Historical Consciousness (3/13/11)

Jung teaches us that whatever is unconscious is projected. Santayana tells us, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ A related idea: to the extent that we know nothing of human experience in any other terms than those of our immediate socio-cultural environment, we are helplessly and forcibly carried along by this confluence of social and ideological currents. There are islands in the stream upon which we can climb and survey the passing flotsam of present-bound persons who know nothing besides the continual, relentless flow of current events. These ‘islands’ are the comparatively stable and secure mental standpoints provided by genuine historical consciousness and understanding. What makes such historical consciousness comparatively stable and secure is due to the fact that such knowledge is rooted or grounded within the context or gestalt that any historical epoch comprises.

The 18th century German historical thinker, Johann Gottfried Herder, developed the notion of Einfühlen—the idea of ‘feeling oneself into’ another culture or into a previous historical epoch. Of primary value here are the faculties of imagination and of empathy—for it is chiefly through the imaginative translation of ourselves into an alien worldview that we are able to breathe life, color, and a sense of concreteness into the experience. Such an experience moves far beyond reading a brief account of, say, Roman history from a high school textbook or learning about present-day Balinese by reading the Lonely Planet Guide or an anthropological study of Balinese culture. We cannot physically revisit the ancient Romans or Sumerians, as we might visit the Balinese or the Peruvian Indians, where cultures very different from our own are being lived out every day. There are levels of immersion that we can reach through the study of ruins, works of art in museums, Greek and Roman literature, poetry, historical works, and philosophy. We can learn ancient Greek and Latin in order to take our immersion a step further. But unless our imaginations are thoroughly excited and deeply captivated by all this material, we will only scratch the surface of a potentially transformative encounter with ‘the other.’

But it is chiefly through the development of the historical sense and/or an ‘insider’ understanding of several different cultural worldviews that we equip ourselves to perceive and to grasp our time and our own culture with any genuine comprehensiveness and critical understanding. Without these hard-won helps, our job becomes a hundred times more difficult. The most effective way to loosen up the cultural blinders we inherit at birth (along with our genes—so we have nature and nurture both at work here) is to try, imaginatively, to put on other sets of blinders and look at life through them. I have used the metaphor of blinders in place of a specific cultural worldview—such as the one we are exposed to here in this country, and which most of us uncritically internalize long before knowing what has happened. I use the image of blinders because every cultural worldview tends to block out or highly color much more of life and reality than it lets in without bias—but every culture has a different set of filters, blocking out and letting in different aspects of reality. All of them share the common trait, however, of providing a selective framework that interposes itself between the perceiving, culturally-shaped person and the larger reality into which we have all been mysteriously inserted at birth and from which we will presumably be snatched at death. This larger reality includes, but extends beyond, culture—all cultures—in every direction: up, down, in, out, past and to come. The ancient Greeks called this larger and pre-cultural reality physis, or ‘nature.’ But perceiving nature without the distorting, selective ‘lens’ of culture is a tricky—if not altogether impossible—business, as we post-critical, epistemologically savvy moderns have come to realize—late in the day, as it were.

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