Idealist philosophy of history

In a previous post I commended W.H. Walsh’s approach to the philosophy of history for Walsh’s sympathetic effort to understand both traditions in the field, including what is called “speculative” philosophy of history. And Walsh is to be commended as well for his analytical ability to formulate and explicate these positions. This is in fact what we want from good historians of philosophy — a detailed, text-based explication of the theories of difficult thinkers such as Hegel and Dilthey.

So the fact that Walsh offers an extended and nuanced interpretation of the efforts by Hegel, Herder, and Dilthey is to his credit as an exegetical scholar. But a key issue remains: do the positions that he explicates stand up to criticism? Is there in fact an intellectually credible place for speculative or idealist philosophy of history?

Walsh’s position seems to be ambiguous on this question. On the one hand, he seems sometimes simply to be saying that there is a meaningful and philosophically intelligible program of thought associated with the speculative school — which is consistent with an ultimate finding that this program fails in execution. And at other times he seems to go further and to assert that Hegel or Herder actually succeed in providing something of a substantive speculative philosophy of history that adds to our knowledge. Here is how he describes the intellectual work Hegel seeks to complete:

To accomplish this task the philosopher must take the results of empirical history as data, but it will not suffice for him merely to reproduce them. He must try to illuminate history by bringing his knowledge of the Idea, the formal articulation of reason, to bear upon it, striving, in a phrase Hegel uses elsewhere, to elevate empirical contents to the rank of necessary truth. (143)

Here is part of Walsh’s assessment of the success of Hegel’s project:

We must now try to estimate the adequacy of this defence. As regards the first point, it is surely successful. I have tried to stress throughout this chapter and the last the metaphysical and moral context within which speculative philosophy of history arose and was pursued. As we have seen, those engaged in these enquiries were concerned to divine the meaning or point or rationality behind the historical process as a whole, and they took up this question primarily because of its metaphysical relevance. (148)

My own assessment of idealist philosophy of history as presented by Walsh is measured. First, Walsh includes the centrality of action and ideas within history as a central tenet of idealist philosophy of history. This is Collingwood’s central idea, and it seems to be Dilthey’s as well. And in my opinion, it is a credible and empirically suitable hypothesis. Even if we conclude in the end that there is more to the historical process than deliberation and action, we can agree that action is a highly important component. And therefore an explication of the ways we investigate and interpret meanings and actions is a valid exercise. It falls in the category of epistemology, with a harmless bit of ontology stirred in (the constitutive importance of action).

But it must be emphasized that this perspective doesn’t rule out other important insights into the ways that historical change takes place. In particular, we can also adhere to a limited materialism and structuralism in history, following Marx in holding that “men make their own history, but not in circumstance of their own choosing.”

Second, I’m willing to be persuaded that there is a valid object of study for philosophers in the logical-semantic systems that thinkers like Hegel have created; and this extends to their philosophies of history. So the philosophical study and explication of metaphysical philosophy of history is a rationally acceptable enterprise as well.

What I have difficulty in accepting is that such a system can actually succeed. When Walsh writes that the goal of the historian and the philosopher is to tell the story of history in such a way that all the events make sense within the context of a master narrative — when he proposes that the goal of the philosophy of history is to discover the real meaning and rationality of history as a whole — I believe he is describing an effort that cannot succeed. There is no single unifying meaning or plan in history. And efforts to “colligate” events in such a way as to demonstrate that they contribute to such a plan seem to be unguided acts of creativity.

It is a commonplace that a series of actual events can be interpreted in different and apparently incompatible ways. We can attribute different motives to the actors and interpret their actions in such a way as to tell very different stories. (This is what we refer to as the “Rashomon effect”.)  In ordinary settings we can sometimes gain more evidence to choose between them. But when the choice is between interpretation frameworks at the highest level — a materialist theory of history and a theory based on the unfolding of reason, for example — we can’t possibly provide empirical evidence that would choose between these all-encompassing hypotheses.

So I’m putting my bets on several ideas: yes to the validity of the hermeneutic program, yes to the interpretive task of understanding the great metaphysical systems from a philosophical point of view, and no to the idea of rationally justifiable interpretations of the whole of history. In Walsh’s terms this means yes to a limited idealism, yes to the task of the history of philosophy, and no to the aspiration towards a substantive metaphysics of history.

And, indeed, Walsh seems eventually to come to a similar conclusion:

Our speculative philosophy of history must accordingly be a mixed one. In a way, we are forced to characterize it as utterly wrong-headed, since its programme amounts to an attempt to comprehend history from the outside; an attempt which, as Croce made clear long ago, cannot have any appeal for working historians. On the other hand, its most celebrated exponents certainly did make an important indirect contribution to the development of historical studies, as we have just tried to show.  Whether there is any future in this type of philosophizing is another question, dependent, it would seem, on what chance there is of anyone’s producing a tenable moral justification of the course history has taken. (153-54)


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