- Topics from the historians
There is another current of thinking about the philosophy of history that deserves more attention from philosophers than it has so far received. It is the work of philosophically minded historians and historical social scientists treating familiar but badly understood historical concepts: causation, historical epoch, social structure, human agency, mentality, and the like. These writings represent a middle-level approach to issues having to do with the logic of historical discourse. This approach puts aside the largest questions—“Does history have meaning?”, “Can we have knowledge of the past?”—in favor of questions that are more intimately associated with the actual reasoning and discourse of historians as they attempt to categorize and explain the past.
Contributions at this level might be referred to as “middle-level historical ontology”. This aspect of current philosophy of history brings the discipline into close relation to the philosophy of the special sciences (biology, sociology, archaeology). Philosophically reflective historians ask critical questions about the concepts and assumptions that are often brought into historical thinking, and they attempt to provide more adequate explication of these concepts given their own encounters with the challenges of historical research and historical explanation. William Sewell provides an example in his treatment of the concept of a “historical event” and the associated assumptions that social scientists make about the temporality of historical events (2005). Andrew Abbott questions the assumptions that historians make about the ontological status of “historical things” (for example, the Chicago school of sociology), arguing that historical things are inherently malleable and plastic over time (1999). Charles Tilly challenges a common assumption that causal reasoning depends on identifying background causal regularities; he argues instead for an approach to causal reasoning that emphasizes the role of concrete causal mechanisms (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001). E. P. Thompson offers an analysis of the concept of “class consciousness” that forces historians to avoid the error of reification when considering such social constructs as consciousness or political movements (1966). Simon Schama questions the concept of an objective historical narrative that serves to capture the true state of affairs about even fairly simple historical occurrences (1991). Charles Sabel casts doubt on the idea of fixed patterns of historical development, arguing that there were alternative pathways available even within the classic case of economic development in western Europe (Sabel and Zeitlin 1997). Marshall Sahlins underlines the essential role that the interpretation of culture should play in our ability to read history—whether of the Peloponnesian War or the Polynesian War, and sheds important new light on the question of the “historical subject” or agent of history (2004). And the literary critic and advocate of the “new historicism” in literary studies, Stephen Greenblatt, demonstrates the historical insights that can result from a close literary reading of some of the primary documents of history—for example, the journals of Christopher Columbus (Greenblatt 1991). As these examples illustrate, there is ample room for productive exchange between philosophers with an interest in the nature of history and the historians and social scientists who have reflected deeply on the complexities of the concepts and assumptions we use in historical analysis.