Saturday, July 17, 2004

Thoughts on the Philosophy of History

Since I've come across, through Sharon's "Early Modern Notes," a number of history blogs I probably would never have otherwise read, I've been thinking about the philosophy of history (discipline). Not that there is, at present, all that much to think about -- most of what's out there is scattered at best. There's Maritain's lovely little work On the Philosophy of History, which actually attempts to rough out the laws of history (course of events). There are a number of works that, in one way or another, are concerned with the same sort of thing Maritain's little text is; but none of them, including Maritain's, ever really gets beyond a very preliminary sort of rough draft. And they only indirectly reflect on the philosophy of history (discipline). One occasionally runs across a more direct discussion; but it just isn't common.
What philosophy of history needs is its William Whewell (see here for yet another site). Whewell is the best candidate for a Father of Philosophy of Science; there were people prior to him discussing the subject (John Herschel is the most notable case), but he really got the ball rolling. He did it by publishing two rather massive works, The History of the Inductive Sciences and The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Both titles are self-explanatory. Were there to be a Whewell of the philosophy of history one could expect him to do the following.
1. Extensively research the history (course of events) of history (discipline) -- from the early stages to the present day. Whewell's history of science is still almost unrivaled in scope and competence; there are some, like Pierre Duhem, who have been in his league on these two points, but most of the 'greats' in the field are footnotes in one way or another -- they modify or extend rather than rival.
2. Determine a historical (discipline) equivalent of Whewell's 'Fundamental Antithesis'. The basic point of Whewell's Fundamental Antithesis is that inductive sciences are a meeting of mind (reason) and data (experience). Something analogous could be reasonably expected for history's (discipline) study of the data of history (course of events).
3. On the basis of (1) and (2) build a comprehensive philosophy of history (discipline). This would include:
a. A historical topics, i.e., an overarching logic of the dicipline in terms of whatever would be analogous to Whewell's Fundamental Ideas.
b. A methodology, connected with the topics, in virtue of which historians do what they do.
c. Discussion of the handful of prior works.
d. Some notion of the links between the philosophy of history (discipline) and other, related areas, e.g., the philosophy of history (course of events), anthropology, sociology, etc.

With that philosophy of history would really have begun. Then we can do the heavy work....

(BTW, while I like WYSIWYGs, this WYSIWYG editor they've added to the Blogger post editor has to be the most messed-up WYSIWYG I've ever come across; undoing things is unnecessarily confusing, and the stupid thing does the blockquotes wrong - every time I use them I have to go to the HTML editor and edit out all the things that will make the template go crazy. I generally catch it, but if this page ever looks odd, you know why....)

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