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Chapter XX: The History of History

The subject of history has assumed an increased importance in modern times for a variety of reasons, all of them familiar. The nineteenth century witnessed the appearance and widespread diffusion of the idea that the understanding of any subject matter, whether it be the physical universe or the human mind and its achievements, is to be found in its genesis. It is true that Christianity had its Book of Genesis, and that primitive cultures contained myths concerning the origin of the world and the genealogy of the gods, but in the nineteenth century this emphasis and approach became in an unparalleled degree the central feature of European thought. At the same time geological, biological, archaeological, and cultural studies acquired improved techniques resulting in an immense extension of man's knowledge of the past, to the enrichment of his cultural heritage and the widening of the boundaries of his universe.

What, then, is history? This simple question turns out on reflection to be not so simple. The difficulty of the question arises in part from a verbal accident. The same word ‘history’ is used both for a subject matter and for a branch of knowledge. While polity is the subject matter of political science, law of the science of jurisprudence, economy of the science of economics, and society of the science of sociology, the subject matter of history is history; which is, to say the least, confusing.

The beginning of clarity in this subject, then, is to distinguish between history as a subject matter to be known, and which would have taken place if it were not known; and that branch of knowledge which is devoted to the knowing of it. Many a boulder has fallen from its place on a mountain side, leaving its chain of effects, without being known to any historian; unless a divine historian is introduced expressly for the purpose, in obedience to the requirements of a metaphysical generalization that nothing can exist or happen that is not known — a generalization ization which the occurrence of such pre-human events itself serves to refute. The same distinction between the historical event and the subsequent knowledge of it holds also of human events. Let us suppose that when “stout Cortez … with eagle eyes” first stared at the Pacific he was alone, without witnesses; that he did not “realize” what lay before him; and that, having stared, he was instantly struck dead or suffered a total loss of memory. His staring would nevertheless be an historical event, in the sense that it would have happened in advance of its later discovery through, let us say, his footprints in the sand.1

The fact that man's knowledge of history is a part of his personal history, must not be allowed, then, to blur this distinction. There is a likelihood of confusion, but there is no paradox. Historical knowledge, the science of history, historiography, historiology, historics, or whatever it be called, is one thing; the history which it knows is another thing. Historical knowledge always presupposes a history to be known; and may then itself in turn be presupposed in historical knowledge on another level. Physical nature is one thing, physics is another thing. Since the physicist employs apparatus and uses his hands there can be a physics of physics, if anyone were to take the trouble to inquire. By the same token since historical knowledge is a human happening there can, if a historian chooses, be a historical knowledge of it. Gibbon made history by writing it, but the history he thus made was not the same as the history of which he wrote. There is a title in the Harvard University Library which reads as follows: “Oysters, and All about Them, by John M. Philpotts, being a complete history of the titular subject.” Oysters have their history, which is a proper subject matter of historical knowledge. The knowledge of oysters, “all about them,” is a part of human history; and John M. Philpotts, who was not an oyster, thus belongs to the subject matter of that history of molluscian zoology which he did not write.

What, then, is that historical subject matter, that field, which it is the business of historical knowledge to know? There are four defining principles: temporality, uniqueness, humanity, and importance.

In the broadest sense the field of history may be said to embrace the aggregate of events, that is, of existents occurring in time. This definition, unless accompanied by certain restrictions, is too broad to distinguish historical knowledge from other knowledge. If it be held, as in temporalistic metaphysics, that to exist at all means to belong to the space-time-causal nexus, and if it be held, as it is now generally held among scientists, that physical nature is composed of spatio-temporal events, then all knowledge of existence is temporal in subject matter, and all laws would be laws of change in time. The objection to this outcome does not lie in the definition of terms (which is optional) but the failure to give a meaning to ‘history’ which distinguishes the branch of knowledge so-called, from physics or psychology.

To make such a distinction it is necessary to introduce, first, the qualification of uniqueness. An “historical event” is not an event which occurs in time, merely, but which occurs only once. Contrary to the common saying, history is that which never repeats itself. Thus the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is an historical event insofar as it cannot have happened before the time designated, and can never happen again. As subject matter for the science of seismology, on the other hand, it is considered not in respect of its uniqueness, but in respect of certain variables of stress, temperature, gravity, mass, energy, etc., which are repeatable. The uniqueness of “this” earthquake consists in the totality of its particulars. As a contemporary historian has remarked: “The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to be distinguished from the chain reactions studied by atomic physics.”2

So identified by the time at which it occurs, or “takes place,” the historical event may belong to the past, the present, or the future; unique past happenings, contemporary happenings, and future happenings all alike “belong” to history. The historian may occupy himself with contemporary history, or predict future history: his customary preoccupations with the past simply reflects the fact that the past as compared with the present and future, is more accessible to exploration, and more amply provided with evidence, such as records, and the data of memory, by which the knowledge of particular happenings can be attested.

A more restricted conception of the field of historical knowledge is provided by prefixing the adjective ‘human’ to the substantive ‘happening.’ This restriction excludes from the domain of “history proper” the history of the earth which would then become a part of human history when it was tenanted by man; the history of a glacier when by its retreat it rendered certain regions habitable by man; or the history of an atom when its splitting destroyed Hiroshima and brought to an end the war between the United States and Japan. The solar eclipse which occurred on May 28, 584 B.C. was a part of solar and terrestrial history; it became a part of human history when Thales discovered it, and when, as in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we are invited to “see under Thales” for an account of it. All of which goes to show that, whatever their character otherwise, happenings become a part of history proper when they happen to man, and become a part of the life of man: when, namely, they serve or defeat, or otherwise engage, human interests.

There remains a further restriction, namely, to what is humanly important. A ballet dancer's tying her shoe at five P.M. on a certain day is a unique manifestation of human interest, and therefore falls within the domain of history as defined up to this point. It would not, however, be embraced even in the ballet girl's biography, unless, let us say, an important artist, such as Degas, painted her in the act. Otherwise it would be excluded as trivial. It will not do to say that “important” is what anybody feels to be important; for anything may be felt to be important by somebody. If an event is to be humanly important it must engage a wide range of interests; or it must occur at some crucial point or parting of the ways, or at some seat of control, so as to have ramifying influences throughout the field of interests; or it must be connected with interests of a higher order; or it must embody some eminent achievement which commends it to the preference and admiration of posterity. It is this factor of importance or significance which is conveyed by the honorific idea of history, as when one speaks of events as “historic,” or refers to a person as having “achieved a place in history.”


There remains a further restriction of the subject matter of historical knowledge, which is optional, but is justified by usage. The historian is concerned not with mere aggregates of unique and humanly important events, but complex unities which endure through time. The historical entity, in this sense, not only is history, but “has a history.”

The characteristic of the enduring historical entity is the same as that of a singular society. Its unity consists in an interaction of interests, and is not adequately described in static terms such as similarity or contiguity in space or time. There is a fundamental difference between a so-called “history of the North American continent” and a “history of the United States of America.” The first of these histories has as its subject matter a collection of historical events having nothing in common save their occurrence in the same region of the earth's surface. The second deals with an enduring unity of interweaving interests. The first suggests the second, because it is assumed that human events occurring in the same area are likely to become interactive. But it is quite conceivable that British colonists on the Atlantic coast of North America and Russian colonists on the Pacific coast should be quite unaware of one another, as was no doubt for a time the case. There would then be two histories and no common history. Or, it may be supposed, as was also the case, that British colonists from the East, French colonists from the North, Spanish colonists from the South, and Asiatic colonists from the West spread, mingled and organized their interests. There would then begin to be one history and not four. A history of the tropics, or of the arctic or temperate zones, is either a chapter of natural science, or a collection of “local histories,” or implies the fact that these are areas in which men meet in war and trade. It is to be noted and reflected upon that no historian has as yet proposed to write a history of the belts of the earth's surface defined by latitude and longitude.

