THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY


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Whatmore and Young provide extensive and useful accounts of each of the positions mentioned here. Rather, he looks at historical concepts on a spectrum of abstraction, from relatively close to events the French Revolution to more abstract revolutionary change. Moreover, he makes rigorous attempts to discover the meanings and uses of these concepts in their historical contexts. It has to do with meanings in history, but it is neither teleological nor hermeneutic. It takes seriously the obligation of the historian excavate the historical facts with scrupulous rigor, but it is not empiricist or reductionist.

Koselleck provides an innovative and constructive way of formulating the problem of historical knowledge. The traditions of empiricism and Anglo-American philosophy have also devoted occasional attention to history. Philosophers in this tradition have avoided the questions of speculative philosophy of history and have instead raised questions about the logic and epistemology of historical knowledge.

David Hume's empiricism cast a dominant key for almost all subsequent Anglo-American philosophy, and this influence extends to the interpretation of human behavior and the human sciences. Hume wrote a widely read history of England — His interpretation of history was based on the assumption of ordinary actions, motives, and causes, with no sympathy for theological interpretations of the past.

His philosophical view of history was premised on the idea that explanations of the past can be based on the assumption of a fixed human nature. This approach involves the application of the methods and tools of analytic philosophy to the special problems that arise in the pursuit of historical explanations and historical knowledge Gardiner Here the interest is in the characteristics of historical knowledge: how we know facts about the past, what constitutes a good historical explanation, whether explanations in history require general laws, and whether historical knowledge is underdetermined by available historical evidence.

Analytic philosophers emphasized the empirical and scientific status of historical knowledge, and attempted to understand this claim along the lines of the scientific standing of the natural sciences Nagel Philosophers in the analytic tradition are deeply skeptical about the power of non-empirical reason to arrive at substantive conclusions about the structure of the world—including human history.

So analytic philosophers of history have had little interest in the large questions about the meaning and structure of history considered above. The practitioners of speculative philosophy of history, on the other hand, are convinced of the power of philosophical thought to reason through to a foundational understanding of history, and would be impatient with a call for a purely empirical and conceptual approach to the subject.

An Oxford philosopher trained in modern philosophy, Walsh was strongly influenced by Collingwood and was well aware of the European idealist tradition of philosophical thinking about history, including Rickert, Dilthey, and Croce, and he treats this tradition in a serious way. He advances the view that the historian is presented with a number of events, actions, and developments during a period.

How do they hang together? Walsh fundamentally accepts Collingwood's most basic premise: that history concerns conscious human action. So the key intellectual task for the historian, on this approach, is to reconstruct the reasons or motives that actors had at various points in history and perhaps the conditions that led them to have these reasons and motives. This means that the tools of interpretation of meanings and reasons are crucial for the historian—much as the hermeneutic philosophers in the German tradition had argued.

Walsh suggests that the philosophical content of the philosophy of history falls naturally into two different sorts of inquiry, parallel to the distinction between philosophy of nature and philosophy of science. The first has to do with metaphysical questions about the reality of history as a whole; the latter has to do with the epistemic issues that arise in the pursuit and formulation of knowledge of history. And he attempts to formulate a view of what the key questions are for each approach. Speculative philosophy of history asks about the meaning and purpose of the historical process.

Hempel's general theory of scientific explanation held that all scientific explanations require subsumption under general laws. Hempel considered historical explanation as an apparent exception to the covering-law model and attempted to show the suitability of the covering-law model even to this special case. He argued that valid historical explanations too must invoke general laws. The covering-law approach to historical explanation was supported by other analytical philosophers of science, including Ernest Nagel Hempel's essay provoked a prolonged controversy between supporters who cited generalizations about human behavior as the relevant general laws, and critics who argued that historical explanations are more akin to explanations of individual behavior, based on interpretation that makes the outcome comprehensible.

Donagan and others pointed out the difficulty that many social explanations depend on probabilistic regularities rather than universal laws. The most fundamental objections, however, are these: first, that there are virtually no good examples of universal laws in history, whether of human behavior or of historical event succession Donagan —45 ; and second, that there are other compelling schemata through which we can understand historical actions and outcomes that do not involve subsumption under general laws Elster These include the processes of reasoning through which we understand individual actions—analogous to the methods of verstehen and the interpretation of rational behavior mentioned above Dray —37 ; and the processes through which we can trace out chains of causation and specific causal mechanisms without invoking universal laws.

A careful re-reading of these debates over the covering-law model in history suggests that the debate took place largely because of the erroneous assumption of the unity of science and the postulation of the regulative logical similarity of all areas of scientific reasoning to a few clear examples of explanation in a few natural sciences. This approach was a deeply impoverished one, and handicapped from the start in its ability to pose genuinely important questions about the nature of history and historical knowledge. Explanation of human actions and outcomes should not be understood along the lines of an explanation of why radiators burst when the temperature falls below zero degrees centigrade.

