Philosophy of History

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edit index Philosophy of History

Historical Interpretation

Philosophy of History is an area of Philosophy concerning the eventual significance, if any, of "human history". Furthermore, it is speculative on Teleological Ends to historical development. It is to ask if there is a Design, Purpose, Directive Principle, or Finality in the processes of human history. The question is really three-fold in category:

  • What is the proper "unit" for the study of our human past - is it the Individual or Subject? Is it the Polis ("City") or Sovereignty, perhaps Civilization or Culture, or simply, the whole of the human species?
  • Are there any broad patterns we can discern through the study of the human past? Are there, for example, patterns of progress, cycles, or are there no patterns or cycles? Is our history merely random, devoid of any meaning?
  • If history can indeed be said to progress, what is the ultimate direction or end point? Are we moving in a positive or negative direction, and what would be the driving force of that progress?

Because of these questions, Philosophy of History should not be confused with Historiography, a study of History as an academic discipline. The discipline concerns the methods and practices of Historiography, and its development over time. Also, we should not confuse Philosophy of History with the History of Philosophy, which is the study of the development of philosophical ideas through time.

Ancient Overview

In the Poetics, Aristotle had 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 axiological concerns, (good/bad, right/wrong) over metaphysical concerns for what "is". Accordingly, classical historians felt a duty to ennoble the world. In keeping with the question of a Philosophy of History, we can observe clearly that their Philosophy of Value imposed upon their process of writing history as a Philosophy-influenced Method.

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 us good examples to follow. This was an assumption - that History "should teach good examples" - which influenced how History was written. Events of the past were considered to show poor examples not to be followed, so the historians did not record or interpret them in a Purpose-driven way.

From the Classical Period through the Renaissance, historians alternated between focusing on things designed to improve Mankind, and on the devotion to facts. History was composed mainly of hagiographies of monarchs or Epic Poetry describing heroic gestures such as the Song of Roland, which was about the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, during Charlemagne's first campaign to conquer the Iberian Peninsula.

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 which would 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 the wheels of History and how historical change could be understood.

Cyclical and Linear History

Given that human beings are currently understood by humans to be the single Earthly creatures capable of abstract thought, a perception of Time, and a manipulation of thought concerning the past, the future and the present, an inquiry into the nature of History is based in part on some working understanding of Time in the human experience. Western Thought tends allow for linear progression - "this happened, and then that happened; that happened because this happened first" (post hoc, ergo propter hoc), or Cause and Effect. But this linear assumption is not universally or biologically inherent, even in our human species. There are other cultures with other assumptions about the nature of Time and, as such, the very Philosophy of historical inquiry would be affected. If time is cyclical, we could ask, then can "the past" also be "the future"? Santayana said, "those who don't learn from History are doomed to repeat it", which perhaps suggests the past can happen again in the future - or that Time is a line, that we are at once moving away from the past and toward the past, as future.

The mythical conception holds that Time is not linear, but cyclical. Examples are the ancient doctrine of the Eternal Return, which existed in Ancient Egypt (and made modern by Nietzsche), the Dharmic Religions, and the Pythagorean and Stoic conceptions. In The Works and Days, Hesiod described five Ages of Man: the Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and Iron Ages, which all began with the Dorian Invasion. Plato also wrote about the myth of the Golden Age. The Greeks believed in a cyclical conception of Government, in which each regime necessarily fell into its corrupted form (Aristocracy, Democracy and Monarchy were the healthy regimes; Oligarchy and Tyranny the corrupted. Even in the East, such cyclical theories of History were developed in China (as a theory of Dynastic Cycle) and in the Islamic world by Ibn Khaldun.

In Judaism and Christianity, theodicies were claims 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, as well as "Dynamism"), was the most well-known philosopher of 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 War, epidemic and natural disasters, was an effect of perception of a Divine Plan. Hence, theodicies explained the necessity of Evil as a relative element within 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.

Indeed, during the Renaissance, generally cyclical conceptions of History would become common, as illustrated by Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy (1513-1517), and a notion of Empire contained within its own ascendance (and 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 throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, via 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 theory advanced in the book, Five Epochs of Civilization: World History As Emerging in Five Civilizations, by William McGaughey, is one where History is a continuing creation story related to the development of human society, all told in successive chapters (or historical epochs). The introduction of major new communication technologies such as electronic communication change the society to such a degree that the change may be said to begin a new civilization. There is no "end" to History, then, as it is a continuing process of technological innovation and societal development. Recent developments in mathematical models of long-term, Socio-Demographic cycles has revived interest in cyclical theories of History (1).

