Philosophy of history

The term philosophy of history refers to the theoretical aspect of history, in two senses. It is customary to distinguish critical philosophy of history from speculative philosophy of history. Critical philosophy of history is the "theory" aspect of the discipline of academic history, and deals with questions such as the nature of historical evidence, the degree to which objectivity is possible, etc. Speculative philosophy of history is an area of philosophy concerning the eventual significance, if any, of human history.[1] 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. Part of Marxism, for example, is speculative philosophy of history. Another example is "historiosophy", the term coined by Gershom Scholem to describe his understanding of history and metaphysics.[2] Though there is some overlap between the two aspects, they can usually be distinguished; modern professional historians tend to be skeptical about speculative philosophy of history.

Sometimes critical philosophy of history is included under historiography. Philosophy of history should not be confused with the history of philosophy, which is the study of the development of philosophical ideas through time.

Speculative philosophy of history asks at least three basic questions:

  • What is the proper unit for the study of the human past — the individual subject? The family, polis ("city") or sovereign territory? The civilization or culture? Or the whole of the human species?
  • Are there any broad patterns that we can discern through the study of the human past? Are there, for example, patterns of progress? Or cycles? Is history deterministic? Or are there no patterns or cycles, and is human history regulated by irregularity? Related to this is the study of individual agency and its impact in history, functioning within, or opposed to, larger trends and patterns.
  • If history can indeed be said to progress, what is its ultimate direction? What (if any) is the driving force of that progress?


  • Pre-modern history 1
  • Cyclical and linear history 2
  • Sustainable history 3
  • The Enlightenment's ideal of progress 4
    • Social evolutionism 4.1
    • The validity of the "Great man theory" in historical studies 4.2
  • Does history have a teleological sense? 5
    • Historical accounts of writing history 5.1
    • Michel Foucault's analysis of historical and political discourse 5.2
    • History and education 5.3
    • Narrative and history 5.4
    • History and causality 5.5
    • History as propaganda: Is history always written by the victors? 5.6
  • The judgement of history 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Pre-modern 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. History was supposed to teach one good examples to follow. The assumption that history "should teach good examples" influenced how history was written. Events of the past are just as likely to show bad examples that are not to be followed, but these historians would either not record them or re-interpret them to support their assumption of history's purpose.

From the Classical period to the Renaissance, historians alternated between focusing on subjects designed to improve mankind and on a devotion to fact. History was composed mainly of hagiographies of monarchs or epic poetry describing heroic gestures such as the Song of Roland about the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, during Charlemagne's first campaign to conquer the Iberian peninsula.

In the 14th century, Ibn Khaldun, who is considered one of the fathers of the philosophy of history, discussed his philosophy of history and society in detail in his Muqaddimah (1377). His work was a culmination of earlier works by Sociology in medieval Islam in the spheres of Islamic ethics, political science, and historiography, such as those of al-Farabi, Ibn Miskawayh, al-Dawwani, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.[3] Ibn Khaldun often criticized "idle superstition and uncritical acceptance of historical data." As a result, he introduced a scientific method to the philosophy of history, which was considered something "new to his age," and he often referred to it as his "new science," which is now associated with historiography.[4] His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda, and systematic bias in history.[3]

By the 18th 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 Coulanges 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

History (as contemporarily understood by Western thought), tends to follow an assumption of linear progression: "this happened, and then that happened; that happened because this happened first." This is in part a reflection of Western Thought's foundation of cause and effect.

Many 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. 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 Golden 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. Many 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.

The story of the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden in Judaism and Christianity can be seen in a similar light, 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 that 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 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 19th and 20th 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 (see, for example, Historical Dynamics by Peter Turchin, or Introduction to Social Macrodynamics[5] by Andrey Korotayev et al.).

