Beating a Dead Horse: The Elimination of Philosophy of History

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If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding §IV, pt I)


Whether there is meaning in history used to represent a significant question for a number of philosophers. This inquiry was regarded as meaningful in times prior to technologies capable of capturing history in the making, such as internet, YouTube, Skype, iPads, cell-phones, and the like. Although it seems obvious that increasing technological advancements had—and continue to have—a tremendous impact upon the way we think of history, the relationship between technology and history has seldom been considered by philosophers of history. Among other things, in this paper, I want to call attention to why it is that certain philosophers think of history as an object of knowledge and thus a process capable of having a meaning, and why some contemporary philosophers are still interested in history.

Philosophy of history, in the beginning, was the business of theology interpreting history in terms of ethical significance of the Eschaton. Its first secular appearances, although sporadic, can be found in the works of Vico, and Augustine. But we may say that its putative father was Hegel. Starting with Hegel and continuing with Marx, many other philosophers began theorizing that history has a beginning, that it is directed toward a goal or an end, by a director, or even that it is a cyclical process. But if we grant that there is meaning in history, how would philosophers understand it? That is, it would appear elusive to try to determine the meaning of the whole of history when the philosophers seeking such a determination can operate only within the limitations of their own time—they may know certain aspects about the past, some aspects of the present, but nothing about the future. In such a case, the finiteness of being seems to prevent one from grasping the meaning of the whole of history. In hindsight, past interpretations of history all seem limited by a narrowness that reflects the technological developments of their respective era of origin.

It too has to be noted that the term “history” is itself problematic, to begin with. In fact, history may have at least two different connotations: a) all past events in time—whether they be important or unimportant—or a selective collection of relevant past events (though “relevant to whom?” represents a further critical question). But it may also refer to b): the academic discipline that we all know, the one performed by historians and teachers and students of history; such a discipline purports to look at, to study, and to narrate important events that occurred in the past from diverse points of view. Another contention I want to present is that history is a practical discipline—and indeed that the term “history” is meaningful—to the extent that it is intended as defined in b). Thus my concerns here are to determine what role, if any, the enterprise of philosophy of history has, whether the type of investigations performed by philosophers of history afford us further advancement of human knowledge than the investigations performed by historians, whether philosophy of history sheds any light on the study of history, or whether philosophy of history constitutes an idle intellectual endeavor. My view, to be clear, is that philosophy of history has been a fruitless pursuit because it rests either upon metaphysical speculation or upon pseudo-scientific or linguistic speculation.

We philosophers of today are advantaged in a sense in our outlook toward the practice of philosophy of history because we have the privilege of living in an era of tremendous technological (scientific) advances, which have enabled us to record history more accurately, to contemplate questions pertaining to history, which lets us understand more accurately our own nature and position in the world with respect to the past. At the same time, we are too late in the history of philosophy to write about these issues. We are not even beating the proverbial dead horse anymore because the cadaver of the horse has long since turned to dust. Thus, it is necessary to emphasize that by looking at the alleged branch of philosophy of history in 2012, in my view, it allows us to indicate the problems that arise when philosophers attempt to philosophize about history. Nowadays, I believe that many would agree with the words expressed by Eelco Runia in his essay “Presence” where he writes that “the story of how philosophers of history have read meaning into history ends somewhere in the 1960s.” (1) But I wonder: is it true that philosophers stopped reading meaning into history? When modern philosophers, like Runia, Ricour, Carr, et. al., for example, advance ideas such as that of “presence”, i.e., that what philosophers search for in history is presence, or whether they look at the relationship between language and history, or memory, or what not, are they not in fact falling into the trap of reading meaning into history all over again, and, moreover, are they not falling into the trap of reifying history?

Runia does not take the trouble to ask why it is that the quest for meaning ended in the 1960s, nor whether that is true. The answer could not have been given at that time. Today, in retrospect, we ought to see that the search for meaning reflected the philosophical paradigm of the time, and that philosophical paradigm, in its turn, depended upon contemporary technological achievements.  Philosophers who concern themselves with questions about history have looked in the wrong place and have used the wrong tools. They have conducted metaphysical research that has yielded nothing more than speculations incapable of attaining any ontological certainties. But modern philosophers are no different. In my opinion, they still try to read meaning into history and still produce metaphysical accounts to explain history. The nature of reality, which is given to us as empirical experience, must consequently be contemplated through technology. The philosophers who want to explain history should be looking firstly at the development of technology; for, the nature of reality is not spirit or class, or narrative, but rather the relationship between humanity and technology.

