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Semiotics and Ancient History

Date:2011-01-24 22:06Author:admin
Youzheng Li Background : This paper was read in Helsinki University in June 13, 2007 as a plenary lecture for the 9 th IASS Congress. It was introduced by Prof. Roland Posner, the honorary President of IASS. Before delivering this lecture I

Youzheng Li


This paper was read in Helsinki University in June 13, 2007 as a plenary lecture for the 9th IASS Congress. It was introduced by Prof. Roland Posner, the honorary President of IASS.

 Before delivering this lecture I express my thanks as follows.

 I am honored to become the first Chinese plenary speaker in IASS history. First, let me express my thanks for the original recommendation raised by our president Prof.Tarasti and secretary in general Prof. Paz Gago. I also like to thank Prof. Posner for his kind introduction which reminds me of a 25 years’ semiotic friendship between us.*

(* We met each other firstly at International Summer School for Structural and semiotic studies in Toronto, June, 1982. There I also had talks with many other western semioticians such as Foucault, Eco, Searle, Sebeok, Buissac, and many others) 


Two major sections of semiotic studies are semantic structures of texts and institutional mechanism of textual formation. These two are also related to the main interests of current historical theory. Historical discourse is noted with its semantic complex that requires a elaborate clarification. Institutional formation of historical discourse is also very complicated and requires a structural analysis too. Besides, similar to semiotic theory, historical theory is strongly interdisciplinary-oriented, tending to be contrary to the professional status quo of historical studies. Finally, the operative range of both semiotic theory and historical theory are related to the entire field of social and human sciences.

Regarding general semiotics there have been two main theoretical sources in our semiotic family: The scientific/philosophical and the linguistic/literary-theoretical. The present paper reminds colleagues to pay a refreshed attention to the third one: historical theory. Different from these two main theoretical modes, historical theory refers to both intellectual and social dimensions. If global semiotics literally means a cross-cultural one, the latter contains its nonwestern others at both social and historical dimensions. The nonwestern social and historical reality must broaden, deepen and multiply human knowledge of history. So the globalization of semiotic studies requires an empirically and positively more homogeneous object and operation across the world. Besides, history consisting of a series of dichotomies such as: process/structure, scientific/literary, past/future, disciplinary/interdisciplinary, western/eastern, practice/ theory, recognition/action, meaning/referent, as well as faith/reason. It provides a typical forum for the profound epistemological and ethical reflection on human knowledge and future design in terms of hermeneutic and semiotic approaches.

  1. Operative Restriction in Single Discipline and The Holistic Ideal in Interdisciplinary Epistemology

Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural studies are tended towards a scientific holism, which would be theoretically linked to all social and human sciences. General semiotics is accordingly related to the total range of academic scholarship. However, individual scientific projects are most arranged following procedures of various single disciplines. The regular semiotic projects are the operations still based on various single disciplines despite their adopting multiple methods from different sources. The so-called holist tendency of general semiotics can only be conceived and expressed at a conceptual level, indicating a strategic perspective only to concrete studies. Modern holistic-tended general semiotics furthermore shares the same range of the integrative development of entire modern social and human sciences, helping promote the semantic clarification and effective communication for the latter. The integrating tendency of these two academic practices reflects a scientific necessity for promoting the all-round communication among various elements derived from academic, cultural, historical dimensions.

The interdisciplinary and holistic tendency is also emphasized by some other academic disciplines, such as history or historical theory. Among all traditional learning, historiography is typically a mixture or a combination of its classical and modern modes. As a traditional discipline history has widely absorbed theoretical fruits from many modern social sciences, especially sociology, anthropology, archaeology and psychology, expressing even the most all-encompassing interdisciplinary tendency. Among all schools of historiography or historical theory the postwar French structural stream indicates a more remarkable ambition, particularly the highly instructive role played by the theoretical evolution of the Annales school over almost one century. As we know, it once tried to make the range of historiography equivalent to that of entire social sciences; accordingly history had been once ambitiously designed as a scholarly totality in future. The Annales school had a reason for expressing such an idealist wish when they indeed felt an epistemological necessity in their historical practice. But we also know the later change of the story that that holist ambition of the school can hardly be continued. In fact, that the Annales school selects their subject matter from the medieval European period indicates a self-contradiction in practice. As we know, even since ancient times a “universal history” had been always a common ideal of many traditional historians. That means the idea of total history should cover as wide as possible historical-geographic territories. Besides, their tendency to exclude political history is another serious self-limitation on their historical horizon. On the other hand, we should note that the ideal of total history of the Annales is especially characterized by their emphasis on a notion of methodological integration or interdisciplinary methodology. We may therefore say that the Annales school’s adventure is especially characterized by an epistemological and methodological holism, which has caused a substantial influence on the integrative development of human sciences. This tendency is further combined with French structuralism guided by the similar spirit but touching on much wider domains in culture and sciences. As a result, we see a double integration in the ideal of the postwar historical theory or historical thought with respect to both methodology and subject matters. Since then “historical theory”, or the theoretical practice in historiography and historical thought, seemed to be really overlapped with entire social and human sciences. On the other hand, however, this scientific ideal can hardly be carried out actually. The reason is similar to what we said above about general semiotics. How can we really pursue a holistic project to include many subjects and methods from many disciplines?

