Dualism of History and PhilosophyOctober 7, 2018
The other argument against the use of history in theology asserts that there are two categories of fact, historical and philosophical; and that since they are totally distinct, theological propositions, which are essentially philosophical in character, cannot be proved or disproved or in the least affected by historical arguments; just as discussions about the authorship of a poem do not in the least affect its beauty.
This argument is plainly right if it merely means that you cannot as if by magic extract a philosophical conclusion from non-philosophical premisses. If you understand history as something entirely excluding philosophical elements, then any philosophical conclusion which you “ prove ” by its means will be dishonestly gained.
But in this sense the statement is no more than the tautology that you cannot extract from an argument more than its premisses contain ; it does not help us to recognise a purely historical or philosophical argument when we meet one, or even convince us that such things exist.
It may, secondly, be interpreted to mean that when we cite instances in support of philosophical views the philosophical conclusion depends not on the historical fact but on the “ construction, ” as it is called, which we put upon the fact. We look at the fact in the light of an idea ; and the philosophical theory which we describe as proved by the fact is due not to the fact but to the idea we have read into it. Here again there is a certain truth.
When A finds his pet theory of human selfishness borne out by C’s action, and B uses the same action as an illustration of his own theory of human altruism, it seems natural to say that each starts from the same fact but with different preconceived ideas : and that the fact is really equally irrelevant to both the theories which it is used to prove. But this account of the matter is quite inaccurate. A’s “ idea ” is that C’s act was a selfish act ; B’s “ idea ” was that it was altruistic. But of these ideas neither was a mere “ idea ” ; one was a historical fact and the other a historical error.
Thus the distinction between the fact and the construction put upon it is false ; what we call the construction is only our attempt to determine further details about the fact. And since the question whether C was acting selfishly or not is a question of historical fact, the doctrine that people act in general selfishly or altruistically is based entirely on historical fact, or on something erroneously imagined to be historical fact. The attempt to dissociate philosophy and history breaks down because, in point of fact, we never do so dissociate them.
One simply cannot make general statements without any thought of their instances.