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History, Philosophy of

HISTORY, PHILOSOPHY OF

In its most general sense, the philosophy of history is interpretative history; it deals with the basic or ultimate causes of the historical process as a whole, and attempts to see a discernible purposive plan in the multitude of events. Some authors equate the philosophy of history with metahistory, which "has for its end the determination of laws regulating historical facts and the place of such facts in an explanatory view of the world" (P. Foulquié and R. Saint-Jean, Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique [Paris 1962] 437). Since the historian is not merely a statistician, he too concerns himself with more than the recording of fact, but his historical explanations, usually influenced by his epistemological presuppositions, may emphasize or minimize factors of remote or proximate causation as these affect the factual data.

In view of the great diversity of views on the subject, this article treats first of various interpretations and usages that are current regarding the philosophy of history, and then sketches the origin of the expression and various factors affecting the growth and development of philosophies of history since the 18th century.

Various Interpretations

The principal understandings of the expression "philosophy of history," as used by theologians, philosophers, and social scientists, may be grouped under six headings: classical cyclicism, providential history, explanatory laws, interpretative history, philosophically oriented history, and progressivist theories.

Classical Cyclicism. The first general category of historical interpretation is classical cyclicism, which envisions an eternal universe featuring a continuous recurrence of historical experience. Arnold Joseph Toynbee (18891975) considers cyclicism to have had its probable origin in ancient Chaldean astronomy, but it derived much of its force in the ancient world as an intellectually naive extrapolation from a world of nature that exhibited observably recurrent daily and seasonal changes. Linear creationism was practically unknown in the ancient world, and even the Timaeus of plato and scattered references in epicurus make no case for a genuine creatio ex nihilo in the Christian sense of the term. Ancient cyclicism had its psychological counterpart in the theories of metempsychosis that pictured successive psychic existences in historically repetitive patterns.

Karl Löwith (18971973) cites the main sources for the classical view of eternal recurrence as certain fragments of heraclitus and of empedocles; most of the myths of Plato; Aristotle's astronomical teaching (Metaphysics 1073a 131074b 14; Cael. 269b 18271a 35); a fragment of Eudemus; and the Epist. ad Lucilium 24 of Seneca. Early Christian sources are Justin's Dialogue with Trypho 1 and Origen's Against Celsus 4.67 and De principiis 2.3.

St. Augustine's City of God is Christianity's most famous protest against a cyclicism that would confine history within itself in a series of endless repetitions. While a mode of cyclicism appeared in the medieval Aristotelianism of siger of brabant and in the Paradiso of Dante, the cyclic theme was to have its greatest modern vogue in the philosophy of F. W. nietzsche, for whom eternal recurrence was basic.

Providential History. A second general area of inquiry, considered by some as the philosophy of history, is providential history, such as that written by St. augustine and J. B. bossuet. Providential history sees the historical process as initiated by a divine creative act and proceeding meaningfully to a conclusion. It is teleological, but not deterministic, as man's free will is a part of the providence of god rather than a competing dynamic principle. Such a theologically oriented eschatology is not, strictly speaking, a philosophy, but as it is broadly interpretative, it is included for consideration in most works in philosophy of history. Christopher Dawson (18891970) quite correctly observes that the Christian vision of history is essentially theological in character, reflecting an integral part of divine revelation rather than a philosophical effort elaborated by Christian scholars. (see theology, history of.)

Augustinian history is inevitably universal, and, as it envisages an eternal goal beyond the temporal order, it is metahistorical. As R. G. Collingwood has pointed out, Greco-Roman ecumenical history is not universal in the Christian sense, having, as it does, the particularist center of gravity that is Greece or Rome. Augustinian history, on the other hand, has a pivotal event, the Incarnation, toward which the pre-Christian era moves, and by which the Christian era is transfigured. Thus eusebius of caesarea sees in his Preparatio evangelica human events as preparatory to the coming of Christ, and colored, as it were, by that event. Such a Christian vision of history involves a restructuring of thought as well as a liberation from cyclicism. Although a secular scholar such as J. B. Bury sees in providential history external control rather than liberation, St. Augustine's City of God does herald a new linear dimension in historical experience, in which free human activity, moving into an unknown future, acquires a unique meaning not destined for inevitable repetition. (See P. Henry, "The Christian Philosophy of History," Theological Studies 13 [1952] 419432.)