Here we are faced with two different aspects in our epistemological reflection: the desirability at the general theoretical level and the possibility at concrete practical level. As regards the range of subject matters, history has a reason to spread its conventional range to the truly universal extent, namely including everything of spatial and temporal existence of mankind into their practice. As a matter of a fact we can hardly carry out this integrative operation. Regarding methodological instruments applied, history has a right to be related with all relevant knowledge of social and human sciences in its projects. Both materials and tools applied for processing materials should be operated within certain historiographical procedures formed in the existing disciplines. However, not only in history but also in other interdisciplinary-directed academic practices the double integrative tactics can and must be to some extent applied in the projects designed this way. Consequently, to overcome this contradiction involved in interdisciplinary practices we should distinguish between the strategic and tactic categories in the present-day historical theory. At the ideal level this new expanded historiography should share its operative range with entire social and human sciences, while at the practical level it can only be carried out in a quite relative term. There could exist a reasonable intellectual gap between epistemological perspective and methodological design in historical theory. At the former, historical theory will share the similar holistic intellectual strategy with the humanities as well as with general semiotics in order to explore the possible theoretical consummation; while at the practical level all actual scholarly projects must be arranged to be workable through their tactic combination of all kinds of knowledge and technique concerned. Nevertheless, the distinction between the theoretical ideal and the practical workability is due to a technical reason only, namely because we still lack the sufficient objective conditions to attain this scientific idealism at the moment.

The integrative ideal of contemporary historiography has been gradually shaped since modern history. It is only in the era of modernity we can be more reasonable to conceive a conception of total history owing to the ever-advancing intellectual and methodological developments. On the other hand, however, there appears another kind of obstacles or inconvenience for us to operate with a total history for the twentieth century. In fact the so-called total history today, far from being a task for a single discipline, should cover all different sections of modern society and culture.  This new historical reality in the expanded sense is related to all professional historians. A modern historian, however, with much richer source of documents and more advanced technique available today, can only be satisfied in writing a special history about his contemporary times. He can no longer become a historian for writing a true universal history about his times. This contradiction in historiographical practice is also caused by the abovementioned tension in historiographical theory. For example, a genuine total history of the last century could amount to be a quasi-Encyclopedia about history, society and culture. How can we follow a traditional way to write a total history like this today! On the other hand, many present-day debates about historical theory are still restricted within the category of traditional historiographical works regardless of various intellectual tensions prevailing in the total historical horizon of our times. In other words, facing the new intellectual context, contemporary theoretical-historians are still focused on the traditional mode of doing history which remains the standard type of historiography as a profession and as a discipline. There exist a multiple inconsistence among tradition, reality and ideal in historical science.

  1. Epistemological Rationality and Methodological possibility

 In light of the above discussion we can see there is involves even a operative inconsistence in present-day historical theoretical debates. On one hand historians feel the epistemological necessity for a holistic goal and conceive a lot of new theoretical concepts accordingly, but on the other hand they are still engaged in their traditional disciplinary practice. In fact, with respect to many concepts in history and historiography there is much divergence between their traditional and modern modes. Regarding historiographical practice our experience in the 20th century is completely different from that in the pre-modern times with respect to both the range of materials available and the level of research technique in general. The research conditions between traditional and contemporary historiographies are radically different and therefore scholarly possibilities of the both are also greatly divergent from each other. So we cannot apply the same set of concepts to treat them as what conventional professionals are used to do. For the earlier history, especially for ancient history, we have only limited number of written texts as proper objects; while for modern or contemporary history we have almost unlimited number of objects to be used. In light of this divergence how can we coherently deal with the same concepts like truth, objectivity, representation, fiction, falsification and others with respect to those different histroriographical modes? Either about causal analysis or about axiological evaluation concerning historical events and situations, historians of modern and ancient times have much different capabilities for performing their tasks; in fact they belong to different categories of academic agents.

