Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Past is Never Really Gone and Done With: A Case for The Pragmatist Philosophy of History

A few of us in the department were chatting about nuclear energy the other day. I found myself pondering the following quandary: if we were to guess how often our conversations turn to the past, in some form, what would the percentage be, on average? Certainly, talking about nuclear energy requires considering, for instance, how it has functioned up until today, or comparing case studies of Chernobyl versus Fukushima—it requires, at least in part, historical study.

“History is philosophy teaching by example”—this has been repeated by many. As Collingwood described it so succinctly: “all history is the history of thought” and “philosophy is thought about thought.” It is important to also make a distinction with historiography, or the methods and results of historical study. “History” is a very complicated term, because history itself and historical writing are indeed two different concepts. But broadly, we could say that history is the events of the past; it is past time. “Historiography” is about the interpretations we then create of those events of the past; of the time that has passed—this is the written result of historical record.

The “past” is full of historical facts, the next step is for historians to both describe them and to try make sense of them—but how can the historian be certain that first the descriptions truly match the past events selected for recording? How close in time should the historian be, in regard to epistemic questions of accuracy, to the event being recorded? Hume argued that the further away in time, the less accurate; however, sometimes temporal distance can increase the possibility of some objectivity. Nonetheless, few would disagree that the general notion of complete objectivity seems impossible in historical record.

Certainly, a history book written today about Ancient Greece would be quite different than one written in the Middle Ages, for many reasons. For one, a historian is always writing with his or her “present day lens”—we must try to consider the text in and of itself while trying to see through those same lenses. Indeed, sometimes a historical text says quite a bit about the time it is being written in along withthe contents in and of themselves.

What can we really make of the historical evidence in the past? Not everything from the past survives for analysis. What is available and then selected may be value-laden. We can only know some of what happened in the past, and we cannot be absolutely certain about why or how much of it we have really gathered for record. We must ask whether historical record represents only particular instances of events, or if universals can be discovered. There are indeed fallacies committed by historians and in historical record to overcome. The language we use in historical writing can instantly categorize and conceptualize—much could be said about the term “revolution.” It helps clarify some epistemic dilemmas by placing historians into schools, such as “Cultural Historians.” This is not to mention, however, that language itself is in part historical (i.e., “I’ll Google it”). These are only a few key philosophical quandaries about history and historiography.

One area of the philosophy of history gaining prominence represents an effective approach to many of these challenges: a Pragmatist Philosophy of History and Historiography. For a historical text to be meaningful, and for it to circulate and continue to circulate, it must have utilityamong the writer and wider audience. Lack of utility results in the book collecting dust on the shelf. Certain historical events are simply unnecessary to record; what is recorded is what the historian believes is practically usefulto record, what the historian assumes the public who reads his or her book will consider useful to record, and what the public indeed does believe isuseful. Few may read Aristotle’s history of elephants (interestingly, he wrote this yet considered historical study of little importance). If we are to peruse the list of top-selling history books, we should alsoconsider what it is abouttodaythat makes those books interesting for the historian to research and write, and to the larger public. Part of the reason for this may simply be the writing style of the historian him or herself, but it can also tell us about our own time; in thisperhaps we can epistemically capture something of a metaphysical historical essence to record for the future. There is a hierarchy of utility at any moment in time of historical texts. From a pragmatist perspective, the past is never reallygone and done with; it is ongoing and helps us understand the present and the future. There is no end of inquiry to history and historiography, as what is yielded are “warranted assertions,” to use Dewey’s term, of possible historical “truths.”

Goethe wrote: “Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.” We are truly nothing without our histories; we are historical beings. Everything is, at least in part, a historical process, all connected in a continuum of time. The Young Hegelians could not have existed without Hegel. We cannot fullyunderstand anything outside of its historical context, and an effective way to philosophize about this is with a pragmatist lens. We cannot stop time; the present becomes the past almost as quickly as we say it. We are beings always embedded in a historical moment; or, Kuhn’s notion might be useful here, in a paradigm of historical knowledge and existence. We must ask: what has practical utility to be selected for evidence, record, interpretation, and readership?

