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VI: Historicism and the Naturalisation of History

VI: Historicism and the Naturalisation of History
(The Abandonment of the Question of the Meaning in History)
Scepticism and Relativism. Vico and Herder. Romanticism. Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee.

(1) (a) The philosophers of the Enlightment believed in the unlimited perfectibility of man and in the power of man or at least of enlightened man to determine the course of history. And even if the historical process leads to results which were neither foreseen nor intended the ‘Cunning of Reason’ was thought of as working for progress Man enlightened by science knows the way into the future which leads to the ever greater welfare of humanity. For such optimism history has indeed a meaning. And with regard to this optimism even Marx agrees with the Enlightenment and with Hegel in that he also believes that the course of history is directed by reason.

Hegel however had been conscious that history seen apart from faith in reason ‘forms a picture of most fearful aspect and excites the profoundest emotions and the most hopeless sadness’1 for passions and wickedness are ruling powers in world-history. He does not believe primarily in the goodness and perfectibility of man but in reason which rules history in spite of human unreasonableness.
But how is it when history is seen without this faith in reason? The faith in human goodness and perfectibility—can it remain steadfast? The optimism of the Enlightenment—can it remain unshaken? The earthquake of Lisbon for instance was a frightening event. And in the first lecture we have seen that the French Revolution had results contrary to its intention: military dictatorship instead of a liberal constitution imperialism instead of a federation of free nations war instead of peace.2 And the actual course of the nineteenth century—did it justify the faith of the. Enlightenment?
Certainly the belief in progress remained vivid during the nineteenth century and seemed to be validated by the development of science and technics. But voices of scepticism grew loud especially that of Jacob Burckhardt.3 He denied the possibility of philosophy of history in general. He contested Hegel's doctrine of reason and what he called Hegel's bold anticipation of a plan of the world. Certainly all happenings have also a mental side and mind is imperishable but mind is subject to change and that not in a rectilinear direction. The essence of history is change; there is only one constant substance: ‘Our starting-point is the only remaining and for us possible centre the suffering striving and acting man as he is and was and ever shall be’.
In saying this Burckhardt abandoned the idea of a uniform world-history. History shows not only changes but also variety and differences which cannot be seen as united by a reasonable principle. There are only repetitions constant trends typical phenomena because man is always and everywhere the same. Certainly there is the true and the good but what at any given time is true and good is subject to conditions of time. ‘In individual cases it does not matter by which colours the conceptions of good and evil are modified… but the question is only whether man follows them dutifully as they are sacrificing his selfishness or not.’ ‘The sacrificing of one's life for others certainly already happened amongst the lake-dwellers.’ ‘If already in old times man gave his life for others then we have not advanced any further from that time.’ It is an illusion to speak of ‘moral progress’ as Buckle did. ‘Mind was already complete in the earliest times.’ Burckhardt turns with sarcasm against the opinion of the Enlightenment that man is essentially good and needs only enlightenment for his goodness to become sovereign. ‘The secret reservation in this is that today it is easier and safer to gain money. When that is threatened then the high feeling in question will collapse.’ History begins with the awakening consciousness of man with the breaking with nature. ‘But at the same time there still remains enough for man to be characterised as a ravening beast.’
Burckhardt attacks the optimistic faith in progress on the point of good and bad fortune in history. The judgments whether this or that event was a piece of good fortune or whether this or that epoch was a happy one are completely subjective. ‘It is our deep and ridiculous selfishness which esteems as happy such times as have something similar to our own nature and which esteems as praiseworthy the past times and actions upon which our actual present life and our relative well-being are grounded. Just as if the world and world-history were only existent for our sake.’ The phrase ‘good fortune’ should be eliminated from world-history only the phrase ‘bad fortune’ has its right for evil rules in history and though it is indispensable as a power moving history nevertheless it always leads into bad fortune. ‘It makes a frightening picture to imagine the sum of despair and distress which is presupposed for instance by the building of the old world-monarchies.’ There seems to be no other consolation than the fact that bad fortune can have happy consequences. But we should be economical with this consolation because we do not have a standard of judgment for these losses of good fortune. Burckhardt arrives at the resigned judgment: ‘good and bad may have balanced each other in general in the different periods and cultures. But in regard to history we should abandon the question about good and bad fortune. Ripeness is all. Instead of happiness the goal of clever men nolentium or volentium will be knowledge.’
