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Ruesen's Kann Gestern Besser Werden?


Kann Gestern Besser Werden? Essays zum Bedenken der Geschichte.

Ruesen, Joern. Kulturverlag Kadmos: Berlin, 2003. 160 p., €16.90, hardcover. ISBN: 3931659445.

The latest book from one of the most outstanding representatives of the theory of history in post-war Germany, Can yesterday become better? Essays for the consideration of history reconsiders and continues some of the motifs that constituted Ruesen's main preoccupations in his earlier books, like Reconstruction of the Past or For a renewed Science of History. By focusing on the writing of history as a method of historical investigation and not merely as a tool at the disposition of the historian in front of an empirically given reality, Ruesen attempts to enlarge the existential function of historiography to the point where the explanation of facts touches on the creation of these facts themselves, or as he prefers to say, bring the science of history to the point where the "understanding" consciousness melts into the "understood" object.

One should not however be tempted to see this way of depicting historiography through the lenses of Gadamer's hermeneutics, as if the writing of the past is identical with the making of the past itself, an hypothesis embraced by much of current post-modern theory of history. In opposition to this view, Ruesen does not challenge the empirical existence of the historical past as an event outside of the historian's own observation point, but argues instead for the bridging of the normative gap separating the observer from the observed. In the same measure in which the historian selects relevant values with which he turns toward the past in order to understand the motivations of its actors, so does the past pass on to us values which we introduce in academic use. Thus, Ruesen argues, the past-present-continuum makes the study of history a synthesis of meaning and experience: the historian explains the past but at the same time improves the normative relation to it. In this sense, far from being either a determined value-set or an indeterminable universe of values, the past is subject to the historian's desire of improvement. In this sense, Charlie Brown's paradoxical expectation that yesterday should become better, not so much today or tomorrow makes sense particularly for the historian.

But Ruesen does not limit his investigation of the normative past to a purely descriptive and interpretative one, in the tradition of the classical theories of history of Heinrich Rickert or Max Weber. He argues that the historian can also engage himself with the thorny ethical issues of the past through this normative identification and thus judge the past with the eye of the participant, so to speak (moving from value interpretation to value evaluation, in Weber's words). In this project, he is not alone: other historians and philosophers, such as Pierre Nora, Juergen Habermas or Jean-Marc Ferry have argued for an ethical recovery of the past by means of memory, argumentation or recognition. Ruesen's choice is nevertheless utopia, in the same manner in which Walter Benjamin employed utopia to reopen the quasi-millenarian relation of the present with the past. By assuming the unfinished gestures of the past, by glancing at broken destinies and by speaking for those whose voiced had been muted, the historian should find, in Ruesen's view, alternative manners of rendering the periodization of the past in ways which engage the present toward a better configuration of the future.

However, Ruesen's book does not explain how the normative duty of the historian can still maintain the scientific status of the discipline he represents. The evaluation of the past in view of norms represents at most a judgment with limited capacity for agreement, given the partial character of any judgment of value. On the other hand, an explanation and interpretation of the past in view of its applied norms is a historical investigation in so far as it attempts to render in a universally comprehensible manner decisions and acts with private or contingent motivations. Unfortunately, this tension remains unsolved in Ruesen's book, whose project for an existential theory of history remains intriguing but nevertheless unfinished.

Rares Piloiu