Taking History Seriously: A Comment on Marramao’s The Passage West

Hayden White
University of California, Santa Cruz

Volume 8, 2015

It is a daunting task, certainly, to try to grasp the intrinsic character of the present: to identify its logic and structure beyond the hubbub of contemporary events and to conceptualise this logic and structure in an adequate and appropriate fashion.

(Marramao, 2012, 221)

The present presents a particularly difficult problem for the historian because, although the present belongs to history quite as much as the past, the present cannot be studied adequately with the same instruments and methods used to study the past. This is because the present is not “over and done with,” but still in process of becoming; so we cannot, as we do with past events, claim to know how things have “come out” as we claim to know about discrete series of events in the past. Of course, we can discern trends and movements and the dominant ones can be studied as indicators of a future that will someday look back to our present as its past. But we are not even clear about when the present begins and when, if ever, it might suddenly split apart, with some things suddenly becoming “past” and other things suddenly arriving new as if from a “future.” So, yes, indeed, as Marramao says, “the logic and structure” of the present remain difficult to “conceptualize.”

The “logic and structure” of an age, an epoch, or any period of history constitute rather more a philosophical than a historiographical problem. This is because historians do not in general believe in the reality of the period; period designations such as “the Renaissance,” “the Enlightenment,” even “Paleo-Christian,” are treated as conventional short-hand devices for indicating clusters of features of a given time-span that distinguish it from other times. There is no substance or essence of, say, “renascence” shared by all of the various revivals of classical antiquity from Carolingian times through the 12th century down to 15th century Florence that license the use of the term “renaissance” for all of them collectively. Nonetheless, rebirth and revival, renovation and reformation, recovery and recall are all characteristic of specifically historical ways of thinking. Human beings’ attempts to investigate the past in order to revive certain aspects of it as models of comportment, thought, and action are—or are thought to be—uniquely human ways of endowing a present with the spiritual resources by which to imagine a future for creative development, rather than a twilight heralding an end, death, and dissolution.

In The Passage West, Giacomo Marramao addresses issues such as these, not in an abstract manner but rather in terms of our present age grasped as a period of “globalization.” Globalization is conventionally conceived as a conflict between those technological, financial, and political forces that have attained a world-wide scope of activity, and those “local,” “regional,” or even “neighborhood” niches where unique culture configurations have arisen. These local cultural niches are taken to manifest the diversity of human capabilities and they are thought to be threatened by the homogenizing processes of globalization, which require that everything be uniform, exchangeable, and standardized for their proper functioning. But Marramao does not see it this way. For him globalization is a stage on the way to a more comprehensive process of universalization, a process which has informed the expansive drive of all the great civilizations since the so-called “Axial Age”, but has been especially pronounced in Western civilization since the fusion of Christian missionarianism with Roman imperialism in late antiquity.

One reason for the many different interpretations of globalization (“clash of civilizations,” “end of history,” “postmodernism”) derives from the tendency of Western thinkers especially to conceptualize historical forces in antithetical (polar or oppositional) terms. Polarization, opposition, dichotomy, mutual exclusion, and a number of other logical tropes (such as identity and non-contradiction) seem to be a function of thinking in concepts or of conceptualization in general.

Marramao is not against concept-thinking per se, since it is difficult to even imagine scientific thinking without concepts. But unlike existent things, their processes and the relationships that obtain among things, concepts can represent thing-relations only in the logical modes of opposition, negation, negation of negation, and implication, whereas the relationships that obtain among incarnate things and processes are constituted primarily by difference(s). And this is where Marramao swerves away from his earlier mentors Adorno and Habermas and towards such post-structuralist gurus as Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze. These latter allow him to see a reality not comprised of antithetical opposites working toward a synthesis in which one of the terms succeeds in assimilating the other, but a world of differences working towards a structure of plurality, hybridity, and multiplicity in which all of the older modes of community—from clan to Nation State—are transcended and a post-Statist polity becomes possible.

