Personal History Projects

Is the idea of 'personal history' a contradiction in terms? Well, in one meaning it is. History makes sense of the past for the collective: a locality, a family, a tribe, a nation, and a world. To talk of 'personal history' seems to be a Kantian or Hegelian mind-imposed epistemic "form" or “absolute”; that is, the view that the world is constituted entirely by a private conception.*

However, there is a meaning for 'personal history' which is far better. This approach is to take a personal perspective and place it into the wide-ranging understandings of history (a loose generalisation) and histories (what we have at hand).

The passing of my dearest life-partner, Ruth Elizabeth Buch, is my challenge to tackle the hardest of historical narratives, to say how our contemporaneous history has produced persons, albeit with some choice intact (the uncertainty of any enforced decisions).

I say the plural, 'persons', because to some degree all of us are products of another person, and it is the relationship between more than one person that creates who we are. The project called 'The History of Ruth' is an experiment in personal history, and in saying who Ruth was, it will speak about other persons; what may be described as very ordinary people (and how true is that?), and so we have a social history, a 'history from below'.

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. - John Donne (1572–1631)

ATTRIBUTION: John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, no. 17, pp. 108–9 (1959). Originally published in 1624. From http://www.bartleby.com/73/134.html

These are persons whose lives were touched and transformed by Ruth. For me as her life-partner, something of myself died with Ruth on 17 December 2017. A great part of me died. Nevertheless, it is also true that all who came to know Ruth have felt their lives diminished in her passing.

Ruth, though, is no saintly ghost haunting our minds. Ruth was a real person, and, in telling her personal history, I am telling the story of our own lives in a history of struggling middle-class families, and young people, couples and singles, of the late twentieth century, and who stepped into the unknown shores of the twentieth-first century.

We were not the marginalised of the world, and it is it important to understand the nuances between the satisfying achievements and the despair, fears for our personal and collective future. We are the forgotten middle who are the ones who commonly produce the historical narratives for the others, telling the stories of the marginalised or the elite. In all stories, the historian reflects the personal, as much as the biographer and the fictionalising story-teller.

Let ‘personal histories’ be the opportunity to run through the musical scale, from the most isolated of embodied experience to the universe of wonderment.

*I say ‘seems’. Roger Scruton explains it is not quite so:

There are grounds for thinking that Kant and his followers accepted arguments similar to Wittgenstein’s (against private conception as a matter of language). Both Kant and Hegel, for example, believed that the ‘subject’ of experience is given only through its interaction with the world of ‘objects’. There is no such realm of pure subjectivity, as Descartes had envisaged it. The subject makes sense of himself only through applying concepts; and concepts derive their sense from their primary application in the realm where there is a real distinction between applying them correctly and making a mistake (a distinction between being and seeming). Hegel added that I can have knowledge of myself only through a complex process of ‘self-realisation’, in which I become a member of an objective and interpersonal order, recognising others and conceding their rights (The famous ‘master’ and ‘slave’ argument in the Phenomenology of Spirit…). All such arguments tend towards Wittgenstein’s conclusion, that the first-person case is not the starting point of philosophy, but the by-product of reference and activity in a public realm.

These ideas of private and public arise out of Wittgenstein’s private language argument (that it is not so) and criticism of the Cartesian theory of mind. It is very relevant to whether we see history as private or public, however, a fuller explanation is for another time and place.

Roger Scruton. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. Pimlico, 2004. pp. 55-56.

Share This
Read previous post:
Interrelation of Ideas on Consciousness and Reality

Although it is not apparent from the philosophical subject matter, this essay is a plea for historians to find the...

Close