Here, once again, the abovementioned distinction between the epistemological and methodological levels, or between the strategic and tactic levels, should be accepted. A historiographical epistemology based on the present-day academic conditions makes contemporary historians be more capable of dealing with historical problems regarding both ancient and modern times than their ancient counterparts. Different from some postmodernist nihilist rejection of historical truth, the objectivity of a historical event can be almost fixed on principle by dint of modern scientific and technical tools. Let’s compare an elementary type of historical event with a criminal or detective case. The concept of truth related to the type of criminal cases can be generally recognized in social life. If so, the truth of historical events and social situations, despite a higher complicity, can be settled on principle as well. Similarly, for example, the same news item in the TV program can provide really limited flexibility for different reports made by different journalists from different angles, because there exist some shared external objectivity that can be positively checked. If the same cannot be said regarding checking historical events in the past, the reason is only technical by nature. First, the past cannot be reexamined positively; second earlier people had less technical means for performing such positive examinations. Among many important historical events in the last century few of them remain to be mythical or completely unknown for contemporary investigators on principle. But the actual accessibility to the related truth must depend on the related technical and political conditions available. After all, nowadays there exists not a so-called epistemological obstacle for obstructing us to get access to historical truth, as some extreme relativists let us to believe. Similarly, the same thing cannot be said about checking historical truth in the past. The reason remains to be practical rather than epistemological by nature. Most difficulties facing historians about ancient history are in fact related to a double technical obstacle: the disappearance of the past evidences and the weaker intellectual and practical means in the past for reaching historical truth.

This basic distinction of historical knowledge between modern and ancient times, in reverse, presents a positive verification for historical theory: namely there could exist a ‘historical objectivity’ in the epistemological sense on the basis of modern human knowledge and social conditions. Nevertheless, of course, this positive statement can hardly applied to the present-day studies of traditional history. Briefly, regarding historical epistemological problems we should deal with them in light of the present-day conditions of human knowledge, rather than in terms of the past historiographical works and documents. While the present-day empirical positivist methods cannot be directly applied to those past documents available today because the latter were originally created by the much modest scientific procedures as well.

  1. Epistemological Grades of Conceptual Precision and Predictive Efficiency in Human Knowledge

With respect to the definition of precision and efficiency of theoretical concepts in scientific knowledge there should be different ways and standards for their classification and measuring. Among natural, social and human sciences, the rigorousness of related concepts and measures must be differently defined, although natural sciences provide the standard models for fixing conceptual precision in different scientific systems. Regarding historical theory the same thing can be said about those basic concepts such as observation, verification, truth, objectivity, prediction etc. According to a medium layer of rigor adopted by historical theory what we said above about historiography-theoretical concepts are still taken as empirically and positively scientific; namely it adopts a relatively less rigorous definition of the used scientific concepts. Despite different grades of conceptual rigorousness adopted by different types of scientific practice, social and human sciences should be still regarded as relatively scientific by identity; namely they maintain the rational and empirical features in their operation. A relevant definition of the rationality is important for us to be able to accept a more rational rather than a less rational policy to apply our knowledge of the humanities and to organizing our practice in a more effective way, at present and in future. Strengthening our rational attitude toward applying our historical science is also related to how to improve our studies of traditional historiography. As we point out above, the weak points of the latter is not only due to its less capability of collecting and preserving documents but also, even especially, due to its much weaker capability of organizing its scientific knowledge in the past. Historical knowledge, far from being merely collecting observations and preserving memories, refers to causal analysis at the multi-dimensional level that can only be realized after the development of modern social sciences. So-called historical truth or the true picture of historical situations highly depends on the capability of historians’ intellectual operation itself. It is a pity that many modern historians mainly take traditional historical works as literary pieces or as artistic remnants for appreciation and enjoyment. But on the other hand they also tend to confuse those classics with the works finished in modern period on the basis of the seemingly same discipline historiography, accordingly relaxing scientific requirement for the both. By dealing with both traditional and modern historiography the present historians would be confused by their different operative procedures.

