W. H. Walsh’s philosophy of history

English-speaking philosophers have often made a hash of the philosophy of history. Either they have had such disdain for continental philosophy that they could not get their minds around the thoughts of a Hegel or a Dilthey, or they became pre-occupied with certain minor linguistic or logical issues and therefore couldn’t get to the more serious problems. W. H. Walsh was a surprising exception in the British environment of the 1950s. His Philosophy of History. An Introduction, first published in 1951 and revised in 1960, is an open-minded and very well grounded effort to provide an in-depth presentation of the field.

The book attempts to treat both major aspects of the philosophy of history: the nature of historical knowledge and the possibility of gaining “metaphysical” knowledge about history. An Oxford philosopher evidently trained in modern philosophy, Walsh was strongly influenced by Collingwood and was well aware of the European idealist tradition of philosophical thinking about history, including Rickert, Dilthey, and Croce, and he treats this tradition in a serious way. He draws the distinction between these traditions along the lines of “critical” and “speculative” philosophy of history. Walsh’s goal for the book is ambitious; he hopes to propose a framework within which the main questions about history can be addressed, including both major traditions.  I find the book to be an excellent piece of work on the subject, and very enjoyable to work through.  Here are a couple of large groups of questions that he poses in the book in order to formulate a structure for thinking about the philosophy of history.


Walsh lays out the field of the philosophy of history along the following lines.

First, he offers some ideas about the subject matter and knowledge content of history.  He describes the goal of historical inquiry in these terms:

[The historian] aims … at a reconstruction of the past which is both intelligent and intelligible. (32)

What every historian seeks for is not a bare recital of unconnected facts, but a smooth narrative in which every event falls as it were into its natural place and belongs to an intelligible whole. (33)

The historian is present with a number of events, actions, and developments during a period.  How do they hang together?  The process of cognition through which the historian makes sense of a set of separate historical events Walsh refers to as “colligation“:

Colligation: to locate a historical event in a larger historical process in terms of which it makes sense (23). This process of reasoning serves to establish the “inner connections between certain historical events” (24).

Walsh fundamentally accepts Collingwood’s most basic premise: that history concerns conscious human action.  Collingwood’s slogan was that “history ist the science of the mind,” and Walsh appears to accept much of this perspective.  So the key intellectual task for the historian, on this approach, is to reconstruct the reasons or motives that actors had at various points in history (and perhaps the conditions that led them to have these reasons and motives).  This means that the tools of interpretation of meanings and reasons are crucial for the historian — much as the hermeneutic philosophers in the German tradition had argued.


One of the central questions that Walsh identifies is whether history is a part of “science,” or whether it is a sui generis kind of knowledge.  Here is Walsh’s summary definition of the key features of a field of scientific knowledge:

We may sum up the results of this brief attempt to bring out the main features of the common conception of science and scientific knowledge as follows. We apply the term “science” to knowledge which (i) is methodically arrived at and systematically related; (ii) consists of, or at least includes, a body of general truths; (iii) enables us to make successful predictions and so to control the future course of events, in some measure at least; (iv) is objective, in the sense that it is such as every unprejudiced observer ought to accept if the evidence were put before him, whatever his personal predilections or private circumstances. (36)

And he argues that history satisfies (i); probably not (ii); not (iii); and qualified yes to (iv). In other words, according to Walsh, history is not a science in the paradigmatic sense of physics or chemistry.

If history is not “science,” then what kind of knowledge is it?  The main alternative is what Walsh characterizes as the idealist conception of historical knowledge.  Here is what Walsh refers to as the “standard idealist account of historical knowledge“:

History, because it offers a body of knowledge methodically arrived at, is a science; but it is a science of a peculiar kind. It is not an abstract but a concrete science, and it terminates not in general but in individual truths. 43

Nature we must look at from the outside, but thoughts and experiences are accessible to us from within.  We can grasp them in a unique way because we can re-think or re-live them, imaginatively putting ourselves in the place of the persons, past or present, who first thought or experienced them. (44)

The idealist theory of history, we may begin by remarking, consists in essentials of two propositions. First, that history is, in a sense which remains to be specified, properly concerned with human thoughts and experiences. And second that, just because of this, historical understanding is of a unique and immediate character. (48)

These characteristics recall German historicism and interpretivism.  (See this post on the methodological crisis in German thought around 1900; link.)


