Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Second Order Observation Historicized—An Epistemological Frame Narrative

Niklas Luhmann who, if he did not invent the concept of “second order observation,” gave it enough productive use to launch these three words into the international and interdisciplinary circuit of philosophical notions, never applied them in any historical description or in any historical analysis of real world phenomena. What would then be the point, what would be the intellectual bet implied in our complex experiment of historicizing the concept of “second order observation” and the act of observing oneself in the act of observation? Or, to ask the same question in an even more meticulous way: Why do we replace the concept of “self-reflection” with that of “second order observation,” and what do we expect from the historicization of the concept and of the phenomenon to which it is supposed to refer?

The claim is that such an operation may help us to understand, to explain, and to compare, in a more comprehensive fashion than before, certain stages of what we have come to call “the process of Modernity,” in particular the decades between 1780 and 1830 which we have long known as the age of “secularization,” of both “Classicism” and “Romanticism,” of the “crisis of representation,” according to Michel Foucault, and as Sattelzeit (“saddle time”), according to Reinhart Koselleck. Now, while it is plausible to say, in the first place, that the meaning of “secularization” does not cover many of the historical structures and events that we associate with the period in question and while the simultaneity and tension between Classicism and Romanticism have always puzzled cultural historians, it may well produce an impression of arrogance, especially in the contemporary academic-intellectual climate, not to follow such eminent and deservedly canonized thinkers of the past as Koselleck and Foucault.

My justification for this double omission, I hope and believe, is easy to understand. If we start with Koselleck’s notion of Sattelzeit, we will discover that its scope is exclusively hermeneutic. It states that texts from before 1780 will always require historical commentary because of their high degree of semantic otherness in relation to our own social knowledge, whereas texts from after 1830 regularly expose us to the risk of not taking their otherness as seriously as we should. But with the concept of Sattelzeit Koselleck does not try to point to any of those historical transformations that might explain the hermeneutic difference in which he is interested. By contrast, Foucault’s historical narrative about the “crisis of representation,” first developed in Les mots et les choses, his most important book, published in 1966, does describe a dense mood of skepticism and frustration in the world around 1800, a skepticism about the possibility of pinpointing, cognitively and conceptually, the phenomena of the world. Foucault believed that a new epistemological configuration in which “man” was simultaneously subject and object of understanding, together with a radical historicization of all phenomena, had emerged as a complex solution to this problem in the early nineteenth century. But while his analysis was truly innovative and still appears largely convincing today, he was not able to show why the then-new epistemological position of “man” and the surge of historicization occurred at the same time and how both movements may have complemented each other.

So much for our reasons for historicizing second order observation. Another question about the legitimacy of our project concerns the sheer possibility, rather than the pertinence, of historicizing second order observation. For it must be said that a certain structure of self-observation belongs to the core elements of human consciousness, is thereby temporally coextensive with Homo sapiens—and hence certainly not capable of being historicized. I am referring to the double structure in human consciousness that Edmund Husserl described with the concepts of “protention” and “retention,” that is to the capacity of each present moment in our mind to “resonate” with its previous moment and to “anticipate” its following moment and to thus always be, at the same time, inside (in its own present) and outside of itself (in the present’s immediate past or immediate future). While this structure may be specific to the human mind in comparison to animals (we will most likely never know), there indeed exists a different type of self-observation in the strict sense of the word that is even more likely to be exclusively human—and this is the ability to see our own minds’ function, an ability which Husserl’s phenomenology was relying upon as its elementary operation and as its basis of experience.

