Philosophy of history

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Philosophy of history or historiosophy is an area of philosophy concerning the eventual significance of human history. It examines the origin, goal, pattern, unit, determining factors for the process, and the overall nature of history. Furthermore, it speculates as to a possible teleological end to its development—that is, it asks if there is a design, purpose, directive principle, or finality in the processes of human history.

A philosophy of history begins with a few basic assumptions. First, it determines what is the proper unit for the study of the human past, whether it is the individual subject, polis ("city"), sovereign territory, a civilization, culture, or the whole of the human species. It then inquires whether there are any broad patterns that can be discerned through a study of history, what factors, if any, determine the course of history, and the goal, destination, and driving force of history.

Philosophy of history should not be confused with historiography, which is the study of history as an academic discipline concerning the methods and development as a discipline over time. Nor should the philosophy of history be confused with the history of philosophy, which is the study of the development of philosophical ideas through time.

Pre-modern View of History

In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that poetry is superior to history, because poetry speaks of what must or should be true, rather than merely what is true. This reflects early axial concerns (good/bad, right/wrong) over metaphysical concerns for what "is." Accordingly, classical historians felt a duty to ennoble the world. In keeping with philosophy of history, it is clear that their philosophy of value imposed upon their process of writing history—philosophy influenced method and hence product.

Herodotus, considered by some as the first systematic historian, and, later, Plutarch freely invented speeches for their historical figures and chose their historical subjects with an eye toward morally improving the reader, for the purpose of history was to relate moral truths.

In the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun, who is considered as one of the forerunners of modern historiography, discussed his philosophy of history and society in detail in his Muqaddimah. His work was a culmination of earlier works by Muslim thinkers in the spheres of ethics, political science, and historiography, such as those of al-Farabi, Ibn Miskawayh, al-Dawwani, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.[1]

By the eighteenth century, historians had turned toward a more positivist approach focusing on fact as much as possible, but still with an eye on telling histories that could instruct and improve. Starting with Fustel de Coullanges and Theodor Mommsen, historical studies began to progress towards a more modern scientific form. In the Victorian era, the debate in historiography thus was not so much whether history was intended to improve the reader, but what causes turned history and how historical change could be understood.

Cyclical and linear history

Most ancient cultures held a mythical conception of history and time that was not linear. They believed that history was cyclical with alternating Dark and Golden Ages. Plato called this the Great Year, and other Greeks called it an aeon or eon. In researching this topic, Giorgio de Santillana, the former professor of the history of science at MIT, and author of Hamlet's Mill; An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time., documented over 200 myths from over 30 ancient cultures that generally tied the rise and fall of history to one precession of the equinox. Examples are the ancient doctrine of eternal return, which existed in Ancient Egypt, the Indian religions, or the Greek Pythagoreans' and the Stoics' conceptions. In The Works and Days, Hesiod described five Ages of Man: the Gold Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the Iron Age, which began with the Dorian invasion. Other scholars suggest there were just four ages, corresponding to the four metals, and the Heroic age was a description of the Bronze Age. A four age count would be in line with the Vedic or Hindu ages known as the Kali, Dwapara, Treta and Satya yugas. The Greeks believed that just as mankind went through four stages of character during each rise and fall of history so did government. They considered democracy and monarchy as the healthy regimes of the higher ages; and oligarchy and tyranny as corrupted regimes common to the lower ages.

In the East cyclical theories of history were developed in China (as a theory of dynastic cycle) and in the Islamic world by Ibn Khaldun.

