First published Sun Feb 18, 2007
The concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of “learning from history.” And it suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in thepresent, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that brought us to our current situation. It is therefore unsurprising that philosophers have sometimes turned their attention to efforts to examine history itself and the nature of historical knowledge. These reflections can be grouped together into a body of work called “philosophy of history.” This work is heterogeneous,comprising analyses and arguments of idealists, positivists, logicians, theologians, and others, and moving back and forth over the divides between European and Anglo-American philosophy, and between hermeneutics and positivism.
Given the plurality of voices within the “philosophy of history,” it is impossible to give one definition of the field that suits all these approaches. In fact, it is misleadingto imagine that we refer to a single philosophical tradition when we invoke the phrase, “philosophy of history,” because the strands of research characterized here rarely engage in dialogue with each other. Still, we can usefully think of philosophers' writings about history as clustering around several large questions, involving metaphysics, hermeneutics, epistemology, and historicism: (1) Whatdoes history consist of—individual actions, social structures, periods and regions, civilizations, large causal processes, divine intervention? (2) Does history as a whole have meaning, structure, or direction, beyond the individual events and actions that make it up? (3) What is involved in our knowing, representing, and explaining history? (4) To what extent is human history constitutive of thehuman present?
• 1. History and its representation
• 2. Continental philosophy of history
o 2.1. Universal or historical human nature?
o 2.2. Does history possess directionality?
o 2.3. Hegel's philosophy of history
o 2.4. Hermeneutic approaches to history
• 3. Anglo-American philosophy of history
o 3.1. General laws in history?o 3.2. Historical objectivity
o 3.3. Causation in history
o 3.4. Recent topics in the philosophy of history
• 4. Topics from the historians
• 5. Rethinking the philosophy of history
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• Related Entries
1. History and its representation
What is history? Most prosaically, it is the human past andour organized representations of that past. We can of course write about the chronology of non-human events—the history of the solar system, the history of the earth's environment over a billion-year expanse of time. But the key issues in the philosophy of history arise in our representations of the human past—a point emphasized in Collingwood's philosophy of history (1946: 215–16). And history isfascinating for us, because, in Marx's words, “Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing” (1852). That is to say: history reflects agency—the choices by individuals and groups; and it reflects constraining structures and circumstances. So historical outcomes are neither causally determined nor entirely plastic and accidental. Therefore it is open to the historian toattempt to discover the historical circumstances that induced and constrained historical agents to act in one way rather than another—thus bringing about a historical outcome of interest. So we might begin by saying that history is a temporally ordered sequence of events and processes involving human doings, within which there are interconnections of causality, structure, and action, within...