Re-mapping the philosophy of history


The prior post offered a schematic description of the tasks involved in arriving at historical knowledge. Here I want to ask a related question: what is the work that we can hope to do with a philosophy of history?  We don’t have a philosophy of office furniture; we do have a philosophy of technology. So what is it about history that supports philosophical inquiry?  Why is the enterprise of investigating, documenting, and explaining facts about the past amenable to philosophical study? What makes the effort to arrive at knowledge of facts about the past an area of philosophical concern?

There are a couple of matters that are relatively clear. First, the domain of historical knowledge is a familiar subject for philosophical inquiry. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge generally. Philosophy of science is the careful analysis of the methods and justification of scientific knowledge. And philosophy of historical knowledge is likewise an epistemic and methodological domain: How do we know about the past? Are there limits to our possible knowledge about the past? What is involved in explaining a historical fact? Answers to these questions and others in the same vein may be difficult and controversial; but it is clear how they fit into existing conceptions of philosophical inquiry.

If the philosophy of history were limited to these sorts of questions, then it would be a variant of epistemology or the philosophy of science. However, some philosophers have felt that substantive history itself raises questions that do not reduce to questions about knowledge of this domain.

Here is one possibility: perhaps we need a metaphysics of history — an account of the kinds of things, forces, and structures that exist in the realm of history. Perhaps the metaphysics of history can shed light on what kinds of structures and entities travel through history, and what kinds of causal processes and dynamical systems propel change in the structures and entities.

For example: Marx wrote that “history is the history of class conflict.” This implies that classes are historical objects — they exist in the flow of historical events. Other historians have said things like this: classical slavery gave way to feudalism, which was followed by capitalism. This formulation presupposes that large social-economic systems — for example, social property systems — exist in history and conform to some set of dynamics. And yet others have tried to analyze world history into a set of more or less distinct civilizations — bodies of values, ideas, identities, and institutions that differ significantly one from the other.

We might say, however, that none of these questions pertains to a metaphysics of history, but rather a metaphysics of thesocial world. History is about change and transformation; but the subject of change is social structures, cultures, and agents that exist within the social world at a period of time. So classes, social-property systems, ideologies, and religions are allsocial arrangements that change over time. If there is such a thing as a “civilization”, this is a fact about society at a certain time, not a fact about the structure of history. History has to do with events and dynamic properties; the social world encompasses everything that is happening at a moment in time.  We might consider an analogy with fluids — “history” is the waves, society is the water.

We might be more inclined to recognize a metaphysics of history if we thought there were temporal structures that could be discovered in substantive history — perhaps the business cycle, the Kondratiev long-wave economic cycle, or the rise and fall of civilizations. In other words, if we thought that events and changes conformed to a higher-level pattern of temporal change, we might want to say that the meta-temporal pattern is a metaphysical characteristic of history. But it would also be tempting to say: these patterns of change too represent nothing more than empirical characteristics of social phenomena over time.  They need to be explained using the tools of the social sciences and are not properly the subject of aprioriinvestigation.

This suggests two important conclusions: There is no such thing as an historical ontology as such but only a social ontology; and there is no such thing as an historical theory of change as such but only social theories of change. The ontologies and theories that historians employ are strictly speaking features of social science knowledge rather than historical knowledge. So, properly understood, there is no legitimate place for an investigation of the “metaphysics” of history; that space is filled entirely by an understanding of the metaphysics of the social world.  tIn this case, the philosophy of history is no more than a component of the philosophy of social science, with no distinctive questions or answers of its own other than the epistemological issues mentioned above.

This discussion suggests a few rather deflationary conclusions about the possible scope of research in the philosophy of history:

  • Philosophical work directed towards elucidating the epistemology and methodology of historical knowledge is straightforward but limited.
  • Philosophical work directed towards elucidating the metaphysical underpinnings of “history” will be disappointing; those foundations exist within the domain of the philosophy of the social sciences rather than the philosophy of history.
  • The dynamics of historical change are properly the subject matter of the social sciences rather than the philosopher of history.
  • It is true that some historical investigation requires “hermeneutic” interpretation of meanings; but these efforts always fall at the level of interpreting the meaning of historical actions and cultural settings.

This analysis suggests there isn’t a lot of scope for the philosophy of history beyond the function of serving as a counterpart to the philosophy of science. We might say that there are basically three relevant activities in the realm of historical thinking. There is first-order research into facts about the past based on currently available evidence. There is analysis and explanation of those facts, including methods ranging from ethnography to process-tracing to application of findings from the social sciences. These two parts of historical research are guided by ensembles of historical methods and practices (historiography). And there is philosophical reflection on the logic and limitations of these processes of inquiry and inference, the narrowly epistemic version of the philosophy of history. This aspect of the discussion includes as well the conceptual work that philosophers are well qualified for — posing and answering questions like “What is history?”, “What is a cause?”, or “What is involved in expressing a meaningful action?”. On this scenario there is no room at all for substantive or metaphysical philosophy of history.

The title of Ian Hacking’s book, Historical Ontology, suggests that he thinks otherwise, and that there is such a thing as an ontology of history.  However, the sense of the title is different: he is interested in the history of ontologies — the ways that our conceptual systems have changed over time — rather than the ontology of history.

(I should say that this is a pretty limited view of the scope of the philosophy of history, so it should be taken as provisional.)


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