The Future of Philosophy of History
University of Oulu
We believe that philosophy of history currently has something of a moment. There is a lot of interesting discussion happening on many different topics, also in adjacent fields, and exciting publications with a vision for the future of the field have been coming out in recent years. At the same time, there is no common set of questions, no common approach or direction visible for the field. For some it is even doubtful that there is such a thing as philosophy of history as a common intellectual endeavour, not to speak of a discipline. Alternative general frameworks to think philosophically and theoretically about the past such as historical theory are popular as well and they pursue their own questions and discourses. It is unclear to what extent they speak about the same things as the philosophy of history, if maybe in a different vocabulary. In this situation, we believe that a more focused discussion on central concepts and topics of the field is needed and we have asked the participants of the workshop to focus on concepts and topics they believe central for the future of the field.
The workshop will take place in unison with the 2022 Annual Colloquium of the Philosophical Society of Finland.
The whole workshop will be livestreamed via this link: https://oulu.zoom.us/s/65942390070.
11.30-12.10: Jonas Ahlskog (Åbo Akademi University, Finland): The Contested Openness of Historical Facts: Agency, Redescription and Justice
12.10-12.50: Adam Bricker (University of Turku, Finland): Thinking About Past Minds: Cognitive Science as Philosophy of Historiography
12.50-13.30: Eugen Zelenak (Catholic University in Ruzomberok, Slovakia): On Plurality, Relativism and Presentation in History
14.45-15.25: Zoltán Boldizsár Simon (Bielefeld University, Germany): Theoretical Explorations of the Historical Condition
15.25-16.05: Tullio Viola (Maastricht University, The Netherlands): Cultural Transmission, Memory, and Social Critique
16.05-16.45: Karoliina Pulkkinen (University of Helsinki, Finland): Interpreting the past for a purpose
Adrian Currie (University of Exeter, UK): The Philosophy of History in Practice
11.00-11.40: Georg Gangl (University of Oulu, Finland): Rules of Engagement. A Philosophical Framework for Assessing Political Influence on Historiography
11.40-12.20: Veli Virmajoki (University of Turku, Finland): Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Causal Explanation from History to Future
12.20-13.20: Roundtable on the Future of Philosophy of History
Jonas Ahlskog (Åbo Akademi University, Finland): The Future for the Agent-Centred Perspective in Philosophy of History
Many classical philosophers of history – from Collingwood and Oakeshott to Dilthey and Gadamer – argued that the agent-centred perspective is fundamental for understanding the nature of historical knowledge. They recognized that one integral epistemic interest of historical research concerns knowing why in relation to what came before the events, not merely to create narratives in which events are understood in connection with what came after. To know in relation to what came before is not possible without the agent-centred perspective – for the perspective of the agents is the (preceding) conditions in relation to which historians explain the actions and events under investigation. However, the agent-centred perspective is not popular in contemporary philosophy of history. Since the advent of narrativism in the 1970s, influential philosophers of history, such as Danto, Mink, White and Ankersmit, have argued that the key characteristic of history is not the agent-centred perspective, but rather the historian’s retrospective, synthesizing and literary mode of representation. Recently, post-humanists have not seldom dismissed the agent-centred perspective as outdated anthropocentrism.
This paper argues that the agent-centred perspective has been unjustly neglected, and that investigating the role of the agent-centred perspective for historical knowledge and understanding, including the relation to reflective and retrospective perspectives, should be a key problem for philosophy of history in the future. The current situation of neglect stems from deep-rooted misconceptions not only about the concept of an agent-centred perspective itself, but also about the ways in which the agent-centred perspective (logically) relates to present-oriented, retrospective and narrated historical accounts. On the one hand, assessing the agent-centred perspective is important for explicating what philosophy of history should paradigmatically be about; namely, a philosophical discipline for clarifying conceptual distinctions between different forms of knowledge and understanding. On the other hand, engaging with the agent-centred perspective offers philosophers of history an important tool for addressing pressing questions in contemporary society such as agency, subjectivity, experience, doing justice to the past and history as self-knowledge, among others.
Adam Bricker (University of Turku, Finland): Thinking About Past Minds: Cognitive Science as Philosophy of Historiography
Here I’ll explore the prospects of a research program dedicated to investigating the cognitive processes that shape how we think about the past. Focusing specifically on the mentalizing processes that support our capacity to infer and reason about the mental states of others, I’ll suggest that the empirical details of thinking about past minds could be of considerable importance to the philosophy of historiography. Not only does mentalizing play a key role in how we understand the past, but conditions that can compromise the reliability of mentalizing—e.g., severe informational asymmetries between the mentalizer and the target mind—frequently obtain in historiographical contexts. All this suggests that there is significant value to be gained in better understanding the cognitive processes that support our thinking about the past, particularly how the outputs of historians might be shaped by the strengths and limitations of these processes.
