History And Philosophy: An Introduction

Reply Tue 23 Sep, 2008 02:49 pm
{ notes from Meyerhoff}

The writing of history is an ancient and honorable profession. What is more, like the arts and unlike the sciences, it reached a degree of perfection early in the ancient world which, in a sense, it has never surpassed. Thucydides is as supreme a figure in the art of history as Sophocles in the art of tragedy. Only science and technology have progressed, steadily, encouragingly, and frighteningly, since the days of Thales and Aristotle.

Again like the arts, history - I mean, the writing and study of history - achieved this triumph without leaning upon philosophy. There were, of course, writers like Herodotus and Plato who advanced speculative ideas - that history was a vast Ferris wheel of ups and downs, a succession of cycles or spirals; and Thucydides knew his Sophist contemporaries and set out to explain how and why the methods he used in writing the history of the Peloponnesian War differed from those of his predecesssors. Polybius, too, laid down definite rules by which he was guided in telling the story of Rome's conquest of the ancient world; and we find methodological hints and philosophical or moral presuppositions in the works of Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, and Josephus. But we do not find anywhere in the ancient world a philosophy of history - either in the speculative sense, as their were philosophies of nature, man, and society; or in the analytic sense, as their were logical inquiries into the nature of knowledge in science, ethics, poliltics, or art. Plato's Critias, possibly an attempt to construct a mythology, or philosophy, of history analogous to his philosophy of nature in the Timaeus, does not get beyond a fragmentary beginning; and there is no ancient treatise that deals with the logic of historical knowledge as, say, Aristotle's Posterior Analytics does with the logic of science.

Thus we often hear it said that Isreal and Christianity were responsible for the birth of a historical consciousness in the Western world. This is true in one sense, but misleading in another. Other ancient peoples, beside the Hebrews, kept historical records and produced historico-religious narratives. And, surely, the people of Rome, deeply imbued as they were with a consciousness of their past ab urbe condita and distinguished by the eminence of their historians, did not lack a sense of history. It is true that Plato and Aristotle were more interested in an eternal realm of Being than in the historical world of Becoming; but this does not mean that the Greeks were an unhistorical people. The Sophists showed a distinct awareness of the historical and cultural world around them; and the cyclical view of history which we find in Herodotus and Plato is nonhistorical only if we judge it from the Christian and Jewish conception of history.

Isreal and Christianity, therefore, did not awaken the ancient world from its unhistorical slumber. What they did was (a) to charge history with a religious significance which it had not had previously and (b) to read the progression of history as a clue to the design and direction imposed upon it by God's will. The historical world assumed a new significance because certain events in it, such as Israel's covenant with God or the temporal existence of Jesus, were imbued with a crucial symbolic meaning. Moreover, these events and others were interpreted as part of an over-all pattern of history which exhibited a meaaningful movement and direction from its obscure origins in the Book of Genesis to a redemptive, eschatological goal in or beyond history. In both these respects, the Jewish and Christian tradition expressed a new type of historical consciousness, which has become the characteristic conception of history in the Western world.

At the end of the Roman Empire, this religious tradition produced a great theological interpretation of history, The City of God by Saint Augustine. The influence of this monumental work extends into our own times.

History, according to this view, is one aspect of the world created by God. It encompasses the life of all mankind; it is "universal history," not only the history of local, regional, or nation units as for Greek and Roman historians. As a work of creation, history has a beginning; and in its beginning are contained, by Divine Providence, the seeds of its development and its end. In short, history has an origin and goal and moves in a linear progression.

Next, the movement of history is subject to law. History is not an arbitrary succession, a meaningless conglomeration of events, but it is an intelligible process guided by an inherent law or the transcendent design of a Divine Intelligence. The design may be obscure in secular history where it is constantly thwarted by man's sinfulness; but it is lucid and luminous in the pages of sacred history. It discloses a course that runs through certain crucial phases or stages: from paradise to the fall of man; from the fall to the incarnation of Christ; and from the incarnation to redemption. In the course of secular history, Augustine recognized a fourfold division, marked by the rise and fall of the four great empires in the ancient world: Assyria, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome.

Rome was the first universal empire. Its tragic fall finds a proper place in the general schema of history, because a universal empire, though conceived in sin and culminating in despair, was needed to make possible the establishment of the Universal Church. Ancient Israel anticipated the City of God; Christianity has come to fulfill it. Thus the goal of history will make good the evil of history. It is not the mere ending of vast temporal sequences, not a disaster like the sacking of Rome; but it is a goal which will see the Church triumphant and which will redeem the promise of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting for the community of believers united in the faith of Christ. In short, the goal of history is a condition of man beyond history. If, in the words of Arnold J. Toynbee, a contemporary Augustinian, history is "a vision of God's creation on the move, from God its source to God its goal," it is also correct to say that the secular history of mankind is a vast detour, as it were, in the transhistorical drama of human salvation.

