Philosophy of history: AC Grayling surveys the essential literature from Thucydides to Popperby AC Grayling / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
There is an ambiguity in the word “history.” It either means past events, or writings about past events. But what if the former is a creation of the latter? The past, after all, has ceased to exist. Here in the present we find objects which, we suppose, have survived from the past, and we weave narratives around them. These objects, and our interpretations of them, belong to the present. If history exists as different narratives constructed in the present, is it any wonder that historians disagree so much among themselves?
The idea that the past is another country which we could visit if we had an HG Wells time-machine is na?ve. Yet our realism is offended by the claim that the past is created in the present, and we oppose the latitude thus accorded to those who, for example, deny that the Holocaust happened.
What, then, is history? Is it an art that creates, or a science that discovers? Either way, is there-can there be-such a thing as historical truth? And if so, to what extent can it be known?
“History” derives from the 6th century BC Ionian Greek word istoria, meaning enquiry. But even in classical antiquity the ambiguity arose; by the 4th century BC the historikos-reciter of stories-had supplanted the historeon-the enquirer. Into which category should we place the great early historians-Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, Sallust, Tacitus?
These men were aware of the problem. Thucydides attacked Herodotus’s methods; the latter’s Histories is an artfully arranged collection of anecdotes, facts, hearsay, observations and legends, about the great east-west struggle between Persia and Greece. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War starts with his claim that history should be “contemporary history,” restricting itself to what can be verified by observation. He served in the Athenian army, writing as he fought.
Art outweighed science in most historical writing as far as the Renaissance. But from the 17th century the possibility of scientific history emerged from work on sources. Jean Mabillon (1632-1710) and his fellow Benedictine monks established principles for dating and authenticating medieval manuscripts-his De re diplomatica is a classic. By the time Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) summoned historians in his Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations to eschew uncritical methods and record the past “as it actually happened,” the means for doing so seemed available.
One of von Ranke’s fellow positivists, HT Buckle, claimed in his History of Civilisation in England (1861) that to proper sources one should add the assumption that there are inductively discoverable historical laws. John Stuart Mill in System of Logic (1843) agreed, adding that laws of human psychology count among them. According to this view history is truly a science: good data and general laws offer a royal road to objective truth.
But the positivists had their opponents in the idealist thinkers, such as Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936), who, under the influence of Kant and Hegel, argued that whereas natural science studies phenomena from the outside, social science does so from the inner perspective of human experience. History is thus a reconstruction of the past by “intellectual empathy” with our forebears.
Dilthey hoped in his Essence of Philosophy that history could nevertheless be objective, because such products of human experience as books and art belong to the public domain. His fellow idealist, Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), disagreed; history cannot be objective, he wrote in History-its Theory and Practice, because the historian himself is always present in the construction of history. The greatest of the idealists, RG Collingwood (1889-1943), gave the view its classic statement in The Idea of History: since history deals with human individuals, its true subject matter is thought.
The nature of historical knowledge was much debated after Collingwood. WH Walsh’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History (1951), Isaiah Berlin’s Historical Inevitability (1954), Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957), William Dray’s Laws and Explanation in History (1951), and The Philosophy of History, edited by Patrick Gardiner (1974), are the principal texts. They focus upon the assumptions, methods and concepts of history in an effort to assess whether it can offer objective truth, or at least tell us why things happened as they did.
The works just cited are contributions to philosophy of history. They are neither works of history, nor of historiography-that is, discussion of the craft and uses of history; the latter’s classics are GR Elton’s The Practice of History and EH Carr’s What is History? But nor are they works of philosophical history, such as those grand theories offered by Hegel, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee. Philosophical history claims that history manifests patterns, and unfolds towards an ultimate goal. Positivist history was in part an attempt to escape the seductions of this enterprise, by seeking for facts. If nothing else, idealist arguments show that this worthy aim is easier to state than achieve.n