Sustainable history

"Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man" is a philosophy of history proposed by Nayef Al-Rodhan, where history is defined as a durable progressive trajectory in which the quality of life on this planet or all other planets is premised on the guarantee of human dignity for all at all times under all circumstances.[6] This theory views history as a linear progression propelled by good governance, which is, in turn, to be achieved through balancing the emotional, amoral, and egoistic elements of human nature with the human dignity needs of reason, security, human rights, accountability, transparency, justice, opportunity, innovation, and inclusiveness.[7]

Human dignity lies at the heart of this theory and is paramount for ensuring the sustainable history of humankind. Among other things, human dignity means having a positive sense of self and instilling individuals with respect for the communities to which they belong. Thus, reconciling humans' predisposition for emotionally self-interested behavior with the imperatives of human dignity appears as the one of the most important challenges to global policymakers.[8] At national level, they have to protect their citizens against violence and provide them with access to food, housing, clothes, health care, and education. Basic welfare provision and security are fundamental to ensuring human dignity. Environment and ecological considerations need to be addressed as well. Finally, cultural diversity, inclusiveness and participation at all levels, of all communities are key imperatives of human dignity.

In this respect, the sustainable history philosophy challenges existing concepts of civilisations, such as Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilisations.[9] Instead, it argues that human civilisation should not be thought of as consisting of numerous separate and competing civilisations, but rather it should be thought of collectively as only one human civilisation. Within this civilisation are many geo-cultural domains that comprise sub-cultures. Nayef Al-Rodhan envisions human civilisation as an ocean into which the different geo-cultural domains flow like rivers, "The Ocean Model of one Human Civilization". At points where geo-cultural domains first enter the ocean of human civilisation, there is likely to be a concentration or dominance of that culture. However, over time, all the rivers of geo-cultural domains become one. There is fluidity at the ocean's centre and cultures have the opportunity to borrow between them. Under such historical conditions the most advanced forms of human enterprise can thrive and lead us to a 'civilisational triumph'. Nevertheless, there are cases where geographical proximity of various cultures can also lead to friction and conflict.

Nayef Al-Rodhan concludes that within an increasingly globalised, interconnected and interdependent world, human dignity cannot be ensured globally and in a sustainable way through sole national means. A genuine global effort is required to meet the minimum criteria of human dignity globally. Areas such as conflict prevention, socio-economic justice, gender equality, protection of human rights, environmental protection require a holistic approach and a common action.

The Enlightenment's ideal of 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) 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), Immanuel Kant defined the Aufklärung as the capacity to think by oneself, without referring to an exterior authority, be it a prince or tradition:

In a paradoxical way, Kant supported in the same time 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 motor of history. Hegel argued that history is a constant process of dialectic clash, with each thesis encountering an opposing idea or event antithesis. The clash of both was "superated" in the synthesis, a conjunction that conserved the contradiction between thesis and its antithesis while sublating it. As Marx famously explained 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 labour, man transformed nature so he could 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 labour 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,

Thus, philosophy was to explain Geschichte (history) afterward. Philosophy is always late, it is only an interpretation of what is rational in the real—and, 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): "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 19th 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 doctrines 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 Ancient Society (1877) developed evolutionist theories independent from Darwin's works, which would be later interpreted as social Darwinism. These 19th-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 evolution of each individual reproduces the species' evolution, such as in the development of embryos. Hence, a child goes through all the steps from primitive society to modern society. This was later discredited. 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 (1853–55) 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 that 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).

Unlike Maurice Godelier who interprets history as a process of transformation, Tim Ingold suggests that history is a movement of autopoiesis[11]

A key component to making sense of all of this is to simply recognize 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.

In 2011 Steven Pinker wrote a history of violence and humanity from an evolutionary perspective in which he shows that violence has declined statistically over time.[12]

The validity of the "Great man theory" in historical studies

After 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 19th century; a popular work of this school is the Encyclopædia 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," consult the biography of Attila 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, were a major landmark on 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.

Does history have a teleological sense?

For further information: Social progress and Progress (history)

Theodicy claimed that history had 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 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, Michel Foucault, Althusser, or Deleuze deny any teleological sense to 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 also see history as progressive, but 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.

Historical accounts of writing history

A classic example of history being written by the victors—or more precisely, by the survivors[13]—would be the scarcity of unbiased information that has survived to the present about the Carthaginians. Roman historians left tales of cruelty and human sacrifice practiced by their longtime enemies; however no Carthaginian was left alive to give their side of the story.