I do not believe, however, that Luhmann had one of these two modes of self-observation in mind when he spoke of “second order observation.” His notion was more hermeneutic, in the sense of seeing oneself “as if from outside,” as against the backdrop of a potential multiplicity or even a potential infinity of alternative forms of behavior at each given moment. Seeing oneself in the midst of possible alternatives is a way of constituting one’s self-image as a structure of meaning, and for that reason I call this type of self-observation “hermeneutic.” But how can this mode of self-observation be historicized? What would it have to do specifically with Modernity as a historical dimension? Weren’t the pre-Socratic philosophers, Socrates himself, or Michel de Montaigne, for example, outstanding second order observers in that very sense, outstanding observers of what was specific about themselves? The answer is that what can be and was indeed “historical” about this mode of second order observation during the historical period in question, and what can give a historical dimension to any type of human behavior, is simply its capacity of becoming habitual. In this sense, at least for a certain group of humans, second order observation stopped being a specific operation of the mind around 1800 and became habitual, that is it became part of a sociologically specific life form. In this very sense, too, it appears plausible to assume that during the Sattelzeit, self-observation in the now-specified meaning of the word became habitual for those individuals who liked to think of themselves as “philosophers” and whom, from around 1900 on and for more than a century now, we have been calling “intellectuals.” From a sociological point of view, intellectuals cannot help observing themselves in the act of observation; they are habitually self-reflexive, and this historical innovation in the shape of a certain social role, which occurred around 1800, has had considerable epistemological consequences. It is the intention of my essay to describe these consequences—and the historical consequences of these consequences—in the form of a frame narrative that may give orientation and shape to more detailed historical research in the future.


I will not try to come up with hypotheses about the “historical reasons” that led to the emergence of second order observation (as a habitual feature of intellectual life around 1800), for “historical reasons” on a similar level of complexity and abstraction tend to be tautological re-descriptions of the phenomena that they mean to explain. Would it really add anything, for example, to say that the emergence of second order observation was a reaction to and a means of coping with an ever-growing world complexity—except for stating that the world of the eighteenth century was likely more complex than that of the seventeenth? And what evidence could such a comparison of complexity possibly be based on? Instead of providing “historical reasons,” we may well focus, as Foucault already did in Les mots et les choses, on some symptoms for an intensifying epistemological tension as it came up during the eighteenth century. What got lost soon after 1700 was the intellectual trust and the existential premise according to which the human mind in general and each individual mind in particular were capable of producing fully adequate (and therefore consensual) representations of the world and its objects. Denis Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s heroic project of bringing together, in a systematizing structure, all available knowledge through their Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, may have been the one institutional and intellectual place, almost paradoxically, that made this tension particularly visible. For it relied on the double-leveled condition that, firstly, the use of unprejudiced human reason was enough to produce adequate representations of all phenomena and that, secondly, the accumulation of such representations would end up revealing a general and permanent grid of all knowledge (an epistemological grid that would mirror the ontological grid of the cosmos and its objects).

The editorial reality of this vast enterprise, however, turned out to be much more centrifugal. Not only did Diderot and d’Alembert soon understand that it was inevitable, by the advanced intellectual standards of their time, to let different authors describe seemingly identical phenomena from different perspectives; in reading manifold entries from the Encyclopédie we also sense an obsession with “ontological dispersion,” that is with a fear that phenomena thought to belong to coherent fields of knowledge and practice would no longer obey such presuppositions of order. I have always felt that there is a representational strategy (or perhaps just a preconscious inclination) in the “planches,” that is in those volumes of the Encyclopédie that supplemented its textual entries and descriptions with detailed etchings of multiple objects, to bring centrifugal objects together into the (of course imaginary) spatial order of frames, buildings, and workshops. The spaces of the bakery or of the butcher’s shop, the study of the writer or the office of the merchant seem to suggest and, for a brief historical moment, even to rescue an impression of unity that was then vanishing in the cognitive realm.

We can detect a similar dynamic in the history of the concept of “style” and in the practices that it informs. There is a famous sentence by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, published in the Encyclopédie—“le style est l’homme même”—which, over decades and centuries, has become the lemma for a conception of style as a range of multiple forms expressing a multiplicity of individual dispositions. By contrast, it had been Buffon’s original intention to counter and contain precisely this profusion of individual styles, by claiming that there had to be one, and only one, correct human way of seeing and arranging things in a logical fashion, one and only one logical order that would guarantee an adequate perception and representation of the world. “Style” for Buffon was a normative concept set against individualizing perspectivism.

