Paul Veyne and the Gap between Trans-Historical Ideas and Verifiable Facts

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
12 min readJun 14, 2024

Thursday 13 June 2024 is the 94th anniversary of the birth of Paul Veyne (13 June 1930–29 September 2022), who was born in Aix-en-Provence on this date in 1930.

Last week I missed the opportunity to mark the birth date of Étienne Pasquier, a sixteenth century French historian. I learned about Étienne Pasquier from Paul Veyne’s book Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?: An Essay in Constitutive Imagination. The first time I heard the title of this book I was intrigued, and I love the idea implicit in the title, which suggests that there may be different conceptions of the relationship of belief to mythology than that which prevails today.

Consider the following from chapter 2 of Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? which gives a sense of Veyne’s treatment of the Greek conception of history and myth:

“Mythological space and time were secretly different from our own. A Greek put the gods ‘in heaven,’ but he would have been astounded to see them in the sky. He would have been no less astounded if someone, using time in its literal sense, told him that Hephaestus had just remarried or that Athena had aged a great deal lately. Then he would have realized that in his own eyes mythic time had only a vague analogy with daily temporality; he would also have thought that a kind of lethargy had always kept him from recognizing this difference. The analogy between these temporal worlds disguises their hidden plurality. It is not self-evident that humanity has a past, known or unknown. One does not perceive the limit of the centuries, held in memory, any more than one perceives the line bounding the visual field. One does not see the obscure centuries stretching beyond this horizon. One simply stops seeing, and that is all. The heroic generations are found on the other side of this temporal horizon in another world. This is the mythical world in whose existence thinkers from Thucydides or Hecataeus to Pausanias or Saint Augustine will continue to believe — except that they will stop seeing it as another world and will want to reduce it to the mode of the present. They will act as if myth pertained to the same realm of belief as history.”

Veyne opened his book not with the Greeks, but with the early modern period, and a discussion of Pasquier’s Recherches de la France:

“Let us return to Estienne Pasquier, whose Recherches de la France appeared in 1560. Before publishing it, G. Huppert tells us, Pasquier circulated his manuscript among his friends, Their most frequent reproach concerned Pasquier’s habit of giving too many references to the sources he cited. This procedure, they told him, cast a ‘scholastic pall’ (‘umbre des escholes’) on the book and was unbecoming in a work of history. Was it truly necessary each time to confirm his ‘words by some ancient author’? If it was a matter of lending his account authority and credibility, time alone would see to that. After all, the works of the Ancients were not encumbered by citations, and their authority had been affirmed with time. Pasquier should let time alone sanction his book!”

We see here in the work of Pasquier the origins of the source criticism that would come to maturity in Ranke and which would come to define history as it is practised today. Veyne in this references George Huppert, the author of The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France. Huppert wrote this of Pasquier in his book:

“Some of Pasquier’s friends accepted the principle of referring to sources but advised against quoting lengthy extracts from the documents. Their argument, that this practice came close to plagiarism, did not convince Pasquier. To be sure, many of the documents he was quoting had been seen by his predecessors, but ‘seen without being seen’; that is to say, they may have seen them without understanding their significance. For this reason, Pasquier did not think it at all superfluous to quote his sources at length. Since his interpretations had nothing in common with those of the traditional annalists, people might think he was making up a new history of France. Therefore he adopted a method which consisted in ‘saying nothing of importance without proving it’ and in showing his readers the ‘sources which were at the root of his conjectures.’ He found it necessary not only to show what France had been like in ancient times, but almost to have his readers ‘touch it with their fingers’.”

The idea of touching history with our fingers speaks to the historians’ dilemma of making the past seem real to readers, but professional history, or academic history, has moved so far away from this standard that it is viewed as unspeakably vulgar to assert that there is any correspondence at all between knowledge of the world and the world itself. Veyne seems to share this view. Here is how he begins his book on Foucault:

“…does truth, or does it not, correspond to its object; does it or does it not resemble what it states, as common sense supposes? The fact is that it is hard to see how we could possibly know if it does resemble what it states, since we have no other source of information that might offer confirmation. But let that pass. For Foucault, as for Nietzsche, William James, Austin, Wittgenstein, Ian Hacking and many others, each of them with views of their own, knowledge cannot be a faithful mirror to reality. No more than Richard Rorty does Foucault believe in that mirror, or in that ‘specular’ concept of knowledge. According to him, the object, in all its materiality, cannot be separated from the formal frame works through which we come to know it, frameworks that Foucault, settling upon an ill-chosen word, calls ‘discourse.’ That, in a nutshell, says it all.”

We’ve seen an overlapping cluster of problems previously in my episode on Frank Ankersmit, though Veyne didn’t mention Ankersmit in the litany of names he offered in this passage. Ankersmit called the views to which Veyne is referring in this passage linguistic transcendentalism, which he contrasts to historical experience. While Ankersmit is critical of linguistic transcendentalism, he gives it its full due, and he shows in detail how philosophers and some historians managed to dig themselves so deeply into linguistic transcendentalism that there appears to be no way out.

Given the relevance of Ankersmit’s views to this discussion, we can’t just write this off to the excesses of French philosophy, although these excesses certainly aren’t entirely absent. The French have probably dug themselves in deeper than others. The Cartesian clarity of the Gallic mind, of which we hear so often, and which is beautifully expressed in the careful methodology of Étienne Pasquier and his history, has gone down a rabbit hole, and the fact that it hasn’t yet emerged again into the sunlight doesn’t mean that it won’t ever emerge.

This linguistic transcendentalism, this divorce of epistemology from the actual object of knowledge, practised by Foucault et al., and critiqued by Ankersmit, didn’t happen only in continental philosophy. In Anglo-American analytical philosophy a similar process played out with Wittgenstein’s reaction against his own earlier picture theory of meaning in his Tractatus. Wittgenstein’s later linguistic philosophy of his Philosophical Investigations let loose the floodgates of conventionalism in analytical philosophy. In continental philosophy it’s not so easily traceable to a single figure.

At some point, this development becomes a reductio ad abdurdum, but the all-important question then becomes at what point between the object of knowledge and its representation to consciousness do we pass from the representative to the purely conventional, in which representation has no part to play. Of course, this is an over-simplification of the problem, since here on Today in Philosophy of History I am primarily interested in history and not in epistemology, but epistemology and metaphysics certainly have their place in philosophy of history.

Last month, in May 2024, there was a conference on philosophy of history at Oslo, with the theme of the conference being Past the Post-: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism. I listened to most of the conference online. The theme of the conference was a recent collection of papers published under the title The Poverty of Anti-realism: Critical Perspectives on Postmodernist Philosophy of History. (This title was a nod to Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism.) This collection of the papers and the conference took on this very issue that I have been talking about here in relation to Veyne.

I recall that one of the speakers urged those participating to learn more general philosophy, implying that the critics of anti-realism in philosophy of history were getting too lost in the weeds of history and not keeping up their knowledge of the latest philosophical developments outside their area of special concentration. If memory serves, the speaker who make this comment was the individual who was invited to conference to defend the anti-realist position that most of the participants were attacking, so good on him for showing up to offer a countervailing view.

To be honest, I dislike the whole realism/anti-realism debate, as it seems to me poorly framed and often only tenuously related to the objects of knowledge that concern us. I think I would be inclined to give the opposite advice, and urge philosophers of history to read more history. There are things that you can learn from Gregory of Tours and Anna Comnene that you can’t learn any other way. And when we take historians with metaphysical views as diverse of Bossuet and Gibbon, or Christopher Hill and John Lukacs, the object of historical knowledge is central to this inquiry in a way that metaphysics is not.

If you’ve listened to other episodes in my Today in Philosophy of History series you’ll know that I tend more toward substantive or speculative philosophy of history, and that I talk about the work of historians as much as I talk about the work of philosophers. If you like, you could pigeon-hole me into that class of philosophers of history who point to the practicing historian as the proper norm for philosophers to follow. This isn’t my view, but I sympathize with the motivation for those who argue on behalf of the practicing historian.

