Sublime Historical Experience
On the role and nature of historical experience
In Sublime Historical Experience, philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit takes up where the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga left off. When he saw an exhibition of paintings by Flemish Primitives in 1902, Huizinga was so overwhelmed by a sense of direct contact with the past that it prompted him to think about what really connects us with earlier times. This ‘historical experience’ inspired his great study The Waning of the Middle Ages.
However, modern science and philosophy, since becoming dominated by epistemology, have placed little value on experience. In Sublime Historical Experience the erudite Ankersmit proposes new and controversial approaches to philosophy and the writing of history.
Ankersmit passionately defends the role of experience in philosophy, pointing out that it is missing even from the work of those thinkers, such as Gadamer and Rorty, who are most attuned to it. The world is without meaning if we are not touched by what the eighteenth century called ‘the sublime’, by that aspect of life for which no words are adequate.
History will remain remote if it is limited to an objective analysis of documents. In Ankersmit’s view, the historian can only see the past as truly real when he regards himself as part of it. In wonderful cameos of such writers as Huizinga, Benjamin and Burckhardt, he shows that their work was inspired by a direct experience of the past, something described by Huizinga, if a little hesitantly, as ‘ecstatic’.
Ankersmit’s argument for ‘romantic’ history writing leads him to criticise strictly scientifically oriented historiography. Instead he is drawn to a ‘poet of history writing’ like Michelet, who explicitly brought his own historical experience to bear in depicting the French Revolution.
This is the only approach that enables historians to tell us what the past actually is, and which can provoke a sense of recognition that allows us to experience history as part of us, however far removed it is from the way we are today. Ankersmit uses his own personal historical experiences to illustrate the resulting sense of loss, as in his moving description of a painting by Francesco Guardi, in which he can actually feel the deep ennui of the ancien regime. In Sublime Historical Experience, Ankersmit sets out across a landscape full of unknowns and taboos, taking his readers on an extraordinary intellectual adventure.