history, philosophy of

history, philosophy of
Branch of philosophy concerned with questions about the meaningfulness of history and the nature of historical explanation.

Philosophy of history in the traditional sense is conceived to be a first-order inquiry, its subject matter being the historical process as a whole and its broad aim being to provide an overall elucidation of its course. As a second-order inquiry, philosophy of history focuses on the methods by which practicing historians treat the human past. The former, often referred to as speculative philosophy of history, has had a long and varied career; the latter, known as critical or analytical philosophy of history, rose to prominence only in the 20th century.

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      the study either of the historical process and its development or of the methods used by historians to understand their material.

      The term history (historiography) may be employed in two quite different senses: it may mean (1) the events and actions that together make up the human past, or (2) the accounts given of that past and the modes of investigation whereby they are arrived at or constructed. When used in the first sense, the word refers to what as a matter of fact happened, while when used in the second sense it refers to the study and description of those happenings.

      The notion of philosophical reflection upon history and its nature is consequently open to more than one interpretation, and contemporary writers have found it convenient to regard it as covering two main types of undertaking. On the one hand, they have distinguished philosophy of history in the traditional or classical sense; this is conceived to be a first-order enquiry, its subject matter being the historical process as a whole and its aim being, broadly speaking, one of providing an overall elucidation or explanation of the course and direction taken by that process. On the other hand, they have distinguished philosophy of history considered as a second-order enquiry; here attention is not focussed upon the actual sequence of events themselves but, instead, upon the procedures and categories used by practicing historians in approaching and comprehending their material. The former, often alluded to as speculative philosophy of history, has had a long and varied career; the latter, which is generally known as critical or analytical philosophy of history, has only risen to prominence during the 20th century.

Speculative theories

The idea of an order or design in history
      The belief that it is possible to discern in the course of human history some general scheme or design, some all-encompassing purpose or pattern, is very old and has found expression in various forms at different times and places. The reasons for its persistence and vitality are numerous, but two very general considerations may be identified as having exercised a fairly continuous influence. First, it has often been supposed that, if the belief in an overall pattern is abandoned, one is obliged to acquiesce in the view that the historical process consists of no more than an arbitrary succession of occurrences, a mere agglomeration or patchwork of random incidents and episodes. But such a view (it has been contended) cannot be seriously entertained, if only because it conflicts with the basic demand for system and order that underlies and governs all rational enquiry, all meaningful thought about the world. Second, it has frequently been felt that to refuse to allow that history is finally intelligible in the required manner implies a skepticism concerning the value of human life and existence that constitutes an affront to the dignity of human nature. The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (Kant, Immanuel), for example, spoke of the “repugnance” that is inevitably experienced if the past is viewed

as if the whole web of human history were woven out of folly and childish vanity and the frenzy of destruction, so that one hardly knows in the end what idea to form of our race, for all that it is so proud of its prerogatives.

      In more recent times, a comparable attitude is discernible beneath Arnold Toynbee's (Toynbee, Arnold) uncompromising repudiation of the idea that history is “a chaotic, disorderly, fortuitous flux, in which there is no pattern or rhythm of any kind to be discerned.” Thus, it has been the object of a long line of theorists, representative of widely divergent outlooks, to demonstrate that such pessimism is unjustified and that the historical process can, when appropriately viewed, be seen to be both rationally and morally acceptable.