It was typical of an eighteenth-century frame of mind, different again yet equally powerful, that tackled the same epistemological problem, i.e. it was typical of enlightened Materialism, that philosophes like Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Claude Adrien Helvétius, and Diderot were obsessed with the possibility of proving that the human senses were well capable of producing truthful renditions of a reality lying outside the human mind and the human body. This of course was the reason for their—and for so many of their contemporaries’—fascination with the blind and the deaf: it came from their will to show (or rather, to imagine) that even the loss of an entire perceptual dimension would not fully sever the human mind from the objects lying outside itself. A philosophical—and thus either overly friendly or definitively castrating—reading of the novels written by the Marquis de Sade could arrive at the converging impression (as Foucault did), that is at the impression that they were complex intellectual experiments trying to confirm the cognitive reliability—and dignity—of the human senses.

Finally and above all, Immanuel Kant’s critical work was primarily motivated by the urge to show that, ultimately, the human senses, the human mind, and human judgment were well qualified to experience the objects of the world in an adequate way—and to deal with them on such a basis. This project, however, only accounts for half of Kant’s unique importance within the history of Western philosophy. If he was, on the one hand, the last truly great philosopher who could persuade himself that humans had the necessary equipment to capture the world of objects; nobody on the other side of the epistemological divide pushed possible doubts against such optimism that early and that far. But I will still refrain from saying that similar cognitive and epistemological tensions were the historical “reason” for the emergence of second order observation as a habitual feature of intellectuals’ minds in the late eighteenth century—although one can of course plausibly claim the existence of such a relationship. It is also obvious that similar forms of skepticism and similar reactions to it may have articulated themselves in different national and regional cultures at different chronological moments. In this sense, too, what I am trying to establish here has the status of a potential frame narrative.


Let us now switch to a more abstract level and ask what happens if second order observation becomes habitual. I realize that this question seems to imply a claim of “logical necessity” in the historical development that I do not subscribe to but that I will accept as a condition for clarity in this part of my exposition. Basically, I see two movements coming from the emergence of second order observation as a habitual and thereby institutional structure. A second order observer will quickly realize that her perceptions of the world, and the ways in which she will transform such perceptions into units of knowledge or representations, must depend on her different points of view. As it is also evident to a second order observer that the number of possible perspectives is potentially infinite, this will soon lead to the conclusion that, for each object of reference outside the human mind, there is a potential infinity of representations. Within a brief stretch of time around 1800, this sequence of logical steps produced what I would call an “epistemological horror vacui,” that is the fear that reference objects capable of having an infinity of representations might, in the end, not exist at all in the ontological sense.

Now, while this first problem stemming from the emergence of second order observation would soon find a solution that would become overwhelmingly successful and indeed decisive for western intellectual life over a century and a half, the second problem turned into a permanent open question and thus into a source of intellectual provocation. It comes from the inevitability with which, against the trend of the Cartesian paradigm of focusing and indeed relying exclusively on the human mind as an apparatus of world perception and world interpretation, a self-reflexive observer necessarily had to rediscover the body and the senses as another dimension through which to relate to the world. This would of course lead to the question of whether there was a way to make compatible world-appropriation through the mind and its concepts (“experience”) and world-appropriation through the body and its senses (“perception”). As the question has never found a consensual answer to the present day, it turned out to be enormously productive as a source of intellectual unrest.

But let us return to the first problem, the problem of potentially endless perspectivism, and to the solution that it triggered. This solution came as a switch, in the basic mode of world representation, from a mirror-like principle to a narrative principle. From the early nineteenth century on, anyone wanting to describe Germany, for example, was no longer convincing in the form of a definition but needed to tell the history of Germany; the only satisfying representation of a species, like the spider or the dog, would be the history of its evolution; and anyone who was intellectually daring enough to ask what the mind was like needed to write a narrative in the style of the young Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit. I am of course alluding to a (Hegelian) philosophy of history and to (Darwinian) evolutionism as two discursive forms that may have emerged in reaction to perspectivism as a consequence of second order observation. And how could this discursive form indeed become a solution for an epistemological problem? They were a solution inasmuch as narrative forms are capable of absorbing a multiplicity of representations of the same object of reference by arranging them as sequences of historical unfolding or of biological evolution.