The Enlightenment Ideal of Social Progress

During the Enlightenment (Aufklaurung), 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 and trust in social progress. As in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile: Or, On Education (1762) treatise on education (or the "art of training men"), the Englightenment involved a conception of 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 the German Aufklaurung as having the audacity to think for oneself, without reference to a authority figures, Prince/King, Church or traditions:

"Enlightenment is when a person leaves behind a state of immaturity and dependence (Unmaundigkeit) 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."
To this end, Kant supported enlightened Despotism, purely as a way of leading humanity towards its autonomy and cosmopolitanism. Kant spoke of this process of History in his short treaty, Toward an Idea For A Universal History With A Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784). Enlightenment would lead nations and peoples toward their liberation, and progress was thus inscribed in the very scheme of History, and such liberation could only be acquired by the 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, poverty, etc.) was for Hegel 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 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 labour, 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 labour of Reason in History. However, this dialectical reading of History involved the dialectical contradiction, so historical progress would always be in conflict. Hegel theorized this in his famous dialectic of the lord and the bondsman.

"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." (2)
Thus, Philosophy was to explain Geschichte (History) after-the-fact. Philosophy is always late, Hegel said, it is only an interpretation and attempt to recognize what is rational in the real. Further, only what is recognized as rational is real, and this idealist understanding of Philosophy as interpretation was famously challenged by Karl Marx's, in Theses on Feuerbach (11th, 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, all brought 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, was an example of the positivist conception. 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 On the Origin of Species (1859) demonstrated the basics of Evolution. However, Evolution was quickly transposed from its original scope in Biology into the social realm. 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 19th-century unilineal evolutionary theories claimed that societies start out in a primitive state and gradually become more civilised over time, thus equating the Culture and Technology of Western Civilisation with progress itself.

Of course, such a powerful theory would have detractors and "false leaders" (continuing to this day, with the battle between Evolution and Intelligent Design, and how each are taught in schools). Perhaps it started when Ernst Haeckel formulated his Recapitulation Theory (1867), which stated that "Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny", and that individual Evolution reproduces the species' Evolution. Hence, a child would go through all the steps from primitive society to modern society, which was proven false. Haeckel did not support Darwin's theory of Natural Selection, rather believing in a Lamarckian Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics. Arthur Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-55) was a 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, but which are no longer supported by any Science.

After World War I, the Whig Interpretation had gone out of style, and Paul Valéry famously said, "We civilizations now know ourselves mortal." However, in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) Francis Fukuyama proposed a very similar notion of progress, conceiving of liberal democracies as the "End of History", itself based on a Kojevian reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Influential when it was published, international conflict and competing philosophies of cultural systems up through the 1990s (including the conflict between Western and Islamic cultures) have since limited the impact. So, how we consider the nature of History will impact the interpretation and conclusions drawn about History.

Is History Teleological?

The claim that History has a progressive direction leading to an eschatological end, given by a superior power, is a transcendent teleological notion. However, contemporary thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser or Giles Deleuze denied any teleological function within History, and further claimed History is best characterized by discontinuities, ruptures, and incongruent time-scales. History was, at most, seen as directed by a softened Hegelian Zeitgeist, and traces of Zeitgeist could be seen by looking backward. Hegel believed that History was moving Man toward "Civilization.", but the events and conflicts of the 20th and early 21st centuries helped instill strong doubt in such a claim.

"He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." - George Orwell, 1984
Revisionism, to craft a "national story", is at the heart of the contemporary problem with History. To some degree, all nations are active in the promotion of a "national story", but most are benign cultural concerns, far less ominous than some of the overt efforts to censor. Such efforts have occurred throughout History, in the burning of books, the "re-education" of Vietnamese leaders in a defeated opposition, and the more recent, if far more vast, attempts to "dumb down" the US and other developed nations through Television and Infotainment. George Orwell's work of fiction, 1984, prompts the reader to ponder her assumptions about the nature of History, to learn from History, rather than repeat it (referring to the Santayana quote above).

