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The Philosophy of Historiography

The Philosophy of Historiography

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by John Lange
This book is intended for the highly intelligent reader, who is interested in considering the difficulties, problems, and challenges of understanding and writing about the human past. It is popularly enough written, hopefully, to be a joy to read, and scholarly enough to be seriously instructive. The book has two major purposes, first, to give a reader an extensive,


This book is intended for the highly intelligent reader, who is interested in considering the difficulties, problems, and challenges of understanding and writing about the human past. It is popularly enough written, hopefully, to be a joy to read, and scholarly enough to be seriously instructive. The book has two major purposes, first, to give a reader an extensive, detailed overview of the field as it currently exists, and, second, to considerably enlarge the field itself, as it is the first book in the area to consider not only the epistemology of the field, but, in detail, its logic and semantics, its metaphysics, its axiology and its aesthetics.

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The Philosophy of Historiography

By John Lange


Copyright © 2010 John Lange
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-1636-3



It is amazing that one of the most neglected domains of philosophical inquiry is that to which one would expect to find addressed constant and profound attention, namely, the multiplex histories of which we find ourselves the product.

It is not altogether obvious why this should be the case.

Consider, for example, the philosophy of science. That is, assuredly, an important and justifiably prestigious discipline within the philosophical enterprise; it is honored with considerable and well-deserved attention, and has profited, happily, from the labors of a number of unusually gifted philosophers. One begrudges her nothing, but her eminence does, given inevitable comparisons, surprise one. Why so much interest there? Or, perhaps better, why not similar interest elsewhere? Certainly science affects our lives and illuminates our understanding; it gives us aspirin and atomic weaponry, jet engines and drip-dry shirts, fountain pens, if anyone remembers such things, and computers, and life-saving surgery and poison gas. It improves immeasurably the quality of our lives and puts the means of universal extermination in the hands of sociopathic lunatics. Surely it deserves philosophical attention, and who has not wondered about stars and space, galaxies and quarks, such things. To try to philosophically grasp such an endeavor, to consider this remarkable path to knowledge, is an estimable inquiry. On the other hand, science has a bottom, so to speak, regardless of whether or not one gets there. It ends somewhere; it is finite. Somewhere the last fact lurks. Perhaps history has, too, so to speak, a bottom, but the complexities of understanding her are immeasurably deeper, and, perhaps, of greater importance. In history there may be no last fact. And, if there is, it is unlikely to be found. Atoms were presumably no more about in the time of Sargon of Akkad than they are today. But history's lessons of aggression and imperialism may weigh more heavily in speculations concerning human survival than valence bonds and molecules. Quarks were about when Buddha sat beneath a shade-giving tree and Jesus preached in Galilee. Quarks were doubtless much the same then as now, but history is different. Perhaps the prestige of science redounds to the prestige of the philosophy of science. Or perhaps the comparative simplicity of science encourages the moths of scholarship. It may be something one can get one's hands on. Perhaps it is a bit like the wonders and glories of mathematics, so attractive to fine minds searching for stability, beauty, and a refuge from a messier, more dangerous world. The number two, for example, is congenial. It can be relied on. It stands still, so to speak, and exceeds one and refuses to invade three. It is always there. You can count on it. In any event, whatever may be the causes here, whether psychologically explicable or a simple matter of a planet's biographical idiosyncrasies, we confront the anomaly that an area which is most telling, and the most undeniably momentous, seems remarkably, and perhaps unconscionably, comparatively neglected. There are, of course, philosophical intrusions into the human past, and its endemic problematicities, studies undertaken by vital and astute minds, but there are too few troves in this area, certainly proportionately, and those that exist are today commonly neglected. Ratios are involved, of course. My claim here is twofold, first, history, as a discipline, is enormously important, even cognitively fundamental, and, secondly, she is woefully undervalued and understood. It is the philosopher's job to remedy to some extent, subject to his limitations, this defect. This is not to compete with the historian, no more than the philosopher of science competes with the scientist. The point here is to try to understand history, and historiography. Thus the title of this book, the Philosophy of Historiography.

