The Philosophy of History
Saturday, December 25, 2010 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

Our topic this week is the philosophy of history.  There are different ways the word ‘history’ might be defined, so we had better start out by defining our terms. For example, you could define history as the sum total of past events.  But that’s not how historians or even philosophers of history would define it.  The problem with that definition is that it encompasses every single event that has so far happened in the Universe – from the big bang to the emergence of humankind and everything in between.  We do sometimes talk about history in this broad and inclusive sense, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.

An alternative definition is the sum total not of everything that has happened in the universe, but the study of the sum total of past human actions.  Although that seems like a better, because more restrictive, definition, we do need to be careful.  Our first definition equated history with past events.  Our second definition talked about the study or representation of past events.  The world ‘history’  is used both ways.  That is, sometimes we use the word ‘history’ to refer to a sequence of past events.  Sometimes we use it to refer to the study and representation of past events.   There are deep and interesting philosophical questions about both the past itself and the representation of the past.

 Here are some some deep questions about the past itself:  Does history have a direction?  Are historical events governed by fixed, unchanging laws?  Or does the fact that history is driven by human actions mean that historical events could always have gone a different way, if the main players had made different choices?  And these questions about the past itself, bear directly on the study and representation of the past.   Is history more like a science or more like literature and the arts?  Science claims to deal in objective matters of facts, repeatable events, and strict, impersonal laws.   Literature and the arts, on the other hand, deal in the subjective narration and interpretation of human affairs.  

 So what is the job of the historian -- scientific explanation or narrative interpretation?   The correct answer, I think, is that historians do a little bit of both -- they narrate and interpret human affairs in terms of subjective experience, and they also explain human actions in terms of causes.   For instance, historians try to understand both the cause of World War II and the meaning of World War II. 

 You might think that these are very different things.  After all, the meaning of World War II depends a lot on where you stand – whether with the Nazis or their victims.   And figuring out the cause of War War II can seem more open to disinterested analysis and explanation.  The former is something you can do only by choosing a side.  The later is something you can do without choosing sides at all.

 In reality, though, it’s pretty hard to untangle the investigation of historical causes from the interpretation of historical meanings.  In human affairs the meanings as we perceive them are important factors in determining how we act.  You can’t figure out why Hitler chose to invade the Soviet Union, when he did, for example, with out understanding the meaning of the invasion from Hitler’s perspective.  In human affairs, cause is meaning and meaning is cause!

 Clearly, there’s a lot for us to sink our teeth into here.  And our guest, Daniel Little, Author of History's Pathways, can help us think through both the nature of the past itself and the nature of our representations of the past. 

Comments (7)


Guest

Saturday, December 25, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

METHODOLOGY FOR HISTORY History is two things:

METHODOLOGY FOR HISTORY
History is two things: first, a collection of data about what took place; and second, the study of that data. Rather than thinking about the data as a continuum, think about it as a ?white noise.? Thinking this way helps conceptually with the problems about causation and motivation.
The study of the data requires a methodology bounded by significance; this is the first philosophical notion that must be investigated. Attributing significance is the historian?s role. Significance is the first editing tool of the white noise, and the philosophical meaning of significance must be addressed.
I was very impressed with the discussion of the limits of causation (or more correctly, the inability to be certain about causes) in the study of history. In the face of the subjectivity of the historian, and the uncertainty about causation and motivation, Ranke said ?Just write [as best you can(my words)] what happened.? It is too hard to make ?sense? of causation in past events; so the only way to write objectively about history is to tell what happened, understanding that there will be all the subjectivity you can tolerate in the historian?s application of his/her significance standards.
I am surprised to hear the opinion from the experts that ?no serious school of historiography has come about in the last fifty years.? The criticism discipline ?Historicism,? started in Berkeley in the eighties, seeks to provide a methodology for understanding significance; and it does this very, very well. The main thrust is to investigate all documents and representations contemporaneous with the time and place under study, and to start by giving them all equal ?weight,? to reveal as much as possible about what was considered significant by those being studied.
A very good study of the place of causation in historiography, which reveals much about the methodology of the historian, is ?What If,? edited by Robert Cowley (Putnam 2001), in which very eminent historians ?imagine what might have been, if? something other than what happened, happened.

