Restoring Cultural History: Beyond Gombrich

Claude N. Pavur

CLIO 20:2 (1991) 157-167

Re-issued here with permission. All rights reserved.

Comment and Notes


Paedagogica Index



Interdisciplinary ventures have often arisen to compensate for the problems of fragmentation in humanistic education. The classical foundations of traditional humanistic practice implied a cultural-historical framework with a quasi-organic unity. Now we are most suspicious of using any single cultural history as an organizing curricular principle. And yet cultural history remains one of the most promising remedies for the affliction of curricular fragmentation, for it is essentially "a subfield of history that attempts to achieve an integrated treatment of human activity — literary, aesthetic, intellectual, and so on, as well as political, social, and economic — through the study of social forms, symbols, metaphors, styles, modes of thought." [ 1 ] To address the problematic status of this essentially integrative and comprehensive approach, I intend to challenge the thesis of E. H. Gombrich's important 1967 address, "In Search of Cultural History," because it undermines cultural-historical practice with currently popular half-truths. I hope to arrive at some basic principles of culture and consciousness (neglected by Gombrich) that must condition and even help to constitute a revived practice of cultural history.

Gombrich argues that "Hegelian holism" is a long-standing trap in cultural studies. It speciously postulates a "center" to which all the manifestations of a culture are related like the spokes of a wheel, [ 2 ] and its method is a process of exegesis that leads the cultural historian to discover how each cultural phenomenon reveals the same spirit, the Hegelian Geist (24-25): "The assumption is always that some essential structural similarity must be detected which permits the interpreter to subsume the various aspects of a culture under one formula" (32). Gombrich showed how even the resolutely anti-theoretical Jacob Burckhardt seems to have relied on such a type of holism. Gombrich urges that we bury this implausible idealism and distinguish between periods, which need not be unifiable in any such manner, and movements, whose "syndromes" can be described, but without the implication that changing styles suggest profound psychological changes in humanity (35-38). We will best study either "individuals and the situation they found themselves in" or "traditions passed on by hosts of anonymous people" (43). Above all, our concern will be "with the individual and particular rather than with that study of structures and patterns which is rarely free of Hegelian holism" (46).




Some consider Gombrich's argument persuasive, [ 3 ] but Gombrich seems manifestly and self-contradictorily guilty of "Hegelian holism" himself because he characterizes the entire history of cultural history in terms of a single (flawed) principle (namely, "Hegelian holism"). Thus even anti-theoretical writers like Burckhardt and others are ringed around this hub. No one from this tradition escapes this tragic flaw: Gombrich's essential thesis is that "we are in search [of cultural history] because Kulturgeschichte has been built, knowingly and unknowingly, on Hegelian foundations which have crumbled" (6). If Gombrich allows for the discovery of determinative principles in the tradition of cultural history, why not in the case of cultures, which can be understood as complexes of traditions? The idealist holism that Gombrich attacks is really a straw man. The very use of the word culture implies some sort of potentially expressible unity. It need not imply the solar, all-pervasive centrality of a single trait. The very quotation that allows Gombrich to shackle that straw man to Hegel ends with a sentence, which Gombrich ignores, that indicates Hegel's empirical concern, very much against Gombrich's charge of a priorism: "These particular individual qualities must be understood as deriving from that general peculiarity, the particular principle of a nation. Conversely it is from the factual details present in history that the general character of this peculiarity has to be derived." [ 4 ] Hegel himself attacked the a priorism common in his day, and he was concerned with empirical validation of the metaphysical principle at which he had arrived. [ 5 ]

Indeed this passage evokes the idea of a hermeneutic alternation between the general and the particular like that which none other than Clifford Geertz (no holistic systematizer himself), following Dilthey, has suggested as the best way for us to understand other cultures. This hermeneutical circling

is as central to ethnographic interpretation as it is to literary, historical, philological, psychoanalytic, or biblical interpretation, or for that matter to the informal annotation of everyday experience we call common sense ... [An ethnographer who deals with meanings and symbols] moves back and forth between asking himself, "What is the general form of [a people's] life?" and "What exactly are the vehicles in which that form is embodied? [ 6 ]

Can we or should we be satisfied with the study of the individual and the particular? Gombrich himself seems to suggest the opposite when he writes

Not that we should reproach Burckhardt for having built his picture of the period around a "preconceived idea." Without such an idea history could never be written at all. The infinite array of documents and monuments which the past has bequeathed to us cannot be grasped without some principle of relevance, some theory which brings order into the atomic facts as the magnet creates a configuration out of inert iron filings. (24, my emphasis)

Since theories and principles are absolutely necessary, by Gombrich's own admission, what is needed is not their eradication but their proper use.

