Where does philosophy of history fit?

Four ways to locate the philosophy of history

Philosophy of history, as a sub-field, has little visible presence in mainstream philosophy. There are few courses on it. It’s not a faddish research area with job-postings aplenty. We just don’t know where it fits, and as a result we aren’t sure what it involves.

But that means that figuring out where it does fit, and what it does include is philosophically interesting. It has a meta-philosophical dimension, not least because philosophy occurs in history, has a history, and has a troubled relationship with historical-becoming at the level of concepts.

Instead of asking “what is the philosophy of history?”, let’s ask “where does it fit?”.

The first thing to say is that the philosophy of history can’t simply be the theoretical

Maritain - history diagram
Maritain’s diagram of history and philosophy (1955)

dimension of what historians do. Mostly because they’re too busy doing their thing to do the theoretical thing fully. Of course, that does not mean that philosophy of history is done without historians. So, it’s interdisciplinary in that respect, or has it’s applied dimension, and so on. Pursuing this aspect would mean partnerships in other disciplines, but as a result it doesn’t necessarily have any contemporary significance in philosophy itself, unless allied to one of the areas I set out below.

Secondly: epistemology or ontology? The naturalizing, empiricist philosopher likely will pursue a philosophy of history into the epistemology of historical knowledge. So, the narrative elements, their rigorous construction, the peculiar way in which historical knowledge can change, and the implications concerning the ‘fixedness’ of the past might then be your focus. That leads in two directions: philosophy of social science on the one hand, and metaphysical problems about the nature of the past on the other (or even, with Kuhn, theories about scientific change). This area seems of little interest in this part of the discipline today to me, but then again, I’m viewing this one from the edges.

However (so, thirdly), with Kant, Hegel, and much “continental” philosophy, you might instead have a deeply historical ontology. In this case, research focuses on how important social and political facts come into being. How is it possible to historically realise “universal” norms? What would make them (putatively) universal? Or (more likely) conversely, how have so-called universal claims in fact been cover for the domination of racist and sexist values? Has there been progress in this way, or is the idea of “progress” similarly implicated?

As should be pretty obvious, the latter direction for history is clearly folded into political  and social philosophy and ‘critical theory’. (This raises some questions about the old distinction between “critical” and “speculative” philosophy of history, which I’ll put aside here for another day). Another thing the latter approach does is to put a spotlight on the history of philosophy.

Fourth, then, a philosophy of history can be concerned with methods in the history of philosophy. That returns us to the meta-philosophical dimension raised before, as well as engaging in the interdisciplinary . It’s useful to note a breakdown here of different tacks. A) One can focus on a critique of contemporary philosophy in its tendency to be ahistorical (ie. ignoring the history of concepts, of philosophy, of relevant social contexts, and so on), or to be falsely historical (such as in crude misrepresentations of historical figures, ideas, and arguments). B) A second focus can be the positive corollary of (A). That is, producing the nuanced and detailed historical accounts that philosophy requires (there’s a contentious claim) to do it’s business. Both of these seem to me to have contemporary importance.

So, there we have four different ways to locate discipline-wise the philosophy of history. For me, the third, and fourth are the two areas I work in. I’d be interested to hear, however, from anyone working any of these. Do these four areas connect in some way that makes it coherent? Or are they more or less separate sub-fields? How is the history of concepts viewed in the naturalistic areas of the discipline? Questions to investigate.


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