You are here

IX: The Nature of History (B)

IX: The Nature of History (B)
History and Human Existence. Dilthey Croce and Jaspers. R. G. Collingwood.

Our subject ‘History and Human Existence’ was already treated in the preceding lecture; our present lecture does not simply continue what we have said but begins anew. The intention is to proceed to our goal from different starting-points. Here we will consider the thought of some recent philosophers.

(1) It is impossible to treat completely the German authors who engaged in philosophy of history as for instance Georg Simmel Ernst Troeltsch Friedrich Meinecke.1 In Germany the question of history was handled with special energy by Wilhelm Dilthey. Like other philosophers of his time Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert for instance he endeavoured to distinguish between historical science and natural science. This is made especially clear by his distinction between explanatory—and understanding-psychology. Whereas explanatory-psychology conceived the psychical life as pure causal sequences understanding-psychology endeavours to understand psychical life by analysing the meaningful structure of psychical experiences. Psychical life expresses and objectivises itself in productions in works which are each a closed whole of meaning. Human life is not subject to neutral consideration as pure object as are natural phenomena but has its own vitality the manifestations of which are in themselves full of aim and meaning. History therefore is the field in which these manifestations take shape in the works of culture in social and political orders as well as in philosophy religion world-views (‘Weltanschauung’) and in art and poetry. Every work is a manifestation of psychical life. What we experience and remember as the fruit of our experiences expresses itself and forms itself into the meaningful unity of a work.
Historical science therefore is the interpretation of such works. It has the task of understanding the objectifications of life by reducing them so to speak to the ground from which they grew namely to the ground of the creative life of the soul which reveals itself only in its objectifications. Such understanding is possible as we have tried to show in the preceding lecture because the interpreter shares in general human nature. The distance between the interpreted object and the interpreting subject vanishes for they are both united by virtue of the soul which lives in both of them. Objectifications of soul can be understood by living souls.
Of course there are different types of psychical experience and therefore different types of philosophies religions and world-views. But they are all expressions or manifestations of psychical life of the living soul. The historian therefore is not interested in raising the question of truth but has only to ask for revelation of soul. As Dilthey says: ‘We are seeking the soul. That is the end at which we have arrived after the long development of historiography.’
Certainly there may be something like evolution in history but not in the sense of an advancing improvement. There is evolution in so far as human life is temporal life subjected to time. No one shaping of life is ultimately conclusive. Therefore no other definition of man's being can be made except that man is a living soul. His life is historical life; that means: the soul lives in constantly creating new works as manifestations of itself.
It is clear that this conception of history does not have any eschatology. Perhaps it may be said that eschatological perfection is so to speak distributed among the several moments of the psychical experiences from which each work originates and that these moments recur in the understanding soul. That may be called eschatology transformed into aestheticism. It seems to me indeed that Dilthey looks at history principally from an aesthetic standpoint as at a spectacle which the historian enjoys in perceiving all the different possibilities of the human being as his own.
This conception of history avoids relativism and nihilism only in that Dilthey sees the ground and origin of all relativities in the life of the soul which reveals itself mysteriously in its manifestations. But whoever asks for truth is left in embarrassment and this gives rise to the criticism of Dilthey by Collingwood. But to prepare ourselves for Collingwood we will have a look at Croce and Jaspers.
(2) Benedetto Croce starts from the problem of Historicism.2 Historicism he says is the conviction that life and reality are history and nothing but history. He overcomes the relativism of historicism by radicalising it. The relativity of historical phenomena gains in his thought a positive meaning for he understands history as the process of the developing mind. ‘To interpret and value a single work among other works means at the same time to conceive this work within the unity of the process which is composed by them all. It is therefore connected with the whole and stands in definite relations to the other works which precede and follow it.’ The consequence of this is the paradoxical statement that historical truth and therefore the whole of truth lies in the knowledge of the single individual.
That sounds like Hegel. Indeed Croce is following Hegel but he modifies his conception in a decisive manner. For Croce as for Hegel history is as history of mind history of freedom. History is a continuous creation of life a ‘continuous growing of mind beyond itself in such a manner that nothing created disappears and nothing remains standing firm but there is a continuous growth’. But this is not what Hegel believes. For Hegel understands the historical process as a process embracing the origin of history its growth to maturity and its ultimate fixation in its last stage. He therefore understands the historical process as progress. According to Croce there is no progress in the sense of Hegel. On the contrary the paradox is valid that humanity persists as the same through all changes. ‘Humanity is a whole within each epoch and in each human individual.’ The whole of humanity ‘exists only in its actions but the actions are not actions in general but definite historical tasks or problems. Humanity becomes completed in performing those tasks; and in ever again meeting new tasks it completes itself over and over again as a whole.’ Croce makes no claim to understand the past from the presupposed end of history but remains within history. Every present moment however related to the whole historical process is full of meaning for the meaning of the whole process is concentrated in the now in the present moment.