Explanatory Laws. A third species considered as a philosophy of history is a type of interpretative history that claims the existence of laws or keys revealing the metaphysic of the historical process. In its extreme form either it replaces causation itself by destiny (as with O. spengler); or it overemphasizes single causative elements and sees all history determined by such factors as race, geography, climate, and economics; or it views history as given new impulses and directions by what Collingwood calls "apocalyptic" events, such as the Renaissance, the invention of printing, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, or the sociopolitical liberal movements of the 19th century. Interpretative extremism also features history as prophecy, for if the major cosmic impulse, deterministic in character, can be sufficiently identified, then the future as well as the past can be expected to yield its secrets.

Needless to say, it is this unwarranted Gnosticism in history to which the critical historian most vehemently and justifiably objects. He may consider the insight of a Spengler or a Toynbee ingeniously formulated and reflective of a deeply felt personal view of the historical process, but he is understandably hesitant to accord this objectivity. Yet he too can forget, as Ernst Bernheim (18501942) has suggested, that the philosophy of history is by no means a superfluous luxury for the historian (see Einleitung in die Geschichtswissenschaft [3d ed., Berlin-Leipzig 1926]). Norman Sykes has also observed in this regard that even the most conservative of scientific historians have found it impossible to restrain their steps from divagations into the pastures of philosophy. Facts, far from speaking for themselves, are agile performers, and their performance is largely determined by the meaningful context in which they are assembled. Factual history is positivism manifesting itself in historical writing. It may well be true that the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 irrespective of the ideological background of the historian who records the event; but the mere recording of the event is not history, and the material selected or suppressed in judging the significance of the event inevitably involves one in value judgments.

Interpretative History. A fourth possibility is interpretative history, or history integrally taken as nondeterministic in character. While recognizing the unpredictable character of free human choice, this discerns various patterns or trends in the historical process as a whole. Jacques maritain speaks of axiomatic formulas, by which he means formulas that reveal the endurance of basic relations or fundamental characteristics. He distinguishes these functional laws from what he calls typological or vectorial laws, i.e., more particularized descriptions of historical growth and development that exhibit a typical direction.

Philosophically Oriented History. A fifth category of the philosophy of history is simply philosophically oriented history. While not neglecting the factual, this is more preoccupied with relations and causes, general as well as specific, epistemological positions antecedent to investigation, and a philosophy of man with particular emphasis on human freedom. This type of philosophical history is a matter of general orientation in which philosophical factors take precedence over the methodology and the specific content of historical investigation.

Progressivist Theories. A final area of inquiry in the philosophy of history are the secular philosophies of progress produced by the rationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. History and cultural institutions came to be judged in the light of an ascending progressive evolution. Nietzsche was quite correct in seeing the philosophies of progress, which he despised, as a "trivialization" and secularization of Christian linearism, which he also despised. But the new Jerusalem of the progressivists was an earthly city that envisioned no transcendent goal. As has been generally observed, this trend to the secular had been abetted by both the Renaissance and the Reformation, and by the scientism of empiricists desirous of extending natural science to philosophy.

Bury (The Idea of Progress [London 1920, New York 1932]) and Dawson (Progress and Religion [London 1929]) have examined progressivist theory in its secular and religious forms. It is important to note that the Christian rejects, not the possibility of progress, but its inevitability. Believing that man possesses neither the naturally good nature as taught by J. J. rousseau, nor a vitiated nature as taught by M. luther, but a nature wounded by original sin, the Christian recognizes the possibility of retrogression as well as the possibility of progress. Rectilinear progress had its psychological variant in the turn-of-the-century Couéism, which assured increasingly insecure man that "every day in every way he was getting better and better."