A simple way to look at this question is to ask another question - in the current Iraq Invasion, who are the "good guys"? Of course, the answer will depend on one's cultural background, since there are two sides both fighting for what they believe, with a divided population caught in the middle. History books written now will differ across the Middle East and in the United States. It is all dependent upon a legacy of the "politico-historical discourse" of "race struggle", said Michel Foucault, in his 1976-77 course "Society must be Defended", and it is often argued that the conflict can be based on any social element, ethnic, nations or class struggle. The victors use their political dominance to suppress the defeated adversaries' version of historical events in favor of their own, thus creating propaganda, or even full historical Revisionism. Walter Benjamin also considered that Marxist historians must take a radically different views from the Bourgeois and Idealists.(3)

Obviously the victors do have advantages in promoting their version of events, even if they don't erase their enemies completely from existence. The victors may have control over the churches, the courts and schools. This may give the ruling elites nearly total control over the molding of consciousness and discourse over those they rule. In dictatorships, ruthless censorship allows only the state-approved version of events to be made public, and much that happened remains secret if it proved hurtful to the ruling elite. Liberal democracies are not immune however. In the West for example, the concentration of Media into ever fewer hands has given the Captains of ever more major Media increased control over the parameters of public discourse.

Because the US population could be said to be "passive", this forms the boundaries of debate we allowed to have in classrooms, on TV, or near water coolers. It even limits conversation with friends and co-workers on matters such as war and politics. These changes to how History is written, whether in the guise of "victory" or "political correctness" simply reflect the shifting nature of Power within society and the ability, or inability, of different voices in a Democracy to contribute their own unique viewpoint to what eventually becomes our overall historical fabric. In short, not all views agreed upon by a group are necessarily the Truth.

Foucauldean Analysis of Discourse

Michel Foucault spoke of the historico-political discourse as political weapon, and according to Foucault, Marxists 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 is not tied, for Foucault, to the Subject, but rather, the Subject is itself a construction of discourse. Moreover, discourse is not the simple ideological and mirror reflexion of an economical infrastructure, but is a product and battlefield of a panoply of forces.

Foucault shows that what specifies this discourse from the juridical and philosophical discourse is its conception of Truth. No longer Absolute, Truth is the product of "struggle". History itself, which was traditionally the Sovereign's Science and Legend, became the discourse of the People, a political stake. The subject is not a neutral Arbitrate, or Judge, as Kant had it, but a construction which constructs, as it were. Therefore, what became the "Historical Subject" must also search in the multiple contingencies from which a fragile Rationality may emerge. For Foucault, the Sovereign is nothing more than:

" illusion, an instrument, or, at the best, an enemy. It is the (historico-political) 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. 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). With Kant, public education has been seen as a prerequisite of progressive emancipation, and the subsequent creation of modern educational systems and textbooks, instrumental in the construction of Nation-States, also elaborated a common, National History, even a Tribalism.

In most societies, schools and curricula are controlled by their Government. As such, there is always an opportunity for governments to impose - though, governments in free societies just as strongly serve to protect freedoms and "constitutional" rights. However, the power itself to impose is available, to influence thought of young, malleable minds (both positively and negatively), to influence a Truth, or a national version of Truth.


  1. See, for example, Historical Dynamics by Peter Turchin, or Introduction to Social Macrodynamics by Andrey Korotayev et al.
  2. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), "Preface"
  3. There are many other, classic examples: 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; While Christianity came to be the dominant religion of Europe, it effectively erased other histories, such as the development of Paganism; The European version of the conquest of the Americas offers a different interpretation of the events from American accounts; Herodotus's Greek History of the Persian Wars is widely available, but the Persian recall of the events is little known in Western Culture; The Tianenmen Square incident in 1989 is an example of a society in which freedom to speak out is not tolerated, so how can historical accounts from such a regime be accepted as "truth" when there was no voice to alternatives?

Further Reading

  • Mink, LO. "Narrative form as a cognitive instrument."? The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding. (1978): 129-149.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. "Time and Narrative", Volumes 1 and 2. Reprint, University Of Chicago Press, 1990.

See Also

External Links

Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article "Philosophy of history" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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