This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

23rd February 2012


If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

Darren Staloff

On my other blog I have several times mentioned Darren Staloff’s Teaching Company lectures on the philosophy of history, The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophy, Theories and Interpretations. I enjoyed these lectures a lot. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that when I discovered that the Teaching Company had discontinued them, I bought a used backup copy so that I would be able to continue to listen to this on a regular basis.

Despite my enjoyment of the lectures, I have been bothered by what I consider to be significant ellipses. Of course, professor Staloff doesn’t make claims about the comprehensiveness or completeness of his presentation. No series of lectures can cover everything. Nevertheless, the ellipses of Staloff’s approach to the philosophy of history suggested an interesting exercise to me: design a course of lectures on the philosophy of history that was similarly comprehensive, but without discussing those philosophers discussed by Staloff, while discussing only those philosophers of history passed over by Staloff.

A course of lectures based on such a premise would, of course, probably involve more yawning ellipses than the lectures to which it is constructed as kind of an intellectual reaction or reflex. One could hardly give an adequate presentation of the philosophy of history while skipping Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Yet it remains an interesting idea. Moreover, Staloff takes the opposition between idealism and naturalism as the leitmotif of his lectures, which strikes me as a bit strained at times, and another course of lectures could adopt an entirely different motif as the touchstone of exposition.

Here are the titles of Staloff’s lectures:

Lecture 1: Issues and Problems

Lecture 2: Mircea Eliade's Cosmos and History and Cyclical Time

Lecture 3: The Early Enlightenment and the Search for the Laws of History—Vico's New Science of History

Lecture 4: The High Enlightenment's Cult of Progress: Kant's Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

Lecture 5: Hegel's Philosophy of History

Lecture 6: Marx's Historical Materialism

Lecture 7: Nietzsche's Critique of Historical Consciousness—On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life

Lecture 8: Weber's Historical Sociology

Lecture 9: Taking the Long View—Arnold Toynbee and World Historical Speculation 

Lecture 10: Twentieth-Century Neo-Idealism—R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History

Lecture 11: The Positivist Conception of Historical Knowledge—Carl Hempel's The Function of General Laws in History

Lecture 12: Analytic Musings—Arthur Danto's Narration and Knowledge 

Lecture 13: Social History, Structuralism, and the Long Duree—Fernand Braudel's On History

Lecture 14: Post-Structuralism and the Linguistic Turn—Hayden White's Introduction to Metahistory

Lecture 15: Naturalism Revisited—William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples

Lecture 16: The Heterogeneity of Historical Understanding

Here is an outline of what I would do to present a countervailing set of lectures on the philosophy of history, in the same number of lectures as employed by Staloff:

1) Introduction: the nature of the philosophy of history; like the study of religion, which does not seek to teach religion but to teach about religion, so too with the philosophy of history, which does not seek to teach history but to teach about history; the lessons of history and the philosophical lessons of history.

2) Philosophy of history (or, rather, its absence) in classical Greek philosophy (by which is meant Plato and Aristotle); Greek historiography and historical thought; the implicit philosophies of history present in the Greek Historians; Herodotus; Thucydides, Polybius.

3) St. Augustine; Augustine’s City of God as the first full-dress philosophy of history in the Western tradition; intimations of Divine providence in early Greek philosophy; Christian cosmogony and cosmology; how Augustine’s thought shaped the medieval world.

4) Medieval historiography and historical thought; influences from the Islamic world; the continuity of medieval history with modern history; how the medieval world shaped modern thought; intimations of modernity in Philippe de Comines.

5) The shift from the medieval to the modern world view; the renaissance in Italy; Machiavelli as a philosopher of history;The Prince; The Discourses on Livy.

6) The Reformation, or Europe’s Agony: how Europe tore itself apart over soteriology and eschatology; the ongoing legacy of medieval Christendom; philosophies of history in the Religious Wars and the origin of the modern nation-state (and the nation-state system). 

7) Extremism in the philosophy of history is no vice: Hobbes; Filmer’s Patriarchia; theoreticians of state power and the Divine right of kings. Royal government as a microcosm of Divinely ordained cosmology; the mirror of heaven on earth.

8) Hume and the Enlightenment; a philosopher’s history and an historian’s philosophy; doing away with miracles; a thoroughgoing naturalism in history (breaking with the Augustinian tradition of Divine providence); philosophy of history as a thought experiment (the Augustinian tradition of non-naturalism is reasserted); state-of-nature thought experiments and artificial histories: Locke, Pufendorf, Rousseau.

9) The idea of progress dawns; Herder; the idea of progress at the flood tide: Whiggish history.

10) The critique of progress; Karl Löwith and the idea of secularization; the secularization debate; descriptive or prescriptive; The Secular City; a response to the critique of progress; Hans Blumenberg on The Legitimacy of the Modern Age; Blumenberg’s Copernicanism; the ongoing Enlightenment project; Habermas.

11) Karl Jaspers on The Origin and Goal of History; universal philosophical history; the idea of an Axial Age; Jaspers on “The Bomb”; philosophers grapple with a secularized, man-made apocalypse.

12) Hannah Arendt on “The Bomb” and the Holocaust; how the Second World War changed the way philosophers thought about history; the banality of evil: a new form of historical naturalism; the traumatic twentieth century; Arendt and Jaspers in their correspondence.

13) A new ahistorical philosophy emerges: phenomenology; Husserl and time; time and history; phenomenologists tackle the problem of history.

14) New voices from outside the Western tradition demand a hearing; Franz Fanon; popular revolt and discontent with the “canon”; 1968; Sartre on colonialism; structuralism; post-colonialism; post-structuralism; the “Culture Wars” in the US.

15) Foucault’s geneologies; a “new” way of doing history; the history of madness; the history of the clinic; the history of prisons; the history of sexuality; Foucault’s ongoing influence.

16) The expanding Western tradition: from the preconceptions and preoccupations of Augustine to the diversity and heterogeneity of historical thought today; relearning the philosophical lessons of history; philosophies of the future and future philosophies of history; the horizon of history.

One more thing: I noted above that Staloff takes the contrast between idealism and naturalism as the theme of his lectures; I would structure my lectures around the idea that historical thought has gradually shifted from being past-focused to being present-focused, and ultimately has come to be future-focused. This has profound implications for human self-understanding and our conception of our place in history.

So there you have it — my course of sixteen lectures on the philosophy of history, as constrained by avoiding discussion of the thinkers who figure in Darren Staloff’s sixteen lectures on the philosophy of history. What did I miss that Staloff also missed?

Tagged: Darren Staloffphilosophy of historyhistorysecularizationlecturesThe Teaching CompanyThe Search for a Meaningful Past