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The past as a resource for the human and social theory

Priority areas of development: humanitarian

The object of the study encompasses strategies and conditions of the possibility of translating historical facts into the theoretical language of the humanities, social sciences, and philosophy.

The goal of research was to explore the functions and strategies of using historical arguments and historical narrative elements to construct philosophical concepts or theories for humanities and social theories since the early modern period to the present day. A revision of history’s theory-building capacity has been presented in this project as a mainstream feature of the theory and philosophy of the human sciences in the second half of the 20th century. It is this phenomenon that explains a number of areas emerging or coming to the forefront whose very names would likely have looked like oxymora to traditional historiography of humanities and social sciences, e.g. historical topic (Ernst Robert Curtius), historical poetics (from Alexander Veselovsky to Alexander Mikhailov), or historical sociology (Max Weber, Randall Collins, Reinhard Bendix, Charles Tilly, Immanuel M. Wallerstein, Michael Mann and others.) The study focuses on the works of modern and contemporary (19th–21st c.) scholars in humanities and social scientists who took cultural phenomena of the past as precedents when building theories that, rather than just conceptualizing the past, also determined the development of contemporary human knowledge. The legacy of the most prominent thinkers of Europe such as Schelling, Bakhtin, Foucault, and Skinner was analyzed as well as that of and much less known scholars whose significance was limited to two or three decades in the history of a single national culture (Sergei Averintsev, Alexander Mikhailov, Aaron Gurevich etc.).

Empirical base of research (Sources). The research draws on basic texts on philosophy, theory and historiography of the humanities. Based on them it was possible to explore functions and strategies of using historical argumentation and historical narrative elements to construct philosophical concepts and theories in human and social sciences since the early modern period. These texts included works representing romantic philosophy of mythology (Georg Friedrich Creuzer, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Johann Joseph Görres et al.); articles and monographs by representatives of theoretical historiography of early modern time (Nancy S. Struever, Quentin Skinner, John G.A. Pocock, Hans Baron, Alexandr Mikhailov); historical works representing a fusion of historiosophical construction and historical narrative resulting in ideology (François Guizot); works by philologists of Russian formalism that reflected a historicizing of the formalistic method (primarily literary reviews of the 1910s–1920s.); studies in the history of urban technologies in the spirit of urban studies (Nikhil Anand, Stephen Graham, Matthew Gandy); works by historical sociologists and social historians in which attempts were made to find a form of productive interaction between the two disciplines (from the historical sociology of the 1960s–1970s to social historians of today); manifestos and studies from the field of conventions economics, calling for social and historical contextualization the discipline (André Orléan, Robert Salais, Laurent Thévenot, Olivier Favereau and François Eymard Duvernay).

Results of research. Research done under the project has yielded the following theoretical and empirical results:

  • Explicating the logic and tracing the evolution of principles and specific forms of work with the mythical language and material of archaic mythologies in romantic antiquity studies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It has been shown that a key role in making archaic culture an autonomous research object was played by Kant as he attempted to project his speculative construction of ‘natural state’ onto historical factuality. Furthermore, the basic ways of bridging the gap between speculative construction and factuality in the romantic philosophy of mythology were detected. These included: the natural-philosophical argument (Christian Gottlob Heyne, Johann Joseph Görres); the idea of emanation and the performative theory of symbol in Georg Friedrich Creuzer; historical progress of divine modalities (the "biography of the Absolute" or "speculative epic") from Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Among the most important lines of force in the mythological science of romanticism traced in the study were an interpretation of the prehistoric that anticipated the methods later used by ethnology and historical materialism, displayed by such a seemingly hopelessly discredited author as Johann Jakob Bachofen (inventor of the historiosophical concept of prehistoric matriarchy). Special attention was paid to the concept of "true facts" in Schelling which allowed to reconcile speculative and historical argument under the auspices of positive philosophy;
  • It was shown (in sections 2.1 and 2.2) that a number of areas of the historiography of early modern time during the second half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries were functioning as a kind of laboratory for theoretical language production and testing. This laboratory synthesized the apparatus of modern philosophy and the theory of human sciences (pragmatism, speech acts theory, historical poetics) and the theoretically most fruitful concepts and ideas of Renaissance and Baroque intellectual culture (humanist dialectic, ‘secondary rhetoric’, Renaissance and Baroque topic, ‘criticism of human arbitrariness’, civil science). Based on examples of arguments in seventeenth – and early eighteenth century intellectual literature, heuristic possibilities of such synthesis were demonstrated (an interpretation of the axiom XLI in Giambattista Vico’s Nuova scienza and Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz’s moral logic relying on Nancy Struever’s moral rhetoric). In addition, using the example of a debate about personality and the individual in the Middle Ages, the analytical capacity of a sociological approach to the history of the late-Soviet medieval studies was demonstrated. It was shown that certain disciplinary dialects served as an Aesopic language to criticize the authorities’ ideology and the dominant scientific discourse;
  • It was demonstrated that the turn to the historical argument can be viewed as a tendency common to a whole number of theoretical social sciences and humanities such as economics, sociology, urban studies, and literary theory, even though it manifests itself in different ways in each of them. The uses of historical arguments in political practice (indeed, ideology)-oriented extrascientific forms of knowledge of the past was the subject matter of sub-section 3.1; analyzing François Guizot’s concept of history, it was shown that the fusion of historical material with speculative historiosophical constructions (e.g. the opposition between the Roman-Gallic and the Frankish elements as the principal driver of French history, or the idea of progress) laid the foundation of nationalist historiography and transformed the whole system of historical research relevance. Thus, Guizot’s historiosophical ‘theory of conquest’ disproportionately bigged up the significance of the transition of power from the Merovingians to the Carolingians in 751, which marked the Germanic Austrasia’s victory over the Romanized Neustria but was not considered too significant an event in the historiography before Guizot. Research presented in subsection 3.2 demonstrates an affinity existing between a whole number of key categories of Mikhail Bakhtin’s philosophical aesthetics (e.g. heteroglossia, grotesque body) and contemporary conservative projects in the German sociology (Hans Freyer) and philosophical hermeneutics (Hans-Georg Gadamer). In the studies presented in Section 3.3, which dealt with formalist philology, it has been demonstrated that in formalist literary theory the appropriation of historical argument was carried out not only within the framework of the literary historical concepts developed by formalists (literature history as a system of systems, evolution of the ‘dominant’), but also in a discussion space far from the theoretical systems, namely in book reviews. This observation allows us to revise the scheme of transition from the early and ahistorical formalism to mature, literary historical one that mastered the biographical method again. This scheme was formed inside of the formalist movement and is an element of its self concept. In urban studies, a historicization of studying urban technologies was implemented in section 3.4, allowing to shed light on the genesis of the modern urban space (the formation of the sensory environment of the modern city, the emergence of new forms of sociability oriented towards impersonal structures and technologies), and discovering the historical dimension of the basic analytical categories of this disciplinary area, such as modernity or sociability. As was shown in Section 3.5, the convergence of sociology and history announced in the 1960s – 1970s, the transformation of historical sociology into a separate area, and history’s complementary drift towards sociology did not result in a new interdisciplinary field emerging, in which the united methods of these disciplines could demonstrate their efficiency. Possible reasons for this failed rapprochement were, firstly, the fact that social historians gave preference to disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, memory studies, urban studies, media studies, cinema studies, or semiotics that were sociology’s subsidiaries, rather than sociology proper; historians remained insensitive to the fundamental mainstream theories of sociology in 1960–1970-ies (e.g. George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer’s interactionism, Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power and George Casper Homans’ exchange theory) and tended to make metaphorical use of sociological categories (e.g. agency, actor, contingency, path dependence). Secondly – the disciplinary identity of historical sociologists was blurred, with them increasingly drifting towards the historical explanation mode and away from the axiomatic basis of social science. Subsection 3.6 shows that in the economic theory, the importance of social and historical contextualization of economic reality has recently gradually ceased to be perceived as heterodoxy and is beginning to threaten the very foundations of neoclassical economics (cf. criticism of methodological individualism, opposition of interpretive and calculating models of rationality, postulated pluralism of social life coordination principles). Based on examples such as conventions governing quality assessment on the wine market, or the historic evolution of the employment contract during the second half of twentieth century, it has been demonstrated that declarative ahistoricity of neoclassical economics often represents a rhetorical trick to hide the regression of the economic reality to a state before the idea of ‘welfare’.

Scope of use. The project’s findings are reflected by a number of publications, including those in periodicals indexed in WoS and Scopus. These publications describe the most representative cases of using the theoretical capacity of historical language in a wide range of disciplines from Renaissance and Baroque historiography to the theory of conventions in economics. The findings have been tested and endorsed and will be used in future in teaching history and sociology of science within the joint master's program "History of knowledge and social history" run by IGITI and School of History at the HSE. Moreover, these results can be used in subsequent theory-building, planning and research management in social sciences and humanities. The research tools and conceptual apparatus designed by project participants as a result of the above mentioned synthesis make it possible to analyze historical argumentation in various text sorts. Therefore, they that can be used not only by historians of knowledge, historians of the humanities and philosophers but also by text analysts in their applied research (‘sign analytics’, to use Christopher Lash’s term), including media and discourse analysis or linguistic expert examinations, as well as by experts designing government programs to combat extremism and destructive ideologies.


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