Granted, many contemporary philosophers have turned their attention away from history. However, some philosophers, Eelco Runia for example, seek to revive the subject by proposing a “need for a new philosophy of history,”[1]  while I suggest the need for the elimination of philosophy of history. A philosophy’s task is to try to resolve questions that arise in a given field of inquiry until the point at which it is no longer practical to continue asking certain questions. Unfortunately this has not been the case in philosophy of history, which continues to exist and to confuse us moderns. And the reason for this confusion is the practice’s journey from purely religious-metaphysical speculations to pseudo-empirical speculations, then to the relationship of historical language and scientific language, and in recent years to the relation between narrative and history and to the notions of memory and presence. Therefore, if we want to get to the bottom of philosophy of history, the surest way to end it is to show beyond question that philosophers have been misled into believing that history is an intelligible process that affords knowledge of the world through metaphysical speculations in the past, and pseudo-scientific questions in the present, thus the reason for the confusion among philosophers of history.

In the following paragraphs, I would like to illustrate the way philosophy of history became a concern for philosophers and how it evolved from a theological-metaphysical form into a modern pseudo-scientific-psychological one. Finally, I will conclude that any attempt at interpreting history will automatically fail because interpretations of history are reflections of the way technology develops. That is, we are immersed in technology, and through technology’s advancements we define ourselves and decide what history is and which events are or are not important enough to become history. Thus I will conclude by proposing the elimination of philosophy of history as metaphysical speculation generated by the reification of history. And ultimately, this speculation affords no advancement of human knowledge.

At this point, a legitimate objection may be raised: what is wrong with metaphysics?  So, before I proceed further, I must say a few words about metaphysical speculations. The type of metaphysics upon which philosophy of history relies is that warranted by Kant. To be sure, Kant condemned transcendent metaphysics by arguing that human understanding is made in such a way that it always tries to venture beyond the realm of possible experience and to grasp the nature of things in themselves—but our minds do not have the “power” to go beyond the empirical world. But while Kant admitted that our defective apparatuses constantly attempt to go beyond the limits of possible experience resulting in us getting lost in philosophical contradictions, he did not follow his own dictum and fell back into speculative metaphysics, instead.

The problem is, I believe, that Kant sought to prove that certain concepts are necessary and known a priori; these a priori concepts are according to Kant a bridge between thought and perception. Causality, for example, is for Kant a necessary a priori condition for the possibility of experience. But the way Kant tried to prove this was by means of the unwarranted notion that synthetic a priori judgments are possible. Kant created a sophisticated philosophical architecture but neglected to account for the way language refers to the world. The circularity of Kant’s argument is adroitly expressed by Nietzsche’s words:

Kant asked himself: How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?—And what really did he answer? By means of a faculty. ‘By means of a means (faculty)’—he had said, or at least meant to say. But, is that—an answer? An explanation? Or is it not rather merely a repetition of the question?” [2]

Kant showed us that we begin our investigations with an apparatus that is already defective, and yet he attempted to find rational foundation upon which to base metaphysics, by using the same defective apparatus. A common assumption among philosophers is that Kant’s failure is due to his faith in the validity of Euclidean geometry, Aristotelian logic, and Newtonian physics. But I think these mistakes are pardonable given the era in which he wrote. One aspect of his philosophy for which we might not forgive Kant is that he was, as Alfred J. Ayer once put it, that Kant was “duped by grammar”, into thinking that certain propositions that were tautological could also tell us something about the structure of the mind and the world. Kant’s transcendental idealism, which purported to rescue metaphysics, I shall submit, was due to linguistic confusion.

Religion to Secular: theology of history: Löwith

The enterprise of philosophy of history, no doubt, begins in metaphysics and later tries to move in other directions. In antiquity, theology and metaphysics dominated the intellectual world. It appears obvious then that civilizations that were not yet blessed by modern technology and modern scientific knowledge would see meaning and pattern in nature and in history as well. So, the earliest incarnation of philosophy of history was advanced by religious philosophers. They thought that history was a medium through which humanity develops morally and prepares to unite with God, in the end of history. Löwith’s contribution to the study of philosophy of history, Meaning in History, is a remarkable exposition of the evolution of philosophy of history from theology of history to secular philosophy of history. Löwith’s account, however,  is itself, a particular philosophical view on the nature of history proposed in the year 1949, showing certain limitations that are characteristic of the technological development of the time.  According to Löwith, philosophy of history is a “systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning.” (p. 1) Löwith ultimately argues that philosophers of history were either religious figures who posited theological views of history or philosophers who unwittingly secularized the same religious interpretations of history. He says that the Western view of history is a confused combination of Christian faith and secular view, which is neither Christian nor pagan.

