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Historical Thinking Between Facts and Concepts: Fragment from Victor Neumann Intellectual Biography


By Florin Lobonț

Professor at the Department of Philosophy, West University of Timișoara

Among the contemporary historians who influenced my reflection upon history, Victor Neumann holds a very important role. Not just because of his themes and the manner in which he approaches them, but also thanks to his numerous (although not as many as I would have liked) exchanges of ideas, conducted “live” in meetings, formal and informal dialogues during more than two decades of academic collaboration. As a professor and advisor of young researchers, he trained generations of students and scientists who owe him greatly for the broadening their scientific and professional horizons. However, this is not my focus in the following pages, nor are the details of his research and reflections, consistently undertaken with great and liberated subtlety. As a laborer in some of philosophy’s subdomains, I will only refer to some of Neumann’s contributions that I consider important for the fields of historical philosophy, epistemology, political philosophy and cultural studies.
Even from his early papers, he got himself noticed on the national and international scene. Starting with Tentația lui homo europaeus (The Temptation of Homo Europaeus), a work constantly revised and enhanced, the author assumed and cultivated, without exception, a firm methodological option. That is, to reunite – in equal measure – the documentary raw material found in archives and libraries with philosophical, epistemological, critic-cultural perspectives and interpretative outlines that allow contextualizations and flexible, always open multidirectional comparisons. Neumann’s works revealed his affinity for many important thinkers, historians, philosophers and political scientists, including Fernand Braudel, Karl Popper, R.G. Collingwood, Raymond Aron, Reinhard Koselleck and Hannah Arendt.
In fact, Victor Neumann’s original contributions to the intellectual history of his geographical area of interest were developed almost simultaneously. With different emphasis on one or another, they could probably start from his reflections on modernization, especially concerning the Central and East European regions. Relying on both an impressive documentary background and profound knowledge of the modernization processes that occurred in Western Europe, he systematically analyzed and explained, both within devoted intellectual circles and in front of his students and audience at large, the mechanisms and facets of a “bottom to top” modernization. Starting with the elites, mostly intellectuals coming from or related to princely and noble environments, Neumann was concerned with the risks and vulnerabilities of some important processes, often inadequately adapted or even radically changed, in relation to their original cultural and religious spaces. From Tentația lui homo europaeus (The Temptation of Homo Europaeus) to Ideologie și fantasmagorie (Ideology and Phantasmagoria), going through Between Words and Reality. Studies on the Politics of Recognition and the Changes of Regime in Contemporary Romania and Essays on Romanian Intellectual History, through dozens of studies, chapters and articles published nationally or abroad, through countless lectures and conferences, his discourse reveals notable nuances and a sterling knowledge of the areal, cultural-linguistic and religious peculiarities of Central and South-East European regions. This enabled him to explore and comparatively explain complex realities almost unknown to great Western historians.
The interdisciplinary hindsight, projected on all the approached themes, allowed the historian to persistently follow and “untangle,” with the help of observant analysis and clear explanations, the complicated textures and directions of books, ideas and intellectuals in areas where cultural and linguistic melanges seemed impossible to understand scientifically. As he published books and studies, one of Neumann’s greatest scholarly challenges – to convince prestigious Western academics to give up the idea that Central and East Europe is a conglomerate of obscure regions with marginal importance in relation to the great phenomena and historical tendencies of early and late modernity – has been accomplished. I have no doubt that Neumann managed better than any other Romanian historian to prove the paradigmatic character of the multi- and intercultural patterns of living in such long periods in the cross-border regions of “Mitteleuropa.” He understood the confrontations, transfers and differences between the cultural-political Weltanschauungs of this part of the Continent. In fact, I would venture further and affirm that, even if considering just the aforementioned aspect (not the only one), the scientific and historiographic accomplishments place Neumann in an undisputed spot on top among the Central and East-European historians, and an important place in the international academic community.
