The following essay comes to us from Erik Hmiel, a Ph.D. student in intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
As a friend and admirer of Jim Livingston, and a new friend of Rivka Maizlish, reading their exchange has been a particularly exciting experience. Not only because both are exceptional thinkers, but because their exchange raises crucial questions that too many historians choose to leave unexamined. Some would say this lack of epistemological self-consciousness for which the historical profession is often mocked is of no consequence for the practice of history itself. We prefer to treat our discipline as a “craft” to be learned, rather than a mode of human experience with un-escapable metaphysical resonance, a practice that might fulfill Rivka’s “longings.” Yet I think it all the worse if we as historians are unable to engage ourselves in the questions of “why” and “to what end,” as Livingston puts it, the “assumptions that drive our discipline.” What’s at stake in that engagement is nothing less than an examination of (among other things) the fundamental question of epistemology. But why choose that question? Why not accept that we, of course, cannot know the past as it actually was, and just “get on with it,” with the hard and modest work of the historian, using her tools to frame the most honest, rational, and sound reconstruction of the past that we can?
The answer, I think, can be found in what I take Rivka to mean in exhorting us to examine conceptions of time other than those suggested by the baldly historicist view that animates so much historical thinking. But let me see if I can be clearer about what I mean here. The historicist is, in a sense, the reductionist par excellence. Everything is reducible to history, everything has a history: human beings, animals, the natural world. On this view, one cannot step outside of history; to do so would amount to the fatuous assumption that one could evade time itself. Insofar as the historicist maintains this view, she commits herself to an epistemology that informs certain assumptions about knowledge, ethics, religion, politics, and the like. And for the historian, that epistemology commits her to a certain orientation to time as such. That is, time can be contained or experienced only through its manifestation in the world of events, ideas, and practices. Yet there can be no ultimate “container,” no fundamental or transcendental conception of time itself because of its instability and unpredictability, its arbitrariness if you will. What remains for the historicist is to leave aside the question of time itself, to evade it by committing oneself to the position that the grounds of our self-understanding must ultimately be historical, and because historical, metaphysically groundless.
This was Martin Heidegger’s understanding of history and, ironically enough, it is betrayed in the methodological assumptions of many contemporary historians who would readily dismiss Heidegger’s work. Yet one might find curious the suggestion of significant common ground between a supposed irrationalist “prophet of extremity” and the rationalist reconstruction of, say, a shrewd historian of demography. One finds a sense of that common ground, however, when looking at how quickly Rivka’s suggestions of longing, her romantic pleas and talk of the soul, come to be associated with irrationalism. If we admit of finding meaning or purpose in history beyond of our reasonable drives to represent it with the most rational and acute accuracy, if we long for “presence,” the desire to transcend the caprice of time for something more, then we are forced to necessarily step outside of time itself, to confront it as the arbitrary container of our lives (past and present), and to concede our longing for something irreducible, even sacred.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche spoke of the ancient Dionysian rites, wherein activities of ecstasy and sexual pleasure culminated in the return, or re-presentation, of the sacred thing or person. Over time, these rites are re-enacted. But such reenactment leads to a return only in the form of representation: the sacred thing or person is merely an imitation. For Nietzsche, this is the birth of tragedy. As historians, intellectual or otherwise, we engage in the act of representation as a means of recovery: whatever people, events, or ideas we write about, we deem to be worthy of a place in the historical record, rescuing what would otherwise remain in individual memories. Yet being the secular historians we are, we assume that in such recovery we are not seeking the presence of the past, but merely and modestly representing it, making our contribution to historiography. Disciplinary boundaries and specialization ensure that tragedy needn’t enter into our minds as we practice history, and we ensure ourselves in our attempts to remove ourselves from our subjects to the greatest extent that we can.
Yet, as Freud suggests, representation serves the function of mourning the loss of our primary attachments. The ephemerality of time, its feeling of constant recession into moments of past-ness suggests to us our inability to truly grasp it, as though always already lost to us. Considered in this way, the work of the historian is a form of mourning the loss, the recession of the past, through representation, protesting time as such. To mourn is not necessarily to grieve, but rather to compensate, to control. We historians do this through our historical representations. If representation is akin to mourning the loss of our co-presence with the world as such against the movement of time, can we think of history as a work of mourning our fundamental remove from the past, as a longing to be in touch with it, even in acknowledging its difference from us?
