The Philosophy of History

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, March 4, 2012

What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1832)

1. Meta-narratives

1.1 A metanarrative is a universal explanation that transcends specific instances of history or local knowledge. Various forms of nationalism, religion, political ideologies and science are suggested as metanarratives. Any argument that history as a whole has broad patterns - whether cyclical, progressive, diminishing or chaotic - is also considered a metanarrative.

1.1.1 Post-structuralists are very critical of metanarratives. In history, post-structuralists argue that instead of metanarrative, historians should conduct petits récits ("short stories"), focussing on local contexts and specific times.

"Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.... The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal."
Jean-François Lyotard, "The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge" (1979).

1.1.2 Critics of the post-structuralists argue that their claim contains an inherent contradiction (cf., Lyotard's comment above). To universally assert a rejection of metanarratives is itself a metanarrative. If one is skeptical of universal claims such as 'truth', 'knowledge', 'right', or 'wrong', then there is no basis for believing the 'truth' that metanarratives are being undermined.

1.1.3 A critical-rationalist (e.g., Karl Popper, Jürgen Habermas et. al.) position would argue that universals do indeed exist however any propositions that make a claim to universality must be available to rational criticism and should be subjected tests of falsification and verification. Any propositions must be subject to verification, improvement etc., in order to be be a rational statement.

1.2 With this in mind, let us consider some metanarrative proposals of history, also known as "historicism". The first proposal considered (Popper) is that there is no historicism. The second (Hesoid, Ovid) was that each stage of humanity was marked by devolution. The third suggests improvement towards a telos (Augustine's Six Ages and Dispensationalism, Hegelian-Marxism). Finally, contemporary non-historicist and chaotic views of history are offerd as an alternative.

1.2.1 Popper (The Poverty of Historicism, 1957, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945) strongly rejected historicism. A dedication in the first book was made to: "In memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victim to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny." Popper claimed: (a) that a model of history and society is innately flawed due to necessary selectivity, (b) historical events are unique, there are no 'laws', (c) human action cannot be predicted ex ante. As a result historicists tend to apply their theories as factual inevitabilities and treat ends as aims, instead of choices.

1.2.2 From the works of Hesoid (Works and Days, c700 BCE) and Ovid (Metamorphoses, 7CE), the Hellenic world argued for stages of human existence largely based on metals: (i) the Golden age, where people lived in abundance with the Gods, in peace and harmony, (ii) the Silver Age, a matriarchy of strife, impiety, and discord, but also the time when time, seasons, agriculture and architecture were "invented", (iii) the Bronze Age, which witnessed organised warfare and religion institutions, and (iv) the Iron Age, where the state establishes borders, where there is impiety, greed, warfare, navigation and mining. In Hesoid there is also a brief period of improvement between the Bronze and Iron Ages called the Heroic Age in Hesoid. We also find the same ages in Hinduism (Satya - Golden), Treta - Silver, Dwapara - Bronze and Kali - Iron), although in this instance they are of enormous time periods and are cyclical.

1.2.3 St. Augustine (On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, c400CE) argued that there were six ages of human history, based on Biblical periods, with the final period representing the second coming and a seventh age of eternal rest. It was widely accepted in the European middle-ages. Christian dispensationalism is a similar historical theory that also argues for ultimate otherworldy salvation. In the Bahá'í Faith, a dispensation is a period of progressive revelation relating to the major religions.

1.2.4 Hegel (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1837) argues that history evolves towards universal reason through a "geist" (the culture of a population). "That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process... this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason". The process of the dialetic how this evolution is expressed, starting with the Abstract, encountering the Negative, and through Mediation overcoming (Aufhebung) the limits to become the Concrete. The Hegelian theory of history would reach its conclusion through the realisation of freedom; initially from the individual, then to groups, then finally to all. Hegel argumed that German Christendom was the first to realise that freedom belongs to everyone - which was the beginning of the end of history.

