Philosophical Foundations of Historical Knowledge

Philosophical Foundations of Historical Knowledge

Philosophical Foundations of Historical Knowledge

Philosophical Foundations of Historical Knowledge

Excerpt

The philosophy of history is not a new subject. In one form or another, it has occupied thinkers since antiquity. It continues to do so. There is today frequent publication in this field, and even journals that specialize in it. In one sense, this is not surprising. Philosophic issues are rarely settled permanently; how long have people been debating ethics or metaphysics or epistemology? But it would be a mistake to think that no progress has been made in the philosophy of history. Earlier works in this field were usually attempts at grand historical syntheses -- overviews of the rise and fall of civilizations or of how God's providence is illustrated by the course of human affairs or dirges sounding the knell of culture. However impressive these works were -- and one cannot read them today without being awed by the erudition and immense labor that produced them -- the attempt to create such vast synthetic works has now been pretty well abandoned. In more recent decades, the philosophy of history has come to center on more technical philosophic issues: How can we know the past? What is a historical explanation? What is the meaning of a historical sentence? Are historical accounts necessarily narratives? and so on. If studies of these issues lack the sweep and majesty of the earlier grand synthetic studies, nevertheless they represent a genuine gain in precision and clarity.

This latter sort of work in the philosophy of history has not been motivated solely by a fascination with the subject of history. Philosophers of various persuasions have often seen in history a proving ground for their philosophic theories. History is generally agreed to be a type of factual knowledge. But since history deals with things and events that no longer exist, it has not been easy to fit history into the mould of classical empiricism. Idealists have therefore seen in history an example of factual knowledge for which empiricist theories could not account, and empiricists have responded by trying to force historical knowledge to fit the model of physics. Neither attempt has been particularly successful. More recently, some philosophers have endorsed essentially literary claims, arguing that . . .

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