Aviezer Tucker: Santayana’s Revenge: The Return of History and the Philosophy of History


Dr. Aviezer Tucker writes about philosophy, history, politics, science and technology studies, and their interdisciplinary interactions. He lives near Boston MA and in Prague, Czech Republic. A CV and complete list of publications are available here: https://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/key/A8eQ4SQtU8bAij


Santayana’s revenge: The Return of History and the Philosophy of History (abstract)

The purview of the philosophy of history in the middle of the previous century included problems such as: Is history inevitable? Is history cyclical, progressive, regressive, or directionless? What is the role of the individual, or “hero,” in history? Does history repeat itself? Can we learn from history? Totalitarian ideologies held that history is inevitable. Large impersonal forces such as race and class determine history, reduced to pseudo-scientific caricatures of biology or economics. The totalitarian concept of history was cyclical. History repeats itself as the continuous drama of class or racial conflict. If history is necessary, there is nothing to learn from it; it will happen anyway whether we understand the process or not. At most, the birth pangs of history will be shorter. Liberals retorted that history is contingent. Individual choices matter. Modernization pushes history in a progressive direction and though history does not repeat itself (“some people believe that history repeats itself, others read the Economist”), there is much that can be learned from history, especially from its mistakes and wrong turns. They set out to construct a political, social and global order that would intuitionally prevent the repetitions of the mistakes of the first half of the twentieth century.

Liberal philosophy of history entered a “post-historical” phase when it came to believe that historical progress is inevitable, individuals do not matter for history, and history does not repeat itself and therefore there is nothing to learn from it. Studying history and the philosophy of history were perceived as redundant at best and regressive if they get in the way of the modernizing agenda of constructing a modern world of technology and progress by studying computer science, engineering, and business.

The economic 2007/8 and political 2016/7 mark “Santayana’s revenge,” the return of history to those who denied it. Contemporary populism is entirely ahistorical, not just in its total ignorance of the mistakes of the past that it attempts to reproduce Sisyphus-like, but in an apparent absence of historical consciousness. The rhetoric implies that they believe recent history was regressive yet contingent on the actions of individual leaders. On the other political extreme, a cyclical and inevitable view of history spreads that foresees cycles of economic freedom, prosperity and globalization, followed by crisis and authoritarian and nationalist backlash for the past couple of hundred years. Accordingly, contemporary populism cannot be resisted by individuals, but at best be moderated of incorporated in a populist leftist agenda to imitate the populist right.

I argue for contingent and directionless history. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Following Santayana, I argue for a virtue of ethics of historical knowledge. Though I still believe in the value of the epistemic inquiry into our knowledge of the past, in the philosophy of historiography, to which I have devoted most of my past efforts, I believe that our moral engagement as philosophers of history warrants a reexamination of the questions I mentioned above that were largely abandoned in the fifties of the previous century.

Last updated: 16.10.2017