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What is left out of the historical narratives which are current in any society – their silences and absences – can be just as eloquent and revealing as what is included in them. An understanding of the significance of historical taboos is inseparable from an understanding of the kind of importance attached to the recollection of one’s past.

Of course, in order to create a good narrative about one’s own national culture one has to choose. Otherwise it will not function as a narrative with historically central themes. You leave things out for different reasons, usually because they don’t seem to play any important role in the understanding of why we are what we are.

But sometimes you leave out something which seems too traumatic. You do not want to delve into it. And because it is traumatic you may not even be aware of having left something out.

These questions were explored recently in a seminar, Taboo and Recollection, organised by the University of Wales Lampeter and the Finnish Institute. The seminar brought together the British-Finnish network for philosophical, historical and literary studies.

Obligation to remember

 By David Cockburn

In two sharply contrasting papers, Keith Jenkins and Gordon Graham reflected in general terms on the importance of history. The post-modernist approach which characterises Jenkins’ work is deeply suspicious of the idea of ‘historical truth’, and suggests that our accounts of the past are a reflection of where we now stand, rather than of some situation which existed in ‘the real past’. Closely linked with this, it is often argued that the importance of history is not to be found in any intrinsic value of the past itself; rather it is to be found in the ways in which a particular account of the past may help us to cope with, and improve, our present situation.

In contrast to this, Graham argued that in the task of constructing a philosophical history or ‘grand narrative’ it is essential to avoid both a narrow empiricism which will not go beyond ‘the facts’ and too free a constructivism which permits interpretations of the past that reflect nothing but contemporary theoretical concerns. The current preoccupation with post-modernism exemplifies the errors of the latter, but contrary to the claims of many of its protagonists, actually requires a conception of objectively grounded interpretation if it is adequately to redress the confines of empiricism.

On a natural reading, the post-modernist approach will leave no room for the idea that the past may place demands on us. It will leave no room, for example, for the idea that we have an obligation to remember those who died in the major wars of this century; equally, it will, on the face of it, imply that those for whom particular portions of the past are taboo are in the grip of general confusion about the kind of importance which the past can have.

Those who find these conclusions startling, and perhaps shocking, may turn the post-modernist line of argument on its head. Thus, we might take as our starting point the idea that the past does make demands on us, and so conclude that any philosophical argument which casts doubt on the idea of a ‘real past’ -- a past of which the historian is attempting to offer an account -- must be confused.

To this, however, it will be replied that one cannot draw metaphysical conclusions -- conclusions about ‘the reality of the past’, and about the historian’s access to that past -- from certain intuitions about the importance of historical narratives.

In considering this reply it might be instructive to reflect on the extent to which the post-modernist position may itself be driven by ethical considerations: considerations, for example, concerning the objectionable way in which one social group may impose its conception of the past on another.

If, as the heat of the debate may well suggest, the opposing positions here are driven primarily by ethical considerations, reflection on these issues may lead us to questions about the relation between ethics, on the one hand, and metaphysics and epistemology, on the other, which are quite fundamental to philosophy.

David Cockburn is Lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Wales Lampeter.

Gordon Graham is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.

Keith Jenkins is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Chichester Institute of Higher Education.

See centre spread for more material from the seminar

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