Philosophy of history

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Philosophy of history is the philosophical study of history and the past. The term was coined by Voltaire. [1]

History The study of the past as it is described in written documents.

History is the past as it is described in written documents, and the study thereof. Events occurring before written records are considered prehistory. "History" is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Scholars who write about history are called historians.

Voltaire French writer, historian and philosopher

François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plumeVoltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, as well as his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.



In contemporary philosophy a distinction is made between critical philosophy of history (also known as analytic) and speculative philosophy of history. The names of these types are derived from C. D. Broad's distinction between critical philosophy and speculative philosophy. [2] [3]

Contemporary philosophy

Contemporary philosophy is the present period in the history of Western philosophy beginning at the early 20th century with the increasing professionalization of the discipline and the rise of analytic and continental philosophy.

C. D. Broad English philosopher

Charlie Dunbar Broad, usually cited as C. D. Broad, was an English epistemologist, historian of philosophy, philosopher of science, moral philosopher, and writer on the philosophical aspects of psychical research. He was known for his thorough and dispassionate examinations of arguments in such works as Scientific Thought, published in 1923, The Mind and Its Place in Nature, published in 1925, and An Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy, published in 1933.

Critical philosophy viewpoint according to which the primary task of philosophy is criticism (judging as to the possibilities of knowledge), rather than justification of knowledge

Attributed to Immanuel Kant, the critical philosophy movement sees the primary task of philosophy as criticism rather than justification of knowledge; criticism, for Kant, meant judging as to the possibilities of knowledge before advancing to knowledge itself. The basic task of philosophers, according to this view, is not to establish and demonstrate theories about reality, but rather to subject all theories—including those about philosophy itself—to critical review, and measure their validity by how well they withstand criticism.

The former studies the past itself whereas the latter is the equivalent of what the philosophy of science is for nature. [4] [5]

Philosophy of science is a sub-field of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth.

Though there is some overlap between the two aspects, they can usually be distinguished; modern professional historians tend to be skeptical about speculative philosophy of history.

Sometimes critical philosophy of history is included under historiography. Philosophy of history should not be confused with the history of philosophy, which is the study of the development of philosophical ideas in their historical context. [6]

Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. Scholars discuss historiography by topic—such as the historiography of the United Kingdom, that of WWII, the British Empire, early Islam, and China—and different approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the development of academic history, there developed a body of historiographic literature. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties—such as to their nation state—remains a debated question.

Pre-modern history

In his Poetics , Aristotle (384–322 BCE) maintained the superiority of poetry over history because poetry speaks of what must or should be true rather than merely what is true.

<i>Poetics</i> (Aristotle) book by Aristotle

Aristotle's Poetics is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory This has been the traditional view for centuries. However, recent work is now challenging whether Aristotle focuses on literary theory per se or whether he focuses instead on dramatic musical theory that only has language as one of the elements.

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Truth In accord with fact or reality

Truth is most often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or standard. Truth is also sometimes defined in modern contexts as an idea of "truth to self", or authenticity.

Herodotus, a fifth-century BCE contemporary of Socrates, broke from the Homeric tradition of passing narrative from generation to generation in his work "Investigations" (Ancient Greek: Ἱστορίαι; Istoríai), also known as Histories. Herodotus, regarded by some[ who? ] as the first systematic historian, and, later, Plutarch (46–120 CE) freely invented speeches for their historical figures and chose their historical subjects with an eye toward morally improving the reader. History was supposed to teach good examples for one to follow. The assumption that history "should teach good examples" influenced how writers produced history. Events of the past are just as likely to show bad examples that one should not follow, but classical historians would either not record such examples or would re-interpret them to support their assumption of history's purpose.[ citation needed ]

Herodotus Ancient Greek historian

Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus in the Persian Empire. He is known for having written the book The Histories, a detailed record of his "inquiry" on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars. He is widely considered to have been the first writer to have treated historical subjects using a method of systematic investigation—specifically, by collecting his materials and then critically arranging them into an historiographic narrative. On account of this, he is often referred to as "The Father of History", a title first conferred on him by the first-century BC Roman orator Cicero.

Socrates classical Greek Athenian philosopher

Socrates was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, he made no writings, and is known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers writing after his lifetime, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. Other sources include the contemporaneous Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Aeschines of Sphettos. Aristophanes, a playwright, is the main contemporary author to have written plays mentioning Socrates during Socrates' lifetime, though a fragment of Ion of Chios' Travel Journal provides important information about Socrates' youth.

Homer name ascribed by the ancient Greeks to the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Homer is the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems that are the central works of ancient Greek literature. The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek kingdoms. It focuses on a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles lasting a few weeks during the last year of the war. The Odyssey focuses on the ten-year journey home of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the fall of Troy. Many accounts of Homer's life circulated in classical antiquity, the most widespread being that he was a blind bard from Ionia, a region of central coastal Anatolia in present-day Turkey. Modern scholars consider these accounts legendary.

From the Classical period to the Renaissance, historians alternated between focusing on subjects designed to improve mankind and on a devotion to fact. History was composed mainly of hagiographies of monarchs or of epic poetry describing heroic gestures (such as The Song of Roland —about the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778) during Charlemagne's first campaign to conquer the Iberian peninsula).