1.2.5 The Marxist theory of history uses the Hegelian dialectic, but replaces the Hegelian spirit with the evolution of the mode of production (a combination of the factors of production and the social relations of production). The stages of history in Marxism are: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, then reaching a telos with communism. The first stages were heavily based on the works of the anthropologist Lewis Morgan, who distinguished between three major stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization (Ancient Societies, 1877). The "Asiatic mode of production" was occasionally included by Marx between primitive communism and slavery (an axial age).

1.3.1 The contributions of archaeology, anthropology and sociology have provided an increasingly elaborate and nuanced concept of socio-cultural development with contributions from Christian Thomsen and John Lubbock (stone age and metal age), Claude Lévi-Strauss (ethnography), Émile Durkheim (moral order), Max Weber (rationality), Talcott Parsons (systems theory) et. al. Combining these (and others) generates a complex study of social formations:

Social Formation Means of Communication Means of Production Social System Institution Differentiation of Social Relations Mode of Consciousness Crisis Tendencies
Primitive Speech Gatherer Kinship Sex/Age Mythic Natural
Traditional Writing Agricultural State Rank Religious Political
Modern Print Industry Business Class Secular Economic

There is also consideration of a nascent post-modernism which includes information as the dominant means of production and the Internet as the means of communication.

Note that this sketch does not presuppose a sense of moral progress. However, if moral reasoning is something that varies individually and in aggregate, and technology amplifies moral judgement, then as technology progresses, beneficial and damaging moral decisions will be greater in their effect.

1.3.2 The above does leave open the question of a genuinely “post-modern” social formation in a sociological sense, a task much more difficult than many commentators would imagine. One particular historicist position – from a liberal democratic outlook, is from Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man, 1992), who argues there is innate human desire towards liberalism and democracy - meaning that liberal democracy is the highest stage of human socio-cultural evolution ('the end of history') and a technical orientation that will result in transhumanism ('the last man').

2. Hermeneutics

2.1 The etymology of the word 'hermeneutics' dervies from Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, and especially the ambiguity of language in its ability to conceal or elucidate. Hermes, apart from being the messenger, was also the God who invented language, and a God of travellers, commerce, thieves and politicians. Aristotle introduced the idea of hermeneutics as interpretation (On Intepretation, 350 BCE). Historically, along with 'exegesis' ("to lead out") the terms were used primarily for interpretation of scripture (e.g., Talmudic hermeneutics, Biblical hermeneutics).

2.1 As a modern discipline, hermeneutics was founded by Friedrich Schleiermacher (Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, 1838 - just after his death). Whilst coming from a religious background himself, he proposed that hermeneutics be applies to all texts and communication, suggesting that content must be considered in the overall organisation of the work (the text, the spatio-temporal, and that statements ought to be differentiated between grammatical and psychological intepretation. Schleiermacher considered that the problem of interpretation is a problem of understanding.

2.2 Other major contributors to hermeneutics include Wilhem Dilthey (The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Manifestations of Life, 1910), Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, 1927), Hans-Georg Gadamer (Truth and Method, 1960) and Paul Ricoeur (History and Truth, 1955 and The Conflict of Interpretations, 1969)

2.2.1 Dilthey was particularly interested in interpretating author intent and noted the recurring movement between the implicit and the explicit, the particular and the whole, which he "the Hermeneutic circle". He rejected that the objective methodology of the natural sciences should be applied to the field of social inquiry (Geisteswissenschaften), arguing that it is not truth but understanding (Verstehen) that distinguishes the latter. Dilthey divides the author intent from three levels: experience (very similar to the phenomenological approach of Edmund Husserl), expression, and comprehension, and developed a typology of world-views (Weltanschauungen)

2.2.2 Martin Heidegger developed the Hermeneutic Circle to envision a whole in terms of a reality moving from interpretation to existentialism, as a more direct method; the circle is not a method but rather it is the existential character of understanding. For example, he considered the relationship between "text" and "context" to be reciprocal; there are no artists without art, there is not art without artists.

