Revolts, Revivals and New Paths

Recent proposals for the development of the philosophy of history

The disciplinary identity of philosophy of history is currently very much in flux, and this institutionally as well as paradigmatically. The former is evidenced by the founding of Centres like the one in Oulu and international organizations dedicated to the discipline, along with the sprouting of conferences and workshops on a wide range of topics of concern. At the same time, there is widespread discontent that the discipline has not yet succeeded in establishing itself as a standard subject in the university environment and as a core part of curricula, neither in historiography nor philosophy. In substance, there seems to be a consensus that a lot is up for grabs at the moment. The hegemonic paradigms of the past – Analytic Philosophy of History and Narrativism – have given way to a situation where there are several competing visions for the intellectual development of the field. Both issues also are intertwined in important and complex ways. A field with a common understanding of a number of research problems and a common vocabulary might be able to institutionalize itself in one way or another and is more likely to receive collective and pecuniary recognition, with all the positive downstream effects for research and reproduction of the field occasioned by that.

The recently published manifesto Theses on Theory and History by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder (the Wild On Collective as they call themselves collectively) expresses in stern words anxieties and discontents about the state-of-the-art on both of these fronts, institutionalization and philosophical substance. And the situation seems dire if we are to believe them, with the only way forward being to start a “theory revolt”. For them particular shortcomings are to be found on the side of the historiography profession; if they have recognized “theory” at all they have done so in a belittling or perfunctory fashion at best and ghettoized its issues in the disciplinary training of students. Purported mechanisms of quality control, such as peer review and the editorial policies of leading journals in the field, have in fact functioned as repressive gatekeepers defending a “guild mentality” (p.1) which made sure to keep “theory” off the turf of the disciplinary mainstream.

The immediate occasion for this “revolt” against the alleged status quo in historiography seems to be a conflict in and around the American Historical Association and its disciplinary politics. Beyond that specific context and situation, there is probably not much contention in the philosophy of history that one requirement for a proper institutionalization of the discipline is its further entrenchment in the disciplinary core of historiography (and philosophy, obviously), and also that there is a lot amiss, throughout philosophy and the academia in general, in the structures that were designed to ensure the quality of research and teaching.

The authors also convey in their text, metaphilosophically if you will, a particular understanding of the philosophy of history (they prefer to speak of “theory” for some reason or another but the issues they take up are philosophical to the core). Their position is pitted against what they take to be the philosophical commitments of the mainstream of the profession: empiricism, positivism, ontological realism, and a concomitant empiricist methodology and realist epistemology. “Theory” as their own philosophical stance is, in contrast, less well defined (or reduces less well to catch phrases): At points they use the term synonymously to “critical theory (whether it be semiotic, psychoanalytic, Marxist, hermeneutic, phenomenological, structuralist, poststructuralist, feminist, postcolonial, queer etc.)” (p.3), at others they just talk about “alternative epistemological inquiries” (p.2); with the goal of it all being “theoretically informed history and historically grounded theory” (p. 8). This, however, entails no less than questioning disciplinary assumptions about “evidence and reality, subjectivity and agency, context and causality, chronology and temporality” (p. 8). The revolt has grown into a full blown revolution!

While the addressee of the manifesto is the historical profession, one of its aims is clearly to establish a different understanding of the general problematique of philosophy of history. In this respect, the proposal of the Wild On Collective is a philosophical vision for the future outlook of discipline, one among a few that have surfaced in recent years. Those proposals now count, as far as I can tell, at least three:

1. An empirical turn that analyses historiographical books and the disciplinary discourse of historiography from the standpoint of insights established in the philosophy of history of the last decades, as espoused by Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen in recent years (and of which the project Microhistorical Epistemology of the Centre partakes).

2. A revival of Analytic Philosophy of History after the ultimate demise of the Covering Law Model, especially discussions on narrative explanation, as evinced in the work of Paul Roth.

3. The establishment of “theory” in both historiography and its philosophy which is tantamount to dislodging more traditional philosophical concerns which have occupied (or beset) the discipline for too long (maybe this is the source of the felt urgency). The underpinnings of this position strike me at one level as fundamentally poststructuralist and postmodernist in character though they have not been articulated very clearly in the manifesto.

Here is not the place to argue for or against one of those alternatives, even that they are necessarily mutually exclusive is far from a sure thing. While they all fundamentally base themselves on different theoretical frameworks – pragmatism, analytical philosophy of language, and poststructuralism and postmodernism – and differ substantially on issues such as naturalism and prescriptivism, there seems to be no need to make a choice at the moment, at least in the philosophy of history. For in the discipline I cannot see any stifling hegemony of the sort decried in the manifesto with respect to historiography, neither institutionally nor paradigmatically, dawning anywhere, quite the contrary. Intellectually, this sounds like a rather beneficial situation that promises to spur further debate even if it also bears decisive institutional disadvantages (institutionalization and integration into the disciplinary core of other disciplines being more easily accomplished with a clearly defined disciplinary canon).

As for the newest proposal by the Wild On Collective in this ongoing debate in the process of formation of a more discernible discipline, I doubt that they accomplish their theoretical goal of convincing philosophers or historians of their positions if there ever was such a goal. Their tone is just too strident and their mode of argumentation too stipulative, forming an uneasy mixture of a “j’accuse” thrown at the feet of the discipline and an attempt at outlining an alternative position that should be attractive to both historians and philosophers. Beyond institutional vested interests, biases and injustices that need to be denounced unequivocally, I guess the right path in both areas, the disciplinary agenda and the efforts at institutionalization, is just to do the necessary legwork; i.e. to argue for one’s positions scrupulously in philosophical debates and to use one’s premises and “theory” in one’s historical work, in the hope of demonstrating their actual fruitfulness to peers.


Georg Gangl

Last updated: 29.5.2018

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