The historian’s major contributions are noticeable not only within national and international historical research, but also in the theory and epistemology of history, in the cultural-political philosophy of Central and South-East Europe. His studies and innovation in the field of conceptual history are remarkable. Convinced by the justness of Reinart Koselleck’s hermeneutical belief, in which the conceptual structures shape the meanings of today’s historical performers, Neumann went further and analyzed the meanings existing in the minds of historians themselves. He addressed the double challenge created by the Gadamerian attempt of merging the horizons among the semantic meanings of past concepts and those that historians themselves introduce in order to organize the past through an attentive and balanced analysis of the cleavages of concept extensions, justly identified according to their own confluences and times. From these persistent efforts resulted the signaling and identification of some semantic confusions regarding very important concepts, such as tribe (kin), people, nation, center, periphery, multiculturalism, trans-culturalism, etc., all too often handled undifferentiated or unknowingly, both by ideologists and politicians, and also by many historians. For example, the research of ethno-nationalist connotations and romantic German-Prussian origin of the concept of nation in Central and South- East Europe, more semantically related to the notion of Volk than to the French civic nation, was innovated by the interdisciplinary scale of analysis and argument, and by the identification of meanings in the political-identity discourse of European states.
Similar to therapists, who disclose and acknowledge the causes of traumas representing the necessary beginning of recovery, Neumann insists on arguments based on the need for cultural-political clarification and healing, through the recovery, adapted to the present day, of that part of cosmopolitan universalism that discourages exclusivism, marginalization, inter- and intra-community hierarchies. This effort, conducted not only in scientific papers, but also in cultural media and within communities, and in front of audiences, represents an important aspect of public involvement and education by Neumann as a historian and public figure regarding the recovery of values, tolerance, multilingualism and openness towards others. He has been researching and promoting these values for decades, sometimes in hostile conditions.
Finally, and possibly the most important contribution, deeply associated with those I have already mentioned – and, in fact, perfectly complementary to them – is the theorization of the concept of identity, which is crucial to the fields of philosophy, intellectual history and political science, to name a few. The exploration and explanations of this concept are related to all the other concepts and major themes researched. They converge and reveal their full force and potential, both constructive and destructive, through their extensions and actions in the social-political, military, judicial, economic and general-attitudinal areas of the concept of collective identity. Mainly in his recent works (Conceptualizarea istoriei și limitele paradigmei naționale – The Conceptualization of History and the Limits of National Paradigm, 2015), the identity issue is presented in the form of social heterogeneities fueled by linguistic, religious and cultural pluralisms of the areas of interference, of the border and cross-border regions of Central and South-East Europe. The author knows all too well the regions of his interest.
In strictly meta-theoretical, philosophical-historical sense, Neumann tries to prevent the temptation of rendering the past “easier to handle” or “less complicated” – a temptation felt by historians in general, and by historians of ideas in particular. In presenting a past that is less complex than the present, sometimes the temptation “domesticates,” other times it caricaturizes the past. The reintroduction of an intention of contingency and complexity does not facilitate the long-term observation of trends, or the identification of the evolution of ideas, or political and economic life. However, as we can understand from the historian’s work, it makes it possible to perceive these trends more deeply, that is, the diffuse character of their borders and the possibility of coexistence of some contradictory, asynchronous or timeless trends.
As a thinker who continuously distanced himself from political agendas and who denounced the attempt of confiscating the past for their benefit, Neumann always sanctioned the tendencies of many historians to impose a unique and absolute meaning on history. He is convinced that only the multiplication of meanings regarding the sense of history and the abandonment of a caricaturized “great nation” can ensure the freedom of our historical thought. For the informed and open-minded reader, the interdisciplinary of history, philosophy, political thought, cultural studies, literature, geography and historical anthropology (and not only) of Neumann’s writings show a permanent concern for the theoretical-methodological segment. They cultivate the historical understanding (Verstehen) open to various forms of interpretation, which should be a main concern for any historian. The understanding is not a simple method associated with a single perspective, but a complex objective that requires permanent corrections, a distinctive type of knowledge that can be attained by a variety of complementary methods. An interpretation, as conclusive as it may be, remains a uniquely imagined case, a hypothesis. The rational character of such schemes does nothing more than to strengthen the considered connexions, being fueled, as Raymond Aron would say, by the fundamental equivocal contained in the reasons, pretexts and rationales of historical agents. This attitude does not make Neumann an adept of relativism, but a researcher, theoretician and meta-theoretician who cautiously distances himself from the rhetoric of Universal History and rigid objectivism of uniqueness and completeness – adversaries in historical interpretations. Refusing the validity of such categories, the historian’s task is to promote a larger spectrum of conceptual representations. The author believes this approach is fundamental for the understanding of the past. It is a manner of giving sense to history, in other words bringing its perpetual absence in a possible and never-ending present and, most importantly, finding means to comparatively subdue it to judgements in the absence of transcendental, immutable criteria constantly rejected by the author.