My general approach is as follows. Classically the five major branches of philosophy are logic and semantics; metaphysics; epistemology; axiology, and aesthetics. Accordingly, I would like to devote some attention to the logic and semantics, the metaphysics, the epistemology, the axiology, and the aesthetics of historiography. To be sure, given the constraints of time and space, the implementation of this program will be highly selective. We do hope, on the other hand, to do more than point some directions and open a few roads. In the end of course, this country, like the night, is "large and full of wonders." Certainly exploration is welcome and invited. Portions of this work are, as far as I know, quite original. On the other hand, many points are familiar from the literature, and I think it is important to deal with them. We are not out to invent the philosophy of historiography here, or to pretend to invent it, but to deal with it, hopefully in a way that the reader, whom the author supposes to be generally unfamiliar with the subject matter, may find interesting and informative.

1. The Proximity of the Past

"That's history" is commonly a disparagement. It is interesting to note that "That's science" is commonly a compliment. Whereas I would not have written this book if I did not think it important, and that it would fill a woeful lacuna in the intellectual landscape, and that history is terribly important, and so on, I think that many people do not realize how close much of history is to us. Much of it is not that faraway, and even much of it that is faraway isn't really that faraway. Let us suppose a lifetime of something like seventy years or so. On this scale, the regime of National Socialism in Germany, for example, is still within the living memory of many individuals, including the author. Within two lifetimes the wounds of the American Civil War were still fresh, wounds that left scars still visible. Some three lifetimes ago the Bastille had recently fallen and Waterloo lay in the future. Some seven lifetimes or so ago Columbus thought he had discovered a new route to India. Some ten generations ago Crusaders were disembarking at Acre. Some thirty generations ago Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and marched on Rome.

The caves are a long time behind us, but most of history is not.

2. The Limitations of the Individual

Knowledge is not easily achieved. And it is, commonly, an achievement. That should be clearly recognized. Too, all knowledge is the knowledge of individuals. It is not in books. Ink marks are in books, films are in cans, and so on. How impressive that the individual should strive to know, and how much more impressive that he occasionally seems to be successful.

Consider the difficulties, the limitations of the individual. First, he is a member of a species. Each species has its limitations. The human, for example, is unable to experience through antennae, something that is no problem for something like eight-hundred thousand other species. Consider the radiation of the electromagnetic spectrum. Here there are wave lengths ranging from trillionths of an inch, as in Gamma rays, to miles in length, as in some radio waves. How much of that spectrum is available to the human being, something between sixteen to thirty-two millionths of an inch. We build our entire world of vision on that narrow window to the world, all the colors, and, within each, the infinite varieties of brilliance, saturation, and hue. Bees can see in ultraviolet light. We cannot. The difference between violet and ultraviolet light is negligible in the spectrum, but, to us, it is the difference between seeing and not seeing, between, in its way, light and darkness. We hear sound and feel heat, both movements in the atmosphere. Were we differently constituted, and there were no survival liabilities involved, we might feel sound and hear heat. What is the visual experience of the whale, with its tiny eyes separated by several feet? Does the bat have visual experiences, transducing reflected sound waves into visual data, or does it experience in an altogether different way, which would make no sense to us, which we could not even imagine? One does not know. And these limitations, and such, deal only with sensory apparatus.

We are also limited, as a species, cognitively.

