Is History A Coherent Story?

Is his­tory a co­herent story? This is not the sort of ques­tion that is likely to be either asked or answered in the mi­lieu I nor­mally in­habit. In the uni­ver­sities of Europe and North America (and much of the rest of the world as well), the agenda has veered away asking such big ques­tions. Academic at­ten­tion is fo­cused on much nar­rower and more prac­tical con­cerns in a scen­ario where both teaching and re­search are more and more pre­cisely aligned to the de­mands of the market. Commercialisation is the strongest force shaping the evol­u­tion of uni­ver­sities to dev­ast­ating ef­fect. Major aca­demic dis­cip­lines, such as his­tory and philo­sophy are being in­creas­ingly mar­gin­al­ised. In some in­sti­tu­tions it has gone as far as abolition.

In those in­sti­tu­tions, where his­tory and philo­sophy sur­vive, there is not likely to be much at­ten­tion given to philo­sophy of his­tory either. History de­part­ments tend to­ward the small canvas rather than the larger one and his­tori­ography is a minority pur­suit. The in­tel­lec­tual cur­rents dom­in­ating philo­sophy de­part­ments, vari­eties of neo­pos­it­ivism and post­mod­ernism, tend to re­pu­diate big ques­tions and his­tor­ical nar­rat­ives, even that of the his­tory of philo­sophy. Postmodernism, with its pro­clam­a­tion of the end of grand nar­rat­ives, has rep­res­ented a crys­tal­lisa­tion of this tend­ency. However, the pro­hib­i­tion on over­arching his­tor­ical schemes has been a fea­ture of most other philo­soph­ical cur­rents of the past cen­tury: lo­gical pos­it­ivism, lin­guistic ana­lysis, prag­matism, ex­ist­en­tialism, phe­nomen­o­logy, poststructuralism.

Standing op­posed have been the sur­viving grand nar­rat­ives of the pre­modern era, pre­dom­in­antly those of the great world re­li­gions, such as chris­tianity and islam. There has also been the for­mid­able grand nar­rative of the modern era: marxism. These have been, not only under ex­ternal at­tack, but sub­ject to tend­en­cies eroding them from within, but they still stand and frame the con­cep­tu­al­isa­tion of his­tor­ical ex­per­i­ence for their adherents.

Nevertheless what dom­in­ates the world’s uni­ver­sities is a dis­course that is moving from querying and un­der­mining large scale his­tor­ical nar­rat­ives to pro­ceeding with an­other agenda while ig­noring them. How has this happened?

The rise and fall of grand narratives

Let me re­trace my steps. Let me tell the story of how I have re­lated to the ques­tion: Is his­tory a co­herent story? Let me un­fold a nar­rative of the rise and fall of grand narratives.

I was born into a grand nar­rative, a spec­tac­ular one. No one asked if his­tory was a co­herent a story in that world, be­cause it was simply as­sumed that it was. It was un­think­able that it wasn’t. God cre­ated the world. He made us to know, love and serve him in this world and to be happy with him in heaven. Christ died for our sins, even be­fore we had time to commit them. The Catholic Church was the re­pos­itory of ab­so­lute truth. Moreover, we lived in the USA, the greatest country in the his­tory of the world. A good cath­olic was a good amer­ican. Communism was the enemy. Communists re­jected God and demo­cracy. Communists were evil, not only in a polit­ical sense, but in a cos­mo­lo­gical sense too. They had to be de­feated. God was on our side. There was no ques­tioning, no doubt, about any of this in the world in which I grew up. No one I knew thought oth­er­wise. No one I knew raised any ques­tion about it.

Then it began to un­ravel. Critical ques­tioning began to un­der­mine it for me. For Goethe, the greatest theme of human his­tory is the con­flict of scep­ti­cism with faith. It was not only the tra­jectory of my own in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment, but, for­tu­nately for me, it co­in­cided with a surge of crit­ical ques­tioning in the wider cul­ture. One force was Vatican 2 cath­oli­cism, which had the ef­fect of re­lativ­ising what was thought to be ab­so­lute. I took this pro­cess far fur­ther than the church in­tended, with one doc­trine after an­other falling away, and then I turned to the ques­tion of the ex­ist­ence of God. I went through all the ar­gu­ments and struggled to con­tinue to be­lieve, until it was no longer pos­sible. This brought my whole world view into severe crisis.

It was not only the or­tho­doxies of the church, but the or­tho­doxies of the state too, that had to ques­tioned. Here my own ques­tioning was boosted by the rise of the new left. The civil rights move­ment at home and Vietnam war abroad set my loy­al­ties off on an­other course. A new vocab­u­lary came to our lips when we spoke of the na­tion now, words we never used when we were growing up, words not spoken in our schools: im­per­i­alism, cap­it­alism, ra­cism, sexism, patriarchy.

The whole grand nar­rative within which my life had been lived until then was shattered. What to do? At first this ex­per­i­ence was so dev­ast­ating that I was at a loss. I felt in free fall, de­prived of all tra­di­tions, devoid of all meaning. Existentialism spoke to this ali­en­a­tion, this fa­cing into the abyss, and kept me going for a time, but I needed some­thing more pos­itive, more sys­temic. I did not ac­cept the ar­gu­ments against philo­soph­ical sys­tems, against his­tor­ical schemas. I could not live my life without a pic­ture of the world in which I was living it, without being able to see my story within a larger story. I had to ask, if the world did not come to be in the way that I thought, how did it come to be? If my country was not what I thought it to be, what was it? What al­tern­at­ives to it ex­isted or could be en­vis­aged? The an­swers to these ques­tions were not im­me­di­ately evident, but thank­fully I lived in a time and place where others too were searching. I studied philo­sophy, his­tory, politics, so­ci­ology with ex­traordinary in­tensity and I par­ti­cip­ated in the great move­ments of my time with great passion.

