A dialog with the late Jose Ortega y Gasset.
Q: One of the things we see in Civil War history is the writer swinging between a dynamism, where many things are possible, and a determinism where the die is cast and inexorable historical processes take control.
A: At every moment of my life there open before me diverse possibilities; I can do this or that. If I do this, I shall be A the moment after; if I do that, I shall be B.
Q: This suggests that every decision is to some extent "a turning point."
A: Before us lie the diverse possibilities of being, but behind us lies what we have been. And what we have been acts negatively on what we can be.
Q: This seems to argue a fatalism. The weight of events here acts "negatively" on contingency.
A: One aims at avoiding in the new project the drawbacks of the old. In the second, therefore, the first is still active; it is preserved in order to be avoided.
Q: But people and collectives repeat the same mistakes; certainly the Civil War is filled with cycles of failed experiments that look remarkably similar.
A: Man goes on accumulating being – the past; he goes on making for himself a being through his dialectical series of experiments.
Q: And some experiments repeat and fail, I suppose. But "dialectics" seem deterministic.
A: This is a dialectic not of logical but precisely of historical reason…
Q: A dialect of accidents and choices, then?
A: This is what we have to find out on the basis of facts. We must know what is this series, what are its stages, and of what nature is the link between one and the next. Such a discovery is what would be called history were history to make this its objective, were it, that is to say, to convert itself into historical reason.
Q: This points to an emphasis on context to get at "narrative reason." It’s not like the narrative practiced today, which is streamlined, condensed, simplified…
A: … we can only throw light on yesterday by invoking the day before yesterday; and so with all yesterdays. History is a system, the system of human experiences linked in a single, inexorable chain. Hence, nothing can be learned in history until everything is clear.
Q: How can we unwind this chain of history with a story when truth is in the nature of those links in a series? When analysis is required?
A: … the reason, that throws light here consists of a narration. Alongside pure physico-mathematical reason there is, then, a narrative reason. To comprehend anything human, be it personal or collective, one must tell its history. This man, this nation does such a thing and in such a manner, because formerly he or it did that other thing …
Q: We don’t have a symbolic logic of history, but we have an analytic task, and we can perform it dishonestly, forcing it to serve literary technique, or honestly forcing it to serve in a search for historical truth. Do we abandon analysis for a process of historical reason?
A: Historical reason, on the contrary, accepts nothing as mere fact; it makes every fact fluid in the fieri whence it comes; it sees how the fact takes place.
Q: The investigation, then, produces a narrative as a byproduct of historical reason. And it does this by contextualizing every event.
A: Life being a "drama" that happens, and the "subject" to whom it happens being, not a thing apart from and previous to his drama, but a function of it, it follows that the "substance" of the drama would be its argument.
(From History as a System by Jose Ortega y Gasset, New York, Norton, 1961. All Ortega's quotes from the chapter "History as a System." Emphasis added in the last line, above.)