Most historians are, in philosophical terms, naïve realists. They understand themselves to be giving an account of past actuality, which was as real to its participants as the days of our lives are real to us. In earlier episodes I’ve compared philosophy of history to philosophy of mathematics, and this is another point at which such a comparison is appropriate. There is an old joke among philosophers of mathematics that mathematicians are all Platonists on weekdays when they are actually working mathematicians, but they only become formalists on the weekend when they feel free to indulge their speculative fancies and hold forth on the ontology of mathematics, or the absence of any mathematical ontology. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if historians were similarly divided against themselves, so that when they are writing their historical works they are naïve realists, but, on the weekend, when they allow themselves the license for speculation, they propose varieties of linguistic transcendentalism that are not at all that far from the views that Paul Veyne was attributing to Foucault, Nietzsche, William James, J. L Austin, Wittgenstein, Ian Hacking, and Rorty.

Certainly this isn’t true of everyone. We would be justified in arguing that Foucault was as much of a working historian as he was a philosopher, and clearly there is a unity of conception in Foucault’s historical works and his philosophical works, so with Foucault we aren’t going to find a gap between the workday historian and the weekend philosopher of history. And Veyne, as we have seen, wrote a book on Foucault at least in part as a way to express his own views on history.

Veyne had started out at a protégé of Raymond Aron, but only as second string. Raymond Aron had mentored an earlier protégé who subsequently abandoned him, so Aron instead used his influence in having Veyne appointed to the Collège de France, where he was from 1975 to 1999. When Veyne failed to mention Aron in his inaugural address, Aron apparently never forgave him for the slight. Aron, who was a great philosopher of history in his own right, could have had a salutary influence on the development of Veyne’s thought, but whether this opportunity was lost due to the estrangement with Aron, or the general climate of thought in Paris is not clear. Foucault’s star was rising, and Aron’s work on philosophy of history was from decades earlier.

Later in his book on Foucault Veyne wrote:

“The point is that all phenomena are singular, every historical or sociological fact is a singularity. Foucault thinks that general, trans-historical Truths do not exist, since human facts, acts and words do not come about naturally from a cause that is their origin; nor do they faithfully reflect the object to which they refer. Over and above their misleading generality or their supposed functionality, their singularity stems from their bizarre ‘discourse.’ And that singularity of theirs in every case stems from chance developments and a complicated concatenation of the causalities at work; for the history of humanity is not upheld by reality, rationality, functionality or any dialectic: we must ‘identify the singularity of events, stripped of any uniform purposiveness’ or any functionalism… To sum up: big words cover thoughts and realities (‘discourses’ and ‘discursive practices’) that are far narrower and have quirky edges. Here is another example of the gap that separates general and trans-historical ideas, which are always false, from little facts, the truth of which can be verified.”

Really, how different is this from Windelband and Rickert arguing that history is a distinctive kind of science that involves idiographic description rather than the nomothetic generalization? Veyne does mention Rickert in a footnote to Writing History: Essay on Epistemology. Here he says, “Provisionally we can adopt the distinction made by Dilthey and Windelband.” And he goes on in his initially sympathetic exposition of the distinction to say this:

“But what individualizes events? It is not their difference of detail, their ‘matter,’ what they are in themselves, but the fact that they happen — that is, that they occur at a given moment; history would never repeat itself, even if it happened to say the same thing again. If we were interested in an event for its own sake, outside time, like a kind of trinket, we would vainly, like aesthetes of the past, take delight in what was inimitable about it.”

To this he appends a longish footnote on Rickert:

“This sort of aestheticism of the event is basically the attitude of Rickert, who against physical sciences opposed history as the knowledge of the individual. But he was thinking less of the individual as an event singularized in time than of the individual as a museum piece. According to him, a famous diamond like the Regent would he an object for history, as opposed to a piece of coal, which, if broken up, would not lose an individuality that it does not possess; the same would be true of Goethe, as opposed to the man in the street. What makes these objects into so many personalities is the value they have for us. History is related to values — that is one of the great ideas of German historicsm, as we shall see in chapter IV; it is the reply to the central question of historicism: What makes a fact ‘historic’? Rickert is thus obliged to explain why the historian does not speak only of diamonds and of men of genius: the reason would be that beside ‘primary’ historical objects, like Goethe, there would be indirectly historical objects, such as Goethe’s father.”

Clearly, Veyne displays no sympathy for Rickert, and I have to admit that I haven’t found a criticism of Rickert like this anywhere else. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’ll have to think about it.