So there is a decidedly utopian element in Marramao’s vision of the possible futures that await us beyond globalization, but his is not a messianic or apocalyptical utopianism. It is simply a vision of what can be imagined as a possible future if we heed what history (not philosophy of history) has to tell us about the human condition of these, our times.[1] In this respect, Marramao’s work is very much of a postmodernist nature: he rejects all of the “grand narratives” of the past and offers instead, not a “philosophy of history” as, rather, a “philosophical” consideration of “the history of the present.” Whence the relevance of the subtitle of his book: “Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State.” And the originality: there is a difference between a philosophy of history and a philosophical consideration of what professional historians would call “the historical record.” Marramao does not pretend to be adding new data to the historical record; he proposes a new set of categories for the determination of what is new and original about the age of globalization, which follows upon the “Age of the Nation State.” And the fundamental question has to be: Given the superannuation of the Nation State, what are the possible forms of polity that might follow upon it?

We who live in the “our” present have a pretty good idea of what awaits us in our immediate future: a world in which certain undeniably transnational forces (communication, military, and surveillance technology, international markets and multinational financial corporations, migrational patterns, disease, and poverty) operate on a global plane while various localities—from the farm and village, on the one hand, to the Nation State and certain inter-regional institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union, the Chinese, Russian, and Indian blocs seek to manage or control these global forces and save something of those interests and institutions that endow discrete areas of the world with the charm of otherness.

For most of the world affected by its processes, globalization is a mixed blessing. Access to its benefits is limited, avoidance of its effects is difficult and rare. But Marramao is doubtful as to whether we moderns fully comprehend what is really going on in globalization. For him globalization is for real, but it is less an end or goal of world civilization than, rather, a stage along the way to a realization of certain universal principles of sociality and selfhood. And although Marramao has a richly articulated array of examples to prove that homogenization and automatization are not inevitable consequences of globalization, much of his argument depends on his version of a world history.

Now, the modern (post-Hegelian) philosophy of history is a product of an attempt to divine the universal meaning, purpose, aim and goal of the world historical process by identifying the universal essence of historicity present in every local or regional history. As Ortega y Gassett said: “Man has no nature. . . .What he has is history”. The “secret”, or inner meaning of universal history lies in the identification of what is specifically “historical” in the different “histories” studied by the “historians” of the different cultures, civilizations, and nations of the world. Hegel’s lectures on the topic are paradigmatic for this enterprise, while Marx, Comte, Spengler, and Toynbee represent variations in the direction of materialist and idealist metaphysics as the case might be. But although it is obvious that the desire to synthesize the different histories of the nations of the world in order to identify their common “historicist” essence, this enterprise has been met with universal disregard and disdain by both professional historians, on the one hand, and all manner of social scientists and philosophers, on the other. Indeed, it is all but universally held that the philosophy of history is a reworking of myth in pseudo-scientific terms (Cassirer), and that the patterns discerned in world historical processes are little more than secularized versions of the great religious systems of antiquity. In fact, in Lyotard’s famous formulation, “post-modernism” consists of little else than the rejection of those “grand narratives” of fate, destiny, progress, redemption, eternal recurrence, and apocalypse in which the philosophy of history has traded since its invention by St. Augustine in late antiquity.

For Marramao, the Nation State served as a solution to the problem of Western civilizational identity caused by the dissolution of the respublica Christiana and the secularization of Christian notions of the individual, society, and culture in modernity. But the Nation State has been rendered superannuated by globalization: global processes escape containment and regulation by national institutions. This is why the present—our present age—requires a radical reconceptualization of the fundamental problems of community and society, to divine the “logic and structure” of what is happening to us postmoderns, and to imagine the form and content of the politics of a future, post global age.

The Passage West, Marramao tells us, “is organized radially”, like “a theoretical map of the global” which, after a discussion of the difference between our own age and everything preceding it, ends with “the assertion of the thesis of the passage to the Occident”. This “passage” is not to be understood as the worldwide adoption of Western institutions, values, aims, or goals but rather the entrance into the post-national condition into which the Occident has already passed as a result of its historical experience of exploration, colonization, imperialization, and capitalization, both of itself and of the rest of the world. In other words, in our era the West has entered a phase in which, because of globalization, it is so permeated by elements of other cultures that it has lost most of those aspects of itself that have historically defined it.