Therefore we are faced with a new task in doing historiography now: how to confront old documents with modern operative procedures, if the latter can hardly be used for the former in a directly positive way? Furthermore, a comparative study will also be arranged between modern historiography and traditional historical discourse. In general, there are two categories of historiography, rather than a single one: namely the modern and the traditional. They have different operative systems with respect to their conceptual precision and predictive efficiency. And the both as actual historical disciplines are different from the historiographical ideal conceived today as the interdisciplinary totality at epistemological level, which can settle the theoretical criteria for them finally. Regarding the capability of prediction of historical science we should adopt the same relative standard of rationality. After all, the present-day social and political practice for the present and the future is reasonably organized by means of empirical rationality as well. Without empirical rationality human beings can no more exist normally. If the traditional historiography had been used for the purpose of reasonable prediction, the contemporary historical science, in both narrow and wide senses, plays the same role. Human practice requires human beings to apply a more rational knowledge of their history to better their fortune. Rejecting this basic fact and the related concept truth amounts to a negation of our efforts to actively organize human life itself. Semiotic knowledge today should be of course employed to strengthen this rational intellctual potential of mankind as well. In this regard, without naively trusting in a logic of progress we human beings should still cherish the same wishes for a better life in future like what people did in the Enlightenment era.

As regards a historiographical scientificity we should also pay a sufficient attention to the special traditional status of historical science as an intellectual combination of  recognition and praxis. The latter requests a special practical reason based on our historiographical experience. So-called a historiographical reason needs a special scientific system of conceptual  tools maintaining the above medium-level scientificity that must be empirical and pragmatic enough to help human beings realize their social practices in a rational way. In this sense historical science indicates the above double character. On one hand it is part of theoretical social sciences, developing its scientific exploration as far as possible; while on the other hand, as part of the empirical science it should maintain a balance between the theoretical and practical efficiency, making use of various empirical-scientific methodology sufficiently. For the latter it can temporarily neglect the possible involvement of all advanced theoretical speculations until they become scientifically and practically more operative. For example, many speculations concerning the unconscious mechanism of social and psychological levels probably determining historical processes should be neglected during our performing our historiographical projects. A reasonable distinction between the so-called deep-historical and the super-historical processes is necessary from both theoretical and practical points of view. The confusion of these two would lead to an intellectual disorder at both scientifical and social-political aspects. For example, some mistakes committed by some leading western theoreticians during the late Sixties indicate this kind of epistemological confusion regarding their theory and practice. There should be an epistemological separation between conscious and unconscious historical rationality. Particularly regarding political practice, human beings should mainly exercise their conscious rationality in organizing their recognition and projects. Most part of historiographical works falls in this domain, hence especially the related ethical dimension in historical processes. The explicit historical operation and its implicit deep mechanism should be separated. The same can be said about the interaction between objectivity and subjectivity in historiographical operation. In a relative term the subjective part can be taken as quasi-objective because of a pragmatic reason. For empirically individuals would share the similar views and positions in a society, shaping a quasi-communal intellectual and practical constancy in a period. Interaction between history and ethics also leads to a special emphasis on the historical causality between inner-motive and external-result. In this regard psychological and sociological domains can be conceived in the same homogeneous, empirical world. In brief, the medium level scientificity of historiographical studies guided by a practical reason presuppose the existence of a quasi-objective historical society for observation and operation.

4. Classification of Historiography and Status of Ancient History

Traditional historiography, ranging from prehistory, ancient history until modern history, can be classified according to their respective chronological periods. The classification of historiography is regularly defined by its presumed corresponding historical realities. Conventionally it is supposed that different modes of historiography represent their corresponding historical processes with respect to certain aspects. Although modern historical theory rejects this naïve view of representation, traditional historiography is still classified according to the various represented periods, even if the extent of related representation is far from being complete or satisfactory. However, from a historical-semiotic point of view, we maintain that historiography should be classified more in terms of the related “productive modes” or the mechanism of doing historiography than by chronological references. In fact, historiography works are better defined by the way of making them, namely the way of collecting and processing documents. Exactly, both documents and their processing ways are made by intellectual and technical methods mastered by “historians” living in their periods. The point is that different historical periods or conditions provide different mechanisms to produce their historical discourses. Accordingly, the meaning of historical discourse is first defined by the meaning-producing mechanism itself that can set up a model for historiography production; and then the related interpretation can emerge accordingly. Of course it is not easy for us moderns to get access to the production mechanism in the past. First, the latter can hardly be traced back to their original situations, and secondly, modern people are not in position to grasp the line of transmission of historical texts and related changes. This technically-fixed gap between the present readers and the original writers creates a big obstacle for us to reach the true situation of the past historical text production. Accordingly, there is no easy way for modern historians to form their judgment of the genuineness of historical texts and the related historical truth. Therefore, so-called reconstruction of historical reality is historiographically almost impossible. This impossibility includes the following items:

  1. The original historical reality disappears forever;
  2. The original situation of producing texts disappears forever;
  3. The track of the transmission of the text can hardly be traced back;
  4. The most important, however, is that the historical conditions for producing historiography texts were obviously unsatisfactory with respect to all related steps and aspects concerning text productions.