The insistence on naturalistic models for social and historical research leads easily to a presumption in favor of the covering-law model of explanation, but this presumption is misleading. Or are forms of bias, omission, selection, and interpretation such as to make all historical representations dependent on the perspective of the individual historian? Does the fact that human actions are value-laden make it impossible for the historian to provide a non-value-laden account of those actions?

This topic divides into several different problems, as noted by John Passmore The most studied of these within the analytic tradition is that of the value-ladenness of social action. Second is the possibility that the historian's interpretations are themselves value-laden—raising the question of the capacity for objectivity or neutrality of the historian herself. Does the intellectual have the ability to investigate the world without regard to the biases that are built into her political or ethical beliefs, her ideology, or her commitments to a class or a social group? And third is the question of the objectivity of the historical circumstances themselves.

Is there a fixed historical reality, independent from later representations of the facts? There are solutions to each of these problems that are highly consonant with the philosophical assumptions of the analytic tradition. First, concerning values: There is no fundamental difficulty in reconciling the idea of a researcher with one set of religious values, who nonetheless carefully traces out the religious values of a historical actor possessing radically different values.

This research can be done badly, of course; but there is no inherent epistemic barrier that makes it impossible for the researcher to examine the body of statements, behaviors, and contemporary cultural institutions corresponding to the other, and to come to a justified representation of the other. One need not share the values or worldview of a sans-culotte , in order to arrive at a justified appraisal of those values and worldview.

This leads us to a resolution of the second issue as well—the possibility of neutrality on the part of the researcher. The set of epistemic values that we impart to scientists and historians include the value of intellectual discipline and a willingness to subject their hypotheses to the test of uncomfortable facts. Once again, review of the history of science and historical writing makes it apparent that this intellectual value has effect. There are plentiful examples of scientists and historians whose conclusions are guided by their interrogation of the evidence rather than their ideological presuppositions.

Objectivity in pursuit of truth is itself a value, and one that can be followed. Finally, on the question of the objectivity of the past: Is there a basis for saying that events or circumstances in the past have objective, fixed characteristics that are independent from our representation of those events? Is there a representation-independent reality underlying the large historical structures to which historians commonly refer the Roman Empire, the Great Wall of China, the imperial administration of the Qianlong Emperor?

We can work our way carefully through this issue, by recognizing a distinction between the objectivity of past events, actions and circumstances, the objectivity of the contemporary facts that resulted from these past events, and the objectivity and fixity of large historical entities. The past occurred in precisely the way that it did—agents acted, droughts occurred, armies were defeated, new technologies were invented.

These occurrences left traces of varying degrees of information richness; and these traces give us a rational basis for arriving at beliefs about the occurrences of the past. In each of these instances the noun's referent is an interpretive construction by historical actors and historians, and one that may be undone by future historians. The underlying facts of behavior, and their historical traces, remain; but the knitting-together of these facts into a large historical event does not constitute an objective historical entity. A third important set of issues that received attention from analytic philosophers concerned the role of causal ascriptions in historical explanations.

Is causation established by discovering a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Can we identify causal connections among historical events by tracing a series of causal mechanisms linking one to the next? This topic raises the related problem of determinism in history: are certain events inevitable in the circumstances?

Was the fall of the Roman Empire inevitable, given the configuration of military and material circumstances prior to the crucial events? Analytic philosophers of history most commonly approached these issues on the basis of a theory of causation drawn from positivist philosophy of science. This theory is ultimately grounded in Humean assumptions about causation: that causation is nothing but constant conjunction. So analytic philosophers were drawn to the covering-law model of explanation, because it appeared to provide a basis for asserting historical causation.

As noted above, this approach to causal explanation is fatally flawed in the social sciences, because universal causal regularities among social phenomena are unavailable. So it is necessary either to arrive at other interpretations of causality or to abandon the language of causality. And it is evident that there are causal circumstances in which no single factor is necessary for the occurrence of the effect; the outcome may be overdetermined by multiple independent factors.

The convergence of reasons and causes in historical processes is helpful in this context, because historical causes are frequently the effect of deliberate human action Davidson So specifying the reason for the action is simultaneously identifying a part of the cause of the consequences of the action. It is often justifiable to identify a concrete action as the cause of a particular event a circumstance that was sufficient in the existing circumstances to bring about the outcome , and it is feasible to provide a convincing interpretation of the reasons that led the actor to carry out the action.

What analytic philosophers of the s did not come to, but what is crucial for current understanding of historical causality, is the feasibility of tracing causal mechanisms through a complex series of events causal realism. Historical narratives often take the form of an account of a series of events, each of which was a causal condition or trigger for later events.

English-speaking philosophy of history shifted significantly in the s, beginning with the publication of Hayden White's Metahistory and Louis Mink's writings of the same period ; Mink et al. Whereas analytic philosophy of history had emphasized scientific analogies for historical knowledge and advanced the goals of verifiability and generalizability in historical knowledge, English-speaking philosophers in the s and s were increasingly influenced by hermeneutic philosophy, post-modernism, and French literary theory Rorty Affinities with literature and anthropology came to eclipse examples from the natural sciences as guides for representing historical knowledge and historical understanding.