This radial “map”, we are then told, will be filled out by analyses of a number of “thematic epicentres” each comprised of a set of conceptual dyads: “identity/difference, politics/law, sovereignty/global era, gift/exchange, democracy/community, tolerance/recognition, and Europe/post-national public sphere” (xv). This circumnavigation is intended to aggregate into a kind of collage expressive of a certain kind of “cosmopolitan perspective” which “must now pass through a radical redefinition of the universal: we need a universal dimension setting out from the criterion of difference” (xii). This in turn will allow “a diametrical reversal” of a perspective which presupposes “a disenchantment with politics and a mythologizing of identity” and lead to a “demythologizing [of] identity” and a “re-enchanting [of] politics” (xiii).

What is the proper relation between the community and the individual, the citizen and the State, the particular and the universal, the thing and its species, or, summarily, the part and the whole of anything whatsoever? Absolutist regimes solved such problems by establishing hierarchies of power, rights, and duties on the basis of religious dogmas (respublica Christiana) or metaphysical propositions (“Leviathan”) that assured continuity in change and identity even in contradiction. Paradoxes or contradictions in such systems (How can I be both a free person and a an obedient subject?) were dealt with by the provision of certain myths which endowed contradiction itself with the aura of “paradox,” such as: identity both individual and collective is both stable and changing; politics is both violent and redemptive; or economics is both rational and unpredictable. Such myths have received endorsement and legitimation by modern social sciences, as in Weber’s notion of a natural affinity between “the Protestant Ethic” and “the Spirit of Capitalism”.

Moreover, such myths were also justified by the modern version of “history,” which purported to demonstrate that private vices can—paradoxically—result in public good (the “hidden hand” doctrine), that violence and evil can result in progress and enlightenment (the “progress” doctrine), and that time itself heals all wounds (the “dialectic” doctrine). These myths are all, in Marramao’s estimation, secular versions of earlier religious beliefs which, under the critique of modern materialistic science and certain historical events (imperialism and totalitarianism), have been demystified, leaving Western civilization with few resources to deal with the threats to world culture and society posed by post-World War II “globalization.”

The questions are fundamental to the global situation because global politics, economics, communications networks, electronic technology, and above all modern financial corporations transcend the limits of merely national societies and escape regulation by local laws and authorities. This is especially true of financial corporations that have become rogue entities grounded in no particular place on earth and answerable only to those laws that favor their own drive for profit. If they are not to descend into total anarchy the global market and financial system require a global polity, which, in turn, require a global legal system. The traditional human sciences do not possess the categories and methods to do anything more than disclose the anomalies of the fundamental principles of post-nation state institutions and practices, for example, conflicts between law and morality, between politics and ethics, worth and value in exchange, between authority and power in politics, and so on. As long as the Nation State retained its mystique as manifestation of a land-language-people complex sacred in nature and worthy of a devotion equal to that of the Church or Monarchy, such anomalies could be taken on faith as divine mysteries, like the Trinity or the Incarnation, cleansing and redemptive precisely by virtue of their transcendence of the powers of human understanding.

Western philosophy since Plato down to Heidegger has typically confused things with concepts, and has thereby locked itself into endless debate over how to synthesize things which, identified by their concepts, can never achieve identity with one another. This is why, until philosophy comes to terms with its greatest postmodern critics—Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Rorty, Agamben, Adorno, Badiou, and so on—it will remain indentured to servitude to the anomalous idea of the “coincidence of opposites,” more of a figure than a concept and thus alien from philosophy until philosophy itself becomes liberated from the fetishism of the concept. This is part of the message of postmodernist philosophizing (or anti-philosophizing) which, however, fails in its own way by its denial of the adequacy of a post-identitarian logic to a world inhabited by individuals who are themselves caught between the aridity of the concept and the living reality of the figure.