Hence two conclusions we reach here:

  1. We can hardly grasp so-called historical reality or historical truth because of the above explanations;
  2. However, the reason is not epistemological but technical by nature.

In other words, we can appeal to two main reasons to relax our efforts for historical truth, especially that about ancient history: First, the original conditions for producing and transmitting historical texts must have been too weak to make past historians attain this scientific level; Second, the modern scientific conditions provide a much higher possibility for us to get access to historical truth about modern history, the fact of which could indicate why we should inversely relax our expectation for investigating the positive aspects of past and ancient history. However, the conclusion further proves that, to certain extent, the concept of historical truth itself is scientifically justified; however we are unable to search for it according to the historical works formed prior to modern times.

Now we have another reason to recognize that historiography is a mixture of the scientific and the literary; namely most, if not all, ancient historical works are pseudo-literary works. Because of the presumed ancient text-producing conditions the epistemological problem about reference becomes less important and even less relevant with respect to ancient historical production. Between the ancient legend and the ancient history there could have been a distinction in their creators’ mind. Ancient historians indeed intend to describe the truer, rather than the fictive, stories, that’s why story-telling developed from the myth to the history as we see in ancient times. Therefore ancient historians could indeed collect  historical documents (oral and written) from their direct and indirect experience as positive materials. We can suppose that in the historical pictures given by them there must be many true details included in their narratives. But on the whole, as the description of historical events or stories, the true pictures of historical situations request the re-presentation of sufficient enough causal connections that can hardly be provided sufficiently under ancient conditions. As a result there must be a great number of imaginative and fictive creations added to the materials to form the pseudo-causal links necessary for the establishment of any intelligible stories. The essence of historical reality or truth lies in the qualified formation of its causal networks, rather than in merely piling up factual details. Factual details without reliable causal structures have nothing to do with historical truth. For the essence of a story rests on the causal-logic lines rather than on the mere material used by the causal logic. Regarding the function of the narrative, the true origin of the used material becomes less relevant; namely the true process of author’s collection of narrative details is not relevant to the historical understanding. The way of collecting and describing observations is either directly from the personal experience or from memory or imagination, it doesn’t matter, as long as the used details can semantically function effectively in the narrative. The effective function here can mean that the used material is realistic or natural in character as what we see in real life. Realism in literary description is not logically related to the true process of its production but rather to the verisimilitude. The story should read “real-like” or just empirically intelligible. For this requirement in historiography, as we point out above, both the true observation and the similar imagination can play the equal role in the persuasive reading of narration.  Compared with the mode of mythical text the historical is more realistic because of its discourse reads more empirically intelligible, rather than because of its possibility to be verified. The more genuine part in historical narratives is more related to the organizing capability for constructing suitable or acceptable causality among events and details, without which piled-up details lose their empirically acceptable effects in textual reading. The causal network amounts to “the steel structure” of the story building that is the very essence of historical reality. In truth, ancient historical works would be taken as literary creations with certain quasi-realist elements as materials or documents. Recognizing the historical picture from ancient historical works means to find causal relationship of eventual elements; or, historical descriptions refer to that embodied in causal representation. But how can we moderns trust in the causal representation made by ancient people?