The richness and texture of the historical narrative came in for greater attention than the attempt to provide causal explanations of historical outcomes. Frank Ankersmit captured many of these themes in his treatment of historical narrative ; Ankersmit and Kellner ; see also Berkhofer It emphasizes historical narrative rather than historical causation. It is intellectually closer to the hermeneutic tradition than to the positivism that underlay the analytic philosophy of history of the s. It highlights features of subjectivity and multiple interpretation over those of objectivity, truth, and correspondence to the facts.

Another important strand in this approach to the philosophy of history is a clear theoretical preference for the historicist rather than the universalist position on the status of human nature—Herder rather than Vico. The prevalent perspective holds that human consciousness is itself a historical product, and that it is an important part of the historian's work to piece together the mentality and assumptions of actors in the past Pompa Significantly, contemporary historians such as Robert Darnton have turned to the tools of ethnography to permit this sort of discovery Another important strand of thinking within analytic philosophy has focused attention on historical ontology Hacking , Little The topic of historical ontology is important, both for philosophers and for practicing historians.

Ontology has to do with the question, what kinds of things do we need to postulate in a given realm? Historical ontology poses this question with regard to the realities of the past. Or should we treat these ideas in a purely nominalistic way, treating them as convenient ways of aggregating complex patterns of social action and knowledge by large numbers of social actors in a time and place?

Are there social kinds that recur in history, or is each historical formation unique in important ways? These are all questions of ontology, and the answers we give to them will have important consequences for how we conceptualize and explain the past. We should begin by asking the basic question: what is historiography? In its most general sense, the term refers to the study of historians' methods and practices. So one task we always have in considering an expert activity is to attempt to identify these standards and criteria of good performance. This is true for theatre and literature, and it is true for writing history.

Historiography is at least in part the effort to do this work for a particular body of historical writing. Several handbooks contain a wealth of recent writings on various aspects of historiography; Tucker , Bentley , Breisach Historians normally make truth claims, and they ask us to accept those claims based on the reasoning they present. So a major aspect of the study of historiography has to do with defining the ideas of evidence, rigor, and standards of reasoning for historical inquiry. We presume that historians want to discover empirically supported truths about the past, and we presume that they want to offer inferences and interpretations that are somehow regulated by standards of scientific rationality.

Simon Schama challenges some of these ideas in Dead Certainties Schama There are other desiderata governing a good historical work, and these criteria may change from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. Discerning the historian's goals is crucial to deciding how well he or she succeeds. So discovering these stylistic and aesthetic standards that guide the historian's work is itself an important task for historiography. This means that the student of historiography will naturally be interested in the conventions of historical writing and rhetoric that are characteristic of a given period or school.

What models of explanation? What paradigm of presentation? What standards of style and rhetoric? What interpretive assumptions? Historiography becomes itself historical when we recognize that these frameworks of assumptions about historical knowledge and reasoning change over time. On this assumption, the history of historical thinking and writing is itself an interesting subject.

How did historians of various periods in human history conduct their study and presentation of history? Under this rubric we find books on the historiography of the ancient Greeks; Renaissance historiography; or the historiography of German romanticism. Arnaldo Momigliano's writings on the ancient historians fall in this category Momigliano In a nutshell, Momigliano is looking at the several traditions of ancient history-writing as a set of normative practices that can be dissected and understood in their specificity and their cultural contexts.

A second primary use of the concept of historiography is more present-oriented and methodological. It involves the study and analysis of historical methods of research, inquiry, inference, and presentation used by more-or-less contemporary historians. How do contemporary historians go about their tasks of understanding the past? Here we can reflect upon the historiographical challenges that confronted Philip Huang as he investigated the Chinese peasant economy in the s and s Huang , or the historiographical issues raised in Robert Darnton's telling of the Great Cat Massacre Darnton Sometimes these issues have to do with the scarcity or bias in the available bodies of historical records for example, the fact that much of what Huang refers to about the village economy of North China was gathered by the research teams of the occupying Japanese army.

Sometimes they have to do with the difficulty of interpreting historical sources for example, the unavoidable necessity Darnton faced of providing meaningful interpretation of a range of documented events that appear fundamentally irrational. This has led to a tendency to look at other countries' development as non-standard or stunted. So global history is, in part, a framework within which the historian avoids privileging one regional center as primary and others as secondary or peripheral.

Bin Wong makes this point very strongly in China Transformed Wong Second is the related fact that when Western historical thinkers—for example, Hegel, Malthus, Montesquieu—have turned their attention to Asia, they have often engaged in a high degree of stereotyping without much factual historical knowledge. The ideas of Oriental despotism, Asian overpopulation, and Chinese stagnation have encouraged a cartoonish replacement of the intricate and diverse processes of development of different parts of Asia by a single-dimensional and reductive set of simplifying frameworks of thought.

