Is There a Philosophy of History Today?

By guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

Is there a philosophy of history today? By this I mean a classical philosophy of history, a philosophy of history understood as the course of events. Because there certainly is philosophy of history understood as a philosophy of historical writing, even though many philosophers would hesitate to call it philosophy and many historians would hesitate to attribute any significance to such an enterprise. Yet, as the diagram below suggests, some sort of philosophy of history survives, although it may fail to define which ‘history’ is at stake.


Postwar usage suggests that the philosophy of history (still without qualifying ‘history’) once enjoyed a higher reputation. This may be fully true and misleading at once. The evident rise of ‘philosophy of history’ – with the peak shortly before 1960 – rather points to the simultaneous demise of philosophizing about the course of events and the new legitimacy of philosophizing about historical writing. In fact, the latter endeavor institutionalized itself at the expense of the former. This was the point either implied or explicitly made by analytic philosophers like Maurice Mandelbaum, William Walsh or Arthur Danto, as they made their case respectively for the plausibility that ‘proper’ philosophical questions arise out of the practice of historical studies.

Analytic philosophy had a novel approach to history, which in turn contributed to the 1960 establishment of the leading journal of the field History and Theory. (See again the peak on the diagram). Yet to a certain extent, analytic philosophy launched a redundant argument against a philosophy of history understood as the course of events. In other terms, analytic philosophers only joined the cacophony of post-war voices condemning the idea that we can plausibly talk about something like historical process. Pointing out the impossibility – or, as per Karl Popper, also the dangerous character – of philosophy of history in the classical sense was not the deepest or most novel insight of the era; it was the norm.

The norm has constantly been challenged, yet this has hardly occurred in history or philosophy departments. This is changing now. Alain Badiou happily revives the idea of communism today in talking about The Rebirth of History, for instance, and History and Theory publishes much of Eelco Runia’s work in the realm of classical philosophy of history.

If you consider the rise of global and world history, the recent rediscovery of the longue durée, and growing profile of ‘big’ and ‘deep’ history, this will not come as a surprise. Is there anything longer term and more global, bigger or deeper than classical philosophies of history? Is there anything more theoretically challenging than the thought which itself practically devised our very concepts of human history?

Today, a revived philosophy history understood as the course of events may be inescapable. Runia poses many of the most inspiring questions in this register, I think, despite certain shortcomings and inconsistencies evident across the essays in his collection Moved by the Past. Hayden White, Martin Jay, Harry Harootunian, and Ethan Kleinberg were quick to seize upon these in a recent panel discussion devoted to Runia’s work at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at Berkeley:

The most often discussed aspect of Runia’s work would be the notion of “presence.” Alongside literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Runia poses presence as a balance between a meaning-oriented and a meaning-infused world. Taken to an extreme, the notion aspired to become an overarching concept organizing research across the humanities. Yet if making such claims only exploits a certain academic sensationalism, it cannot be denied that on a smaller scale—that is, within the philosophy of history—the notion of presence has reinvigorated fundamental debates.

Here I wish to discuss not ‘presence’ but what I think is the most important aspect of Runia’s work, namely, his ultimate concern to come up with a theory picturing a historical process which answers “the question of how, in an endless series of metamorphoses, we have transformed and continue to transform ourselves into who we are” (Moved by the Past, xv). In the panel discussion, only Kleinberg mentions that Runia is engaged in a project that is, in the final analysis, philosophy of history in the classical sense, even though Runia is very explicit about his intentions to develop a contemporary version of the old enterprise. In doing so, he sets history in motion and attributes a mechanism to the course of events just as classical philosophies of history do. Instead of talking about the development and unfolding of humanity towards a fulfillment, however, Runia’s version of the movement of history is driven by discontinuous change.

Runia turns to psychology in claiming that discontinuity is brought forward by an irrepressible, subliminal urge to commit horrendous deeds even if apparently at odds with our best interests. This explanation surely implies a deterministic notion of human nature (although anthropological optimists might simply call it pessimistic). Regardless of whether it is plausible to talk about something like a human nature, however, the question itself does not threaten the consistency of Runia’s theory. What instead challenges it is rather the cultural evolutionary vocabulary he eventually stretches over the mechanism of discontinuous change. When discussing a ‘higher level of adaptive ingenuity’ bringing about discontinuous change, Runia gives in to the substantive concerns of classical philosophies of history by postulating a subject (‘we’) that retains its self-identity amid all the changes in appearance (Moved by the Past, 198).

As it stands, I do not see any compelling way in which cultural evolutionary concerns would necessarily follow from a postulated discontinuity-driven mechanism of history. What I see are rather ways in which they fail to do so. A discontinuity that entails dissociation seems hardly reconcilable with the evolutionary ‘we’ built upon association, or the evolutionary ‘we’ whose stages of development we may track back to its origin. Thanks to this deeper continuity, it seems to me that Runia’s theory reiterates the notion of history born more than two centuries ago. As I discussed Hayden White’s notion of the practical past earlier, the problem with this notion is that being based on the assumption of a deep temporal continuity and of the continuity of human experience, it cannot make sense of our future visions which take the shape of unprecedented change defying the continuity of human experience. And insofar as a philosophy of history in the classical sense encompasses the past, the present and the future, an up-to-date philosophy of history –understood as the course of events—has to make sense of our up-to-date future visions.

In light of all this, surely there is a philosophy of history today. Yet so far it seems to entail the revival of something old, disregarding the criticism that was labelled against the entire enterprise in the postwar period. The more constructive question we should ask instead, I think, looks like this: Is a philosophy of history that takes postwar criticism seriously possible? Can we have a notion of history other than the one classical philosophies of history operate with? Can we have a notion of history that is able to make sense of our vision of the future?

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology. His research revolves around the interrelated efforts to devise a quasi-substantive philosophy of history to account for history understood as the course of events, and to frame a critical philosophy of history that reconciles the linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of history understood as historical writing.

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