Philosophy of History

Surrounded by the vast collection of philosophy texts in Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford, I asked the assistant where I could find some material on the philosophy of history. ‘Do you mean the history of philosophy?’ he replied. An understandable response since the history of philosophy is a premier league topic with shelves of books to choose from whereas the philosophy of history is at best half way down the next division. Indeed, since it overlaps with historiography, books about it tend to be stocked in the history section.

But once you look into this underrated topic, you find it fascinating both in its own right and in the way it engages with other more central philosophical areas. It is customary to divide it into two main categories:

a)      substantive or speculative: concerned with the grand scale, asking such questions as whether there is a direction in the broad sweep of history, e.g., history as progress or cyclical or just ‘one damned thing after another’. Think here of Hegel and more recently Fukuyama’s The End of History. (Not a very fashionable category at the moment.)

b)      analytic or critical: the analysis of the process of writing history; the problems of objectivity/subjectivity; the problem of causation; history as a science; the value/purpose of history; the nature of evidence, epistemological justification.

Here is one intriguing problem in the philosophy of history which I would like to share and explore. A few weeks ago in one of those Radio Three discussions in the middle of a Proms concert the subject was Edward Wightman, the last man in England to be burned at the stake for heresy. Born in 1566 he wrote and preached views that challenged the religious orthodoxy of his day. Among the accusations made against him was the claim that he affirmed ‘soul sleep’ (a doctrine associated with Luther, to the effect that between death and the day of judgement the soul is not conscious); that he rejected the doctrine of the trinity and the divinity of Jesus and that he made sacrilegious claims about his own status. He bravely or foolishly sent a copy of his writings to the King, James 1st,who considered himself an authority on Christian doctrine. According to the expert historians on the programme the religious authorities knew very well the difference between ‘nutters’ and dangerous heretics and classified Edward Wightman as one of the latter. After a trial in Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire he was condemned to death and burned at the stake in Lichfield market square. (The first time the fires were lit he called out that he would recant and was rescued but, after he withdrew his recantation, he was condemned again and burned, this time to death, on April 11th 1612, four hundred years ago.) A statue of a native of Lichfield from a less judgmental era, Samuel Johnson, now looks down on that square.

The historians also made the comment that we should not think that those who instigated the trial and passed sentence were particularly cruel men but rather that they were more concerned with the pain of the community than with the pain of one man. This distinction puzzled me. I believe that the pain of flesh being burned was as excruciating in the seventeenth century as it is now. But what does the ‘pain of the community’ mean? And how can an event we regard as primitive and cruel in the extreme have been regarded as in some sense in the public interest? Somehow I could not get into the thinking of the people of that era. It was this difficulty that reminded me of a particular problem in the philosophy of history, a  practical one for historians, theoretical for philosophers.

Should we think, on the one hand, that people in all times and places are always much the same as we are because human nature is a constant or, on the other hand, should we think that the past is indeed a foreign country where people did things so very differently from us precisely because they were not like us? The following passage is from David Hume, a writer who has the rare distinction of having achieved renown in both history and philosophy:

‘It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and all ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: the same events follow from the same causes … Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English…  Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular.’
An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748)

The assumption that human nature is a constant makes history much easier to write and study. We have only to think of figures from the past as much the same as us to make sense of their actions. But suppose that human nature is not fixed (as existentialists tell us) and the characters we read about were so different in their fundamental mind-set that we cannot even get a purchase on the way that they thought and acted. Under these conditions can we now do history at all?

This, then, is the problem broken down into stages:

a)      Is there such an entity as human nature that remains constant throughout all times (and places)? And, if so, what is it?

b)      Is a belief that human nature is constant a necessary prerequisite for the practice of history?


