Publication Date

April 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


I am grateful to Professor Spitzer for his comments on my "Viewpoints" piece "Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts" (Perspectives, November 1997). My essay was compressed from a larger version, so the exposition may not have been entirely clear. Let me therefore reiterate a fundamental point I was trying to make. My essay was not prescriptive in character. It was trying to describe something about the languages and methods of historians. I did not set out to “urge” historians to do anything. My purpose was to understand what historians do when they incorporate disparate kinds of pasts into the “empty, secular, and homogeneous” time of the chronology that underpins much historical analysis. Nor did I ever contend that there was anything like a “divine will” in history and that historical explanations should make room for it. It was not my suggestion that historians should write as Christians or believers (which is not to debar Christians and believers from writing histories).

I take history to be a discipline that operates with certain assumptions about the nature of reality and about what constitutes a secular-rational explanation. This often results in historians having to translate into their language life-worlds in which the miraculous was, or still is, an important part of key events in individual or collective lives. Medieval European histories, as Professor Spitzer seems to agree, are full of such instances as are the more recent histories of those whom we in the Subaltern Studies project have called “the subaltern classes.” My question was: What makes this translation at all possible? My answer was: Because we, modern historians, already share something of those life-worlds that we, in the usual schemes of classifications of the discipline of history, designate “medieval” or “subaltern.” This we share not as historians—no, for as historians we only have a subject-object relationship to the archives—but as human beings. I do not even think that my point is new. Wilhelm von Humboldt made the same point in his 1821 address “On the Task of the Historian,” delivered to the Berlin Academy of Sciences, in which he said:

Where two beings are separated by a total gap, no bridge of understanding extends from one to the other; in order to understand one another, they must have, in another sense, already understood each other.1

This sharing, I argued, expresses something of the ontological aspects of being human while the particular form the sharing takes is always historically specific. So-called contact histories, stories of Europeans landing—for the first time, allegedly—n the shores of the natives, are very good illustrations of what human beings assume they share as human beings across differences of time and space. For instance, when the European "stranger" in these historical narratives raises his arm and points his fingers asking the native for directions, say, to water or food, his gesture effectively assumes that another human being already knows what pointing in that manner means. In that assumption we act out our mutual recognition of each other as humans however different our histories may seem to make us. This ontological level of existence underpins the historical level. My argument in part was that gods and spirits are part of the ontological aspects of being human, that is there is something already familiar about them even when we come across "strange" versions of them in unfamiliar histories. But our usual secular language of analysis in the social sciences gives us very little scope for acknowledging this. From this position, I proceeded to make some observations about the nature of "time"—both as we have to imagine it and as I think it actually operates—in the process of writing history.

Incidentally, the statement of Patricia Limerick's that Professor Spitzer quotes is about human existence as such: we all share the fate of having to die. I do not see how it can be used against my argument. If the argument is that the Santal made a huge mistake about the nature of physical reality in claiming that British bullets could not destroy the followers of their god Thakur, then that is quite unexceptionable. But discussion since at least Evans Pritchard has made us aware that this "mistake" by itself cannot be made into a basis for discussing whether the Santal's beliefs were "rational" or not. And, in any case, my argument was more about practices—and gods and spirits as part of practices—than about consciously held beliefs.

It is obvious that my postmodernist sounding phrases—"always already," the present being noncontemporaneous with itself, etc.—were not to Professor Spitzer's liking. The writers to whom I owe the expressions Professor Spitzer does not like—Derrida, Heidegger, Gadamer, et al.—are substantial thinkers in the Western intellectual traditions. I assume that Professor Spitzer does not grudge another historian his or her freedom to read and learn from them? We are all entitled to our tastes.

— is professor of South Asian languages and civilization at the University of Chicago.


1. See Humboldt’s essay in Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, ed., The Hermeneutics Reader: Texts of the German Tradition from the Enlightenment to the Present (New York, 1985), 112.

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