Eugen Zelenak (Catholic University in Ruzomberok, Slovakia): On Plurality, Relativism and Presentation in History
With a certain simplification, it is possible to maintain that narrativist philosophy of history dominated the whole philosophy of history during the last decades of the 20th century. Although in the 21st century this dominance ended, there are several “narrativist” topics and issues that still inspire ongoing discussions in the field. Narrativists presented an interesting criticism of a realist view of history and they defended a constructivist account of historical work. In response, this type of constructivist view of history has been often criticized for erasing boundaries between fact and fiction and for defending a relativist view of history. One may even conceive of narrativists as welcoming a certain type of plurality in history, but it is not clear whether they defended a relativist view (and if yes, in what sense).
I believe that the issue of plurality in history and relativism is an important topic deserving serious exploration even after the demise of narrativism. Several contemporary authors drawing on or criticizing narrativism deal with the issue of relativism, objectivity and, more generally, with the epistemic aspects of historical discipline. Thus, relativism seems to be one of the crucial topics which attracts attention and it deserves to be discussed in the future. In my paper, I attempt to characterize the topic of plurality and relativism, to explore its significance and to link it to the issue of presentation in history. For the issue of relativism seems to be closely linked to another crucial issue of how historians present their accounts: Do historians offer representations of the past or some other types of presentations?
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon (Bielefeld University, Germany): Theoretical Explorations of the Historical Condition
By the turn of the millennium, the distinctions between critical and speculative philosophy and analytical and substantive philosophy have collapsed. The exhaustion of the narrativist project that dominated theorical research on history and the emergence of technoscientific and anthropocenic challenges have rendered the categories of such distinctions obsolete: they simply no longer capture the character of theoretical and philosophical work on history in the twenty-first century. None of this entails, however, a recession of theoretical and philosophical approaches to history. On the contrary, simultaneity of novel challenges and the exhaustion of narrativism have opened up a space for a variety of theories and philosophies of history to emerge in the last decades.
The central contention of my talk is that the work of twenty-first century theories and philosophies of history is best described as theoretical explorations of the historical condition of the word and ourselves. In line with the aims of the event, I will attempt to substantiate my claim in four steps. First (1), I will attempt to briefly sketch the basic characteristic and the novelty of the larger endeavor of theoretical explorations of the historical condition. Second (2), I will address the question of what the opening up of this rather vague theoretical space entails in regard to the role and place of disciplinary philosophies of history within the larger theoretical endeavor. Third (3), I will say a few words about how the larger endeavor reconfigures the relationship between the theoretical/philosophical field and historical studies. Fourth (4), I will argue that the concurrent renewal of theoretical/philosophical approaches to history and historical approaches themselves exceeds the confines of “history” and “theory/philosophy of history” as disciplinary knowledge formations.
Tullio Viola (Maastricht University, The Netherlands): Cultural Transmission, Memory, and Social Critique
The philosophy of history has traditionally paid much attention to the question of whether historical inquiry may contribute to normative philosophical reflection. Various arguments have been used to show to what extent studying or narrating the past may give a decisive contribution to the articulation of philosophical concepts or the defense of ethical and political standards. In my talk, I will try to expand the scope of these arguments to encompass not only the conscious relation to the past that underpins historiographical practice but also the much more unreflective uses of the past that inform cultural transmission at large. Against the background of contemporary debates that take place in anthropology, the history of science, and philosophy, I will argue that one of the reasons why a symbolic or narrative unit may successfully travel over time is that subjects can use that symbolic unit to articulate ideas and values that would otherwise remain unexpressed. To substantiate this claim, I will present a case study inspired by pragmatist philosopher Jane Addams's work on the social memory of women (The Long Road of Woman's Memory, 1916).
