- Rethinking the philosophy of history
It may be useful to close with a sketch of a possible framework for an updated philosophy of history. Any area of philosophy is driven by a few central puzzles. In the area of the philosophy of history, the most fundamental questions remain unresolved: (1) What is the nature of the reality of historical structures and entities (states, empires, religious movements, social classes)? Can we provide a conception of historical and social entities that avoids the error of reification but gives some credible reality to the entities that are postulated? (2) What is the nature of causal influence among historical events or structures that underwrites historical explanations? Historical causation is not analogous to natural necessity in the domain of physical causation, because there are no fixed laws that govern historical events. So we need to provide an account of the nature of the causal powers that historical factors are postulated to have. (3) What role does the interpretation of the “lived experience” of past actors play in historical understanding, and how does the historian arrive at justified statements about this lived experience? Is it possible to arrive at justified interpretations of long-dead actors, their mentalities and their actions? How does this phenomenological reality play into the account of historical causation? (4) Can we give an estimate of the overall confidence we can have about statements about the past, about the features of past institutions, structures, and actors, and about the explanatory relations among them? Or does all historical knowledge remain permanently questionable?
A new philosophy of history will shed light on these fundamental issues. It will engage with the hermeneutic and narrativist currents that have been important in the continental tradition and have arisen in recent years in Anglo-American philosophy. It will incorporate the rigorous epistemic emphasis that is associated with analytic philosophy of history, but will separate itself from the restrictive assumptions of positivism. A new philosophy of history will grapple with issues of social explanation that have been so important for the current generation of social-science historians and will incorporate the best current understandings of the philosophy of social science about social ontology and explanation.
A handful of ontological assumptions can be offered. History consists of human actions within humanly embodied institutions and structures. There is no super-human agency in history. There is no super-human meaning or progress in history; there is only a series of events and processes driven by concrete causal processes and individual actions. Following Davidson (1963) and Taylor (1985), there is no inconsistency between reasons and causes, understanding and explanation. Historical explanation depends on both causal-structural reasoning and interpretation of actions and intentions; so it is both causal and hermeneutic. There are no causal laws or universal generalizations within human affairs. However, there is such a thing as social causation, proceeding through the workings of human agency and the constraints of institutions and structures. A legitimate historiographical goal is to identify causal mechanisms within historical processes, and these mechanisms invariably depend on the actions of historical actors situated within concrete social relations.
Likewise, a basic epistemology of historical knowledge can be described. Historical knowledge depends on ordinary procedures of empirical investigation, and the justification of historical claims depends on providing convincing demonstration of the empirical evidence that exists to support or invalidate the claim. There is such a thing as historical objectivity, in the sense that historians are capable of engaging in good-faith interrogation of the evidence in constructing their theories of the past. But this should not be understood to imply that there is one uniquely true interpretation of historical processes and events. Rather, there is a perfectly ordinary sense in which historical interpretations are underdetermined by the facts, and there are multiple legitimate historical questions to pose about the same body of evidence. Historical narratives have a substantial interpretive component, and involve substantial construction of the past.
Finally, a new philosophy of history will be sensitive to the variety of forms of presentation of historical knowledge. The discipline of history consists of many threads, including causal explanation, material description, and narrative interpretation of human action. Historical narrative itself has several aspects: a hermeneutic story that makes sense of a complicated set of actions by different actors, but also a causal story conveying a set of causal mechanisms that came together to bring about an outcome. But even more importantly, not all historical knowledge is expressed in narratives. Rather, there is a range of cognitive structures through which historical knowledge is expressed, from detailed measurement of historical standards of living, to causal arguments about population change, to comparative historical accounts of similar processes in different historical settings. A new philosophy of history will take the measure of synchronous historical writing; historical writing that conveys a changing set of economic or structural circumstances; writing that observes the changing characteristics of a set of institutions; writing that records and analyzes a changing set of beliefs and attitudes in a population; and many other varieties as well. These are important features of the structure of historical knowledge, not simply aspects of the rhetoric of historical writing.