Returning to my initial quandary: what might that percentage be? It is probably higher than one might expect, because despite also being forward-looking beings, it is often in retrospect as to what is useful that we can learn about the past to apply to the future.

Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State 


  1. thank you, Marnie. I confess I’m unfamiliar with philosophy of history, and in reading your post I was trying to bring it home by seeking connections with the things I’m more familiar with. So this comment is merely an attempt to draw one such connection.
    The way you present how the pragmatist history of philosophy works makes me think of what Sally Haslanger calls "ameliorative projects", which is a type of analysis of concepts. It proceeds as follows: imagine we are doing such an analysis of a concept C, first we establish what is the purpose of having concept C, that is, we wonder what is the function or job we want concept C to fulfill. After that, we take the ordinary concept C and determine whether this ordinary concept fulfills that function, and if not, we revise it in a way that it does. The ameliorative analysis of concepts then starts by asking pragmatic questions. It contrasts with analytic or also called conceptual analyses, which try to figure out what is the concept people have in mind when they think they are using concept C, and a descriptive analysis, which tries to find out what are the properties in the world that concept C is picking up.
    One common criticism against ameliorative projects is that they “spoil” the analysis by likekly introducing political aspects. When establishing the function we want our concept to play, we are “tainting” the analysis with the different purposes and values we bring to the table. Some even say that ameliorative projects do not offer an account of the concept they say they are offering, but are rather changing the topic and telling us about some other concept. My guess is that a pragmatists philosophy of history receives similar criticisms, is that so?

    1. Thank you for your comments Saray. I confess I am unfamiliar with ameliorative projects and appreciate learning more about this. If I am understanding this correctly then yes, I think the same sort of criticism would apply because of the general trap of relativism that pragmatism falls into (although I am currently trying to work on a way around this). At the same time, however, perhaps a pragmatist perspective is also a way to remind us that this very process you mention could be happening as we contemplate the past or historical texts, and what contributed to our understandings and valuation of utility. In other words, I think we can understand this in both directions; one, that it reduces possibility for historical knowledge, but perhaps aids us in understanding the bit of historical data we do have, more accurately. An example that comes to mind is one that Dewey raises in Experience and Nature of the norsemen – who knows, perhaps they landed on the shores of America first, but since no new “meaning” (which we can interpret politically, geographically, etc.) was created as a result because there was no utility for it to be recorded, history books thus attribute this to Columbus. Or, as another example that comes to mind to perhaps tie this more to political-laden language, this relates to the history of opera. When it first appeared in the late sixteenth century, it was tied mostly to the aristocracy. By the mid-seventeenth century, it had a much wider audience; it started to appeal to the masses, which of course changed the operas themselves. More farce and stock comical characters were introduced into the storyline, for instance. A historical text say on the history of opera in the late seventeenth century would reflect that greater utility, and I think the language would also reflect the wider audience base—perhaps it would be more mundane, less technical, as opposed to today in which we seem to have returned to a smaller audience when it comes to operas. What do you think?

  2. Thanks, Marnie, for this interesting post. Two questions and a comment come to mind.

    First, a comment. Based on the distinction between history and historiography, a pragmatist philosophy of history, as you’ve described it, maybe more accurately should be called a “pragmatist philosophy of historiography.”

    My first question is, what do you think the relationship between history and historiography should be? Given that history is such a complicated concept, this may be asking too much. A common sense view may be formulated in this way:

    1. Historiography refers to an interpretation (I) of events X.
    2. History refers to events Y.
    3. X should be as close as possible to Y.

    This common sense view may be na├»ve about our ability to know Y and compare it to X. No one in our postmodern or post-postmodern world would say that I = Y; we know better now. But some may still want to say that X should approximate Y, otherwise we’re not talking about history anymore.