But if philosophy is to deal with such matters, it has itself to get over or transcend an anomaly of its own, namely, the challenge to its traditional form presented by certain late modern, seemingly anti-traditional, sects such as phenomenology, existentialism, pragmatism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, feminism, postcolonialism, and so on, which, allegedly, threaten the very substance of traditional philosophizing itself. Marramao sees this conflict between the old and new modes of thinking as analogous to that between the global and local itself. The anomalies generated by philosophy’s traditional manner of construing relations between its positive and negative valences can be resolved by the abandonment of the relationship of opposition in favor of some notion of what appear to be antithetical concepts as mutually implicative. In the same way that globalism has at once frightened local regions of the human ecumene with “homologation”, but at the same time resistance to such homologation has strengthened awareness of the value of localities and have, in certain locales, resulted in their strengthening, so too traditional philosophy may be strengthened by assimilating the postmodernist sectarians to their own uses—and vice versa. The ways by and in which indigenous peoples and local cultural groups have adapted techniques, practices, and values usually associated with the global to the needs and interests of a local kind, is a theme of much anthropological discussion these days.[2] But whether the local can sustain itself against the solvent power of the global market or must suffer the fate of commodification and exchange valorization only is an open question. Marramao puts his bets neither on traditional philosophy nor its postmodernist avatar, but rather on what Vico and modern pragmatists call a praxis armed against abstract conceptualization, on the one hand, and warmed over tradition, on the other.

So too in politics: to see the one and the many as opposed in the way that the concepts of good and evil, or negative and positive, might be related is to bind oneself to the possibility of Hegelian synthesis or to unjustified judgment in favor of the one or the other (either/or thinking). Marramao is much more inclined to a kind of Spinozist monism in which difference is primary, and fundamental relationships are construed in a modalist manner as relations among differences. Such an approach to the problem of the relation between the global and the local allows him to abandon two impediments to a desirable pluralism in psychology and group dynamics, what he calls the myth of identity, on one hand, and a disenchanted politics, on the other. He thinks that the myth of identity (or self-sameness) and a politics based either on the idea of community or an obsession with the friend-foe dyad are both versions of the myth of “sameness”. And he proceeds to deconstruct both the myth and the incarnation in ideas of individuality (both of the person and of the community or nation) and of the nation (both as the incarnation of the community, on the one side, and as ideal to be protected from the enemy, defined as anyone who differs from commune). The same kind of deconstruction is carried out on the dyad law/politics, in which the former is construed as the incarnation of the national ethos, on the one hand, and the latter, politics, is demonized as the very incarnation of power as raison d’état, devoid of all morality and of any responsibility to the law of the land, since the modern State is the one institution claiming the right to declare the (Schmittian) “state of exception”.

In a brilliant chapter on Carl Schmitt’s political and jurisprudential philosophy, Marramao finds a radical novelty in Schmitt’s idea that sovereignty consists in the power to make, revise, or abrogate the law itself. The modern States seemingly exist to incarnate the national ethnos, administer the law within the confines of the nation, and protect the people from foreign enemies. But since politics presupposes that the difference between the inside of the community and its outside consists of the oppositional pair friend and enemy, it inevitably ends in times of stress by regarding the citizenry itself in the same terms. For Schmitt the modern corporate state, which claims sovereignty over the law itself, is the proper form of the state in modernity.

Modernity in this case means a situation in which religion has been disestablished or subordinated to the state, and “nature” or any part of it has lost is status as fons et origo of both law and morality, and the polis has become Leviathan whether of the dictatorial or the communal kind. Under such conditions, the kind of “Peace of Westphalia ideal” of autonomous nations negotiating settlements of disputes in service to a “European” community’s long-term interests, is no longer viable as a model for global or regional unities, especially in areas where those unities are riven by ethnic, religious, and social differences. In other words, “after the Nation State” means that the nation itself is no longer a viable unit for the organization of global economic and communicational systems.