Such a manner of understanding reveals an intelligible or continuous unity in which the contextual angle is supplemented by Neumann with a textual one. Considered unsustainable, the modern historiographic distinction between history as past time and history as written text is replaced by a self-reflexive history (as soon as it is born) of the historical text regarded epistemologically (investigating the ways in which the historical knowledge is possible) and ontologically (as object). Such a text, in which the historian critically bows to the creation of representation and to the manner the past is represented as history, allows – by situating the historian in relation to the events from the text – the infinite alterity of the historical past per se and the center of gravity of historical writing to be the source of a permanent emptiness. This method makes the past a continuous problem of the present, not a catalogue file. Thus, from Neumann’s perspective, history remains truly a study of change and even the events considered problematic in terms of representation (by those who didn’t see that “problematic is firstly the concept of history understood as a one-way, closed, scripted development,” as the British historian Dan Stone says) maintain the force to question present conventions. In addition, through his courage to tackle less agreed upon themes and methods regarding the general historiographic landscape of Romania and regionally, Neumann draws our attention to the distortive character of our habits to categorize the authors in “schools,” “movements,” and “currents.” This results in neglecting those who do not fit easily anywhere, but who constantly contribute to the deepening of our historical understanding.
From Tentația lui homo europaeus (The Temptation of Homo Europaeus) to Conceptualizing Modernity in Multi- and Intercultural Spaces, the philosophy of undertaking investigating realities (both in text and in subtext), reveals, in an uninterrupted crescendo, the author’s convictions that the reconstruction of teleological constructs leave much to be desired. Their script-like structure transforms them into narrations with the aim of speculatively historicizing the facts (in the Hegelian or Herderian sense) by imposition of molding developments predetermined at the level of the historian’s discourse. Neumann subtly and permanently criticizes not only traditionalist historians, but also cultural historians and critics, for their stagnation at the stage of naïve positivism and because they often rely on insufficiently acknowledged philosophic assumptions that contradict their conclusions regarding the nature of culture, modernity or civilization. In these analyses, but mainly in the meta-analyses presented in Neumann’s maturity works, one can notice the argument that crucial historical questions, which are necessary for understanding modern society, must reflect factual and interpretative understanding of what is incorporated in our past and its relation to the present.
Concluding a part of those mentioned above, the subtext of reflection upon the past relates directly to Neumann’s philosophy writings, mainly on the philosophy of history. “The unfinished business” of the past with its continuous refreshment with new meanings, needs permanently renewing fields of constructive interrogation and criticism, more than dogmatic descriptions of linear continuity and closure. We have already mentioned examples of such rigidity indicated by the author among some of the key-concepts of history to which he devoted many years of careful study. Concepts like “nation” and “people” or those defining the “center” and “periphery” are enclosed by unilateral semantics, nationalist parti-pris, or by involuntary epistemological reductions owing to decontextualization and the absence of comparisons and correlations.
Aside from what Neumann already has accomplished, I know for a fact that philosophical, historic-cultural and political scientific analysis presented in works such as Ideologie și fantasmagorie (Ideology and Phantasmagoria) (2001); Key Concepts of Romanian History (2008; 2013); Peculiarities of the Translation and Adaptation of the Concept of Nation in East-Central Europe: The Hungarian and Romanian Cases in the Nineteenth Century (2012); or in his very recent study Conceptualizing Modernity in Multi- and Intercultural Spaces: The Case of Central and Eastern Europe (2017); will be extended to connected topical and conceptual areas.
The smaller-scale critical analysis of the ideas of diverse thinkers such as Vico, Michelet, Herder and Fichte to Habermas, C. Taylor and Harvey Siegel – but also numerous representatives from the Romanian, Hungarian, Serbian and Czech communities – disclose new theoretical studies on the intellectual confluences that shaped the European modernity. The studies concern themes ranging from the great emancipation projects to overthrowing scientific and epistemological paradigms of history. Along with the purely scientific importance of the analysis, the concept of collective identity has a militant dimension, too. It is exemplary for Neumann’s aspiration to open the areas and cultures of Central and East Europe (fallen in the homogeneity of ethnical and exclusivist nationalism) towards the universality, Europeanity and tolerance, distinctive to the trans- and inter-cultural cosmopolitism dreamt by the Enlightened intellectuals of early modernity.

Koselleck’s Theory of History and Its Subversive Potential



Sorin Bijan, Portrait of Reinhart Koselleck in oil, Center for Advanced Studies in History & Koselleck Library, West University of Timișoara, courtesy Sorin Bijan.

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