Nathan John Martin

Fétis’ Historicism

In his 1996 article on “Fétis’ Emerging Tonal Consciousness,” Thomas Christensen likened Fétis’ Esquisse de l’histoire de l’harmonie (1840) to Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes: just as Hegel’s world-spirit actualizes itself across the span of human history, so too does ‘tonalité’ progressively instantiate itself in a majestic world-historical arc that begins with parallel organum and concludes in 19th-century France. As we now know from Robert Wangermée’s collected edition of Fétis’ letters, Christensen’s reconstruction corresponds in essence to Fétis’ own conception. For when Fétis summarized his Esquisse for Eugène Troupenas in a letter dated Oct. 17, 1838, he concluded: “Quant à moi, j’avoue que j’ai adopté complètement la belle idée de Hegel”. But here as elsewhere, Fétis is not his own best exegete. Indeed, equating Fétis’ intellectual project with Hegel’s risks covering up what is most novel in the latter. In Fétis, there is no appeal to ‘determinate negation’ (‘bestimmte Negation’), so that his thought is not, in Hegel’s sense, dialectical. And whereas Hegel’s narrative culminates in absolute knowledge—the perfect self-actualization of ‘Geist’ in full transparency to itself—Fétis’ history knows no comparable ‘telos’; its final stage, the “ordre omnitonique”, instead represents the onset of a terminal decline. Because the history of harmony as Fétis conceives it has neither dialectical motor nor determinate goal, its unfolding cannot be studied in the abstract. Rather, it must be written from the archive, reconstructed through empirical endeavor. In this sense, Fétis is far closer to the German historicist tradition that originates with Herder than he is to the Hegelian project that historicism eventually eclipsed.