In France the most enlightened country many intellectuals became conscious of the senselessness of material progress and there grew up a nihilism which found its expression in the writings of Flaubert and Baudelaire as Karl Löwith has described.4 ‘The world is drawing to a close’ that is the judgment of Baudelaire. The criticism of Western civilisation and the faith in progress by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche Dostoiewski and Tolstoi is differentiated in its aims but they are all uniformly critical. And today after two world wars? I think the judgment of Erich Frank is right: ‘It is the strange irony of our time that all progress in science and civilisation nay in moral and social consciousness is turned eventually into a means for war and destruction. Even those peoples who do their utmost to prevent such a tragic reversal are forced to submit to the necessity of history. To the extent to which man through his reason has learned to control nature he has fallen victim to the catastrophes of history. Thus his dream that he may be entirely free to shape his future according to the ideals of his own reason is frustrated by history. Man is thwarted by man himself by his own nature.’ ‘For such a point of view even the idea of humanity appears only as one “ideology” among many as the expression of a definite historical and social situation.’5
(b) The historiography of the nineteenth century was not disturbed either by Burckhardt or by Nietzsche. Whether influenced by Hegel or not whether it reflected about its method or not—on the whole it arrived at some form of relativism. It acknowledged change as historical law and denied the absolute value of judgments and knowledge and it confirmed the dependence of all thinking and valuing on their time and culture. Later on we have to speak about the influence of Romanticism. Now it is sufficient to emphasise the fact that historiography was interested in knowing the casual connection of the events and that a relativism developed whether any particular historian was conscious of that or not. This is the epoch of the so-called historicism which in fact understands history by analogy with nature. Historiography seems to have the task of establishing the facts and of finding out the laws of their connection. It has taken over the idea of evolution though only with regard to single epochs and spheres of culture not with regard to history as a whole. It tries to eliminate the subjectivity of the historian and to avoid every value-judgment. Historiography is purely a science of facts but it does not raises the question of what a historical fact is.6
This historicism plus the despair about detecting any meaning in history and the consequent abandoning of belief in progress are the presuppositions of the book by Oswald Spengler Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). Here historicism is so to speak completely swallowed up by naturalism. But the origin of this consistent reduction of history to nature lies far back. To some extent it revives the ancient understanding of the historical process as a cyclical movement.
(2a) This idea was taken up and developed in the eighteenth century by Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). We have already seen how in his view of history the idea of the divine providence was neutralised and how he eliminated the idea of the eschatological consummation of history.7 In our context we have to consider how he understood the historical process as moving in cycles. Each cycle passes in three stages. The beginning is the primitive age of gods the age of barbarism. It is followed by the heroic age of aristocratic constitutions represented for Greece by the Homeric period for Europe by the Middle Ages. Then follows the classical age in which thinking rules over imagination prose over poetry and so on. In this age the free republics and monarchies grew up inspired by the belief in the equality of all mankind. The cycle ends with exhaustion and decay with relapse into barbarism and from this a new cycle begins as ricorso (recurrence).
This is so to speak a natural history of humanity. Indeed Vico calls the object of his ‘New Science’ the common nature of peoples. Nature is not to be understood as a transcendent power always working in the same way. It is always growing; natura nascendo is his formula. Vico has historicised the concept of nature but at the same time it must be said that he has naturalised the conception of history. His presupposition is that the same disposition for certain forms of life and development is common to all men and peoples the sensus communis (common sense). In the course of history differences develop in consequence of the different natural conditions but the essential marks are always the same in each age.8
(b) The work of Vico proved ineffectual for a long time till today in fact. But his view of history had a parallel in the work of Johann Gottfried Herder Ideen zur Philosophic der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784–91).9 We need not decide whether he knew Vico and was influenced by him. Herder also reduced human history to natural history. He understood nature and history from the concept of evolution and begins his history of humanity with the description of the cosmic and geological evolution ending with the life of animals the highest species of which is humanity. Humanity therefore is the summit of natural evolution. Herder reflects for instance about the relationship between monkeys and men and he explains the difference between animal and man completely by means of physiological anthropology. The first decisive difference is the erect walking of man. He says: ‘With regard to man all is ordered according to his present figure. Out of this everything in history can be explained nothing without it. On the erect figure depends the formation of the brain and finally of humanity. Man in distinction from lower nature builds a mental (spiritual) world developing step by step to humanity.’ Herder traces back the establishment of the mental (spiritual) world to the development of the soul according to laws of psychology.