In the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun, who is considered one of the fathers of the philosophy of history, discussed his philosophy of history and society in detail in his Muqaddimah (1377). His work represents a culmination of earlier works by medieval Islamic sociologists in the spheres of Islamic ethics, political science, and historiography, such as those of al-Farabi (c. 872 – c. 950), Ibn Miskawayh, al-Dawani, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274). [7] Ibn Khaldun often criticized "idle superstition and uncritical acceptance of historical data". He introduced a scientific method to the philosophy of history (which Dawood considers something "totally new to his age") and he often referred to it as his "new science", [8] which is now associated with historiography. His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of the state, communication, propaganda, and systematic bias in history. [7]

By the eighteenth century historians had turned toward a more positivist approach—focusing on fact as much as possible, but still with an eye on telling histories that could instruct and improve. Starting with Fustel de Coulanges (1830–1889) and Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), historical studies began to move towards a more modern scientific[ citation needed ] form. In the Victorian era, historiographers debated less whether history was intended to improve the reader, and more on what causes turned history and how one could understand historical change.

Cyclical and linear history

Narrative history tends to follow an assumption of linear progression: "this happened, and then that happened; that happened because this happened first".

Many ancient cultures held mythical concepts of history and of time that were not linear. Such societies saw history as cyclical, with alternating Dark and Golden Ages. Plato taught the concept of the Great Year, and other Greeks spoke of aeons (eons). Similar examples include the ancient doctrine of eternal return, which existed in Ancient Egypt, in the Indian religions, among the Greek Pythagoreans' and in the Stoics' conceptions. In his Works and Days , Hesiod described five Ages of Man: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the Iron Age, which began with the Dorian invasion. Some scholars[ which? ] identify just four ages, corresponding to the four metals, with the Heroic age as a description of the Bronze Age. A four-age count would match the Vedic or Hindu ages known as the Kali, Dwapara, Treta and Satya yugas. According to Jainism, this world has no beginning or end but goes through cycles of upturns (utsarpini) and downturns (avasarpini) constantly. Many Greeks believed that just as mankind went through four stages of character during each rise and fall of history so did government. They considered democracy and monarchy as the healthy régimes of the higher ages; and oligarchy and tyranny as corrupted régimes common to the lower ages.[ citation needed ]

In the East, cyclical theories of history developed in China (as a theory of dynastic cycle) and in the Islamic world in the work of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406).

The story of the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden, as recounted and elaborated in Judaism and Christianity, preserves traces of a moral cycle; this would give the basis for theodicies which attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of a God, providing a global explanation of history with belief in a coming Messianic Age. Some theodicies claimed that history had a progressive direction leading to an eschatological end, such as the Apocalypse, organized by a superior power. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Bossuet (in his Discourse On Universal History of 1679) formulated such theodicies, but Leibniz (1646-1716), who coined the term Théodicée, developed the most famous philosophical theodicy. Leibniz based his explanation on the principle of sufficient reason, which states that anything that happens, does happen for a specific reason. Thus, while man might see certain events as evil (such as wars, epidemics and natural disasters), such a judgement in fact only reflected human perception; if one adopted God's view, "evil" events in fact only took place in the larger divine plan. In this way theodicies explained the necessity of evil as a relative element that forms part of a larger plan of history. Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason was not, however, a gesture of fatalism. Confronted with the antique problem of future contingents, Leibniz invented the theory of "compossible worlds", distinguishing two types of necessity, to cope with the problem of determinism.

During the Renaissance, cyclical conceptions of history would become common, with proponents illustrating decay and rebirth by pointing to the decline of the Roman Empire. Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy (1513–1517) provide an example. The notion of Empire contained in itself ascendance and decadence,[ citation needed ] as in Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) (which the Roman Catholic Church placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum ).

Cyclical conceptions continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the works of authors such as Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), Nikolay Danilevsky (1822–1885), and Paul Kennedy (1945– ), who conceived the human past as a series of repetitive rises and falls. Spengler, like Butterfield, when writing in reaction to the carnage of the First World War of 1914–1918, believed that a civilization enters upon an era of Caesarism [9] after its soul dies.[ citation needed ] Spengler thought that the soul of the West was dead and that Caesarism was about to begin.

The development of mathematical models of long-term secular sociodemographic cycles revived interest in cyclical theories of history (see, for example, Historical Dynamics (2003) by Peter Turchin, or Introduction to Social Macrodynamics [10] by Andrey Korotayev et al. [11] ).

Sustainable history

"Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man" is a philosophy of history proposed by Nayef Al-Rodhan, where history is defined as a durable progressive trajectory in which the quality of life on this planet or all other planets is premised on the guarantee of human dignity for all at all times under all circumstances. [12] This theory views history as a linear progression propelled by good governance, which is, in turn, to be achieved through balancing the emotional, amoral, and egoistic elements of human nature with the human dignity needs of reason, security, human rights, accountability, transparency, justice, opportunity, innovation, and inclusiveness. [13]

Human dignity lies at the heart of this theory and is paramount for ensuring the sustainable history of humankind. Among other things, human dignity means having a positive sense of self and instilling individuals with respect for the communities to which they belong. Thus, reconciling humans' predisposition for emotionally self-interested behavior with the imperatives of human dignity appears as the one of the most important challenges to global policymakers. [14] At national level, they have to protect their citizens against violence and provide them with access to food, housing, clothes, health care, and education. Basic welfare provision and security are fundamental to ensuring human dignity. Environment and ecological considerations need to be addressed as well. Finally, cultural diversity, inclusiveness and participation at all levels, of all communities are key imperatives of human dignity.

