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Pathways to Philosophy

Strategy of "Immersion"
in Historical Reading

by Dmitry A. Olshansky


Ich sah ihm in die Blättr wie in Mienen,
die dunkel werden von Nachdenklichkit,
und um mein Lesen staute sich die Zeit.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

The rejection of scientific ideology (Weltanschauung) became the main distinctive principle of non-classical philosophy. According to the classical mode of thinking (especially the modern mode) philosophical knowledge should be built according to the principles of science (categorical apparatus, experiment, prognostication, the aspiration to answer the global question of being, truth, human, God, sense of life and so on). Seen from the classical viewpoint, philosophy should be a hierarchic and historic system (knowledge should be comprehended in a historically evolutionary way).

This principle that "the history of philosophy is one form of philosophy" was established by G. W. F. Hegel in Lectures on the History of Philosophy. According to this view, the aims of history as well as history of philosophy were the "immersion" in the sphere of investigated text. It means trying to reconstruct (recreate) not only the traditions of culture and epoch to which writer belongs, but to reconstruct the mode of author's thinking, the model of relation between the writer and world (the text). Investigation into, and reconstruction of languages became the method of such "immersion". According to von Humbolt, the "spirit of a nation" as well as its unique ideology, the source of traditions and culture, are stamped in the language of each nation. The joining together of the temporal and cultural and linguistic spheres of text is the cardinal principle of this "immersion".

Therefore it is understandable that the classical (scientific) philosophy demands that the reader and commentator of the texts know the original language, to begin with, and also the historical basis of the text. Classical principles of reading are: 1) to know other texts of the same author and to compare the given text with other works of the author, 2) to know the history of ideas and terms used by the author, 3) to know the subsequent developments of the author's ideas and to appreciate the significance of the given text in the history of thought. For example, when investigating Aristotle's text, one has to know the Ancient Greek language, other works of Aristotle as well as the pre-Aristotelian philosophical tradition from which Aristotle emerged, and the Aristotelian influence on medieval philosophy along with the impact of his thought on European metaphysics as a whole.

Classical philosophy [on the difference between classical and non-classical philosophy see my article "Foundations of Non-classical thinking" Issue 27] is premised upon the principle that thinking precedes writing (écriture). J. Derrida sees this postulate as the basis of the Platonic tradition of European metaphysics. The primacy of thinking over writing determined the principles of classical reading. If thinking precedes writing, and writing is a process of encoding thoughts through a textual production, then, reading reverses that process. According to classical philosophy, reading is a process of decoding the thought put into the text by the author. Text therefore becomes known as the code of thoughts. Reading is the analysis of codified thoughts of the author. Therefore, in order to read and encode the text, the classical reader has to know the original language, culture and mentality of the writer. He tries to "immerse" himself into the writer's culture and to reconstruct the author's way of thinking. So, original language is treated by the classical philosophy as the key to this de-coding process.

The strategy of "immersion," promoted by classical philosophy, is always constrained by the idea of concrete epoch, the idea that text is a product of concrete cultures, determined by specific cultures and epochs. That is why this "immersion" never will be perfect. Every attempt to fully appreciate a historical event remains very subjective, because the historian himself belongs to a concrete culture and epoch. Therefore, all the conclusions drawn by a specific historian will be determined by his present culture and ideology. All research activities are conducted in the present tense. Therefore, the present values affect the reconstruction of the past.

On the question of how to treat history, I agree with Augustin Aurelius, who wrote: Quod autem nunc liquet et claret, nec futura sunt nec praeterita, nec proprie dicitur: tempora sunt tria, praeteritum, praesens et futurum, sed fortasse proprie diceretur: tempora sunt tria, praesens de praeteritis, praesens de praesentibus, praesens de futuris. [Sanctus Aurelius Augustinus, Augustini Confessionum Liber Undecimus XI, Caput XX] - "It is clear, that there are neither future nor the past, and it is incorrect to speak about three tenses of the past, present and future. It is correct to speak about present of the past, present of the present and present of the future." We can not know and experience the real events in the past, let alone the events in the future; what we can experience and appreciate is only the present model of the past and the future, created by the present culture. We can only speak about our present conception (Kant's repraesentatio) of the past and the future, but not about real events in the past and future. Our outlook (Weltanschauung) belongs to the present, and therefore the models of the past and the future, created by this outlook, also belong to the present. Our treatment of the past can change because it can change our present conditions. That is why the process of reading and treating a given text is as endless as the present itself.