It is on these terms that there needn’t be such a stark dichotomy between the presence of the past and its fundamental alterity, as Livingston suggests. As Thomas Kuhn came to lament of his work, different historical paradigms, while incommensurable, are not incomparable, and certainly not unintelligible. His emphasis on intelligibility suggests our need to relate, to be in touch with the past, in order to fulfill our need for self-understanding in the present or, as his good friend Stanley Cavell put it, self-knowledge. As historians who are dependent on our agreement in language games for the sake of intelligibility, the need for acceptance and confirmation from other historians, we necessarily, by virtue of that desire for recognition, engage in the transcendent. That is, our works of history qua representation function as a protest against time; we mourn its inevitable recession. Yet by maintaining a historicist epistemology, in reducing that impulse to merely historical circumstances without dealing with the problem of time, we lose focus of history as a human practice, as a cultural act akin to art or poetry, in which we mourn that recession. To say that “man is a historical animal” may be true enough as far as it goes. But it says nothing about temporality as such, or about language and its implication in our longings for intelligibility, from others, maybe from God. For those weary of disciplinary boundaries and increasing specialization in the historical profession, we might do well to embrace Rivka’s suggestion that historians appreciate the longings of their subjects and transcend a crude historicism, while acknowledging that the historian herself is indeed longing.
For what, that’s anyone’s guess. But I’d like to think, at least, that this is what an epistemologically self-conscious history would take into account, one that admits of historian’s implication in, and implicit or explicit desire to escape from time by paradoxically engaging it. Such self-consciousness, I think, goes far to suggest, again, the extent to which Jim and Rivka are not necessarily at odds. Jim wants us to act on the past by accepting its difference from us. Rivka wants to forge connections with the past by taking from it inspiration, nourishment for our souls. Are these two really so mutually exclusive? Can we, with Jim, find in the acceptance of the past’s difference an acknowledgment within ourselves that our focus, our epistemology in fact, cannot be exclusively historicist? Can we, likewise, find that our capacity and desire for inspiration and soul-nourishing is very much bound by history’s horizons, both in recession and procession?
Our friends in European intellectual history seem to have more to say about this than we do. Peter Gordon, for example, in writing of the infamous philosophical debate between Heidegger and the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer in Davos Switzerland in 1929, published an article in Modern Intellectual History suggesting that the debate served as an allegory of intellectual history itself. That is, Heidegger’s insistence on man’s fundamental “thrownness” in historical time and Cassirer’s Kantian insistence on the transcendental “spontaneity” of the mind represents a competing philosophical impulse within intellectual history, between historicizing ideas, reducing them completely to their time, place and circumstances, and taking those ideas as fundamentally irreducible to context because of their “transcendental” philosophical import. Gordon’s article is epistemologically self-conscious in that it allows his subject to affect his methodological presentation and approach. That is, he takes their historical debate as “usable” insofar as it constitutes a means by which we might examine more closely ourselves as intellectual historians and the assumptions that guide us. Such examinations needn’t mar the legitimacy or rationality of our historical reconstructions. But they are far more honest insofar as they reveal the extent to which the writing of history (and intellectual history) is informed by longings that both confront and transcend the historical. 
Likewise, what Pocock called the “Machiavellian Moment” in late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Florence represents that tension’s significance for the Florentine political thought that would be transmitted across the Atlantic to Madison, via the intermediary of James Harrington. Guicciardini, Giannotti, Bruni, and Savanarolla took from the political writings of Aristotle and the histories of Polybius the importance of politics as the reconciliation of historical time with Christian eschatology. The replacement of Christian time with linear time involved both a preservation and annulment of the transcendent, which came with the development of historical self-consciousness. Such was the unique dimension of Florentine political thought that proved so crucial to conceiving the maintenance of the Republic. As Pocock put it, “To attempt the erection of a civic way of life upon epistemological foundations which allow the recognition only of universal order and particular traditions is to be hampered by certain limitations. It can be argued that the history of Florentine political thought is the history of a striking but partial emancipation from these limitations.”  The emancipation entailed a shift away from thinking about government in Hierarchical and monarchical terms, and toward to Republican ideas, which involved a fundamental shift in the view of time. In the former scheme, time was conceived as eternal. The succession of historic events was viewed as existing within this scheme, but not of its dimension. Thus, history was in but not of this world, as Livingston has grown so fond of saying. The shift toward Republican ideas, and with it historical self-consciousness, entailed a partial break from this view of time. Time came to be viewed as a succession of fundamentally discrete events from which citizens could learn from. Weathering the storm of fortuna (which was later replaced by “commerce”) with the transcendent conception of virtu came to be the key balancing act that was so central to Florentine political thought; reconciling the universal (which transcends time) with the particular (historical self-consciousness) came to be central to the Republican tradition. 
If we want, then, a usable past that might serve political functions, such a reconciliation must be taken into account. And what that tension and reconciliation suggests is something the intellectual historian must deal with, in an epistemologically self-conscious way. That is, the key to understanding the concept of a usable past, specifically past ideas, comes not from attempts to envision a seamless connection between past and present, nor from an obstinate barrier between lessons of the past and the vision of future, but from an acknowledgment from the historian that her historical representations are, in a sense, a-historical—they are longings from within time to stand outside of it.
 Peter Eli Gordon, “Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger at Davos, 1929-An Allegory of Intellectual History” Modern Intellectual History 1 No. 2 (2004): 219-248
 J.G.A Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Floerentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 50.
 Ibid., 55-80.