What is the philosophy of history?

When philosophers have written about “history”, they have often had different and even incompatible goals in mind. One tradition of philosophers, generally pre-twentieth century and generally from continental Europe, have wanted to contribute to answers to large questions about the nature of history as it presented itself over time as a compound of individuals, actions, nations, and civilizations: Does history have a direction? Does history have meaning? Is there a plan to history? Do civilizations rise and fall? Is materialism or idealism the better framework for understanding the movement of history? G. W. F. Hegel, for example, wanted to discover the underlying rationality within history. This approach to the study of history is often referred to as “speculative” or “substantive.”

A second group of philosophers, also largely continental, were inspired by the strong connections that exist between individual human life and expression, and large collective events and processes. The theory of hermeneutics attempts to provide an intellectual framework for analyzing and interpreting meaningful human expressions – poetry, actions, thoughts, and motives. Hermeneutic philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries extended this approach to efforts to understand large historical events and processes in similar terms. Wilhelm Dilthey was one of the early exponents of the hermeneutic approach to human affairs. Hermeneutic philosophy of history seeks to understand events, movements, and processes in terms of the meanings that they embody and the meaningful relations they bear to other historical events.

Another group of philosophers, often in the twentieth century and often English-speaking, have focused their attention on the nature of historical knowledge rather than the concrete events of history. Analytic philosophers have wanted to clarify the grounds of historical knowledge and explanation. Issues such as the nature of narrative, the role of general laws in historical explanations, and the objectivity or subjectivity of historical judgment have been taken up by Arthur Danto, Patrick Gardner, Carl Hempel, and others. This approach is sometimes referred to as “analytical”; more generally, we might say that it is epistemological and methodological.

New questions have emerged since World War II within the discourse of philosophy about “history” by philosophers, both analytical and continental. These new areas were stimulated, first, by the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the effort to make sense of this horrendous tear in the fabric of modern civilization. How are we to make sense of the Holocaust? How should we remember it? A second source of new thinking about history by contemporary philosophers is the linguistic and semantic turn that many of the human sciences took in the 1970s and 1980s (Rorty, 1967). A cohort of writers in the 1980s and 1990s undertook to approach history from the point of view of narrative and meaning. In some ways this was a return to the hermeneutic approach to human affairs of the nineteenth century; but it was also original in that it brought new thinking from the philosophy of language into the debate.

There is a valid but limited place for metaphysical research in the area of the philosophy of history. Fundamentally, we need to have a clearer specification of the meaning of key concepts that we use in analyzing and describing historical events and structures. Philosophers can help in probing and refining these concepts. These ontological questions are really about our conceptual schemes rather than about substantive historical facts. What presuppositions are we making when we divide history into epochs or regions? Does it make sense to refer to civilizations as a whole? So we need a more explicit theory of historical ontology, and the philosophy of history can help to provide such a theory. What we cannot hope to achieve is an apriori discovery of the reality of history – its meaning, direction, or foundational causes. This is not a limitation of our ability to discover historical truths, but rather a reflection of the fact that there are no general answers to these questions at all. Kant’s critique of substantive metaphysics is decisive here.

As this summary suggests, there are many unanswered questions that philosophers can usefully pose to the discipline and facts of history. For this reason it is timely to consider some new approaches to the philosophy of history. The past decade has seen several contributions that are difficult to classify according to the distinctions provided above. They are analytic but not reductionist; they pay attention to narrative but nonetheless attribute rational warrant to historical accounts; and they are respectful towards the actual practices of gifted historians, rather than assuming that the philosophy of history can proceed as a separate philosophical discourse. Significantly, new contributions to this subject come from philosophers, literary critics, anthropologists, and historians. Perhaps this is a clue for how the field might most productively move forward: by incorporating several philosophical perspectives, by raising new questions, and by reaching across the human sciences as well as philosophy to find some innovative new answers.

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