Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY:
THE GOLDEN AGE OF HISTORY

Varieties of Historicism

BY the end of the eighteenth century, history had become more philosophical and philosophy had almost become historical. Condorcet declared that philosophy had outlived its usefulness and that all the important truths were to be found in the study of the past. If, as the German philosophers suggested, the record of past human experience was similar to the revelation of Reason or Divine Will, then the equivalence of philosophy and history was obvious. From another perspective, Edmund Burke, in his much-read attack on the French Revolution, found a safer foundation for political and social life in the past, in the continuity of a people as expressed in their rooted institutions, than in the abstract formulations of political theory. Burke's mistrust of “the fallible and feeble contrivances” of individual human reason led him to lean, like Hume, on the collective wisdom of the people as summed up in those practices and structures that had sprung from their long experience.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, thinkers on the political left and right alike tried to make the past not merely a source of examples and a road to wisdom but a revelation of the purposive force that controlled human destiny. If conservatives were Burkean, and if Hegel's vast scheme perhaps belonged in the center, socialists such as Louis Blanc also believed (before Karl Marx took up the notion) that “history follows a path traced for it by the hand of God” or of nature. Saint-Simon agreed, and from him Comte borrowed much of his positivist historicism. Saint-Simon wrote that “the supreme law of progress … carries along and dominates everything; men are its instruments.” Today we are inclined to be most suspicious of such schemes, which represent (in Karl Popper's unique use of the term) “historicism” or “metahistory“ or, as some have termed it, “historiosophy.” Such schemes

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