The phrase philosophy of history relates to the theoretical aspects of history rather than the practical study of history. There are two branches of philosophy in history: the critical or analytic philosophy of history and the speculative philosophy of history. In the critical philosophy of history, the main questions deal with the nature of evidence and whether objectivity is possible in analyzing it. The speculative philosophy of history looks at the significance of human history and if there is any significance in human history. It also looks at whether there is a potential end to human history; Karl Marx, among others, looked at this aspect. There is some overlap between the two areas, though they are mostly separate. The current trends among modern historians is toward the critical or analytic philosophy of history rather than the speculative philosophy of history, about which they are skeptical.
The critical or analytic branch of the philosophy of history looks into history as a subject that discovers and then seeks to understand the past. It is philosophical as it tries to understand and analyze the thinking behind the way historians go about their work. The questions it looks to answer include looking at which conditions must be met for something about the past to be taken as "the truth." Also, is there a specific way of describing the past in historic terms that distinguishes it from describing the past in a scientific way, and is narrative a satisfactory method to impart historical knowledge? It also tries to see whether historians rely on certain laws of human behavior in order to understand history, and if they do, then what are they, and are they even valid in order to come to conclusions. Philosophers of this school of history also look to see how historians' underlying personal views and perceptions affect the conclusions they draw and whether their interpretations can ever be objective, or will they always be subjective.
The speculative philosophy of history looks at various issues such as whether history is an unfolding story or whether it is a sequence of cycles. This school of philosophy ponders the situation that if history does have an ending, what would the ending be: Would it be the creation of a utopian society, a cataclysmic disaster or just something mundane? It also asks: Can history be divided into different distinct periods, for example, "the Dark Ages" or the "Industrial Revolution," what makes these periods special and what does this say about the course of history? Also, is the history of the world actually a history of the progress of humanity, and, therefore, in philosophy, what is the reason for this and what does this mean? Other questions and issues include: whether there are laws that govern the course of history and whether history is determined by forces outside human control or whether individuals can make changes. Probably, the final major issue is whether it is possible to learn from history, or is every situation so unique that it is impossible to relate the lessons learned from one situation to another.
One of the main philosophical debates of history is: What exactly is history? Its etymological roots are from Greek words meaning inquiry and to know. One philosophical question is whether history is just the study of the past, or is it something more, and what would this more be? Is the study of the past just related to the study of the human past, or does the natural past also have to be studied and taken into account to get a fuller picture? Also, is it possible to get a full picture of the past? A famous quote says, "history is written by the victors." If this statement is true, then how can you begin to piece together the story of the losing civilization? The philosophy of history has many complex questions, and the conclusions have an important impact on history's conclusions.