Gombrich encourages a special emphasis on sensing and insight, the drawing of meaningful connections in a way that might remind one of Benjamin's and Adorno's predilection for "constellations of meaning" that come and go, with "the whole" being considered the false. But we can give sensate and intellective functions their due without neglecting other equally fundamental ones. It is difficult to justify either a suppression of thinking that would clarify and affirm the larger intelligibilities or an overriding of the valuing (feeling) function that would judge the relative importances of the various patterns. [ 7 ] Ideal types, for example, have a solid intellectual history, long practical use, and obvious heuristic utility. Even science needs models that are simplifications, and sometimes misleading ones at that.

Some reputable anthropologists have suggested an eminently reasonable way to approach the unity of culture. A. L. Kroeber, dealing with the most rigorous of all holists, Oswald Spengler, carefully concluded, after an incisive critique: "Whole-cultural style as a coherence of pervasive qualities, then, is never total, never suddenly arrived at. It is never primary or unitary, always achieved and cumulative — like the ethos of a society or character in a person. It seems formulable, though hard to formulate. If it is elusive, it is also of notable and continued interest." [ 8 ] And Louis Dumont, while eschewing an evolutionist view of culture, has written recently of modern Germany to show

that cultures are in some way like living beings. They have a unity of their own, they tend to persevere in their being, and their relationship to their environment is vital. The case clearly shows, moreover, that these properties of a culture have their roots in the collective identity of a people, the living human beings who, generation after generation, find it expressed in their culture and, above all, in its system of ideas and values. [ 9 ]

These examples, using the metaphor of conscious personal existence rather than that of hub and spokes, tend to reawaken us to the possibility of looking beyond the particular and the individual. They do seem to suggest the transindividual, collective subjectivity involved in the creation and maintenance of a culture. [ 10 ]

Gombrich justifiably does not want to let theory carry us away from a certain rootedness and concreteness, but why protest against something that needs revision rather than abandonment, indeed that seems impossible to abandon completely by Gombrich's own admission? Perhaps we must be sensitive to the rhetorical nature of his argument as an attempt to counteract derivative "Hegelian" excesses.




After holism, Gombrich finds a second target in Progressivism. For, though Hegel does admit (and even extensively uses) contradictory movements that disallow a simple line of development, his work nevertheless does evoke in many the idea of "inevitable" progress. In Gombrich's view, the critical element needed for the emergence of cultural history was "the belief in progress, which alone could unify the history of mankind" (4). [ 11 ] His suspicion of the idea of cultures as movements seems to be related to his distrust of the "Hegelian" idea of the progress of the spirit (35-36). Perhaps this idea, even more than holism, is the ultimate opponent against which Gombrich writes, for he is actually quite in favor of searching for connections: "The study of culture is largely the study of continuities, and it is this sense of continuity rather than of uncritical acceptance we hope to impart to our students. We want them to acquire a habit of mind that looks for these continuities not only within the confines of their special field, but in all the manifestations of culture that surround them" (48-49; my emphasis).

Gombrich's salutary prejudice against progressivism does not guarantee the validity of his argument against integrated cultural history any more than his prejudice against holism does. If it is true that we necessarily understand human existence in narrative fashion, how can we escape the pressure toward some "master narrative" for which post-modernity seems to have no public place, [ 12 ] even if that narrative turns out to be, for some, the description of a life in which nothing of ultimate significance happens? [ 13 ] Given the necessity of a narrative predisposition of human consciousness like that for which Collingwood argued in The Idea of History, [ 14 ] we will naturally tend to perceive determinative, "resonating" moments, and we will find a helpful orientation and corporate self-understanding through cultural-historical formulations of these. It is important in this connection to distinguish between the necessity of a culture's progress, which at root merely suggests "stepping forward" and can involve regression and collapse, and progressivism, which connotes development. Narratives do not have to be success-stories. One can deny that things are on the whole developing (i.e., reaching a fullness) while maintaining that some conception of potentially narratable "progress" from one temporal point to another is unavoidable, especially since time is essentially characterized by irreversibility. How can Gombrich himself escape the self-referential problem in banning larger narrative structures? Gombrich not only gives us a "holistic" account of what cultural history is but, in an abstract way, also tells us its story (from Hegel through a host of successive crypto-Hegelian cultural historians and theorists: Burckhardt, Wolfflin, Marx, Lamprecht, Dilthey, Riegl, Dvorak, Panofsky, Huizinga). He directs us to the next act in the drama of the "search for cultural history." And of course, he hopes and he tries to assure that things will get better.




I am suggesting that what lies behind the two objects of Gombrich's critique, "idealist holism" and "historicist progressivism," — granting that these are admittedly unsatisfactory positions in themselves and worthy of criticism — are constitutive dimensions of human consciousness that are necessarily present in cultural history. The better path would be to admit these apparently a priori temporal-spatial-formal dynamics of human consciousness, which are bound to show up in our accounts somehow, no matter how firmly we want to deny them. We can hardly dispose of our temporal and cognitive constitution, our need for narrative and formal intelligibility, to counter the deficiencies of certain theories. The most we can do is to suppress or to try to alter creatively our symbolizations of these tendencies. I further suggest that the need for narrative and formal intelligibility, though it can be intentionally (though never completely) frustrated, as in the fragmentational aesthetic of collage or ''stream-of-consciousness" narrative, and though it certainly does not exhaust the dynamics of our consciousness, is accompanied by a natural movement of being impelled and drawn beyond particular momentary entwinements of meaning — wonderful as these experiences may be for their own sake. This is in part what Lonergan calls the notion of being, the drive to ask questions for reflection and judgment, and what Voegelin calls the tension of existence, which Eugene Webb glosses as "a radical love of the true and the good." [ 15 ]

Gombrich seems caught in his own "counterposition." He affirms implicitly what he explicitly denies; in fact he ignores the implications of the operative constitutive features of his own consciousness. The foundations of cultural history are deeper than Hegel's thought, and they have not crumbled. He himself stands on them. His quest for cultural history will end more happily with his deeper "self-discovery." Our human consciousness, as we experience it, is drawn to wholeness, spatially (or "phenomenally") and temporally. We tend to integrate data, to perceive and understand things as wholes, to contextualize — in short, to operate holistically. Some such "holism" cannot be absent from cultural analysis, therefore; but holism does not exclude a keen awareness of the individual and the particular. (We cannot perceive individuality without implying that it is some kind of whole for us.)




Not only is the holism a matter of our own imposition on the data; it also derives from holistic principles at work within cultures and cultures' subjects themselves. Berger and Luckmann's account proposes that cultures are not unified at the level of institutions but at the level of legitimation. [ 16 ] Now cultural phenomena can, to a significant degree, be read as legitimizing media. They not only constitute the status quo but they also support it by redundant association (flag and money have national governmental reference; so does baseball's opening anthem) and also by replicating or reflecting in some fashion the dominant current values (the Interstate highway system as a cultural artifact testifies to our concern with commerce, mobility, communication). It is reasonable to assume that such phenomena are "adapted and selected for survival," as it were, in terms of culture-promoting or culture-cohering potential. The paideutic circle (by which term I designate the process whereby subjects and culture form each other) assures a certain continuity or coherence between the various historical moments and phenomena: the tastes that judge what will remain will themselves have been formed by what has been judged worthy of remaining. (I do not discount the compensatory dynamic that makes dialectical reactions also part of the picture; but such movements are united by opposition. [ 17 ])

Thus we can posit that the individual phenomena of a culture should hang together because legitimizing elements unify by definition: their function is integrative. Thus holism of cultural elements is part of the given, not arbitrarily constructed from without through idealistic imposition, but created from within through universal idealistic psychic and cultural dynamics. The core factor I would describe, as Dumont does, as the "system of ideas and values." As far as cultural analysis goes, then, it appears most reasonable to hold that primary cultural phenomena provide access to the key ideas and values that inform the culture as a whole, and that the unification of cultural phenomena in terms of key principles is therefore not only a distinct possibility but something that we might expect to a greater or lesser degree.




Gombrich's most valuable contribution to holistic cultural theory is found in his essays on art and art history. It is the suggestion that cultural phenomena are not consciously constructed and interpreted out of an interplay with the "world" or "reality," or even out of more or less conscious "interests," but rather always also out of a tradition and out of the previous cultural phenomena that have come to define the norms for various genres. As Alfred Neumeyer points out:

It is not so much "reality" which creates images but images create images. Indeed, it is this specific chain of reinterpreted images which produces the history of the arts. These pictorial formulae are — so to say — memory-guided responses to intellectual and aesthetic situations. Such responses are not created by a Kunstwollen (intent of art) but by an interaction of conscious and subconscious pictorial traditions which are modified by an individual psyche (in itself a complexity of inheritance and spontaneity), a social situation and a historical position. [ 18 ]

That is, one of the things art is about is always art; and the same reflexivity holds for other areas like literature and philosophy. This factor points us inevitably toward holism in culture, since replication and imitation are necessarily unifying.

James Elkins provides some parallel corroboration for my position in a recent essay that focuses more specifically on the place of theory and empiricism/positivism in art history, and on the question of the falsifiability of "Hegelian" theories:

Without positivism, the "Hegelian" structures would remain coherent but would appear baseless or arbitrary; but without "Hegelianism," art history would be an antiquarian catalog, a list with an unnamed purpose. Positivism chooses its facts according to criteria provided by stylistic analysis and related "Hegelian" survivals. And because such theories are the determining concepts in art history, an excision of "Hegelianism" would produce a radically novel discipline. [ 19 ]

This alternation between data and thought is reminiscent of Geertz's "hermeneutical circling," discussed above. My argument has placed this issue not so much in the context of special disciplinary concerns as in that of fundamental operative patterns of human consciousness.

Because Gombrich fails to appreciate clearly these essential operations, it should be no surprise that recent cultural historians — against Gombrich — still rely on phenomenal and temporal holisms that might be called "Hegelian" in Gombrich's sense of the term. For example, Michel Foucault and Timothy Reiss have spoken in terms of "ages" or "periods" with their key characteristic principles ("dominant modes of discourse," "panopticism"). They still use holistic terminology ("epistemai," "cultural archive"). [ 20 ] And this holism is even more radical than Hegel's since it covers everyday material culture (culture as a generalized public process) as well as the "higher cultural phenomena" (culture as an inwardly self-formative process) with which Hegel was preoccupied. [ 21 ] There is, to be sure, a real advance in the growing awareness of the material dynamics of culture and of the "aleatory" or chance quality of changes. I believe that these recent cultural historians are raising what might be called the "primary processes" of history to consciousness and making us more aware of the "empirical residue" that does not so easily appear in the typical cultural history.




The historicist stream of inevitable historical progress is clearly an illusion — but on the other hand there is absolutely no reason to think that larger, critically acceptable stories cannot be told in given cases, or that there cannot be progress of a defined nature within the course of human existence. As Louis Mink has said, "There are differences of scale in the construction of historical narratives, and no upper limit can be established a priori." [ 22 ] A larger story — in many versions — can be told of the development of Western culture and consciousness, and should be, for reasons alluded to at the beginning of this essay. The distortions of positing an inevitable advance through time and of positing expressive cultural integrity via a single simple character or trait do not negate the value of narrative and formal holism.

Countering Gombrich's position on cultural history is important because its anti-holistic spirit undermines our educational confidence in our salutary and much-needed abilities to grasp and represent meaningful wholes. Without integrative practices, cultural history must dissolve since it relies on the heuristic technique of drawing boundaries and positing ideal types of cultural totalities. The ideal types employed need not be adequate to the complete, concrete, unique empirical reality, though neither should they be considered arbitrarily constructed phantasms. Without carefully developed cultural history, a reasoned, self-critical, informed, and pluralistically sensitive corporate affiliation will be difficult to achieve. In default of such a practice, the sense of fragmentation could become, ironically, the dominant feature of our society.





Comment and Notes


This essay has been made available here because its topic has become a matter of lively professional concern. The vigorous reflection pursued by some members of the American Philological Association after Dr. James O'Donnell's Presidential Address of 2004 leads me to hope that these thoughts will amplify the argument about "master-narratives" and the future of classical humanistic education. The implications for professional self-concept, and for curricular rationale, structure, coherence, and delivery are far-ranging and worthy of extensive review. I thank Dr. Lynette Felber of Clio for the permission to reproduce the essay here. Only very slight editorial corrections have been introduced for the web-version.



1. Harry Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History (Westport: Greenwood, 1986), 88.


2. E. H. Gombrich, In Search of Cultural History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), 9-10.


3. See Ritter, 89.


4. From Hegel's "Vorlesungen ueber die Philosophie der Geschichte" (emphasis added), cited by Gombrich, 9.


5. See William H. Dray, Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall,1964), 76-77. Hegel's profound immersion in the concrete details of cultural history is beyond doubt: see H. S. Harris, Hegel's Development: Toward the Sunlight, 1770-1801 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1972). Gombrich's and my emphasis is on the principle involved rather than its source, so more need not be said on this issue here, except that "Hegelian holism" — which predecessors like Montesquieu and Winckelmann also practiced — is not an especially appropriate name.


6. Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 69-70.


7. Here I am using an anthropology based partly on the work of C. G. Jung (who developed the idea of essential psychic functions) and partly on that of Bernard Lonergan (who stresses — such as in Insight: A Study of Human Understanding — the normative dynamic movement of consciousness through the levels of experiencing, understanding, reflecting, and judging).