Guest

Saturday, December 25, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

History has always fascinated me. It is an influen

History has always fascinated me. It is an influence and it is influenced; it is both cause and effect; it can go one way or it can go another with little or no provocation. These brief statements are not meant to simplify something so complex. I am sure this post will generate many insights and have been expecting such a discussion on Philoso?hy Talk.

Guest

Sunday, December 26, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

The only person who can truly tell the future is t

The only person who can truly tell the future is the same person who can truly tell the past, and that most truly is absolutely no One.
=
Happy New Year!

Guest

Sunday, December 26, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I was "fired" and "nudged" by Mr. Taylor's distinc

I was "fired" and "nudged" by Mr. Taylor's distinction regarding the past vs. representation of the past. This distinction has bothered me for as long as I have been cognizant of the fact that there are those who subscribe to revisionism and practice it at every available opportunity. These are the kinds of folks Al Gore was talking about when he coined the phrase, 'inconvenient truth.' History, in some circles of thought, is inconvenient, embarassing or downright counter-productive to the advancement of ideology(ies).
A response to this has been orchestrated, implemented and refined over a number of years. Just how long this has been going on is hard to know because it began somewhat innocently---I think of it as beginning with things we should have learned in school, HAD WE THOUGHT OF AND ASKED THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.(The innocence of it is, of course, relative.)
Cowley's study may get to some of this in a round about way---I do not know because I am unfamiliar with his work. In any case, history is probably 70% of what we are today. Misrepresentation of it is the other 30%---these numbers are highly speculative. The X factor is the kicker, however. What is it? Well X represents what we DO NOT know about history because of its MISrepresentation. And all of those questions we did not think to ask.
We can learn some thing new every day. On a good day, we might learn several.

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, December 28, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Heisenberg was never good at math. His uncertainty

Heisenberg was never good at math. His uncertainty principle proves this. 70%+30%+X=??? Godel could have handled it better...
He is right about history though. Just how right remains to be determined. Isn't that the way things go?

Guest

Wednesday, December 29, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I think we can see the current US/obama drive

I think we can see the current US/obama drive toward empire, repression at home, and burgeoning militarism reflected in thousands of years of history. The technique of fear mongering to perpetuate war and war to perpetuate repression and repression to perpetuate and augment the concentration of personal power, has been around since at least the time of Pericles.
And I am amazed at how ignorant of this are most people, how forgotten it is and how people can't see how they are being manipulated politically propagandistically for the purposes of private profit and authoritarian ambition.
And I amazed at how alternatives to war are completely
ignored. In the 70's the radically violent red brigades and the baader meinhof gang bombed and machine gunned their way across Europe. They were finally apprehended by police work, not attacks on foreign countries.
We should have done the same thing----and could have but imperial ambition of the "war President"
dictated stupid war.
Greed for campaign money and greed for wealth brought our economy down---as has happened many times before--in the 1890's, the '29 crash,and the savings and loan/keating debacle in the 80's--to mention a few. But--lessons learned from history?
No, greed blind and ambition choked and brutality minded folk don't listen to history.
At the beginning of the Afgan war, many writers
pointed to the Vietnam debacle as the obvious parallel
and were shouted down by the jingo crowd. The writers listened to history and now----after billions of bucks and thousands in lives---those writers proved correct. History is all we have for a guide. Amazing
how many people think they invent the wheel and how history doesn't apply to them. Listening
Obama?

Guest

Tuesday, January 4, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The role of secular history in religion was first

The role of secular history in religion was first underscored during the Enlightenment. It was then the realization first fully dawned that religious authority and validity depended fundamentally on the authenticity of history, and the fact that religious claim to historical accuracy on the basis of religious authority itself was overtly circular.
Consequently, all sources of claimed revealed religious philosophy must depend on the accuracy of "secular" history, whether or not studied by those who happen to be within a religious establishment.
It's interesting to examine and contrast the historical bases claimed for ancient religions such as Judaism or Hinduism and relatively recent religions such as Mormonism.
Given the divergences of opinion among historians and historical authorities about a lot of things, not the least being religions, this once more raises the question of why the preternatural should choose to keep the natural world guessing. Come to think, the usual practice is to keep the children's gifts sequestered -- all of which hinges on what one assumes about one's parents.

 
 

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