Croce is therefore not interested in knowing history in its completeness; for historical truth lies in the individual phenomenon in which over and over again the whole is present. But in another sense historical process is a progress in so far as every present moment has to take up the heritage of its past in developing the problems and solving the tasks which grow out of that past. And every present hour is responsible for its future. In this progress the historian himself has his place for it is his task to know the meaning of every individual phenomenon within the nexus of the whole and to renew and revive the problems out of which it grew by a kind of Platonic ‘anamnesis’ (remembering). History is the history of mind. Therefore historical knowledge is at the same time self-knowledge and knowledge of mind. All knowledge of truth is ultimately historical knowledge. Therefore historical science and philosophy coincide.
It is clear that according to Croce there is no eschatology—neither religious nor secularised eschatology. Paradoxically it may be said that Croce identifies history and eschatology because he ascribes to every present moment in the historical process the fullness of the whole of history.
When we compare Dilthey and Croce we can state that both of them draw the consequence of historicism namely that the historian himself stands within history and partakes of it. He cannot take a stand outside history at an ‘Archimedean point’. Both of them agree in the conviction that it is senseless to ask for knowledge of universal world-history in its entirety as though from such knowledge the meaning in history could be discovered. For such an enterprise a stand-point outside of history would be the presupposition. Both of them avoid relativism and nihilism; Dilthey by his belief in the life of the soul which becomes manifest in all historical phenomena; Croce by his belief in the mind which according to him is essentially reason. To this difference their difference in understanding history corresponds. For Dilthey the understanding of history is an event of experience for Croce an act of knowledge. Certainly for both of them to understand history means to revive the past in the present but in a totally different way; for Dilthey by reproducing past psychical experiences by imagination; for Croce by taking over the problems and tasks of the past. For both of them the whole field of history is at the disposal of historical research and knowledge but there is no interest in elaborating this field as a whole or in taking up each epoch as an object of research without selection. The traditional division of history into epochs therefore becomes unimportant for Croce though it may have a certain value as a study preliminary to genuine historical knowledge. The choice of the field of research is regulated according to Croce by the present interest; for historical knowledge is demanded at every time by the necessity of action in the present.3 The problems of the present open men's eyes for the problems of history. It is for this reason that the historian himself stands within history and partakes in it.
Certainly Croce has overcome the negative consequences of historicism whereas for Dilthey the worrying question of truth remains without an answer. But we may ask whether the solution of the problem by Croce does justice to the true essence of the individual. Is it sufficient to say as he does that ‘reason is the very essence of man’? Or is Dilthey's conception of soul in this respect superior? We shall return to this question later.
(3) We can say only a little about the book of Karl Jaspers on the origin and meaning of history4 but we must briefly mention him as a counterpart to Dilthey and especially to Croce. He does not start from the problem of historicism nor as far as I understand him has he recognised the historicity of man in its radicality. He asks for the meaning of history and he thinks we must discover this meaning by surveying the whole of human history in its totality. Hence his seeking for the origin of history his curious interest in prehistoric times and his endeavour to show the structure of world-history. Hence his strange theory of the ‘Achsenzeit’ (time of the axis) on which universal history is established; that is the time about 500 B.C. within which from 800 till 200 the process took place in which—after the old high cultures in the ‘Zweistromland’ (land of the two rivers) in Egypt on the Indus and in China—‘man became conscious of the being as a whole of himself and his limits’; and so occurred the breaking through to ‘the principles of the human being in the “Grenzsituationen” (boundary-situations) which are valid till today’. Hence finally his analysis of the present epoch of science and technics and the prognosis of the future.
It seems to me that Jaspers claims to have attained a stand-point as a philosopher outside of history although his utterances in this regard are not always clear. But it is clear that he seeks for the individual a stand-point beyond history in what he calls ‘Transzendenz’ (transcendence) or in the origin of all being or ground of being. It seems to me that what is right in this endeavour lies in the feeling that the very essence of the human individual is not fully understood in such philosophies as that of Croce but I cannot see that his attempt is brought to clear expression. It is clear however that Jaspers endeavours to understand history as the history of men who are responsible for the future and he gives an analysis of our present time with its threatening problems in order to make the responsibility urgently felt. This stress upon responsibility also shows as it seems to me that Jaspers strives to overcome the relativism of historicism but it is regrettable that he refuses to discuss this problem explicitly with other philosophers.