Talking about ancient Greek and Roman historiography we find those books are characterized by more direct observations or personal evidences of historians about their contemporary events, such as battle scenes in the war stories. Another more scientific feature of those works is their attention to the causal analysis of events described. But historian’s subjective intention is one thing while the quality of the result obtained is another. Without sufficient subjective and objective conditions for historical investigations and writings ancient historical discourse can hardly provide the true enough historical picture, namely lacking or weaker in their descriptions of multiple causal relationship determining the eventual processes. What is given in the text about causal analysis indicates merely a subjective intention or gesture about a scientific idea that could be still much weaker in the nonwestern ancient historiography. Let’s see a Chinese example such as The Record of History, by Si-ma Qian. This so-called first Chinese historical work by a historian firstly created a Chinese historical principle of presenting true pictures in contrast with the legendary and mythical works created in earlier times. In comparison with those ancient western works characteristic of emphasizing single stories and personal experiences, Sima gives a total history about ancient China with a multiple structural tendency, namely a long-term chronology and social hierarchic system embodied by historical figures with different official and moral privileges, in addition to documents about certain natural and social conditions. But the principle of “recording truth” can only be relatively or sketchily given. The true principle in his mind to follow truth is at most only the quasi-realist or those looking closer to the actual life. What excluded by him as unbelievable or as “untrue” are mainly those that don’t accord with experience in real life. As a matter of fact, a great number of so-called historical facts can only come from oral legends sounding believable or intelligibly acceptable at that time. Besides, some metaphysical or superstitious ideas prevailing are created or accepted to fill out the all-encompassing pictures conceived. A more serious subjective tendency in this kind of historiography is its guiding principle of political morality mixed by a quasi-religious framework that predetermines an outline of the presumed historical development. Nevertheless, a great number of personal biographies in or directly prior to his times are full of more believable details, compared with other more myth-like stories, which can at least present a  “statistic truth” or “probability truth” about the general gestures of life in a period or a historical society. The historian indicates a strong intention to record and describe historical truth according to his own standard. But, as we said above, because of technical restriction in ancient history, he can hardly create a really true historical picture merely by dint of his modest intellectual and technical capability in his times. That means we moderns can hardly obtain the scientifically reliable knowledge about true causality of that historical process, let alone the part of the earlier legendary texts about and from remote history. Instead, we may get a probably truer picture of a historical spirit and a behavioral tendency in the related historical era through those vivid stories created by the great historian who indeed holds a truer attitude towards giving historical truth on his writing.

In addition, ancient historiography can hardly provide scientifically reliable texts because of the related weaker conditions for producing historical texts. Furthermore, with much advanced capability of doing history now we moderns can also hardly make use of those past historical texts as what we can do about modern historiography; namely we can hardly carry out a positive analysis of the causal relationship of historical events and situations either. The textual documents in ancient times were not scientifically organized, that is all reason why we can hardly expect for a satisfactory historical reconstruction of   past. How can we obtain a reliable picture of the historical reality merely through those individual Greek historians’ narratives about causal relations of the military events observed and described in the texts, let alone a possible more complicated problem about the true source of those ancient historical works transmitted to us? But once again, this failure has nothing to do with any historical nihilism maintained by postmodernist theoreticians; the true reason is owing to the related technical shortcomings restricting ancient scholars.

We discuss above the similarity and dissimilarity between history and literature regarding their narrative modes and scientific operations. The status of historiography should be further defined by its multiply pragmatic function as well. Beside the expressive and recognition functions traditional historiography plays a role of stimulating and inspiring social and political actions in a more pragmatic way. On one hand, historiography is a comprehensive, synthetic knowledge about society, politics and history; on the other, differently from literary texts, it becomes the intellectual source and acting energy for social agents. If literature plays a mainly inner role for readers, history plays both psychological and social-political roles in reading historical discourse. Therefore, historiography is directly related to the past and indirectly related to future alike. Traditional historical discourse functions essentially as the intellectual source for inspiration of mind and design of action. This important function, however, has been largely decreased since the scientific era. This is also the main reason why we should distinguish between the traditional and modern historiographies regarding their different functions.

5. Ancient History vs. Modern history: A Reconsideration of a New Intellectual History 

The historiographical confrontation between ancient and modern history provides us a new epistemological insight of ancient historiography. The two kinds of historiography belong to different academic categories.  It is our experience in modern historical knowledge that makes us today better know how to judge problems about historical truth and objectivity. The present-day direct experience in knowing historical or social processes makes us believe that there exists the true picture or true knowledge about history. The human capability for knowing historical truth depends on both subjective and objective conditions for doing historiography. Therefore we infer that, from a epistemological point of view, ancient history is knowable on principle, but practically it is almost unknowable. This double conclusion leads us to inquire what is the true meaning of ancient historiography for us today? No doubt, we can positively call all historiography prior to modern times the intellectual history with their different focuses on various mental and spiritual aspects. Yes, modern sociology and anthropology provide us a lot of useful scientific models to deal with historical subject matters. But on the other hand the broken historical documents available must narrow the range of effective observations of ancient historians on historical reality. Besides, this kind of sociological-directed studies can no more reach past historical processes limitedly reflected in historical discourse. Maybe this is one of the main reasons why the Annales school cannot effectively continue to pursue their sociological-historical research goals: they lack actual sociological object for studies. Nevertheless, we may say that sociology and anthropology help us to strengthen our investigations of historical backgrounds and conditions as the stages on which historical activities can perform more fruitfully. Because they cannot deal with historical processes of the past directly, the idea to reconstruct historical pasts is faced with the same difficulty as well. On the other hand, whether original historical discourse or the modern investigations of historical pasts are the same valuable works of intellectual history in a broad sense presenting quais-genuine records of beliefs, faith, wishes, instincts, desires, knowledge and morality, namely those subjective parts of mankind in their historical life, in certain sociological-anthropological contexts. No more with a wishful anticipation for attaining objective social and political truth about ancient and remote history, we can focus in turn on the so-called “subjective truth” that remains the most significant subjects worth being explored more precisely today.