In this respect, the sustainable history philosophy challenges existing concepts of civilisations, such as Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisations . [15] Instead, it argues that human civilisation should not be thought of as consisting of numerous separate and competing civilisations, but rather it should be thought of collectively as only one human civilisation. Within this civilisation are many geo-cultural domains that comprise sub-cultures. Nayef Al-Rodhan envisions human civilisation as an ocean into which the different geo-cultural domains flow like rivers, "The Ocean Model of one Human Civilization". At points where geo-cultural domains first enter the ocean of human civilisation, there is likely to be a concentration or dominance of that culture. However, over time, all the rivers of geo-cultural domains become one. There is fluidity at the ocean's centre and cultures have the opportunity to borrow between them. Under such historical conditions the most advanced forms of human enterprise can thrive and lead us to a 'civilisational triumph'. Nevertheless, there are cases where geographical proximity of various cultures can also lead to friction and conflict.

Nayef Al-Rodhan concludes that within an increasingly globalised, interconnected and interdependent world, human dignity cannot be ensured globally and in a sustainable way through sole national means. A genuine global effort is required to meet the minimum criteria of human dignity globally. Areas such as conflict prevention, socio-economic justice, gender equality, protection of human rights, environmental protection require a holistic approach and a common action.

The Enlightenment's ideal of progress

During the Aufklärung, or Enlightenment, history began to be seen as both linear and irreversible. Condorcet's interpretations of the various "stages of humanity" or Auguste Comte's positivism were one of the most important formulations of such conceptions of history, which trusted social progress. As in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762) treatise on education (or the "art of training men"), the Aufklärung conceived the human species as perfectible: human nature could be infinitely developed through a well-thought pedagogy. In What is Enlightenment? (1784), Immanuel Kant defined the Aufklärung as the capacity to think by oneself, without referring to an exterior authority, be it a prince or tradition:

Enlightenment is when a person leaves behind a state of immaturity and dependence (Unmündigkeit) for which they themselves were responsible. Immaturity and dependence are the inability to use one's own intellect without the direction of another. One is responsible for this immaturity and dependence, if its cause is not a lack of intelligence or education, but a lack of determination and courage to think without the direction of another. Sapere aude! Dare to know! is therefore the slogan of the Enlightenment.

In a paradoxical way, Kant supported in the same time enlightened despotism as a way of leading humanity towards its autonomy. He had conceived the process of history in his short treaty Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784). On one hand, enlightened despotism was to lead nations toward their liberation, and progress was thus inscribed in the scheme of history; on the other hand, liberation could only be acquired by a singular gesture, Sapere Aude! Thus, autonomy ultimately relied on the individual's "determination and courage to think without the direction of another."

After Kant, G. W. F. Hegel developed a complex theodicy in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), which based its conception of history on dialectics: the negative (wars, etc.) was conceived by Hegel as the motor of history. Hegel argued that history is a constant process of dialectic clash, with each thesis encountering an opposing idea or event antithesis. The clash of both was "superated" in the synthesis, a conjunction that conserved the contradiction between thesis and its antithesis while sublating it. As Marx famously explained afterwards, concretely that meant that if Louis XVI's monarchic rule in France was seen as the thesis, the French Revolution could be seen as its antithesis. However, both were sublated in Napoleon, who reconciled the revolution with the Ancien Régime ; he conserved the change. Hegel thought that reason accomplished itself, through this dialectical scheme, in History. Through labour, man transformed nature so he could recognize himself in it; he made it his "home." Thus, reason spiritualized nature. Roads, fields, fences, and all the modern infrastructure in which we live is the result of this spiritualization of nature. Hegel thus explained social progress as the result of the labour of reason in history. However, this dialectical reading of history involved, of course, contradiction, so history was also conceived of as constantly conflicting: Hegel theorized this in his famous dialectic of the lord and the bondsman.

According to Hegel,

One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.


Thus, philosophy was to explain Geschichte (history) afterward. Philosophy is always late, it is only an interpretation of what is rational in the real—and, according to Hegel, only what is recognized as rational is real. This idealist understanding of philosophy as interpretation was famously challenged by Karl Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach (1845): "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Social evolutionism

Inspired by the Enlightenment's ideal of progress, social evolutionism became a popular conception in the nineteenth century. Auguste Comte's (1798–1857) positivist conception of history, which he divided into the theological stage, the metaphysical stage and the positivist stage, brought upon by modern science, was one of the most influential doctrines of progress. The Whig interpretation of history, as it was later called, associated with scholars of the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Britain, such as Henry Maine or Thomas Macaulay, gives an example of such influence, by looking at human history as progress from savagery and ignorance toward peace, prosperity, and science. Maine described the direction of progress as "from status to contract," from a world in which a child's whole life is pre-determined by the circumstances of his birth, toward one of mobility and choice.

The publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 introduced human evolution. However, it was quickly transposed from its original biological field to the social field, in "social Darwinism" theories. Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest", or Lewis Henry Morgan in Ancient Society (1877) developed evolutionist theories independent from Darwin's works, which would be later interpreted as social Darwinism. These nineteenth-century unilineal evolution theories claimed that societies start out in a primitive state and gradually become more civilised over time, and equated the culture and technology of Western civilisation with progress.

