The Continuing Relevance of Speculative Philosophy of History

Speculative philosophy of history is concerned with history as a whole, which includes explicitly relating the past to the present and the present to the future. It proposes a philosophical appreciation of the importance of history in our lives and in our self-knowledge, but where history is understood not only as revealing to us what is past, but also as a shaping of the present, which itself sets the conditions for future developments. The notion of history-as-a-whole I propose to call, for the purposes of discussion, the past-present-future complex and it is this complex that is the explicit concern of the speculative philosopher of history. The speculative philosopher of history is never far from the historian and her work, whose concern is to elucidate the past and reveal its intelligibility, and in that sense, the past remains the privileged “object” of history, precisely because the past, as past, needs to be re-presented in order to be known, and is known through its re-presentations. I will here briefly discuss Frank Ankersmit’s account of the work of representation in his recent Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).Two things about this work of re-presentation will be noted: 1) because what is re-presented is a past reality, it provides a contrast to present reality, and 2) because the past re-presented is meant to be an account of the reality of the past, it gives us a sense of the necessity of what has been. For the speculative philosopher of history, taking these two features together raises the modal consideration of the relation between the necessity of what has come to pass (as re-presented) and the lived contingency of the present. Here I will briefly discuss the relevance of Michel Foucault’s work in relating past and present in terms of the contingent formations that shape our lives (including the histories we re-present). While Foucault’s focus on contingent formations privileges the notion of possibility within the historical field of the present, it does not systematically address how such possibility might relate to the future. For this last modal consideration, I will discuss briefly Ernst Bloch’s work, specifically the notions of Not-Yet- and What-Is- as discussed in the Principle of Hope (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1986) as a way to address the future within the past-present-future complex that is the concern of speculative philosophy of history.