Different from many views of intellectual, mental and spiritual histories of mentality, the present approach is concerned with the appearance of faith and attitude as such without a close attention to their causal relations with various external factors. All sociological and anthropological models are used as the ways to shape the modes of effective appearance of those mental tendencies only. Among all traditional historiography, the mode of ancient history is even more important than the more primitive texts of myth and legend and than the more developed mediaeval historical discourse to our study of the historical subjectivity because of its special discursive construction. It presents a medium grade of social representations that could become more suitable for presenting the original expression of the subjective truth in its purity. Ancient historiography, rather than the previous mythical texts, expresses the truer state of original mentality of historical races and individuals. This racial or primitive national mentality or historical faith has been transmitted to later generations as the main psychological and spiritual sources in later historical development. The identity of the original historical mentality can help outline the spiritual aspect of its historical existence and development. The historical discourse of ancient history, which is less restricted either by the earlier mythical fictive type or by the later institutional-ideological restrictions, presents a more original expression of the national beliefs and mental inclinations. In light of this, the status of historical social reality is in essence different from that of the reality about a historical mentality. The history of national mental attitude has its relatively autonomous existence and continuity, being engaged in constant interaction with other historical factors. We can hardly grasp exactly the reality of that social interaction because of the lack of sufficient knowledge of the latter, but we can grasp the reality of the mentality itself appearing in its interaction with increasingly more accessible social contexts in later historiography. In other words, a hermeneutic investigation of ancient history can help us identify the archetypical mode of the national faith and attitudes after we separate our positive study of historical reality from our positive study of the related historical mentality. All the historical truth implied in ancient historical discourse can be implicitly conductive to the representation of the national mentality or original racial ideology. Here we adopt a double-directed operation for ancient historical discourse: avoidance of the positive inquiry into socio-historical reality and the hermeneutically positive inquiry into the mental reality embodied in historical discourse. The social causal reality depends on the truer description of external actions concerned that is very difficult to be realized in ancient historical discourse; while the basic mental reality can present itself directly by its verbal expression, whatever extent the latter could attain. The gap between inner reality and its verbal expression is much narrower than that between external reality and its verbal representation; namely the causal link between motive and its verbal expression can be more directly grasped than that between motive and its external projections that is involved in too much complex social and technical contexts, the observations and studies of which request much more advanced research tools. Accordingly, we can obtain an important reliable knowledge about ancient mentality per se, and on the other we can get rid of misleading explanations based on the fault or unreliable documents about causal relations that could present a misleading historical mechanism determining ancient faiths. In my point of view we should still maintain rationalism in dealing with historical theory that remains the most important branch within social and human sciences today. Thus, traditional faiths should be taken as coming from empirical sources that can be traced back historically from a positive method, as what we attempt to do here. In other words, we can more positively trace back the primitive modes of human nature and instincts through studying those earlier historiographical narratives. For the sake of getting access to the truth of historical human nature we may better first to relax our studies of the related external causal reality of ancient history, which can hardly be pursued positively today. 

Maybe we can propose that in our dichotomic conception of historiography dividing the modern and pre-modern types, the former could be more oriented to the positive-scientific dimension and the latter to the more intellectual dimension. In the former we search for more social-political objectivity to meet with our requirement for more reliable knowledge of both social and mental world, and in the latter we lay more emphasis on psychological and ethical truth embodied in historical process. In both practices the semiotic will play an active role for helping anatomy the complex semantic composition of historical discourse.