Toynbee's A Study of History as much as The City of God is a work of Christian apologetics. St. Augustine defended Christianity against the charge that it was responsible for the fall of Rome (410) and he rested his defense primarily on the distinction between secular and sacred history. Professor Toynbee is more hardpressed because he must defend the possible breakdown of a Christian civilization, namely ours; in the concluding volume of his study, however, he also appeals, as did St. Augustine, to the 'faith' that ordinary events in secular history are but obscure shadows of God's inscrutable design and intelligible only if viewed from the transhistorical perspective of the Christological myth.

This Christian transmutation of history into a Theodicy dominated Western thought for more than a thousand years. It was discarded only when the Renaissance challenged religious authority in history as in other areas of life and culture; but after an eclipse of a few hundred years, the Christian view has come back strongly in the 20th century.

The liberation of history from theology began in Italy with the works of Machiavelli and Guicciardini; it reached its fullest development in the historical and philosophical works of the eighteenth century. When Voltaire, as one writer has said, "shattered tradition," it was the Augustinian tradition as then represented in France by Bousseet's Universal History (1681) which he rediculed and rejected. And Hume's scepticism in philosophy was fully matched by Gibbon's in history. The spirit of his great work was the very antithesis of St. Augustine's defense of Christianity. For Gibbon the Roman Empire was a symbol of civilization succumbing to the joint assault of barbarism and religion (Christianity). In addition to these historical works, the eighteenth century produced a number of straight philosophical theories which completed the emancipation of history from theology. They discovered history as an autonomous, self-sufficient domain. They created a historical consciousness which was predominantly immanent, not transcendent; and they employed rational, not religious, concepts.

Vico's New Science (1725) revived the Greek conception that history was subject to cyclical phases. Voltaire, Herder, Kant, Condorcet, and Humbolt discovered some sort of inherent evolutionary tendencies in historical change and progress. Vico still used the concept of "Providence," but in such a way, as Karl Lowith puts it, "That nothing remains of the transcendent and miraculous operation" of Providence in St. Augustine or Bousset. "With Vico, Providence has become as natural, secular, and historical as if it did not exist at all." Voltaire, of course, like Hume, had no use for the "Providence with which God governs human affairs" and ridiculed the superstitious belief in miracles by which God, according to Bousset, overthrows his laws "when he pleases" Herder, who had no use for Voltaire's enlightened rationalism, nevertheless shared and expanded the belief that history was an immanent, autonomous process, "a purely natural history of human forces, actions, and instincts, according to time and place." And Hegel's famous Lectures On The Philosophy of History (1836), the culmination of this new secular philosophical tradition, represent, as it were, the self-realization of the historical consciousness that St. Augustine had bequeathed to the Western world. Both he and Marx discovered the dimension of pure historicity; for both there is no escape from time into a realm of eternal essences or into a faith beyond history. They are the foremost precursors of the characteristic mood of our own age that the historical condition determines the human situation. Man's existence in history; or "life and reality are history and history alone", as Croce said. Thus history, and not any City of God, is the key to a philosophy of man and society.

Despite these radical differences, however, there are distinct formal analogies between philosophical and religious historiographies which indicate that both express the same type of historical consciousness. Sometimes, as in the case of Hegel, these parallels are striking in detail. His system throughout reflects the Augustinian model; only it eliminates the dimension of faith and translates the religious concepts into a rationalistic vocabulary. The Johamine concept of logos- the word, or Holy Spirit, made flesh - reappears as the Objective Spirit. History is the rational, not the divine, spirit objectified. It depicts the creations and manifestations of reason "on the move". What is, is rational- from the dim, hidden dawn of Reason to its luminous clarity in the French Revolution and in German Idealism, from the sacking of Rome to the storming of the Bastille. Again, there are critical phases and junctures in the movement of history; the famous law of three stages, which Marx and Comte adopted, too, is a secular revision of the religious dialected in St. Augustine and Joachim de Flore. The crucial, decisive individual in world history, Napolean for example, is an "incarnation" of the World Spirit. History is intelligible because it is a product of Reason, instead of Divine Providence; but the rational pattern is often seen through a glass darkly. Hegel's concept of the "cunning of reason" is a substitute for the mysterious and inscrutable ways of God in history. His assertion that the Whole or the ABsolute, is the Truth corresponds to the belief that the ultimate truth is with God, or hidden in God. EVen his so called immoralism, more presicely his moral neutrality, is a concession to the religious tradition; for it means that what looks evil and irrational in human eyes is due to the fragmentary and limited vision of man. Viewed in the rational light by which the Objective Spirit shineth in the darkness, the obscurities and contradictions of history vanish. The temporal trials and tragedies of mankind appear as necessary and insignificant by-products of the self-realization of Reason. And philosophical truth instead of religious faith, will set man free. It sublimates his sorrows and sufferings by assigning a meaningful place to them in the rational structure of the Whole. In the end, history fulfills itself by reaching a stage in which all the irrational, paradoxical, and evil forces encountered on its long road are transcended. For Hegel history was as unmistakenly a Theodicy as for St. Augustine; only he used reason instead of faith , to justify the ways of God.