Ernst Haeckel formulated his recapitulation theory in 1867, which stated that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny": the evolution of each individual reproduces the species' evolution, such as in the development of embryos. Hence, a child goes through all the steps from primitive society to modern society. This was later discredited.[ citation needed ] Haeckel did not support Darwin's theory of natural selection introduced in The Origin of Species (1859), rather believing in a Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Progress was not necessarily, however, positive. Arthur Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–55) was a decadent description of the evolution of the "Aryan race" which was disappearing through miscegenation. Gobineau's works had a large popularity in the so-called scientific racism theories that developed during the New Imperialism period.

After the first world war, and even before Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979) harshly criticized it, the Whig interpretation had gone out of style. The bloodletting of that conflict had indicted the whole notion of linear progress. Paul Valéry famously said: "We civilizations now know ourselves mortal."

However, the notion itself didn't completely disappear. The End of History and the Last Man (1992) by Francis Fukuyama proposed a similar notion of progress, positing that the worldwide adoption of liberal democracies as the single accredited political system and even modality of human consciousness would represent the "End of History". Fukuyama's work stems from a Kojevian reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

Unlike Maurice Godelier who interprets history as a process of transformation, Tim Ingold suggests that history is a movement of autopoiesis [17]

A key component to making sense of all of this is to simply recognize that all these issues in social evolution merely serve to support the suggestion that how one considers the nature of history will impact the interpretation and conclusions drawn about history. The critical under-explored question is less about history as content and more about history as process.

In 2011 Steven Pinker wrote a history of violence and humanity from an evolutionary perspective in which he shows that violence has declined statistically over time. [18]

The validity of the "great man theory" in historical studies

After Hegel, who insisted on the role of "great men" in history, with his famous statement about Napoleon, "I saw the Spirit on his horse", Thomas Carlyle argued that history was the biography of a few central individuals, heroes , such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great, writing that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." His heroes were political and military figures, the founders or topplers of states. His history of great men, of geniuses good and evil, sought to organize change in the advent of greatness.

Explicit defenses of Carlyle's position have been rare in the late twentieth century. Most philosophers of history contend that the motive forces in history can best be described only with a wider lens than the one he used for his portraits. A.C. Danto, for example, wrote of the importance of the individual in history, but extended his definition to include social individuals, defined as "individuals we may provisionally characterize as containing individual human beings amongst their parts. Examples of social individuals might be social classes [...], national groups [...], religious organizations [...], large-scale events [...], large-scale social movements [...], etc." (Danto, "The Historical Individual", 266, in Philosophical Analysis and History, edited by Williman H. Dray, Rainbow-Bridge Book Co., 1966). The Great Man approach to history was most popular with professional historians in the nineteenth century; a popular work of this school is the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911), which contains lengthy and detailed biographies about the great men of history. For example, to read about (what is known today as) the "Migrations Period," consult the biography of Attila the Hun.

After Marx's conception of a materialist history based on the class struggle, which raised attention for the first time to the importance of social factors such as economics in the unfolding of history, Herbert Spencer wrote "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."

The Annales School, founded by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, were a major landmark on the shift from a history centered on individual subjects to studies concentrating in geography, economics, demography, and other social forces. Fernand Braudel's studies on the Mediterranean Sea as "hero" of history, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's history of climate, etc., were inspired by this School.

Is history predetermined?

There is disagreement about the extent to which history is ultimately deterministic (see historical determinism). Some argue that geography (see geographic determinism), economic systems (see economic determinism), or culture (see cultural determinism) prescribe "the iron laws of history" that decide what is to happen. Others see history as a long line of acts and accidents, big and small, each playing out its consequences until that process gets interrupted by the next.

Even determinists do not rule that, from time to time, certain cataclysmic events occur to change course of history. Their main point is, however, that such events are rare and that even apparently large shocks like wars and revolutions often have no more than temporary effects on the evolution of the society.

Karl Marx is, perhaps, the most famous of the exponents of economic determinism. For him social institutions like political system, religion and culture were merely by-products of the basic economic system (see Base and superstructure). [19]

However, even he did not see history as completely deterministic. His essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon contains the most famous formulation of Marx's view of the role of the individual in history: Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past. [20]

Does history have a teleological sense?

Theodicy claimed that history had a progressive direction leading to an eschatological end, given by a superior power. However, this transcendent teleological sense can be thought as immanent to human history itself. Hegel probably represents the epitome of teleological philosophy of history. Hegel's teleology was taken up by Francis Fukuyama in his The End of History and the Last Man (see Social evolutionism above). Thinkers such as Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Althusser, or Deleuze deny any teleological sense to history, claiming that it is best characterized by discontinuities, ruptures, and various time-scales, which the Annales School had demonstrated.

Schools of thought influenced by Hegel also see history as progressive, but they saw, and see, progress as the outcome of a dialectic in which factors working in opposite directions are over time reconciled (see above). History was best seen as directed by a Zeitgeist , and traces of the Zeitgeist could be seen by looking backward. Hegel believed that history was moving man toward "civilization", and some also claim he thought that the Prussian state incarnated the "End of History". In his Lessons on the History of Philosophy, he explains that each epochal philosophy is in a way the whole of philosophy; it is not a subdivision of the Whole but this Whole itself apprehended in a specific modality.

Historical accounts of writing history

A classic example of history being written by the victors—or more precisely, by the survivors [21] —would be the scarcity of unbiased information that has survived to the present about the Carthaginians. Roman historians left tales of cruelty and human sacrifice practiced by their longtime enemies; however no Carthaginian was left alive to give their side of the story.