Theological origins
      Western speculation concerning the meaning of history derived in the first instance chiefly from theological sources. The belief that history conforms to a linear development in which the influence of providential wisdom can be discerned, rather than to a recurrent cyclical movement of the kind implicit in much Greco-Roman thought, was already becoming prevalent early in the Christian (Christianity) Era. Traces of this approach are to be found in the conception of the past set forth by St. Augustine (Augustine, Saint) in his City of God and elsewhere; it is, for example, compared on one occasion to “the great melody of some ineffable composer,” its parts being “the dispensations suitable to each different period.” Yet the cautious subtlety of Augustine's suggestions and the crucial distinction he drew between sacred and secular history make it important not to confuse his carefully qualified doctrines with the cruder positions advanced by some of his self-proclaimed successors. This applies, par excellence, to the work of the most renowned and thorough of these, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne). Written 1,250 years after Augustine's death, Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire universelle (1681; “Discourse on Universal History”) is imbued throughout with a naïve confidence that the entire course of history owes its pervasive character to the contrivance of a “higher wisdom.” In the eyes of Bossuet, to grasp and understand the great procession of empires and religions was “to comprehend in one's mind all that is great in human affairs and have the key to the history of the universe.” For the rise and fall of states and creeds depended in the end upon the secret orders of Providence, the latter being the source of that manifest historical justice and retribution to which, on nearly every page, the annals of the past bore clear and unmistakable witness. Bossuet's vast survey was, in fact, the last major contribution to its genre. Though it made a considerable impression when it was first published, it appeared just before the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (Newton, Sir Isaac) effected a massive transformation of the European outlook, and the book's impact was short-lived. Thus, the development of historical speculation in the 18th century was generally marked by a tendency to reject theological and providential interpretations in favour of an approach more closely aligned, in method and aim, to that adopted by natural scientists in their investigations of the physical world.

Secular approaches: the Enlightenment and beyond
      For many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers, the project of establishing a science of history and society, comprising hypotheses and laws of an explanatory power analogous to that attained by theories in the physical sciences, acquired an almost obsessive importance. The age of religious and metaphysical conjectures concerning the destiny of human affairs had, in their opinion, come to a close. The task that now presented itself was one of constructing, upon the basis of hard observable facts, interpretations that would not only rescue the human studies from ignorance, uncertainty, and primitive superstition but also put into men's hands an instrument for predicting and controlling their fate. Thus, the idea of creating a universally valid social science, capable of accounting for the phenomena of history in terms of causal principles comparable to those employed in the natural sphere, came to be linked with the promotion of reformist and revolutionary ideals. Men such as Condillac and Condorcet in the 18th century and Henri de Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Thomas Buckle in the 19th century all believed that it was feasible to apply scientific procedures to the study of human development. But equally—though in widely different ways—they were men deeply concerned with practical objects and committed to changing existing institutions and ways of life. To these men, theory was complementary to practice; knowledge was power.

      Yet even in the 19th century, when speculation of this type was at its height, there were informed skeptics—Joseph de Maistre and Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, and later the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt—who challenged the optimistic and rationalistic (Rationalism) presuppositions on which it was founded. It was pointed out that notions such as that of the perfectibility of man or of the existence of some foreseeable goal toward which the course of events was inexorably leading were not empirically established truths but mere articles of faith; in subscribing to them, historical theorists often appeared to be tacitly importing into their allegedly scientific interpretations teleological (teleology) conceptions of a kind that it had been their declared intention to banish forever from social enquiry. These objections have been repeated and amplified by 20th-century critics such as Karl Popper (Popper, Sir Karl), who have also maintained that the theorists in question were, in any case, working with an unacceptably crude notion of scientific reasoning and that their high-sounding generalities conspicuously failed to measure up to the requisite standards of conceptual precision and observational testability.

      Although such strictures have considerable force, they should not obscure the significant contribution that had been made toward extending human knowledge and understanding. The tendency, for example, to insist upon the relevance of scientific modes of procedure to the areas of historical and social investigation at least achieved the salutary effect of throwing into relief the inadequacy of previous work in these domains; moreover, it indirectly brought to the fore the entire question of the status of history as a legitimate form of thought. For, if history should prove resistant to attempts to assimilate it to other accredited branches of enquiry, it would be necessary to show why this was so and to exhibit those features of historical thinking that lent it its distinctive and irreducible character.

The new science: Vico and Herder
      Among the 18th-century theorists, two writers can indeed be picked out who—while remaining firmly within the speculative tradition—at the same time possessed sufficient genius and prescience to realize that the solution to the problem of establishing history as a reputable discipline might be found by pursuing a course different from one modelled upon the methodology of the natural sciences. Partly because of the obscure and scholastic manner in which it was written, Giambattista Vico's (Vico, Giambattista) Scienza nuova (3rd ed. 1744; “New Science”) was a work whose importance remained for a long time wholly unrecognized, and it is only fairly recently that its significance and originality have been fully appreciated.