Alternative nar­rat­ives

It was a time of great fer­ment, a time when he­ge­monic nar­rat­ives were met by counter-​narratives. I dis­covered his­tory from below. ‘Who built Thebes of the 7 gates? asked Bertholt Brecht in his great poem Questions from a worker who reads. I looked again at the his­tory we had been taught and turned it up­side down. I dis­covered the his­tory of class struggle from the ex­per­i­ence of the peas­antry and pro­let­ariat, the his­tory of pat­ri­archy from a point of view of women, the his­tory of col­on­isa­tion from per­spective of the col­on­ised, the his­tory of slavery from the po­s­i­tion of slaves, even the his­tory of thanks­giving for the in­dians and even the tur­keys. I looked at the whole his­tory of the world from the point of view of those who labored from below, as op­posed to those who ruled from above.

I needed a new world view, a frame­work for put­ting everything I saw into per­spective. I needed a new grand nar­rative, a plot within which all sub­plots fell into place. It was not enough for the story to be co­herent. It had to be cred­ible too. Once my in­her­ited story came into con­tact with al­tern­ative stories, there was a new pro­cess un­derway. It was so com­plex. Not only did one co­herent grand nar­rative have to weigh up against other co­herent grand nar­rat­ives, but the ques­tion of cri­teria of cred­ib­ility came into play. Adding to the com­plexity were the­ories that no his­tor­ical schema could be cred­ible, the­ories that his­tory was not a co­herent story, the­ories there we had come to the end of grand nar­rat­ives. It was just ‘one damned thing after an­other’ with no rhyme or reason. It was ‘a tale told by an idiot sig­ni­fying nothing’. Paradoxically, these too were grand narratives.

I could not ac­cept this. I could not live my life without a sense of the story with which I was living it. But what was the story? How did the world come to be? How had our spe­cies ap­peared on the scene? Why did human so­ci­eties trans­form them­selves from one era to the next? Were there forces of his­tory un­der­lying all dis­parate data of times, places and events? Was there a rhythm, a pat­tern, a plot or was it really just a sur­real play of par­tic­u­lars? I was searching for found­a­tions in a mi­lieu hos­tile to found­a­tion­alism. I sought the grounding for a new syn­thesis amidst mul­tiple pres­sures against the very idea of a new synthesis.

The sheer com­plexity of con­tem­porary ex­per­i­ence has pro­duced a plethora of philo­soph­ical move­ments es­chewing in no un­cer­tain terms the very idea of such a syn­thesis. I read and con­sidered all such ar­gu­ments and ar­gued vig­or­ously against their ex­po­nents, but I did as­sim­ilate whatever I be­lieved to be of value in lo­gical pos­it­ivism, lin­guistic ana­lysis, prag­matism, phe­nomen­o­logy, post­mod­ernism and re­fined my own con­cepts in the pro­cess. Nevertheless, I be­lieved that any philo­sophy lacking the thrust to­ward to­tality ul­ti­mately be­came part of the problem rather than its solu­tion. Up to a point, such philo­sophies high­lighted the com­plex­ities and dif­fi­culties in coming to terms with the in­tric­a­cies of con­tem­porary ex­per­i­ence, but beyond a cer­tain point, they ob­structed a deeper coming to terms and in­hib­ited a more daring grasp of its meaning.

Marxism as philo­sophy of history

What did im­press me was marxism. What set marxism apart from all other modes of thought was that it is a com­pre­hensive world view grounded in em­pir­ical know­ledge and socio-​historical pro­cess. History has a plot. It is a more or less co­herent story. All eco­nomic policies, polit­ical in­sti­tu­tions, legal codes, moral norms, sexual roles, aes­thetic tastes, thought pat­terns and even what passes as common sense, are products of a par­tic­ular pat­tern of socio-​historical de­vel­op­ment rooted in the trans­form­a­tion of the mode of pro­duc­tion. It is not a pre-​determined pat­tern or a closed pro­cess. Although there is a de­term­inate pat­tern of in­ter­con­nec­tions, the pre­cise shape of socio-​historical de­vel­op­ment is only dis­cern­able post factum, for his­tory is an open pro­cess, in which there is real ad­ven­ture, real risk and real sur­prise, a pro­cess in which there are no in­ev­it­able vic­tories. History is in­tel­li­gible, but not predictable.

So I had a frame­work for con­structing an al­tern­ative story. It meant asking the great ques­tions: How did the world come to be? How did the human spe­cies come to be? How did human so­ci­eties move from prim­itive form­a­tions to the ad­vanced civil­isa­tions of today? I looked to con­tem­porary sci­ence rather than sacred texts to ex­plain the ori­gins of the uni­verse, the ori­gins of spe­cies. Matter evolved into higher and more com­plex forms, even giving rise to the most pro­found con­scious­ness. Ideas were products of the socio-​historical con­di­tions in which they arose.

I had been studying the his­tory of philo­sophy, but now saw it in a new light. I saw the his­tory of ideas as in­ex­tric­ably linked to the his­tory of politics, eco­nomics, cul­ture, sci­ence, tech­no­logy, everything. I con­cep­tu­al­ised philo­sophy as a pro­cess within a nexus of in­ter­acting pro­cesses, shaped in in­tricate and com­plex ways by the mode of pro­duc­tion. Instead of seeing the his­tory of philo­sophy as un­folding out of it­self in an idealist, in­ter­n­alist pro­cess, I saw philo­sophy as a force within a com­plex field of forces. By real­ising the grounding of con­scious­ness in the ma­terial con­di­tions of ex­ist­ence, I con­cep­tu­al­ised philo­soph­ical ideas in dy­namic in­ter­ac­tion with eco­nomic struc­tures, polit­ical in­sti­tu­tions, legal codes, moral norms, cul­tural trends, sci­entific the­ories, common sense, all as products of a pat­tern of his­tor­ical de­vel­op­ment shaped by mode of pro­duc­tion. I saw his­tory as not es­sen­tially made by the de­cisions as de­sires of great men but by larger forces pulsing be­neath the de­cisions and de­sires of all players upon the stage. I saw his­tory not as an ar­bit­rary and for­tu­itous suc­ces­sion of events – un­like lib­eral plur­alism, neo­pos­it­ivism or post­mod­ernism – but as a more or less co­herent story. I re­fused the pro­hib­i­tion on grand nar­rat­ives. I res­isted the de­to­tal­ising, frag­menting, pres­sures of our times. I en­gaged in a to­tal­isng, but never fi­nally to­tal­ised, al­ways open-​ended pro­cess. I looked at the big pic­ture, at the evolving process.

When I came to marxism – and I did so not only in aca­deme but through in­volve­ment in the polit­ical left – some­thing clicked. People scoff at the idea of having a key to know­ledge, but this is how it felt. When I read works such as Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, I saw a pro­cess, a pat­tern, that opened up a path through everything. For his­tory of philo­sophy, I was most in­flu­enced by Christopher Caudwell’s Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture and George Thomson’s The First Philosophers. I was also im­pressed at how the first gen­er­a­tions of marx­ists — Marx, Engels, Lenin, Bukharin – were so steeped in the his­tory of philo­sophy and brought it to bear upon the polis. They got me looking at any ter­rain in way that fo­cuses on the shape of the so­cial order, on the whole field of forces, on the net­work of in­ter­con­nec­tions, grounded in the mode of pro­duc­tion. This has shaped everything I have written and everything I have taught.

In my books I set every dis­cus­sion of theory, every mani­fest­a­tion of cul­ture, within a socio-​historical nar­rative. For Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History I traced the pat­tern of in­ter­con­nec­tions of philo­sophy, politics and sci­ence in the his­tory of marxism, fo­cusing on de­bates both within marxism and between marxism and other in­tel­lec­tual trends of the day.

Although it was full of com­plex the­or­et­ical ar­gu­ment, I was pleased when one re­viewer said that it read like a novel and an­other even said that it read like a thriller. When I re­searched Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories and its se­quel The Continuing Story of Irish Television Drama: Tracking the Tiger, I in­ter­viewed many who were in­volved in the his­tory I was writing, who found no pat­tern in it. Looking to the wider so­ciety, I saw the pat­tern of how the fic­tional world tracked the rhythms of the fac­tual world.

In my teaching of his­tory of ideas, I struc­tured it as a nar­rative stretching from the pre-​socratics to post­mod­ernism, fol­lowing the standard his­tory of western philo­sophy in a way that was ca­non­ical in struc­ture, if not in in­ter­pret­a­tion. I stressed the em­bed­ded­ness of ideas in socio-​historical con­text. Then after sweeping from the earliest to the latest, I went back and asked ques­tions about what or who was in­cluded and what or who was ex­cluded. I raised ques­tions about ex­clu­sions of class, gender, race and place in his­tory of know­ledge. I asked them to take on the per­spective of his­tory from below, to ask about who got to be philo­sophers, about whose views of the world they ar­tic­u­lated, about the very pro­cess of the pro­duc­tion of know­ledge in re­la­tion to the so­cial di­vi­sion of la­bour, about the chal­lenges to this pro­cess rep­res­ented by lib­er­a­tion move­ments, about the back­lash against this, about the in­creasing com­modi­fic­a­tion of know­ledge, about the jug­ger­nauting com­mer­cial­isa­tion of our universities.

In the book that I am writing now, Navigating the Zeitgeist, I am thinking about the re­la­tion of auto­bi­o­graphy to his­tory. I have for a long time fused these di­men­sions in my work, as I am doing here, being more auto­bi­o­graph­ical in my the­or­et­ical writ­ings and more the­or­et­ical in my auto­bi­o­graph­ical writ­ings than is usual. I be­lieve that ideas arise from the flow of ex­per­i­ence and it is more honest to ex­plore that openly. I also think that the vivid­ness of in­di­vidual pro­cessing of so­cial ex­per­i­ence can be par­tic­u­larly il­lu­min­ating. We need to bear wit­ness to our ideas. Narratives have par­tic­ular power.

So I built up my sense of his­tory all over again and grounded my work in this pro­cess over the dec­ades, but I did so against in­creasing pres­sures. The move away from big ques­tions ac­cel­er­ated. For a time it was fierce po­lem­ical at­tack. The air was thick with it, but over time that thinned out. What has re­placed it is even more an­ni­hil­ating. No longer were there large scale con­tending paradigms in every area fa­cing off with each other with great en­ergy and pas­sion. It has just dis­sip­ated. It has been dis­con­certing, be­cause it is not as if any­thing has been re­solved. Instead people learned to live with prob­lems un­re­solved or un­ac­know­ledged or to settle for res­ol­u­tion at a less than fun­da­mental level. The con­front­a­tions of world views have given way to low level ec­lecticism. There is a nar­rowing of per­spective and a re­treat from en­gage­ment, whether through my­opia, ig­nor­ance, shal­low­ness, con­formity, fear or ca­reerism. So much of what is pro­duced now is so half-​baked. Conceptualisation is weak and con­fused. Contextualisation is thin and random. I look for con­cep­tu­al­isa­tion that is strong and lucid, for con­tex­tu­al­isa­tion that is thick and sys­temic, but that is so rare now. Theory sur­vives in a more and more de­graded form.

Intellectual frag­ment­a­tion and ad­vanced capitalism

The re­jec­tion of grand nar­rat­ives raises searching ques­tions: What is it about our times that pro­duces such in­tel­lec­tual frag­ment­a­tion? Why all these pro­nounce­ments that there are no laws, that there is no truth, that there is no meaning, that there is no pro­gress? Why are we wit­nessing what looks like the death of philo­sophy? Such is the com­plexity and frag­ment­a­tion of con­tem­porary life that it seems in­creas­ingly im­possible to unify ex­per­i­ence into a co­herent nar­rative, either on the level of psyche as bio­graphy or on the level of so­ciety as his­tory. There is some­thing in the very es­sence of the present so­cial order, which struc­tur­ally in­hibits in­teg­rated thinking, which un­der­mines the very found­a­tions of ra­tion­ality and sanity and mor­ality. There is some­thing at the very core of con­tem­porary ex­per­i­ence, which blocks ac­cess to to­tality, which keeps theory flying so far from ex­per­i­ence and keeps ex­per­i­ence groping so help­lessly in the dark. Only by breaking its bound­aries, only by pen­et­rating to the very source of the society’s inner ten­sions and per­ceiving the mech­anism gen­er­ating the frag­ment­a­tion, only by naming the system and taking it on, can the way beyond it be dis­cerned. In the con­tem­porary world system, with the forces at work being so face­less and so dis­tant and with the overall pro­cess seeming so im­pen­et­rable and out of reach, the at­tempt to un­der­stand the world and to get a grip on it has given way to various ideo­lo­gical strategies, from various forms of pre­mod­ernism to post­mod­ernism, func­tioning either to evade or to jus­tify the im­pen­et­rab­ility and dislocation.

I think the an­swer is in the nature of ad­vanced cap­it­alism. It is a paradox. Never has there been such a to­tal­ising sys­tem­at­ising force as con­tem­porary global cap­it­alism and yet never has there been such in­hib­i­tion of sys­temic thinking. The cent­ral­ising market de­centres the psyche. It or­gan­ises pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, but dis­or­gan­ises com­munity. Capitalism had need for a grand nar­rative on its way up, but in its as­cend­ancy it tends to dis­sipate at­ten­tion to its nature as a system and its tra­jectory as a story.

Conjunctures and collisions

There have been con­junc­tures in the past decade when events pro­voked erup­tions of grand nar­rat­ives again. This has been most in­ter­esting where con­flicting nar­rat­ives have been in col­li­sion and most pro­ductive where the al­tern­at­ives are ar­tic­u­lated at their best, rising above the clash of ca­ri­ca­tures, which often prevailed.

One such con­junc­ture came with the great over­turning that came in 1989 – 1991. The grand nar­rative of the con­flicting grand nar­rat­ives of the cen­tury, cap­it­alism v com­munism, col­lapsed. This came as a major chal­lenge to my whole philo­sophy of his­tory, not my re­ceived one, but my freely ad­opted one. I had come to be­lieve that his­tory was evolving, in how­ever com­plex a way, from cap­it­alism to so­cialism. To see so­ci­eties that I had studied, vis­ited, cited, de­fended in the throes of a trans­ition from so­cialism, how­ever im­per­fectly achieved, to cap­it­alism was a trauma and a chal­lenge. I came and went from west to east and talked and wrote my way through that. The res­ults were pub­lished in various news­paper art­icles and in longer treat­ises, such as ?Has the red flag fallen? and European so­cialism: a blind alley or a long and winding road? In con­trast to this was a ‘west has won’ tri­umphalism, which pre­dom­in­ated. Indeed it was this glib gloating on the right, some­times matched by glib re­sponses on the left, that filled the air, but others of us per­sisted with a more dif­fi­cult coming to terms.

At this time everyone was quoting the Francis Fukuyama text The End of History, even many who hadn’t read either the ini­tial art­icle or the sub­sequent book. Fukyama, un­like many who glibly quoted him, was not glib. By ‘the end of his­tory’ Fukuyama did not mean what post­mod­ern­ists or neo­pos­it­iv­ists meant, nor did he mean what the pro­ver­bial man- in-​the-​street meant. He did not mean that it was no longer pos­sible to tell any sort of co­herent story re­garding the broad sweep of human events. Quite the op­posite. Here was a de­fense of a philo­sophy of his­tory that flew in the face of the main cur­rents of thought of the 20th cen­tury. He in­sisted that his­tory is an in­tel­li­gible and dir­ec­tional pro­cess, that there is an un­der­lying con­necting thread pulling the most di­verse hap­pen­ings to­gether into a mean­ingful whole. Against the fashion in the so­cial sci­ences claiming that every case is dif­ferent, he main­tained that there is a common evol­u­tionary pat­tern in all so­ci­eties and that it is pro­gress to­ward lib­eral demo­cracy. He de­clared an end to any cred­ible in­tel­lec­tual de­bate about the frame­work within which events un­folded, be­cause ‘lib­eral demo­cracy’ had won. There were no al­tern­at­ives left in the field to chal­lenge it on the level of ideas: “we cannot pic­ture to ourselves a world that is es­sen­tially dif­ferent from the present one, and at the same time better”.

Interestingly, as time went on his west-​has-​won tri­umphalism, which so cap­tured the dom­inant mood of the time, has been toned down and his con­clu­sions have be­come much more tent­ative. He did not find anglo-​saxon em­pir­i­cism to be an ad­equate the­or­et­ical basis for lib­er­alism and coun­ter­posed german idealism as an al­tern­ative basis. He ac­know­ledged the con­tra­dic­tions of cap­it­alism. He ad­mitted that lib­er­alism destabil­ised com­munity, eroded so­cial dis­cip­line and un­der­mined the work ethic on which cap­it­alist pro­ductivity de­pends. In sub­sequent books, he has ex­panded on these themes, ar­tic­u­lating the con­tra­dic­tions even more sharply. Liberal demo­cracy, cap­it­alism, was not suf­fi­cient. It had to be sup­ple­mented by prelib­eral, pre­cap­it­alist moral no­tions and cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions. People had be­come too ag­gressive about their rights, too in­di­vidu­alist, too selfish. Very few of those who cited Fukyama, either ap­prov­ingly or dis­ap­prov­ingly, took on the big ques­tions: Is his­tory pos­sible? What moves it along? Where is it going?

No matter how many have with­drawn from the ter­rain of grand nar­rative and how many forces are ranged against them, philo­sophies of his­tory will not go away. They keep bub­bling up again. Ironically even those who an­nounced the end of philo­sophies of his­tory have test­i­fied in their un­in­tended way to this. Not least among all the para­dox­ical pre­ten­tions of post­mod­ernism is how even the theory of the end of master nar­rat­ives is cast in the form of a master nar­rative. Fredric Jameson has per­cept­ively char­ac­ter­ised post­mod­ernism as rep­res­enting the un­fore­seen re­turn of nar­rative as the nar­rative of the end of nar­rative, as the un­fore­seen re­turn of his­tory as pro­gnosis of the end of history.

Crisis of historicity

Jameson’s book Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism ap­peared around the same time as Fukuyama’s one. It also moved on the ter­rain of philo­sophy of his­tory, giving a spir­ited de­fense of to­tal­ising thinking in map­ping the ter­rain of the times. In the midst of a crisis of his­tor­icity, post­mod­ernism, des­pite it­self, could be seen an at­tempt to think his­tor­ic­ally in an age that has for­gotten how to think his­tor­ic­ally, to take the tem­per­ature of an age without in­stru­ments, in an age when we are no longer sure that there is a thing so co­herent as an age. It seizes upon the very un­cer­tainty of our age as its first clue, holding on to it as its Ariadne’s thread through what may turn out to be not a labyrinth, but a gulag or per­haps even a shop­ping mall. All ana­lysis of par­tic­ular events, he ar­gued, in­volves a buried or repressed theory of his­tor­ical peri­od­isa­tion. Even the ini­tial de­cision as to whether there is such a grand scheme, as to whether what one faces is chaos or con­tinuity, is based on an in­aug­ural nar­rative act that grounds the per­cep­tion and in­ter­pret­a­tion of the events to be nar­rated. He saw post­mod­ernism in terms of mode of pro­duc­tion, as the force field, as the logic of late cap­it­alism, ex­per­i­enced as schizo­phrenia, het­ero­gen­eity, ran­dom­ness, chaos, undecidability.

The irony is that un­der­lying all the rhet­oric of plur­alism and dif­fer­ence and the at­tacks on his­tory and to­tality is the fact that cap­it­alism has in­aug­ur­ated a new kind of total his­tory. There has never been such a sys­tem­at­ising and uni­fying force as late cap­it­alism. There has never been such a global and to­tal­ising space as that of the cur­rent world system. It is a system so om­ni­present as to be in­vis­ible. It is a system in which the struc­tural co-​ordinates are no longer ac­cess­ible to im­me­diate lived ex­per­i­ence and no longer ima­gin­able or con­cep­tu­al­is­able to most people. This makes it all the more dif­fi­cult, but all the more im­per­ative, to name the system and to en­gage in the pro­cess of cog­nitive map­ping. The waning of a sense of his­tory and the res­ist­ance to glob­al­ising and to­tal­ising con­cepts is a func­tion of glob­al­ising and to­tal­ising cap­it­alism. Against this, ac­cording to Jameson, a char­ac­ter­isa­tion of the system must be the basis of res­ist­ance to its blind fatal­ities. It is dia­gnost­ic­ally better to have a to­tal­ising concept than to try to make one’s way without one.

A few years later I was in­vited to a con­fer­ence in Paris to cel­eb­rate the 150th an­niversary of the Communist Manifesto. Reading the Communist Manifesto again, I was struck by the con­fid­ence with which it con­cep­tu­al­ises his­tory. It pulsates with vi­tality, vision, verve. In my con­tri­bu­tion to this con­fer­ence, I noted that the pos­itive en­ergy of this bold grand nar­rative stood in such stark con­trast to the neg­ative and jaded men­tality of our times, which con­ceives of grand nar­rat­ives only to tell us that there can be none. Such talk as there is of his­tory today, I ob­served, is more likely to be of the end of his­tory. In my paper Grand nar­rat­ives then and now: Can we still con­cep­tu­alise his­tory? I went through the three senses in which ref­er­ences to the end of his­tory fea­ture in con­tem­porary de­bates. The first is apo­ca­lyptic pre­dic­tion: that, through nuc­lear war or eco­lo­gical cata­strophe, our world will come to an ab­rupt end and so that will be the con­clu­sion of the human story. The second is post­mod­ernist pro­nounce­ment: that there is no such story to tell, nor is there any such thing as a co­herent sub­ject able to tell such a story. The third is cap­it­alist tri­umphalism: that the story has played it­self out in the sense that the plot has reached its con­clu­sion and there is no fur­ther sus­pense or striving to­ward al­tern­ative out­comes. I ad­dressed the crisis of his­tor­icity in our time in re­la­tion to these po­s­i­tions and asked what is was about our age that pro­duces them. I ex­plored the wide­spread re­jec­tion of grand nar­rat­ives, as well as the per­sisting grand nar­rat­ives, im­plicit and ex­plicit, right and left. I called for res­ist­ance to the de­to­tal­ising pres­sures of the age and re­vival of a to­tal­ising (as op­posed to to­tal­ised) philo­sophy of history.

Assuming that we manage to avert the an­ni­hil­a­tion of our spe­cies and our world, where do we stand then? Where are we in our story? Is there really a co­herent ‘we’ or a co­herent story? Can we re­solve the crisis of his­tor­icity in our times? There has con­tinued to be a drift on these ques­tions. The drift has been in the dir­ec­tion of even ar­tic­u­lating them less and less.

A rup­ture in this drift came on 11 September 2001, giving rise to the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘clash of civil­isa­tions’. It was ‘Jihad versus McWorld’. As Akbar Ahmed, a pro­fessor of is­lamic studies in the US, ob­served: ‘Postmodernism lay buried in the rubble on that fateful day’. Following 9 – 11, the public dis­course was dom­in­ated by a spec­tac­ular grand nar­rative, ac­tu­ally a grand nar­rative of clashing, mur­der­ously clashing, grand nar­rat­ives. The US pres­ident pro­nounced: ‘Either you are with us or you are with the ter­ror­ists’. On one side was an odd al­li­ance of a primarily sec­ular neo–con­ser­vatism with a fer­vent chris­tian fun­da­ment­alism, uniting in the quest for US ‘full spec­trum dom­in­ance’, bringing lib­eral ‘human rights’ im­per­i­alism along in the tide too. On the other side, mil­itant islam, gath­ering to it­self, not only right wing fun­da­ment­alism, but also im­pulses that formerly ral­lied to the left, to arab na­tion­alism and to so­cialism. However, this left many of the world’s pop­u­la­tion out­side this lineup of forces. It ex­cluded those of us em­bra­cing other grand nar­rat­ives as well as those who con­tinued to re­nounce grand nar­rat­ives. We felt ex­cluded from the dis­course and often power­less in the face of over­whelming power. Nevertheless we came out in our mil­lions on to the streets of the world in February 2003 on the eve of the at­tack on Iraq and said ‘Not in our name’. Many of us kept coming out and saying it over and over, but wars and oc­cu­pa­tion in Afghanistan and Iraq con­tinued re­gard­less of our opposition.

Another cru­cial con­junc­ture in the rise and fall of grand nar­rat­ives came in 2008 with the global eco­nomic crisis. The term ‘crisis of cap­it­alism’ kept pop­ping up in the main­stream dis­course, even in en­claves of the right and centre, not simply of the left, where you would ex­pect it. The lan­guage it­self is sig­ni­ficant, be­cause cap­it­alism as a system typ­ic­ally func­tions by not naming it­self as a system, but by seeming to be as nat­ural and in­ev­it­able as the air we breathe. Moreover, there was re­sur­gence of in­terest in marxism. Publishers re­ported a surge in sales of Das Kapital. The Times car­ried a full-​page photo of Marx on its front page saying ‘He’s back. Does the fin­an­cial crisis prove that Karl Marx was right all along?’ Massive num­bers hit on the web­site fea­turing David Harvey’s lec­tures on Capital. This per­sists, but the ca­pa­city of the system to dom­inate the dis­course by various means pre­vails: by fo­cusing on rotten apples, by mis­taking the sub­plots for the main plot, by presenting it­self as in­ev­it­able, by un­der­mining any con­sid­er­a­tion of an alternative.

2011 has give rise to a counter-​narrative to cap­it­alist he­ge­mony in the move­ment of the in­dig­nant, of the 99% v the 1%, a rough and ready form of class con­scious­ness ar­tic­u­lated, not only in ritual speech, but in oc­cupying thou­sands of global spaces. As a nar­rative, it is more co­herent as con­cep­tu­al­ising the present and in­citing res­ist­ance than in ima­gining the fu­ture, but it is opening new pos­sib­il­ities for that. There is a re­sur­gence of an­archism and marxism, as well as anarcho-​marxism, in this scen­ario. Interacting with new act­iv­ists, I found a striking lack of his­tor­ical con­scious­ness and felt it ne­ces­sary to make the point that 2011 was not year zero. Among others, how­ever, there was a sense of en­tering into an on­going story, res­ulting in a new in­terest in the his­tory of the left. I wrote my way through this ex­per­i­ence in Occupying Dublin: Considerations at the Crossroads.

Grand nar­rat­ives: op­pressive or liberating?

Looking for re­cent ref­er­ences to grand nar­rative in public dis­course, I found a blogger called Bella Gerens ar­guing that grand nar­rat­ives are pos­sible, but only in the pres­ence of wilful or im­posed ig­nor­ance and the denial of the dis­crete, in­di­vidual con­scious­ness. S/​he ar­gued: ‘The ab­sence of a grand nar­rative is a state of being to be cel­eb­rated; it is both en­er­gising and lib­er­ating, bringing as it does the know­ledge that we are not bound to a shared reality, a vision im­posed on us by others. We as in­di­viduals can create our own meaning and give our own ex­ist­ence its purpose…’

Now this would be a common po­s­i­tion among the met­ro­pol­itan in­tel­li­gentsia. I dis­agree with it, but there is a truth within it that needs to be re­cog­nised. There is no doubt that grand nar­rat­ives have been ad­opted or im­posed in ig­nor­ance. For much of the his­tory of the world, world views were in­sti­tu­tion­al­ised or­tho­doxies. There was not only no room for dis­sent, but a psy­cho­lo­gical grip that pre­cluded even con­ceiving of dis­sent. Even dec­ades past the no­torious Inquisition, in the world of my youth, it was im­possible to think or act out­side the con­ver­ging or­tho­doxies of church and state. Every event in the nar­rative of my life, in the nar­rative of the un­folding his­tory of our times, was shoe­horned into that master nar­rative. When that master nar­rative fell, the sub­or­dinate nar­rat­ives had to be re-​narrated. History had opened the space for us to do so. It is con­tested space, full of strife, con­fu­sion, com­pul­sion, but also in­tel­li­gence and hope. In the af­ter­math of 9 – 11, even if the weight of the con­flicting dom­inant nar­rat­ives was some­times smoth­ering, we did still have room for man­oeuvre to put forth our own counter-​narratives.

The ne­ces­sity of grand narratives

Those who argue that grand nar­rat­ives are op­pressive are right where these nar­rat­ives are im­posed by others and deny in­di­viduals the pos­sib­ility of cre­ating of their own meaning, their own stories. However, we are bound to a shared reality and we need to en­gage in a col­lective pro­cess of nar­rating our col­lective story. We need to enter the arena of de­bating con­flicting nar­rat­ives and at­tempting to per­suade each other to adopt an agreed story. It cannot be im­posed. It cannot be de­creed by in­sti­tu­tional au­thority. Nevertheless we do need to de­velop and de­bate nar­rat­ives of where we are in our own lives, in our so­ciety, in our world. Even those who claim not to do so ac­tu­ally do so to one ex­tent or an­other. They op­erate with working as­sump­tions, which amount to stories, about how the world came to be, about how our so­ci­eties de­veloped, about whether ex­isting re­gimes are the best we can achieve. So many the­ories are ac­tu­ally stories. Conflicting the­ories, such as idealism v ma­ter­i­alism, theism v atheism, cre­ationism v evol­u­tionism, vol­un­tarism v de­term­inism, are in es­sence con­flicting stories of how the same phe­nomena came to be.

To those who argue that there are only par­tic­ular events but no larger story, I argue that they con­stantly as­sume ele­ments of a larger story in­sofar as they make sense, in­sofar as they are co­herent and cred­ible. From there I argue that it better to do con­sciously, co­her­ently, cred­ibly. Our public dis­course is full of un­ex­amined grand nar­rat­ives. Better to opt for ex­amined ones. It is full of im­posed ones. Better to opt for freely chosen ones. The most co­herent and cred­ible nar­rat­ives are not taken off the shelf already formed. They are con­stantly being forged and re-​forged in an open-​ended, al­ways to-​be-​revised pro­cess. To me it is an es­sen­tial process.

I cannot see how it is pos­sible to go from one day to the next without a sense of the story in which my days take their shape: the story of my own life within the story of the world in my time within the story of the human spe­cies within the story of the uni­verse. Of course, my know­ledge of the de­tails of the story be­come sketchier as the circle widens and the nar­rative be­comes grander. I am not om­ni­scient. I am not an ex­pert in as­tro­physics or mo­lecular bio­logy or me­di­eval his­tory or con­tem­porary eco­nomics. Nevertheless I do have a sense of the origin of the uni­verse, the evol­u­tion of spe­cies, the trans­ition from feud­alism to cap­it­alism, the emer­ging shape of the glob­al­ised crisis-​ridden market of our time.

With such im­per­fect know­ledge as I have at any given time, I pull to­gether as much as I can know and syn­thesise it in the best way I can. The next day I may ques­tion it or re­vise it or re­fine it, but I cannot live without this pro­cess. So I get on with it and I be­lieve that many others do so as well, even if only im­pli­citly and in­co­her­ently. I would argue that it is better to do it ex­pli­citly and co­her­ently, to ar­tic­u­late cri­teria for doing it, to take re­spons­ib­ility for doing it. It is better to be con­scious of living in a grand nar­rative in the making than to be be­holden to a shoddy, half-​baked, ill-​digested one, for which its ad­her­ents re­fuse to ac­know­ledge or be accountable.

Some will shake their heads and see only plur­ality and mis­cel­laneity and dis­miss as de­lu­sions of grandeur all striving to dis­cern any un­der­lying pat­tern in what they re­gard as random chaos. Nevertheless, I per­sist, be­lieving that is better to strive for sense than to settle for nonsense.