General theories of progress are associated particularly with the writings of B. B. de Fontenelle (16571757); C. I. Castel, Abbé de Saint-Pierre (16581743); the Marquis de condorcet; voltaire; J.B. J. Fourier (17681830); C. H. saint-simon; A. R. J. Turgot (172781); C. darwin; and A. comte. Latent in progressivist theory is the idea that progress is a law of nature, and that such a law applies both to the processes of the natural order and the cultural development of man. The theory finds much to substantiate it in the order of technology, where the accumulated intellectual capital of the past is immediately at the service of contemporary experimentation. Academic capital is also added in each successive generation, although it is questionable to suggest that the available knowledge is acquired by successive generations with increasing skill.

Voltaire's prejudice in favor of contemporary history, and the belief that history exhibited a constant progress from a barbarous primitive era to his own day was not only reflective of an arbitrary conviction that the only meaningful history was modern history, but it was also the consequence of a limited knowledge of the age that was held to be primitive. N. A. berd[symbol omitted]ev (The Meaning of History [New York 1936]) was perhaps the progressivist's most formidable modern adversary. He considered the philosophy of progress to be a secularized Messianism, a divinization of the future at the expense of the past and present, that had not the slightest philosophical, scientific, or moral justification. But the idea of progress was a comfortable and optimistic illusion that endured until the early years of the 20th century, when the static and peaceful Newtonian universe began to collapse as empirical science expanded its frontiers, and a devastating worldwide conflict reminded free man that he was capable of going in more than one forward direction.

Were one to seek to reduce the ways of understanding history to their essential forms, one might, following the lead of Löwith, Collingwood, and H. Stuart Hughes, list cyclical recurrence and eschatological direction. It would seem advisable, however, on the basis of the influence of progressivist theories, to include secular futurism as a third possibility.

Origin and Development

The growth and development of the philosophy of history perforce is traceable to the origin of the expression itself; from this point it is affected by the various influences and climates of opinion in which philosophers of history labored, notably by Romanticism and positivism, idealism, neoidealism, and more recent movements such as those of cyclic history and modern synthesis.

Origin of the Expression. Concerning the origin of the expression, "philosophy of history," several observations are to be made. Juan Donoso Cortés refers in his Ensayo sobre el catolicismo, el liberalismo y el socialismo (Madrid 1851) to St. Augustine's City of God as a "Catholic philosophy of history." In his essay on G. vico, however, he refers to Bossuet as the "first philosopher of history." Vico himself is called by H. P. Adams "the founder of philosophy of history." Löwith, in referring to a period of crisis at the end of the 17th century, when, as he says, "Providence was replaced by progress," insists that Voltaire's essay on the manners and mind of nations is the first philosophy of history (cf. La Philosophie de l'histoire [Geneva 1765]); and Löwith considers this event the inauguration of an epoch of historical evaluation that is basically antireligious. M. C. Swabey (The Judgment of History [New York 1954]) rejects this identification of philosophical history with figures such as Voltaire, C. de montesquieu, or I. Kant, and prefers to consider the problem in terms of general orientation. W. H. Walsh claims that philosophy of history first gained recognition in 1784 with the publication of the first part of J. G. Herder's Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Leipzig 178491). Collingwood maintains that the name at least "was invented by Voltaire, who meant by it no more than critical or scientific history." S. J. Case concedes that Voltaire may be said to have coined the phrase, but considers that the technique of evaluation involved is current in the thought of the ancient Hebrews. Father Gilbert Garraghan (A Guide to Historical Method [New York 1946]), considering philosophy of history "essentially a theological concept," claims that Augustine was the first to state a philosophy of history, in his City of God. Raymond Aron's use of the term in his Introduction à la philosophie de l'histoire (Paris 1938) is more like that of Case and Swabey. He is concerned with a philosophical conception of the historical process as a whole, in opposition to positivism and rationalisme scientiste.

From such a variety of opinion some basic facts emerge. The name at least, originates with Voltaire, who summarizes his position in the dictum: Il faut écrire l'histoire en philosophe. Secondly, there is no general agreement as to the role philosophy should play in historical interpretation. This difference is reflected in an oscillation between extremes of factual and philosophical history that seems to take place over the years.

