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Philosophy of history
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Philosophy of history

The philosophy of history asks at least these questions

Table of contents
1 Unit of Study
2 Patterns in the Past
3 Motive Engine of History
4 Political Philosophy and the Philosophy of History
5 History and Education
6 Related topics

Unit of Study

In Poetics, Aristotle had argued that poetry is superior to history, because poetry speaks of what must or should be true, rather than merely what is true. After Aristotle, classical historians were aware of a duty to ennoble the world. Herodotus and, later, Plutarch freely invented speeches for their historical figures and chose their historical subjects with an eye toward improving the reader. From the Classical period through to the Renaissance, historians alternated between focusing on subjects designed to improve mankind and on a devotion to fact.

By the eighteenth century, historians had turned toward focusing on fact as much as possible, but still with an eye on telling histories that could instruct and improve. In the Victorian era, the debate in historiography was not so much whether history was intended to improve the reader, but what causes turned history and how historical change could be understood. Thomas Carlyle argued that history is the biography of a few central individuals, heroes, such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great. His heroes were political and military figures, the founders or topplers of states. His history of great men, of geniuses good and evil, sought to organize change in the advent of greatness.

Explicit defenses of Carlyle's position have been rare. Most philosophers of history contend that the motive forces in history can best be described only with a wider lens than the one he used for his portraits.

Herbert Spencer, for example, wrote, "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."

Patterns in the Past

The "Whig interpretation of history," one associated with scholars of the Victorian and Edwardian eras in England, such as Henry Maine or Thomas Macaulay, looks at much of human history as progress from savagery and ignorance toward peace, prosperity, and science. Maine described the direction of progress as "from status to contract," from a world in which a child's whole life is pre-determined by the circumstances of his birth, toward one of mobility and choice.

After the first world war, and even before Herbert Butterfield (1900 - 1979) harshly criticized the Whig interpretation, it had gone out of style -- the bloodletting of that conflict had indicted the whole notion of linear progress.

Schools of thought influenced by Hegel and Marx see history as progressive, too -- but they saw, and see progress as the outcome of a dialectic in which factors working in opposite directions are over time reconciled. Hegel argued that history is a constant process of dialectic clash, where one idea or event will form the thesis, an opposing idea or event will be its antithesis, and the clash of the two will result in a synthesis. In synthesis, neither the thesis nor the antithesis are destroyed, but the prevaling moment will reflect a conjunction of the two. History was best seen as directed by a zeitgeist, and traces of the zeitgest could be seen by looking backward. He believed that history was moving man toward "civilization." Marx adapted Hegel's dialectic to develop the materialist dialectic. He saw the struggle of thesis, antithesis, and resultant synthesis as always taking place in economic and material terms. Ideas and political organizations were the result of material production and conditions of material provision and consumption. For Marx, the continual battle between opposing forces within modes of production led inevitably to revolutionary changes in economics and eventual communism, which would be the eventual recreation of an early, literally pre-historic state. Hegel and Marx are both teleological in their histories: they both believe that history is progressive and directed toward a particular end. Other scholars, such as Oswald Spengler have seen in the human past a series of repetitive rises and falls. Spengler, who like Butterfield was writing in reaction to the carnage of the first world war, believed that a civilization enters upon an era of Caesarism after its soul dies. He thought that the soul of the West was dead and Caesarism was about to begin.

Motive Engine of History

The central contention of dialectical materialism is that history exhibits progress, not of a linear sort but cumulative nonetheless, and that the motive engine of this progress is the struggle over ownership and control of the means of production.

The history of the means of production, then, is the substructure of history, and everything else, including ideological arguments about that history, constitutes a superstructure.

Critics have contended that this is either too vague to be useful or to mechanistic to be plausible.

Political Philosophy and the Philosophy of History

The way one views the past has consequences for the way one views the future, and accordingly for the platform one adopts as one's own in the present. Carlyle was an advocate of benevolent autocracy, Herbert Spencer of laissez-faire capitalism, Karl Marx of a communist revolution, and in each case the reasons for that platform were to be found in their respective philosophies of history as described above.

History and Education

One common contention among philosophers is that current historical methods are regional, subjective and selective. A better method would tend, where possible, towards a more universal, objective and exhaustive approach.

The philosophy of history is intertwined with the philosophy of education because much of the basic history learned at the elementary level is aligned with regional biases, whether unabashed or inadvertent. In some instances, history is the pure product of propaganda. Either way, history as a discipline has been compromised by adherence to old ways of thinking about its mechanics and purposes.

Further, elementary history is devoid of theory; it is almost purely content-oriented. We are taught "who said what when, who did what when," but not to explore how we verify an event that we did not witness.

For example, how do we know what a given individual said at a specific time if we weren't around to hear him/her? Chances are, we are reading something we believe to have been actually written at the time of the inquiry. But then, how do we know the person who wrote it was really in a position to make an authoritative statement? While this may be easy to do in some circumstances, there are many instances where "facts" can be neither authenticated nor discredited.

Related topics

Philosophy of history explores the classic branches of philosophy -- metaphysics, epistemology and axiology -- and their implications on the assumptions and methods of historical inquiry.

In addition, the philosophy of history is often interested in the history of philosophy. Its questions might include: How can changes in philosophy be accounted for historically? What drives the development of thought in its historical context? To what degree can philosophical texts from prior historical eras (for instance, the teachings of Heraclitus) even be understood today?