This is a way of explaining the relationship between the emergence of second order observation and the surge of historicization—a relationship that Foucault also highlighted—but in the status of mere chronological concomitance. For my part, I believe that Historicism, the type of historical culture shaping up during the early nineteenth century, was the institutional and discursive form that the surge of historicization and the problem of perspectivism found for themselves. For a century and a half, up until the third quarter of the twentieth century, Historicism would appear so convincing and become so successful that Western culture tended to confuse it with “history as such,” with a meta-historical and transcultural way of seeing and dealing with the past. The historicization of Historicism, against this very trend, was the life achievement of Koselleck. I rely on his work in the following brief description of Historicism as a complex epistemological framework whose emergence was triggered by the habitualization of second order observing.

Historicism, in the first place, may have been the only chronotope, that is the only historically-specific social construction of time, in which time was considered to be an absolute agent of change or, in other terms, in which no single phenomenon was considered capable of resisting change in time. In the second place, and also different from most previous chronotopes (where movements of the dimensions of time symbolically stood for transformation in time, that is where the past was moving away from the present and the future was approaching it), Historicism represented figures of human self reference as moving through time. In this sense, and in the third place, humans were supposed to constantly leave the past behind them, which made it appear necessary to adapt past experience to the changing conditions of the present. At the same time, in the fourth place, as they were leaving their past behind them, humans were supposed to cross the threshold towards a future which presented itself as an open horizon of possibilities from which to choose.

Between this future that humans constantly entered and the past that they were always leaving behind, the present shrank to become (in Charles Baudelaire’s words) an “imperceptibly short moment of transition.” This moment of transition, I think, was the epistemological habitat of the Cartesian subject, in the sense that, as a present, it offered the non-substantial, that is purely spiritual place for a double operation that was purely spiritual too. The transitory present became the place where the Subject adapted experience from the past to the conditions of present and future and where, secondly and relying on this very basis, the Subject chose among the possibilities offered by the future. This, choosing among the opportunities offered by the future on the basis of experience from the past adapted to the present, is what we have called “action” since the late nineteenth century era of early sociology—and it has been this concentration on “action” that has contributed to the definition of human life ever since.


I will now try to illustrate, in retrospect, some aspects from a specific climate of epistemological excitement—and even nervousness—that seem to have followed the emergence of second order observation around 1800, and after that I will concentrate on the long-term consequences, up until the early twentieth century, that came specifically from the impossibility of making experience and perception compatible. Interestingly, two intellectual testimonies with such disparate origin as Francisco de Goya’s series of 80 etchings called Los Caprichos and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher were both produced in the 1790s and not only share an open serial form of presentation but also the impossibility of being subsumed under a single interpretation, function, or even perspective—which may have been the reason, in both cases, for an almost uncanny reputation for being ahead of their own historical moment. My thesis is that both Lichtenberg and Goya, at the late eighteenth century stage of their work, were obsessed with problems that stemmed from the habitualization of second order observation—without yet participating in those narrative discourses and in the surge of historicization as strategies for containing perspectivism. What immediately impresses us when going through the Caprichos is the possibility of approaching most of them with a variety of meaning attributions and with different angles of explanation that resist any mediation or even harmonization. Most widely known in this sense, and truly emblematic for the historical moment in question, is Capricho number 43 that shows the sleeping philosopher with the inscription El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. It can—famously and ambiguously—either mean “the sleep of reason produces monsters” or “the dream of reason produces monsters.” Goya must have been aware of the second possible meaning, which stood in opposition to the official self-image of a monarchy and a state that wanted to present themselves as enlightened. In a last-minute decision before publication, he relocated this Capricho from the first to the forty-third position. But the ambiguity was even more complex and touched upon the other epistemological dimension in question, that is that of the tension between experience and perception. For the “monsters” that the sleep or the dream of the philosopher and of reason are conjuring hardly look monstrous. They seem to be owls with surprisingly friendly faces and large wooly wings, wings whose feathers seem to caress and comfort rather than threaten the sleeping philosopher. It would be inadequate, however, to derive from just one Capricho a general tendency of the entire collection in favor of the physical world as it is accessible to the human senses. There is a large number of other images in which the apparent lack of a well-developed mind gives the protagonists and their bodies almost obsessive connotations of opacity, brutality and, over and over again, dullness. And even the presence of a mind is by no means always redemptive. In many variations, for example, Goya plays out an Enlightenment motif that was particularly popular in Spain, that is the motif of the beautiful young woman who, seemingly against her own will, is being married to an old, rich, and ugly man. But in the Caprichos these young women who otherwise look like the poor victims of sexual greed and social hierarchy often appear to be those who, under the guidance of their shrewd go-betweens, are in fact taking advantage of the wealthy old men.

