Is history just a series of events, or an interpretation of those events? Is there progress in history? Can history be objective, or is it, as Napoleon said, just the version of past events that
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.