Judaism and Christianity substituted the myth of the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden to it, which would give the basis for theodicies, which attempts to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of God creating a global explanation of history with the belief in a Messianic Age. Theodicies claimed that history had a progressive direction leading to an eschatological end, such as the Apocalypse, given by a superior power. Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas or Bossuet in his Discourse On Universal History (1679) formulated such theodicies, but Leibniz, who coined the term, was the most famous philosopher who created a theodicy. Leibniz based his explanation on the principle of sufficient reason, which states that anything that happens, does happen for a specific reason. Thus, what man saw as evil, such as wars, epidemia and natural disasters, was in fact only an effect of his perception; if one adopted God's view, this evil event in fact only took place in the larger divine plan. Hence, theodicies explained the necessity of evil as a relative element which forms part of a larger plan of history. Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason was not, however, a gesture of fatalism. Confronted with the Antique problem of the future contingents, Leibniz invented the theory of "compossible worlds," distinguishing two types of necessity, to cope with the problem of determinism.

During the Renaissance, cyclical conceptions of history would become common, illustrated by the decline of the Roman Empire. Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy (1513-1517) are an example. The notion of Empire contained in itself its ascendance and its decadence, as in Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), which was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Cyclical conceptions were maintained in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by authors such as Oswald Spengler, Nikolay Danilevsky, and Paul Kennedy, who conceived the human past as a series of repetitive rises and falls. Spengler, like Butterfield was writing in reaction to the carnage of the first World War, believed that a civilization enters upon an era of Caesarism after its soul dies. He thought that the soul of the West was dead and Caesarism was about to begin.

The recent development of mathematical models of long-term secular sociodemographic cycles has revived interest in cyclical theories of history[2].

The Enlightenment's ideal of progress

Further information: Age of Enlightenment  and Social progress

During the Aufklärung, or Enlightenment, history began to be seen as both linear and irreversible. Condorcet's interpretations of the various "stages of humanity" or Auguste Comte's positivism were one of the most important formulations of such conceptions of history, which trusted social progress. As in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762), a treatise on education (or the "art of training men"), the Aufklärung conceived the human species as perfectible: human nature could be infinitely developed through a well-thought pedagogy. In What is Enlightenment? (1784), Kant defined the Aufklärung as the capacity to think by oneself, without referring to an exterior authority, be it a prince or tradition:

Enlightenment is when a person leaves behind a state of immaturity and dependence (Unmündigkeit) for which they themselves were responsible. Immaturity and dependence are the inability to use one's own intellect without the direction of another. One is responsible for this immaturity and dependence, if its cause is not a lack of intelligence or education, but a lack of determination and courage to think without the direction of another. Sapere aude! Dare to know! is therefore the slogan of the Enlightenment.

Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)

In a paradoxical way, Kant supported enlightened despotism as a way of leading humanity towards its autonomy. He had conceived the process of history in his short treaty Idea For A Universal History With A Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784). On one hand, enlightened despotism was to lead nations toward their liberation, and progress was thus inscribed in the scheme of history; on the other hand, liberation could only be acquired by a singular gesture, Sapere Aude! Thus, autonomy ultimately relied on the individual's "determination and courage to think without the direction of another."

After Kant, Hegel developed a complex theodicy in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), which based its conception of history on dialectics; the negative (wars, etc.) was conceived by Hegel as the driving force of history. Hegel argued that history is a constant process of dialectic conflict, with each thesis encountering an opposing idea or event antithesis. The clash of both was "superated" in the synthesis, a conjunction which conserved the contradiction between thesis and its antithesis while sublating it. As Marx would famously explain afterwards, concretely that meant that if Louis XVI's monarchic rule in France was seen as the thesis, the French Revolution could be seen as its antithesis. However, both were sublated in Napoleon, who reconciled the revolution with the Ancien Régime; he conserved the change. Hegel thought that reason accomplished itself, through this dialectical scheme, in History. Through labor, man transformed nature in order to be able to recognize himself in it; he made it his "home." Thus, reason spiritualized nature. Roads, fields, fences, and all the modern infrastructure in which we live is the result of this spiritualization of nature. Hegel thus explained social progress as the result of the labor of reason in history. However, this dialectical reading of history involved, of course, contradiction, so history was also conceived of as constantly conflicting; Hegel theorized this in his famous dialectic of the lord and the bondsman.