In other philosophical works, these parallels are not so close as in the case of Hegel; yet all of them have an essential formal element in common with the religious tradition going back to St. Augustine. This common heritage shows in their search for a meaning of history. To say that history has a meaning was to assert that the story of makind has a continuity and unity from beginning to end; that history, as well as nature, was subject to law, divine or rational; and that either faith or reason would reveal this inherent structure. The nature of these "iron laws" of history, of course, differed: according to the religious tradition, they were imposed by Divine Providence; according to the secular philosophies of history, they might be the laws of dialectics; or they might reflect the sad spectacle of the eternal return of the same, the inevitable succession of rise and fall, flowering and decline, corso and ricorso; or they might be more gentle and vague as in the application of a progressive, evolutionary law to history. But whether imposed or immanent, both views assumed that some kind of metaphysical determinism provided a clue to the meaning of history.

The search for meaning, however, invariably contained a strong teleological component as well. Temporal progression also spelled moral progress. World history was the world's or God's court of justice. And the goal of history atoned for the crimes of history. A golden future loomed at the end of history as its origins lay hidden in some golden age of the past. The goal might be derived from the Book of Daniel, from the Second Isaiah, or from the Apostolic Creed; it might be envisaged, in a non-religious context as the triumph of reason, the leap into freedom, or the birth of the Superman; it might be the regaining of Paradise Lost, Rousseaus's state of nature, the founding of a rational state or the classless society; it might signify the achievement of freedom or self-consciousness- the underlying schema in all these variations was very similar: theoretical and moral ideas fused in a beautific vision of the end of history which would vindicate human hopes and aspirations, resolve moral ambiguities, and redeem the sufferings and tragedies that are inscribed in the pages of history.

Ordinary expressions like "What is the meaning of history?" or "does history have a meaning"" make sense only against this religious and philosophical background. This is worth remembering in particular, since the rational, philosophical theories have suffered a decisive decline during the last hundred years. Speculative philosophy, in history or elsewhere, is bad metaphysics; and we rejoice at having swept the metaphysical ghosts from the closets of history; but this decline of rationalism has had another consequence as well. For these theories did more than engage in idle, armchair speculation about history. By eliminating the mysterious concept of Divine Providence, they also established the sovereignty of history as a rational domain. And by affirming that the meaning of man's history lies in this world not beyond, they also made this domain accessible to human mastery. Just as the discovery of natural laws had opened the world of nature to human conquest and control, so man would master the world of history by diagnosing and "obeying" its immanent laws. By repudiating divine necessity , he would be free to remake history in his own image. By exploiting the necessities of history, he would gain his freedom from history. By "understanding" both nature and history, man would cease being their victim and establish his own kingdom of rational ends. He would, at last, be master and owner of his own history.

The failure of this secular faith has left a deep mark upon modern culture in general. Man seems to have lost both the rational key to, and the practical mastery over, his own history; and this twofold loss has contributed to the prevailing mood of our age that history is full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The eclipse of speculative reason is a general phenomenon of modern thought; and a variety of causes, social as well as intellectual, have contributed to it. In the field of history, two factors were preeminently influential: a movement known as historicism and the rise of an empirical, scientific historiography. Both trends combined, in the nineteenth century, to defeat the traditional philosophical approaches to history.
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Reply Wed 24 Sep, 2008 07:17 am
I am not sure that defeating "traditional philosophical approaches" to history is all that lamentable; the modern transition from an aesthetic interpretation to a scientific one, in which rules and procedures were clarified and codified, moreover, was grounded on philosophical concepts. Making the historian self-aware of his interpretations may have taken the naive or grandiose suppositions and generalisations to the dustbin, but has produced far more accurate accounts based on masses of evidence.
Reply Wed 24 Sep, 2008 07:45 pm
Your thoughts and knowledge are truly astounding if this short essay connotes what you have in your beautiful mind. Unfortunately, my mind is not so academically adept. Is there anyway you can offer a more condensed version clutzes like me can understand. You know like a version for "dummies" kinda thing. Ha.


I just noticed they are notes from Meyerhoff. Can someone interpret what he is saying and what they feel his conclusions are.

Victor Eremita
Reply Wed 24 Sep, 2008 10:11 pm
Looks impressive, I've got to read it when I have time.
Reply Thu 25 Sep, 2008 11:46 am
@Victor Eremita,
Hi William,

In short:

History has, in past days, been explained in a mostly religious way. At a certain point (the enlightenment period) other theories surfuced which pointed to its intrinsic value: the rise and fall, scientific progress and such. In that sense both theories include a certain Intelligent Design theory. The religious version points towards the reason why 'God' has created it all while the 'scientific' ideas point more towards the evolutionary process which exists in existance itself: more and more structure seems to be gathering in history and historical events.

That is why he concludes in saying that questions like "What is the sense of history?" can only be answered by looking at history in a theological or philosophical manner. What, untill now, remains unsaid is that these ways of examining history are circulatory reasonings that prove themselves. This leaves the question in what manner history should be looked at to learn something, if any.
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