(4) The best that is said about the problems of history is in my view contained in. the book of R. G. Collingwood The Idea of History (1946 1949). In this title ‘History’ means historical science historical research or inquiry; but in the consideration of what history in this sense is naturally the idea of history in the sense of the historical events must indirectly become clear.
According to Collingwood the object of history (as historical science) is the ‘actions of human beings that have been done in the past’ (p. 9). Or he says: ‘all history properly so called is the history of human affairs’ (p. 212). Throughout his book runs the attempt to elucidate the distinction between historical and natural science and their objects. The objects of historical science are as I have said the actions of men. Every event has an outside and an inside. The work of the historian ‘may begin by discovering the outside of an event but it can never end there; he must always remember that the event was an action and that his main task is to think himself into this action to discern the thought of its agent’ (p. 213). For thoughts are the inside of actions and the historical process is a ‘process of thoughts’. The historian cannot perceive the thoughts as a scientist perceives natural facts but he must understand them by re-enacting the process of thought. History therefore is re-enactment of the thoughts of the past in the historian's mind. As a process of thought the historical process is the life of the mind and therefore the knowledge of history is at the same time self-knowledge; it is ‘the self-knowledge of the historian's own mind as the present revival and reliving of past experiences’ (p. 175).
It is clear that the re-enacting of past thoughts is by no means a simple reproduction or repetition of past thoughts ‘in its immediacy as the unique act of thought with its unique context in the life of an individual thinker.… It is the act of thought itself in its survival and revival at different times and in different persons: once in the historian's own life once in the life of the person whose history he is narrating’ (p. 303). That means: the re-enactment of past thoughts is an autonomous critical act of re-thinking. The re-enactment ‘is not a passive surrender to the spell of another's mind; it is a labour of active and therefore critical thinking.… This criticism of the thought whose history he (the historian) traces is not something secondary to tracing the history of it. It is an indispensable condition of the historical knowledge itself’ (p. 215). This criticism is not made from a stand-point outside of history but within history. If the systems of thought of the past ‘remain valuable to posterity that is not in spite of their strictly historical character but because of it. To us the ideas expressed in them are ideas belonging to the past; but it is not a dead past; by understanding it historically we incorporate it into our present thought and enable ourselves by developing and criticising it to use that heritage for our own advancement’ (p. 230).
‘The historical process is itself a process of thought and it exists only in so far as the minds which are parts of it know themselves for parts of it. By historical thinking the mind whose self-knowledge is history not only discovers within itself those powers of which historical thought reveals the possession but actually develops those powers from a latent to an actual state brings them into effective existence’ (p. 226). ‘Whenever he (the historian) finds certain historical matters unintelligible he has discovered a limitation of his own mind’ (p. 218). It is in this sense that it is true: ‘Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht’ for ‘it is the historian himself who stands at the bar of judgment and there reveals his own mind in its strength and weakness its virtues and its vices’ (p. 219). This becomes clearer when we consider what Collingwood thinks about the objectivity of historical knowledge or about evidence.
Genuine historical knowledge does not rely on statements but only on evidence and the last piece of evidence is the present of the historian from which the questions spring which open up the view into the past. ‘Every present has a past of its own and any imaginative reconstruction aims at reconstructing the past of this present the present in which the act of imagination is going on as here and now perceived. In principle the aim of any such act is to use the entire perceptible here-and-now as evidence for the entire past through whose process it has come into being’ (p. 247). ‘For even when the events which the historian studies are events that happened in the distant past the condition of their being historically known is that they should “vibrate in the historian's mind” that is to say that the evidence for them should be here and now before him and intelligible for him’ (p. 202).
Therefore the relation of subject and object which is characteristic for natural science has no value for historical science. Historical science is objective precisely in its subjectivity because the subject and object of historical science do not exist independently of one another. In this sense Collingwood says: ‘The historian's thought must spring from the organic unity of his total experience and be a function of his entire personality with its practical as well as its theoretical interests’ (p. 305). In German we could say: historical knowledge is ‘existential’ knowledge as I have tried to show in the preceding lecture.5
From this it follows that historical knowledge is itself a historical event or a stage of the historical process within which the historian himself is interwoven as well as the object which he endeavours to know. Therefore the results of his research are not ultimate statements. ‘The historian however long and faithfully he works can never say that his work even in crudest outlines or in this or that smallest detail is done once for all’ (p. 248 f.). ‘Every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian not content with giving new answers to old questions must revise the questions themselves’ (p. 248).
