This jellyfish can sting

Jonathan Rée

Despite his exotic name, Felipe Fernández-Armesto is an upper-class Englishman of the kind who seem to float on a cloud of contentment, perpetually entertained by the oafish antics of the rest of us down below. His press release describes him as ‘a member of the Modern History Faculty of Oxford University’ and Millennium, his blockbuster on the history of the world, as a ‘highly acclaimed’ bestseller, while translations of his monographs and reference books are ‘pending in twenty languages’. But he is not just a historian. He is also something of a philosopher, and his publishers have now given him the chance to address the world in a format that other authors only dream of: a brief and opinionated essay, with a smart design but a popular price, on the epistemological ills of modern civilisation. I shall not try to conceal my feelings: reader, I envy him.

The title of this venture into mass-market philosophising will remind punters of the much-bought A Brief History of Time. Both titles have a tone of guileless sincerity on first hearing. But their simplicity turns out to be deceptive and, on second take, to reveal a shimmer of paradox. How can you pursue the history of time, given that time itself is presupposed as the framework and medium of history? And how can you describe the history of truth, given that you would need to know what truth is before you could even begin to sniff out its various historical embodiments?

It would seem that a history of truth, constantly turning round on itself and trying to provide a historical explanation of why its own version of events should be accepted as the true one, is bound to degenerate into a tedious game of tail-chasing. Before Fernández-Armesto there were no more than two or three intellectual adventurers who embarked on this formidable task in full consciousness of the dangers. Hegel, at the optimistic start of the 19th century, tried to paint a portrait of the human spirit looking back – autobiographically, so to speak – on the experiences of discovery and disappointment through which it had attained its current vantage, poised on the threshold of Absolute Knowledge. And more recently there was Heidegger who, in a kind of reversed-out recapitulation of Hegel, tried to get away from the notion of ‘spirit’ by providing his anguished times with a history of Being as such – a kind of biography which would show how Being has always coyly concealed its essence from us, especially at those moments when we thought it was finally surrendering to the power of our inquiring minds.

Faint-hearted thinkers might quail at the thought of setting off in the wake of Heidegger and Hegel. Fernández-Armesto, however – the author of a respected book on Columbus – is nothing if not bold. Indeed, he manages to overlook the existence of his forerunners, claiming that his own attempt on the history of truth is altogether ‘unprecedented’. But if he belittles the achievements of Hegel and Heidegger, he cannot be accused of plagiarising their insights. Philosophically speaking, he is the model of an 18th-century eclectic, his conceptual repertoire quite untouched – or untainted, as he might prefer to say – by any of the great revolutions in philosophical inquiry that have occurred in the past two hundred years. Where Hegel makes our heads spin with his symphonic portrayals of the shifting configurations of a self-propelling dialectic, and Heidegger dizzies us with his hermeneutic shuttle between different origins of existence, Fernández-Armesto keeps us firmly on familiar ground, regaling us with curious anecdotes, and reassuring us with simple philosophical checklists and chronologies. In place of a reflexive epistemological argument he offers us a simple inventory of the various ‘means of truth recognition’ which he thinks have been employed, in various combinations, at different junctures in the history of humanity.

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