Reflecting on this circumstance, Marramao switches from a horizontal to a vertical model of organization and proposes instead a system of combination on different levels of organization, from the micro level of the family and farm all the way up to the high-tech communications and financial networks where everything is homologous and value is tied to nothing of a local provenance. In sum, Marramao, at least in this book in a chapter entitled “Europe after the Leviathan,” which was originally published in 2001, which is to say, before the crash of 2008, recommends the European Union as a kind of “Federalist” system which serve as a model for a global political-legal structure adequate to the needs of a global financial and communications network. Marramao thinks that globalization has the capacity for both the homologation and the diversification of human culture and society. Contemporary globalization differs from its earlier avatars (attempts at unifications of parts of the world by conquest, trade, technology, political and economic institutions, cultural borrowing, missionary activity, exploration, colonization, and the like) by virtue of its origin in difference.[3]

By “philosophy” we usually mean that brand of Western European thinking intimately linked to the modern physical sciences, but also the more general world-view that comes into play with the establishment of the modern Western European nation-state, with its idea of a genius populi providing a substance shared by individual citizens who, in pursuing their own “enlightened” self-interests, providentially succeed in “realizing” the universal destiny of the human race. It has been the unique function of philosophy to serve as the rational and realistic organon of humanity’s effort to realize its destiny, both at home (in the European “community” of nations) and abroad in the ecumene perceivable as emerging within the process known as globalization. For Marramao, the other human sciences must fail to grasp the essence of this new phenomenon, prone as they are to treating the relation between political authority and the multitude in either reductively mechanistic or inflationary transcendental terms. Even philosophy itself was hindered from coming to terms with the contradictions inherent in Western notions of community as long as it remained indentured to the Nation State model of society and the quantitative methods of the physical science as its epistemic model. But now that the establishment of world-wide networks of communications, politics, and finance, has rendered the Nation State, along with all other merely regional or local polities superannuated, both philosophy and politics have been liberated from their former condition of subordination to the Nation’s cultural, ethical, epistemic, and ethnic presuppositions. And therewith both philosophy and politics are freed to engage and exploit the new perspectives on world history provided by globalization. And Marramao’s project can suddenly be seen as a redemption of the idea of globalization by the philosophical demonstration that globalization is itself the solution to the problems created by its own appearance on the world scene.


01. Speaking of “these, our times”, see Marramao (2007), a study of what we might call “qualitative” time—the time of judgment and decision, the time of action and self-determination in human life—as against the purely “quantitative” time of equal units, regular process, and finitude. Also see Andrew Baird’s review.

02. See Clifford.

03. Marramao uses the term “difference” in much the same way Derrida uses the French neologism “différance”. For Derrida the latter names a condition ontologically prior to the distinction between active and passive modes of being. For Marramao, difference names a condition prior to the formation of notions of identity and the One, both of which he regards as myths embedded surreptitiously in the heart of post-Socratic philosophy in the West. What all of that expansion over the globe undertaken by the West since the Crusades revealed was the impossibility of identity and the delusional nature of the One. Contemporary globalization is less interested in conquering, colonizing, and exploiting local sites of traditional practices of cultural and economic production than in subsuming them to the exigencies of exchange as an end in itself. Globalization effects flows of goods, information, persons, institutions, and so on, in many directions: from the metropolitan centers out to the periphery and vice versa thereby effecting changes in the localities in the periphery, but also vice versa, as the former colonists make their way to the metropolitan centers (Turks to Germany, Poles to Ireland, Somalis to Italy, Indians to the UK, etc.), changing the cultures of these centers radically.

Works Referenced

  • Baird, Andrew. “History and Kairós”. In History and Theory. (50) (2011): 120-128. Print.
  • Clifford, James. Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Modern World. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2014. Print.
  • Marramao, Giacomo. Kairos: Towards an Ontology of ‘Due Time’. Aurora, The Davies Group, 2007. Print.
  • ———. The Passage West. Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State. Translated by Mateo Mandarini. Afterword by Antonio Negri. New York, Verso, 2012. Print.