Similarly, we only have the Christian side of how Christianity came to be the dominant religion of Europe. However, we know very little about other European religions, such as Paganism.[ citation needed ] We have the European version of the conquest of the Americas, with an interpretation of the native version of events only emerging to popular consciousness since the early 1980s. We have Herodotus's Greek history of the Persian Wars, but the Persian recall of the events is little known in Western Culture.

In many respects, the head of state may be guilty of cruelties or even simply a different way of doing things. In some societies, however, to speak of or write critically of rulers can amount to conviction of treason and death. As such, in many ways, what is left as the "official record" of events is oft influenced by one's desire to avoid exile or execution.

However, "losers" in certain time periods often have more of an impetus than the "winners" to write histories that comfort themselves and justify their own behavior. [21] Examples include the historiography of the American Civil War, where it can be argued that the losers (Southerners) have written more history books on the subject than the winners and, until recently, dominated the national perception of history. Confederate generals such as Lee and Jackson are generally held in higher esteem than their Union counterparts. Popular films such as Cold Mountain , Gone with the Wind , and The Birth of a Nation have told the story from the Southern viewpoint. Also, despite "losing" the Vietnam War, the United States produces more scholarship on the war than any other country, including Vietnam. [22] Popular history abounds with condemnations of the cruelty of African slave traders and colonists, despite the "winning" status of those people in their heyday. [21]

As is true of pre-Columbian populations of America, the historical record of America being "discovered" by Europeans is now sometimes presented as a history of invasion, exploitation and dominance of a people who had been there before the Europeans. This reinterpretation of the historical record is called historical revisionism, which can take the form of negationism, which is the denial of genocides and crimes against humanity. The revision of previously accepted historical accounts is a constant process in which "today's winners are tomorrow's losers", and the rise and fall of present institutions and movements influence the way historians see the past. [21] In the same sense, the teaching, in French secondary schools, of the Algerian War of Independence and of colonialism, has been criticized by several historians, and is the subject of frequent debates. Thus, in contradiction with the February 23, 2005 law on colonialism, voted by the UMP conservative party, historian Benjamin Stora notes that:

As Algerians do not appear in their "indigenous" conditions and their sub-citizens status, as the history of nationalist movement is never evoqued, as none of the great figures of the resistance — Messali Hadj, Ferhat Abbas — emerge nor retain attention, in one word, as no one explains to students what has been colonisation, we make them unable to understand why the decolonisation took place. [23]

Michel Foucault's analysis of historical and political discourse

The historico-political discourse analyzed by Michel Foucault in Society Must Be Defended (1975–76) considered truth as the fragile product of a historical struggle, first conceptualized under the name of "race struggle"—however, the meaning of "race" was different from today's biological notion, being closer to the sense of "nation" (distinct from nation-states; its signification is here closer to "people"). Boulainvilliers, for example, was an exponent of nobility rights. He claimed that the French nobility were the racial descendants of the Franks who invaded France (while the Third Estate was descended from the conquered Gauls), and had right to power by virtue of right of conquest. He used this approach to formulate a historical thesis of the course of French political history—a critique of both the monarchy and the Third Estate. Foucault regarded him as the founder of the historico-political discourse as political weapon.

In Great Britain, this historico-political discourse was used by the bourgeoisie, the people and the aristocracy as a means of struggle against the monarchy—cf. Edward Coke or John Lilburne. In France, Boulainvilliers, Nicolas Fréret, and then Sieyès, Augustin Thierry, and Cournot reappropriated this form of discourse. Finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, this discourse was incorporated by racialist biologists and eugenicists, who gave it the modern sense of "race" and, even more, transformed this popular discourse into a "state racism" (Nazism). According to Foucault, Marxists also seized this discourse and took it in a different direction, transforming the essentialist notion of "race" into the historical notion of "class struggle", defined by socially structured position: capitalist or proletarian. This displacement of discourse constitutes one of the bases of Foucault's thought: discourse is not tied to the subject, rather the "subject" is a construction of discourse. Moreover, discourse is not the simple ideological and mirror reflexion of an economical infrastructure, but is a product and the battlefield of multiples forces—which may not be reduced to the simple dualist contradiction of two energies.

Foucault shows that what specifies this discourse from the juridical and philosophical discourse is its conception of truth: truth is no longer absolute, it is the product of "race struggle". History itself, which was traditionally the sovereign's science, the legend of his glorious feats and monument building,he(the sovereign) built monuments,fought in wars and claims victory on behalf of himself which ultimately became the discourse of the people (modern population), a political stake. The subject is not any more a neutral arbitrator, judge, or legislator, as in Solon's or Kant's conceptions. Therefore, what became the "historical subject" must search in history's furor, under the "juridical code's dried blood", the multiple contingencies from which a fragile rationality temporarily finally emerged. This may be, perhaps, compared to the sophist discourse in Ancient Greece. Foucault warns that it has nothing to do with Machiavelli's or Hobbes's discourse on war, for to this popular discourse, the Sovereign is nothing more than "an illusion, an instrument, or, at the best, an enemy. It is {the historico-political discourse} a discourse that beheads the king, anyway that dispenses itself from the sovereign and that denounces it".