The modern historical consciousness is, according to Löwith, derived from Christianity. Christians are historical people to the extent that they view the world as a temporary state where humans fulfill the Imago Dei in order to eventually be saved and become one with God. This view, according to Löwith, explains the tendency in history (and philosophy) to an eschatological view of human progress. Before Christianity and Judaism, ancient Greeks also had a sense of history as a process, though they interpreted history as a cyclical process, perhaps directed by a god or gods. Therefore, theology of history had two interpretations, cyclical and eschatological.

When we consider modern interpretations of history, we find that some historians and philosophers still think of history as a succession of events leading toward a final purpose, though moderns may not believe that events are directed by a god. These two views create confusion. According to Löwith, modern thinkers have unwittingly secularized theology of history; they have unknowingly retained the Christian, Hebrew, and Greek ways of interpretation. The way Löwith puts it is that “We of today, concerned with unity of universal history and its progress toward an ultimate goal or at least a ‘better world,’ are still in the line of prophetic and messianic monotheism; we are still Jews and Christians, however little we may think of ourselves in those terms.” (p. 19) For Löwith, our modern view of history is an inconsistent compound of ancient and modern, i.e., of religious and secular. I do not think that Löwith is mistaken, but I do think that he paints only half of the picture, namely, I think that those philosophers he describes in his monograph, particularly Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, were not necessarily “confused” or unaware of applying theological principles to their theories of history; rather they were metaphysicians applying metaphysical principles to their philosophies of history claiming to be doing scientific work.

Marx, according to Löwith, who inherited his view of history from Hegel, was a victim of the deception created by the application of ancient religious notions to modern pseudo-scientific theories. Löwith says that philosophers like Marx propose systems that are “perverted into secular prognostication” (p. 44). Löwith argues that Marx unwittingly uses a religious interpretation, which he appliesto make pseudo-scientific and prophetic predictions about the economic future of Europe. Accordingly, Marx was a secular prophet who “[elaborated] a philosophy of history by secularizing theological principles.” (19) It seems that Löwith tells us that moderns cannot escape the patterns of interpretation of history established by Hebrew prophecy and Christian eschatology, cyclical motion and eschatological direction. But I wonder whether modern philosophies are derived from Hebrew prophecy and Christian eschatology, or are they simply the result of metaphysical speculation adopted and incorporated even by Jewish and Christian philosophers. At any rate, Löwith is right—but partially right. Löwith’s own view is incomplete.  He shows one particular aspect of certain philosophers’ interpretations of history, namely, the idea that modern, secular philosophers maintained certain views that were typical of theological interpretations of history.

With regard to Hegel and Marx, they both regarded history as an intelligible process that moves toward the realization of human freedom. Both thinkers believed in an “end of history”: for Hegel this was the liberal state, while for Marx it was a communist society. At the end of history, according to them, there would be no further progress in the development of humanity.

For Hegel the central task for philosophy is to comprehend what drives humanity, or Spirit, in the unfolding of history. Hegel thought that history is the expression of and the means by which a spirit develops through historical events toward freedom. He also believes that history began in the East and ended in the West, as western society formed. For Marx the point of philosophy is to change the world by eliminating class antagonism. Marx retains most of Hegel’s metaphysics, but instead of invoking a spirit, he argues that the process of history is such that the proletariat is bound to prevail against the bourgeoisie—this is for Marx, roughly, the end of history. Both thinkers were convinced that they had produced scientific theories of history.

Now, both Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophies of history appear unwittingly theological. Specifically, they are reminiscent of Christian eschatology. But what I think Hegel’s and Marx’s mistake was it is not so much that they were using theological concepts to express what they thought to be scientific theories, but rather overlooked the development of technology and they produced metaphysical speculations. That is, Hegel did not see the potential of technology to continue history beyond Europe. Nor did he see that, contrary to his theory, technology would turn humanity toward enslavement rather than to freedom. Marx, who was experiencing technological changes while writing during the industrial revolution and the rise of automation in industrial production, also failed to see that technology would allowed capitalism to flourish eve stronger and to create even more polarization. Contrary to Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophies, history is not the movement of spirit or the proletariat toward freedom, but a movement to self destruction aided by the advancements of technology. Thus, their philosophies are products of their respective times; their theories reflect the philosophical trends of their times and the lack of technological awareness.