Herder can characterise humanity as a preparation as a bud for a future flower namely transcendent existence in immortality. Therefore one may think that he distinguishes between nature and mind and indeed his thoughts are not completely clear. But in any case it is clear that he understands human history in a completely naturalistic manner. The laws of cultural evolution are laws of nature and he can say: ‘The whole of human history is a natural history of human powers actions impulses according to space and time’. However he conceives the laws of nature not in the same way as mathematical physics does but as a play of living forces working in history. Humanity is also a result of these forces. For humanity is ‘reason and fairness’ or ‘mind fairness kindness and human feeling’ and these march onward with natural necessity because they are the conditions for the continuity of human order and prove to be the persistent element in history. Herder therefore does not deal with the belief in the moral progress of humanity by means of virtue.
Herder does not know Vico's idea of the cycles. Rather he divides human history into different types or races. Human nature is not uniform but differentiated into types. These types do not originate in different historical experiences but in nature which distributes types of peculiar and unchangeable character. The character is originally formed by the conditions of life and by the earliest actions and occupations. What is effective in each people is the ‘mind of the people’ (‘Volksgeist’) which expresses itself especially in poetry. Each people follows its own way to achieve humanity. ‘The whole history of peoples appears… as a school of competitive running to obtain the fair crown of humanity and the dignity of man.’
It is evident that the concept of evolution toward humanity is in conflict with that of natural evolution for humanity is uniform. Indeed Herder is not always quite clear.
Perhaps we may say that eschatology is working in a secularised manner in Herder's idea of the realm of human organisation as a system of mental (spiritual) powers. But that would be in contradiction to his conviction that each historical age and each people as well as each age of the individual has the centre of its blissfulness in itself and that it is not allowed to judge earlier times and peoples according to a measure of other times and to understand history as progress toward perfection as did the Enlightenment. The earliest age of humanity is not to be judged as barbarism but it ‘breathes the healthy mind of childhood’. Herder also values the German Middle Ages without failing to recognise its dark side the quarrels of the nations. He says: ‘The constitution of the German communities was in world-history the shell so to speak within which the remaining culture was safeguarded from the storm of life and the common mind of Europe developed and became slowly and secretly ripe for working upon all the countries of our earth’. And though he criticised the medieval Catholic Church he finished with the judgment: ‘I fully appreciate the value which many hierarchical institutions still have for us; I see the need within which they were constructed and I am sojourning in the solemn twilight of their venerable institutions and buildings. It is invaluable as the rude envelope of tradition which could endure the storm of the barbarians and it bears witness to power as well as to reflection.’ He adds however: ‘But it could scarcely have constant value for all times. When the fruit becomes ripe the shell breaks.’
History is a play of the natural powers with which nature has endowed man. The investigation of history does not detect any meaning which might give unity to the whole and the course of the centuries does not lead to a perfection—if one will not take humanity as perfection. Herder contests the concept of progress held by the Enlightenment and he says: ‘Philosopher seeing only the fundamental base of your abstractions do you see the world? the harmony of the whole?’ Indeed to see the harmony of the whole may be called the fundamental motif of Herder's view of history and it can hardly be denied that this view of history is essentially an aesthetic one.
(3) The influence of Herder upon Romanticism was an extraordinary one of course alongside the influence of such men as Rousseau and Hamann. In Romanticism there was a real taste for history as part of its contest against the Enlightenment. The past was no longer negatively judged as a dark time lacking in enlightened reasonable knowledge but positively as a time to which one thought oneself akin because the same irrational powers are to be observed within it as one feels working in oneself. These powers are working in all cultural fields and reach their greatest efficacy in the creative power of the I the person above all in religion and poetry. Romanticism was especially interested in the poetry of the past in popular songs and popular fairytales and in medieval art (from which interest the perfection of the cathedral of Cologne originated but also the romantic admiration of ruined castles and the regrettable building of churches in imitation of the Gothic style). With the predilection for the Middle Ages was not seldom connected an inclination toward the Catholic Church as it is expressed in the paper of Novalis ‘Die Christenheit oder Europa’ (1799). There were also many conversions.