8. A. L. Kroeber, Style and Civilizations (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1957), 106.


9. Louis Dumont, "Are Cultures Living Beings? German Identity in Interaction," Man (N.S.) 21 (1986): 587.


10. Lucien Goldmann uses the concept of "transindividual subject": see, e.g., Essays on Method in the Sociology of Literature, ed. William Q. Boelhower (St. Louis: Telos P, 1980), 96-97. There are indeed shades of Hegel's Geist here. Robert C. Solomon claims that this concept is a transformation of Kant's ego as a personal subject (Geist is a universal subject, more than individual): "Hegel's Concept of Geist," From Hegel to Existentialism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987), 3-17.


11. This latter assertion is not accurate. Universalism is implicit in ancient cosmological symbolism; and the Hebraic idea of a single God for all of creation, with one beginning and one end, even strengthened the idea of the unity of humanity and humanity's time. As far back as the Yahwist (the "J" tradition of the Pentateuch), there was a strong kerygma of Israel as "a blessing for all the nations." See Walter Brueggemann and Hans Walter Wolff, The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 41-66. And see also Arnaldo Momigliano, "The Origin of Universal History," in On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1987), 31-57, who argues that Hesiod began the idea of four successive world-empires and that the Jews absorbed and revised this notion in their apocalyptic literature.


12. See Fredric Jameson's foreword to Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition. A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984), xi-xii: there is a "totalizing 'crisis' in the narrative function in general, since the older master-narratives of legitimation no longer function in the service of scientific research-nor, by implication, anywhere else." He goes beyond Lyotard's position "to posit, not the disappearance of the great master-narratives, but their passage underground."


13. See Alasdair Maclntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2d ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame UP, 1984), 204-25. On the biographical framework of our understanding, see also Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), 64ff. Even leading post-modernist, supposedly un-Hegelian thinkers appear to have had to accept historicist premises, most obviously in their notion of "crisis." See Allan Megill, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida (Berkeley: U of California P, 1985), esp. 294-98.


14. R. C. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1956), 227: "History does not presuppose mind; it is the life of mind itself, which is not mind except so far as it both lives in historical process and knows itself as so living. It is only in the historical process, the process of thoughts that thought exists at all; and it is only in so far as this process is known for a process of thoughts that it is one. The self-knowledge of reason is not an accident; it belongs to its essence."


15. Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (Seattle: U of Washington P, 1981), 45. On the notion of being, see Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study in Human Understanding (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 642. Lonergan later agreed that this notion could be identified with the notion of value: see A Second Collection, ed. William F. J. Ryan and Bernard J. Tyrrell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), viii. It is interesting that Freud considered the desire for knowledge to be quasi-instinctual. Sec Hans A. Thorner, "Notes on the Desire for Knowledge," International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 62 (1981): 73-80.


16. Berger and Luckmann 199, n. 52, also 83: "We then argued the empirical fact that institutions do hang together, despite the impossibility of assuming this a priori, can be accounted for only in reference to the reflective consciousness of individuals who impose a certain logic upon their experience of the several institutions"; it is also argued that a mythology can unite "discrete relevances" into a "cohesive, meaningful whole."


17. Hence Foucault, positing epistemic unity can assert the indissociability of Marxism and classical political economy. See Roger Paden, "Locating Foucault-Archaeology vs. Structuralism," Philosophy and Social Criticism 11 (1986): 19-37.


18. Alfred Neumeyer, Review of Gombrich's Meditation on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, Art Journal 24 (1964/1965): 214. An excellent application of this approach can be found in J. L. Benson's Horse, Bird, and Man: The Origins of Greek Painting (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1970), where he argues for the continuity of art forms across a very strong cultural break between Mycenaean and Geometric times.


19. James Elkins, ''Art History Without Theory," Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 375.


20. See Thomas R. Flynn, "Michel Foucault and the Career of the Historical Event," in At the Nexus of Philosophy and History, ed. Bernard P. Dauenhauer (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987), 178-200; and Timothy J. Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982).


21. Walter L. Adamson, "Reconceiving the Spheres of Social Life: Culture and Politics in Recent Marxist Theory," Polity 15 (1982): 222. Clearly, to conceive of the necessary interconnections of all material and symbolic and cognitive phenomena, of all contexts and modes and contents of expression (as opposed to the unity of a range of several "characteristic" symbolic expressions) is far more ambitious and holistic an undertaking.


22. Louis O. Mink, Historical Understanding, ed. Brian Fay, Eugene O. Golob, and Richard T. Vann (Ithaca: Cornell, 1987), 156.






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