The twentieth century has witnessed mounting interest in the meaning of history on the part of scholars and laymen alike. This is not a wholly new development, for man has always been inclined to seek the meaning of his own past in order to shed light on the present. But the intense interest of present day man in historical interpretation has not always characterized either scholarship nor the popular mind. The catastrophic events of the first half of the present century have given to the quest for meaning in history a new significance and urgency reflected in the increasing number of formal studies of both historians and philosophers devoted to the problem of historical interpretation.
While a philosophy of history may have been implicit in their systems of thought, it did not receive in the writings of Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Locke, that explicit treatment which has characterized so many of the great philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, one may well conclude that nineteenth century philosophers showed a greater concern for the interpretation of history than did many of the more prominent historians who were seemingly content, under the influence of Ranke, to let “the facts speak for themselves.” It would thus seem that the current interest in the philosophical approach to the meaning of history has been inspired and nurtured by thinkers such as Hegel and Marx who claimed the field as their own.
Until quite recently the average graduate student in American universities received in the area of historical interpretation very little formal training which was truly philosophical in nature. Ranke’s influence was dominant to such an extent that few professors in graduate schools felt the necessity of, or had the preparation to cope with, philosophical issues in the interpretation of history. What little there was proved to be hardly more than a thinly disguised Marxianism or an “Americanized” version of materialism taking the form of the Frontier thesis of Frederic Jackson Turner or the economic interpretation of American political issues in the works of Charles A. Beard. On the whole American historiography was so concerned with the acquisition and verification of historical data that it had little time left for problems of interpretation. Few American historians were disposed to look beyond Turner, Beard, or Social Darwinism to metaphysics or theology for the meaning of history; and it must be admitted that relatively few of their graduate students would have been prepared for such an approach had it been offered them. As a result the cult of scientific history with its accompanying emphasis on letting the facts “speak for themselves” continued to dominate both the writing and teaching of history in this country until well into the present century.
THE IDEALIST VISION
But even during the nineteenth century a school of philosophy emerged to challenge the assumptions of Ranke and his followers and which teachers of history as a formal discipline could not ignore. Convinced of the possibility of a meaningful philosophy of history grounded on metaphysical presuppositions, German Idealists insisted that physical and historical phenomena must be interpreted in the light of the metaphysical. In a manner unknown to modern philosophy, they claimed history as their legitimate sphere of study. The initial inspiration for this development was to be found in the writings of Kant, but it came to its own in the Hegelian system, for no other philosopher of the modern era can rival Hegel in the blindness of his attempt to bring the whole of human history within the confines of his philosophy. In his History of Philosophy and his Philosophy of History, Hegel consciously sought to set forth the meaning of the whole stream of human events in terms of his dialectical logic.
The many legitimate criticisms which can be made of this attempt must not blind us to its importance in his own age and particularly for historiography for the ensuing 100 years. It not only caught up those aspirations of the Enlightenment but also offered for the first time a conception of the historical process which foreshadowed the evolutionary concepts of Darwin and the Social Darwinists. Within the framework of his idealism Hegel made philosophy the mode for the expression of the yearnings of humanity for perpetual progress and identification with deity. Thus philosophic evolution as an interpretation of history preceded its scientific counterpart in Darwinism as a vehicle for expressing man’s faith in himself and in his ability to realize his own destiny. Hegel gave a new impetus to the conviction that history not only has a meaning but a goal as well; that progress is not only possible but necessary to the historical process.
Lying at the heart of Hegel’s conception of history was the dialectical process, and it is this which distinguished his from all previous philosophical approaches. This process is immanent in the stream of events. The casual force in history is not something above or beyond it, but in the process itself. Necessarily the introduction of the dialectical approach so obliterated the distinction between God and man and God and history, that Hegel’s God is both captive to his logic and to his history as well. He is no longer transcendent to it but achieves His own self-consciousness by means of the ongoing of the historical process. Thus the ultimate meaning of history is not transcendent to the human order but is to be found within it. And because God is history and history is God, there is no goal beyond it to which it looks. Theoretically the only goal is nothing more or less than the infinite extension of the dialectic which also supplies the dynamic for history at the same time. History thus supplies its own meaning, but not in the sense that the facts speak for themselves; rather are they to be metaphysically interpreted.
THE MARXIST REVOLT
In genuine contrast to this Hegelian approach and yet developing from it is the Marxian approach. In the philosophy of Karl Marx the Hegelian dialectic is no longer the metaphysical clue to history for he asserted that the only reality is matter in motion. Yet in spite of this profound difference, there are at the same time remarkable similarities between the two systems of thought. For Marx as for Hegel, history has a discoverable and definite meaning and a goal which is realized in a dialectical manner. But Hegel’s insistence on self-conscious freedom as the ultimate end was rejected in favor of progress portrayed as material betterment and the emergence of the classless society of the proletariat. The Communist Utopia of Karl Marx is economic rather than intellectual and metaphysical.
For Marx as for Hegel, both the goal and the meaning of history are to be found within the confines of the process itself as it unfolds according to the dialectical pattern. But the pantheistic metaphysics of Hegel gave way to the dialectical materialism of Marx, and the Marxian rejection of God was but the logical outcome of Hegel’s reduction of Him to the human self-consciousness. If for Hegel God was simply the ongoing of the historical process, Marx could logically deny His very existence—since the former had already denied to Him a divine personality and an infinite sovereignty. Hegel’s flagrant modification of the biblical view of God must be regarded as the vestibule for the entrance of materialism, Marxian or otherwise. The historical process is self-sustaining, pantheistically for Hegel and materialistically for Marx.
The Marxian view, however, far more accurately reflected later eighteenth century thought than did the Hegelian view. Sharing with Idealism an optimism as to the course of events, it couched its evolutionary approach to history in terms of economic materialism rather than in terms of an abstract Idealism. Marx gave to the aspirations of the Enlightenment a new and seemingly more sure foundation in an evolutionary interpretation of natural law. There are those scholars who insist that Marx looked to the laws of physics for his naturalism while Herbert Spencer and his followers turned more consciously to Darwin’s evolutionary interpretation of natural law for their historical and social philosophies. I seriously question this generality, for I am convinced that Marx owed as much to Darwin as he did to the physicists of the day, and that he was conscious himself of the support which Darwin presumably had given to his own system.
If this view seems to place undue emphasis on Hegel and Marx as chief formulators of philosophies of history during the nineteenth century, it is not with the intention of denying that other strains help to make up the stream of historical thought. Historicism appeared in Wilhelm Dilthey and others, and there was also the beginning of the contemporary insistence that history is simply what the present—any present—declares it to be and what it thinks of its own past. But these strains were not dominant, and moreover before 1900 historiographers were generally agreed that a body of objective truth or data was available to historians and that its meaning could be ascertained. There was also a general acceptance of the principle that the historical process reflected a kind of progress from lower to higher levels of human achievement. The same evolutionary thinking with its optimism concerning man and his future which dominated the nineteenth century social, political, and economic thought also colored much of its historical scholarship. Few historians were disposed to question the assumption that history had an objective meaning, and fewer still dared to doubt that it spoke in behalf of progress.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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