      Central to the book is the contention that the kind of knowledge that men can achieve of their own actions, creations, and institutions is of a radically different type from the knowledge that is acquired by the observation and investigation of the nonhuman or natural world; knowledge of the former variety is, moreover, held to be in principle superior to that of the latter. For, in Vico's opinion, in order truly to know something it is necessary in some sense to have made it: it followed that, whereas the reality studied by the physical scientist is the creation of God and therefore only properly known by God, the “world of nations” that forms the subject matter of history is the creation of men and is therefore something that men can “hope to know.” Thus, Vico was led to stress the differences rather than the analogies between historical and other forms of enquiry; in particular, he emphasized the need for the historian to enter imaginatively into the spirit of past ages, re-creating the outlooks and attitudes that informed them as opposed to seeking to impose upon them inappropriate or falsifying interpretations—“pseudomyths”—that derived from the cultural ethos of his own time. Vico propounded a cyclical theory of human history, according to which “nations” or societies pass through determinate stages, and he combined this with the idea that a providential principle is in some manner immanent within the various forms of life that men construct. He employed such conceptions, however, in a fashion that underlined man's nature as a historical being, whose powers and capacities do not conform to a fixed or static pattern but are necessarily subject to change and development in the course of time.

      In a similar vein, the German writer Johann Gottfried von Herder (Herder, Johann Gottfried von), in his influential Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (4 vol., 1784–91; Eng. trans., Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, 1800), implied that it was vital to view human actions and achievements from a standpoint that took proper account of “time, place and national character”—in other words, cultural milieu and the inevitable limits imposed by historical situation and circumstance. In its general direction, Herder's historical thought reflected the Enlightenment preconceptions of man as a progressive being. Herder's chief importance lies, however, in his insistence upon the misconceptions involved in treating the products of past thought and action as if they were the manifestations of an unchanging human consciousness and as if they could be explained by reference to abstract laws eternally valid for men everywhere. According to Herder, such an approach failed to recognize the complex influences that act upon human beings as members of particular historical societies; each of these societies possessed its unique life-style, subtly but inescapably determining the mentalities of those born within its confines in a manner that rendered futile all attempts to reduce human propensities and needs to the terms of some simple set of abstract formulas.

      Many of Vico's and Herder's ideas appear familiar today, but it is easy to forget that the emergence of what has come to be known as the “historical sense” is a comparatively recent phenomenon, one that represents a genuine revolution in European thought. It is largely because of this revolution that social and political theories of the kind elaborated by men such as Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza in the 17th century seem oddly artificial to 20th-century eyes, so remote are the categories in which they sought to explain human life and behaviour from those that have subsequently found acceptance.

History as a process of dialectical change: Hegel and Marx
      The suggestion that there is something essentially mistaken in the endeavour to comprehend the course of history “naturalistically” and within an explanatory framework deriving from scientific paradigms was powerfully reinforced by conceptions stemming from the development of German Idealism in the 19th century. Hegel's (Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich) “philosophy of the spirit (Hegelianism)” made its appearance upon the intellectual scene contemporaneously with Saint-Simonian and Comtean Positivism, rivalling the latter in scope and influence and bringing with it its own highly distinctive theory of historical evolution and change. Hegel's stress upon the “organic” nature of social wholes and the incommensurability of different historical epochs owed evident debts to Herderian ideas, but he set these within an overall view that pictured the movement of history in dynamic terms. Regularities and recurrences of the sort that typically manifest themselves in the realm of nature are foreign, Hegel maintained, to the sphere of mind or spirit, which was characterized instead as involving a continual drive toward self-transcendence and the removal of limitations upon thought and action. Man (human being) was not to be conceived according to the mechanistic models of 18th-century Materialism; essentially he was free, but the freedom that constituted his nature could only achieve fulfillment through a process of struggle and of overcoming obstacles that were themselves the expression of his own activity; it was in this sense that Hegel claimed that spirit was “at war with itself”—“it has to overcome itself as its most formidable obstacle” (Lectures on the Philosophy of History). In concrete terms, this meant that historical advance did not proceed through a series of smooth transitions. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. Thus, each phase of the historical process could be said to contain the seeds of its own destruction and to “negate” itself; the consequence was the emergence of a fresh society, representing another stage in a progression whose final outcome was the formation of a rationally ordered community with which each citizen could consciously identify himself and in which there would therefore no longer exist any sense of alienation or constraint. Somewhat curiously, the type of community Hegel envisaged as exemplifying this satisfactory state of affairs bore a striking resemblance to the Prussian monarchy of his own time.

