Philosophy of History: Change, Stability and the Tragic Human Condition

By Melleuish, Gregory; Rizzo, Susanna | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Philosophy of History: Change, Stability and the Tragic Human Condition


Melleuish, Gregory, Rizzo, Susanna, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


Philosophy of history is, in many ways, a curious enterprise. At its most basic level the craft of history is supremely empirical in nature, as its practitioners sift through the available evidence and piece together a plausible explanation of what occurred in the past. Whatever the more theoretical might think of such activity it is crucial if one is to have something resembling accurate history. The astonishing thing is that it is extremely difficult to reconstruct an accurate narrative of the events of the Middle East in the first half of the seventh century, amongst the most significant fifty years in human history. (1)

The question regarding the place philosophy of history, or historicism, (2) has as a mode of historical understanding comes down to the issue of the role and purpose which it has as part of the wider historical enterprise. The origin of it as a paradigm for understanding history can be traced in the eschatological-soteriological-messianic expectations of post-exilic Judaism which prompted the trend to identify allusions to future developments in the chronicles of the past. Judaeo-Christianity, strongly influenced by Hellenistic thought and practices, (3) inherited such tendency and developed a particular understanding of the notion of Providence, already present among contemporary proponents of Stoicism, (4) its role in the world and the limits of human free will. The fourth century works of Eusebius of Cesarea and of Augustine of Hippo epitomize the culmination of such development as they explain the relationship between God and the temporal world through the mystery of the Incarnation. Ever since, the quest of grasping the universal laws which lie beyond and govern the histoire evenementielle has characterised attitudes towards, and the interpretation of, the past in the West. (5) The Western mind is, thus, essentially time-oriented as its understanding of the realm of experience is essentially cast within the framework of becoming and of the phenomenal as it wrestles to move beyond them to grasp the eternal, infinite and immobile realm of Being. From the time of the early search for the arche of things of the Pre-Socratic philosophers to the debate concerning the Universalia of Medieval thinkers to contemporary theories regarding the origins of the Universe (6), the Western mind has constantly struggled to overcome the 'imperium of Chronos' and the limits of language. It is for this reason that the West has fallen ultimately victim to an inevitable 'metaphysics of presence'. (7)

This particular understanding of the past, although inherently optimistic, since its main objective is to predict the course of historical evolution in a favourable light, has contributed to engendering a sense of arrogant superiority and entitlement, or has been used as a means to justify the ever-increasing dominance of the West over the peoples of the earth. History has often been seen to be on the side of Western values as the course of history seemed to indicate that it favoured the victory of those values over all others. (8) Such a view was helped by the fact that the history of the West, be it Europe, America or other Western outgrowths, was far better documented, written about and hence known than the history of the Rest. Both history and philosophy of history were, and still are, quintessentially Western enterprises.

This paper will argue that the days when Western superiority was taken for granted are long gone and that with them has gone a philosophy of history which has as its major objective the creation of a meta-narrative explaining why the history of humanity moved relentlessly towards Western dominance. When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history over twenty five years ago what he can be seen as proclaiming was the end of philosophical history understood as the history of the West. (9) It was equally an expression of the fundamentally eschatological nature of history as practised in the West, as the latter had reached 'the end of Time. …

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