Time's Reasons: Philosophies of History Old and New

Time's Reasons: Philosophies of History Old and New

by Leonard Krieger

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This original work caps years of thought by Leonard Krieger about the crisis of the discipline of history. His mission is to restore history's autonomy while attacking the sources of its erosion in various "new histories," which borrow their principles and methods from disciplines outside of history. Krieger justifies the discipline through an analysis of the foundations on which various generations of historians have tried to establish the coherence of their subject matter and of the convergence of historical patterns.

The heart of Krieger's narrative is an insightful analysis of theories of history from the classical period to the present, with a principal focus on the modern period. Krieger's exposition covers such figures as Ranke, Hegel, Comte, Marx, Acton, Troeltsch, Spengler, Braudel, and Foucault, among others, and his discussion involves him in subtle distinctions among terms such as historism, historicism, and historicity. He points to the impact on history of academic political radicalism and its results: the new social history. Krieger argues for the autonomy of historical principles and methods while tracing the importation in the modern period of external principles for historical coherence.

Time's Reasons is a profound attempt to rejuvenate and restore integrity to the discipline of history by one of the leading masters of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography. As such, it will be required reading for all historiographers and intellectual historians of the modern period.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226453071
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/24/1989
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 209
File size: 870 KB

About the Author

Leonard Krieger is University Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Chicago and the author of seven books.

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Time's Reasons

Philosophies of History Old and New

By Leonard Krieger

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1989 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-45300-2



Prominent in the characterization of history as a Western discipline has been the requirement that there be some kind of coherence, whether explanatory or generalizing, among the facts. Without this quality, history by definition is no longer history; it becomes chronicle. The solution of the apparent paradox between the equivalent importance of coherence and facts and the subordination of coherence to criticism in the historical tradition lies in the distinction between the historical nature of its requirement and the unhistorical nature of its substance. Although the presence of a patterned truth beyond multifarious truths of verified discrete facts has always been deemed essential to both the actuality and the discipline of history in the Western sense, the patterns themselves have generally had to be imported from some sphere of general reality—whether religious, philosophical, or scientific—and from the field of knowledge appropriate to that reality—whether theology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, biology, physics, or mathematics—transcending or suspending the flow of historical time and the particular methods devised to deal with events. The one kind of coherence that has ever been congruous with the manifold facts of history is narrative, since its structure consists in the temporal alignment of such facts, and this congruity helps to explain the longevity of narration as the typical historical mode of linkage. But even if we elide the thorny question of possible literary or philosophical models for the logic of historical narration and grant an irreducible historiographical character to it, we must still note that the coherence that has been seen in actual history and required by the historical discipline has been more general than narrative threads and has been constituted differently from them. Far from being resolved by narration, the relationship of coherence in history to narration has been as problematical as its relationship to the separate facts of which the narration was composed.

Thus just as characteristic of the historian as the question What truly happened? has been the question of why it happened. Indeed, the what has come to include the why, and the historian's answer to the problem of explanation has typically been to insert the event to be explained in a larger series of events, so that explanation becomes equivalent to coherence. The narrative series, or narrative coherence, constitutes a traditional type of such explanation, as does the presentation of motives for an action, for motivation has not only been adduced as the human version of causation but has also satisfied the need for explanation as the initial pole in a connected series of events where the act to be explained represents the terminus. The reason in history which betokens an intelligible pattern of coherence underlying or woven through the separate events is thus tantamount to the reason why historians should be believed.

Throughout the course of Western historiography there have been two equally distinguished and mutually opposed attitudes toward what I am specifying here as rationality-in-history. According to one view, human history shares the logical structure of all reality; hence it evinces the same kind of coherent and intelligible pattern as the more stable and determined phenomena do. Henceforward we shall refer to this as the rationalist or pan-rationalist view of history. According to the alternate view, human history is peculiarly recalcitrant to the kind of rational and orderly pattern which is appropriate to other fields of reality. Although protagonists of this approach could conceivably stand for the simple negation of rationality and could consequently insist merely on incoherent heterogeneity as the distinctive feature of human history, they have not actually done so. The drive for discovering unity, whether of principle or of relationship, is so strong in Western culture that even these devotees of historical skepticism who find the human past too eccentric to comport with more organizable forms of wordly appearance, far from denying the inherent patternability of history, wind up by asserting a special rationality for history, or at least for the capricious kind of reality most prominently represented by history. Henceforward we shall refer to this as the historistic, or auto-rationalist, view of history. Unquestionably the rationalist view is the older of the two, for before the modern era human history was conceived to be an extension in social time and space of stable orders that were essentially located outside of such time and space.

