João Ohara’s new synthesis of the philosophy of history

What is the subject matter of the philosophy of history? This is an extremely difficult question to answer given the wide range of topics, methods, and philosophical perspectives that have been included under the umbrella since 1750. It is therefore a welcome development to read João Ohara’s very interesting and illuminating discussion of this topic in his recently released Cambridge Element, The Theory and Philosophy of History: Global Variations. As Ohara puts his aim in the book in the opening section, “this Element is dedicated to … arguing for a broad and inclusive understanding of the theory and philosophy of history” (1).

Ohara’s approach is an appealing one. He draws a number of clear distinctions between “philosophy of history”, “theory of history”, and “philosophy of historiography”, but he resists the idea that it should be possible to give a clear, exact, and sharply delineated definition of the discipline of the “philosophy of history”. Instead, he argues for an open-ended set of intellectual questions and approaches that all concern “history” but derive from substantially different intellectual orientations. And in aid of this approach, Ohara’s deep knowledge of the many literatures that have contributed to philosophical statements about knowledge of the past gives his analysis great credibility.

Ohara brings a specialist’s knowledge to the work of tracing out the various groups of thinkers who have reflected on “philosophy of history”, “philosophy of historiography”, and “theory of history”. He identifies clear exemplars of each phrase, and shows that they involve rather different assumptions about the nature of the task of “reflection upon our knowledge about the past”. For example, he points out that Leyden and Gardiner use the latter two phrases interchangeably; whereas in his view, they need to be separated; 16. And he prefers Herman Paul’s definition in Key Issues in Historical Theory of historical theory: “conceptual analysis of how human beings relate to the past”. Ohara’s careful and specific delineation of different conceptions of these sometimes interchangeable concepts is a highly valuable contribution to the practice of “philosophical reflections on historical knowledge”.

Ohara gives particular attention to the theory of “narrativism” associated with Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit (6 ff.). Here the crucial questions surround the issue of historical truth and objectivity.  Does narrativism force the reader to adopt the view that there are alternative and apparently incompatible narratives about the same major events in history, and there is no rational basis for judging that one account is more true, or better supported by the available evidence, than another? Here Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen’s “post-narrativism” (Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography) provides a relevant basis for recasting and defending the ideas of “approximate truth” of various historical accounts. 

Another valuable dimension of Ohara’s treatment is his global approach to the question of the nature of “history”. He is equally comfortable with Continental, Anglo-American, and Latin American and South Asian contributions and insights into how we create and understand “history”. He emphasizes the historical fact of colonialism as a crucial dimension of non-European thinking about “history” and historical events. Ohara takes up this theme in detail in section 3, “Theory and philosophy of history beyond ‘The West’.” One part of the difficulty for intellectuals in colonized societies, or post-colonial societies, is the fact that much of the conceptual space concerning “history” has been filled by the very traditions and nations that exercised colonial dominion over their own countries. This is the issue of Eurocentric historical thinking (much along the lines contested by Bin Wong when it comes to China’s history (link)). And Ohara believes that important new insights can be gained by reading seriously the writings of non-European thinkers on the topic of history. Referring to Spivak, Mbembe, Chakrabarty, and Seth, he writes: “All these authors raise questions that are fundamental to our philosophical and theoretical understanding of history, from the metaphysics of historical experience to the epistemology of historiography” (22). Ohara’s treatment makes it clear that there is much to be learned from the different perspectives found in diverse world traditions of thought about “history”. A concrete example has to do with the perspectives taken by philosophers on colonialism and liberation in South Asia or Latin America: 

As introduced in Argentina in the 1970s, the philosophy of liberation sought to overcome the “model and deviation” framework by exposing the Eurocentric foundations of modern Western thought. For one of its proponents, Enrique Dussel, Western philosophy’s claim to universalism was inseparable from Western colonialism and imperialism: “Modern European philosophers ponder the reality that confronts them; they interpret the periphery from the center. But the colonial philosophers of the periphery gaze at a vision foreign to them, one that is not their own. From the center they see themselves as nonbeing, nothingness”. (Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation)

In the end Ohara favors an inclusive conception of the philosophy and theory of history, serving as an umbrella for philosophical consideration of a number of different kinds of issues raised by the tasks associated with gaining knowledge about the past. He quotes Herman Paul once again with approval, from Paul’s 2021 contribution to Kuukkanen’s Philosophy of History: Twenty-First-Century Perspectives

Paul has proposed that we think of a “hermeneutic space” where historians and philosophers of history can engage each other’s ideas in an open-ended conversation, a space he called the History and Philosophy of History (HPH). As the “hermeneutic” adjective suggests, this space does away with the need for previously agreed concepts, approaches, or questions, or a well-defined research agenda. Instead, “the only demand that this space makes upon participants is that they are, and remain, committed to dialogical virtues (curiosity, generosity, empathy, open-mindedness) without which no productive exchange can take place”. (40-41)

This open-ended approach raises the question, how do working historians contribute to the philosophy and theory of history? Ohara refers to Aviezer Tucker’s view that philosophers of history should observe the actual intellectual work of historians, but should pay little attention to the historian’s comments about the nature of that work, on the ground that historians are not often well equipped to provide compelling theories of the historical enterprise (12). But Ohara’s approach suggests that this draws too sharp a line between “doing history” and “theorizing history”. And in fact, there seems to be a wide variation in the interest that historians have in “theorizing” history. E.P. Thompson, for example, is an outstanding social historian; but it is hard to think of anything he wrote that could be regarded as a serious, thoughtful contribution to the question, “how historians reason” (link). On the other hand, Robert Darnton — likewise an outstanding social and cultural historian — had a great deal of substance to say about the nature of historical research and reasoning (link). So the jury is out — but that implies that philosophers of history should at least seriously consider the reflective writings of historians about their discipline. 

 Theory and Philosophy of History: Global Variations is a valuable and instructive contribution for anyone interested in understanding how philosophy intersects with historical knowledge. Ohara makes the case for an inclusive and open-ended definition of the field, inviting new questions and new approaches. His preferred specification of the scope of philosophical questions about historical knowledge is “theory and philosophy of history” (41). This pluralistic approach welcomes perspectives coming from the many strands of thought in western philosophy of history; but it also emphasizes the fundamental importance of opening the discipline to the perspectives of scholars and intellectuals from other global cultures. Ohara demonstrates what is all too often overlooked: that research and theory in the human sciences proceeds on the basis of different mental frameworks in different world traditions. The Eurocentrism that characterizes much discourse in social and historical research is best undone by taking seriously the intellectual traditions and discoveries of other global intellectual networks. Ohara has helped us do that in the field of the philosophy of history.

(Here are several earlier posts on global history; linklink.) 

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