This is one of the points of Edward Said's critique of orientalism Said So a historiography that takes global diversity seriously should be expected to be more agnostic about patterns of development, and more open to discovery of surprising patterns, twists, and variations in the experiences of India, China, Indochina, the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Variation and complexity are what we should expect, not stereotyped simplicity. A global history needs to free itself from Eurocentrism.

This step away from Eurocentrism in outlook should also be accompanied by a broadening of the geographical range of what is historically interesting. So a global history ought to be global and trans-national in its selection of topics—even while recognizing the fact that all historical research is selective. A globally oriented historian will recognize that the political systems of classical India are as interesting and complex as the organization of the Roman Republic. An important current underlying much work in global history is the reality of colonialism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the equally important reality of anti-colonial struggles and nation building in the s and s.

So there was a specific interest in gaining certain kinds of knowledge about those societies—in order to better govern them and exploit them. And post-colonial states had a symmetrical interest in supporting global historiography in their own universities and knowledge systems, in order to better understand and better critique the forming relations of the past. A final way in which history needs to become global is to incorporate the perspectives and historical traditions of historians in non-western countries into the mainstream of discussion of major world developments.

Indian and Chinese historians have their own intellectual traditions in conducting historical research and explanation; a global history is one that pays attention to the insights and arguments of these traditions. So global historiography has to do with a broadened definition of the arena of historical change to include Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas; a recognition of the complexity and sophistication of institutions and systems in many parts of the world; a recognition of the trans-national interrelatedness that has existed among continents for at least four centuries; and a recognition of the complexity and distinctiveness of different national traditions of historiography.

Dominic Sachsenmaier provides a significant recent discussion of some of these issues Sachsenmaier He wants to take this idea seriously and try to discover some of the implications of different national traditions of academic historiography. As should be clear from these remarks, there is a degree of overlap between historiography and the philosophy of history in the fact that both are concerned with identifying and evaluating the standards of reasoning that are used in various historical traditions.

That said, historiography is generally more descriptive and less evaluative than the philosophy of history. And it is more concerned with the specifics of research and writing than is the philosophy of history. There is another current of thinking about the philosophy of history that deserves more attention from philosophers than it has so far received.

It is the work of philosophically minded historians and historical social scientists treating familiar but badly understood historical concepts: causation, historical epoch, social structure, human agency, mentality, and the like. These writings represent a middle-level approach to issues having to do with the logic of historical discourse. This aspect of current philosophy of history brings the discipline into close relation to the philosophy of the special sciences biology, sociology, archaeology. Philosophically reflective historians ask critical questions about the concepts and assumptions that are often brought into historical thinking, and they attempt to provide more adequate explication of these concepts given their own encounters with the challenges of historical research and historical explanation.

Charles Tilly challenges a common assumption that causal reasoning depends on identifying background causal regularities; he argues instead for an approach to causal reasoning that emphasizes the role of concrete causal mechanisms McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly Simon Schama questions the concept of an objective historical narrative that serves to capture the true state of affairs about even fairly simple historical occurrences Charles Sabel casts doubt on the idea of fixed patterns of historical development, arguing that there were alternative pathways available even within the classic case of economic development in western Europe Sabel and Zeitlin As these examples illustrate, there is ample room for productive exchange between philosophers with an interest in the nature of history and the historians and social scientists who have reflected deeply on the complexities of the concepts and assumptions we use in historical analysis.

It may be useful to close with a sketch of a possible framework for an updated philosophy of history. Any area of philosophy is driven by a few central puzzles. In the area of the philosophy of history, the most fundamental questions remain unresolved: 1 What is the nature of the reality of historical structures and entities states, empires, religious movements, social classes? Can we provide a conception of historical and social entities that avoids the error of reification but gives some credible reality to the entities that are postulated?

Historical causation is not analogous to natural necessity in the domain of physical causation, because there are no fixed laws that govern historical events. So we need to provide an account of the nature of the causal powers that historical factors are postulated to have. Is it possible to arrive at justified interpretations of long-dead actors, their mentalities and their actions?

How does this phenomenological reality play into the account of historical causation? Or does all historical knowledge remain permanently questionable? A new philosophy of history will shed light on these fundamental issues. It will engage with the hermeneutic and narrativist currents that have been important in the continental tradition and have arisen in recent years in Anglo-American philosophy. It will incorporate the rigorous epistemic emphasis that is associated with analytic philosophy of history, but will separate itself from the restrictive assumptions of positivism.

A new philosophy of history will grapple with issues of social explanation that have been so important for the current generation of social-science historians and will incorporate the best current understandings of the philosophy of social science about social ontology and explanation. A handful of ontological assumptions can be offered. History consists of human actions within humanly embodied institutions and structures. There is no super-human agency in history.