Romanticism and Positivism. Interpretative history in the late 19th century was as indebted to romanticism as factual history was to positivism (see romanticism, philosophical). Particularly in German historicism did the romantic spirit flourish in the attempt to capture a living sense of the past in its indigenous cultural setting. The historicists found an ideal image for this attempt in plant morphology. J. Burckhardt and Spengler could see the historical value of art forms as veritable mirrors of culture. They could explore historical change in its growth and decay by an organic metaphor that the 19th-century preoccupation with Darwinian science would render understandable. Yet evolutionism, implying as it did a linear theory of progress, was clearly at variance with such a theory as Spengler's, whose discontinuous cultures with their relative value systems were nevertheless explained as subject to the laws of plant morphology. Positivism's contribution to critical history was a respect for fact and the methodology that would lead to it, although it had a built-in inhibition about interpreting facts. Romanticism's contribution was more imaginative and profound. Although more prone to error by reason of increased subjectivity, it did attempt to penetrate the surface of fact to discover the inner dynamics of the historical process. In this it was more inferential than descriptive.

Idealism. Of particular interest to the philosopher of history is historical idealism, which envisions historical knowledge as a reliving of the past in the mind of the historian. Idealism aims at capturing the spirit of an age by intellectual re-creation rather than by an excessive preoccupation with factual minutiae; its principal proponents are J. G. fichte, F. W. J. von schelling, and G. W. F. hegel.

Fichte has perhaps gained his greatest fame as a systematizer of Kantian philosophy, but he is significant in German Romanticism in providing a philosophical framework within the self for analyzing historical experience. In his lectures, Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters (Berlin 1806), he sees the self's awareness of its own time as prefatory to an understanding of the past, and he sees a given culture as the living embodiment of an idea. An integral understanding of history is not derived from a study of given cultures, but from the meaningful logical relation of ideas that articulate themselves progressively and dialectically in the historical process. Being is in a sense reduced to thought, and history is therefore the history of ideas, especially the idea of freedom. The world of "representations" is the periodic unfolding of Absolute Ego, and the individual self is but part of the embracing Ego.

Schelling, a colleague of Fichte at Jena, developed a similarly far-fetched system of transcendental idealism. Schelling distinguishes nature and history, both of which manifest the absolute. Nature is the sum total of extramental realities and their observable relationships, but history is seen as the developed phase of the Absolutea development involving free human enterprise and providential plan. The Absolute as mind is a continuous process of self-awareness, and history is the very process by which the Absolute realizes itself as both knower and known.

Philosophical history reaches perhaps its most sophisticated formulation in the work of Hegel. Hegel's implicative philosophy is historically oriented and posits a monistic Absolute working toward the State as the objective manifestation of the divine upon Earth. History is there vaguely defined as the rediscovery of Absolute Spirit through human consciousness and time. Philosophy rather than theology is seen by Hegel as the means of demonstrating a providential plan to which man unwittingly contributes.

Neoidealism. The idealist theory of history continued to receive considerable attention in the pre-Spengler period of German historical thought in the late 19th century; of particular importance then was the work of Georg Simmel (18581918) and Wilhelm dilthey. Simmel questions the positivist's notion of historical objectivity, insisting that while the facts of nature may be subject to empirical scrutiny, the facts of history must inevitably be a spiritual reconstruction of the past from documents and external evidence. Although admittedly a subjective construction, such history is felt by Simmel to have a valid objectivity. Dilthey also was influential in the neoidealist critique of factual history, seeing in the wealth of the historian's intellectual and spiritual resources the means of interpreting the lifeless data of the past. Both Simmel and Dilthey have a common problem in establishing satisfactorily the objectivity of historical knowledge, emphasizing as they do the subjectivity of a psychological experience far removed in time from the data of the past.