Walsh suggests that the philosophical content of the philosophy of history falls naturally into two different sorts of inquiry, parallel to the distinction between philosophy of nature and philosophy of science.  The first has to do with metaphysical questions about the reality of history as a whole; the latter has to do with the epistemic issues that arise in the pursuit and formulation of knowledge of history.   He refers to these approaches as “speculative” and “critical” aspects of the philosophy of history.  And he attempts to formulate a view of what the key questions are for each approach.

Speculative philosophy of history asks —

  • What is the meaning and purpose of the whole historical process? (25)
  • Can we “write such an account of the detailed course of historical events that its ‘true’ significance and ‘essential’ rationality are brought out?” (25)
  • What is the main driving factor in history? (Marx: economics) (26)
  • “We may summarize by saying that if the philosopher can be said to have any specific concern with the course of history, it must be with that course as a whole, i.e., with the significance of the whole historical process.” (27)

Walsh take a supportive or or at least agnostic position on these questions; he asserts that they are meaningful questions and can meaningfully be considered. This is in contrast to the position of the verificationist end of the analytic philosophy spectrum, which would deny the meaningfulness of these questions (and proposed answers).

Critical philosophy of history asks these four key sets of questions:

  • “What sort of thing is history and how does it relate to other studies?” (16)
  • Are there “facts” in history? What makes a historical statement “true”? (18)
  • Is historical knowledge “objective”? (19) [historian’s bias; rational decidability]
  • What is the nature of a historical explanation? (22)

Critical philosophy is what we now refer to as “analytic” philosophy; it is the equivalent for history of what the philosophy of science is for nature.

The book is divided into two large discussions.  Chapters II-V treat these four major groups of questions for critical philosophy of history.  Chapters VI-VIII focus on the issues and theories offered by Kant, Herder, Hegel, and a few others on “metaphysical” questions about history.


It is interesting to consider the intellectual origins of innovative philosophical insights.  So where did this philosophical perspective and methodology come from in Walsh’s own development?  Walsh is plainly an expert on the history of modern philosophy, including especially German philosophy.  This means that he has read, and thought about, the tradition from Kant and Schleiermacher and Herder to Hegel and Dilthey, and is able to make philosophical sense of their theories.  He authored a number of articles on Kant, Hegel, and other German philosophers, and was the author of a book on Kant’s metaphysics (Kant’s Criticism of Metaphysics).  What does this imply about his training and his development within British philosophy?  He entered Merton College, Oxford, in roughly 1930, and took his first professional post as a philosopher at Merton College in 1947 through 1960.  The bulk of his academic career was spent at the University of Edinburgh as a professor of logic and metaphysics.  So here is the interesting question for me: to what extent was Walsh an analytic philosopher, in the mold of Russell, Ayer, and Ryle, and to what extent was he an idealist philosopher, in the pattern of Collingwood or Bradley? (He refers several times to Ryle’s The Concept of Mind.) His comments in the first chapter of the book suggest that he positions himself separately from both camps, while understanding the philosophical perspectives and methods of both.  The evidence of this book suggests that he had an admirably pluralistic approach to the problems of philosophy.

Here is a bibliography of some of Walsh’s published articles and reviews (link), and here is a reconsideration of his philosophy of history with regard to “facts and truth,” published in 1977 in History and Theory as a review of Leon J. Goldstein, Historical Knowing (Austin, Texas and London, University of Texas Press, 1976).  In the course of the review he considers how the discipline of analytic philosophy of history has developed since 1951, and he finds that three of his four questions have come in for very extensive discussion.

(I discovered along the way, an amazing bargain as a Kindle book, Marnie Hughes Warrington’s Fifty Key Thinkers on History, Second Edition ($14).  The book has 3000-word discussions of fifty important historians and philosophers — Bloch, Collingwood, Dilthey, Hempel, Obsbawm, Oakeshott, Ricoeur, Vico — and is well worth having on the Kindle. The essays are concise and informative, and they generally raise the big issues that were important to the various thinkers.  There is an entry for Walsh as well.)

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