Moreover, from the very beginning of recognizably Western history, resort has been had to patterns of reality outside of history for application to the general meaningfulness of history. Traditional history refers to the continuous line of Western historians which goes back to Herodotus and develops, with several pronounced modulations but no essential breaks, into the familiar historical literature of the present. It is a line that defines history by two criteria: the truth of the facts and the coherence of the relationship among the facts. Without the first criterion, history is reduced to fiction; without the second, history is reduced to chronicle. But despite the equal necessity of both requirements for the definition of history in the Western sense, both the proportionate emphasis upon the two qualities and the respective status of them have been far from equal in the tradition of the discipline. Not only historical method but the very distinctiveness of historicity itself has been identified much more with the ascertainment of the truth of past facts than with the validation of the truth of their connections. Whereas the assertion of factual truth has been persistently explicit for the whole tradition from its very beginnings, the insertion of the links between the facts, joining them in some kind of process, has been just as persistently assumptive. Where the standards of factual truth have been openly discussed as the very foundation of what is historical, the principles of the conjunction process have usually been imported from outside the realm of history and have depended upon arguments outside the realm of history for the discussion of their validity. Where the criteria of factual truth have been developed primarily in the name of historical science, the construction of coherences has tended to attract justification in terms of the substantive arts or humanities outside of history. Finally, if both the warrant of factual truth and the identification of coherent principle have undergone significant changes throughout the history of Western historiography, the varieties of the first have been advanced under the common title of critical method while the sequence of the second has followed the mutations of the culture as a whole.

In a view of the repeated births of critical history in the modern period—its origins have been traced to "historical revolutions" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to the skepticism of the eighteenth, and to the scientific empiricism of the nineteenth—the explicit reverence paid to its principles even in the supposedly credulous ancient and medieval periods must come as something of a suspicious surprise. But even if this historical piety was mere lip service during most of the Western centuries, it remains a testimonial to the prominent role played by the critical approach to the sources of fact during the whole of the Western tradition.

There are two kinds of background to the modern critical as well as to the more prominent coherent qualities of Western history. First, there is the ancient Greek background, and indeed it is from the Greek that our very word for "history" comes. Second, our notion of history, like our notions of many other things, comes from the Old Testament and the Judaic part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The ancient Greeks began the notion that history deals with the truth of facts. The prevalence among the ancients of Herodotus' unfortunate reputation as a liar apparently stemmed from Thucydides, and it furnishes a negative proof of the indispensable role played by veracity and the methodical ascertainment of factual truth in the original justification of history. Herodotus himself laid himself open to such charges through his repeated claims to "base my account on those ... authorities who seem to tell the simple truth" or even, in the case of conflicting testimony, to suspend "the truth or falsity" of the traditions he encountered and to "prefer to rely on my own knowledge." Nor was the application of such rigorous standards by Thucydides merely polemical. Modern generations may retrospectively see in Thucydides a master of the integrated narrative and a genius at elucidating the patterns of human nature and the political power in concrete events, but his own methodic introduction and sporadic asides to the reader reveal what was patently at the forefront of his mind: an overwhelming concern with the factual accuracy of what he was writing. His complaint that men receive traditions "all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatsoever"; his preference for contemporary history because here he could crosscheck his own observations with the testimony of others, "the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible," so as to yield "an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future"; his periodic self-restraint, as in his discussion of the great plague, when he abjured "all speculation as to its origin and its causes" and promised that "for myself, I shall simply set down its nature, and explain its symptoms"; as well as his scattered claims to factual impartiality, as in his preface to his description of the Athenian-Spartan truce, when he appealed to his firsthand experience of life on both sides during the years in question for the grounding of his claim "to know the exact truth about them": all these indications articulated his commitment to specific truth as the distinction and provable hallmark of history. The general predilection of ancient historians for contemporary history and their suspicion of Herodotus for his reliance on more remote oral traditions confirm the prevalence of this commitment among the ancient Greeks.

The stature of Herodotus may have depended largely upon the veracity of the facts in "the story" he modestly claimed to tell—although his continual search for reasons pointed even in his case to connections beyond the facts—but certainly the exemplary role which Thucydides has played for so many Western historians has to do as much with the integration of his account and with his propensity for general interpretation as with the critical caution which dominated his approach to his sources. There is, indeed, general consensus on one authoritative historian's "final judgment of him" to the effect that "he, more than any of his contemporaries, succeeded in allying standards of detailed accuracy with a deep and compelling sense of the generic"—that is, he effected "a union ... between detailed fact and broad deduction." But what must be emphasized in this centrality of what Thucydides "thought would be a recurrent pattern beneath the events of his time" is that the pattern was external to the events—that history was for him "a field of experiment to which the general laws of human response could be applied and by which the presumption of their truth could be established," and that these laws came from Sophistic philosophy, medical science, and other extrahistorical articulations of the Greek spirit in the fifth century, B.C. Thucydides' famous statement of purpose—"I shall be content if it [my history] is judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things it must resemble if it does not reflect it"—is obviously predicated in general on the presumption of a constant human nature which was a truism of Greek philosophy and science and in particular on the cyclical view of wordly destiny that would receive its epochal formulation in the natural philosophy of Plato's Timaeus and in the social philosophy of his Republic.

