Philosophy of History

By Oliver Leech

Surrounded by the vast collection of philosophy texts in Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford, I asked the assistant where I could find some material on the philosophy of history. ‘Do you mean the history of philosophy?’ he replied. An understandable response since the history of philosophy is a premier league topic with shelves of books to choose from whereas the philosophy of history is at best half way down the next division. Indeed, since it overlaps with historiography, books about it tend to be stocked in the history section.

But once you look into this underrated topic, you find it fascinating both in its own right and in the way it engages with other more central philosophical areas. It is customary to divide it into two main categories:

a)      substantive or speculative: concerned with the grand scale, asking such questions as whether there is a direction in the broad sweep of history, e.g., history as progress or cyclical or just ‘one damned thing after another’. Think here of Hegel and more recently Fukuyama’s The End of History. (Not a very fashionable category at the moment.)

b)      analytic or critical: the analysis of the process of writing history; the problems of objectivity/subjectivity; the problem of causation; history as a science; the value/purpose of history; the nature of evidence, epistemological justification.

Here is one intriguing problem in the philosophy of history which I would like to share and explore. A few weeks ago in one of those Radio Three discussions in the middle of a Proms concert the subject was Edward Wightman, the last man in England to be burned at the stake for heresy. Born in 1566 he wrote and preached views that challenged the religious orthodoxy of his day. Among the accusations made against him was the claim that he affirmed ‘soul sleep’ (a doctrine associated with Luther, to the effect that between death and the day of judgement the soul is not conscious); that he rejected the doctrine of the trinity and the divinity of Jesus and that he made sacrilegious claims about his own status. He bravely or foolishly sent a copy of his writings to the King, James 1st,who considered himself an authority on Christian doctrine. According to the expert historians on the programme the religious authorities knew very well the difference between ‘nutters’ and dangerous heretics and classified Edward Wightman as one of the latter. After a trial in Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire he was condemned to death and burned at the stake in Lichfield market square. (The first time the fires were lit he called out that he would recant and was rescued but, after he withdrew his recantation, he was condemned again and burned, this time to death, on April 11th 1612, four hundred years ago.) A statue of a native of Lichfield from a less judgmental era, Samuel Johnson, now looks down on that square.

The historians also made the comment that we should not think that those who instigated the trial and passed sentence were particularly cruel men but rather that they were more concerned with the pain of the community than with the pain of one man. This distinction puzzled me. I believe that the pain of flesh being burned was as excruciating in the seventeenth century as it is now. But what does the ‘pain of the community’ mean? And how can an event we regard as primitive and cruel in the extreme have been regarded as in some sense in the public interest? Somehow I could not get into the thinking of the people of that era. It was this difficulty that reminded me of a particular problem in the philosophy of history, a  practical one for historians, theoretical for philosophers.

Should we think, on the one hand, that people in all times and places are always much the same as we are because human nature is a constant or, on the other hand, should we think that the past is indeed a foreign country where people did things so very differently from us precisely because they were not like us? The following passage is from David Hume, a writer who has the rare distinction of having achieved renown in both history and philosophy:

‘It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and all ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: the same events follow from the same causes … Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English…  Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular.’
An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748)

The assumption that human nature is a constant makes history much easier to write and study. We have only to think of figures from the past as much the same as us to make sense of their actions. But suppose that human nature is not fixed (as existentialists tell us) and the characters we read about were so different in their fundamental mind-set that we cannot even get a purchase on the way that they thought and acted. Under these conditions can we now do history at all?

This, then, is the problem broken down into stages:

a)      Is there such an entity as human nature that remains constant throughout all times (and places)? And, if so, what is it?

b)      Is a belief that human nature is constant a necessary prerequisite for the practice of history?

Posted by on 21st October 2012 at 12:00am