History and education

Since Plato's Republic , civic education and instruction has had a central role in politics and the constitution of a common identity. History has thus sometimes become the target of propaganda, for example in historical revisionist attempts. Plato's insistence on the importance of education was relayed by Rousseau's Emile: Or, On Education (1762), a necessary counterpart of The Social Contract (also 1762). Public education has been seen by republican regimes and the Enlightenment as a prerequisite of the masses' progressive emancipation, as conceived by Kant in Was Ist Aufklärung? (What Is Enlightenment?, 1784).

The creation of modern education systems, instrumental in the construction of nation-states, also passed by the elaboration of a common, national history. History textbooks are one of the many ways through which this common history was transmitted. Le Tour de France par deux enfants , for example, was the Third Republic's classic textbook for elementary school: it described the story of two French children who, following the German annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine region in 1870, go on a tour de France during which they become aware of France's diversity and the existence of the various patois .

In most societies[ which? ], schools and curricula are controlled by governments. As such, there is always an opportunity for governments to impose. Granted[ by whom? ], often governments in free societies serve to protect freedoms[ dubious ], check hate speech [ dubious ], and breaches of constitutional rights[ dubious ]; but the power itself to impose is available to use the education system to influence thought of malleable minds, positively or negatively, towards truth or towards a version of truth. A recent example of the fragility of government involvement with history textbooks was the Japanese history textbook controversies.

Narrative and history

A current popular conception considers the value of narrative in the writing and experience of history. Important thinkers in this area include Paul Ricœur, Louis Mink, W.B. Gallie, and Hayden White. Some have doubted this approach because it draws fictional and historical narrative closer together, and there remains a perceived "fundamental bifurcation between historical and fictional narrative" (Ricœur, vol. 1, 52). In spite of this, most modern historians, such as Barbara Tuchman or David McCullough, consider narrative writing important to their approaches. The theory of narrated history (or historicized narrative) holds that the structure of lived experience, and such experience narrated in both fictional and non-fictional works (literature and historiography) have in common the figuration of "temporal experience." In this way, narrative has a generously encompassing ability to "'grasp together' and integrate ... into one whole and complete story" the "composite representations" of historical experience (Ricœur x, 173). Louis Mink writes that, "the significance of past occurrences is understandable only as they are locatable in the ensemble of interrelationships that can be grasped only in the construction of narrative form" (148). Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson also analyzes historical understanding this way, and writes that "history is inaccessible to us except in textual form ... it can be approached only by way of prior (re)textualization" (82).

History and causality

Narrative and causal approaches to history have often been contrasted or, even, opposed to one another, yet they can also be viewed as complementary. [24] Some philosophers of history such as Arthur Danto have claimed that "explanations in history and elsewhere" describe "not simply an event—something that happens—but a change". [25] Like many practicing historians, they treat causes as intersecting actions and sets of actions which bring about "larger changes", in Danto's words: to decide "what are the elements which persist through a change" is "rather simple" when treating an individual's "shift in attitude", but "it is considerably more complex and metaphysically challenging when we are interested in such a change as, say, the break-up of feudalism or the emergence of nationalism". [26]

Much of the historical debate about causes has focused on the relationship between communicative and other actions, between singular and repeated ones, and between actions, structures of action or group and institutional contexts and wider sets of conditions. [27] John Gaddis has distinguished between exceptional and general causes (following Marc Bloch) and between "routine" and "distinctive links" in causal relationships: "in accounting for what happened at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, we attach greater importance to the fact that President Truman ordered the dropping of an atomic bomb than to the decision of the Army Air Force to carry out his orders." [28] He has also pointed to the difference between immediate, intermediate and distant causes. For his part, Christopher Lloyd puts forward four "general concepts of causation" used in history: the "metaphysical idealist concept, which asserts that the phenomena of the universe are products of or emanations from an omnipotent being or such final cause"; "the empiricist (or Humean) regularity concept, which is based on the idea of causation being a matter of constant conjunctions of events"; "the functional/teleological/consequential concept", which is "goal-directed, so that goals are causes"; and the "realist, structurist and dispositional approach, which sees relational structures and internal dispositions as the causes of phenomena". [29]

History as propaganda: Is history always written by the victors?

In his "Society must be Defended", Michel Foucault posited that the victors of a social struggle use their political dominance to suppress a defeated adversary's version of historical events in favor of their own propaganda, which may go so far as historical revisionism. (See Michel Foucault's analysis of historical and political discourse above.) Nations adopting such an approach would likely fashion a "universal" theory of history, a manifest destiny in the US, to support their aims, with a teleological and deterministic philosophy of history used to justify the inevitableness and rightness of their victories.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch's Culture of Defeat took a completely different view—according to him, defeat is a major driver for the defeated to reinvent himself, while the victor—confirmed in his attitudes and methods, dissatisfied by the high losses and paltry gains made, may be less creative and fall back. The concept evokes Hegel's Master–slave dialectics—the master is dependent of the work of the slave, the slave has to take his master's and his own interests into account, gets more knowledge and more insight as the master; and in realising that the world around him was created by his own hands he may gain self-consciousness and emancipation. Schivelbusch worked on three basic examples, the South and its Lost cause after the Civil War, France after the Franco-Prussian War 1870/71, and Germany following World War I. Wolfgang Schivelbusch view includes complex psychological and cultural responses of vanquished nations, from every level of society and sees a need and rise of creativity and various narratives for the defeated. [30]

Within a society Walter Benjamin believed that Marxist historians must take a radically different view point from the bourgeois and idealist points of view, in an attempt to create a sort of history from below, which would be able to conceive an alternative conception of history, not based, as in classical historical studies, on the philosophical and juridical discourse of sovereignty—an approach that would invariably adhere to major states (the victors') points of view. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur asked instead for a plurality in history writing. "We carry on several histories simultaneously, in times whose periods, crises, and pauses do not coincide. We enchain, abandon, and resume several histories, much as a chess player who plays several games at once, renewing now this one, now the another" (History and Truth 186). George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fictional account of the manipulation of the historical record for nationalist aims and manipulation of power.