Furthermore, a historical semiotics can help make clearer the semantic composition of ancient historical discourse, separating the inner attitudinal part from the external eventual part. The narrative of stories is not taken as genuine representation of historical reality but as the channel for us to reflect the expression of primitive beliefs and intentions rooted in human nature. Accordingly, the traditional ideology such as the Chinese ‘Tao of Heaven’ or the genealogy of emperors or pseudo-logical or cosmological law presumably supporting and determining the evolution of historical stories of Chinese dynasties could be hermeneutically excluded from our investigation of ancient historical discourse. Although we cannot attain the conclusion through reading ancient discourse by means of modern methods, we can infer this according to a comparative semiotic study between modern historiography and the old ones. The modern-ancient comparative historiography and historical semiotics can cooperate with each other to realize this hermeneutic analysis of ancient historical discourse. That means, a hermeneutic interpretation of historical discourse is different from a causal explanation for the latter.

The new result about human nature and primitive faith in historical processes can be put into modern social and scientific contexts again for two purposes: first, further check their historical meaning in our more accessible contexts shaped in modern times, and second compare them with our modern corresponding experience in order to more productively define the historical faiths in the new historical situations. This is the very purpose of our empirical-positive historical knowledge. After all, one important function of history or historiography, with its attention to the past, is in essence oriented towards future. Historiography is essentially purposed for and oriented to the future. But, living in modern contexts we have to reorganize our historical experience. So first of all, we should keep a reasonable distance from traditional historical experience that is largely based on unreliable historical observations and broken causal analysis, which can be hardly used for the instruction about our future projects. We should more horizontally organize our historical knowledge in terms of modern social and human sciences, rather than based on the traditional wisdom left by old historiography, which indeed provides less reliable knowledge about historical objectivity. In this sense, our true knowledge of historical faiths and human natures derived from our longstanding historical experience can more effectively share our new endeavors for the new inquiry into social and human knowledge. Contrary to postmodernist historicism our new positive Enlightenment will be embodied by the three main intellectual systems that are horizontally organized, holistic-tended and mutual-connected: namely general semiotics, historical theory and social/human sciences. In brief, let’s distinguish two kinds of history as reality: history in narrow or regular sense and history in broad sense. For the latter “history” designates ‘human existence’ as such, namely everything about human life. In this sense its corresponding learning is the entire range of social and human sciences. Historiography in this broad sense amounts to the total domain of social and human knowledge. This expanded definition will enlarge the possibility for more clearly identifying the related historiographical concepts.

In conclusion,

Among the above triple integrating scientific endeavors semiotics plays a central organizing role in guiding and coordinating with the new historical knowledge. Historiographical epistemology is no more a mere professional concern cherished by historians only. By contrast, it is a new territory for strategic operation shared by all branches of the interdisciplinary practice of mankind.


Conclusion: new

(1) HT (Historical theory) in a broad sense can designate the theoretical thought in doing history. HT implies the following important aspects:

·  1. Total knowledge 1 (in its classical sense, namely that prior to modern sciences): stressing the wide range of object

·  2. Total knowledge 2 (that since modern sciences): indicating both the range of object and the completeness of methods or theories, with the latter as more characteristic

·  3. Combination of theory (knowledge) and practice (action) :no other learning has such a synthetic nature; involving human fortune and wisdom of behavioral choices.; hence political history (past) and political selection (future)

·  4. HT shares the same range with social-human sciences; total knowledge or total theory

·  5. HT’s emphasis will be more laid on present and future than on past. Or HT1 (mental history-literary) turns to the past while HT2 (historical science-scientific, including political history) turns to present and future. The status of history and historiography will be changed or mixed with SHS.

·  HT as the triple combination of cognition (past), inspiration (present) and design(future)

(2) SHS (social-human sciences): Therefore HT problem leads to SHS problem, involving the following aspects:

·  HT depends on or be equivalent to SHS, with the result: HT+SHS=new HT=NHT

·  NHT leads to remodel the present historical knowledge of the past, making the latter more empirical-scientific organized

·  NHT or SHS leads to remodel the present historical knowledge of the contemporary and future, namely forming a new historical perspective: the genuine total history about the present, making historical knowledge more empirical-positivist

·  NHT or SHS is conductive to the formation of new political history studies(for past, present and future) and new political history is related to the formation of political pragmatics fro future

(3) GS (new general semiotics): GS will be more organically connected with NHT and SHS, with a total result of the new scientific human knowledge

(4) HP (human practice): NHT will pay more attention to HP. HP needs more scientific methods to organize. Despite the elaborate manifestation of contemporary western theoretical modernization the obvious flaw of it rests on the structural gap between theory and practice in general. Many theories regarding human practice have proved to be irrelevant to the changeable social, political and historical reality. Social and human sciences must be orientated to the more relevant recognition and explanation of social reality. Semiotics should organize its scholarship along the same line.