As for Löwith, what we see today from our standpoint is a clear evolution of the philosophy of history. Philosophy of history is not, as Löwith puts it “entirely dependent on theology of history.” (1) Rather, philosophy of history arose out of metaphysical speculation during a time when metaphysics was a legitimate philosophical method. It briefly disappeared during the triumph of empiricism, but resurged and continued to exist after Kant assured philosophers that metaphysics was a proper science. Obviously Löwith, writing in the 50s, could not see that his rendition of the history of philosophy of history was incomplete. He could not envision other ways of doing philosophy of history that had nothing to do with theology of history.

Language, Narrativity and Science: Reduction of History

In the 20Th century, philosophy benefited from a new and more accurate logic. The likes of Whitehead and Russell revolutionized mathematical and logical systems. And the works of Wittgenstein and Quine drew attention to a new philosophical branch, that of language. This revolution naturally brought philosophers novel ways to speculate about history. In the first place, language became essential in philosophy and linguistic analysis clearly had something to say about theories of history. Narrative was the next trend through which philosophers proposed to interpret history. At the same time, the logical positivism movement tried to undermine and eliminate metaphysics by linguistic and scientific analyses. We see thinkers like Hempel, Danto, and Mink proposing that philosophical questions about history look at the relationship between language/narration and reality/history. What Hempel had to say about history is that when we look at the way historical language and sentences are uttered, we see a parallel with the way in which scientific sentences work, namely, he suggested a reductionist interpretations of historical language whereby the statements of history can be reduced to scientific statements.

In the 80s, Hayden White wrote an important essay, “Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, where he advanced the idea that narrativity imposes moral meaning upon the reality of past events. The discipline of history for White has long established itself on the narrative form as its mode of representation of the past. To narrate history, according to White, is to give historical events a particular meaning, as he puts it “the absence of narrative capacity or a refusal of narrative indicates an absence or refusal of meaning itself” (2). So at the time White is writing, he and other philosophers, Mink for example, begin looking at history in terms of the relationship between the structure of narrative and the structure of historical events.  He writes, “What I have sought to suggest is that this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” (24).

For White, philosophers of history have, by far, neglected narrativity, and “… there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences” (16). Historians, White says, like to make a sharp distinction between history and myth, but according to White history and myth are very akin. In fact, the form of particular historical events is ultimately determined by the historian who is narrating them, depending upon the historian’s ideological or aesthetic tastes. So in this period, history is understood as perhaps a series of events in the past that do not possess a sense until they are made sense of by narrating them in pre-established forms.  The conclusion of Whites’ argument is that the discipline of history suffers because historians fail to realize that they merely “fictionalize” history.

Mind, Psychology, Memory:

One may think that philosophy of history, at the present time, has been fully explored, but it is not so. The reason is that philosophers of history continue to neglect to see that the philosophical theories of history they try to posit are the expressions of technological advancements. Today, philosophers who concern themselves with interpreting history are, in a sense, still looking for a meaning. If one takes the time to learn today’s philosophical trends, one will learn what philosophers of history think about history. In times when logical positivists were a breath of fresh philosophical air, the focus was on linguistic analysis of historical language.  But at one point, positivism was no longer the trend. With philosophers like Danto, for example, the interest shifted to the aesthetic of history and the narrativity thereof. Also, the narrativity trend faded and for a while philosophers lost interest in history.

Later on, we see sporadic contributions by, to name a few, Ricour, Carr, and Runia. These thinkers, somehow adherents of the Continental tradition, advance metaphysical ideas of history. At the same time, as we move down to the 21st century, and we look at contemporary analytic trends in philosophy, i.e., cognitive science, eliminativism, etc., we see that interpretations of history are now turning toward psychological-philosophical considerations. Runia, for example seems to invoke a concept of presence by arguing that what is pursued by humans in memorials, celebrations, monuments, and the like, is presence. Other philosophers point to the relationship between human memory and historical events, and others still are interested in the continuity in the relation between historical events and narrativity.

