The identity of Philosophy and History

The identity of Philosophy and History

October 8, 2018 0 By Felso

We are now able to suggest more fully the relation of history to philosophy.

Neither can exist without the other ; each presupposes the other. That is to say, they are interdependent and simultaneous activities, like thought and will. The question is whether, like thought and will, they are fully identical.

Each is knowledge ; and if they are different, they must be the knowledge of different objects. How can we distinguish these objects ? History, it is sometimes said, is knowledge of the particular, philosophy knowledge of the universal. But the particular is no mere particular; it is a particular of this or that universal ; and the universal never can exist at all except in the form of this or that particular. “The universal” and “the particular” considered as separate concrete things are fictions; and to equate the distinction of philosophy and history with such a fictitious distinction is to admit at once that it is untenable.

Nor can we distinguish them as the knowledge of the necessary and of the contingent respectively. This distinction is due to the fact that a theory explains some things but leaves others unexplained ; and this remnant, relatively to the theory, appears as “ the contingent. ” Contingent, therefore, is only a synonym for unexplained ; it cannot mean inexplicable, for if there is a sense in which anything is explicable, we cannot assume that anything is in this sense not explicable.

In the last resort necessary probably means no more than real: when we say that a thing is necessarily so, we mean that we understand it to be really so. And therefore whatever is real is necessarily real. In point of fact, it is possible that the distinction between necessity and contingence is only a restatement of that between the universal and the particular.

It would, again, be a repetition of the same idea if we tried to distinguish things that happen in time (history) from things that are true independently of time (philosophy). For there is one sense in which every truth is temporal ; as for instance the nature of God is historically revealed, and the fact that twice two is four is grasped by adding, on a definite occasion, two and two ; and there is another sense in which every fact is independent of time; as it is still true and always will be true that the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.

The difference between a temporal event and a timeless truth is a difference not between two different classes of thing, but between two aspects of the same thing. This attempt to distinguish philosophy and history suggests a dualism between two complete worlds ; the one unchanging, self-identical, and known by philosophy, the other subject to change and development, and known by history. But a world of mere self-identity would be as inconceivable as a world of mere change ; each quality is the reverse side of the other. To separate the two is to destroy each alike.

History, like philosophy, is the knowledge of the one real world ; it is historical, that is, subject to the limitation of time, because only that is known and done which has been known and done ; the future, not being mechanically determined, does not yet exist, and therefore is no part of the knowable universe. It is philosophical, that is, all-embracing, universal, for the same reason ; because historical fact is the only thing that exists and includes the whole universe.

History a parte ob- jecti—the reality which historical research seeks to know—is nothing else than the totality of existence ; and this is also the object of philosophy. History a parte subjecti—the activity of the historian—is investigation of all that has happened and is happening ; and this is philosophy too. For it is incorrect to say that philosophy is theory based upon fact ; theory is not something else derived, distilled, from facts but simply the observation that the facts are what they are. And similarly the philosophical presuppositions of history are not something different from the history itself: they are philosophical truths which the historian finds historically exemplified.

History and philosophy are therefore the same thing. It is true, no doubt, that each in turn may be interpreted abstractly; abstract history being the mere verbal description of events without any attempt at understanding them, philosophy the dry criticism of formal rules of thinking without any attempt at grasping their application.

Abstract history in this sense is a failure not because it is unphilosophical, but because it is unhistorical; it is not really history at all. And similarly abstract philosophy becomes meaningless, because in eliminating the historical element it has unawares  eliminated the philosophical element too. Each alike must also be the other or it cannot be itself ; each in being itself is also the other.