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An examination on a philosophy of history

Philosophy of History.

History and its representation What are the intellectual tasks that define the historian's work? In a sense, this question is best answered on the basis of a careful reading of some good historians.

But it will be useful to offer several simple answers to this foundational question as a sort of conceptual map of the nature of historical knowing.

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First, historians are interested in providing conceptualizations and factual descriptions of events and circumstances in the past. This effort is an answer to questions like these: What was it like? What were some of the circumstances and happenings that took place during this period in the past? How did participants and contemporaries think about it?

What were the conditions and forces that brought it about? And providing an explanation requires, most basically, an account of the causal mechanisms, background circumstances, and human choices that brought the outcome about.

We explain an historical outcome when we identify the social causes, forces, and actions that brought it about, or made it more likely.

What were the processes through which the outcome occurred? How did Truman manage to defeat Dewey in the 1948 US election? Here the pragmatic interest of the historian's account derives from the antecedent unlikelihood of the event in question: Fourth, often historians are interested in piecing together the human meanings and intentions that underlie a given complex series of historical actions.

They want to help the reader make sense of the historical events and actions, in terms of the thoughts, motives, and states of mind of the participants. Why has the Burmese junta dictatorship been so intransigent in its treatment of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi? Answers to questions like these require interpretation of actions, meanings, and intentions—of individual actors and of cultures that characterize whole populations.

And, of course, the historian faces an even more basic intellectual task: Historical data do not speak for themselves; archives are incomplete, ambiguous, contradictory, and confusing. The historian needs to interpret individual pieces of evidence; and he or she needs to be able to somehow fit the mass of evidence into a coherent and truthful story. So complex events like the Spanish Civil War present the historian with an ocean of historical traces in repositories and archives all over the world; these collections sometimes reflect specific efforts at concealment by the powerful for example, Franco's efforts to conceal all evidence of an examination on a philosophy of history killings of Republicans after the end of fighting ; and the historian's task is to find ways of using this body of evidence to discern some of the truth about the past.

In short, historians conceptualize, describe, contextualize, explain, and interpret events and circumstances of the past. They sketch out ways of representing the complex activities and events of the past; they explain and interpret significant outcomes; and they base their findings on evidence in the present that bears upon facts about the past.

Their accounts need to be grounded on the evidence of the available historical record; and their explanations and interpretations require that the historian arrive at hypotheses about social causes and cultural meanings.

Historians can turn to the best available theories in the social and behavioral sciences to arrive at theories about causal mechanisms and human behavior; so historical statements depend ultimately upon factual inquiry and theoretical reasoning.

Ultimately, the historian's task is to shed light on the what, why, and how of the past, based on inferences from the evidence of the present. Two preliminary issues are relevant to almost all discussions of history and the philosophy of history. These are issues having to do with the constitution of history and the levels at which we choose to characterize historical events and processes. The first issue concerns the relationship between actors and causes in history: The second issue concerns the question of scale of historical processes in space and time: Both issues can be illustrated in the history of France.

Should we imagine that twentieth-century France is the end result of a number of major an examination on a philosophy of history in its past—the collapse of the Roman order in the territory, the military successes of Charlemagne, the occurrence of the French Revolution, and defeat in the Franco-Prussian War?

Or should we acknowledge that France at any point in time was the object of action and contest among individuals, groups, and organizations, and that the interplay of strategic actors is a more fertile way of thinking about French history than the idea of a series of causal events?

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Scale is equally controversial. Should we think of France as a single comprehensive region, or as the agglomeration of separate regions and cultures with their own historical dynamics Alsace, Brittany, Burgundy?

Further, is it useful to consider the long expanse of human activity in the territory of what is now France, or are historians better advised to focus their attention on shorter periods of time? The following two sections will briefly consider these issues. Is history largely of interest because of the objective causal relations that exist among historical events and structures like the absolutist state or the Roman Empire?

Or is history an agglomeration of the actions and mental frameworks of myriad individuals, high and low? Historians often pose questions like these: But what if the reality of history is significantly different from what is implied by this approach? What if the causes of some very large and significant historical events are themselves small, granular, gradual, and cumulative? What if there is no satisfyingly simple and high-level answer to the question, why did Rome fall? What if, instead, the best we can do in some of these cases is to identify a swarm of independent, small-scale processes and contingencies that eventually produced the large outcome of interest?

Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy

More radically, it is worth considering whether this way of thinking about history as a series of causes and effects is even remotely suited to its subject matter. What if we think that the language of static causes does not work particularly well in the context of history? What if we take seriously the idea that history is the result of the actions and thoughts of vast numbers of actors, so history is a flow of action and knowledge rather than a sequence of causes and effects?

What if we believe that there is an overwhelming amount of contingency and path dependency in history? Do these alternative conceptions of history suggest that we need to ask different questions about large historical changes? Here is an alternative way of thinking of history: We might couch historical explanations in terms of how individual actors low and high acted in the context of these conditions; and we might interpret the large outcomes as no more than the aggregation of these countless actors and their actions.