If the potential infinity of perspectives of the world, their incompatibility, and the opacity of whatever is material are the most powerful impressions that we take away from Goya’s Caprichos, Lichtenberg seems to be primarily worried about the possibility—and sometimes perhaps even about the question of the necessity—of accessing a reality outside the human mind. In this sense, it is symptomatic that he reads Kant who, throughout his “critical” work, was trying to keep open the possibility of the human mind as an objective outside observer. In this sense it is symptomatic that Lichtenberg reads Kant as converging with his own reaction to the problem of the outside world:

In the preface to the second and the third edition of Kant’s Critique [the third is only a reprint of the second] many singular things appear that I have often thought but never said. We discover no cause in things but notice only that which corresponds to something within ourselves. Wherever we look we see only ourselves.[1]

But Lichtenberg’s reflections, like Goya’s etchings, go beyond the point where tensions between the subject (as a first order observer) and the world of objects become visible. He found it strange that we can arrive at the impression of a world existing “outside” the human mind at all, and he thus speculated that the “outside” might be an uncontrolled—and probably uncontrollable—effect of the way in which our senses refer to the material world

outside us. It is truly very hard to say how we arrive at this concept, for what we perceive we really perceive purely within us. To perceive something outside oneself is a contradiction: we perceive only within ourselves, that which we perceive is merely a modification of our self and thus takes place within us. Because these changes do not depend on us ourselves we ascribe them to other things that are outside us and say there exist things—we should say praeter nos, but for praeter we substitute the preposition extra, and that is something quite different. We think of these things as being outside ourselves in space, and that is clearly not perception; it seems to be something most intimately interwoven with the way in which our senses acquire knowledge, it is the form in which that idea of praeter nos is presented to us. The form of our sensual faculty.[2]

A full analysis of Lichtenberg’s complicated—and often truly enigmatic—thoughts is out of the question here. All that I wanted to convey is an impression of intellectual affinity—and even of sympathy—that we can feel towards some figures of that historical moment of transition and towards their works in which the challenges resulting from second order observation were already present, without having found some of those standard solutions that would shape the institutions of the intellectual nineteenth century. Clearly, the sympathy and the affinity that we feel for them are based on a (transitory) mood of uncertainty and unrest around 1800 that we often find congenial.

When we discover a similar mood of unrest again, a short century later, its energy seems to come exclusively from the second of our two epistemological problems, that is from the non-complementarity between perception and experience. It has indeed been said that some of the most popular literary and artistic movements of that time were driven by the desire to bring our senses and our thoughts to a point of convergence. This is true of literary Symbolism, as it tried to detect and to play out more or less stable meanings supposedly inherent in certain sensual impressions produced by language (think of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem about the vowels and “their” supposed colors), and it is confirmed by makers of all varieties of Programmmusik because they believed in the possibility of articulating ideological, patriotic, and even erotic meanings through musical structures.

Figures from this historical context that have a specific fascination for us are, once again, those who failed to produce a solution to its central challenge, especially in the very late nineteenth century. Friedrich Nietzsche’s thinking, for example, was permeated by countless attempts at bringing back and at dignifying an existential rather than a purely cognitive style—a style in which the physical dimension of human life returned to (the illusion of?) a pre-modern dignity. In his book Matière et mémoire, Henri Bergson tried to profit from an analysis of the functions of memory in order to understand the relations between perception and experience. Before he ended up exclusively relying on interpretation in his approach to the human psyche, Sigmund Freud, after The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, in endless permutations and drafts, had tried to come up with a meta-psychology capable of bringing together the physical and the spiritual dimensions of human life. Today, thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud and, to a lesser degree, Bergson, belong to our genealogy of intellectual heroes, like Goya and Lichtenberg—because they all dared to expose themselves to a world complexity that they could neither reduce nor cast into stable structures of knowledge.