      The notion that history conforms to a “dialectical (dialectic)” pattern, according to which contradictions generated at one level are overcome or transcended at the next, was incorporated—though in a radically new form—in the theory of social change (Marxism) propounded by Karl Marx (Marx, Karl). Like Hegel, Marx adopted a “directional” view of history; but, whereas Hegel had tended to exhibit it as representing the unfolding in time of an inner spiritual principle, Marx looked elsewhere for the ultimate determinants of its course and character. Man, according to Marx, was a creative being, situated in a material world that stood before him as an objective reality and provided the field for his activities; this primitive truth, which had been obscured by Hegel's mystifying abstractions, afforded the key to a proper understanding of history as a process finally governed by the changing methods whereby men sought to derive from the natural environment the means of their subsistence and the satisfaction of their evolving wants and needs. The productive relations in which men stood to one another, resulting in such phenomena as the division of labour and the appearance of economically determined classes, were the factors fundamental to historical movement. What he termed the superstructure of society—which covered such things as political institutions and systems of law, ethics, and religion—was in the last analysis dependent upon the shape taken by the “material production” and the “material intercourse” of human beings in their struggle to master nature: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Hence, the inner dynamic of history was held to lie in conflicts arising from changes in the means of production and occurring when modes of social organization and control, adapted to the development of the productive forces at one stage, became impediments to it at another; they were to be resolved, furthermore, not by abstract thought but by concrete action. Thus, the Hegelian conception of spirit as involved in a relentless struggle with itself and with what it had created underwent a revolutionary transformation, explosive in its implications.

      Marx's interpretation of the historical process, with its stress upon necessity and the operation of ineluctable laws, has often been portrayed by its proponents as being scientific in character. It has, however, more than one aspect, and it would be an error to identify its underlying methodology with that associated with Comtean Positivism. Generally speaking, the basic categories within which it was framed derived from a theory of human nature that had more in common with the postulates of German romantic thought than with those of British and French Empiricism: to this extent, the logical structure Marx sought to impose upon the data of history belonged to a tradition that stressed the differences rather than the resemblances between the human and the natural world.

Twentieth-century systems
      The tendency to detect in history the presence of large-scale patterns and comprehensive uniformities continued into the 20th century in the work of a number of writers, most notably Oswald Spengler (Spengler, Oswald) and Arnold Toynbee (Toynbee, Arnold). Spengler's Decline of the West (originally published in German, 1918–22), wherein the history of mankind was presented in terms of biologically conceived cultures whose careers conformed to a predetermined course of growth and decay, was widely acclaimed during the years of disillusionment that followed World War I; and a somewhat similar reception was given to Toynbee's massive A Study of History (1934–61) immediately after World War II. Toynbee, like Spengler, undertook a comparative study of civilizations, thereby repudiating attempts to treat the past as if it exhibited a single linear progression: at the same time, he diverged from Spengler in suggesting that current Western society might not after all be necessarily doomed to extinction and in tempering a predominantly deterministic mode of thought with reservations that allowed a place for human free will and the possibility of divine intervention. Yet, as some of his critics were quick to point out, such qualifications were not easy to reconcile with his original insistence upon the need to adopt “a scientific approach to human affairs”; nor was it clear that his own use of inductive methods to establish the laws governing the development of civilizations was above logical suspicion or reproach. Toynbee's experiment might have been impressive as an individual achievement; nevertheless, with the multiplication of objections and in a theoretical climate that had become skeptical of speculative system-building of any kind, the very feasibility of engaging upon a project of the type he had undertaken came to be seriously questioned. It was felt increasingly that philosophy of history in the traditional sense—resting largely upon uncriticized assumptions concerning the nature of historical enquiry and its relations with other disciplines—had reached something of an impasse; if history was still to be treated as a proper subject for philosophical examination, it must be along lines quite different from those previously pursued.