According to Hegel,

One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), "Preface"

Thus, philosophy was to explain Geschichte (history) always late, it is only an interpretation in order to recognize what is rational in the real. Furthermore, according to Hegel, only what is recognized as rational is real. This idealist understanding of philosophy as interpretation was famously challenged by Karl Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach (1845), where he states "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Social evolutionism

Inspired by the Enlightenment's ideal of progress, social evolutionism became a popular conception in the nineteenth century. Auguste Comte's (1798–1857) positivist conception of history, which he divided into the theological stage, the metaphysical stage and the positivist stage, brought upon by modern science, was one of the most influential doctrine of progress. The Whig interpretation of history, as it was later called, associated with scholars of the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Britain, such as Henry Maine or Thomas Macaulay, gives an example of such influence, by looking at human history as progress from savagery and ignorance toward peace, prosperity, and science. Maine described the direction of progress as "from status to contract," from a world in which a child's whole life is pre-determined by the circumstances of his birth, toward one of mobility and choice.

The publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 demonstrated human evolution. However, it was quickly transposed from its original biological field to the social field in the form of "social Darwinism" theories. Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," or Lewis Henry Morgan in Ancient Society (1877) developed evolutionist theories independent from Darwin's works, which would be later interpreted as social Darwinism. These nineteenth-century unilineal evolution theories claimed that societies start out in a primitive state and gradually become more civilised over time, and equated the culture and technology of Western civilisation with progress.

Ernst Haeckel formulated his recapitulation theory in 1867, which stated that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny": the individual evolution of each individual reproduces the species' evolution. Hence, a child goes through all the steps from primitive society to modern society. Haeckel did not support Darwin's theory of natural selection introduced in The Origin of Species (1859), rather believing in a Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Progress was not necessarily, however, positive. Arthur Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-1855) was a decadent description of the evolution of the "Aryan race" which was disappearing through miscegenation. Gobineau's works had a large popularity in the so-called scientific racism theories which developed during the New Imperialism period.

After the first World War, and even before Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979) harshly criticized it, the Whig interpretation had gone out of style. The bloodletting of that conflict had indicted the whole notion of linear progress. Paul Valéry famously said: "We civilizations now know ourselves mortal."

However, the notion itself didn't completely disappear. The End of History and the Last Man (1992) by Francis Fukuyama proposed a similar notion of progress, positing that the worldwide adoption of liberal democracies as the single accredited political system and even modality of human consciousness would represent the "End of History." Fukuyama's work stems from an Kojevian reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

A key component is that all these issues in social evolution merely serve to support the suggestion that how one considers the nature of history will impact the interpretation and conclusions drawn about history. The critical under-explored question is less about history as content and more about history as process.

The "Hero" in Historical Studies

Further information: The validity of the "hero" in historical studies and Great man theory

After Hegel, who insisted on the role of "great men" in history, with his famous statement about Napoleon, "I saw the Spirit on his horse," Thomas Carlyle argued that history was the biography of a few central individuals, heroes, such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great, writing that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." His heroes were political and military figures, the founders or topplers of states. His history of great men, of geniuses good and evil, sought to organize change in the advent of greatness. Explicit defenses of Carlyle's position have been rare in the late twentieth century. Most philosophers of history contend that the motive forces in history can best be described only with a wider lens than the one he used for his portraits. A.C. Danto, for example, wrote of the importance of the individual in history, but extended his definition to include social individuals, defined as "individuals we may provisionally characterize as containing individual human beings amongst their parts. Examples of social individuals might be social classes [...], national groups [...], religious organizations [...], large-scale events [...], large-scale social movements [...], etc." (Danto, "The Historical Individual," 266, in Philosophical Analysis and History, edited by Williman H. Dray, Rainbow-Bridge Book Co., 1966). The Great Man approach to history was most popular with professional historians in the nineteenth century; a popular work of this school is the Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911) which contains lengthy and detailed biographies about the great men of history. For example to read about (what is known today as) the "Migrations Period," one would consult the biography of Atilla the Hun.

