A Retrieval of Historicism: Frank Ankersmit's Philosophy of History and Politics

Frank Ankersmit is often perceived as a postmodern thinker, as a European Hayden White, or as an author whose work in political philosophy can safely be ignored by those interested only in his philosophy of history. Although none of these perceptions is entirely wrong, they are of little help in understanding the nature of Ankersmit's work and the sources on which it draws. Specifically, they do not elucidate the extent to which Ankersmit raises questions different from White's, finds himself inspired by continental European traditions, responds to specifically Dutch concerns, and is as active as a public intellectual as he has been prolific in philosophy of history. In order to propose a more comprehensive and balanced interpretation of Ankersmit's work, this article offers a contextual reading based largely on Dutch-language sources, some of which are unknown even in the Netherlands. The thesis advanced is that Ankersmit draws consistently on nineteenth-century German historicism as interpreted by Friedrich Meinecke and advocated by his Groningen teacher, Ernst Kossmann. Without forcing each and every element of Ankersmit's oeuvre into a historicist mold, the article demonstrates that some of its most salient aspects can profitably be read as attempts at translating and modifying historicist key notions into late twentieth-century categories. Also, without creating a father myth of the sort that White helped create around his teacher William Bossenbrook, the article argues that Ankersmit at crucial moments in his intellectual trajectory draws on texts and authors central to Kossmann's research interests.