Analytical problems

The concept of history
      The task of trying to delineate the specific character of historical knowledge and understanding, rather than of seeking to construct vast speculative schemes in the earlier manner, first began to attract the attention of philosophers toward the end of the 19th century. To such thinkers as Wilhelm Dilthey (Dilthey, Wilhelm) and Benedetto Croce (Croce, Benedetto), the claim that, in the absence of some all-embracing system of a teleological or quasi-scientific kind, the course of history could be regarded as constituting nothing better than a meaningless chaos appeared to be totally unacceptable. History is intelligible, they believed, in the sense that historians make it so; moreover, this was the only type of intelligibility it was either necessary or legitimate to demand. What could reasonably be looked for was a clearer and deeper insight into the conditions that render historical knowledge possible, an elucidation of the presuppositions upon which historical enquiry is founded and of the principles according to which it proceeds. It was with such an investigation in mind that R.G. Collingwood (Collingwood, R G), a British philosopher who owed much to Crocean ideas, wrote in his Autobiography that “the chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.” By contending that the philosopher should eschew the grandiose ambition of providing a synoptic vision of the entire historical process and concern himself, instead, with the articulation and justification of existing historical procedures, Collingwood and his continental precursors made, in effect, a crucial contribution toward setting philosophy of history on a new path. Their proposals were, moreover, given additional impetus by the widespread acceptance of analytical approaches in other branches of philosophy. In consequence, contemporary thinkers have tended to focus attention upon the explication of concepts and terms that perform a key role in historical thought and description as these are actually carried on: among other things, they have been led into discussing the ways in which historians typically divide up and classify the past, the manner in which they argue for and substantiate their interpretations, and the logical structure of the explanations they are accustomed to offer.

Explanation and understanding
      Both Croce and Collingwood, in their criticisms of earlier theorists, were especially anxious to expose what they believed to be recurrent and fundamental misconceptions regarding the method and subject matter of history: central to these was the assumption that historical occurrences could be subsumed under, and explained in terms of, universal laws of the sort that played an essential part in scientific interpretations of inanimate nature. This assumption was, in their opinion, a gross error. As Collingwood put it, the moment had arrived for history to be released from “its state of pupilage to natural science.” With this in mind, he went on to develop an account of historical understanding according to which the historian explains events by exhibiting them as the expressions of past thinking on the part of self-conscious purposive agents—thinking that the historian must imaginatively reconstruct or re-enact in his own mind—rather than by showing the events to be instances of general uniformities or regularities that are established by induction. In propounding this view—which Croce, though he formulated it less clearly and precisely, basically shared—Collingwood set in motion a controversy concerning knowledge and explanation in history that has been central to much subsequent discussion. As Collingwood himself was fully aware, a position similar to his own had been originally advanced (though in a very different context) by Vico; and it is indeed noteworthy that the general division, evident at the speculative level, between those who wished to comprehend historical phenomena in ways suggested by the physical sciences and those who, by contrast, argued for an altogether distinct pattern of interpretation has tended, in recent times, to re-emerge at the level of methodological and conceptual analysis.