Other categorical propositions which are scattered through The History of The Peloponnesian War are similarly apodictic principles imposed on the history rather than general inferences from the history. For instance: "Revolution brought on the cities of Greece many calamities, such as exist and always will exist until human nature changes.... In peace and prosperity states and individuals are governed by higher ideals because they are not involved in necessities beyond their control, but war deprives them of their easy existence and is a rough teacher that brings most men's dispositions down to the level of their circumstances." And again: "But in their revenges men are reckless of the future and do not hesitate to annul those common laws of humanity on which everyone relies in the hour of misfortune for his own hope of deliverance; they forget that in their own need they will look for them in vain." Such dicta, declared by the historian in his own name, betrayed more persistent preconceptions but were themselves sporadic. With his addiction to the reconstructed speeches of his historical agents, however—especially at the climactic points of Pericles' funeral oration, the Melian Dialogue, and the debate between Nicias and Alcibiades on the Sicilian invasion—Thucydides had a persuasive device for applying general principles to historical circumstances. The second root of modern critical conceptions of history lay in the Old Testament, i.e., in the story of the ancient Israelite tribes. Although none of the sources of the Old Testament are contemporary with the actions that are described therein, and although there is little distinction between fact and legend within Hebraic history, the circumstance that the Hebraic religion was based on history and that the Old Testament was a component of Western sacred literature made the perception of Hebraic traditions, whether actual or mythic, a part of the historical reality of the West and thereby enthroned the facts as well as the legends and interpretations of Hebraic history as basic to Western reality.

The enthronement of this second root of modern critical history's conception was made permanent by the establishment of Christianity as a universal religion. The most significant work in this respect from the standpoint of the history of historiography is the work of St. Augustine, and, specifically, of his The City of God. If Augustine initiated the medieval conception of historical theology in the sense that he joined the Judeo-Christian attitude toward the human past with the Greek theology of history, it is clear that the original Judeo-Christian attitude was an autonomous strand of the Western historical tradition originating in the history intellectually, but not terminologically embodied in the Old and the New Testaments. In these sacred books was thought to be embodied not only God's overall plan for the salvation of man but also the less grand connection of motive and discrete deed in the human past. By and large the less inclusive coherence, which includes the plurality of the traditions embodied in both the Old and the New Testaments, stems from the anthropology of the Jewish tribes, while the overall pattern of events comes from Hebraic monotheism and its successor, the Pauline God of the world. Indeed, the early Christian dispensation, embodied in the New Testament, already prefigures the independence of the divine pattern in the world by enthroning its eschatological separation from the past with which it is otherwise entangled, but in any case it lies behind the conflict between the historical and the antihistorical interpretations of Augustine, who in this as in general theological respects lies on the borderline between the ancient and the medieval world (he wrote The City of God from 413 to 426 A.D.).

In fact, transcendent provenance of the coherence in history has nowhere been more obvious and more explicit than in the Christian classics of medieval historiography. It is well known that Christian history during the Middle Ages followed two paths. One path was exemplified first by Eusebius in his History of the Church and then reformulated in the "Eternal Gospel" of Joachim of Floris. The other was exemplified first jointly in Augustine's City of God and his disciple Orosius's Seven Books of History Against the Pagans and then reformulated by Otto of Freising in The Two Cities. But both paths referred equally to God's suprahistorical plan of human salvation for the coherence that medieval man found in the chaos and misery of man's earthly history.

For the line initiated by Eusebius, God's plan for man was in the world literally, for it was manifest in the Church and could be followed continuously through ecclesiastical history. Eusebius not only made the true faith, as revealed in the theology of Christ and as manifested in "the lines of succession from the holy apostles," the theme of his Church history; but the "men of each generation," "challenged by successive heresies," were by preaching or writing "ambassadors of the divine word." And he joined to this thematic ecclesiastical history a universal history which organized secular events around the same theme in terms of "the widespread, bitter, and recurrent campaigns launched by unbelievers both Jewish and gentile [i.e., Roman], against the divine message, [including] the martyrdoms of later days down to my own time." Not surprisingly, then, Eusebius's typical explanations of historical events had reference to God's timeless plan for human salvation—that is, to "heavenly providence ... in order that the gospel message should ... speed to every part of the world" and to "God's vengeance" for the causation of "the miseries" of men.


Excerpted from Time's Reasons by Leonard Krieger. Copyright © 1989 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1. The History of Critical History: Early Testimony
2. Historism: The Early History of Coherent History
3. The History of Nineteenth-Century Historical Coherence
4. Historicism
5. Historiographical Coherence in the Twentieth Century
Epilogue: A Responsive Motif

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