Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 99th anniversary of the birth of John Lukacs (31 January 1924–06 May 2019), who was born in Budapest, Hungary on this date in 1924.
In last year’s post on Lukacs I emphasized the apocalyptic thread the runs through Lukacs’ historiography and the forays he made into philosophy of history. But Lukacs himself disavowed philosophy of history in favor of “historical philosophy.” Why might he have done so? It seems likely that since historicism is an “ism” that it is under suspicion of being an ideology rather than a proper philosophy (or just a useful idea), and this may well be accurate. When Karl Popper wrote his book against historicism, The Poverty of Historicism, it was noted that almost no one held the views that Popper attributed to historicism and historicists. In other words, Popper set up a strawman in order to knock it down. In all honesty, though, it would be difficult not to do this since these is no broad consensus on the content of historicism. One can easily see why it is preferable to publicly disavow historicism and erect one’s own school of thought in its place, even if one’s own school of thought closely resembles much that has been attributed to historicism.
We have seen that there are several historians and philosophers who, while having extensively discussed history and philosophy of history, have more-or-less rejected philosophy of history as a kind of ignus fatuus, including Karl Löwith and Simone Weil. I have called these non-philosophies of history, and Lukacs would like to be in this camp, but I don’t think he can be counted as such in good conscience. On the other side, as Emily Dickinson wrote:
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all —
Here we find the historians and philosophers who have their misgivings about the tradition dominated by Hegel (Hegel and his legacy seem to be the stumbling block), but are not yet willing to reject the philosophy of history entire because its history has not been to one’s taste. Another stumbling block is Spengler, and I found this interesting comment on Spengler by Lukacs:
“We ought not apply biological rules to civilizations: this is where Spengler went wrong. Still there exist similarities, though not analogies, between the history of a single human being and the history of a human aggregation. A civilization, too, has its youth and its old age, and it shows symptoms that may be described in human terms. Thus a civilization, in its last stages of decay, shows symptoms of primitivism and of infantilism which reappear from within, tendencies of its early rude childhood. We do not know much about this, principally because we know more about historical decay than about historical infancy. (We know nothing about the birth, and very little about the infant phase of Rome, for example: we know much more about its decline and fall.) Yet we know some things about the birth and infancy of our, Western or European, civilization during the Dark and later in the Middle Ages.” (The Passing of the Modern Age, p. 180)
While there is much good sense in this passage, it would be greatly clarified if Lukacs had explained what a similarity is that is not also an analogy, and what analogies are not similarities. Here Lukacs seems to want to keep his cake and eat it too, as with his rejection of philosophy of history in favor of historical philosophy; it has been said that a distinction without a difference is no distinction at all.
In the above passage Lukacs implies that there is a selection effect in history such that we know more about decline and decay than we know about emergence and origins, and clearly this does seem to be the case: civilizations produce many more traces of their existence when they are already in decline as compared to during their nascence. From this historical selection effect one might then conclude that we ought to differently weight signs of decay and signs of emergence, but, as I noted last year, there is an apocalyptic thread running through Lukacs’ thought (perhaps he succumbed to the selection effect as a result of being immersed in history), and we can pick up this thread again in this passage:
“There is much that historians have yet to learn. Especially now when the chaotic crisis in all kinds of disciplines — indeed, of civilization itself — has reached the historical profession. They have to confront the conditions of their knowledge — indeed, of all human knowledge — for the sake of the health and the future of their discipline. For now, at the end of an age, when the concept and the ideal of Objectivity have faded, there are new dangers already apparent. One of them is Subjectivity (involved with ‘postmodernism’).” (The Future of History, p. 96)
Intertwined in Lukacs’ apocalypticism is a prophecy of a new age to follow, but is this transition from the end of one age to the beginning of another age to be a catastrophic break or a continuous transformation of one into the other? In saying that historians have much to learn, Lukacs implies that the field of history can build upon its past and overcome the apparent obstacles to its further development. One could argue that the end of the present age that Lukacs foresees is a crisis of thought, including a crisis of historical thought, the overcoming of which will put humanity on its path to a new age. This is, ironically, not all that different from Hegel and the entire tradition of the philosophy of history from which Lukacs wants to distance himself.
Here is another passage in which Lukacs warns us away from Hegel and the Hegelian method in the philosophy of history:
“Since philosophies of history seem to have been the particular by-products of a certain phase in the evolution of modern historical consciousness we cannot ignore them altogether. The literal translation of ‘philosophy of history,’ from the Greek, means the love of historical wisdom. But we mean something else by this term. We mean a systematic philosophical study of history, something that was first developing in the minds of such different people as Vico, Voltaire, Hegel in very different ways, and which then in the nineteenth century led to many erudite works attempting to construct new systems, categories, historical definitions out of their search for historical patterns through their comparative study of world civilizations. All of this, I repeat, was part and parcel of the growth of our historical consciousness. It was one of the consequences of the romanticism of the early nineteenth century which, as we have seen, was such a powerful stimulant of the rapid crystallization of the historical form of thought in Europe — a stimulant which could also lead to grave misuses of historical thinking, perhaps especially in Germany (and in those countries which were then strongly influenced by German intellectual tendencies and forms of erudition).” (Historical Consciousness, or The Remembered Past, p. 259)
This passage is through-and-through historicist, from treating particular philosophies of history as by-products of a particular stage of history, to all of this being part of the growth of human historical consciousness — a growth that, presumably, leads to some future blossoming of great things, unknown and unsuspected by us in the present. What Lukacs seems to be suggesting here is that the development of various philosophies of history eventually will lead to that historical philosophy that he sees as the true but neglected intersection of history and philosophy, yet to be realized.
Last year’s post on Lukacs: https://philosophyofhistory.quora.com/John-Lukacs
John Lukacs - Wikipedia
John Adalbert Lukacs (; Hungarian: Lukács János Albert; 31 January 1924 - 6 May 2019) was a Hungarian-born American…
Historical consciousness, or, The remembered past : Lukacs, John, 1924- : Free Download, Borrow…
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At the end of an age : John Lukacs : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
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The passing of the modern age : Lukacs, John, 1924- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming …
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The future of history : Lukacs, John, 1924- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet…
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