Herder's notion that culture is not to be judged according to an objective measure of reason and that every place and every time has its own meaning and law led to historical relativism.10 One result of this was a new conception of law from which the so-called historical school of law grew up. According to this school law is constituted not by objective rules but by history. There is no natural right but only positive (i.e. concrete historical) right. There are no ethical rules which all mankind is obliged to obey but each time has its own ethics. The interest is directed not to the objective but to the subjective to ‘Erlebnis’ (experience). In poetry the important thing is the ‘Erlebnis’ not the poetical work. ‘Erlebnis’ means becoming conscious of the irrational powers of life. This is at bottom an aesthetic view directed to history as well as to nature; and in fact historical events are understood as natural events.
The historiography of the nineteenth century is deeply influenced by Romanticism. Certainly it has freed itself from the cult of ‘Erlebnis’ and from aestheticism but it understands the historical process by analogy with nature.11
(4a) The understanding of history became radically naturalistic in Oswald Spengler's book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) as I have already mentioned.12 The sub-title of this book is ‘Outlines of a Morphology of World-History’. This is a hint of his naturalistic view as is his characterisation of cultures (or civilisations) as ‘Lebewesen (living beings animals) of the highest grade’. I do not know to what extent Spengler is indebted to Vico or to Herder. In any case he also holds that history is not a unity and that its course is not progress. Rather the whole of history falls into cycles that is into a sequence of single civilisations which are closed in themselves and have their own character. There is no continuity in history. The civilisations are like the monads of Leibniz as Collingwood rightly says. There is only sequence in time one succeeds the other. The seclusion of the single civilisations is so consistently conceived by Spengler that for example science mathematics and philosophy in each civilisation are something peculiar to it and there is no unity between the mental lives of the different civilisations. In each of them the same process is repeated from the rise of the primitive barbarism of archaic times to the classical age in which political organisation law and science are developing and finally to the decay into the barbarism of civilisation. Each cycle has its time. Therefore it is possible to make a diagnosis of the present and to perceive in which stage our civilisation is placed and in accordance with that to predict the future. Spengler himself says that he undertakes for the first time to define history in advance.
Civilisations are like plants which grow up flourish become ripe and wither. As it is impossible to raise the question about meaning in the life of nature so with regard to history. Of course it goes without saying that there is no eschatological perfection. Spengler expressly denies that there is a historical course within which the present takes over the mental tradition of the past and develops it further.
I will only briefly mention that for the sake of his theory Spengler makes violent constructions. He has detected an ‘Arabic civilisation’ which includes most of the first millennium after Christ and thereby he breaks up antiquity by regarding its later epoch Hellenism as a completely new civilisation and at the same time he breaks up Christianity into supposed different religions. I will also no more than mention that it is an inconsistency when he combines with his prophecy a challenge for decision namely the call to the Germans to erect a ‘Prussian socialism’ and thus to become rulers of the future. In our context only the methodical principles interest us.
(b) It seems that Arnold J. Toynbee is to be grouped with Oswald Spengler in so far as he too stands in the line which leads from Vico over Herder to Spengler. For him too history is not a unity; its course is not a progress leading to perfection and one may not therefore raise the question about its meaning. And he too divides history into the histories of single groups of societies. His interest is directed towards the societies which left the primitive stage behind and developed civilisation. These were the first to experience history. He enumerates twenty-six civilisations of which sixteen have passed away; their histories are finished. Five great civilisations are still living; Western Christianity Eastern Christianity Islam Hinduism and the Far-Eastern civilisation. He endeavours to detect the law of history by comparative research (vergleichende Erforschung) into the civilisations. He asks: how have we to explain the origin the growth and the decay of the civilisations?
Certainly it may be said as Collingwood does that Toynbee follows the method of natural science by establishing facts connecting them and establishing laws of evolution. His conception of civilisations also corresponds to the way of thinking of natural science. For Toynbee has only a formal concept of civilisation like for instance the concept of maturity and not a material concept like for instance Herder's concept of humanity. Each society has its own civilisation and so far as this is unique it is not possible to speak of the unity of mind and to understand history as the history of mind. Toynbee seems not to be conscious that the historian himself stands within history and that an investigation of history teaches: tua res agitur. On the contrary he stands over against history as a disinterested spectator like the scientist who has no share in the natural events he observes.
Nevertheless it seems to me that Collingwood goes too far in saying: ‘his general conception of history is ultimately naturalistic’. That would be appropriate to Spengler. But Toynbee differs from Spengler in many respects. First in that according to him the different societies are not shut off from one another. Many civilisations are connected by affiliations and therefore tradition is handed down in the course of history. Above all the historical course of the various societies is not determined simply by natural factors. Toynbee himself warns us not ‘to apply to historical thought which is a study of living creatures a scientific method derived from the study of inanimate nature’. He argues against historians who reduce historical events to the natural factors of race or geographical surroundings. The movement of history is brought about by an unpredictable factor namely the behaviour of a nation in a critical situation.
Toynbee has detected the law of Challenge and Response. Every society is brought both at the beginning and in the course of its history into situations which are challenges to it and provide an ordeal for the challenged. The decisive question is the answer given to the challenge. On it depends whether the society enters into history or continues its history. The challenge is a stimulus for example the necessity for a people in unfavourable geographical conditions to procure a home on new ground or fatal blows such as hostile assaults or oppression by a foreign power or internal or domestic troubles such as slavery or problems growing out of the development of technics. Everything depends on whether a response is made to the challenge and this cannot be calculated in advance. To this extent the necessity of natural development is modified; a certain measure of freedom and responsibility is ascribed to men. But the law of challenge and response assumes the aspect of a natural law again when Toynbee tries to decide when a challenge would be an excessive one and when a less severe one which is the optimum in regard to which the answer is determined and when he introduces the notion of the élan vital in explaining the growth of a society which has entered into history.
But finally it must be said that according to Toynbee religions are not simply expressions of civilisation as they are in Spengler but have an exceptional position especially Christianity.13 Christianity grew out of the decay of the Hellenistic society and perhaps it will not only survive the decay of the Western civilisation but even increase ‘in wisdom and stature as the result of a fresh experience of secular catastrophe’. Certainly although it is not the task of a religion ‘to serve for the cyclical process of rebirth’ it may nevertheless retain its meaning in such a process. In this sense Christianity may be called the ever new and greatest event of human history. Perhaps some day it will conquer all other high religions and become the world-religion as the heir of all other religions.
Something like secularised eschatology may resound in these thoughts and one may ask how it is to be reconciled with Toynbee's basic view of history. Toynbee himself strives for reconciliation when he says: ‘If religion is a chariot it looks as if the wheels on which it mounts toward heaven may be the periodic downfalls of civilisation on earth. It looks as if the movement of civilisation may be cyclic and recurrent while the movement of religion may be on a single continuous upward line. The continuous upward movement of religion may be served and promoted by the cyclical movement of civilisations round the cycle of birth-death-birth.
But Toynbee reflects also upon the possibility that a third kind of society may arise after the two which have existed up till now the primitive and the civilised the time of which is limited. The future society would embrace the whole world and it would be ‘embodied in a single world-wide and enduring representative in the shape of the Christian Church’. But he distinguishes this kind of hope from the old eschatology by expressly denying that the Kingdom of God could in this way be realised on earth. For it to be otherwise the nature of man would have to be altered so that the will for evil vanished. But as long as original sin exists in mankind there will never be a society which does not need institutions grounded in power. Therefore the ‘victorious Church Militant on Earth’ will only be a province of the Kingdom of God but a province in which the citizens of the heavenly commonwealth have to live and breathe and labour in an element that is not their native element’.
In this context Toynbee denies Frazer's statement that the Christian religion and civilisation are opposites and that the Christian religion because it is individualistic destroys culture which is grounded in a social ethos. For the question arises why civilisation should be interested in religious progress. Toynbee answers: ‘Religious progress means spiritual progress and spirit means personality. Therefore religious progress must take place in the spiritual life of personalities.’ The thesis of Frazer is wrong ‘because I think it is based on a fundamental misconception of what the nature of souls or personalities is’.
But now a new question arises. Should not history be understood as the history of the spiritual life of personalities? What is the real subject of history? Humanity? The nations? Civilisation? The societies?—Or man? With this we have reached the theme of the next chapter.

From the book: