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Philosophy of History (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order. Philosophy of history is the application of philosophical conceptions and analysis to history in both senses, the study of the past and the past itself.


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According to Hegel , history is rational, the working out, in fact, of philosophical understanding itself. The accelerating success of natural science in the nineteenth century gave rise to a powerful combination of empiricism and logical positivism which produced a philosophical climate highly unfavourable to Hegelian philosophy of history. The belief became widespread among philosophers that Hegel , and Marx after him, had developed a priori theories that ignored historical contingency in favour of historical necessity, and which were empirically unfalsifiable.

Two rival conceptions of historical method existed. The other argued for a distinctive form of explanation in history, whose object was the meaning of human action and whose structure was narrative rather than deductive.

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Neither side in this debate was able to claim a convincing victory, with the result that philosophers gradually lost interest in history and began to concern themselves more generally with the nature of human action. This interest, combined with a revival of nineteenth-century German hermeneutics, the study of texts in their social and cultural milieu, in turn revived interest among analytical philosophers in the writings of Hegel and Nietzsche.

The impact of continental influences in philosophy, art criticism and social theory was considerable, and reintroduced a historical dimension that had been largely absent from twentieth-century analytical philosophy. How can it be that actions commonly blamed as vicious generate effects commonly praised as beneficial?

The utilitarian philosophers found the right answer. What results in benefits must not be rejected as morally bad. Only those actions are bad which produce bad results. But the utilitarian point of view did not prevail. Public opinion still clings to pre-Mandevillian ideas.

34 Hegel's Philosophy of History

It does not approve of a businessman's success in supplying the customers with merchandise that best suits their wishes. It looks askance at wealth acquired in trade and industry, and finds it pardonable only if the owner atones for it by endowing charitable institutions.

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A

For the agnostic, atheistic, and antitheistic historians and economists there is no need to refer to Smith's and Bastiat's invisible hand. The Christian historians and economists who reject capitalism as an unfair system consider it blasphemous to describe egoism as a means providence has chosen in order to attain its ends. Thus the theological views of Smith and Bastiat no longer have any meaning for our age. But it is not impossible that the Christian churches and sects will one day discover that religious freedom can be realized only in a market economy and will stop supporting anticapitalistic tendencies.

Then they will either cease to disapprove of self-interest or return to the solution suggested by these eminent thinkers. Just as important as realizing the essential distinction between the philosophy of history and the new, purely mundane social philosophy which developed from the 18th century on is awareness of the difference between the stage-doctrine implied in almost every philosophy of history and the attempts of historians to divide the totality of historical events into various periods or ages.

In the context of a philosophy of history, the various states or stages are, as has been mentioned already, intermediary stations on the way to a final stage which will fully realize the plan of providence. For many Christian philosophies of history, the pattern was set by the four kingdoms of the Book of Daniel.


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The modern philosophies of history borrowed from Daniel the notion of the final stage of human affairs, the notion of "an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away. They announce either that the final stage has already been reached Hegel , or that mankind is just entering it Comte , or that its coming is to be expected every day Marx. The ages of history as distinguished by historians are of a different character. Historians do not claim to know anything about the future.

On the Philosophy of History

They deal only with the past. Their periodization schemes aim at classifying historical phenomena without any presumption of forecasting future events.


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The readiness of many historians to press general history or special fields — like economic or social history or the history of warfare — into artificial subdivisions has had serious drawbacks. It has been a handicap rather than an aid to the study of history.

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A

It was often prompted by political bias. Modern historians agree in paying little attention to such period schemes. But what counts for us is merely establishing the fact that the epistemological character of the periodization of history by historians is different from the stage schemes of the philosophy of history. View the discussion thread. Skip to main content.