Philosophy of history, I believe, is a cognitive mechanism generated by our human uncomfortable compulsion to interpret and understand past reality. Philosophers interested in this subject have been grasping at straws to find meaning or to explain the concept of “history”.  But one difficulty in looking at history in sense a), i.e., all past events in time—whether they be important or unimportant—or a selective collection of relevant past events, is the problem of objectivity. Past events are selected and interpreted only in the future by different philosophers in disparate ways. The problem of objectivity, of course, is directly related to the constant evolving of information and communication technologies, which permeate every aspect of our contemporary life. These technologies are so closely intertwined with human practices that we cannot objectively talk about history in sense a).

History, in this sense, neither has meaning or explanation; thus intended, history is reified by both metaphysicians who see it as an intelligible process and empiricists who unwittingly treat history it as if it were a single material thing in order to show its relationship with language, memory, presence, and so on. What many philosophers do not realize is that our dependence upon technology will dictate new ways to conceive history. History in a near future will perhaps be understood as the collection of video recordings by means of personal cameras, by private blogs and fora, or by microchips inserted in the human brain or whatever new technology will afford us. But history in sense b), the academic discipline performed by historians and teachers and students of history, which purports to look at, to study, and to narrate important events that occurred in the past from diverse points of view, in my view, is a separate logical sphere. It is a practice learned and performed by historians—and not by philosophers—who have the final decision about the nature of the practice and its theories.

I already envision the kinds of criticisms that readers may advance against my arguments. Especially, some may be dissatisfied with my idea of technology as it sheds light on theories of history and to my contention that historians should certainly not be worried about what philosophers say about history in sense a); nor should historians be concerned with what philosophers’ speculations about history in sense b). Moreover, one may find fault in my positing that philosophers should realize that the enterprise of philosophy of history is illusory and thus needs to be eliminated. If that is the case I can only say that I am sorry. What I hope to have achieved in my discussion is to have shown several points: First that philosophy of history is a cul-de-sac. It is an inconclusive enterprise because it is based on the reification of history, and thus consists of a series of metaphysical speculations about something that cannot be tested or experienced because it is in constant motion and in constant making, and that is, history. So, philosophy of history is a pseudo-philosophy. Second, I hope to have called attention to why there is such a thing as philosophy of history. Namely, by looking back at the history of philosophy of history we can see with clarity that each era has a particular theory of history; and each theory is not the result of deductive argumentation, but rather the reflection of the particular philosophical paradigm that is in fashion in each particular era, i.e., in antiquity it is theology of history, then with Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche we see a process of secularization of the same theological principles with an eye toward  the science of the time; later in the 20Th century as science and mathematical logic advance, philosophers become interested in the relationship between logic and language and the  world, thus we see philosophers theorizing, for example, that there is a parallel between historical language and scientific language or that the way we tell ourselves about history is nonetheless that the way we narrate ourselves fictional stories.

In the 21St century yet another trend developed. Today philosophers no longer look up to reductionism and logical empiricism. And though language is still a vivid topic in philosophy, most philosophers find refuge under the umbrella of cognitive science and philosophy of mind. Therefore, at present, the few philosophers who are still concerned about history posit psychological theories that propose to look at the relation between memory, or presence, and history; finally, that the way history is perceived and understood ultimately depends upon technology. Because of the peculiar nature of today’s technology, our way of thinking of history is going to be enormously different in the future. It is possible that in the future, history will return to the models of the annals. People will, perhaps, neglect narration or memory because history will be available in the form of videos and pictures etc. and perhaps what once were important events of the past to become elected to history, in the future, the life and events of single individuals will be important history. In other words, it is not possible to even begin thinking about history because we cannot predict how the present and future nature of technology will transform humanity and its concept of history;

My way of looking at knowledge is to recognize that, as Quine puts it, it is a “man-made fabric” that we constantly stretch and modify based on our experience and our scientific tools. Similarly, history is like a man-made fabric that historians—and once philosophers—constantly adjust to fit the epistemological fashion of the time in which it is considered. As circular as this may sound, we have no alternative but to find consolation in certain conceptual frames or in one or the other philosophical tradition. At the very least, I hope, the problems with interpretations of history, which I point out in my discussion,  serve to show the futility of any kind of metaphysical speculation and the need to direct our philosophical efforts to pragmatism and a special attention to the usage of language and its relation to the world.

[1] Title of the first section in his essay, “Presence”.

[2] Beyond Good and Evil, section 11, Hollingdale translation, p. 23.


Author: Carlo Alvaro


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