Benedetto croce, the greatest exponent of the Italian neoidealist tradition, also considers history a spiritual recreation of the past, but like Voltaire, he sees the significance of the past in terms of its relevance to the present. He not only combines the idealistic with the pragmatic, but sees history, not as the investigation of the general truths proper to science, but as a cognitive vision of individuality proper to his definition of art.

Cyclic History. Cyclic history finds its foremost proponents in Vico, Nietzsche, and Spengler. Vico, to whom Goethe referred as a patriarch of modern thought, combines in his Principij di una Scienza Nuova (Naples 1725) a providential cyclicism and an anti-Cartesian critical method of appraising developing human societies. He sees not only similar periods in history, but a regularity of recurrence that he identifies as the divine, heroic, and human periods. The spiral rather than the circle is a better figure by which to identify Vico's Christian, but non-scholastic, approach, because he sees society moving forward and differentiated by previous experience. As Collingwood indicates, this is obviously not the old classical Greco-Roman cyclicism found in Plato, Polybius, and in Renaissance historians such as Campanella and Machiavelli.

Nietzsche rejects Christian linearism entirely and sees the world as an eternal cosmos affirming itself in periodic recurrence. Eternal recurrence is fundamental to Nietzsche's thought; but, though he was a trained classical philologist and a great admirer of Greek classicism, his cyclicism is not the classic form. He attempts to give it a scientific foundation by seeing the finite realities of matter and energy eternally reassembling themselves in space, and therefore destined to repeat historical configurations.

Spengler's Decline of the West presents the most imaginative and controversial of cyclic theories. History is there seen as a series of discontinuous cultures, each of which has its own value system and develops along strictly predictable lines of plant morphology. Before a given culture degenerates into a "civilization" preparatory to its death, its progress can be continuously charted by comparison with other cultures whose history exhibits comparable phenomena at all levels. Spengler was greatly influenced by Goethe and Nietzsche, and predicted that his work would become "the philosophy of our time." The work is historically inaccurate, but it did spark the revival of philosophical history after World War I.

Modern Syntheses. The greatest of the modern syntheses is A Study of History (New York 193461) by Toynbee. Toynbee's first six volumes represent a comparative analysis of intelligible units of historical study that he calls civilizations. These advanced societies, 21 in number, are studied in terms of genesis, growth, breakdown, and disintegration, and only five are seen to have survived disintegration. As Dawson has observed, what Toynbee starts as a relativist phenomenology of equivalent cultures, becomes, in volumes 7 to 10, a unitary philosophy of history comparable to those of the idealist philosophers of the 19th century. A syncretic faith of the future composed of the "higher religions" (Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam) replaces civilization as the intelligible unit of study. This new world religion he analyzes in terms of Jung's psychological types, and sees it as satisfying man's diverse spiritual needs.

Although Toynbee accepts the fact of human freedom and emphasizes the importance of religion in the human experience, his point of view is not authentically Christian, and he has a pronounced bias against a theology based exclusively on Judeo-Christian sources of revelation (see M. R. P. McGuire, "Fruitful Failure on the Grand Scale," American Catholic Historical Review 42[1956] 322329). Dawson and Jacques Maritain, to a lesser extent, have contributed to a basic Augustinian vision of history in recent times, and interpretative history in general endured throughout the 20th century.

See Also: hegelianism and neo-hegelianism; materialism, dialectical and historical; philosophy, history of.

Bibliography: r. g. collingwood, The Idea of History (London 1946). k. lÖwith, Meaning in History (Chicago 1949). m. c. d'arcy, The Meaning and Matter of History (New York 1959). h. meyerhoff, ed., The Philosophy of History in Our Time (New York 1959). s. j. case, The Christian Philosophy of History (Chicago 1943). w. h. walsh, An Introduction to Philosophy of History (New York 1951). m. h. mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge (New York 1938). h. i. marrou, De la Connaissance historique (3d ed. Paris 1959); "Quest-ce que l'histoire?" L'Histoire et ses méthodes, ed. c. samaran (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade 11; Paris 1961) 133; "Comment comprendre le métier d'historien," ibid., 1465540.

[r. p. mohan]

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