Similarly, we only have the Christian side of how Christianity came to be the dominant religion of Europe. However, we know very little about other European religions, such as Paganism. We have the European version of the conquest of the Americas, with an interpretation of the native version of events only emerging to popular consciousness since the early 1980s. We have Herodotus's Greek history of the Persian Wars, but the Persian recall of the events is little known in Western Culture.

In many respects, the head of state may be guilty of cruelties or even simply a different way of doing things. In some societies, however, to speak of or write critically of rulers can amount to conviction of treason and death. As such, in many ways, what is left as the "official record" of events is oft influenced by one's desire to avoid exile or execution.

However, "losers" in certain time periods often have more of an impetus than the "winners" to write histories that comfort themselves and justify their own behavior.[13] Examples include the historiography of the American Civil War, where it can be argued that the losers (Southerners) have written more history books on the subject than the winners and, until recently, dominated the national perception of history. Confederate generals such as Lee and Jackson are generally held in higher esteem than their Union counterparts. Popular films such as Cold Mountain, Gone with the Wind, and The Birth of a Nation have told the story from the Southern viewpoint. Also, despite "losing" the Vietnam War, the United States produces more scholarship on the war than any other country, including Vietnam.[14] Popular history abounds with condemnations of the cruelty of African slave traders and colonists, despite the "winning" status of those people in their heyday.[13]

As is true of pre-Columbian populations of America, the historical record of America being "discovered" by Europeans is now sometimes presented as a history of invasion, exploitation and dominance of a people who had been there before the Europeans. This reinterpretation of the historical record is called historical revisionism, which can take the form of negationism, which is the denial of genocides and crimes against humanity. The revision of previously accepted historical accounts is a constant process in which "today's winners are tomorrow's losers", and the rise and fall of present institutions and movements influence the way historians see the past.[13] In the same sense, the teaching, in French secondary schools, of the Algerian War of Independence and of colonialism, has been criticized by several historians, and is the subject of frequent debates. Thus, in contradiction with the February 23, 2005 law on colonialism, voted by the UMP conservative party, historian Benjamin Stora notes that:

As Algerians do not appear in their "indigenous" conditions and their sub-citizens status, as the history of nationalist movement is never evoqued, as none of the great figures of the resistance — Messali Hadj, Ferhat Abbas — emerge nor retain attention, in one word, as no one explains to students what has been colonisation, we make them unable to understand why the decolonisation took place.[15]

Michel Foucault's analysis of historical and political discourse

The historico-political discourse analyzed by Michel Foucault in Society Must Be Defended (1975–76) 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; its signification is here closer to "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—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 19th century, this discourse was incorporated by racialist 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 bases of Foucault's thought: 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 finally 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 and education

Since Plato's Republic, civic education and instruction has had a central role in politics and the constitution of a common identity. History has thus sometimes become the target of propaganda, for example in historical revisionist attempts. Plato's insistence on the importance of education was relayed by Rousseau's Emile: Or, On Education (1762), a necessary counterpart of The Social Contract (also 1762). Public education has been seen by republican regimes and the Enlightenment as a prerequisite of the masses' progressive emancipation, as conceived by Kant in Was Ist Aufklärung? (What Is Enlightenment?, 1784).

The creation of modern education systems, instrumental in the construction of nation-states, also passed by the elaboration of a common, national history. History textbooks are one of the many ways through which this common history was transmitted. Le Tour de France par deux enfants, for example, was the Third Republic's classic textbook for elementary school: it described the story of two French children who, following the German annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine region in 1870, go on a tour de France during which they become aware of France's diversity and the existence of the various patois.

In most societies, schools and curricula are controlled by governments. As such, there is always an opportunity for governments to impose. Granted, often governments in free societies serve to protect freedoms, check hate speech, and breaches of constitutional rights; but the power itself to impose is available to use the education system to influence thought of malleable minds, positively or negatively, towards truth or towards a version of truth. A recent example of the fragility of government involvement with history textbooks was the Japanese history textbook controversies.

Narrative and history

A current popular conception considers the value of narrative in the writing and experience of history. Important analysts in this area include Paul Ricœur, Louis Mink, W.B. Gallie, and Hayden White. Some have doubted this approach because it draws fictional and historical narrative closer together, and there remains a perceived "fundamental bifurcation between historical and fictional narrative" (Ricœur, vol. 1, 52). In spite of this, most modern historians, such as Barbara Tuchman or David McCullough, would consider narrative writing important to their approaches. The theory of narrated history (or historicized narrative) holds that the structure of lived experience, and such experience narrated in both fictional and non-fictional works (literature and historiography) have in common the figuration of "temporal experience." In this way, narrative has a generously encompassing ability to "'grasp together' and integrate […] into one whole and complete story" the "composite representations" of historical experience (Ricœur x, 173). Louis Mink writes that, "the significance of past occurrences is understandable only as they are locatable in the ensemble of interrelationships that can be grasped only in the construction of narrative form" (148). Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson also analyzes historical understanding this way, and writes that "history is inaccessible to us except in textual form […] it can be approached only by way of prior (re)textualization" (82).

History and causality

Narrative and causal approaches to history have often been contrasted or, even, opposed to one another, yet they can also be viewed as complementary.[16] Some philosophers of history such as Arthur Danto have claimed that "explanations in history and elsewhere" describe "not simply an event – something that happens – but a change".[17] Like many practicing historians, they treat causes as intersecting actions and sets of actions which bring about "larger changes", in Danto’s words: to decide "what are the elements which persist through a change" is "rather simple" when treating an individual’s "shift in attitude", but "it is considerably more complex and metaphysically challenging when we are interested in such a change as, say, the break-up of feudalism or the emergence of nationalism".[18]

Much of the historical debate about causes has focused on the relationship between communicative and other actions, between singular and repeated ones, and between actions, structures of action or group and institutional contexts and wider sets of conditions.[19] John Gaddis has distinguished between exceptional and general causes (following Marc Bloch) and between "routine" and "distinctive links" in causal relationships: "in accounting for what happened at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, we attach greater importance to the fact that President Truman ordered the dropping of an atomic bomb than to the decision of the Army Air Force to carry out his orders."[20] He has also pointed to the difference between immediate, intermediate and distant causes. For his part, Christopher Lloyd puts forward four "general concepts of causation" used in history: the "metaphysical idealist concept, which asserts that the phenomena of the universe are products of or emanations from an omnipotent being or such final cause"; "the empiricist (or Humean) regularity concept, which is based on the idea of causation being a matter of constant conjunctions of events"; "the functional/teleological/consequential concept", which is "goal-directed, so that goals are causes"; and the "realist, structurist and dispositional approach, which sees relational structures and internal dispositions as the causes of phenomena".[21]

History as propaganda: Is history always written by the victors?

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" (History and Truth 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" (History and Truth 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. (History and Truth 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.

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. Recently it has been argued that even mathematical history may be written by the victors.[22]

The judgement of history

In Hegel's philosophy of history, the expression Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht (World History is a tribunal that judges the World) is used to assert the view that History is what judges men, their actions and their opinions.

Since the 20th century, Western historians have disavowed the aspiration to provide the "judgement of history."[23][24] The goals of historical judgements or interpretations are separate to those of legal judgements, that need to be formulated quickly after the events and be final.[25] The issue of collective memory is related to the issue of the "judgement of history."

Related to the issue of historical judgement are those of the pretension to neutrality and objectivity.[26][27] Analytical and critical philosophers of history have debated whether historians should express judgements on historical figures, or if this would infringe on their supposed role.[24] In general, positivists and neopositivists oppose any value-judgement as unscientific.[24]

