Arthur Danto

Arthur Coleman Danto (01 January 1924–25 October 2013)

Today is the 98th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Danto (01 January 1924–25 October 2013), who was born on this date in 1924.

Danto was among the most influential philosophers who focused on what is sometimes called analytical philosophy of history as compared to speculative philosophy of history (Maurice Mandelbaum called them, respectively, formal and material philosophies of history). Indeed, Danto’s major work was titled Analytical Philosophy of History (1965), and the text of this earlier work was incorporated into the later Narration and Knowledge (1985), which is the better known of the two. Danto also worked in the philosophy of art, and this work is perhaps better known today than his work on the philosophy of history.

In the opening paragraph of Narration and Knowledge Danto makes the same familiar distinction in philosophy of history, but he calls the two distinct disciplines substantive and analytical philosophy of history:

“Two distinct kinds of inquiry are covered by the expression ‘philosophy of history’. I shall refer to these as substantive and analytical philosophy of history. The first of these is connected with ordinary historical inquiry, which is to say that substantive philosophers of history, like historians, are concerned to give accounts of what happened in the past, though they are concerned to do something more than just that. Analytical philosophy of history, on the other hand, is not merely connected with philosophy: it is philosophy, but philosophy applied to the special conceptual problems which arise out of the practice of history as well as out of substantive philosophy of history. Substantive philosophy of history is not really connected with philosophy at all, any more than history itself is.”

Key to Danto’s work in the philosophy of history is his analysis of the logic of narrative sentences. While we make use of narrative sentences in ordinary conversation, most of the time we don’t even notice their unique structure. A narrative sentence is constructed around characterizing earlier events in terms of their later consequences. Thus we say, “Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States, was born in a log cabin on 12 February 1809.” Obviously, when Lincoln was born, no one knew he would be elected the sixteenth president of the US or that he would be assassinated in office. This is the difference between a pure chronicle and a history: in a chronicle, events are recorded as they happen, without referring to later consequences; in a history, events are recorded after the fact in relation to their consequences. (One might make the further observation that in a chronicle the interpretation of events will be in relation to the past, while in a history the interpretation of events will be in relation to the future.)

This distinction, and the distinctive logic of narrative sentences, provides a theoretical basis for the commonplace historical idea that each generation must re-write history for itself. Only as history unfolds do we know the later consequences of an event, so that writing a history of World War I in 1919 would be different from writing this history of World War I in 1945 or in 1989. One of the reasons that very few histories stand the test of time is due to subsequent events rendering the interpretation of history dated by later consequences judged to be more significant, or, at least, more far reaching. As history continues to develop, the consequences of an event may ripple through a longue durée, while another event that seemed significant at the time has few or no obvious consequences later.

Near the end of Narration and Knowledge, Danto employs the logical structure of narrative sentences to demonstrate that substantive philosophy of history, as he understands it, is impossible and incoherent:

“The sheer irrelevance of intentions to many narrative descriptions could abort any proposed skepticism based upon an alleged inscrutability of the intentions of past agents. But Vico really required reference to human intentions in his historical explanations, and so do all philosophies of history which pretend to interpret history as irony, where men not only make their history and in ways they never intended: but where what they bring about rather is counter to their intentions. Vico for one, and Hegel and Marx for others, suppose history globally to exhibit irony in this sense. Providence, on Vico’s view, exploits the ‘designs of men’ to create forms of social order which at once contravene these designs and which could only have arisen, given human nature, if men did not intend them. Thus ‘ferocity, arrogance, and ambition’ are institutionally transformed into the virtues of “soldiers, merchants, and rulers,” according to the Scienza Nuova, so that “of the three great vices which could certainly destroy mankind on the face of the earth, legislation makes civil happiness.” Such reversals, which are legion in dialectical theories, though they necessarily make reference to the intentions of agents, cannot themselves coincide with the intentions which cause them. They cannot because a dialectical narrative sentence refers to events which are explained by intentions they also subvert: and no one can rationally intend the contrary of what he intends.”

“It would immediately follow from the truth of such philosophies of history that men could not know their futures, since it is necessary through the concept of intention itself that this future be hidden, contravening intentions it requires in order to happen as it does. Such theories presuppose attribution of rationality to agents: that they seek to maximize their utilities as they perceive them. But it is inconsistent with this that they should pursue what ‘providence’ requires, this being precisely incompatible with the utilities so perceived. A stronger argument is needed to show that the future must be absolutely hidden: all this shows (at best) is that it must be hidden from those who make it — it could be known perhaps to the philosopher of history himself, who, like the historian (unless a chronicler), must stand logically outside the narrative of the events he describes. But I have offered what I hope is the stronger argument, that knowledge of the future is incompatible with the very structures of narration, an incompatibility which is of course dissolved when the required knowledge is available, as it is to the historian, when the events it is knowledge of are in his past though in the future of those events he narratively redescribes in the light of it. Hence the philosophy of history, as an effort to perceive the narration of events in the light of a knowledge of the philosopher of history’s own future, is an incoherent enterprise.”

Danto here formulates his argument in terms of providence and cites Vico, but what he argues here has obvious applications to other providential philosophies of history — I am thinking of Saint Augustine and Bossuet — but beyond this obvious application, I wonder if Danto had the invisible hand in the back of his mind, perhaps only subconsciously, when he wrote that providence exploits the designs of men to ultimately contravene these designs and therefore qualify as ironic. I do not know of any philosophically sophisticated accounts of the invisible hand, and it seems like an idea worth further developing.

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