2.2.3 Gadamar rejects the objective historical interpretation as impossible, and instead suggests that meaning is created through intersubjective communication, arguing that "truth" and "method" were in conflict. He was particularly both critical of objective approaches and author intent. Rather Gadamar sees these as a dialectical issue, resolved by a "Fusion of Horizons".

2.2.4 Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel are two contemporary philosophers who were critical of hermeneutics claiming that its emphasis on tradition was inevitably conservative and did not allow for critical analysis. They further develop the concept of "Verstehen", on the basis of a critical theory of communication and the potential of universal communication. In the other direction critics such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Dean MacCannell consider that its is for a person born of one culture to ever sufficiently understand another culture to the point of critical analysis. Finally, Paul Ricoeur makes an attempt using the hermeneutic and phenomoneological approaches to bridge the gap between ontological and critical hermeneutics.

2.3 Hermeneutics has is an essential tool in the analysis of historiography, the study of history and its methodologies. However as part of the process of interpretation there is the issue of sources (Ernst Bernheim, Textbook of Historical Method, 1889, Torsten Thurén, Source Criticism 1997), external and internal criticism, and the application of historical reasoning, and a synthesis of explanations and probabilities. There is a fairly pragmatic and consistent approach to the historical method (Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, 1946, and C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, 1984).

2.3.1 Historical sources may be relics or narratives, with greater credibility to the former. The more original the source, the greater its credibility. A source closer to the event is more credible. A primary source is more credible than a secondary source, which is more credible than a tertiary source. A primary source is any information-artifact that was created at the time under study. A secondary source builds and comments on primary sources, a tertiary source on secondary sources. Sources may be motivated and therefore biased; uninterested sources are more credible.

2.3.2 Bernheim proposed that if the sources agree about an event, the event is considered proved. If the sources are not uniform, then textual analysis must apply with preference to the source that indicates the greater expertise and witness. First-hand witnesses are preferred in situations where ordinary observation can accurately report an event. If independent sources agree, the reliability of each is increased. Garraghan notes that Source criticism can come from when a source originates (date), where it produced (locale), who produced it (authorship), from what material was it produced (analysis), what was the original form (integrity), and the evidence (credibility). The first four are known as higher criticism and the fifth, lower criticism. Collectively this is external criticism, with the sixth inquiry about a source called internal criticism.

2.4 Once individual pieces of information have been evaluated, a historian may attempt to build a history. This can be constructed as either an argument from the best explanation, statistical inference, and, less conclusive, analogy.

2.4.1 Best explanation (c.f., C. Behan McCullagh) states that (a) statements consist of a hypothesis and observable data, (b) the hypothesis must provide greater explantory scope and a greater number of observation statements that alternative hypotheses, (c) the hypothesis must have greater explantory power, through more probable observation statements, (d) the hypothesis must be more plausible, containing greater coherence with accepted truths, (e) the hypothesis must be less ad hoc, and include fewer new suppositions about the past, (f) the hypothesis has fewer disconfirming accepted beliefs, (g) it succeeds by so much in the prior statements that there is little chance of a new hypothesis arising soon.

McCullagh sums up, "if the scope and strength of an explanation are very great, so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation, then it is likely to be true."

2.4.2 Statistical inference is a fairly simply process of multiplication of odds. For the probability (p1) that source A implies event B, and it is probable (p2) that there is A, the probability is (p1 * p2). A simple example from McCullagh; if for thousands the letters VSLM at the end of a Latin tombstone stand for Votum Solvit Libens Merito ("willingly fulfilled his oaths"), and a further tombstone, in Latin, concludes with the letters VSLM, we can conclude that VLSM in this particular tombstone means the same.

2.4.3 The argument from analogy is considered acceptable to propose hypotheses, rather than as a conclusive argument. It suggests that if a state of affairs (object, event) have the properties p1 ... pn... and pn+1 and another has the properties p1 .. pn... then the latter will also have pn+1.