Karoliina Pulkkinen (University of Helsinki, Finland): Interpreting the past for a purpose
History and philosophy of science (HPS) has long facilitated a “significant and sophisticated discussion” on the relationship between history and philosophy (Currie and Walsh 2019). Obstacles for integrating the two fields have been identified (Kuukkanen 2016). However, despite concerns over the possibility to integrate the two fields, there are also examples of analytic concepts that are utilised both by historians and philosophers. A good example of such synergy is the attention to values in science. Here, I will compare how philosophers and historians have investigated and evoked values in past scientific practice and argue that mutual attention to values is positive news for integrating history and philosophy of science. However, integration is not possible without addressing one important source of disciplinary tension: philosophers’ invoking of past science with the intention of making normative claims. Although there is great variation in how the past is brought up in philosophical investigations, this has been viewed to violate a core norm of history of science: Anti-Whiggish interpretation of the past (see Gordin 2014). Addressing this concern highlights that there is a great need for spaces for methodological reflection. I will conclude by elaborating how philosophy of history can and should offer the tools for addressing methodological concerns such as the above.
Adrian Currie (University of Exeter, UK): Philosophy of History-in-Practice
“Professional historians might object, too, to the emphasis on narrative historiography. Professional history, a historian might say… does not exclude the construction of narrative accounts, but that is a literary skill quite independent of professional skill in actual research.” – Louis Mink, Narrative Form as Cognitive Instrument.
The most influential work in the philosophy of history is focused on the construction of narratives—of the explanations historians give—at the expense of other important aspects of historical practice like, for instance, digging into archives, analysing primary texts, and chasing up their validity. This, I think, is a mistake: I’ll suggest that to understand the nature of history, we should understand the relationship between those latter practices and the construction of narratives. I’ll make my argument via a discussion of Mink’s broadly anti-realist account of historical narratives, in particular his view that historical events are only such in light of the narrative in which they are embedded. I’ll suggest that an examination of historical practice shows that this is a mistake: ‘historical events’ emerge via a combination of narrativising and evidence from the historical record. Crucially, this shows that narratives are far more sensitive to evidence than Mink and others allow for. I’ll close by sketching how a focus on historical practice can open new questions in the philosophy of history, particularly on the relationship between history and archival practices.
Georg Gangl (University of Oulu, Finland): Rules of Engagement. A Philosophical Framework for Assessing Political Influence on Historiography
Historiography has been implicated in politics and received impulses from political movements and ideas ever since its inception as a scientific discipline in the first half of the 19th century. While the discipline for most of the 19th and 20th centuries had dealings and exchanges with the grand political ideologies of the time, mainly nationalism and Marxism, it is today faced with other political concerns and agendas: feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory, to name a few. Historians themselves also hold political beliefs reflective of the whole political spectrum. The eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), for example, was an avowed Marxist and engaged in radical left-wing politics for most of his life whereas other renowned historians such as Niall Ferguson or David Engels are committed to the Right of the political spectrum. It seems clear that the political beliefs and theories of the day influence the work of the historian; what is less clear is which aspects of their work are (most) affected and whether this effect is (overall) positive or negative.
In my talk, I will scrutinize the influence political beliefs and theories have on different aspects of the historian’s craft such as the subject matter chosen, the theories employed, and the historical method in general. I will also offer a framework for assessing this influence based on a coherentist account of (epistemic) justification. I will conclude with reflections on some (meta-)political positions and interests all historians should be able to agree on if they want to see their disciplinary endeavour continue, no matter their actual positioning on the political spectrum.
Veli Virmajoki (University of Turku, Finland): “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Causal Explanation from History to Future”
Futures studies attempt to identify possible and desirable futures. In this talk, I argue that every judgment about causality in history implies a commitment to certain future scenarios. There are two interrelated versions of this thesis, a purely theoretical one and a value-laden one. The theoretical version says that historiography generates possible futures. The value-laden version says that historiography generates desirable futures.
The theoretical thesis: In order to judge the explanatory force of a cause, we have to judge what would have happened in scenarios where the cause is absent. In order to construct the counterfactual scenarios, we have to make our theoretical commitments explicit. These commitments generate the structure of the counterfactual scenarios. The theoretical commitments also imply certain structures for possible futures and, therefore, every historiographical explanation generates a set of possible futures whether we like it or not.
The value-laden thesis: In order to judge the explanatory force of a cause, we have to judge how invariantly it is connected to the outcome. Invariances are significant because they allow us to achieve certain goals. Given this, we need to identify relevant invariances on the basis of our goals. Because explanatory force depends on invariance and relevant invariance on our goals, explanatory force depends on our goals. Judging the explanatory force of a cause, therefore, requires that one has some goal in mind. In order to assess the relative merits of two judgments of explanatory force, we have to judge how reasonable the goals behind the judgments are. In order to judge how reasonable the goals are, we have to rely on values. Given this essential commitment to values in historiography, every historiographical explanation generates a set of desirable futures whether we like it or not.