I am pleased at the publication this month of a book I’ve been working on for quite a long time, New Contributions to the Philosophy of History (Methodos Series). (Here is a link to a digital version of the book on the Springer website.) The title is self-explanatory. The book is intended to jump-start a new round of conversations within analytic philosophy about the nature of history and historical explanation. The philosophy of social science and the philosophy of biology have contributed enormously to the progress of research in both these areas, and I believe that new discussions in the philosophy of history can be equally valuable.
The book was inspired out of the thought that reflections on history and historical knowledge have not been as prominent within philosophy as they once were; and yet the issues raised under this rubric are interesting and important. We need to have a better understanding of some of the conceptual and epistemic issues raised by the attempt to understand and explain human history. So it seems timely to reopen the domain of the philosophy of history with some new questions and new approaches.
The approach that I’ve taken in this book is to take very seriously the innovations and intellectual turns that gifted historians have brought forward in the past thirty years. Writers such as Philip Kuhn, Jonathan Spence, Robert Darnton, Simon Schama, Peter Perdue, and Michael Kammen have brought strikingly new perspectives to the writing of history; and often their innovations suggest new ways of formulating some basic issues in the philosophy of history. Good historians are often deeply insightful philosophers of history as well. I’ve tried to approach the philosophy of history along the lines of how many philosophers have approached various of the special sciences (biology, psychology, physics, sociology, anthropology): to combine good philosophical analysis and reasoning with a careful and sympathetic reading of some of the best current research efforts in those disciplines. When Simon Schama or Albert Soboul wrestle with the question, “What sort of thing was the French Revolution?”, we can learn a lot about how to think about historical ontology. And when Peter Perdue or R. Bin Wong propose a shift in thinking about Eurasia, we can get a much more precise understanding of the question of defining periods, regions, and civilizations.
The table of contents of the book gives a fairly good idea of the range of topics considered in the book: “History and Narrative,” “Historical Concepts and Social Ontology,” “Large Structures,” “Causal Mechanisms,” “History of Technology,” “Economic History,” “The Involution Debate,” and “Mentalities.” These discussions circle around three different master questions:
- How can we best define or conceptualize historical things (ontology)?
- What issues arise in our effort to provide knowledge about the past (epistemology)?
- What constitutes a good historical explanation (explanation)?
To these core questions, we can add another important one that emerges that perhaps falls closer to historiography than the philosophy of history:
- What are some innovative ways that contemporary historians have invented as a basis for representing the past?
One aspect of New Contributions is especially novel: the effort I’ve made to combine an intellectual process of traditional academic research and writing with the work I’ve been doing for the past three years on this blog, UnderstandingSociety. I announced in 2007 that “The blog is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time,” and New Contributions is my first effort to test out the viability of that idea. Most of the chapters in the book began as conference presentations designed to contribute eventually to this new approach to the philosophy of history. I had a book plan in mind as I wrote these papers and chapters over a ten-year period. After the book was accepted by the excellent editors of the Springer Methodos series, Daniel Courgeau and Robert Franck, I undertook a major rewriting of the full manuscript; and I realized that I was also writing quite a few posts on various aspects of the philosophy of history in the blog. So I undertook to integrate a lot of the new material into the manuscript. In the end, roughly 40 postings have been integrated into New Contributions, which amounts to more than a third of the book. So this is a fairly extended test run to evaluate the notion that it is possible to make significant intellectual progress on a subject through a series of separate blog postings.
Here are a couple of key paragraphs of the book; they give something of a feel for the kind of analysis I’m trying to offer.
Why do we need a better philosophy of history? Because we think we know what we mean when we talk about “knowledge of history,” “explaining historical change,” or “historical forces and structures.” But — we do not. Our assumptions about history are often superficial and fail to hold up to scrutiny. We often assume that history is an integrated fabric or web, in which underlying causal powers lead to enduring historical patterns. Or we assume that historical processes have meaning — with the result that later events can be interpreted as flowing within a larger pattern of meaning. Or we presuppose that there are recurring historical structures and entities–“states,” “cultures,” and “demographic regions” that are repeatedly instantiated in different historical circumstances.
I do not say that these assumptions are entirely wrong. I say that they are superficial, misleading, and simple in a context in which nuances matter. Take the idea of recurring historical structures. Is there some state “essence” possessed in common among the Carolingian state described by Marc Bloch, the theatre state of Bali described by Clifford Geertz, and the modern Chinese party state described by Vivienne Shue? If so, what is this set of essential properties that states have? If not, what alternative interpretation can we provide to “state talk” that makes coherent sense? (2)
I certainly hope the book will wind up in enough libraries around the world to allow a range of readers to get a chance to consider it! And the digital version made available by Springer is certainly a help; it allows readers to examine some of it online (link).