Marek Tamm: More-than-Human Past: The Role of Philosophy of History at the Time of Antropocene


Marek Tamm is professor of cultural history at the School of Humanities in Tallinn University and senior researcher in the project “The Making of Livonia: Actors, Institutions and Networks in the Medieval and Early Modern Baltic Sea Region” (2014–2019) financed by Estonian Research Council. He is also Head of Tallinn University Centre of Excellence in Intercultural Studies. His primary research fields are cultural history of medieval Europe, theory and history of historiography, and cultural memory studies.

He has recently published a collective handbook on culture studies, How to Study Culture? Methodology of Culture Studies (in Estonian, Tallinn University Press, 2016); an edited volume, Afterlife of Events: Perspectives on Mnemohistory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), a study of Estonian historical culture, Monumental History: Essays on the Historical Culture of Estonia (in Estonian, LR, 2012); a companion to the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, Crusading and Chronicle Writing on the Medieval Baltic Frontier (Ashgate, 2011, co-edited with Linda Kaljundi and Carsten Selch Jensen), and numerous articles in various anthologies and journals. He is currently editing together with Peter Burke a collective volume, Debating New Approaches in History (Bloomsbury, forthcoming in 2018) and together with Alessandro Arcangeli the early modern volume in the 6-volumes set A Cultural History of Memory (Bloomsbury, forthcoming in 2018).


More-than-Human Past: The Role of Philosophy of History at the Time of Anthropocene

Over the last decade the concept of the Anthropocene has spread virally in the academic world, crossing with ease the boundaries between the natural and social sciences and humanities. This new term, referring to the significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, has caused intense debates, but no matter what one thinks about its relevance, the notion radically challenges how we look at nature, mankind and past.

This paper discusses the bearing of the notion of Anthropocene in making sense of the role of the philosophy of history. I will argue that Anthropocene requires a new concept of history that radically de-centers humans and positions our actions in the deep co-evolutionary time. In other words, my main claim would be that the Anthropocene forces a radical shift in how humans understand their relationship to the more-than-human world.

Modern notion of history relies on the assumption of a certain continuity of human experience that permits us to understand not just what happened, but also how and why it came to pass. From Hegel to Collingwood, from Burckhardt to Bloch, philosophers and historians alike have taken for granted that whatever remained natural about human beings had no real history, while the rest of the nonhuman world was the province of an entirely distinct “natural history”. History was built on the bedrock of this divide between the history of humans and the history of nature, and natural history was nothing more than a backdrop to human action. Nature has no history, Hegel famously stated. It encompasses ceaseless movement without forward motion, change without alteration. Whereas history is a realm in which creative and self-reflective human agents make progressive change. Hegel was seconded by Collingwood who argued that the process of nature can be described as sequence of mere events, whilst an historical process is a process of actions and thoughts. Man should be regarded as the only subject of historical process, because man is the only animal that thinks, or thinks enough to render his actions the expressions of his thoughts.

In a much-debated article of 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty has explained with good reasons that the distinction between human and natural history had become obsolete in the time of the Anthropocene. But do we have the proper methods and narrative tools to come to terms with the implications of this transformation? What kind of dating and chronology of events could be selected to explain an assimilation of natural history to human history? What would the history look like if considered not from the perspective of humanity, but from the perspective of non-human species? Recent attempts to study “the animal side of history” (Eric Baratay) necessitate a different way of knowing the past from the one offered by traditional historical epistemology.

But yet another question emerges: how does the undoing of the distinction between the human and the natural realign the temporal categories for making sense of the past? How to write history on an evolutionary timescale? How to develop a methodology that allows for the intersection of multiple time scales in response to a specific historical problem? It has become clear that at the time of Anthropocene we need a theory of “multiple temporalities” that advocates a pluralistic understanding of time, open to its manifold rhythms over different scales depicting a world composed of a variety of forces and trajectories with the potential for differentiation. We need also a new “work of synchronization” (Helge Jordheim), that is an instance of the “scaling” that is necessary to translate natural processes to times and places where they intersect with the human enterprise.

The emergence of the Anthropocene opens the possibility that history will be conceptualized in new and unexpected ways. This potentiality has a number of epistemological and ethical implications that we have only now begun to recognize, and which also raise a variety of new questions that we have only now begun to formulate. I hope my presentation will contribute to develop this potentiality for a new notion of history.

Last updated: 16.10.2017