So, if the strategy of "immersion" seems successful (if we can show how the philosophers of the past manage to follow it), it is, in my mind, only an illusion, arising from the present conditions of our consciousness. In any case, we can not insist that our knowledge of the past is identical with the past as it was; but, we can see that such knowledge is identical with our present conceptions of the past. By reconstructing the past, we create (in the present tense) our conceptions of the past; in other words, we create the present reality, not the past. When reading a text, according to the classical paradigm, we try to reconstruct a model of the author's thinking; we try to understand how the man of the past might have thought. But really, we reproduce the matrix of scientific consciousness, which has already created the image of the past. The classical reader rests more upon the prepared scientific model than on his present culture and mentality.

Against this, I see reading as a process of disclosing the sensual sheets and levels. Therefore, in my opinion, I think that the classical reader does not really read a text; it is because he has already (before reading) established a stable model of the author's mentality in his mind, created by science. He knows a lot about the culture and ideology of the author, and his reading is determined by this knowledge. Even before setting out to read a text, he knows what he can find in the text. When reading, he rests not on the text, but on the science of history, which created a special reading paradigm, which I have termed the strategy of "immersion".

This strategy of "immersion" is created by our present historical science. Therefore, it is impossible for us to maintain the objective significance of these principles. Classical philosophy holds on to a set of objective values of science, but really, science is a product of modern European culture and it is not universally applicable to all human individuals and times. The term, "objectivity" as well as the term, "truth" are the products of concrete culture and time. There is not only one truth for all the people and times, because there are different terms of truth in different cultures. This term (like many others) was formed by our culture. Truth is only that which is supposedly true, i.e. that which we take as true.

In my mind, historical science arose only from a tradition, itself created by the present culture, of simulating an "immersion" into the past. Historical science teaches how to create the authentic model of the past suited to (and on the basis of) our present mentality, how to understand the culture of the past from the modern cultural point of view, and how to describe the past mentality on the basis of present mentality. Historical science teaches how to create an illusory model of the past, which can satisfy our present consciousness. Therefore, the activity of a historian is not that of reconstructing the past ideology, but that of making an authentic model of the past, reproducing the present ideology of historical science.

To read a text, taking it as a self-identical entity, is to reinforce the modern scientific matrix of objective historical reality. Non-classical philosophy creates a different way of comprehending history. Therefore, it can situate a text outside its domain of self-identity as well as outside its ideological matrix. When non-classical philosophy rejects the universal importance of scientific thinking, what it rejects is only the scientific treatment of philosophy. Conceptions of the forms of the past belongs to the present culture and epoch of the reader rather than to the author. Therefore, even the classical reader belongs to his present condition; and in this sense, his strategy of "immersion" is only an illusion. He believes in this illusion and names this illusion an objective reality of history. According to J. Derrida, history is a secondary derivative (dériver l'historicité) of writing.

Non-classical principles of reading are more independent of the matrix of objectivity than the classical. The non-classical reader agrees that all processes of reading are very subjective; consequently, such a reading does not pretend to carry an objective significance. Likewise, non-classical reading is more independent of the illusions of objectivity than the classical. It acknowledges that all the readers create their own texts out of a given text, and that there is, therefore, not only one reality (like scientific reality) nor only one strategy of reading. Every reading is equally reasonable; and every single reader is free to choose how to read and how to interpret a text.

© Dmitry Olshansky 2002

Urals State University
Yekaterinburg City
Russian Federation

E-mail: Olshansky@hotmail.com