Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time?

13 December 2008


Recently when I was writing here about Toynbee and what I called the Principle of Historical Viability, I found myself asking myself “Of what use is a (or the) philosophy of history in our time?”

Life in the industrial age is a very practical affair. I once heard someone refer to the lives we live today as being the most complex in recorded history. I believe this to be true. We may not be better, or smarter, or happier, but life certainly is more complicated than at any time in the past. Industrialization added a layer of complexity on top of the civilizations that emerged from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, and the slow and steady maturation of the institutions of industrial society have added another layer of complexity on top of the early innocence and experimentation (however brutal at times) with which industrialization began.

As I was saying, life in the industrial age – life for Homo faber – is a very practical affair. We would not survive the stresses and pressures and complexity of life today if we were not, on the whole, pretty well grounded. The amazing thing is not how many people are driven to distraction by the world today, but that the majority of us are able to function as well as we do.

Life in the midst of civilization, a fortiori life in the midst of industrial civilization, is as different as can be imagined from the conditions under which we became what we are. The life of hunter-gatherers, chasing after vast, thundering herds of prehistoric wildlife, sewing clothes and tents, making bows and arrows, could not be much more different than it is from the clock and calendar routine of your average employee in a large firm.

plenty of game, plenty of leisure

The good life in neolithic times: plenty of game, plenty of leisure

Since we are, in fact, very practical people, and not only are we practical people but moreover we see ourselves as being very practical, one would wonder if philosophy has any function left to serve in society. Once upon a time, being a philosopher was about the most subversive thing imaginable, and one could get executed for advancing a theory at odds with the local magistrate. And anything as recondite as the philosophy of history – how could this have any bearing on life today?

As soon as I put the matter to myself in these terms, I immediately see how almost humorously inadequate the question is. It is always the most practical men who are the most subject to philosophies that they do not even know that they follow. Keynes wrote a wonderful passage to this effect:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

(The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, 1935, Chapter 24)

The cult of progress, and subsequent critiques of the very idea of progress, have informed our public discourse profoundly. This is an issue that is not going to go away; it will continue to invigorate the dialectic of democracy so long as there are societies in which men are free to disagree publicly. And, speaking of the philosophy of history, who could be more influential today than Foucault? Unlike a lot of “public intellectuals”, Foucault was the real thing, a first-class thinker. Certainly many of the public appropriations of Foucault’s ideas are shallow and miss the point, but we can always go back to the source and get the real thing.

And it is not only in the public sphere that a philosophy of history is crucial to our self-understanding and indeed to our understanding of the world. Stephen Jay Gould has proposed somewhere in his many books (I can’t recall where exactly) that the traditional classification of the natural sciences can be misleading, and that we need to recognize a category of the historical sciences (not least for the unique form of inference – postdiction, or retrodiction, in contradistinction to prediction – involved in the historical sciences). Once we do so, we immediately see that there is a common historical thread throughout paleontology, anthropology, biology, geology, and so forth. And how can we come to a critical appreciation of the historical sciences? How else except through a philosophy of history, which will have direct applications to a philosophy of the historical sciences?

Hegel said that the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the setting of the sun, an appropriate image for us Occidentals.

Hegel said that the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the setting of the sun, an appropriate image for us Occidentals.

The philosophy of history, then, has great currency and utility today. The real issue is not the utility of philosophy, but of making that philosophy explicit and self-conscious, so that the ideas underpinning discussions of the relevance of history can be conducted critically, at greater depth, and with greater care. If we are not aware of and in control of our ideas, our ideas will control us, and it is the task of the philosopher to be proactive in the realm of ideas. It is by taking up the philosophical mantle that we extend our capacity for action and our ability to exercise our autonomy in more realms of life.

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One Response to “Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time?”

  1. Sam said

    Hear, hear.

    This sounds like what I have spend a large amount of time thinking about and analyzing past and current events in light of.

    This also makes me think of The History and Moral Philosophy course taught in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

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