To some degree, all nations are active in the promotion of such "national stories", with ethnicity, nationalism, gender, power, heroic figures, class considerations and important national events and trends all clashing and competing within the narrative.

With regard to the history of science, the introduction of new paradigms is depicted by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . [31] Innovation in science or technology is not based on single experiments or ideas per se, but needs a supportive environment and technical achievements to allow for a change of perspective. In all sorts of science (for e.g. mathematics see Bair et al. 2013 [32] ) innovative concepts are often being made in parallel (compare Zeitgeist), and the "winning" concept or individual contribution depends not on the idea per se, but other aspects as supportive circumstances, personal networks, usability or simple wording. The process may lead to format wars, which leaves losers and winners behind.

The Semmelweis reflex is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms, Semmelweis himself being driven into insanity, but his concept prevailing after his death grew in a strong narrative of the history of medicine. [33]

Judgment of history

For Hegel, the history of the world is also the Last Judgment. Hegel adopted the expression "Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht" ("world history is a tribunal that judges the world"; a quote from Friedrich Schiller's poem "Resignation" (published in 1786) and used to assert the view that History is what judges men, their actions and their opinions. [34]

Since the twentieth century, Western historians have disavowed the aspiration to provide the judgement of history. [35] [36] The goals of historical judgements or interpretations are separate to those of legal judgements, that need to be formulated quickly after the events and be final. [37] The issue of collective memory is related to the issue of the "judgement of history".

Related to the issue of historical judgement are those of the pretension to neutrality and objectivity. [38] [39] Analytical and critical philosophers of history have debated whether historians should express judgements on historical figures, or if this would infringe on their supposed role. [36] In general, positivists and neopositivists oppose any value-judgement as unscientific. [36]

See also


Related Research Articles

Historicism is the idea of attributing meaningful significance to space and time, such as historical period, geographical place, and local culture. Historicism tends to be hermeneutical because it values cautious, rigorous, and contextualized interpretation of information; or relativist, because it rejects notions of universal, fundamental and immutable interpretations. The approach varies from individualist theories of knowledge such as empiricism and rationalism, which neglect the role of traditions.

Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.

Structuralism theory that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure

In sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, structuralism is the methodology that implies elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader, overarching system or structure. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel. Alternatively, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, structuralism is "the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure".

Discourse written or spoken conversation

Discourse denotes written and spoken communications:

Frankfurt School A school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, at Goethe University Frankfurt

The Frankfurt School is a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, at Goethe University Frankfurt. Founded in the Weimar Republic (1918–33), during the European interwar period (1918–39), the Frankfurt School comprised intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents who were ill-fitted to the contemporary socio-economic systems of the 1930s. The Frankfurt theorists proposed that social theory was inadequate for explaining the turbulent political factionalism and reactionary politics occurring in ostensibly liberal capitalist societies in the 20th century. Critical of capitalism and of Marxism–Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organisation, the School's critical theory research indicated alternative paths to realising the social development of a society and a nation.

The zeitgeist is a concept from 18th- to 19th-century German philosophy, meaning "spirit of the age" or "spirit of the times". It refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch in world history.

Critique is a method of disciplined, systematic study of a written or oral discourse. Although critique is commonly understood as fault finding and negative judgment, it can also involve merit recognition, and in the philosophical tradition it also means a methodical practice of doubt. The contemporary sense of critique has been largely influenced by the Enlightenment critique of prejudice and authority, which championed the emancipation and autonomy from religious and political authorities.

In philosophy, epistemic theories of truth are attempts to analyze the notion of truth in terms of epistemic notions such as knowledge, belief, acceptance, verification, justification, and perspective.

Arthur Danto American art critic and philosopher

Arthur Coleman Danto was an American art critic and philosopher. He is best known for having been an influential, long-time art critic for The Nation and for his work in philosophical aesthetics and philosophy of history, though he contributed significantly to a number of fields, including the philosophy of action. His interests included thought, feeling, philosophy of art, theories of representation, philosophical psychology, Hegel's aesthetics, and the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer.

<i>Lectures on the Philosophy of History</i> book

Lectures on the Philosophy of History, also translated as Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, is a major work by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), originally given as lectures at the University of Berlin in 1822, 1828, and 1830. It presents world history in terms of the Hegelian philosophy in order to show that history follows the dictates of reason and that the natural progress of history is due to the outworking of absolute spirit.

Social construction of technology

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Dialectical materialism strand of Marxism

Dialectical materialism is a philosophy of science and nature developed in Europe and based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In contrast to the Hegelian dialectic, which emphasized the idealist observation that human experience is dependent on the mind's perceptions, Marxist dialectics emphasizes the importance of real-world conditions, in terms of class, labor, and socioeconomic interactions. Marx supposed that these material conditions contained contradictions which seek resolution in new forms of social organisation.


