebnis that provides a better understanding of what experience can mean in this context. Responding to the ambiguity of the term Erfahrung, Erlebnis allowed Dilthey to designate not only the unity, coherence and connectedness of the individual life, but also the link that we necessarily have with a social and historical context. Erlebnis is thus inseparable, for Dilthey, from the notion of historicity, to which Carr devotes the last remarks of the chapter, against all forms of relativism.

The book concludes with a chapter significantly entitled “Experience and history” (153-166), in which Carr returns to the temporal, intersubjective and historical dimension of experience, in order to answer the question that has animated the whole book: what is the experience of history? The originality of this last chapter consists, in this respect, in giving an essential function to the notion of discontinuity, according to four orientations. The discontinuity inherent in the question of the We-subject, the discontinuity implied by intergenerational continuity, the discontinuity of historical events, and finally the discontinuity inscribed in temporality itself. These different types of discontinuity, which allow us to enrich the contemporary philosophical debate on history and time, lead Carr to assert three fundamental things, joined together, that any phenomenology of history must be able to take into account, and which constitute an “ontology of our lives” (163). 1) Historical events are experienced as historical events. 2) We are conscious of time by being conscious of events in time. 3) The subject of these historical experiences is a collective subject, a We-subject.

The phenomenological interest and significance of these twelve studies by D. Carr thus lies, in our view, in the re-qualification of the starting point of phenomenology itself when confronted with the problematic question of history. Against the accusations of anhistoricism sometimes levelled at Husserl’s philosophy, Carr restores the importance of phenomenological perspective to the fundamentally historical understanding of our experience. He inscribes this perspective in a decentred and irreducibly collective subjectivity, which constitutes both the ground and the horizon of our relationship to the past.


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