Philosophical Analysis and Historical Understanding
Mink (Louis O.)
Source: Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Jun., 1968), pp. 667-698
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The lengthening shelf of books on the special problems of historical knowledge reminds us that few obiter dicta have worn quite as badly as Santayana's remark that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Though it epitomizes a recurrent mood of impatience with those who refuse to acknowledge our own favorite analogies between present problems and past disasters, yet it leaves one feeling uneasily committed to a set of underlying presuppositions which one would not care to make explicit. Is the historical process of itself really repetitive? How many great historical changes have been brought about – as in the Renaissance – by those who did know history and wished to repeat its classic forms? Or is it possible, as Santayana suggests, that knowledge of history brings release from otherwise ineluctable forces and their consequences? What in Santayana's time seemed a radical denial of the commonplace notion of inevitable progress now appears as the most conservative of nineteenth-century attitudes: the belief that historical reality is there, weaving and reweaving its tangled web, subject like the laws of nature to discovery and perhaps exploitation, but remaining a field of real entities and forces whether discovered or not. Santayana's dictum is of a piece with all those claims which begin, "History shows that. ..." But few historians or philosophers now have much sympathy even with the possibility of such claims. Were there significantly repetitive patterns of major events, historical knowledge would indeed make the present an elaborate form of deja vu. Yet historians above all are reluctant to claim that their subject is a manual of politics or of anything else. Call any current event "another Munich," and any historian worth his salt will list seventeen important respects in which that event does not, and even could not resemble Chamberlain's ill-starred agreement.
  2. Contemporary philosophy of history, therefore, often seems to those who riffle its pages to be coterie-philosophy with little at stake. When historians thought of themselves as making piecemeal but enduring contributions to Universalgeschichte, philosophy of history had the important function of discerning and describing the ground-plan of that edifice. Even those who never accepted Marxian philosophy of history or the visions of Spengler and Toynbee may be permitted a certain nostalgia for the days when the philosophy of history was playing for high stakes at the no limit table. By comparison with those substantive and even eschatological philosophies of history, the current critical philosophy of history seems in its preoccupation with methodology to be excessively academic, something directed toward graduate seminars rather than to thoughtful men.
  3. Yet this, I believe, is a misperception, even though an understandable one. It is often said that the social sciences in our time have abandoned substantive problems for methodological issues; and a cursory glance at the books noted above might seem to support a similar view of philosophy of history and historiography. But it may be that the substantive problems have submerged and resurfaced as methodological issues: even, as Bruce Mazlish has suggested, that the critical philosophy of history is now the form in which problems of social and political philosophy must be discussed. In varying degrees, the recent contributions to philosophy of history, although couched in the technical form of conceptual analysis, acknowledge or provoke one to reflect that much is still at stake: our beliefs about historical inevitability, about the limits and responsibility of individual action, about the unity of knowledge and the ontology of time; even, as we understand the limits of historical knowledge, our sense of common humanity with the living and with the dead. Yet the focus of all these concerns, in the books considered here as well as in most recent critical philosophy of history, has been a single problem: that of providing an adequate model or models of historical explanation.

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