Intelligence was not evolved for the purposes of contemplation, for doing mathematics, for the analysis of the cosmos, for inquiring into the mysteries of existence, and such. In fact, it was not evolved, even, for the enablement of survival, gene replication, and such. It had no purpose; it discovered purposes. It was not evolved to work, but it worked, and so it survived. As the saying goes, genetics cast the dice, and the environment selected the winning numbers. Intelligence was, happily, a winning number. Intelligence was preserved because it was an excellent tool for a fragile species at risk in a precarious environment. As it turned out, it was superior to horns, hoofs, fangs, and claws, to toughness of hide and fleetness of foot, to wings, keenness of vision, of hearing, and scent, even to strength and agility. But its primary value was pragmatic; it was a tool, one useful in acquiring food, clothing, shelter, safety, and mates. It was useful, too, obviously, for purposes of social organization and coordinated activity. It was not designed to do science, or write history. Quite possibly the human mind is not equipped, for example, to understand the nature of space, to unravel its riddles and paradoxes; nor to understand what took place before the first moment, and before that; nor the nature of a last moment; nor to comprehend a succession of causes, receding endlessly into a night of negative numbers. Perhaps there is a ground of being spewing forth universes from dimensions inconceivable to a roving, inquisitive hominid, with a world limited to his now and then, his up and down, and back and forth. One hears that dimensions may come in crates and bundles, far exceeding a puny three or four, or five, and that it takes some twenty-six of them to account for the counter-clockwise vibrations of this or that, which thises or thats may not exist in the first place. One hears elsewhere that physics proclaims the empirical feasibility of time travel. That should intrigue historians. Too bad one may need the energy of a galaxy to bring it about. Do not hasten to submit travel requests to the dean. One suspects no more here, really, than a dazzling form of mathematical play. But these people are serious, one supposes. They say they are. How about an infinite set of universes, a geometrical progression along an infinite set of world lines? What about Schrödinger's cat, which is neither alive nor dead, until one looks, a lovely metaphor for reality's observer dependence. The particle or wave is neither here nor there, nor doing this or that, until you check up on it. Let us suppose some of this, if intelligible at all, is true. Our world then would surely be quite different from the world of our experience, which we usually suppose is the real world, except for the little stuff you can't see. It is difficult to do a good job with the wrong tool. Squirrels are unlikely to do well in rocket science, and the world is still waiting for first raccoon to excel in econometrics. Skills and competencies exist in hierarchies and those of paramecia are excelled by those of coelenterates, and theirs by a variety of successors in the phylogenetic scale, and so on, and we may or may not be at the epistemological summit of the universe. It would be quite a tragedy if we were, but, clearly, there must be much beyond us cognitively, and perhaps much beyond minds as far beyond ours as ours is, hopefully, beyond those of mice and rabbits. There is no guarantee that the world will produce minds capable of comprehending it. J.B.S. Haldane is alleged to have remarked that the universe may not only be queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think. One suspects he is right, but one keeps trying. Why not? There is no point in stopping until one hits the wall, or, say, meets oneself on the way back.

The point of these remarks is to make certain that we are well aware of the difficulties which must beset and condition cognitivity.

Our knowledge is not only difficult to come by, but it may be somewhat unrelated to how things are.

Presumably there is but one reality, but it is not clear that an intelligent insect, an intelligent fish, an intelligent bat, and an intelligent primate, would all come up with the same science.

If they did, terrific.

What they would come up with would be sciences that would work more or less well for them, and sciences which each species would presumably take for the indisputable, exact, proven nature of reality.

More power to them; let them sleep well at night.

These limitations of the species, sensory and cognitive, must obviously afflict the individual generically. Beyond them, however, are limitations which are nongeneric, but specific. Each individual, qua individual, has his personal limitations of sensory acuity, intelligence, imagination, education, experience, background, situation, family, judgment, and so on. He occupies a particular place and a particular time, which will affect what he can know, and what he will be, and can be. There is a sense in which the Paleolithic worker of flint, the infantryman of Assurbanipal, the mendicant friar, the Napoleonic grenadier, the Victorian biologist or diplomat, and so on, all live in different worlds, psychologically, sociologically, politically, and so on. This will affect their memories, and what they might record, if so inclined. As the saying has it, there is no view from nowhere. This is less a limitation, actually, than an inevitability, a natural and unobjectionable fact of life. One cannot write from somewhere, unless one is somewhere from which to write. Relativity is a reality.

Now consider the problem of the historiographer, or that of anyone who might address himself to that sort of work.

He has the task of delineating and explaining the past.

Any moment is presumably the precipitate of hundreds of thousands of intersecting causal lines, coming from a diversity of directions, and fading into a past which fades into mystery after a few billion years.

Our historian may limit himself to the history of last Tuesday in Minneapolis or, like a Vico, a Spengler or Toynbee, address his attention to pageants and panoramas, redolent of trajectories, seeming to steam with meaning, telling us stories which illuminate, or pretend to, wisely or not, the records of empires, the nature of thriving and dying worlds.

In any event, as we shall see, the historian, even of last Tuesday, addresses himself to a task of enormous subtlety and complexity, most of which, thoughtfully, depending on his agenda, he has no choice but to ignore.

And yet there are few thing a human being could do which are more relevant to life, and more revelatory of human significance, meaning, and possibility than historiography.

They are treasurers of our species, without which, in a fully human sense, we could not understand ourselves.

3. The Inducing Brain

The inducing brain has been selected for. It is endemic in the animal world. Briefly, this is the supposition to believe, or to act as though one believed, that the future will resemble the past, that regularities obtain, and that patterns exist. Long ago David Hume pointed out, in effect, that induction was not deduction, and that inductive argumentation was deductively invalid. One supposes this was clear enough to anyone who spent a second or so thinking about it, but it inaugurated a literature of attempts to justify induction. A pragmatic justification, in terms of its working, for example, could only show that it had worked up to now, and what guarantee was there that tomorrow fire might not freeze, snow might not burn, and rodents might not begin to sing Italian opera, and so on? There are many philosophical twists and turns in these woods, and the intellectual scenery is well worth the trip, but our concerns here are not with the justification of induction, the nature of causality, and so on, but with the simple recognition that the inducing brain exists, and what effect this might have on the nature of science, and, in particular, historiography.

The human being, as several other species, is a pattern-seeking animal. It wants to make sense out of the world. It seeks meaning and it is likely to find it, whether it is there or not.

The human being, if necessary, will impose meaning on the world.

It is his nature.

This is something important to understand as we delve farther into historiography. The historian is going to make sense out of what he is working with, and won't stop until it does make sense. Putting aside the explanation of chancery seals, giving accounts of the rules for dynastic succession, exposing forged documents, and such, the historian is out to tell a story, and, hopefully, one which is true, or more likely, true enough, or not all that far off from what really happened.

In short, we expect the historian, and he expects himself, to find meaning, and pattern, in history. He wants it there. He demands that it be there. It must be there. And he is going to find it there, whether it is there or not. We expect him not merely to recount, but to explain, and one can only explain by making sense out of things. He has, and I suppose most of us have, what Charles Sanders Peirce referred to as "the irritation of doubt," and what scratches that itch is a fixed belief, one we are satisfied with. When we are satisfied, we stop looking. The fixed belief, obviously, from a common-sense point of view, may be fixed, but false. Peirce went on to try to give an account of truth in terms of a sort of idealized fixed belief that was fated to be the fixed belief to be arrived at under an ideality of conditions, and such, but that is not much help here, or not of obviously much help here.


Excerpted from The Philosophy of Historiography by John Lange. Copyright © 2010 John Lange. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Lange, the author of THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORIOGRAPHY, is a full professor at a major university in the eastern portion of the United States. He usually teaches in the areas of epistemology, the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of anticipation, exploring intellectual territories outside the typical borders of the discipline, such as reprogenetics, cloning, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, artificial life, identity criteria, species and personal, and unusual moral communities. He has had one book published by a major university press, and has edited another book, published by another major university press. He has also had a number of articles published in various professional journals. 

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Philosophy of Historiography 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Phronesis More than 1 year ago
You can see by its wording that the prior review is worthless (and wrong.) This is an expansive, erudite work. It is accessible for the student, or anyone interested in the topic, and a valuable resource for the scholar.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Instruct can just see the class going to sleep an____must have dozed off terrible unles you like words no longer used