Philosophy of history  

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"History is written by the winners"

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For the work by Hegel, see Lectures on the Philosophy of History

Philosophy of history or historiosophy is an area of philosophy concerning the eventual significance, if any, of human history. Furthermore, it speculates as to a possible teleological end to its development—that is, it asks if there is a design, purpose, directive principle, or finality in the processes of human history.

Philosophy of history asks at least three basic questions:

  • Are there any broad patterns that we can discern through the study of the human past? Are there, for example, patterns of progress? Or cycles? Or are there no patterns or cycles, and is human history therefore random and devoid of any meaning?
  • If history can indeed be said to progress, what is its ultimate direction? Is it a positive or negative direction? And what (if any) is the driving force of that progress?

Philosophy of history should not be confused with historiography, which is the study of history as an academic discipline, and thus concerns its methods and practices, and its development as a discipline over time. Nor should philosophy of history be confused with the history of philosophy, which is the study of the development of philosophical ideas through time.

History as propaganda: Is history always written by the victors?

In his "Society Must be Defended", Michel Foucault posited that the victors of a social struggle use their political dominance to suppress a defeated adversary's version of historical events in favor of their own propaganda, which may go so far as historical revisionism (see Michel Foucault's analysis of historical and political discourse above). Nations adopting such an approach would likely fashion a "universal" theory of history to support their aims, with a teleological and deterministic philosophy of history used to justify the inevitableness and rightness of their victories (see The Enlightenment's ideal of progress above). Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has written of the use of this approach by totalitarian and Nazi regimes, with such regimes "exercis[ing] a virtual violence upon the diverging tendencies of history" (History and Truth 183), and with fanaticism the result. For Ricoeur, rather than a unified, teleological philosophy of history, "We carry on several histories simultaneously, in times whose periods, crises, and pauses do not coincide. We enchain, abandon, and resume several histories, much as a chess player who plays several games at once, renewing now this one, now the another" (History and Truth 186). For Ricoeur, Marx's unified view of history may be suspect, but is nevertheless seen as:

the philosophy of history par excellence: not only does it provide a formula for the dialectics of social forces—under the name of historical materialism—but it also sees in the proletarian class the reality, which is at once universal and concrete and which, although it be oppressed today, will constitute the unity of history in the future. From this standpoint, the proletarian perspective furnishes both a theoretical meaning of history and a practical goal for history, a principle of explication and a line of action. (History and Truth 183)

Walter Benjamin believed that Marxist historians must take a radically different view point from the bourgeois and idealist points of view, in an attempt to create a sort of history from below, which would be able to conceive an alternative conception of history, not based, as in classical historical studies, on the philosophical and juridical discourse of sovereignty--an approach that would invariably adhere to major states (the victors') points of view.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fictional account of the manipulation of the historical record for nationalist aims and manipulation of power. In the book, he wrote, "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." The creation of a "national story" by way of management of the historical record is at the heart of the debate about history as propaganda. To some degree, all nations are active in the promotion of such "national stories," with ethnicity, nationalism, gender, power, heroic figures, class considerations and important national events and trends all clashing and competing within the narrative.

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