If it is absurd and contrary to usage to identify a historical entity with an area, it is equally absurd (though not equally contrary to usage) to identify it with a period of time. Centuries, decades, and years do not have their histories, though they may comprise histories or parts of histories. A temporal segment has no more historical meaning than a spatial cross section. The third millennium B.C. comprises, let us say, a chapter in the history of China, and a chapter in the history of Egypt; but they are not chapters of a common history. The supposition that a century (such as the eighteenth century) has a history is due to the habit of associating that designation with a chapter in the life of England, or in the life of a more or less integrated Europe. Because a common period of time is likely to lead to interaction it is assumed that it is an interaction.

History has been profoundly falsified by the motive of scholastic and textbook convenience. Having divided histories by centuries, scholars and teachers are compelled by their increasing knowledge of the historical facts to expend a considerable amount of time and energy in obliterating these divisions. It is the historian, and not history, who observes the boundaries of the calendar. History itself — what goes on — does not turn sharp corners. It is not divided into acts and scenes, with the curtain going down on the old and rising on the new.

The writing of history in terms of cultures, civilizations, and societies serves to identify historical objects with interactive unities, rather than with segments of time.3 The danger is that, owing to bias or preoccupation, the historian may find such unities where they do not exist, or to separate them absolutely when they run together, or to consider them as co-exclusive when they overlap.

These considerations are illustrated and sharpened by their application to universal history. Does the totality of mankind constitute an enduring historical entity? This is often affirmed. Thus it is said that all history is a history of man, and that history may, therefore, be considered as a study of man. That history is human and that historical knowledge throws light on human nature, is not to be denied. But psychology, though it may profit by history, is not a history of man. If there is to be a history of man, man must have a history, which is something more than a collection of histories and biographies having nothing in common save that they are human.

In order that man shall have a history it does not suffice that all men belong to the same species, or that they live on the same planet, or have lived on that planet during the period 1,000,000 B.C. to 1953 A.D. If man has a history it is because all men live together: communicating with one another, aware of common and continuing tasks, and achieving some measure of coöperation. It is evident that this describes a state of human affairs which is not primordial, but which is now coming about through widespread interaction, and through a sense of identification with the past. Up to the present mankind has had many histories, but no single, common history. Now that mankind is beginnng to have a history of its own, universal history is acquiring an object of its own and becomes distinguishable from a mere omnibus history.

As historical events are unique, human, and important independently of their historians, so enduring historical entities possess that enduring character independently of the historian who observes and records it. Their unities are not given to them by a unifying act of knowledge, but are found and selected, as the orders of nature are found and selected by the natural scientist.

This independence of the historical entity must not be taken to exclude the fact that historical knowledge does contribute to the creation of enduring historical entities. It is evident that the historian contributes to nationality. Knowledge of its past (its heroic days, or its “founding fathers”) is a major factor in the creation of a nation's identity, as memory is a major factor in personal identity. But it is only one of many factors — together with habit, language, and interdependence. The same holds true of universal history. Shared historical knowledge converts many traditions into a common tradition. But this is only one of many forces which unite mankind in a common life, which then has its own history; and that common life if, when, or insofar as, it occurs, is the independent historical fact which verifies or disproves the judgment of the universal historian.


What, then, is the nature of historical knowledge? It has been contended that historical knowledge is sui generis — knowledge of a totally different order from that of the natural or social sciences.4 This contention is argued on three grounds: that historical knowledge is non-empirical; that its object is individual; and that it is peculiarly relativistic.

The theory that historical knowledge is “non-empirical” assumes its restriction to knowledge of the past. Judgments of the past cannot be verified by observed facts because past events cannot be presently perceived. Hence historical knowledge is a product of the imagination and is said to be justified only on a priori grounds. But precisely the same may be held of all of those natural sciences, such as astronomy, geology, and biology, which deal with the past. It may be held, indeed, of all of those sciences which deal with the future in time and the remote in space, in short, of all natural sciences without exception. They all employ inferences from the perceived to the unperceived; their very merit lies in this enlargement of knowledge beyond the limits of present perception.

Knowledge of the past, if historical knowledge be thus restricted, argues from effect to cause, and from a particular kind of effect, namely, traces and records. In other words, knowledge of the past, once it reaches beyond immediate memory, rests on knowledge of another sort, namely, knowledge of signs. One does not have to be an expert semanticist to have such knowledge. Robinson Crusoe knew enough about the imprints left by human feet to infer that some other man had recently been present in person on his island, and he could make a shrewd guess as to his size. If he had been a Sherlock Holmes he could have inferred his age, sex, and occupation. Men have learned early that what is recollected to have happened, is likely to have happened; and, making allowance for prevarication, that what men say they recollect they do recollect. Relics imply the people who have left them behind, and the interests for which they used them. Out of such rough common sense there have developed the elaborate techniques of paleontology, paleography, and comparative philology. All of these techniques are based on the fact that signs point, and if “all signs point,” so much the better. Effects are signs of their causes, fragments of their wholes, names of their meanings, pictographs and photographs of their originals. And when past events have been established by such inferences they serve as evidence of other past events.

But this procedure does not differ in principle from the procedures of natural science even when it is not primarily concerned with past events. The scientist relies on testimony and corroboration. In so doing he relies in turn on empirically tested beliefs concerning the credibility and veracity of witnesses. No scientist rests his conclusions wholly on his own observations; but accepts as evidence the observations of others, which he infers from their behavior, and, in the last analysis, from the meanings of words.

The method of historical knowledge differs from the method of every other kind of knowledge, but the same can be said of physics, biology, or psychology; for the simple reason that if two sciences differ in their subject matter, they will also differ in their methods. It is quite true that historical knowledge often lacks the exactness of certain highly developed sciences, such as physics. It is less well proved, and it is less precise. But this is due to the peculiar complexity of the subject matter, and the comparative weakness of the evidence. The knowledge that an eclipse occurred on May 28, 585 B.C. is better certified than the knowledge that Thales predicted it. While the astronomers confidently affirm even the precise time and place of the eclipse, no historian has ventured to assert on what hour of what day Thales made the prophetic utterance which established his reputation as a Wise Man. It is not even fully proved that he made such an utterance at all.

What is the reason for this difference? It does not turn on the presence or absence of eyewitnesses, or on the use of inference; these factors are present in both cases. In both cases a generalization is first verified and then applied beyond the limits of its verification. But whereas the motions of the sun, earth, and moon are affected by relatively simple and constant causes, so that the gap between the present and the past can be filled by the extrapolation of a few variables, Thales’ prediction is connected with the present by a tangled web of intersecting influences. Its determination is based on empirical generalizations concerning human credibility, and the relation between events and the subsequent memory or recording of them; on the application of such generalizations to Herodotus and Diogenes Laertius in particular; and on other inferences as to what sorts of knowledge were available to Thales at the time, and from which he could have deduced his prediction. The chain of inference is long and devious, and many of its links are weak.

It has been held that historical knowledge is a knowledge of individuals (“ideographic”) while science is a knowledge of laws (“nomographic”). But this is not a difference of principle. The solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., and the battle between the Medes and the Lydians which occurred on the same day, are equally individual; the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. is as individual as the death of the Elder Pliny. In all of these cases the knowledge, whether scientific or historical, is “ideographic.”

Both history and natural science, on the other hand, are “nomographic.” Neither relies wholly on the observation of eyewitnesses; both employ inferences from general laws. The difference lies in the fact that while natural science is primarily interested in the law itself, and in the individual only for the purpose of verifying the law, the historian is primarily interested in the individual and in the law as a means of knowing the individual.

Theory of evolution as distinguished from physiology and genetics, proves the impossibility of drawing the line between history and natural science in the score of the individuality of the object. Theory of evolution is concerned with the origins of life and with the succession of individual forms of life on the earth's surface — the when and the where, and the occasions, of their unique occurrence. “History” deals similarly with the origins of capitalism, and with the succession of individual human societies and cultures. The essential difference is not one of method, but lies in the fact that the first deals with plants and animals, whereas the second deals with important events in the life of man.


The topic of “historical relativism” has been anticipated in early discussions and needs only to be briefly restated. The subject matter of the history of the past is known from the standpoint of the present; the historical events belong to one age, the historian to another age. But the relativity of historical knowledge is only a special case of that “centric-ity” which affects all knowledge. There is a relation of the to-be-known and the knowing of it, and since the knowing is a part of some personal or social life it is exposed to modification from this personal and social context. When these “subjective” factors are imputed to the object independently of the subjective relationship there arises the difficulty, called “subjectivisim” or “relativism,” where the “ism” implies the defeat of the purpose of knowledge. All knowledge is a knowing by somebody, in some phase of his life, of something in some phase of its life. Knowledge is an intersection of two planes, and leads to a confusion between what lies on one plane with what lies on the other. The criticism of knowledge and the refinement of its techniques consist in the progressive elimination of this confusion.

The simplest and most readily corrected instance of this confusion is the perceptual judgment which imputes to the physical object where it is, the shape which it has only from where it is perceived. Once it is discovered that the elliptical shape of the penny is a projection of its circularity to a point occupied by the observer, the confusion is removed; and the round penny can be defined in terms of equidistance of all points on its perimeter, together with the system of its projections to surrounding points, in which case the initial perceptual appearance is both included and at the same time transcended.

In its essentials this analysis is applicable to all subjectivities, including the subjectivity of the present knowledge of the past. There is the “then” of the occurrence of the event-to-be-known, and there is the “now” of the occurrence of the act of knowledge. It is erroneous to attribute to one time what belongs to the other — for example, to attribute to ancient times themselves the approach to antiquity from the time of the Renaissance. The “point of view” of the Renaissance having been distinguished, it can then either be discounted, or included in the total view of antiquity in all its temporal perspectives.5 Similar considerations apply to historical criticism.

The way is now prepared to examine the meaning and validity of the contention that history has to be rewritten in every age. It is rewritten to embrace new discoveries, made possible by advancing historical techniques. Past errors are corrected and past ignorance is overcome — as will hold of all knowledge. The advance of time introduces a more distant perspective, which reveals contours which were invisible from close at hand. Events can not only be seen to have an importance which was not seen before, but they can acquire new importance. As their consequences unfold they may not only loom larger but become larger, as is the case with the Industrial Revolution, which is only today realizing its full potentialities.6 These considerations elucidate and justify a contention such as T. S. Eliot's: “But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past, in a way and to an extent the past's awareness of itself cannot show.”7 They lend no weight to subjectivistic doctrine that historical events or objects have to wait for the later historian before they can be what they were in their own time.


The expression ‘philosophy of history’ has a variety of meanings. Like ‘philosophy of science’ it may be taken to mean a fundamental examination either of a kind of knowledge, or of its subject matter. The philosophy of natural science embraces both methodology, in its most general terms; and also nature in its most general terms, that is, what was once called ‘cosmology.’ Similarly, philosophy of history deals with two questions: “What, in its most general terms, is the nature of historical knowledge?” and “What, in its most general terms, is that history which is the subject matter of historical knowledge?” The second of these questions may be attacked in either of two different, but related ways, both of which have their equivalents in philosophy of science. Herbert Spencer's famous First Principles dealt with nature in general by assembling the results of the several natural sciences, and so presenting nature as a whole. At the same time he found a unifying principle of evolution which reigned over nature as a whole. Similarly, a philosophy of history may be a piecing together of all partial histories — histories of different epochs, societies, and institutions — so as to obtain a universal or synoptic survey. Or it may claim to discover a principle governing history as a whole and which governs all particular histories.

Philosophy of history in the synoptic sense presents no theoretical problems. There is one great stream of history, if in no other sense, then at any rate in the sense in which there is one great stream of time from the remotest horizon of the past to the remotest horizon of the future, and embracing all important human events which have occurred or will occur between these limits. It is possible to link these events together in many ways — in space as well as in time, or in terms of interaction insofar as all humanly important events form parts of one interacting whole — a philosophy of history would be an account of mankind's history.

Philosophy of history in the second sense would be the discovery of a law or laws governing all history and peculiar to history. Claims to the discovery of such laws have been more or less dogmatic — resorting to dogmatism to eke out the insufficient empirical evidence.

It has been said that there are only two alternative interpretations of human history, the cyclical and the rectilinear. History either goes round and round, or it marches straight forward. These alternatives cannot refer to time itself, since even in the cyclical theory each turn of the circle is later than the last. Assuming that the reference is not to time, but to what occurs in time, these alternatives are not mutually exclusive, since it is quite possible that the course of events should sometimes go round and round, and sometimes straight forward, sometimes backward, sometimes zigzag, and thus, taken as a whole, in many directions.

The cyclical theory which prevailed in antiquity reflected the now obsolete cosmology of the philosophers — its doctrine of the circularity of celestial motions, and its doctrine of fixed species appearing and reappearing in a fixed succession.

The Hebraic-Christian philosophy of history is avowedly a reading into history of religious preconceptions — from the simplified history contained in the Old Testament, through Augustine's City of God, down to Bossuet's Histoire Universelle in the seventeenth century, in which the author's learned exploration of secondary causes was subordinated to Divine Providence as the First Cause. The course of human events is a rectilinear unfolding of God's dealings with man, from creation at the beginning to the Last Judgment at the end — a drama with sin, salvation, and the church as its central theme. The facts of history are selected, not to verify a hypothesis, but to illustrate a body of doctrine derived from revelation and authority.

The eighteenth century, committed to a belief in reason, saw history as a progressive emancipation from authority and obscurantism, and a predestined triumph of order and happiness. The nineteenth century witnessed an emphasis on the historical approach and the historical method in all fields of inquiry. Meanwhile from antiquity there had been a steady growth of so-called “critical history” — an increasing scrupulousness and an improved technique of historical discovery. Nevertheless the philosophy of history remained largely dogmatic: Comte, Buckle, and Spencer drew their concepts from natural science, Hegel from dialectic, Karl Marx from economics and dialectic. History, in short, was fitted to a design drawn from a part of itself and imposed on the whole.

The great contribution of the nineteenth century to philosophy of history, for which credit is due primarily to German thought, was its emphasis on the solidarity of culture and civilization. But this brought with it new forms of dogmatism. The greatest of modern philosophies of history, Herder's Outline of a Philosophy of the History of Man8 exercised a profound influence upon the history of the several branches of cultural history, but in its final synthesis sacrificed empirical history to an idealistic-romantic conception of the evolution of human perfection. Later writers combined “intuition” and “insight” with the analogy of the organism, and saw history as the birth, growth, senescence, and death of distinct “civilizations,” each having its own peculiar genius and physiognomy. This form of dogmatism reached its height in Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West.9 If the facts failed to fit his eight great cultures, it was history and not Spengler, whom the author held at fault.

The most recent, as well as the most sane and cautious, of the monumental philosophies of history, is Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. But this writer's very temper of empiricism, and his scrupulous scholarship, have served to emphasize the difficulty of escaping dogmatism in the attempt to make a unified drama of the totality of historical facts. Toynbee's doubt as to just how many such civilizations there are, whether nineteen or twenty-one, or possibly twenty-six (in contrast to Spengler's eight), raises doubt as to precisely what an individual civilization is. His rhythmic formulas of “challenge and response,” “withdrawal and return,” “rout and rally,” “growth, breakdown and disintegration,” have, in order to fit the facts, to be made so verbal and so flexible that there is little left in the end but the evident generalization that a plurality of human civilizations, more or less overlapping and indistinguishable, have in the past come into existence and gone out of existence; and that their fortunes and misfortunes depend on a relation between internal and external forces. And one is left in the end with a “Western Christian Civilization,” whose future, despite the author's explanation of the past, is unpredictable, and has to be entrusted to the intervention of the Deity.10

History itself, the complexity of human happenings, has burst the seams of all neatly tailored philosophies of history. Their great merit despite dogmatism and over-simplification, lies in their broad sweep, and in their emphasis on the relations, continuities, and similarities which are lost sight of in special histories. Such a masterly survey as Toynbee's is not only compendious, but brings to light certain aspects of massiveness and generality which are as solid facts as the items or limited segments with which more meticulous historians are preoccupied. They are there to be seen by one who has the far-reaching and synoptic vision to see them. But a pluralistic philosophy of history agrees better with the known facts than a monistic philosophy of history. A more modest, if less impressive, philosophy of history, reveals both manyness and disorder, threads of connection together with disconnectedness and irrelevance, false starts, detours, and vicissitudes of many kinds. Such a spectacle, despite its lack of architectural grandeur, still reminds man of his membership in the family of mankind and leaves open the possibility of a unity to be achieved by good will and enlightenment.


There are three distinguishable but clearly interrelated methods of historical knowledge: factual, explanatory, and normative. The first of these methods is divisible into three forms of inquiry: chronology, interpretation, and recreation. Historical knowledge thus seeks answers to five questions: first, “What occurred in a specific place at a specific time?”; second, “What is the importance of what occurred?”; third, “What was it like when it occurred?”; fourth, “Owing to what conditions did it occur?”; fifth, “Is it good or bad that it should have occurred?” These are all pertinent questions; none can properly be disqualified; and they all permit of answers more or less true and more or less proved.

Historical knowledge begins with so-called fact-finding, which corresponds to the “observations” of the natural and social sciences. The refinements of historical techniques have been largely focused on the accuracy and conclusiveness of determining the occurrence of an event or set of events at a date measured from the time of the historian, and compared with the dates of other events. The result of such inquiry is to assemble a set of certified chronological judgments which may, unless restricted by some principle of selection, be infinite in number; one item of knowledge to every past event. The emphasis on this branch of historical knowledge is not unwarranted, for while some of its results may be and are trivial, they are indispensable to any further historical knowledge. The interpretation, re-creation, explanation, and evaluation of an event do not constitute historical knowledge unless it is true that the event occurred when it is alleged to have occurred. Chronology provides the solid and reliable bricks, of which the higher orders of historiography are constructed. If, furthermore, the historian is to select, there must be a multitude of items from which to select; as the biographer must “know the facts” before he begins to discard. The selection will be unjustified in proportion as it merely reflects a lack of information.

Historical knowledge selects by interpretation, where the term ‘interpretation’ is taken to denote judgments as to what is of importance. These judgments are not capricious. The important is important: not because it happens to appeal to the fancy of the historian, but because of its actual relation to the large-scale interests of mankind. The newspaper fails to be history when and insofar as its headlines are designed merely to attract the reader's attention instead of directing it to events which have far-reaching implications. Only some of the events which occur are “news,” and the reporter or editor must screen the happenings of the day; but news is not history until the momentous emerges from the welter of petty incidents, crimes, scandals, and other matters of merely “local” or “passing” interest. No days pass without the occurrence of infinitely many events; many days pass without events which are newsworthy; many more days, perhaps years, may pass without events that are “historic”; it is not impossible that there should be countries of whose entire lives it could be said, “Happy are the countries which have no history.”

Distinguished achievements in historical knowledge are rare because they require over and above industry and accuracy a sense of proportion — a capacity to discover the greater movements which bear the lesser movements on their backs, as the waves bear the ripples and the tides the waves. Furthermore, historical interpretation requires foreground and background. The judgment of importance is based on a seeing of relationships. No historian can, for example, interpret the discovery of America, without knowing the later history of both America and Europe; or the assassination of Lincoln except in the light of the era of Southern Reconstruction.

While interpretation presupposes chronology, the reverse is also true. It is a mistake to suppose that chronological items are first gathered regardless of their importance. The observations of science are not made at random, but are selected by their relevance to theories already accepted, or to hypotheses proposed. Science begins with unities of common sense and looks for data which will confirm, extend, or correct them. Similarly, historical inquiry does not collect miscellaneous facts, and then discover that some are important and other unimportant. The first of these tasks could never be completed. But having assumed certain items to be important the historian then looks for further items which are related to these. This does not forbid the turning up of new items whose importance had not hitherto been suspected, but only that judgments of importance already made serve as a guide to further fact-finding. Chronology and interpretation interact.

In the third place, historical knowledge “re-lives” or “re-creates” the past. This method is required because the historical object is individual and unique, and cannot be adequately represented by abstract ideas. It has to be recaptured as it was in the concrete fullness. The imagination enables the historian to insert himself in the past and to follow the flow of time, from that time with its past, through its present, to its future. He achieves an imaginary equivalent of contemporary perception and feeling.11

This is the office of “narrative history.” It may coincide with literature, as in the historical novel, provided it satisfies the cognitive requirements of truth and proof and not merely the requirements of agreeable contemplation; when history is also literature it satisfies both requirements. It is not to be supposed that what is imagined is necessarily illusory. Images constitute one of the most common forms of theory, serving the purpose of cognition by their similarity to that for which they prepare the mind. Memory constitutes the most familiar, but by no means the only, example. The knowledge which one has of familiar “scenes,” the expectation of what places or persons are “like,” or will prove to be “like,” consists as a rule of sensory images which are verifiable when the image is succeeded by actual sense-perception. This form of cognition is peculiarly suited to concrete situations or events such as constitute the objects of historical knowledge.


The explanatory method in historical knowledge is of limitless scope, because the concrete and unique event which constitutes its subject matter emerges from the confluences of so many tributaries. It is not difficult to discover necessary conditions, but the discovery of its sufficient cause is an almost impossible task, aggravated by the impossibility of performing controlled experiments. This multiplicity of causes and complexity of conditions has led some to conclude, quite unreasonably, that history is not “determined” at all; or to ascribe its determination to a principle, such as Divine Providence, drawn from outside the stream of history, or a principle invented ad hoc, such as Fate, Necessity, or History itself, personified and capitalized.

The expression “historical determinism” is at present in bad odor because of its association with Marxism. It attributes historical events to one type of cause and ignores other types. There is a good reason for condemning Marxian determinism in particular, but not historical determinism in general — taken to mean that historical events, like all events, have their conditions, which, insofar as they can be discovered, serve to explain them.

Looking empirically for historical causes in the stream of events itself, and recognizing their multiplicity and diversity, the explanatory method in history discovers, first, natural causes. There are more remote natural causes, such as the available supply of solar energy, and the general conditions of the earth's surface; and there are more immediate and variable causes such as climate, soil, topography, and natural resources. In historical knowledge it may not be assumed that any of the remote natural causes are absolutely constant. Historical events cannot be insulated from their physical environment. The descent of the icecap has something to do with man's past, and the cooling of the sun may have something to do with his future. The exhaustion of the supply of water and minerals, and the changing of coastlines, are already factors to be reckoned with. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, and other natural upheavals, intrude from time to time in a manner that leaves no doubt of their power to mold human history.

To the natural causes and conditions of historical events are to be added the cultural. Man resumes his affairs from time to time where he left off, and what he is enabled to achieve is conditioned by what he inherits from his own antecedent achievements. His history is to be explained by his comparatively stable social environment of political, legal, and economic institutions. The causes of the American Revolution, for example, may be found in the colonial form of government, the common law, or the frontier economy. There were also religious causes, such as protestant Christianity, and educational causes, such as the influence of the British university system on the New England Puritans; and there were humane cultural causes, such as the science and art which the settlers brought with them from Europe. There were not only these general causes, but the particular deeds and achievements falling within these several types. All of these causes may legitimately be invoked for explanatory purposes, and no one of them may properly be excluded owing to an historian's prepossessions. They are here cited not with the intention of exhausting them, but to demonstrate the fact of their inexhaustible number and variety.

In the case of individual events whose causes are multiple, it is customary to refer to one cause as the cause, when it is the precipitating or crucial cause or the cause through which the event can be controlled. This selection of one cause for special attention has an application to historical causes. The last increment of water which leads the river to overflow its banks or to break the dam, is considered as the cause of the flood, despite the fact that there would be no flood were it not for many other conditions, such as the shape and composition of the river bed, the angle of declivity, the general topography of the basin, and the volume of water up to the crucial point. The straw which breaks the camel's back would not have this important and unfortunate effect were it not for the weakness of the camel's back and the load already carried; but it is singled out for attention because it is “the last straw,” whose addition or non-addition “makes the difference.”

But the last straw was added by the camel driver, and if he had withheld it he would have prevented the event. The small break in the dike could have been stopped by the hand of man; and if it had been stopped the dike would not have been swept away, despite its fragility and the pressure to which it was already subjected. This was the cause through which the catastrophe was humanly preventable. The course of history abounds in analogies — the last provocation which caused the outbreak of war, the saving conciliatory gesture which prolonged peace, the arrival of Blücher which “turned the tide” at Waterloo, the death of the heir which precipitated the struggle for succession. There are throughout history partings of the way where the addition or subtraction of a slight force determines the occurrence or non-occurrence of an important event, and where the adding or subtracting is decided by one or more human individuals.

Is the individual the product of history or is he the maker of history? Stated in these general terms it is like the dispute between the environmentalists and the hereditarians: like that dispute it should never have been stated in terms of an either-or. The individual is a product of history, but, being produced, he then becomes one of its makers. This broad conclusion being admitted, there will be differences of degree in the extent to which an individual person makes history. When an historical event requires the combined action of a considerable number of units of a type of which the supply is abundant, no single unit is irreplaceable; but when the supply is limited even an individual of no eminence at all may “cast the deciding vote.” Or, the individual's action may be decisive owing to his uniqueness of talent or station. Persons who sat on thrones, or who happened to be the sons of their parents, were once so placed that all of their acts were of momentous consequence; and the same has been true of our more recently invented dictators. In a more fluid society, it lies within the range of the individual's ambition to make himself one of these individuals who occupy “positions of power” — who have their hands on the lever.

The decisive role of genius in human history is not disproved by the fact that these exceptionally endowed individuals appear in clusters, as in Greek antiquity, or at the time of the Renaissance, or the rise of modern science. Whether there be one genius or several does not affect the argument; whether the event would not have occurred “but for this individual,” or “but for these individuals,” or “but for this or that individual,” the principle remains the same.

There is another general question of historical causality which is closely related to the role of the individual, the question, namely, of the role of ideas. The contention that ideas do not act as causes, has at the present time few supporters. No balanced judgment would affirm that the religious idea of the recovery of Jerusalem was not at least a contributing cause of the Crusades, or that the idea of the Holy Roman Empire was not at least a partial cause of the eagerness of German emperors to be crowned in Rome, or that the abolitionist creed did nothing to bring about the American Civil War. Ideas, however mistaken or fictitious, have throughout history played a decisive role in major wars and historical cataclysms;12 and “ideologies” today threaten the peace of the world, and perhaps determine the survival of civilization.

No doubt ideas which cause important events are widely disseminated, but they start with individuals, or they are spread from individual to individual, by the exercise of individual capacities. It is a common error among philosophers of history to suppose that ideas lead a life of their own, divorced from the men who think or believe them — that history skips from peak to peak, or operates in the stratosphere by an “ideal necessity.”13 The individual operates in history as the originator and carrier of ideas. His thoughts and beliefs govern his actions, which may be of decisive importance; he communicates his thoughts and beliefs to another and may thus induce his decisive action; or by communicating his thoughts and beliefs he may start or prolong a chain reaction resulting in a sharing of ideas by the total group.

History thus abounds in openings or points of application where the decision of the individual, made in obedience to his ideas, affects the course of human events on that level of importance which merits the name of ‘historic.’ It makes a difference, and it may make “all the difference.” This is the sense in which the course of history is “rational”: the causes of history embrace the action of individuals who act “for reasons.”

Does the variety and multiplicity of historical causes mean that historical explanation is to be distributed among the special sciences, or is there still room for an over-all explanation? There is one such possibility which arises from the very multiplicity of causes itself. The major historical events are to be explained only by the convergence of causes. Thus the historian in explaining the French Revolution, or the Italian Renaissance, or the rise of nationalism, will not only find many causes, but will find that many causes work together, and reinforce one another. The unique historical event can be seen as the effect of a trend, in which many forces are allied. The event will then occur as though the many favorable conditions had been governed by a common purpose; there need be no such purpose, but only a fortuitous alliance of many independent causes. The confluence of historical causes also permits of negative inferences. When an event has occurred under certain conditions it can be stated that they are at least consistent with its occurrence.

Although such explanations are valid, and agree with the empirical evidence, they will not satisfy those who are in search of “historical laws” — laws which operate on the historical level of complexity, laws which are peculiar to history and which exert a force which cannot be broken down into more elementary forces. The contention that there are historical laws, whatever they may be, has been argued on the ground that particular causes can be eliminated one by one in turn without affecting the outcome. Thus a recent historian, speaking of major events such as the Protestant Reformation in England, writes:

These great changes seem to have come about with a certain inevitableness; there seems to have been an independent train of events, some inexorable necessity controlling the progress of human affairs … Examined closely, weighed and measured carefully, set in true perspective, the personal, the casual, the individual influence in history sinks in significance, and great cyclical forces loom up. Events come of themselves, so to speak; that is, they come so consistently and unavoidably as to rule out as causes not only physical phenomena but voluntary human effort. So arises the conception of law in history.14

The fallacy of such reasoning is apparent. If Henry VIII had not fallen in love with Anne Boleyn no doubt the English breach with the Pope would still have occurred; no doubt the elimination of any one, or of several of its conditions would not have prevented its occurrence. But the conclusion is that it took a combination of many conditions to bring about so momentous an event, and that while some of them could have been eliminated, and perhaps all taken in turn, nevertheless had more than a certain number been eliminated all at once the event would not have occurred. There is no justification for invoking any residual cause, any historical cause per se.

A more hopeful procedure is represented by those who discover, or seek to discover, certain structures of events which repeat themselves, and whose general characteristics will help to explain their particular instances. A case in point is the concept of revolution. There is, it is alleged, a type of historical change so named, which has its characteristic succession of phases. The French Revolution, or the Bolshevik Revolution, being revolutions, can be explained by these characteristics of revolution in general.15 Another example is afforded by the “pendulum theory,” especially in its application to a two-party political system: there is an oscillation between the “ins” and the “outs.”

Such explanations are instructive, but lack decisiveness of proof, and afford very slender ground for prediction. The difficulty lies in the limitless number of variables involved. Though it is sometimes said that history is an experiment in living, it is far from being a “controlled experiment.” One cannot limit the variables by creating an artificial laboratory situation. There is always serious doubt as to whether any given historical situation is a revolution, or a two-party political system. The concepts are either too loose to permit of deduction, or too abstract to fit the facts.

Such explanations are inferior to those of the special cultural sciences. Indeed they owe their explanatory virtue to what they borrow from these sciences. The tendency of revolutions to pass from a moderate phase to a phase of violence and finally to a restoration of order under authority, and the tendency of the party in power to wear out its popularity, can be explained in terms of the instincts of fear and combativeness, the accumulation of grievances, or the “looking for a scapegoat”; nothing is added by invoking general “historical laws.”

In short, the best promise of historical explanation lies not in the discovery of causes sui generis, but in the assembling and focusing of knowledge borrowed from all the sciences of man and his environment. Even then the claims of explanation must be comparatively modest in view of the inexhaustibility of the factors involved in the concrete individual situation.


Historical knowledge, like all knowledge, is descriptive. To describe man's deeds and achievements in terms of his interests is at the same time to define standards by which they may be judged good or evil, more or less good, more or less evil; in short, normatively.

There are as many forms of normative historical knowledge as there are standards with which historical events can be compared; and their number is legion. Such standards may be external, as when one judges the early history of Indonesia by the standards of Western civilization; or they may be intrinsic, as when it is judged by its own standards. It is commonly said that Gibbon's history of early Christianity was “prejudiced.” But this charge would have carried no onus whatever if he had stated his prejudice; though he could have judged early Christianity by what the Christians themselves were trying to achieve, rather than by what he, Gibbon, would have liked them to achieve. This is a familiar distinction, recognized by the great historians. The mixture of piety and ferocity which characterized the Catholic persecution of the Huguenots, and the equally fanatical persecutions by protestants, can be judged by the ends by which these persecutions were governed; or by the more tolerant purpose of later times. Both judgments are normative, and both are, or may be, true judgments of comparison.

But this is not a necessary disjunction, for it is usually possible to find some standards which are common both to the age of the judge and to the age which is judged. This is the case whenever the same interest occurs in both ages. Let us suppose, and it is not an arbitrary supposition, that the need for polity, law, and economy, and the love of beauty and true knowledge, and the aspirations to personal development and resourcefulness, and to piety and faith, are persistent and recurrent interests. We may then say unqualifiedly that the Magna Carta was politically admirable; or that Rome made notable contributions to law; or that the economy of Israel has advanced beyond that of adjoining Arab countries; or that Greek antiquity ranks high in the order of humane culture; or that Pestalozzi and Froebel have taught us something in the field of educational endeavor; or that the history of the Hebrews and of India are noteworthy chapters in the history of religion.

Among the standards applicable to history by the historians there is none so decried, but none so pertinent, justifiable, and unavoidable as the moral standard. The only valid objection to a moralizing historiography is to its naïveté and lack of discrimination, as when the historian judges history by his personal moral bias without being aware of it, or judges by the conscience of his own age without recognizing that it differs from the conscience of the past.

Man is a moral being, and it is impossible to characterize a person without appraising him morally. Indeed such appraisal is a favorite theme among historians of recognized competence and distinction. There is a special fascination in the attempt to describe “great men” whose characterization requires that they shall be both admired and condemned. Freeman, objecting to Lord Brougham's severe condemnation of the Emperor Henry V, says that “it is seldom fair to judge any historical character by so unswerving a standard; we must make allowance for the circumstances, the habits, the beliefs, the prejudices of each man's time.”16 The following appraisal of Frederick Barbarossa explicitly adopts as its standard the conscience of the Emperor's own time:

Possessing frank and open manners, untiring and unresting energy, and a prowess which found its native element in difficulty and danger, he seemed the embodiment of the chivalrous and warlike spirit of his age, and was the model of all the qualities which then won highest admiration.17

It is to be observed that with the possible exception of “warlike spirit” these qualities still win admiration, so that the historian is in large part judging this historic character by a standard common to the twelfth and the nineteenth centuries. Frederick Barbarossa mixed cruelty with clemency; and though he wrought havoc in Italy and the Holy Land, he gave his German subjects comparative peace and prosperity. His successor, Frederick II, was licentious, quarrelsome, and inordinately ambitious, but he was learned and cultivated. Charles the Bold, in a later age, was cruel and warlike, but at the same time brave, and austere in his private life.18 Antiphon of ancient times has been condemned by posterity as a traitor, an employer of assassins, and an unprincipled ghost writer, but was praised by Thucydides as “a man inferior in virtue to none of his contemporaries”; which means, according to Jowett, that he possessed “ability, force of character, and faithfulness to party ties.”19

Similar mixed judgments are commonly pronounced on Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Richelieu, Cromwell, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and other men of action, in whom ambition and ruthlessness have been mingled with statesmanship and justice. They are commonly condemned by the standards of a later age at the same time that they are approved by standards common to their own age and the age of the historian. There is an implicit assumption that the common standard is the conscience of European Christendom, and an approximation to the conscience of mankind; and that the later standard is a more enlightened conscience.

Both of those norms (universality and enlightenment) by which conscience itself is judged, carry the criticism back to a fundamental moral norm. When morality is taken as man's effort to resolve conflict and create a harmony of interests, and thus to disperse happiness, then the events of his political, ethical, legal, economic and other cultural history can be seen in the light of this effort, and judged in its terms, quite objectively, to be successes or failures. This standard is not read into history by the historian, but is found there in the actual struggle of mankind.

The remarkable thing is not that historical knowledge should be normative but that this fact should ever have been doubted. There is scarcely a page of written history that does not record successes and failures and distribute praise and blame. This does not imply any hortatory intent on the part of the historian, but is prescribed by the nature of his subject matter. If historical knowledge is about men's deeds, their rising and declining fortunes, and their influence, for better or for worse, on their time and on posterity, it cannot be descriptive without being normative.

If, then, the historian is to avoid dogmatism he has only to make his standards explicit. This requires that he shall examine his own personal standards and the standards of his time and place; he must also understand the prevailing standards of the time of which he writes. Every historian must be a social historian, and something of a psychologist; implicitly or explicitly, he should have a philosophy of value. His “objectivity” is not to be achieved by a neglect of standards, but by an enlargement of his field of objectivity to embrace standards. This is asking much of him, but it greatly exalts his role.


The question of progress arises only when the distinction is made between later in time and better in some scale of value. It is easy to slip into the use of the term ‘progress’ when it means only change, continuity, and accumulation. Thus Ortega y Gasset who says that “the error of the old doctrine of progress lay in affirming a priori that man progresses toward the better,” and who insists on the perpetual variability of history as contrasted with the invariability of nature, also affirms that “the same knowledge that discovers to us men's variation makes patent his progressive consistency. The European of today is not only different from what he was fifty years ago; his being now includes that of fifty years ago.”20 It is evident that today does not include yesterday, except in a very limited sense; and even if it did, mere addition does not merit the name of progress — otherwise the increase of a sandbank or coral island would be progress.

Having made the distinction between time and value, it is then meaningful to ask whether the later is also the better. Progress, in other words, is a curve defined by two coördinates, a time-coördinate and a value-coördinate. “The later the better” is thus a diagonal between these coördinates above the line, indicating that each step forward in time is also a step up in value. Granting that there are two coördinates other curves are also possible: a diagonal below the line, indicating that each step forward is a step downward — “the later the worse”; or an irregular curve indicating that as history moves forward in time it moves up and down in value — “the later the sometimes better and sometimes worse.”

This does not represent the full complexity of the question. For there may be many value-coördinates, and as history moves forward in time it may move up in some respects and down in others. In order that a later time may be said to be better than an earlier time it is necessary that their values should be commensurable. This condition is satisfied by the continuity or identity of interest. Insofar as the same tasks are from time to time repeated or resumed, such achievements can be judged in terms of such tasks as comparatively successful or unsuccessful. Whether there is or is not a value on the whole in respect of which history on the whole can be said to move up or down, is, as has been pointed out, highly questionable. When the poet says, “Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs,” the absence of doubt is due not to the evidence of events but to an optimistic faith, an echo of a religious or metaphysical dogma. Or the idea of total moral progress may be based on the equally dubious doctrine that there is some one scale of value which implies all the rest.

Granting that progress or decline is measured by two coördinates, one may inquire whether their correlation is merely a matter of fact due to no ascribable cause, or whether there is a necessary connection between the passage of time and a rise in the scale of value. It is only in the latter case that one can properly speak of a law or principle of progress.

A survey of the history of Europe and America during the last two centuries presents a dramatic picture of the improvement of “social conditions.” In England at the beginning of this period hundreds of trivial offenses were punishable by death; prisons were unspeakably filthy, brutal and corrupt; women and children worked in coal pits; chimneysweeps of six were whipped to keep them awake; press gangs were employed to recruit the army and navy; and half of the population received no schooling. Serfdom was the order of the day in Europe and slavery in America. Dueling was a common practice. Plagues were rampant, The people were politically helpless and their protests were harshly suppressed. These conditions were not greatly altered until toward the close of the century; since then their improvement has been so rapid and so radical as to merit the name of revolution. Prisons and penal laws, hospitals and public health, conditions of labor, education and political rights, have been so “reformed” that to Europeans of the present generation the misery and helplessness which were the common lot even a century ago are both shocking and incredible.21

This change for the better, profound as it has been, in itself implies no general principle of progress, but only a happy conjunction of circumstances. The picture portrays only a limited area of the earth's surface, a fraction of its inhabitants, and a selected aspect of their lives. It would be quite possible to draw another and less favorable picture. Suffice it to mention the changes which have culminated in the great economic depressions and world wars of the present century, the widespread evils that have followed in their trains, and the gloomy outlook for the future.

There remains the question whether there are any reasons why historical change should be for the better on the whole or in part, or why changes for the better should in the long run prevail over changes for the worse. The simplest view of this type is the view that good has a greater durability than evil, so that time itself will operate selectively. Thus Count Keyserling asserts that “only the true and the right survive in the long run.”22 Such a statement is either an expression of faith, reflecting the resolve of the will that “the true and the right” shall prevail; or it is a dogma, deduced from the assumption of its own truth. If nature and history are conceived as the expression of a spiritual principle which embraces all the perfections, then these perfections will manifest themselves, if not in the short run, then in the long run. But in proportion as they do not manifest themselves the conception is disproved — unless it is to be accepted as a dogma, that is, despite the evidence to the contrary.

This is not the worst of it. For when a dogma appears to be contrary to the facts there is an almost irresistible tendency to select and interpret the facts so that they will agree with the dogma. The dogma of progress thus leads to the ignoring or excusing of evil. As a recent writer has said, with justifiable indignation:

There is something inexpressibly brutal in the dogma of necessary universal progress, which is simply the old dogma that this is the best of all possible worlds in a temporal form, to wit, that every change in the world is a change for the better. Like other forms of brutality, this glorification of the historically actual is due to a lack of sympathy or imagination which prevents us from seeing all the finer possibilities, hopes and aspirations, at the expense of which the triumph of the actual is frequently purchased. The doctrine that right always triumphs is but an insidious form of the immoral doctrine that what triumphs (i.e. might) is always right.23

Sober second thought has discredited all attempts to derive a general law of progress from the Darwinian theory of evolution. There is, no doubt, a “survival of the fit” — but fit for what? The only general answer to this question is: fit to survive. That which is fit to survive corresponds to no eminence in any scale of value, not even the biological scale; for given certain conditions which it is not difficult to imagine, and which some scientists are disposed to predict, it may be that in the very long run it is not man or superman but the most rudimentary forms of life that will succeed in the struggle for existence. If societies are substituted for species the answer is the same. The kind of society which will prevail depends not only on the changing physical environment, but on the type of competition among societies. If it be war, then the last surviving society may be the most ruthless, in which the arts of civilization have been eliminated or harnessed to brute force.

Another principle of progress which has had its day but has succumbed to a candid recognition of the actual course of events, is that of a “natural” or “ideal” development, or succession of stages, through which every society and institution is destined to pass. The supposition that history is divisible into integral cultures which, like the living organism, are born, mature, grow old, and die, has already been examined and rejected. Even if it were tenable it would not be a doctrine of progress, but rather the opposite. At best it would promise an endless cycle of growth and decay; and since there is no guarantee that new cultures will be born to replace the old, the most certain ultimate prospect would be that of death. The classifications of societies as primitive or advanced; as hunting, nomadic, agricultural, and industrial; or as promiscuous, endogamous, exogamous, matriarchal, and patriarchal, afford no evidence that these stages succeed one another in a necessary order, or that the last is better than the first.24


If there is no over-all law of progress, there may yet be piecemeal progress — strains of progress, aspects of the course of human events, in which time works for the better.25 This more modest and empirical approach to the question compels the admission that there are also regressive factors in history, as well as certain forms of historical achievement in which the passage of time can be said to make no difference either for better or for worse.

This last possibility has already been explored in the comparison of art and science. The following paragraph provides a text for further comment:

There are in life two elements, one transitory and progressive, the other comparatively, if not absolutely, non-progressive and eternal, and the soul of man is chiefly concerned with the second. Try to compare our inventions, our material civilization, our stores of accumulated knowledge with those of the age of Aeschylus or Aristotle or St. Francis, and the comparison is absurd. Our superiority is beyond question and beyond measure. But compare any chosen poet of our age with Aeschylus, any philosopher with Aristotle, any saintly preacher with St. Francis, and the result is totally different … The things of the spirit depend on will, on effort, on aspiration, on the quality of the individual soul, and not on discoveries and material advances which can be accumulated and added up.26

There are certain forms of human achievement that owe comparatively little to the passage of time. It is necessary to say “comparatively” for there is no form of human achievement that derives no advantage from the passage of time. The sage, the seer, the saint, the artistic or scientific genius, lives in a society which is so developed as to permit some individuals to be freed from the exigencies of subsistence and the inflexibility of custom. The examples commonly cited to illustrate that which is “eternal” in human achievement have all occurred within a comparatively recent chapter of man's long history. It is a matter of record that genius did not flourish until human culture had already ascended to a high plateau. A considerable stretch of progress lies behind the non-progressive.

But when human life has reached a certain level which permits of what we call ‘civilization,’ then and thereafter there occur human achievements which owe little or nothing of their superlative quality to the time in which they occur. The saintliness of St. Francis, or the ideas of Socrates, or the plays of Shakespeare, values of love or ironical wisdom or poetic insight, depended on what is unchangeable in human nature, and on what is universal in the human situation.

When we say that the fine arts are unprogressive, what do we mean? Not that there is no improvement in the instruments of art, as there clearly is: musical instruments, pigments, chisels, building materials, printing, communication. Not that the artist of each period does not have before him new techniques resulting from past experience, and an increasing store of past achievements from which to derive stimulus or guidance. Not that modern social institutions do not, with some exceptions, afford the artist greater freedom of opportunity, a better education, and a greater recognition, than he enjoyed in the past. But that these things do not in themselves increase the aesthetic value of the product — its appeal to aesthetic enjoyment and taste. The factors which do count aesthetically — sensory appeal, form, the happy marriage of these with their subject matter — are independent of the particular time of their occurrence.

These same considerations apply to heroic qualities, to purity of character, to power, to daring, to inventiveness, to creativity, and to fertility of imagination, in all fields of activity. They are demonstrations of what man with his native endowment can do in any situation. The undated can be thus divorced from the dated; and that which is not dated is never outdated. It has a finality as it is: it is not disqualified by lack of that which is yet to come.

With its non-progressive aspects are to be contrasted those aspects of civilization in which achievement is built on past achievement. Insofar as past achievement is preserved (a very important condition which may always be destroyed by natural or social catastrophe) later interests enjoy an advantage over earlier, owing to the effect of accumulation. Those who come later in time possess a greater fund of resources, whether tools, or wealth, information, ideas, techniques, memories, or models. Whatever the human race learns by experience gains from “long experience.” Through the community of tradition, lessons once learned by trial and error do not have again to be learned by that costly process, but provide a starting point for further experiment. Both of these principles of progress — accumulation and learning by experience — apply notably to knowledge, and in particular to the corpus and the proofs of science.

The later is better when uses are identical. What the present possesses would then have been welcomed in the past by those engaged in the same task. The hand plow is “superseded” by the horse-drawn plow, and eventually by the tractor, because each in turn will do the same job better and because he who has the job to do will prefer and adopt the better. Men not only learn through time to do better what they have already done, but they learn the meaning of what they are doing; and their action becomes not only more efficient, but also more rational — more consciously purposive. At the same time that men acquire improved means they better understand their ends.

There are progressive factors in the moral life which are not wholly unrecognizable even in this age of war, confusion, and gloomy forebodings. Morality is the organization of interests for their greater security and for their fuller realization. The limitations which moral organization imposes internally tend to be resisted, and from this expansive pressure arises a tendency to liberalization, or to “social reconstruction.” Happy are the societies in which liberalization springs from the wisdom of statesmen. Lord Acton said of the Athenians that “they avoided violent and convulsive change, because the rate of their reforms kept ahead of the popular demand.”27

This progress in liberality is to be credited largely to the implementation by modern technology of the fundamental human motives of self-preservation, ambition, emulation, and compassion. Those who have already risen in life are stimulated by an expectation of rising higher. Those who have not yet profited, or who have profited little, have come to believe that human misery is not necessary; with the result that world religions have shifted their emphasis from resignation to a hopeful humanitarianism. Social progress of this type, be it noted, is not ordained; but is the effect of causes that are in turn dependent on natural resources, political and legal order, public education, and the expanding economy of mass production.

At the same time there is a tendency to universality, that is, to more inclusive moral units. Existing units, such as tribes, principalities, or nation-states, come into contact with one another at their peripheries, and this contact presents the dilemma of destructive war or constructive peace. There results a situation in which men are forced to choose between anarchy — and through anarchy, annihilation — and an extension of the moral order to embrace ever larger areas of life. In short, the same forces which produce social revolution and international war impel the social intelligence of man to the contrivance of moral solutions as the only way of survival.

This is one side of the picture. There is another, a regressive side. In certain respects time works against, and not for, the interests of man. The increase of population is a cumulative function of time, and presents grave, perhaps insoluble, problems. There is an irreversible exhaustion of natural resources, which may or may not be offset by technological progress. Civilization is brittle, and becomes more brittle the higher its level. The best things in life are peculiarly vulnerable. Wars produce dictatorships; and mass communication, one of the proudest achievements of improved technology, facilitates war, dictatorship, and demagoguery. Problems or crises which induce successful attempts to find a solution, may also prove insoluble and induce despair.

Progress itself, because it is local or partial, may work against progress. Because different contemporary societies have reached different stages of progress they find it difficult to understand one another, and to work, or even live, together. Technological progress, which is the most indisputable of all forms of progress, has to be paid for. It tends to the production of disutilities as well as utilities; or for artifacts for which men try in vain to find a use after they are produced. Henry Ford thus reflected upon that progress to which he had made so notable a contribution:

Progress, as the world has thus far known it, is accompanied by a great increase in the things of life … There is no adequate realization of the large proportion of the labour and material of industry that is used in furnishing the world with its trumpery and trinkets, which are made only to be sold, and are bought merely to be owned — that perform no service in the world and are at last mere rubbish as at first they were mere waste.28

A hundred years ago, when technology was in its infancy, Emerson called attention to its costs:

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other … The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky … His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy … some vigor of wild virtue.29

And so of progress: there are many questions, and there are many answers. Is there in the course of human history a progressive or a regressive tendency? The answer is yes and no. The final balance must await evidence which is not available. Time is long, and the last judgment lies beyond the range of empirical knowledge. In the absence of any a priori proof the question passes from the domain of knowledge to the domain of faith.


What is to be learned from history besides a knowledge of history? It does not itself define a standard of value unless on the unwarranted assumption that it is progressive. But despite the fact that history never repeats itself, it does embrace similarities, and so can reveal relationships and causal connections by the knowledge of which posterity can profit. Through their distance in time these can be objectively and coolly considered. Lessons can be learned from the past without offense to pride, and without being distorted by passion or the pressures of immediate action. One can hold human life at arm's length. Historical knowledge delivers to the men of any given time an immense legacy. They become the “heirs of all the ages.” It creates a sense of identity with all mankind. It enlarges the horizon, and corrects the provincialism and snobbism of the here and now, or the modern.

Historical knowledge has its consolations. It was once supposed to reveal a better bygone past — a golden age — which bred a sense of inestimable loss. Now that, as a consequence of historical studies, the past seems less golden, men who complain of the present comfort themselves with the thought that things were once worse. A man who finds society corrupt, or men ignorant, or practices brutal, can look back to earlier chapters and find a greater corruption, ignorance, and brutality. A man who finds taxes high can read Sydney Smith's description of England at the opening of the nineteenth century:

The school-boy whips his taxed top; the beardless youth manages his taxed horse with a taxed bridle on a taxed road; and the dying Englishman, pouring his medicine, which has paid 7 per cent., into a spoon that has paid 15 per cent., — flings himself back upon his chintz bed, which has paid 22 per cent., — and expires in the arms of an apothecary, who has paid a license of a hundred pounds for the privilege of putting him to death. His whole property is then immediately taxed from 2 to 10 per cent. Besides the probate, large fees are demanded for burying him in the chancel; his virtues are handed down to posterity on taxed marble; and he is then gathered to his fathers, — to be taxed no more.30

And finally, historical knowledge teaches the lesson of patience, and creates the courage to bear the short-range disappointments by taking the longer view. As it opens up the past, frees it from romantic glamor, and reveals the long road which man has trod, tortuous and uneven though it be, man is reconciled to the distance that has still to be traversed before his high hopes can be fulfilled. He does not mistake any single battle for the war. He knows that “times change,” and that time may work for, rather than against, his ends. He knows that as the world of today was unpredictable from yesterday, so tomorrow is unpredictable from today; and that at least to some extent, and perhaps to an increasing extent, what the future has “in store” will be the effect not of implacable external necessity, but of his own resolve.

  • 1.

    The identification of historical subject matter with historical knowledge makes sense only on the supposition that a human deed embraces all of its relations, including those which unfold in later time and which are revealed to the thought of that later time. The most valuable exponent of this monistic-organicist-idealist view is Benedetto Croce, according to whom reality=history=philosophy.

  • 2.

    Hajo Holborn, “History and the Humanities,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 9 (1948), p. 67.

  • 3.

    Cf. Arnold J. Toynbee's chapter on “The Unit of Historical Study,” which he finds to be a society or culture: A Study of History, abridged by D. C. Somervell, 1947, pp. 1–11.

  • 4.

    Cf. R. G. Collingwood, The Historical Imagination, 1935; and The Philosophy of History, 1930.

  • 5.

    Cf. the Author's Puritanism and Democracy, 1944, ch. iii.

  • 6.

    This perspective interpretation of the facts of history suggests the value for the historian of knowing the near as well as the remote perspectives: the value of viewing the past as continuous, and thus, for example, of viewing antiquity from the standpoint of the Hellenistic and medieval periods. Many misunderstandings of history arise from “skipped intermediaries” of perspective. The past has not leaped, but has grown, into the present.

  • 7.

    “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays, 1934, p. 6.

  • 8.

    J. G. von Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit, 1784–91.

  • 9.

    Untergang des Abendlandes, trans. by C. F. Atkinson, 1926. Of this writer, a contemporary and more critical philosopher of history has said: “His ideas are an unexpected commingling of world-old analogies and up-to-date conclusions in art, logic and science, precariously formulated and enveloped in an atmosphere of the portentous.” (F. J. Teggart, “Spengler,” Saturday Review of Literature, January 19, 1929.)

  • 10.

    Cf. A. Toynbee, op. cit., passim (consult Table of Contents).

  • 11.

    Dean Gilman praises Gibbon for “that truly philosophical discrimination (justesse d'esprit) which judges the past as it would judge the present; which does not permit itself to be blinded by the clouds which time gathers around the dead, and which prevent our seeing that, under the toga, as under the modern dress, in the senate as in our councils, men were what they still are, and that events took place eighteen centuries ago as they take place in our days”; E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with notes by Dean Gilman and M. Guizot, 1854, Vol. I, pp. x-xi.

  • 12.

    Cf. E. A. Freeman, Historical Essays, First Series, 1871, pp. 133–4.

  • 13.

    F. J. Teggart, Theory of History, 1925, p. 87.

  • 14.

    E. P. Cheyney, “Law in History,” American Historical Review, XXIX, 2 (1924), pp. 234–5.

  • 15.

    Cf. e.g. C. Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution, 1938.

  • 16.

    E. A. Freeman, op. cit., p. 117.

  • 17.

    Frederick I (Barbarossa),” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (italics mine).

  • 18.

    Cf. E. A. Freeman, op. cit., pp. 278 ff., 290 ff., 339 ff.; Lord Acton, The History of Freedom, 1922, IV, V.

  • 19.

    Thucydides, History, trans. by B. Jowett, Vol. I, p. 594, and Vol. II, p. 502.

  • 20.

    Towards a Philosophy of History, 1941, p. 218.

  • 21.

    For an admirable survey of this reform, cf. G. Trevelyan, English Social History, 1942.

  • 22.

    H. Keyserling, The Recovery of Truth, 1929, p. 522.

  • 23.

    M. R. Cohen, Reason and Nature, 1931, p. 378.

  • 24.

    Cf. M. R. Cohen, op. cit., p. 382; F. J. Teggart, op. cit., pp. 93, 116.

  • 25.

    Karl R. Popper speaks of “piecemeal social engineering”; The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1950, p. 3. Despite many points of difference there is a fundamental bond of agreement between this admirable book and the present work.

  • 26.

    G. Murray, Religio Grammatici: The Religion of a Man of Letters, George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1918, pp. 23–4.

  • 27.

    The History of Freedom and Other Essays, 1922, p. 66.

  • 28.

    My Life and Work, 1926, p. 268.

  • 29.

    B. Atkinson (ed.), Complete Essays and Other Writings of Emerson, 1950, pp. 166–7.

  • 30.

    “America,” 1820, Works, 1860, p. 140.

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