The University Bookman


Volume 10, Number 3 (Spring 1970)

History Resurgent

book cover imageHistorical Consciousness, or The Remembered Past
by John Lukacs.
New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
[Rev ed. Transaction 1994, 411 pages.]

Brainard Cheney

“You couldn’t be more right,” is the warm affirmation of an amiable friend of mine that I would like to apply to this book. Dr. Lukacs here has achieved an informed, discriminating, and balanced assessment of our waggambraus times and a recognition of a potential for our salvation. Too, he has provided responsible and penetrating criticism of the present “Interregnum.” And he has presented or “re-presented” sound ground for his perspective.

Dr. Lukacs examines the passing of the Modern Age, with its disastrous scientific worldview, to find that it leaves behind “monstrous institutions of scientific technology . . . governed by puny men,” and our grim realization that “for the first time the end of the world is in sight.”

To be sure, he is not the first man to sight the end of the world, nor to sound an alarm. His work is rather a diagnosis of causes and a consideration of the terms of avoidance. The Modern Age, our Pandora’s box, produced two “achievements of the modern European mind”: the scientific thought and the historic thought. And it is in recent modification of scientific “Absolutism” by the historical form of thought that hope now resides. To put it more exactly: “This movement from the physics of historical force to the history of physics, marks, in itself, the developing historicity of our consciousness.” Mr. Lukacs finds that “the elements of a potential harmony between historical and scientific thought are already here. It is only because of the extraordinary intellectual confusion of our times that the existence of this harmony has gone either unrecognized or that it has been rather willfully obscured by certain vested interests of the mind.”

Professor Lukacs expresses himself brilliantly and, for a man not born to it, with a surprising facility for the English language. He tells us that he spent twelve years writing and rewriting Historical Consciousness, which he originally called Prehistoriographica. He labels his viewpoint reactionary, rather than conservative—a term which he thinks has become meaningless today. But he gives us only an oblique definition of it: “that this emphasis on historical consciousness reacts against misconceptions, shibboleths, evil theories and primitive nonsense about human nature which are now widely prevalent and propagated among people . . . reactionary, to be considered in the positive rather than the negative sense, that is, ‘forward-looking’ purpose rather than ‘nostalgic’ motivation.”

Back in 1936 Allen Tate used that adjective in the title of a book, Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, in which he cited “our belief in the absolute of a scientific society” as cause for our confusion, and his reaction against the “spiritual cannibalism” he found in it. Mr. Lukacs’ use of the term bears a similarity.

Having approved the rightness of Historical Consciousness (with no categorical pun in mind), this reviewer will recall its original title to profess his lack of professional competence to pass judgment on the book. For it is in its historiography that Mr. Lukacs has given us the freshest and most engaging and original work. To my nonprofessional mind, his chapters on “History in the Democratic Age, or the new texture of history”; “Facts and Fictions, or describing the past”; “Thinking About Causes, or the structure of events”; “About Historical Factors, or the hierarchy of powers”; “The Remembered Past, or the function of recognition” seem indeed new and fascinating.

Quoting Droysen’s great aphorism to define history: “Like John the Baptist, ‘not the Light but sent to bear witness of that Light’”—Mr. Lukacs, with the question “How did historical thinking enter our very blood?” serves up John’s head on the salver of self-consciousness. He offers a succinct paradigm:

Eighteenth century: history as literature; the narrated past.

Nineteenth century: history as science; the recorded past.

Twentieth century: a dual development: on the surface, history as a social science; the ascertained past. But, in a deeper and wider sense, history as a form of thought; the remembered past.

Concerned with the last chiefly, Mr. Lukacs directs his discussion to the developing notion of the people, to conclude that the historical reconstruction of public opinion now calls for a new kind of epistemology, rather than a new technology; knowledge of an entire culture. To this connection, he gives us two acute observations: public opinion is often more important than either majority or popular sentiment; and the so-called tyranny of the majority is usually exercised by “new kinds of minorities in the name of the people.”

Then he assails nineteenth-century positivism by arguing that hard facts can be shown to be hard or even to be facts only in association with other facts; and that it is finally the fiction, or their association, that accounts for their factual claims. Considering historical tendencies rather than causes, he finds that what happens is almost always involved with what people think happens, and that the “movement of ideas in democratic times is slow not because democratic societies disdain them, but because they respect them too much.”