There is no end or goal in the process of historical knowledge any more than in the process of history itself. Collingwood does not know any eschatology and he cannot foresee the future he is not a prophet. ‘History (in the sense of historical knowledge) must end with the present’ (p. 120). But that does not mean that there is no progress. On the contrary progress is an essential characteristic of the process of history. But progress must not be confounded with evolution. ‘Historical progress is only another name for activity itself as a succession of acts each of which arises out of the last… the accomplished act gives rise to a new problem’ (p. 324). ‘Any past experience lives in the mind of the historian as a past experience known as past… but re-enacted here and now together with a development of itself that is partly constructive or positive and partly critical or negative’ (p. 334).
From this stand-point an answer can be given to the question: ‘Why history? What is history for?’; history in these questions means of course historical knowledge or science. Collingwood says: ‘My answer is that history is ‘for’ human self-knowledge.… The value of history then is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is’ (p. 10).6 And what is man? The answer must be: man is essentially mind. Mind however is not a substance not something lying behind its activities. ‘Any study of mind is a study of its activities’ (p. 221). ‘In the case of a machine we distinguish structure from function’ but that is impossible with regard to mind (p. 221). ‘History does not presuppose mind; it is the life of mind itself which is not mind except so far as it both lives in historical process and knows itself as so living’ (p. 227).
Collingwood conceives the full historicity of the human being as radically as Croce. But there is a difference. For Collingwood mind is not simply reason although there is no mind without reason. But mind is something more than mere reason. Collingwood recognises the unity of will and thinking in defining thought as ‘reflective thought’ or as ‘reflective effort the effort to do something of which we have a conception before we do it’ (p. 308). Or he defines the ‘reflective or deliberate act’ as ‘an act which we not only do but intend to do before doing it’ (p. 309). ‘Reflective acts may be roughly described as the acts which we do on purpose’ (p. 309). To judge an action of a person means to judge it ‘by reference to his intention’ (p. 309). It seems to be clear that according to Collingwood the conception of thought includes the sense of intention and purpose. I remind you of the words already cited: ‘The historian's thought must spring from the organic unity of his total experience and be a function of his entire personality with its practical as well as its theoretical interests’ (p. 305). From all this it follows that Collingwood conceives thought not as a mere act of thinking but as an act of man in his entire existence as an act of decision.
To sum up. Collingwood as well as Croce is aware of the historicity of the human being and like Croce he avoids the consequence of relativism and nihilism. For every now every moment in its historical relatedness of course has within itself a full meaning. The past from which every present springs is not a determining past but a past offering to the present the problems which demand solution or development. In knowing his situation the individual knows himself. Therefore the present is meaningful for the individual. Of course to ask for meaning in history is not allowable if one is asking for meaning in the sense of goal. The meaning in history is immanent in history because history is the history of mind. And therefore it may be said as we said of Croce that for Collingwood every present moment is an eschatological moment and that history and eschatology are identified.
It seems to me however that the meaning of mind and of self-knowledge should be understood a little more profoundly than Collingwood has done. His answer to the question: why history? is as we have seen: history is for human self-knowledge. But what is the answer when we ask: why self-knowledge? Certainly for Collingwood self-knowledge includes the knowledge of the present situation with its heritage and its problems. But must we not then say: self-knowledge is consciousness of responsibility over against the future? And the act of self-knowledge is it not at the same time an act of decision? I do not think that I am really contradicting Collingwood. For since according to him thought includes purpose or intention then it follows that self-knowledge cannot be a mere theoretical act but is also an act of decision. If that is true then the historicity of the human being is completely understood when the human being is understood as living in responsibility over against the future and therefore in decision. And furthermore it must be said that historicity in its full sense is not a self-evident natural quality of the human individual but a possibility which must be grasped and realised. The man who lives without self-knowledge and without consciousness of his responsibility is a historical being in a much lower degree one who is at the mercy of historical conditions handing himself over to relativity. Genuine historicity means to live in responsibility and history is a call to historicity.
But let us make still another critical remark about Collingwood. His definition of history as the history of human actions seems to me to be one-sided. For human life goes its way not only through actions but also through events which encounter us through that which happens to one. And the reactions to these events are also actions in a certain sense. Man is responsible in his reaction too and his behaviour or conduct in the face of such events is also decision. The problems of the present do not all grow from the historical past but also from encounters which demand decisions. But about this subject we must say more in the next lecture.

From the book: