Practical Philosophy of History
An Ellipsis in Our Intellectual Engagement with the Past
While philosophy today has become a technical discipline that has its own specialized concepts and jargon, there is always the possibility of returning to the ancient tradition of philosophy that tries to understand and to elucidate the good life for human beings. For example, when I was at the library last week, I picked up a copy of Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, by Daniel Klein. This book takes up the problems of later life in a philosophical spirit, recurring throughout to the thought of Epicurus. The recent interest in Stoicism speaks to a similar interest and need.
Another example is provided by the lectures Practical Philosophy: The Greco-Roman Moralists by Luke Timothy Johnson, available from the Great Courses. These practical philosophers of late antiquity have particular relevance to us, as the peoples of late antiquity, like us, lived in a cosmopolitan world of large cities connected by a transportation network that allowed them to choose among many pathways through life, as we do. Johnson calls this informal moral reflection on the good life, “The Missing Page in Philosophy’s Story.”
Philosophy of history stands in need of a school of thought that is related to the scholarly tradition of philosophy of history as philosophical reflection on the good life is related to the scholarly tradition of philosophy simpliciter. In other words, we need a wisdom literature on history that is more penetrating than moralizing histories and more accessible than technical philosophy of history.
Philosophy of history as we know it today, like philosophy simpliciter, is a technical discipline that seeks to solve a number of questions — questions that, in many cases, cannot even be expressed in ordinary language. John Passmore said of Frege’s philosophy of mathematics, “His problems are ‘technical’… in the sense in which so much recent philosophy of technical. To understand what is troubling him, even, is already to have made a considerable advance in philosophy.” (p. 149) The same can be said for much recent philosophy of history. One’s eyes can easily glaze over when attempting to understand the covering law model for historical explanation.
I have noted elsewhere the Hegel wrote that, “…‘philosophy of history’ signifies nothing other than the thoughtful consideration of history.” This makes Hegel sound a little less the metaphysician than is usually the perception. And yet, no one has written a book titled, Travels with Hegel: A Journey to Jena in Search of Fulfilled History. Perhaps someone should. Such a book could be a point of departure for the thoughtful consideration of history.
Extant traditions in the philosophy of history tend to the highly technical work done in analytical philosophy of history, or the more speculative approach to be found in those still working in the Hegelian tradition. What neither of these traditions do for us is to provide us with the means to discuss ordinary human experiences of history, and the historical aspects of human life and society, in which the leading ideas are the familiar ideas of corruption, decadence, honor, freedom, fate, destiny — sometimes called the great ideas. We are more likely than not to get our understanding of the great ideas from literature or film. And there is nothing wrong with this. The works of Shakespeare are filled with detailed examinations of the great ideas, and their personal meaning for us as human beings. This is why we read great literature.
A practical philosophy of history would take this kind of literary engagement with historical ideas to a level of greater explicitness and greater analysis. The absence of such a tradition — indeed, the absence of any philosophy of history prior to Augustine’s City of God — presents a problem for any practical philosophy of history that would aspire to being a living influence in the lives of people engaged in making history. There is work to be done. Classics to be written. History to be made, and to be made more understandable.