Jonathan Gorman: Encompassing the Future


Jonathan Gorman is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. He is on the editorial committees of the Journal of the Philosophy of History, History and Theory and Rethinking History. As a young analytical philosopher he worked on the epistemology of narrative for his Cambridge Ph.D., the first results of which were published as “Objectivity and truth in history” in 1974. Apart from publications in the philosophy of law, he is the author of The Expression of Historical Knowledge (1982), Understanding History (1992) and Historical Judgement (2007), in addition to many articles and reviews.



Encompassing the Future (abstract)

I revisit the supposed “heyday” of the analytical philosophy of history and ask what made it such. Analytical philosophy of history had a heyday in virtue of being valued, not by historians, but by areas of analytical philosophy that had not previously taken the explanation of human action by historians seriously. Once main points had been absorbed, later analytical philosophy of action made no further significant reference to historians’ explanations.

However, by the 1960s those analytical philosophers still interested in historical understanding had also moved on, from the explanation of action to the analysis of narratives. Their largely science-sourced causal structures were not accepted by historians or by non-analytical theorists of history. The analytical philosophers of history concerned then also moved on, ignoring later theories of narrative with their references to literary approaches. They found these literary approaches, with their implicit denial of compositionality, unacceptable, holding as these analytical philosophers characteristically did to atomistic, empiricist and Fregean theories of meaning, reference and truth.

Taking seriously Quine’s view in “Two dogmas” that the term and the individual statement are not “units of empirical significance”, I allow that it is a pragmatic matter what a “unit of empirical significance” can be, and that Quine’s “whole of science”, a historical account and an individual sentence can each be a “unit of empirical significance” for different purposes. I then work with historical accounts “as a whole”, without attempting to analyse them using either literary or compositional assumptions. The main characteristic of accounts as-a-whole is their time-extended nature, both in the time it takes to read, write or understand them and the temporal extension of the period covered. Such accounts are understood as shareable with others in a shared historical consciousness in both reading and writing. To be shared, communicable thought – and therefore language – is essential.

Much analysis is still required of meaning, reference and truth at this holistic level, but it has features that may well require to be grasped on idealist assumptions. However, as a whole, each account sorts the shared world it describes in an analogous manner to that in which atomistically understood concepts may be, in a neo-Kantian way, thought of as sorting the world in their less, or non-, temporallyextended ways. The world sorted by whole accounts in this holistic temporal way includes (among others) the past, present and  pragmatically foreseeable future in which we actually live and that we can make our own and to some contingent extent control. Pragmatic choices of reference and description are in principle available to us. The role of “narrative theories” in that structure is contingent;  there is no “essence” of history. “We can choose” here is analysed, and the contingencies of who and when some “we” has the power to create that ongoing temporal world, carry it through in what may well be a political programme and adjust its shared understanding are noted.

I transpose this shared ideal temporal structure to the thought world of those individuals whose actions are being explained, so revisiting the central issue in the heyday of the analytical philosophy of individual human action and permitting its resurrection. The central question is what one is empathising with when (while one might share a general human capacity for historical consciousness) one does not share the particular understanding of the past individual. Earlier ideas of empathising with others, with seeing things from their points of view, are now to be re-understood not in terms of earlier notions of reasons or causes (however analysed), but in terms of sharing with them a thought-world that is temporally extended in a way that is not reducible to either causal analysis or rational analysis. One is metaphorically looking around their point of view, both forward and back in their time. Their ability to grasp and control their future is essential to our understanding of them. Historians empathise well with these temporally extended individual and shared structures, and analytical philosophers have much to learn from historians in this regard. Analytical philosophers need to recognise and value such historical understanding, and if they do it may well yield another heyday for the analytical philosophy of history.


Last updated: 16.10.2017