The same thing, however, that gives their work a specific fascination in our eyes, that is their attempt at a mediation between the dimensions of experience and perception, made them largely unacceptable within the contemporary academic system as it was branching off, mainly during the eighteen-nineties (which is considerably later than we normally assume), into the opposition between sciences and humanities. Now while it is plausible that the unresolved problem of the incompatibility between perception and experience, as it had emerged with the institutionalization of second order observation, was still the driving intellectual and even emotional force behind this decisive institutional development, it would not be correct to assume a fully symmetrical relation between perception and experience on the level of world-appropriation, and sciences and humanities as institutional forms. Humanities, according to Wilhelm Dilthey’s program for German universities, were supposed to deal, on a secondary level, with meaning attributions of the world (that is their task was to interpret, exclusively, world interpretations or cultural artifacts), whereas the sciences could focus on any kind of world appropriation, perceptual or experiential, as long as it could be carried out by mathematical tools. So while the sciences were invited and even expected to analyze, for example, the organic basis of meaning attributions, the conceptualization of our sensual reactions to the world was not supposed to be a task of the humanities (humanists have only begun to hesitantly approach, this field of phenomena in the present day, only to discover, not coincidentally, that there are no traditions or previous analyses they can refer to). This seldom-mentioned asymmetry between sciences and humanities may be one of the reasons why the latter began their institutional history with a birth trauma, a trauma that has traditionally been articulated as the vague but intense feeling of a ”loss of reality.”

It is an underlying assumption of my epistemological “frame narrative” that among the two complex syndromes of problems triggered by the emergence of second order observation since the late eighteenth century, Historicism, as the complex solution to the problems of perspectivism, was the basis for many of those intellectual achievements, styles, and structures that, today, we find typical of the nineteenth century—whereas the other, largely unresolved problem, that is the relations between perception and experience, was responsible for zones and moments of intellectual uncertainty, unrest, and productivity. As well as pushing the different academic disciplines into a profound and soon insuperable dichotomy, the second syndrome must have also been a main reason for the increasingly dramatic impression that the cognitive gap between Subject and Object was growing, that is that the human cognitive apparatus was simply unequal to producing adequate representations of the world. As a project, Husserl’s phenomenology looked like the philosophically reasonable and patient reaction to this challenge. For its initial impulse was the plan to establish, introspectively, a complete description of the structures and mechanisms of the human mind, a description that would enable us to assess what details and forms in our images of the outside world were simply “additions” coming from the human mind. In its reception history, Husserlian phenomenology was derailed from this “realistic” promise. Unfortunately, it turned (or shall one say, it degenerated) into the basis of an intellectual style that bracketed the question of the accessibility and even of the existence of an “outside world” to became obsessed with understanding realities as “constructions” of the human mind. Husserl’s original proposal to “subtract” the “additions” of the human mind from our representations of the world was never fulfilled.

If Husserl’s intuition and normative idea had been that of a cautious and careful exploration and recuperation of a relationship of adequacy between Subject and Object, it is possible to see the range of cultural gestures to which we refer as early twentieth century “High Modernism” as an alternative reaction to the same epistemological challenge, as a reaction shaped and driven by iconoclastic energy. Collages made up of fragments of everyday objects and poems whose layout on the page deictically alluded to possible meanings, poems without meaning and paintings without a mimetic object, prose texts with strong rhythms and ballads without rhythm or rhyme; all these literary and pictorial experiments came together as a complex horizon of gestures whose common point of departure was the loss of the hope that literature and art could ever return to their old certainty of representing the world.

