The Shape of the Past

The Shape of the Past

The Shape of the Past

The Shape of the Past

Synopsis

Can human history as a whole be interpreted in any meaningful way? Has there been real progress between stone age and space age? Does history repeat itself? Is there evidence of divine providence? Questions such as these have fascinated thinkers, and some of the greatest philosophers, notably Kant and Hegel, have turned their minds to philosophical history. As a branch of philosophy, however, it has received little attention in the analytical tradition. This pioneering work aims to bring the methods of analytical philosophy to the critical examination of some of these questions. In addition to the thought of Hegel and Kant, the discussion ranges over the writings of Augustine, Machiavelli, and Alasdair MacIntyre, providing a readable introduction to the philosophy of history.

Excerpt

Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the causal and incalculable elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms--social, spiritual and political--which we see so clearly? Are not these actualities indeed secondary or derived from that something? Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions? And if so, what are the limits to which reasoning from such premisses may be pushed? (Spengler, p. 3. Full details of works cited will be found in the Bibliography.)

So writes Oswald Spengler at the start of his monumental book The Decline of the West, and it is with these questions, or some of them, that this much shorter book is concerned.

Spengler thinks that the sort of interest in history that he proposes to take is novel, and to be contrasted with an interest in the 'elements of separate events'. We might be led to think by this that hitherto (i.e. before Spengler) all history was concerned with the mere recording of what actually happened. In fact the desire to have a knowledge of the past entirely for its own sake and without practical or theoretical aims is a relatively sophisticated, and for the most part relatively recent, intellectual endeavour. Historical writing from most periods is characterized by a less detached view of the past. Indeed, it is arguable that all cultures that lend importance to an awareness of their own past will . . .

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