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Philosophy of History

Introduction | Ancient Era | Modern Era
Introduction Back to Top

Philosophy of History (or Historiosophy) is an area of philosophy concerning the eventual significance, if any, of human history, and asks if there is any design, purpose, directive principle, or finality in the processes of human history.

It asks questions such as: "Are there any broad patterns or cycles in the progress in human history?", "If history can indeed be said to progress, what is its ultimate direction?", "What is the driving force of progress in human history?", "What purpose does the recording of history serve?"

Ancient Era Back to Top

In Ancient Greece, historiography (the processes by which historical knowledge is obtained and transmitted) was considered more for good examples to follow than for factual accuracy (i.e. it was supposed to morally improve the reader), and any bad examples may just have been conveniently ignored. Revered historians like Herodotus and Plutarch freely invented speeches for their historical figures and selectively chose their subjects.

History (as contemporarily understood by Western thought), tends to follow an assumption of linear progression, although many ancient cultures believed that history was cyclical with alternating Dark and Golden Ages. In the 14th century, the Arab Muslim Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1406), considered one of the fathers of the Philosophy of History, discussed his philosophy of history and society in detail in his "Muqaddimah", propounding a cyclical theory of history. During the Enlightenment, history began to be seen as both linear and irreversible, although as empires came and went with great regularity in Europe, the idea of history following cycles also recurred regularly.

Those who created theodicies (attempts to reconcile the co-existence of evil and God), including St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas and Gottfried Leibniz, claimed that history had a progressive direction leading to an eschatological end (the end of the world or of humankind) such as the Apocalypse.

Modern Era Back to Top

It was really not until the 19th Century that the idea of presenting objective historical facts became prevalent. Hegel, through his theory of dialectics (thesis followed by opposing antithesis), conceived of the negative historical events, such as wars, etc, as the motor of history. The positivist conception of history of Auguste Comte, (that knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method), was one of the most influential doctrines of progress in the 19th Century.

Darwinism, and the Social Darwinism it gave rise to, claimed that societies start out in a primitive state and gradually become more civilized over time, thus equating the culture and technology of Western civilization with progress. Ernst Haeckel (1884 -1919), who formulated his Recapitulation Theory in 1867, stated that the evolution of each individual (from embryo to child to adult) reproduces the species' evolution (from primitive to modern society).

The 19th Century historian Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881), echoing Hegel before him, argued that history was the biography of a few central individuals or heroes. Hegel also championed the idea of Historicism (that there is an organic succession of developments, and that local conditions and peculiarities influence the results in a decisive way).

It was not until the late 19th Century that Marx's conception of a materialist history (see the sections on Materialism and Marxism) based on the class struggle raised attention to the importance of social factors such as economics in the unfolding of history.

More recently, Michel Foucault has posited that the victors of a social struggle use their political dominance to suppress a defeated adversary's version of historical events in favor of their own propaganda, which may go so far as historical revisionism, as in the cases of Nazism and Stalinism.

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