Mark Bevir, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for British Studies at UC Berkeley, gave a talk entitled, “Historicism and Critique” at the Political Philosophy Colloquium on October 8th, which focused on his research on the method of “radical historicism” in the philosophy of social science. Bevir opened the talk with a clear statement of his main purpose: to show that radical historicism can provide a renewed philosophical basis for critique of the social sciences. But what is “radical historicism”?
Historicism, according to Bevir, is roughly the idea that human phenomena can only be understood historically, in terms of the modes of truth-making that prevail within each particular historical epoch.
The seventeenth and eighteenth century of Western intellectual history was dominated by Enlightenment thought, consisting of unbounded belief in scientific progress and the possibility of conquering the natural world with the analytic tools of science. Partly as a reaction against, and partly as a continuation of the Enlightenment paradigm, the turn to the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Romantic and historicist style of thinking, represented in the writings of Auguste Comte, Hegel, and Marx. For these thinkers, whom Bevir refers to as “developmental historicists,” human life was not to be studied under the Enlightenment presumption that this world is a mechanistic universe filled with atoms colliding against each other in cause-and-effect relations. Instead, they thought that human life must be studied as an organic historical process, unfolding over time according to a unified principle, and leading up to a definite telos. On their view, human beings were constitutive parts of a larger process that must be explained in terms of an overarching logic of history. However, as the twentieth century drew near, it became clear that developmental historicism was something akin to story-telling motivated by wishful thinking.
World War I, most notably, belied the grand narrative of continuous progress unfolding through time according to a unitary principle of rationality. Instead of a principled march towards a pre-defined telos, the events of the twentieth century presented us with chaos, destruction, and anomie. Once again, we needed a new paradigm of explanation. This is where Bevir’s radical historicism, rooted in key notions such as “contingency,” “nominalism,” and “contestability,” comes in. How does radical historicism, in the way that Bevir presents it, provide a way out of the crisis of developmental historicism?
According to Bevir, the way in which radical historicism overcomes the crisis of the earlier developmental historicism is by historicizing the foundational principle of development—a principle of rationality or whatever – that developmental historicists presumed underlie and explain the development of history. But if radical historicism rejects a fixed, unitary principle that guides the historical process, what resources does it have left with which it can explain human phenomena? Radical historicism, said Bevir, explains human phenomena through the genealogical use, as opposed to an essentializing use, of aggregate concepts (e.g. state, person, culture, economy). What does this mean? Roughly, by genealogical use of aggregate concepts, Bevir refers to the use of concepts that is reflexively aware of its own contingent and pragmatic grounding. What constitutes the “validity” of such aggregate concepts is not their content of truth, measured in terms of the degree of correspondence between those terms and an independent reality, but rather the degree of its explanatory power in relation to the world we traffic in.
In the last part of the talk, Bevir commented on possible objections to his theory of radical historicism, most notably the threat of pernicious relativism. If the only grounds we have available for the truth claims we make is the contingent, pragmatic use of those claims in explaining our own particular social world, then are we caught in hopeless relativism? Bevir argued that his idea of radical historicism does not entail the commitment to such a self-undermining form of relativism because it operates with a specific notion of truth, i.e. truth conceived as “true for us,” or true in the sense that it is the best account of social reality we currently have on offer. With this, he concluded the talk.
Professor Steve Macedo expressed doubt about the grounds of Bevir’s objection to Rawls’s analytic theory of justice for its allegedly un-reflexive and unquestioning commitment to foundational assumptions about moral intuitions (as well as other things). Macedo argued that in fact, certain dimensions of Rawls’s theory, such as “wide reflective equilibrium” evinces that Bevir’s characterization is unwarranted. Finally, one of the graduate students in political theory questioned whether Bevir’s pragmatic focus on the criteria of theory-choice in terms of the relative degree of explanatory power fits comfortably with his “nominalism”, and along with it, his rejection of fixed essences. The debate over Bevir’s thought-provoking proposal of radical historicism continued throughout dinner and beyond, as those who attended the talk reflexively questioned their own assumptions about the specific ways they think.