See also


  1. ^ E.g. W. H. Walsh, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (1951) ch.1 s.2.
  2. ^ Gershom Scholem, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. ^ a b H. Mowlana (2001). "Information in the Arab World", Cooperation South Journal 1.
  4. ^ Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, p. x, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01754-9.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan, Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man: A Philosophy of History and Civilisational Triumph (Berlin: LIT, 2009)
  7. ^ GCSP
  8. ^ Geneva Press Club
  9. ^ Bookpleasures
  10. ^ Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), "Preface"
  11. ^ Ingold, T. On the Distinction between Evolution and History. Social Evolution & History,. Vol. 1, num. 1. 2002. Pp. 5-24. P. 9,
  12. ^ " The better angels of our nature, a history of violence and humanity ", by Steven Pinker, published 2012 by Penguin books ISBN978-0-141-03464-5
  13. ^ a b c d Philips, John Edward (2006). Writing African History. University Rochester Press. pp. 26–27. 
  14. ^ Wiest, Andrew A. (2010). Triumph Revisited: Historians Battle for the Vietnam War. Taylor & Francis. p. 224. 
  15. ^ Colonialism through the school books - The hidden history of the Algerian war, Le Monde diplomatique, April 2001 (English)/(French)
  16. ^ Hewitson, M. (2014) History and Causality, 127-48.
  17. ^ Danto, A. (1968) Analytical Philosophy of History, 233.
  18. ^ Ibid., 249.
  19. ^ Hewitson, M. (2014) History and Causality, 86-116.
  20. ^ Gaddis, J. L. (2002) The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, 64.
  21. ^ Lloyd, C. (1993) Structures of History, 159.
  22. ^ Bair, Jacques; Błaszczyk, Piotr; Ely, Robert; Henry, Valérie;  .
  23. ^ Curran, Vivian Grosswald (2000) Herder and the Holocaust: A Debate About Difference and Determinism in the Context of Comparative Law in F. C. DeCoste, Bernard Schwartz (eds.) Holocaust's Ghost: Writings on Art, Politics, Law and Education pp.413-5
  24. ^ a b c Parkinson, G.H.R An Encyclopedia of Philosophy pp.800, 807, 820
  25. ^ Curran, Vivian Grosswald (2000) Herder and the Holocaust: A Debate About Difference and Determinism in the Context of Comparative Law in F. C. DeCoste, Bernard Schwartz (eds.) Holocaust's Ghost: Writings on Art, Politics, Law and Education p.415
  26. ^ Rubinoff, Lionel History, Philosophy and Historiography: Philosophy and the Critique of Historical Thinking, in William Sweet The Philosophy of History: A Re-Examination, Chapter 9 p.171
  27. ^ Andrew Holland Access to History: Russia and its Rulers 1855-1964 (OCR): Histroical Themes p.7

Further reading

  • Berkhofer, Robert F. Beyond the great story: history as text and discourse. (Harvard University Press, 1995)
  • Berlin, Isaiah. Three critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, (2000)
  • Rose, Elizabeta "The Philosophy of History" Writings of the Contemporary World (2011)
  • Collingwood, R. G. The idea of history. (1946)
  • Danto, Arthur Coleman. Analytical philosophy of history (1965)
  • Doran, Robert. ed. Philosophy of History After Hayden White. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Dilthey, Wilhelm. Introduction to the human sciences ed. by R. A. Makkreel and F. Rodi. (1883; 1989)
  • Gardiner, Patrick L. The nature of historical explanation. (1952)
  • Gardiner, Patrick L. ed. The philosophy of history, Oxford readings in philosophy. (1974)
  • Hewitson, Mark, History and Causality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
  • Lloyd, Christopher The Structures of History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993)
  • Mandelbaum, Maurice, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (Johns Hopkins, 1977)
  • 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.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, Volume 1 and 2, University Of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • ---. 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.
  • Muller, Herbert J. The Uses of the Past, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
  • Walsh, W.H. An Introduction to Philosophy of History. 1951.
  • White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).
  • White, Hayden V. The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, 1957-2007. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). Ed. Robert Doran.
  • Gisi, Lucas Marco: Einbildungskraft und Mythologie. Die Verschränkung von Anthropologie und Geschichte im 18. Jahrhundert, Berlin, New York: de Gruyter, 2007.

External links

  • An Introduction to the Philosophy of History by Paul Newall, aimed at beginners.
  • Anthony K. Jensen, Philosophy of History, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Daniel Little, Philosophy of History, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • IDENTITIES: How Governed, Who Pays?
  • The Explanation of Action in History by Constantine Sandis, Essays in Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 2, June 2006.
  • Web Portal on Philosophy of History, Historiography and Historical Culture
  • The International Network for Theory of History