Philosophy of History | esicywowyq.tk

There is no super-human meaning or progress in history; there is only a series of events and processes driven by concrete causal processes and individual actions. Following Davidson and Taylor , there is no inconsistency between reasons and causes, understanding and explanation. Historical explanation depends on both causal-structural reasoning and interpretation of actions and intentions; so it is both causal and hermeneutic. There are no causal laws or universal generalizations within human affairs.

However, there is such a thing as social causation, proceeding through the workings of human agency and the constraints of institutions and structures. A legitimate historiographical goal is to identify causal mechanisms within historical processes, and these mechanisms invariably depend on the actions of historical actors situated within concrete social relations.

Likewise, a basic epistemology of historical knowledge can be described. Historical knowledge depends on ordinary procedures of empirical investigation, and the justification of historical claims depends on providing convincing demonstration of the empirical evidence that exists to support or invalidate the claim. There is such a thing as historical objectivity, in the sense that historians are capable of engaging in good-faith interrogation of the evidence in constructing their theories of the past.

But this should not be understood to imply that there is one uniquely true interpretation of historical processes and events. Rather, there is a perfectly ordinary sense in which historical interpretations are underdetermined by the facts, and there are multiple legitimate historical questions to pose about the same body of evidence. Historical narratives have a substantial interpretive component, and involve substantial construction of the past. Finally, a new philosophy of history will be sensitive to the variety of forms of presentation of historical knowledge.

The discipline of history consists of many threads, including causal explanation, material description, and narrative interpretation of human action. Historical narrative itself has several aspects: a hermeneutic story that makes sense of a complicated set of actions by different actors, but also a causal story conveying a set of causal mechanisms that came together to bring about an outcome.

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But even more importantly, not all historical knowledge is expressed in narratives. Rather, there is a range of cognitive structures through which historical knowledge is expressed, from detailed measurement of historical standards of living, to causal arguments about population change, to comparative historical accounts of similar processes in different historical settings. A new philosophy of history will take the measure of synchronous historical writing; historical writing that conveys a changing set of economic or structural circumstances; writing that observes the changing characteristics of a set of institutions; writing that records and analyzes a changing set of beliefs and attitudes in a population; and many other varieties as well.

These are important features of the structure of historical knowledge, not simply aspects of the rhetoric of historical writing. History and its representation 1. Continental philosophy of history 2. Anglo-American philosophy of history 3. Historiography and the philosophy of history 5. Topics from the historians 6. Hegel also championed the idea of Historicism that there is an organic succession of developments, and that local conditions and peculiarities influence the results in a decisive way. It was not until the late 19th Century that Marx 's conception of a materialist history see the sections on Materialism and Marxism based on the class struggle raised attention to the importance of social factors such as economics in the unfolding of history.

More recently, Michel Foucault has 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 , as in the cases of Nazism and Stalinism. A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks. Random Quote of the Day:. Back to Top. Ancient Era. Dray did not dispute the claim that history often tries to explain events, but, following Collingwood, he argued that a satisfying historical explanation often consists of reconstructing the reasons behind an action rather than finding its external causes.

Further, it is hard to find general laws, of the kind that would be comparable to physical laws, being articulated in historical work. Hempel conceded that historical accounts bear little surface resemblance to scientific explanations, that they seem to offer merely probabilistic rather than deductive explanations, and that their accounts are often just "sketches" of more complete explanations.

But in doing so, he revealed the strongly prescriptive character of his account — a character it shared with much of the epistemology of his day. The implication was that if history could not live up to the standard of natural science, it could not qualify as genuine knowledge. Dray's larger objection to Hempel's approach was that philosophers should pay attention to what historians actually do, and to the wide variety of conceptual strategies in their work, rather than prescribing standards derived from abstract logical analysis or reducing their work to an imitation of a different, and equally idealized, endeavor.

In this he was a harbinger of a trend in analytic epistemology that eventually extended even to the philosophy of natural science itself. Nevertheless, the discussion of history among analytic philosophers in the s was dominated by the theme of causal explanation, and above all by the contrast with the natural sciences. Hempel's proposal set the tone. Even those such as Dray, who argued for the autonomy of historical knowledge, shared this preoccupation.

Thus the confrontation of "positivists" with "humanists" continued. At the same time, the discussion extended to other, related topics.

Hegel on History

One distinction that was much discussed in this literature was that between history and chronicle. It was agreed that history had to do more than just list facts. The chronicler is likely to tell us: "The king of England died, and then the queen of England died, and then the prince of England died, and then the princess of England died" … But a corresponding history may read: "The king of England died, so the queen of England grieved.

Her grief led to her death. Her death led the prince to worry, and he worried to the point of suicide. His death made the princess lonely, and she died of that loneliness. A chronicle simply lists a series of events in the order in which they happened, but according to White, "a history contains causal statements" p. But what kind of causation do emotions have? Even they seem to have the teleological character of reasons.

The distinction between chronicle and history raises further problems. The chronicle involves more than a simple statement of facts. The historian has selected , from all the possible facts there are, some that are relevant to the story that is to be told.

