The Subject-Object Distinction and Historical Monism (Personal Reflection)

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I have been reading through a lot of history recently, not only for my courses in religious studies but also out of personal interest, and I have discovered that few things are quite as profound and moving as reading through the beginnings of one’s own intellectual tradition. In the course of this, I have been thinking of interpreting historical reality “monistically.” I want readers to know that what I present here is very speculative and my personal ideas on these topics, and therefore very likely open to refutation and, if I am lucky, revision and further articulation.

Before we get to definitions we need to credit the rationalist philosophers Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) for introducing and illuminating the subject-object relation between the individual (consciousness) and objects (in the world) which has come to dominate much of western philosophical thought (see Kant’s notion of Transcendental Idealism). They both emphasized the mind as being a tool for constructing knowledge about the world, the self, and God. The individual subject, on Kant’s view, is the perceiver who perceives the world through sensory impressions which act upon his or her faculties to produce a representation. On Descartes’ famous use of doubt as a methodology, the mind is always front and center: one uses the mind to doubt all things, except for the existence of one’s own mind, and then uses the mind and this conviction as a foundation to construct knowledge. On these views the world consists of objects out there and the subject’s mind perceives them.

No philosopher or historian doubts the incalculable impact Descartes and Kant have had upon western intellectual tradition. But this fact alone does not mean that they were beyond critique. The German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) contended that Descartes’ method of identifying the thinking subject was fundamentally deficient because it posits the thinking person to think or perceive in isolation from other individuals. But the ideas human beings have of the world, claimed Hegel, are social. These ideas are not possessed individually but are shaped by the ideas of other human beings through thought, language, traditions, culture, and institutions. Hegel claimed Descartes was indebted to the educational institutions that provided him the conceptual and theoretical tools to reason the way he did. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was yet another theorist who critiqued Kant’s ratiocinative model because he believed it did not adequately capture the subject’s world of lived experience, particularly because, Walter argued, it limited knowledge to the finite, hence ruling out knowledge of transcendental objects (like God) outside of space and time.

Like Hegel and Benjamin, I have been trying to work with this subject-object distinction. I do not reject the rationalist distinction between the subject (me) and the object (the world I perceive). I believe there is a world “out there” (i.e. external to my cognitive faculties which produce representations of it), but I also believe, particularly from Hegel, that there is much more to this this picture than what Descartes first proposed (i.e. I am distinct from other objects in the world (because I am one such object within the world) but while, as perceiving subject, there are forces, such as the social (and possibly more forces yet unknown), that are influencing my perception of the world). I think, paradoxically (one might even argue in contradiction), that this subject-object distinction will help pave some foundations for my proposed monistic view of history.

Nonetheless, working with this subject-object distinction, I wonder about collapsing the distinction between the individual (subject) and historical reality (object). This is where definition is important. By subject I mean the individual who is living in the present and who is perceiving historical reality. By historical reality I mean objective history (i.e. events that likely occurred in space-time, and the possible experiences of human beings living in those historical contexts). Historical reality is also commonly viewed as an object, perhaps in the way many of us think historical events and peoples are distinct and separate from us (i.e. the very objective and tangible historical event of Caesar marching his army on Rome which, someone living in 21st century New York, views as distinct and separate from their lived experienced). This view I wish to challenge. Moreover, historical reality is formulated and accessible in diverse ways: through texts, archaeology, documentaries, and the academy (journals, debates, and published works). Finally, what do I mean by monism? Monism is simply interpreting reality in a unitary light with no independent parts (i.e. everything is one). Applying monism to history, I believe that historical reality and the perceiving subject are a single unit. In other words, the human being is not distinct from history but a part of it, as it is a part of her.

But why view historical reality and the subject monistically? My answer to this is because history becomes part of the perceiving subject’s consciousness. Historical reality (events and the experiences of historical peoples) do not merely recede into the past (which they do), but become part of human consciousness. They crystallize as an artifact within the subject’s psyche that is never forgotten. Why does crystallization occur? I believe it occurs because human beings are motivated by powerful moral convictions (a “moral consciousness”) which can never be fully expunged from the human experience (there are exceptions, and the psychopath would likely be one), even when acting as a detached perceiver of historical reality. As such, people, both lay and scholars alike, cannot help but read or interpret history through the moral consciousness. The professional historian, while pursuing objective historical reconstruction, operates with the ideal of neutrality and objectivity in mind (and will try to present her work and hypotheses in ways that value this approach) but she will always have the moral dimension in her consciousness while engaging in her work. So much so, in fact, that objectivity and neutrality functions as safeguards to filter moral convictions out.

I think that if one accepts this premise, namely the moral consciousness when perceiving history, and combines it with the notion of the person being her consciousness (or if the consciousness being a dominant constituent of the human), then history becomes one with the individual. In a sense then, human beings are history (i.e. it is a part of us through our moral consciousness), even if that history is perceived to be geographically and chronologically distant from the person in the present.

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