Now, while those iconoclastic gestures tried hard to appear contemptuous of an order that they had so demonstratively abandoned and even destroyed, the so-called “Conservative Revolution,” as a contemporary movement, was most concerned with the impression that western culture, as a result of the process of Modernity, had lost all ontological and existential ground and order. Its most productive reaction by far, in my view, was Martin Heidegger’s substitution of the traditionally “modern” Subject/ Object-topology as a guiding epistemological framework through a new paradigm in which human self-reference was no longer thought to be eccentric to the world of objects, but rather appeared as Dasein (“being there”) of formed substance in space, substance in space that was in-der-Welt (“in-the-world”) and zuhanden (“ready-to-hand”). Such an epistemology of Dasein, in-der-Welt and zuhanden was, I believe, meant to disallow a divergence between world-perception through the senses and world-experience through concepts—because it was grounded on the thought of a specific closeness between Dasein and its surrounding world of objects (a closeness that, of course, included what we refer to as “the body” and its contacts with the material world).


The question of whether Heidegger’s new “existential ontology” was (and is) a viable solution to the problem regarding the compatibility between perception and experience, is not one that my epistemological frame narrative claims to answer. All I want to show is that Heidegger’s philosophy, too, was first motivated by problems coming from the emergence of second order observation. As my narrative has here reached the twentieth century, a decision needs to be made as to whether I want to narrate how that epistemological impulse, coming from the late eighteenth century, was slowly petering out, like a sequence of ever-weakening ripples produced by a stone thrown into water, or whether I will give the history of habitualized second order observation a more contoured conclusion. I will opt for the second possibility.

But let us first get back to that protracted explosion of iconoclastic energy in the first third of the twentieth century that we call “High Modernism.” What ended up cooling down High Modernism was a fascination (not to say: an “anticipating obedience”) of many intellectuals with two outdated epistemological configurations that were imposed upon them by the political powers of communism and fascism. Staging itself as the endpoint and point of culmination in the history of philosophy, communism propagated itself as a combination of nineteenth-century Historicism and the claim, marked by its self-description as “Materialism,” that it had finally reconciled world-appropriation by the senses and world-appropriation by concepts. Fascism, from an epistemological point of view, cared much less about coherence; its variations had but one common denominator, and that common denominator lay in the tendency to compensate for the feeling of lost existential ground with the insertion (or even with the invention) of seemingly archaic though often new “mythologies.”

But while fascism vanished as an institutional and intellectual option after 1945, it is simply astonishing to see, today, how long it took some of the most prominent western thinkers to recognize the limitations of Marxism. The apparent seriousness of Marxism’s ethical claims and of course its long-standing political power must have outbalanced its lack of philosophical complexity. Before Jean-Paul Sartre tried to embrace Marxism again in the early 1950s, his brand of Existentialism had returned to the second order observation agenda. In Being and Nothingness and with a gesture that was intentionally reminiscent of the early Husserl, Sartre had explored the structures and functions of human consciousness—only to reach the conclusion that complete self-transparency was impossible (“bad faith” became the existential concept referring to this condition). At the same time, the world outside the reach of human agency, including the material world, came into view through the notion of “being” by which, according to Sartre, consciousness had the power and the almost infinite freedom to ignore (it must be mentioned, however, that the concepts he was using in this context were stronger that of just “ignoring;” they were closer to the meaning of “annihilation”). The fact that Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in the same context, revisited the Phenomenology of Perception confirms the impression that mid-twentieth-century Existentialism was, in many ways, a return, a less urgent and more dysphoric return, to the agenda of the early Phenomenological movement of the late nineteenth century—a return to a horizon of thought that had been abandoned, almost abruptly, during the time of ideologization in the second quarter of the twentieth century.