The problem of selection relates to the problem of historical objectivity, because even if facts are established by careful critical methods, the decision of which ones to look for, and which to include in a historical account, may derive from the interests and values of the historian. Another problem, related to explanation, had to do with the nature of the explanandum in historical accounts.

What do historians explain? The distinction between explanation and understanding, or between explanation by causes vs. But in history the focus is more often on large-scale entities such as nations, peoples, and classes, and on events such as wars, revolutions, and economic crises. We often impute actions or mental states to states or groups, as when we say that "Congress decided," "Japan was offended," "organized labor was fed up," and the like.

To what extent are these expressions just shorthand for references to the actions or feelings of individuals? If these large-scale entities do not themselves act and feel, are they subject to causal explanation, and if so what kind? Are there social laws governing the behavior of such entities and the occurrence of such events, which can be discovered independently of reference to the individuals that make them up, as methodological holists believe? Or must everything be traced, at least implicitly, to individuals?

These are questions, of course, that arise in the social sciences generally and are not peculiar to history. Positivism, reductionism, and the unity-of-science movement gradually lost their hold on analytic philosophy, largely under the influence of the later Wittgenstein, and philosophy of science was itself transformed. In an ironic reversal of fortune, worthy of a good novel, the attempt to absorb the philosophy of history into the philosophy of science was upended when science was reconceived as an essentially historical phenomenon and the philosophy of science became a branch of the philosophy of history — or at least of history proper.

Epistemology was now devoted to describing what scientists actually did, rather than producing idealized and prescriptive accounts, and this meant following their work historically. Danto was too hard on himself, however, when he described himself retrospectively as pursuing a Hempelian program. His Analytical Philosophy of History was actually itself part of a revolution going on the philosophy of history in the s.

The model for the philosophical understanding of history was shifting from science to literature. The old idea of history as a literary genre was revived. While Danto continued to think of history as explaining events causally, his account of how it does this drew heavily on the concept of storytelling or narrative.

The concept of narrative had been used before in analytic philosophy, to distinguish between chronicle and history, but Danto's sophisticated treatment of it was explicitly modeled on literary narratives such as novels. At the heart of Danto's account is the idea that in a historical narrative, as in a good story, events are selected and described retrospectively with reference to later events. Thus the temporal character of events, and the temporal position of the narrator in relation to them, determines the structure of a historical account.

But Danto was not alone in looking to the literary model. Gallie had published a book called Philosophy and Historical Understanding whose premise was that "history belongs to the genus 'story. Some analytic philosophers e. History, they said, is a disciplined inquiry whose goal is knowledge.

Narrative is merely the way — indeed only one way — its results are "written up" for public consumption. But Mink's idea is that narrative is more than just literary presentation. It constitutes a conceptual framework for dealing with human events, utterly distinct from scientific explanation, which is entirely appropriate to history. Danto later calls narrative the "metaphysics of everyday life" Danto , p. In literary theory, of course, the study of narrative had a long tradition and had produced a number of classic studies in the English-speaking world.

The rise of French structuralist literary theory in the s had also involved considerable focus on narrative, drawing on the earlier work of theorists from Eastern Europe such as Roman Jakobson and Vladimir Propp.

But literary theory and the philosophy of history had little contact until the appearance of Hayden White's Metahistory in Drawing on the literary theories of Northrup Frye, Roland Barthes , and others, White produced a theory of narrative in general that he then applied to history by examining the work of both classical historians Ranke, Michelet and philosophers of history Hegel, Marx.

White argues that their work is guided by the same plot structures — romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire — that govern the production of literary texts. White's book was widely influential but also highly controversial, especially among historians, because White seemed to be portraying their work as guided by literary motives, or motifs, rather than by the project of telling the truth about the past. By this time the study of narrative was burgeoning on all sides, with a lot of emphasis on the fact that narrative or storytelling is a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary phenomenon sui generis, turning up not only in history and fiction, but also in films, folktales, medical case histories, psychotherapy, medieval altar paintings and tapestries, comic strips, court testimony, and so on.

Some theorists proposed a new discipline, to be called "narratology," which would seek out the common features of narrative in all its manifestations. Under the broadening influence of both Hayden White and structuralist and poststructuralist theories of literature, the works of historians were studied as examples of narrative form. At a time when many historians, as noted earlier, were trying to escape traditional approaches by shifting the focus of history away from human actions, there was much difference of opinion on whether narrative was essential to history at all.

Annales historians in France, and quantitative historians "cliometricians" elsewhere, disdained traditional historical language and thought narrative dispensable. Those who followed the trend toward the history of " mentalites ," or social attitudes and thought patterns, implicitly agreed. The point was made that histories have not always told stories. White, by contrast, argued that even such standard examples of nonnarrative history as Burkhard's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages , were implicit or truncated literary narratives.

Paul Ricoeur in Time and Narrative made a similar claim about Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World , the example par excellence of the Annales school's nonnarrative approach, arguing that large-scale "quasi-persons" turned up in "quasi-plots" in Braudel's work, a kind of narrative in disguise.

To the outside observer it might seem that with this shift to the discussion of narrative, the epistemological questions that originally motivated the "critical" philosophy of history were gradually fading from view. In the work of Danto, Mink, and Gallie, the concept of narrative had evolved, partly in reaction to the positivist program of Hempel, within the world of analytical philosophy, and it was undoubtedly part of the critical or epistemological reflection on historical knowledge.

Even though these thinkers increasingly took literature as their model for understanding history, they were still interested in history's cognitive role. But when this tradition collided with structuralism in Hayden White's work, and with the larger, more literary world of narratology, the problem of knowledge seemed to lose its interest. The focus had shifted from history as knowledge to the historical text as literary artifact as White called it.

While this development is sometimes called the "linguistic turn" in the philosophy of history, it is more properly called the turn to the text. Literary analysis had apparently replaced epistemology. This is only partly true, however, as there was more to the structuralist and poststructuralist treatment of history than just literary interest. Their analysis contained a profoundly skeptical view of history as a claim to knowledge.

They were inclined to see narrative structure as an a priori cultural form imposed on the real world, an alien structure that by its very nature distorted or misrepresented the messy and chaotic character of human life and action. Their model was fiction, and they saw narrative originating in the literary imagination or the archetypical plot structures embedded in culture.

As for history, which pretends to represent the past as it really was, here narrative inevitably achieves the opposite effect, according to them. At best it dresses up reality, reflecting our need for satisfying coherence, and, if we really believe it, derives from wishful thinking. Far from reflecting reality, it escapes from it. At worst, narrative in its role as the "voice of authority" seeks to put across a moral view of the world in the interests of power and manipulation. This skeptical view was increasingly expressed in the writings of Hayden White, after Metahistory , and to some extent in those of Mink as well.

There is some irony in this development. The turn to narrative had begun as an attempt to defend the autonomy of history against the claim that it had to be transformed into science in order to be genuine knowledge. It was another chapter in the ongoing battle of the humanists against the positivists. For the humanists, narrative, like "understanding," as opposed to "explanation," was supposed to be capable of telling us about the past as it really was — human actions and intentions — whereas scientific reduction was the alien framework imposed from outside.

Now the narrativists seemed to join the positivists in believing that the literary form of traditional history stands in the way of its epistemic pretensions.


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As we have seen, the antinarrative historians of the Annales school, and many other social and economic historians, agreed with them. The only difference was that the poststructuralists, unlike the positivists and the working historians, held no brief for the epistemic pretensions of the sciences and social sciences either.

All was linguistic construction, all was imposed on reality — if indeed it makes any sense to speak of a "reality" outside our constructions. Thus epistemology had not completely disappeared from the narrative treatment of history; there was still a concern for its epistemic status.

Philosophy of History

But the consensus among the most influential poststructuralist or postmodern theorists the latter term came to prevail was that it had none. Many of the issues associated with the critical philosophy of history — objectivity, the role of evidence, the nature of explanation — were simply not treated at all.

To that extent the project of the critical philosophy of history had been transformed, if not eclipsed. One theorist who had a lot to say about historical knowledge was Michel Foucault , whose work gradually took on enormous importance from the late s on, first in France and then elsewhere. Foucault's early work was in the history of medicine and psychiatry, but it engaged fundamental social and philosophical issues such as the normal vs. His middle works The Order of Things [], The Archaeology of Knowledge [] dealt more broadly with knowledge in the human sciences.

In keeping with the "linguistic turn," his focus was on forms of discourse, and his treatment took the form of contrasting widely divergent historical examples of scientific theory. His thoughts on history came through primarily in his defense of his own approach against more traditional treatments. He contrasted his own method, which he called "archaeological," with what he called the "history of ideas. Rather than being a teleological continuum, according to Foucault, history manifests discrete breaks between radically different periods, which cannot properly be compared at all as if their sciences were all trying to do the same thing.

Foucault was clearly criticizing traditional historians for imposing a teleological structure on the past; but he was doing so by arguing for an alternative conception of historical reality. Thus his work perhaps belongs as much to the substantive as to the critical philosophy of history. And while it differs in some ways from the more literary approach to history of other contemporary trends, it is like them in treating historical knowledge as conceptual construction.

The question of its truth does not arise. This did not sit well with many historians, who were still toiling away, reading documents, sifting and evaluating evidence, attempting to tell the truth, and to distinguish it from falsity, about the past. Historians on the whole had never had a great deal of patience with the philosophy of history; now many were further alienated, if not openly hostile. It is true that White, Barthes, and others had opened the hostilities by portraying professional history, in effect, as a powerful establishment managing the past for political purposes.

Now many historians argued that, on the contrary, by questioning the idea of historical truth, the postmoderns were fostering an "anything goes" attitude that opened the doors to Stalinist-style rewriting of history, Holocaust denial, and other falsifications. Postmodern theory provided no way of distinguishing between history and fiction, in the view of its critics. Some historians, it is true, were intrigued by skeptical doubts about history's capacity to know the past.