    Second, the pragmatist view seems problematic to me (maybe for the reasons suggested in Saray's comment). What justifies this approach? For the common sense view, one virtue of history is accuracy, but, for the pragmatist, the virtue of historiography is meaningfulness defined in this way. It involves a principle of utility not in a normative sense, but in a descriptive sense: what happened to be useful for the writer or what happened to be useful for the audience. I’m thinking here of events involving European settlers and indigenous peoples in the Americas. The events recorded by European settlers and later promoted by their descendants as “American history” may have been meaningful under the pragmatist view. And they certainly say a lot about these groups. But why prefer this approach over others? Why are these interpretations a “meaningful” account of historical events and not just “propaganda” or at best “stories”? What differentiates possible historical truths from fictional stories? The criterion, what was useful for the writer or audience, doesn’t seem enough.

    Maybe I’m being too much of an ethicist here and the philosopher of history is engaged in a totally different project (maybe a descriptive project about different groups rather than about events).

  3. Thank you, Chong, for your comments. I appreciate these critiques. Certainly, I would have liked to write a lot more than 1,000 words on this topic because indeed I was summarizing in a way in which I can see might sound over-simplified.
    Let me first respond that I think a pragmatist of philosophy of historiography is something that might be more beneficial for historians, and on the side of philosophy, perhaps for epistemologists. A pragmatist philosophy of history, I think, is more about metaphysics.
    I am indeed using the notion of “utility” very broadly here in this short piece. Let me provide a few examples of some of the more specific ways in which I understand this “utility.”
    Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire written between 1776 and 1789 was focused on the dangers of zealous religious fervor, interpreting the empire’s downfall primarily to this, which reflected the increased secularism of his time. That same story could be told differently of course in another epoch. In other words, it was useful for Gibbons to write this story with this focus because of the time he was writing it in. This is why I think that sometimes perhaps we should think more about what a history book such as this one tells us, in this case, about the 18th century rather than just the contents of that text itself of the long period of the Roman Empire. I think we can find both epistemological (perhaps we should look at the historical knowledge we have tried to accumulate in this way as well) and metaphysical (we are historical beings) bits in this… In this example we see James’s central quandary at work: what practical different would it make for this or that historical fact to be taken as true?
    Perhaps one of the most telling examples of this, in my opinion, is Bayle’s Dictionary from 1750. This was very controversial when it appeared primarily because of opinions included that were taken to be very offensive by much of the Christian population of the time. Books had been generally published via a patronage, such as an ecclesiastical one, and now, that same utility is not seen in this text of Bayle’s. But what happened next is very interesting—this brought the end to this kind of publishing system and enough people did appreciate this new dictionary that a new system was developed: that of subscribers, which is what enabled it to stay in circulation. Of course, this isn’t exactly a history book, but there is content about history in it.

    1. Finally, as one last example for now from Sr. Ortega y Gasset, he wrote:
      “When I was a child I was a Christian; now I am no longer. Does this mean, strictly speaking, that I do not go on being a Christian? The Christian I was, is he dead, annihilated? Of course not; of course I am still a Christian, but in the form of having been a Christian. Had I not known the experience of being a Christian, did I not have it behind me and go on being a Christian in this form of having been one, it is possible that, faced with the difficulties of life today, I might now resolve to be a Christian. And what has happened to me in this matter is happening to many Europeans, who were Christians either on their own account or vicariously, from the recollection of their forefathers” (History as a System, 208).
      He could make this proclamation more easily of course given he lived from the late 19th to the mid-20th century—we know how difficult it would be for someone to make this declaration in the Middle Ages. So, he can understand himself as this timeline of history, which is not just of his own life, but also in terms of the larger historical context in which he is living that provides or does not provide certain circumstances. We are historical beings.
      I think that the pragmatist perspective reminds us of the limitations of studying and interpreting history, but it also helps us at the same time try to see that content we do collect with at least some greater accuracy.
      Maybe I am taking your form in the wrong direction – what do you think (and sorry for the term “largely” but I do not want to say completely):
      1. Historiography refers to an interpretation (I) of events X.
      2. I is largely dependent upon pragmatic utility
      3. History refers to the events Y
      4. X is largely a pragmatic interpretation of Y.
      Finally, I would like to add that, at the very least, I think a pragmatist perspective on history and historiography is simply another methodology we can add in our toolkit for historical study to broaden our analyses—as James proclaimed, “Theories can become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest” (Pragmatism, 21). I know this can sound like an easy way out, but I do not think of it in that way, I just think of it as progress.