Philosophical history, or speculative philosophy of history as it has also been called (usually pejoratively, by critics), is suddenly back in the mainstream, as the claimed ‘end of history’ is debated on every side. It essentially starts with the work of the isolated Neapolitan enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Vico was the first thinker to set out a systematic secular account of world history, conceived above all as the evolutionary articulation of civilization implementing basic organizing and explanatory principles. Vico was followed by a series of thinkers who, in varyingly explicit and completed form, also attempted to produce unified synthesized theoretical pictures of human development toward a supposed pinnacle in a cosmopolitan present or a nascent idealized future: Herder, Hegel, Saint-Simon, Marx, Buckle, Comte, Spengler and Toynbee are leading figures in this progression. To be sure, several of these thinkers had other theoretical pursuits or priorities. But each had a conception of world history and a set of principles to explain its movement toward what the thinker held to be its highest or most advanced stage or stages. Broadly, philosophical history has been said to be either of preponderantly materialist or of idealist type. One of the many virtues of The Vampire of Reason
footnote1 is that it points to some of the considerable difficulties that exist in differentiating the relevant senses of materialism and idealism. Roughly, and crudely, the ‘material’, in this sense, is supposed to have to do with putting food on the table and tools in people’s hands, where the ‘ideal’ is supposed to relate to values, art, and the sorts of ideas that comprise religion, law and philosophy. But when one tries to be more precise and draw plausible contrasting differentiations in detail, it will be seen, as Blackburn shows, that there is a great deal of the ‘material’ in anything one could plausibly conceive to be ideas; and, conversely, complexes of ideas, beliefs and desires are mixed up in anything that could count as the material, and the causation, of human social activity. At any rate, Hegel is typically regarded as a supremely idealist philosophical
The classic age of philosophical history as a literary and intellectual genre may be located between 1725 (the publication of the first edition of Vico’s New Science) and 1954 (when the last volume of Toynbee’s A Study of History appeared). The work of the world historian W.H. McNeill, which may be argued to achieve a philosophical level of comprehensiveness, has been, since, the leading contemporary exemplar of the enterprise. Richard Blackburn’s book makes an important, ambitious, interesting and very persuasive addition to this literature.
Ever since Hegel, but perhaps with special volume and focus from the appearance of Toynbee’s magisterial work, philosophical history came under sustained and multidirectional attack, and fell into desuetude, abandoned and held to be widely discredited. Even Marxist philosophical history has been a rather muted phenomenon in recent decades, Marxist analysis tending to take a more preponderantly synchronic than diachronic form. Chief among the objections to philosophical history has been its claim to discern predictive patterns in history that are not there. This is allegedly because human history is in principle unpredictable, either because historical phenomena are practically always unique, or because they are too complex, or because they involve free choices. Moreover, philosophical history is held (at least in its idealist forms) to have accorded too great a role to ideas. Other objections are that it has involved claims of a historical inevitability or necessity that are unscientific, and that it has seriously distorted or falsified history in the attempt to make it conform to the philosophical historian’s conceptual blueprint. Further, some have argued, no one can have enough knowledge of world history to permit philosophical history to go much beyond sophomoric speculation. The actual explanations of historical phenomena offered by philosophical historians, it is held, are typically pseudo-explanations, unscientific because unfalsifiable, compatible with any pattern that does or might develop.
I shall return to the objections to philosophical history as project and how successfully or otherwise Blackburn deals with them. To get a clearer grasp of what his book is about, its location in a classic literature it revives and continues, and why the result is important, it is necessary to say more about giants in this enterprise, namely, Hegel and Marx.
It is difficult to convey the central features of Hegel’s thought and quite impossible to be neutral about it. Hegel unites several things, among them the idea of striving for a stance from which the universe, and the participation of consciousness in it, can be seen and systematically studied, that will be eternal, yet at the same time dynamic. That is, he develops the idea of capturing, theoretically, process and change—the movement and what he argues to be the development of
Hegel saw history as philosophical because universal—exhibiting universal patterns and themes—and also because it is the central paradigmatic case of consciousness Becoming. The latter—Becoming, in contrast to (changeless) Being—is, Hegel thought, the fundamental character of reality. What consciousness becomes, Hegel held, is rational, free and self-knowing. It is other things too, of course, but these, he holds, are the features that constitute the defining features of consciouness developing, and its goal, or end. Hegel is (like Aristotle, in his very different way) a profoundly teleological thinker. The universe, and consciousness within it, is aiming at something, and will approach unendingly nearer and nearer to that at which it aims, never actually arriving there, the process of the journey’s course being itself the absolute character of the world, which the highest level of inquiry—philosophical understanding, of course—should strive to unify and articulate.
Hegel did not merely consider the subject matter of philosophical understanding as an architectonic of interrelated abstract ideas. Rather, the patterns so interrelated are reified in concrete human history. We know nothing of rational consciousness elsewhere in the universe than with us, here on earth, and it is in interpreting the evolutionary development of reflective life in human societies that philosophical understanding will be achieved. This makes it important to identify major phases of world history, and the motors of the transitions that produce them: all conceived by Hegel quite candidly in terms of the ‘highest’ levels of awareness that the world produces at a given time—hence the familiar notions of Geist (Spirit) and the Welt-geist (World Spirit), and world historical individuals.