Some quote Zhou Enlai, who, when asked what he thought of the french re­volu­tion, said that it was too soon to say. I re­ject this, al­though I do see the par­tial truth in it. The meaning of events is never fixed and our com­pre­hen­sion of the course of his­tory does deepen and ex­pand as we go on with it. But to take this too far, it will be forever too soon and we shall suc­cumb to plod­ding par­tic­u­larity and ec­centric ec­lecticism. We shall be forever too busy going some­where to have any no­tion of where we are going. I say that it is never too soon to say, even if we can say better to­morrow about today than we can say today. We have a better chance of com­pre­hending better to­morrow, if we have striven to com­pre­hend as best we can today. No book, whether a sacred text or a text­book of his­tor­ical ma­ter­i­alism, can do this for us, but many books em­bodying the wisdom of the past will give us clues as to pos­sible pat­terns of in­ter­con­nec­tion and in­cul­cate the habit of looking wider and deeper than is the fashion.

By em­bra­cing a to­tal­ising, but never fully to­tal­ised, philo­sophy of his­tory, I am able to strive for a co­herent, com­pre­hensive and cred­ible ac­count of the com­plexity of con­tem­porary ex­per­i­ence. I stress the word ‘strive’. No longer can grand nar­rat­ives be pre­scribed from above, as they have been for much of the his­tory of the world. Our stories must be forged from below. It in­volves dis­cerning the tra­jectory of his­tory as it comes, looking for a pat­tern of in­ter­con­nec­tions, where others see only random chaos, going fur­ther back into the past, reaching wider within the present and fa­cing with greater com­posure into the future.

So, for me, his­tory is a co­herent story. It is our col­lective memory, con­stantly re­vised and re­fined, con­tested and ne­go­ti­ated, messy but mean­ingful, but ut­terly es­sen­tial to our col­lective life.

Helena Sheehan is Professor Emerita at Dublin City University. Amongst her many works is Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History.

E-​mail: helena.​sheehan@​dcu.​ie
Doras: http://​doras​.dcu​.ie/​v​i​e​w​/​p​e​o​p​l​e​/​S​h​e​e​h​a​n​,​_​H​e​l​e​n​a​.​h​tml

Akbar Ahmed 2004, http://​www​.daily​times​.com​.pk/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​.​a​s​p​?​p​a​g​e​=​s​t​o​r​y​_​9​-​1​-​2​0​0​4​_​p​g​3_5

Bella Gerens 2009, http://​bel​lagerens​.com/​2​0​0​9​/​0​7​/​0​5​/​r​e​v​e​l​a​t​i​o​n​-​a​n​d​-​t​h​e​-​g​r​a​n​d​-​n​a​r​r​a​t​i​ve/

Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World (New York 1995)

Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man London (1992)

Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York)

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London 1991)

Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (New Jersey 1985, 1993)

Helena Sheehan Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories (Dublin 1987)

Helena Sheehan, The Continuing Story of Irish Television Drama: The Time of the Tiger (Dublin 2004)

Helena Sheehan Has the red flag fallen? (Dublin 1989)

Helena Sheehan, European so­cialism: a blind alley or a long and winding road (Dublin 1991)

Helena Sheehan, Grand nar­rat­ives then and now: Can we still con­cep­tu­alise his­tory? (Paris 1998)

  5 comments for “Is History A Coherent Story?

  1. 21 February 2012 at 9:39 pm


  2. Zarko Almuli
    23 February 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Thank you for this article.

    It made for un­easy reading, on the one hand be­cause of the all too fa­miliar moaning and iden­ti­fic­a­tion of lack, and on the other — as a result — the con­stant need to put into func­tioning a co­herent ‘grand nar­rative’, be it re­li­gious, ideo­lo­gical, or personal.

    It is a cruel and mean­ing­less world out there, and one be better ready to em­brace it in all its glory, oth­er­wise des­pair or worse will al­ways be one’s shadow companion..

    • 11 March 2012 at 5:42 pm

      forget shadow com­pan­ions, bud, you got des­pair seeping out of your words.

      “cruel and mean­ing­less” with a hint of “glory”- now, there’s a grand, es­sen­tial­izing nar­rative more bold and mono­lithic than any other I’ve seen. Now: ad­or­able little kit­tens, the laughter of a child, beau­tiful music, easy next-​to-​free ac­cess to in­form­a­tion on a his­tor­ic­ally un­paralelled scale at the click of a button— how do these fit in to your narrative?

  3. 11 March 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks for this great essay.

    Constructing, main­taining and con­stantly ad­apting a con­cep­tual frame­work is back-​breaking work, but vital for any un­der­standing of the world. Refusing to gen­er­alize from know­ledge and ex­per­i­ence, in as rigourous, con­sistent and fact-​hungry a manner as pos­sible (or claiming that you re­fuse to), is easy but lazy.
    Not only is it lazy, it’s ir­re­spons­ible.
    Whatever nar­rative suits the richest and most powerful people in the world will dom­inate if the best minds just re­fuse to en­gage in the de­bate, all on the grounds of an ob­jec­tion which equates his­tor­ical ma­ter­i­alism with the Spanish Inquisition.

    With the world eco­nomy crum­bling be­fore our eyes and the dom­inant voice calling for more aus­terity, against the plead­ings of ra­tion­ality and con­science, it’s ur­gent for us to start raising our voices and telling a story that makes sense and points to a better future.

  4. Chrisius Imperator Maximus Omnipotensque
    30 December 2012 at 11:05 pm

    It’s sort of telling that all the ar­gu­ments for be­lieving in a grand his­tor­ical nar­rative here are at bottom moral, rather than ad­dressing the issue of whether there are reasons to think that it ac­tu­ally ex­ists ot not.

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