Such an approach would help to inoculate us against the error of reification of historical structures, periods, or forces, in favor of a more disaggregated conception of multiple actors and shifting conditions of action. This orientation brings along with it the importance of analyzing closely the social and natural environment in which actors frame their choices.

Our account of the flow of human action eventuating in historical change unavoidably needs to take into account the institutional and situational environment in which these actions take place. Part of the topography of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions and practices.

Social circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given period in time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited.

An examination on a philosophy of history these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action. What all of this suggests is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects, structures and events.

Philosophy of History

It is an examination on a philosophy of history view of history that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures, and that gives less priority to the framework of cause and effect.

Suppose we are interested in Asian history. Are we concerned with Asia as a continent, or China, or Shandong Province? Or in historical terms, are we concerned with the whole of the Chinese Revolution, the base area of Yenan, or the specific experience of a handful of villages in Shandong during the 1940s?

And given the fundamental heterogeneity of social life, the choice of scale makes a big difference to the findings. Historians differ fundamentally around the decisions they make about scale.

William Hinton provides what is almost a month-to-month description of the Chinese Revolution in Fanshen village—a collection of a few hundred families Hinton, 1966.

The book covers a few years and the events of a few hundred people. Likewise, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie offers a deep treatment of the villagers of Montaillou; once again, a single village and a limited time Le Roy Ladurie, 1979. William Cronon provides a focused and detailed account of the development of Chicago as a metropolis for the middle of the United States Cronon, 1991. In each of these cases, the historian has chosen a scale that encompasses virtually the whole of the globe, over millennia of time.

The first threatens to be so particular as to lose all interest, whereas the second threatens to be so general as to lose all empirical relevance to real historical processes. There is a third choice available to the historian that addresses both points. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis.

This level of scale might be regional-for example, G. William Skinner's analysis of the macro-regions of China Skinner, 1977. It might be national—for example, a social an examination on a philosophy of history political history of Indonesia.

And it might be supra-national—for example, an economic history of Western Europe or comparative treatment of Eurasian history. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work.

Continental philosophy of history The topic of history has been treated frequently in modern European philosophy. A long, largely German, tradition of thought looks at history as a total and comprehensible process of events, structures, and processes, for which the philosophy of history can serve as an interpretive tool. This approach, speculative and meta-historical, aims to discern large, embracing patterns and directions in the unfolding of human history, persistent notwithstanding the erratic back-and-forth of particular historical developments.

Modern philosophers raising this set of questions about the large direction and meaning of history include Vico, Herder, and Hegel. A somewhat different line of thought in the continental tradition that has been very relevant to the philosophy of history is the hermeneutic tradition of the human sciences. Human beings make history; but what is the fundamental nature of the human being?

Can the study of history shed light on this question? When we study different historical epochs, do we learn something about unchanging human beings—or do we learn about fundamental differences of motivation, reasoning, desire, and collectivity? Is humanity a historical product? Giambattista Vico's New Science 1725 offered an interpretation of history that turned on the idea of a universal human nature and a universal history see Berlin 2000 for commentary.

Vico's interpretation of the history of civilization offers the view that there is an underlying uniformity in human nature across historical settings that permits explanation of historical actions and processes. The common features of human nature give rise to a fixed series of stages of development of civil society, law, commerce, and government: Two things are worth noting about this perspective on history: Johann Gottfried Herder offers a strikingly different view about human nature and human ideas and motivations.

Herder argues for the historical contextuality of human nature in his work, Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity 1791. He offers a historicized understanding of human nature, advocating the idea that human nature is itself a historical product and that human beings act differently in different periods of historical development 1800—1877, 1791. Herder's views set the stage for the historicist philosophy of human nature later found in such nineteenth century figures as Hegel and Nietzsche.

Philosophers have raised questions about the meaning and structure of the totality of human history.

  1. The insight then to which — in contradistinction from those ideals — philosophy is to lead us, is, that the real world is as it ought to be — that the truly good — the universal divine reason — is not a mere abstraction, but a vital principle capable of realizing itself.
  2. 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 1991.
  3. It must be observed at the outset, that the phenomenon we investigate — Universal History — belongs to the realm of Spirit. We have an inherent sort of sympathetic awareness of historical events since the agents involved in them are psychologically motivated in ways not wholly dissimilar to ourselves.
  4. So analytic philosophers of history have had little interest in the large questions about the meaning and structure of history considered above. Jean Paul Sartre 1905-1980 , in particular, focused on the existential aspects of the past, which he conceives in terms of a blend of the Marxist material conditions for human action and a quasi psycho-analytic unfolding of the phenomenological self.
  5. For that Spirit which had taken this fresh step in history is the inmost soul of all individuals; but in a state of unconsciousness which the great men in question aroused.