      Thus, on one side of the dispute, there have ranged philosophers who have taken their stand upon what has been called “the unity of science” and who have insisted that the categories and procedures appropriate to the human studies do not enjoy a unique or privileged status that somehow sets them apart from those characteristic of systematic empirical enquiry in other domains. In a classical 18th-century discussion, David Hume (Hume, David) had argued that, if two events were said to be causally related, this could only be in the sense that they instantiated certain regularities of succession that had been repeatedly observed to hold between such events in the past: to presume otherwise was to fall back upon an unacceptable belief in “intuitable” connections that had no warrant either in reason or experience. This doctrine may be said to have been given more rigorous expression among Positivist philosophers of the present century in the shape of what is variously known as the “deductive-nomological” or “covering law” theory of explanation; as originally applied to history by Carl Hempel (Hempel, Carl Gustav), it amounted to the claim that explaining a given historical occurrence in terms of some other event or set of events necessarily involves an appeal, which need not be more than tacit, to laws or general propositions correlating events of the type to be explained with those of the kind cited as its causes or conditions. Although the proposed analysis has received a variety of different formulations, each designed to meet specific objections that have been raised against it, its adherents have not wavered from the conviction that some such account must be in principle correct if explanations in history are to be open to rational assessment of the sort properly demanded within any legitimate branch of empirical investigation. It is for this reason, together with others, that they have been strongly opposed to Verstehen, or “empathy,” theories of historical knowledge, regarding the contention that historical understanding presupposes an allegedly direct identification with the mental processes of past human agents as representing at best a heuristic recommendation of doubtful utility, at worst an obscurantist doctrine that transparently fails to provide an objective criterion whereby divergent historical interpretations can be evaluated.

      Resistance to the Positivist approach has come from more than one direction. To a number of practicing historians, for instance, the account offered has appeared implausible inasmuch as it overlooks the “irreducible particularity” of historical occurrences and because it postulates an unjustifiably high degree of reliance upon the presence of discernible uniformities in the sphere of human affairs. So far as philosophers are concerned, dissatisfaction has been voiced both by those to whom the Croce-Collingwood notion of historical thinking as the “re-enactment of past experience” has seemed to contain an important element of truth and also by those followers of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein, Ludwig) who have been impressed by the skepticism concerning the adequacy of scientific models apparent in his later discussions of mental concepts. A leading representative of the former group, W.H. Dray, not only constructed a series of arguments to demonstrate the deficiencies of the covering-law theory but further proposed an alternative conception of “rational explanation,” which—it was suggested—fitted many of the familiar ways whereby historians seek to render the past intelligible. Thus, Dray has maintained that the function of much historical explanation consists of showing the actions of historical persons to have been “appropriate” when viewed within the perspective of their specific beliefs, aims, and principles: it was this consideration, he claims, that was uppermost in the minds of theorists who were concerned to stress the part played by imaginative or empathetic understanding in historical reconstruction, their point being primarily a “logical” one and not necessarily carrying any of the dubious epistemological implications attacked by Positivist critics. From a different standpoint, Anglo-U.S. writers influenced by Wittgenstein have challenged the entire assumption that explanations involving the notions of human intention and purpose are susceptible to a Humean pattern of causal analysis; they have also (for example, in the work of Peter Winch) stressed the extent to which historical descriptions of past behaviour require to be framed in terms the agents themselves would have recognized as giving meaning to their activities, terms embodying references to ideas and conventions that defined the social reality in which they participated.

