In defence of a humanistically oriented historiography: the nature/culture distinction at the time of the Anthropocene

In Jouni Matt-Kuukkanen (ed.), Philosophy of History: Twenty-First-Century Perspectives. Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury. pp. 216-236 (2020)
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“Do Anthropocene narratives confuse an important distinction between the natural and the historical past?” asks Giuseppina D’Oro. D’Oro defends the view that the concept of the historical past is sui generis and distinct from that of the geological past against a new, Anthropocene-inspired challenge to the possibility of a humanistically oriented historiography. She argues that the historical past is not a short segment of geological time, the time of the human species on Earth, but the past investigated from the perspective of a distinctive kind of interest, that of uncovering the norms which governed historical agents in different periods of time. The past for the Egyptologist, or for the Roman historian, is not the same past studied by the palaeontologist or the geologist, not because it is infinitesimal short in comparison to geological time, but because the questions asked by historians concerned with the Egyptian or Roman civilization are not the same kind of questions asked by empirically minded scientists. She argues that the accusation that the distinction between the historical and the natural/geological past, rests on unacceptable form of human exceptionalism is based on the conflation of the concept of the historical past with that of the human past and that keeping alive the nature/culture distinction has important implications for praxis. If the distinction between nature and culture is collapsed, and the corollary that historical agents are not distinct in kind from natural agents (such as yeast and microbes) is accepted, then “the anticipation of the future would become a mere spectator’s sport analogous to the activity of predicting the weather”: collapsing the nature culture distinction, D’Oro argues, undermines the possibility of political action against the very threat (climate change) that motivates Anthropocene narratives in the first instance.

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Giuseppina D'Oro
Keele University


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