1 Comment

Filed under Guest Blogger, Oliver Leech

One response to “Philosophy of History

  1. ojal123

    from my blog:
    As part of the Free Thinking Festival 2012 series of broadcasts on Radio 3, Oxford historian, Jonathan Healey, gave a talk on the topic of lessons from history (November 7th, 2012). He asked two very big questions: what is the point of history and how can the payment of salaries to historians be justified. A familiar response to both questions is that historians show us ‘lessons from history’ which are of public benefit. But there are two immediate problems that arise immediately:
    a) Assuming that lessons can be drawn, do we know how to draw the appropriate lesson from history? You only have to copy what Healey did and google ‘lessons from history’ to be overwhelmed by the range of warnings in the press about the topic and to realise that this justification is full of dangers.
    b) If lessons can usefully be drawn from history, then, according to Healey, we will need to focus on what is a recognisably modern world, say, for the sake of argument, from the beginning of industrialisation. History before then is too remote, too unfamiliar for any significant analogies. Healey recognised a personal problem here since his chosen period of study is the seventeenth century. Does he deserve to dip into the public purse? You have to admire his chutzpah in asking this question (but then it was a late evening broadcast on Radio 3 and, perhaps, not many people were listening).
    Healey introduced a series of episodes from the past so bizarre that they seem quite unconnected with our modern world with no direct ‘lessons’ for us.
    • In Cartmel (now in Cumbria) , on St James the Apostle Day in 1604, early in the reign of James 1, educated, well off Catholic landed gentry organised a mock wedding. They sent several male servants into the church who marched up the aisle, two of them dressed in women’s clothes to be ‘married’ to two in male clothes. A proclamation was read to the effect that the days of satire were over and Catholicism had returned.
    • There are reports that riots in cities in renaissance Europe were quelled by the arrival of priests who paraded religious relics in the streets.
    • Robert Filmer (1588-1653) is remembered as an advocate of the divine right of kings. (His views were the target of one of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.) In this context he appears as an outdated man even in his own time. But he was also opposed to the prosecution of witches. Now he looks much more modern, a forward-looking thinker perhaps a precursor of a more liberal England. But we are in danger here of entering Whig history territory (the wrong sort of learning from history), looking back with a patronising pat on the back for our ancestors as they groped around for the more enlightened view we pride ourselves on having. However, once his reasons for objecting to the prosecution of witches are examined, we soon discover how deeply rooted he was in his time. For they rested on the legal argument that witches were accessories of the devil. According to English law accessories could not be prosecuted unless previously the principal had at least been indicted. In this case the principal was Satan who had, of course, not been formally accused by an English court.
    • In many petitions written in Lancashire in the seventeenth century it was generally assumed that people, as they grew older and if they remained sufficiently able bodied, might perform such tasks as collecting wood, tending animals, gathering wood. What they lacked, from a modern perspective, was any sense of a right to retirement, one that is second-nature to us.
    What did Healey infer from these historical selections? He quoted Kipling — ‘What should they know of England who only England know?’ — and redirected the question to history, i.e., to argue that we cannot fully know our own age if that is the only age with which we are acquainted. We grasp the essentials of the contemporary world only in comparison or contrast with other times. For instance, to us cross dressing lacks the power to shock it must have had in Cartmel four hundred years ago. We understand our approach to gender distinctions more clearly by virtue of such a contrast. And so on with the other examples.
    Healey implied that the lessons-from-history justification was mistaken because it was too simplistic and because it was fraught with too many false paths of interpretation. He suggested that we needed to ‘peel away our own prejudices’, to try to understand people of the past in all their strangeness in order to see what is special or unique about our own society. In learning about the past, we learn more about ourselves.
    Two points:
    1. This approach to history has a psychological spin-off. For in the course of encountering the strangeness of events and people in the past, we have to confront and examine our own prejudices, background beliefs and mind-set. To take one of Healey’s examples, we start to question any belief we might have that retirement must always have been regarded as an objective benefit and begin to see present-day attitudes to it as contingent, a feature of living now rather than then. Our presuppositions are revealed and open to question by virtue of learning from history not a lesson in the sense of a simple analogy, but about different contexts in which to understand our present condition. The study of history becomes a branch of the quest for self-knowledge.

    2. But there is a danger in this approach too in that it can easily give succour to moral relativism. For if we think that all beliefs, customs, moral standards are to be regarded not as intrinsically good or bad but essentially the expression of the prevailing culture of their time, then we may lose any sense of perennial ethical standards. And once we have begun by, for example, allowing that human sacrifice and infanticide are best regarded as simply features of ancient cultures of South America and Greece respectively, then how far are we from saying much the same about 1930s Germany and 1990s Rwanda?

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