Something similar occurred to the academic humanities which, after having fallen prey, in many countries, to state-imposed ideologization, were now strangely eager, in the mid-twentieth century, to limit themselves, under names like “New Criticism” or “Immanente Interpretation,” to an exclusively hermeneutic agenda. What kept them intellectually dynamic after these beginnings, for almost half a century, may well have been the birth trauma of a “world loss” that had been part of their institutional foundation. It soon drove the humanities into a more ambitious, in part empirically-oriented stage, with Structuralism, reception research, and all kinds of revisionist Marxisms, since the 1960s; a more interpretative and almost exuberantly self-reflexive chapter followed, above all in the 1970s and 1980s, with Deconstruction, New Historicism, and Reflexive Anthropology; that configuration was then largely replaced by the more empirical flavors of Cultural Studies, Media Studies, and all kinds of Identity Studies—after which, surprisingly perhaps, the very intense theory dynamic within the humanities seems to have reached a time of standstill and stagnation, a time where everything “from the past” is available without anything presenting itself as “cutting edge.”

Marginal as this stagnation in the academic world may appear and indeed be, from a non-academic perspective, the final claim of my epistemological frame narrative takes this stagnation of theory paradigms within the humanities as part and symptom of a much more complex disappearance of the chronotope of Historicism which, somewhat strangely, has occurred “behind our backs” since the third quarter of the twentieth century. If it is true that Historicism was a reaction to the emergence of second order observation, it also makes sense to say that its vanishing brings this very historical narrative to an end. But when did Historicism come to an end, if at all, and why was this not clear to us right when it happened? Many humanists will still remember that loud and passionate discussion from the 1970 and early 1980s, between the champions of Postmodernism and those who defended “the project of Modernism.” I do not want to say, as some intellectual protagonists were then actually claiming, that Postmodernism has proven to be a new chronotope replacing Historicism. But opting for Postmodernism always entailed a critique of Western “master narratives”—as it was perhaps never more eloquently and powerfully articulated than in Jean-François Lyotard’s manifesto La condition postmoderne. To question the authority of the grands récits, as Lyotard called them—and this is the one consequence of Postmodernism that was largely overlooked when it actually happened—meant to undercut the status of narrative representation of the world as a solution to perspectivism, as a solution that had been foundational for the Historicist world view. It thus became clear indeed that, for each individual object of reference, there was not only a potential infinity of descriptions and definitions available—but also of course a potential infinity of foundational narratives.

Ever since—and in spite of the stunning inertia with which many official academic and political discourses remain committed to the topology and rhetoric of Historicism—the basic topology of time within which we are living has gone through a profound transformation, and I will not ask whether this transformation comes directly and exclusively from the collapse of the Historicist paradigm or from changing conditions in our everyday world. But in the early twenty-first century the future is certainly no longer an open horizon of possibilities into which we are moving; rather it has turned into a threatening limit of our agency that comes ever closer and that seems to leave us little time for rescue (think of the discourse of “global warming”). At the same time, instead of constantly leaving the past behind us, electronic communication technology has made us incapable of, and immune to, forgetting—this indeed is the fate that academics are so naively celebrating as “memory culture.” Only legal difficulties are still postponing the moment when all information available to humankind can be activated on every computer screen. Now, between this past that invades us and that oppressive future, the short historicist present of mere transition has reshaped itself into an ever-broadening present of simultaneities.

In conclusion: If the imperceptibly short Historicist present of transition, as it had emerged by the mid-nineteenth century, was the epistemological habitat of the Cartesian subject, then it is certainly plausible, to say the least, that a different, ever-broadening present of simultaneities will suggest a human self-reference that is different from the Cartesian Subject. All those multiple—and philosophically mostly inelegant—attempts in recent years to bring back the “body,” the “sensual dimension,” the “presence,” the “soma,” and even the “direct touch” of human life with the surrounding world of objects, as they have characterized the past intellectual decades, all those “somato-philic” moments and movements may well have been a secondary consequence of the collapse of Historicism. Historicism had been a solution to the problem of perspectivism as it followed the emergence of second order observation. Its disappearance, then, seems to add to the centrality of the other problem that has come upon us since the late eighteenth century: we know less than ever how to mediate between our conceptual experience of the world and its sensual perception. If we have learnt anything, it is that we cannot easily bracket or even ignore the world of objects, of the referent and even of truth—which of course does not mean that any of these dimensions will ever become easily available to us again.

[1] Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Sudelbücher. Sudelbuch J (1789–1793), J/ 104.

[2] Ibid., J/ 253.

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