Bridging the Gap between Past and Future? On Historical Parallels, Analogies, and Pre-figurations

AHA Session 323
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Volker R. Berghahn, Columbia University
Volker R. Berghahn, Columbia University

Session Abstract

This session deals with the role historical parallels, analogies, and pre-figurations play for the historian but also for political actors. The panelists address the epistemic and political problems of connecting the past, present, and future. The contributions explore the way historians express political predilections through the usage of historical parallels, role-models or “pre-figurations” (Blumenberg) and how history was and is used for strengthening the legitimacy of authority.

Since the Enlightenment, history has gradually replaced traditional believe systems as a yardstick for assessing the meaning of politics. Carl Schmitt already pointed out that diagnoses, prognoses, and historical parallels are intertwined and that they influence political decision-making and “othering” (i.e. the creation of friend and foe). Reinhart Koselleck based his theory on the connection between the space of experiences and the horizon of expectations on Schmitt’s and Gadamer’s (and maybe Rosenstock-Huessy’s) insights regarding modernity as an age of intertwining time-structures. In our secular age, transcendent eternity as source of legitimacy was replaced by historical analogies, parallels, or pre-figurations. This does not mean that there must be a “real” history, since historical examples are often created as myths or invented traditions. It is not that history dictates modern political discourse but influences how people make use of history to reach or to create their goals. Therefore, it is not a paradox that the Enlightenment and the emergence of the knowledge society are the origins both of modern historiography and political traditions. All connections between past and present have one thing in common: they pretend to reduce contingency regarding what might happen in future.

Historians sometimes overlook this and – by consequence – it is necessary to elucidate how the rhetorical strategies of political actors make use of precedents and historical parallels, as well as to deconstruct politician’s use of history in terms of legitimating their political goals or gaining charisma by choosing a kind of role-model. The panel addresses these themes from different and interdisciplinary theoretical angles, using different examples for creating historical parallels and pre-figurations in historiography and politics. Antoon de Baets concentrates on different categories and examples for making use of historical parallels in historiography. Roland Vogt illustrates the role of these parallels for political leadership. Andreas Leutzsch deals with different angles on the connection between past and future (including Schmitt’s, Blumenberg’s, Rosenstock-Huessy’s and Koselleck’s concepts).

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