After Marx's conception of a materialist history based on the class struggle, which raised attention for the first time to the importance of social factors such as economics in the unfolding of history, Herbert Spencer wrote "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."

The Annales School, founded by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, was a major landmark in the shift from a history centered on individual subjects to studies concentrating in geography, economics, demography, and other social forces. Fernand Braudel's studies on the Mediterranean Sea as "hero" of history, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's history of climate, etc., were inspired by this School.

Regardless, it is clear that how one thinks about history will to a large degree determine how one will record history—in other words, the philosophy of history will forge the direction for the method of history, which in turn affect history itself.

History and Teleology

For further information: Social progress and Progress (philosophy)

Certain theodicies claim that history has a progressive direction leading to an eschatological end, given by a superior power. However, this transcendent teleological sense can be thought as immanent to human history itself. Hegel probably represents the epitome of a teleological philosophy of history. Hegel's teleology was taken up by Francis Fukuyama in his The End of History and the Last Man, (see Social evolutionism above). Thinkers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, Althusser or Deleuze deny any teleological aspect of history, claiming that it is best characterized by discontinuities, ruptures, and various time-scales, which the Annales School had demonstrated.

Schools of thought influenced by Hegel see history as progressive; they saw, and see progress as the outcome of a dialectic in which factors working in opposite directions are over time reconciled (see above). History was best seen as directed by a Zeitgeist, and traces of the Zeitgeist could be seen by looking backward. Hegel believed that history was moving man toward "civilization.," and some also claim he thought that the Prussian state incarnated the "End of History." In his Lessons on the History of Philosophy, he explains that each epochal philosophy is in a way the whole of philosophy; it is not a subdivision of the Whole but this Whole itself apprehended in a specific modality.

Michel Foucault's analysis of historical and political discourse

The historico-political discourse analyzed by Foucault in Society Must Be Defended (1975-1976) considered truth as the fragile product of a historical struggle, first conceptualized under the name of "race struggle"—however, the meaning of "race" was different from today's biological notion, being closer to the sense of "nation" (distinct from nation-states or "people." Boulainvilliers, for example, was an exponent of nobility rights. He claimed that the French nobility were the racial descendants of the Franks who invaded France (while the Third Estate was descended from the conquered Gauls), and had right to power by virtue of right of conquest. He used this approach to formulate a historical thesis of the course of French political history which was a critique of both the monarchy and the Third Estate. Foucault regarded him as the founder of the historico-political discourse as political weapon.

In Great Britain, this historico-political discourse was used by the bourgeoisie, the people and the aristocracy as a means of struggle against the monarchy—cf. Edward Coke or John Lilburne. In France, Boulainvilliers, Nicolas Fréret, and then Sieyès, Augustin Thierry and Cournot reappropriated this form of discourse. Finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, this discourse was incorporated by racist biologists and eugenicists, who gave it the modern sense of "race" and, even more, transformed this popular discourse into a "state racism" (Nazism). According to Foucault, Marxists also seized this discourse and took it in a different direction, transforming the essentialist notion of "race" into the historical notion of "class struggle," defined by socially structured position: capitalist or proletarian. This displacement of discourse constitutes one of the basis of Foucault's thought that discourse is not tied to the subject, rather the "subject" is a construction of discourse. Moreover, discourse is not the simple ideological and mirror reflexion of an economical infrastructure, but is a product and the battlefield of multiples forces—which may not be reduced to the simple dualist contradiction of two energies.