Objectivity and evaluation
      Fundamental issues concerning the status of historical enquiry of the kind just mentioned have arisen in another crucial area of discussion, centring upon the question of whether—and, if so, in what sense—history can be said to be an objective discipline. Some modern philosophers have inclined to the view that the entirely general problem of whether history is objective cannot sensibly be raised; legitimate questions regarding objectivity are only in place where some particular piece of historical work is under consideration, and in that case there are accepted standards available, involving such matters as documentation and accuracy, by which they can be settled. To others, however, things have not seemed so clear, and they have drawn attention to the doubts that may be felt when history is compared with different branches of investigation, such as chemistry or biology: by contrast with such enquiries, the historian's procedure, including the manner in which he conceptualizes his data and the principles of argument he employs, may appear to be governed by subjective or culturally determined predilections that are essentially contestable and, therefore, out of place in a supposedly reputable form of knowledge. One topic that has been recurrently examined in this connection has been the role of evaluation (specifically, of moral evaluation) in historical writing—a subject, incidentally, about which historians themselves are apt to exhibit a certain uneasiness. Nevertheless, recommendations to the effect that value judgment can and should be totally excluded from history and, indeed, from the social studies as a whole have met with a mixed philosophical reception. Among Positivists and Logical Empiricists, traditionally skeptical of the rationality of value judgments and anxious in any case to reduce the differences between the human and the natural sciences, they have found some measure of support. But that has been by no means a general response. Thus, objectors have pointed out that the language the historian customarily uses, adapted as it is to the assessment and appraisal of human motives and characteristics, makes some degree of evaluation unavoidable; they argue that, even if the possibility of a drastically revised historical vocabulary allows the ideal of a wertfrei, or objective history, to be theoretically conceivable, such an ideal can scarcely be seriously entertained as a realizable practical goal. These considerations have been reinforced by the further point that every historian, insofar as he has to select from the mass of material confronting him, is necessarily committed to forming judgments ascribing relative importance and significance; such attributions cannot, however, be simply read off from the facts and must, rather, be said to depend upon the prior acceptance of certain critical standards. To this extent, then, one is required to acknowledge the presence in historical writing of an ineliminable evaluative component, which is liable to obtrude itself into even so “objective” a field as that of causal analysis: it is notorious that disputes between historians as to the “true” causes of occurrences such as wars or revolutions often appear to resist resolution at a purely empirical level, and it has been persuasively maintained by some philosophers that the basic grounds for such disputes may often be traced back to one historian's adherence to a moral or political standpoint not shared by his opponent.

      Although the topics discussed above have occupied a central position in 20th-century critical discussion, they represent only a sample of the issues with which analytical philosophers of history have been concerned: other problems that have attracted attention have related to the freedom and responsibility of historical agents, the nature and description of historical events, and the role of narrative in history. Here, as elsewhere, the approach adopted has often produced results of considerable interest, throwing a revealing light on features of historical enquiry that are easily missed or ignored by theorists in the grip of some powerful dogma or ideology. Even so, it has perhaps been accompanied by a too ready acquiescence in the view that history is “in order as it is,” the philosopher's function being confined to offering a purely descriptive elucidation of typical modes of historical thought and argument. In accepting this conception of their role, analytical philosophers of history have no doubt been partly, and understandably, influenced by a desire to avoid emulating the heady ambitions of their speculative predecessors. Yet, normative questions regarding the validity or adequacy of established procedures within any domain can always be legitimately raised; in the case of history, there seems to be no compelling reason to assume that such problems necessarily lie beyond the scope of philosophical criticism and appraisal.

Patrick Lancaster Gardiner

Additional Reading
Robin G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946), a classical contribution to the critical theory of history; Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (1957), an influential critique of types of historical speculation; William H. Walsh, An Introduction to Philosophy of History (1951), a lucid, general account; Patrick L. Gardiner, The Nature of Historical Explanation, 3rd ed. (1967); William H. Dray, Laws and Explanation in History (1957); Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (1958); and Morton G. White, Foundations of Historical Knowledge (1965), four analytical discussions relating to historical knowledge and understanding; Frank E. Manuel, Shapes of Philosophical History (1965), a brief but reliable survey of the development of speculative theories. William Dray, Perspectives in History (1980), is an explorative collection of essays on particular theorists of history by a prominent contemporary philosopher; Anthony Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism: Power, Property, and the State (1982), is a work by a leading British sociologist in which he offers an alternative interpretation of history based upon contemporary anthropological research; Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (1981), is a discussion of the nature of truth, knowledge, and order, especially the dichotomy between objective and subjective views of truth; Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present (1981), is an examination of historiographic methodology; John W. Miller, The Philosophy of History with Reflections and Aphorisms (1981), is an original personal reflection on history as a human science; see also discussions of special issues in Mark Blitz, Heidegger's Being and Time and the Possibility of Political Philosophy (1981); Alfred Schmidt, History and Structure: An Essay on Hegelian-Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History (1982; originally published in German, 1971); Edmund E. Jacobitti, Revolutionary Humanism and Historicism in Modern Italy (1981); Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (1981).

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • philosophy — /fi los euh fee/, n., pl. philosophies. 1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. 2. any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysical philosophy, that are… …   Universalium

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