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  2. E.g. W. H. Walsh, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (1951) ch. 1 p. 2.
  3. Rolf Gruner, "The concept of speculative philosophy of history," Metaphilosophy3(4).
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  5. Philosophy of History, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. "What is Intellectual History?".
  7. 1 2 H. Mowlana (2001). "Information in the Arab World", Cooperation South Journal1.
  8. Compare: Ibn Khaldun (1958). "Introduction b y N. J. Dawood". The Muqaddimah : an introduction to history ; in three volumes. Princeton/Bollingen paperbacks. 1. Translated by Franz Rosenthal; compiled by N. J. Dawood (abridged, illustrated, reprint, revised ed.). Princeton University Press. p. x. ISBN   9780691017549 . Retrieved 2016-06-18. In rejecting idle superstition and denouncing uncritical acceptance of historical data, Ibn Khaldun adopted a scientific method totally new to his age, and used a new terminology to drive home his ideas. That he was fully aware of the originality of his thinking and the uniqueness of his contribution is illustrated by the many references he makes to his 'new science'.
  9. Compare Oswald Spengler and History as Destiny, page 93: "[...] the closing years of the First World War, when Spengler was completing his work, had witnessed the passing of the feudal rule of landed aristocracy in Germany and its merging into budding forms of parliamentary plutocracy - soon to be followed by the rise of 'mobocracy' and then Caesarism."
  10. Korotaev, A. V.; Malkov, Artemiĭ Sergeevich (2006). - Buy the book: Korotayev A., Malkov A., Khaltourina D. / Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends. ISBN   978-5-484-00559-8.
  11. Korotaev, Andrey Vital'yevich; Malkov, Artemiĭ Sergeevich; Khaltourina, Daria Andreyevna (2005). Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends. Editorial URSS (published 2006). ISBN   9785484005598 . Retrieved 2016-02-16.
  12. Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan, Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man: A Philosophy of History and Civilisational Triumph (Berlin: LIT, 2009)
  13. GCSP Archived 2012-03-14 at the Wayback Machine
  14. Geneva Press Club Archived 2011-10-03 at the Wayback Machine
  15. "Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man Reviewed By Norm Goldman of".
  16. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), "Preface"
  17. Ingold, T. On the Distinction between Evolution and History. Social Evolution & History,. Vol. 1, num. 1. 2002. Pp. 5-24. P. 9,
  18. " The better angels of our nature, a history of violence and humanity ", by Steven Pinker, published 2012 by Penguin books ISBN   978-0-141-03464-5
  19. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. Under the Thumb of History? Political institutions and the Scope for Action
  20. "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte".
  21. 1 2 3 4 Philips, John Edward (2006). Writing African History. University Rochester Press. pp. 26–27.
  22. Wiest, Andrew A. (2010). Triumph Revisited: Historians Battle for the Vietnam War. Taylor & Francis. p. 224.
  23. Colonialism through the school books - The hidden history of the Algerian war, Le Monde diplomatique , April 2001 ‹See Tfd› (in English)/ ‹See Tfd› (in French)
  24. Hewitson, M. (2014) History and Causality, 127-48.
  25. Danto, A. (1968) Analytical Philosophy of History, 233.
  26. Danto, A. (1968) Analytical Philosophy of History, 249.
  27. Hewitson, M. (2014) History and Causality, 86-116.
  28. Gaddis, J. L. (2002) The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, 64.
  29. Lloyd, C. (1993) Structures of History, 159.
  30. The Culture of Defeat by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, trans Jefferson Chase Granta, Guardian review 2003
  31. Kuhn, T., 1962, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", University of Chicago Press
  32. Bair, Jacques; Błaszczyk, Piotr; Ely, Robert; Henry, Valérie; Kanovei, Vladimir; Katz, Karin; Katz, Mikhail; Kutateladze, Semen; McGaffey, Thomas; Schaps, David; Sherry, David; Shnider, Steve (2013), "Is mathematical history written by the victors?" (PDF), Notices of the American Mathematical Society , 60 (7): 886–904, arXiv: 1306.5973 , doi:10.1090/noti1001 .
  33. Carter, K. Codell; Barbara R. Carter (February 1, 2005). Childbed fever. A scientific biography of Ignaz Semmelweis. Transaction Publishers. ISBN   978-1-4128-0467-7.
  34. Janez Juhant, Bojan Žalec (eds.), Reconciliation: The Way of Healing and Growth, LIT Verlag Münster, 2012, p. 98.
  35. Curran, Vivian Grosswald (2000) Herder and the Holocaust: A Debate About Difference and Determinism in the Context of Comparative Law in F. C. DeCoste, Bernard Schwartz (eds.) Holocaust's Ghost: Writings on Art, Politics, Law and Education pp.413-5
  36. 1 2 3 Parkinson, G.H.R An Encyclopedia of Philosophy pp.800, 807, 820
  37. Curran, Vivian Grosswald (2000) Herder and the Holocaust: A Debate About Difference and Determinism in the Context of Comparative Law in F. C. DeCoste, Bernard Schwartz (eds.) Holocaust's Ghost: Writings on Art, Politics, Law and Education p.415
  38. Rubinoff, Lionel History, Philosophy and Historiography: Philosophy and the Critique of Historical Thinking, in William Sweet The Philosophy of History: A Re-Examination, Chapter 9 p.171
  39. Andrew Holland Access to History: Russia and its Rulers 1855-1964 (OCR): Histroical Themes p.7

Further reading