Foucault shows that what specifies this discourse from the juridical and philosophical discourse is its conception of truth; truth is no longer absolute, it is the product of "race struggle." History itself, which was traditionally the sovereign's science, the legend of his glorious feats, became the discourse of the people, a political stake. The subject is not any more a neutral arbitrate, judge or legislator, as in Solon's or Kant's conceptions. Therefore,—what became—the "historical subject" must search in history's furor, under the "juridical code's dried blood," the multiple contingencies from which a fragile rationality temporarily emerged. This may be, perhaps, compared to the sophist discourse in Ancient Greece. Foucault warns that it has nothing to do with Machiavelli's or Hobbes's discourse on war, for to this popular discourse, the Sovereign is nothing more than "an illusion, an instrument, or, at the best, an enemy. It is {the historico-political discourse} a discourse that beheads the king, anyway that dispenses itself from the sovereign and that denounces it."

History as Propaganda

Some theorists assert that as some manipulate history for their own agendas, that these histories in turn affect history, often so that a certain class or party will retain their power. In his Society must be Defended, Michel Foucault posited that the victors of a social struggle use their political dominance to suppress a defeated adversary's version of historical events in favor of their own propaganda, which may go so far as historical revisionism (see Michel Foucault's analysis of historical and political discourse above). Nations adopting such an approach would likely fashion a "universal" theory of history to support their aims, with a teleological and deterministic philosophy of history used to justify the inevitableness and rightness of their victories (see The Enlightenment's ideal of progress above). Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has written of the use of this approach by totalitarian and Nazi regimes, with such regimes "exercis[ing] a virtual violence upon the diverging tendencies of history" (Ricoeur 1983, 183), and with fanaticism the result. For Ricoeur, rather than a unified, teleological philosophy of history, "We carry on several histories simultaneously, in times whose periods, crises, and pauses do not coincide. We enchain, abandon, and resume several histories, much as a chess player who plays several games at once, renewing now this one, now the another" (Ricoeur 1983, 186). For Ricoeur, Marx's unified view of history may be suspect, but is nevertheless seen as:

the philosophy of history par excellence: not only does it provide a formula for the dialectics of social forces—under the name of historical materialism—but it also sees in the proletarian class the reality which is at once universal and concrete and which, although it be oppressed today, will constitute the unity of history in the future. From this standpoint, the proletarian perspective furnishes both a theoretical meaning of history and a practical goal for history, a principle of explication and a line of action. (Ricoeur 1983, 183)

Walter Benjamin believed that Marxist historians must take a radically different view point from the bourgeois and idealist points of view, in an attempt to create a sort of history from below, which would be able to conceive an alternative conception of history, not based, as in classical historical studies, on the philosophical and juridical discourse of sovereignty—an approach that would invariably adhere to major states (the victors') points of view.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fictional account of the manipulation of the historical record for nationalist aims and manipulation of power. In the book, he wrote, "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." The creation of a "national story" by way of management of the historical record is at the heart of the debate about history as propaganda. To some degree, all nations are active in the promotion of such "national stories," with ethnicity, nationalism, gender, power, heroic figures, class considerations and important national events and trends all clashing and competing within the narrative.

Notable theorists on history

See also


  1. H. Mowlana, 2001. "Information in the Arab World," Cooperation South Journal (1).
  2. See, for example, Peter Turchin, Historical Dynamics Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton studies in complexity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • De Santillana, Giorgio, and Hertha von Dechend. Hamlet's Mill; An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. Boston: Gambit, 1969.
  • Dray, William H. Philosophical Analysis and History. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
  • Mink, Louis O. “Narrative form as a cognitive instrument.” in The writing of history: Literary form and historical understanding, Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki, eds. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978. ISBN 0299075702 ISBN 9780299075705
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, Volume 1 and 2, University Of Chicago Press, 1990. ISBN 0226713318 ISBN 9780226713311
  • Ricoeur, Paul. History and Truth. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1983.
  • Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981. ISBN 0801412331 ISBN 9780801412332
  • Muller, Herbert J. The Uses of the Past, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
  • Turchin, Peter. Historical Dynamics Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton studies in complexity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 0691116695 ISBN 9780691116693

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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