Robert Novick noted That Noble Dream , that even the respected American historian Charles Beard, in the s, had called historical objectivity a "noble dream" that could never be fulfilled; and Novick went on to argue, with the help of postmodern theories, for an even stronger skepticism about the past. As could be expected, his book stirred much controversy among professional historians.

But historians were not the only ones who were unhappy with the postmodern turn. Philosophers in the analytic tradition McCullagh, Bunzl were prompted by the controversy over Novick's book to mount arguments against the skeptical relativism it represented. While generally admitting the role of culture and language in shaping our approach to the past, these authors adduce some of the standard arguments about the self-refuting character of skepticism and defend the place of evidence and critical judgment in distinguishing better from worse historical accounts.

Paul Ricoeur — , a continental philosopher who also drew heavily on the analytical philosophy of history, attempted to soften the excesses of postmodernism by reconnecting narrative texts with their roots in human experience. Ricoeur believed that narrative, in both fictional and historical form, "humanizes" the experience of time, bringing order and measure to human existence.


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  4. He argued that history and fiction draw on each other and often intersect in important ways. But he did not agree with the tendency of his French contemporaries to reduce history to fiction, or to blur the distinction between them. In writing about history, he devoted careful attention to the restraining and guiding role of document and evidence in historical discourse.

    He also believed that narrative texts build on structures that are already present in ordinary experience, transforming them, and then affecting and enriching ordinary experience in their turn. Other philosophers of history countered the views of White and the postmoderns by arguing against the idea that narrative is an alien framework imposed on a nonnarrative reality. What reality is meant? Human reality, which history is about, is the temporal flow of experiences and actions that engage persons in their social context.

    While it may not always have the crafted contours of a novel's plot, neither is it a chaotic absence of order or a meaningless one thing after another. According to this argument, human experience, and especially human action, are ordered in a manner that foreshadows the structures of narrative itself. Events are experienced as temporal configurations with beginnings, middles, and ends; actions project an end and organize the means for achieving it.

    The agent grasps a sequence of events together in a temporal order much as a narrator organizes the events of a story; it is as if the agent is constructing and telling himself a story and then acting it out. On this view the narrative we find in historical writings — and in fictional writings too — is not a merely literary device at odds with the human world, it is something more like an extension of human existence by other means.

    According to this "continuity theory" as some have called it , narrative structures constitute "the metaphysics of everyday life," as Danto called it, and offer the key to understanding not only experience and action, but also the self who acts , p. The self can be seen as constructing itself by implicitly or explicitly telling, and of course also revising, its life story.

    This theory can be extended from individual to social life, where it becomes relevant to history. Communities, large and small, may be said to constitute themselves in the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

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    Here historical consciousness and historical writing have their place. Written history can be seen as the collective memory that permits a society to hold itself together and plan its future. Critics of the continuity theory have argued that it does not succeed in answering the skepticism of the postmoderns, which was seemingly its intention. It counters the theory that historical narrative is in principle incapable of portraying the past by arguing against the radical discontinuity between narrative and the real world. But even if it succeeds in demonstrating the protonarrative character of everyday action and experience, and in extending this to the social level, it does not account for the differences between these protonarrative structures and fully formed narratives we find in novels and histories.

    As regards historical knowledge, this theory, according to its critics, fails to provide a positive account of how narrative can succeed in arriving at historical truth and distinguishing it from falsehood. These criticisms inadvertently reveal something about the discussion of narrative and history, especially when it draws on continental philosophy for its inspiration, that once again raises questions about how to classify it as philosophy of history. We already found that the focus on historical narratives as literary texts, under the influence of White and the structuralists, moved away from traditional epistemological questions without completely abandoning them.

    Historical knowledge took a back seat to the literary properties of historical writing. Some of the attempts we have been discussing, designed to counter the influence of poststructuralism on the philosophy of history, similarly defy the standard classification. This is because they draw heavily on the phenomenological and hermeneutical tradition going back to Husserl and Heidegger.

    These philosophers reflect on history in a way that is indeed related to traditional epistemological and even metaphysical concerns, but not in the way associated with the standard distinction between the substantive and the critical. In this tradition, the key concept is "historicity.

    The importance of this notion attests to the influence on both philosophers of Dilthey, who had died in but whose posthumously published work was still studied intensely. We have encountered Dilthey as the philosopher of the Geisteswissenschaften , whose project of working out a "critique of historical reason" made him an important contributor to the epistemological debates about history. But he also believed that historical knowledge is rooted in certain features of human existence. Husserl and Heidegger, following Dilthey's lead, expand in slightly different ways on what it means to be a "historical being.

    Past and future are part of that world, and both philosophers devote extensive analysis to temporality. Human experience is not confined to the present but consists of a temporal grasp, holding on to the past and anticipating or projecting its future.

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