Volume 11, 1998
Johannes J. Venter
Reality as History
The Historic Turn in Western Thought
Most philosophers have noted the linguistic turn at the end of the nineteenth century. Few, if any, have noted the historical turn in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Living in a time of anxiety in which the universe and life present problems to be solved, the problem for this paper can be stated as: Why was history so imprtant until recently, and is narrative so important now? I examine the advent of irrationalism in order to provide some explanation for the substitution of story for history. Some find the origins of modern humanism in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's contention that human beings have been given the wonderfully unique ability to choose for themselves. But Pico still limited the options for humankind to provisions of the traditional hierarchical ontology of the Middle Ages. Thus, for him, the journey of humankind to itself was not a historical one, but rather the choice between a vertical descent into vegetative or brute state of being, or a mystical ascent along the hierarchy to the angelic or even divine level. But Modern thought relinquished this hierarchy in favour of a human centred teleology, framing the ontology in between nature (individuality, non-rationality) as the origin and culture (reason, the social) as its outcome. Thus the ontology became historicised from Defoe, Lessing, Rousseau, through Kant down to Marx. In irrationalism this became a mythical movement remaining within the non-rational, as in Nietzsche, and Mussolini, and finally story, as in Virginia Woolff, and films such as Dead Poets Society and A River Runs Through It, or New Age neo-romanticism.