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Icarus' Flight: On the Dialogue between the Historian and the Historical Actor.

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


<mark>Journal publication date</mark>03/2000
<mark>Journal</mark>Rethinking History
Issue number1
Number of pages16
Pages (from-to)21-36
<mark>Original language</mark>English


In this paper, I consider Thomas Soderquist's recent call for a biographical approach to historical narrative. He stresses in particular the need to pay greater attention to the existential struggles of our historical actors. Echoing Raphael Samuel, he argues that this will help us to move away from the hermeneutic of suspicion, which underlies the dominant sociological approach, toward a hermeneutic of edification. Ultimately, this approach will reestablish the moral purpose of historiography which has been lost in the search for objectivity. While agreeing with the ultimate goal, I argue that Soderquist's fundamentally conservative approach cannot produce edification. Following Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul De Man and Jacques Derrida, I call instead for a more reflexive approach which is conscious of the performative character of historiography. I outline this alternative by seeking to reconstruct the life of Percy Lockhart-Mummery, a renown British surgeon who wrote widely on cancer, natural history and the future of humanity. I focus in particular on the struggle to find a unifying theme which might resolve some tensions in Mummery's texts, tensions about the modern search for certain knowledge, asking where exactly lies the difficulty, with the historical actor or the historian. While the emphasis placed on performance must involve the dissolution of the reflecting self, I conclude that historical narrative can only edify if it speaks about the search for knowledge of its elusive, evanescent author.