Mr. Lukacs thinks the “proper study of history includes, principally, persons rather than social types, nations rather than classes, cultural rather than economic units.” He insists that knowledge is personal, and at the same time universal; and that imagination and a sense of time enter into its relevance. Finally and equivocally he argues for an evolution of consciousness as a fact, in that through history every generation is potentially richer in its consciousness. But this, he reminds us, is only potential, since information is not to be equated with understanding.

He speaks of “the Christian sense of history” moving toward the end of mankind, “the Day of Judgment.” This may, he says, be “complemented by a sense of human evolution, but perhaps only in the sense of the evolution of our consciousness.”

He takes no note of cosmic evolution, and he doesn’t seem to accept biological evolution, either. He recounts the story of Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Born, and others, in their development of wave mechanics and the indeterminacy principle, climaxing in Einstein’s defeat in the argument with Bohr on the issue of scientific absolutism. I wouldn’t for a minute disagree with Mr. Lukacs on the importance of this event, nor about his claim that it wasn’t appreciated in intellectual circles in the United States at the time. (Even though, in the early 1940s, incident to the implications of indeterminacy, I shed my own atheistic materialism.)

Some years ago Peter Drucker, in The Economic Man and other works of his, pointed out social and political effects of this philosophical discounting of scientific absolutism in Middle Europe; while in this country, still believing with Einstein that “God doesn’t shoot dice with man,” we looked on the manifestations of Nazism in Germany and Austria with incomprehension. But Lukacs fails to make mention of a more important reason for this. I refer to the radical influence of Watson and Thorndyke and their revolutionary behaviorism that, by postulate, abolished consciousness from the “science” of psychology. This came to be called “the Second American Revolution.” It had, I believe, far more influence on scientific philosophy—and theology, as well—in this country than did Einstein.

In his chapter on “History and Physics,” Mr. Lukacs discusses Heisenberg’s philosophical interpretation of quantum physics, published in 1958. It certainly qualifies the old Newtonian view of the world, but to some extent so did the Second Law of Thermodynamics; and even after realizing human uncertainty in scientific endeavor, this is scarcely reason for ignoring its contributions. I say this by way of preface to my taking note of the fact that, in his discussion of science, he made no mention of relevant recent events in the biosciences.

I speak of the new ideas of nervous function and sensation now generally accepted by behaviorists, and especially the work of such physiological psychologists as Carl Pribam, and his interpretation of the rhesus monkey experiment on problem solving; Ragnar Granit in Receptors and Sensory Perception; and T. T. Chang, in Patterns of Organization in the Central Nervous System. Moreover, though not yet widely subjected to philosophical interpretation, the decoding of DNA is seen in some quarters as support for the view of consciousness as a dimension, if not of the universe, certainly of life.

This brings me to the irony of Mr. Lukacs’ slight to Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, which he dismisses as “overrated,” to take comfort in an ancillary essay “La Place de L’Homme dans L’Univers.” Overrated? But Lukacs elsewhere gives tentative acceptance, or indulgence at any rate, to a theory of pre-life in the world, which finds a more plausible statement in POM. Moreover, without implying that Mr. Lukacs’ conception of historical consciousness is deliberately patterned on Teilhard’s Noosphere (I feel sure it is not) there are surely remarkable similarities.

It seems to me ironic indeed that naturalistic “Christians” and Communists should take up POM, while an orthodox Christian, proposing our salvation through an evolution of consciousness, should be put off by it! For this work of Teilhard’s is primarily an argument (a polemic, in fact) for a revolution in scientific methodology substantially in the terms of Mr. Lukacs’ historical form of thought. I suppose, to quote him on this point, such is “the extraordinary intellectual confusion of our times.” And evidence that the Light can’t be witnessed too widely nor too well. John’s head is no head without his body, I urge.

Mr. Brainard Cheney (1900–1990)—critic, novelist, and occasional gray eminence of Tennessee politics—had at the time of writing recently published Devil’s Elbow, a novel set, for the most part, in the Georgia swamp-country of his own early years.

Posted: October 14, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969


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