Philosophy of History

Steven G. Smith     smithsg
Christian Center 11   Home phone 354-2290
Office hours posted

History 4760-02/Philosophy 3750-01
Spring 2007

What is history?   Is there a clear distinction between history and fiction?  Between history and myth?   What justifies a historical interpretation of events?  Are historical judgments important in our decision-making?  If so, what makes one better than another?  How is the concept of history related to the concept of “progress”?  Are there objective truths of history?  Are there ethical constraints on how we understand history?   What are the most powerful theories of history and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

In this course we will consider a wide range of ways of thinking about history.  We will develop and defend our own conceptions of history.  We will become more aware of how “historical” matters matter to us.

The course grade will be based on class participation (15%), the Philosophy of History Notebook (35%), a final exam (20%), and a 10-12 pp. study of a conceptual issue (30%).

The required books for the course are:

Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

William Dray, Philosophy of History, 2nd ed.

Robert M. Burns & Hugh Rayment-Pickard, eds., Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Postmodernity

Some assigned reading will be in handouts or online.

subject to change by announcement

Jan. 16             Introduction to course.  What is history?  And why does this question matter?

Jan. 18             Eliade on the archaic alternative to history

READ Eliade, Chap. 1

Jan. 23             Eliade cont.

READ Eliade, Chaps. 2-3

Jan. 25             Dray’s introduction to the field: “explanation” and “understanding”

READ Dray, Chaps. 1-2

Jan. 30             Dray’s introduction cont.:  “objectivity” and “value judgments”

READ Dray, Chap. 3

Feb. 1                          Dray’s introduction cont.: “historical causes”

READ Dray, Chap. 4

Feb. 6                          Enlightenment optimism:  Condorcet and Kant

READ POH 30-39, 46-51

Feb. 8                          Kant cont.

READ POH 52-56

Feb. 13            Historicism:  Herder

READ POH 72-80 (including Humboldt on language)

Feb. 15            Hegel

READ POH 80-89 (including Humboldt on “ideas in history”)

Feb. 20            Hegel cont.; Ranke’s response

READ Hegel handout and POH 90-97 (Ranke)

Feb. 22            Marx

READ POH 252-254 (introduction to Marx), 261-265

Feb. 27            Marx cont.

READ Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (online)

Mar. 1                         The issue of determinism

READ Dray, Chap. 6

Mar. 6                         Existentialism:  Kierkegaard and Nietzsche

READ POH 131-132 (on “suprahistory”), 143-145 (Kierkegaard), 146-154 (Nietzsche)

Mar. 8                         Existentialism combined with Marxism: Sartre

READ Sartre handout


Mar. 20           Dilthey

READ POH 155-160 (introduction to Dilthey), 169-177

DUNBAR LECTURE, March 20, 7:30 p.m.

James Sterba (University of Notre Dame)

“Why Everyone Should Agree that Economic Inequality is Unjust”

Mar. 22           Neo-Kantianism

READ POH 160-168

Mar. 27           Neo-Kantianism cont.: Windelband and Rickert

READ POH 177-192

Mar. 29           Heidegger

READ POH 220-229 (introduction to Heidegger)

Apr. 3                          Heidegger cont.

READ POH 234-239

Apr. 5                          Narrativism: White and Ricoeur

READ POH 291-300

Apr. 10           Narrativism cont.

READ Dray, Chap. 5

Apr. 12            Posthistory:  Foucault

READ POH 301-306 (introduction to Foucault & Baudrillard), 310-318

Apr. 17            Foucault cont.

READ Foucault handout

Apr. 19            Universal collective action:  Smith

READ Smith handout

Apr. 24            Smith cont.

READ Smith handout

Apr. 26            Conclusion

READ Eliade, Myth of the Eternal Return, Chap. 4

Final exam and paper revision due May 5th.



For your course notebook, a loose‑leaf binder is strongly recommended.  This will make it easier to hand in and take back your entries, and also to keep handouts together.

­Once a week (normally) you will be asked to bring to class a new entry in your Philosophy of History Notebook—about 2 pp., if typed double-space—in which you discuss the week’s work (readings and discussions) both positively and negatively.

Positively, you will attempt to draw out of the week’s work the elements that you most want to include in your own philosophical toolkit—ideas and arguments that are, you think, valid and worth remembering and benefiting from in the future.  You are encouraged to develop ideas and arguments in ways that suit your own purposes.

Negatively, you will attempt to identify the mistakes or otherwise unhelpful elements in the week’s work.  (You are not committing yourself to rejecting anything!  You can change your mind later about your earlier “mistake” calls!   Be bold!)

The Philosophy of History Notebook is an important learning tool that will enable you to keep track of what our class comes up with in a cumulative way.

Several times in the semester you will be asked to write a response to a peer’s entry in the same positive-and-negative way.

Individual Notebook entries and responses will be graded unsatisfactory (-), satisfactory (\/), or very good (+) depending on the attentiveness and thoughtfulness they show.  The Notebook as a whole will get a letter grade.



This paper of around 3,000 words will be devoted to an issue, or set of issues, in the philosophy of history that can be studied profitably by a careful examination of the historical thinking reflected in one or more chosen texts.  You will consult with the instructor in advance on which issue you will tackle.  (A featured general issue this semester is historical judgment: how does one rely on a certain understanding of the historical nature of human life and “how history works” when one arrives at conclusions about political goals and strategies, e.g. in arguing for “nation-building” or reparations for slavery?)

Your prime objective is to help your readers understand and assess a way of thinking about history that ought to be taken seriously because it (a) contains valid and significant insight, and/or (b) involves significant error, and/or (c) raises interesting questions.

Your paper needs three main components:

  1. Introduction: Explain the issue(s) in philosophy of history that your study addresses and show preliminarily how your choice of materials is appropriate.
  1. Exposition: Present your material selectively and holding a useful focus.  Don’t make yourself responsible for too much material.  Don’t document a large thesis haphazardly.  Aim for a fine-grained reading of key texts and look for telling details.  Above all, be sure you explain the reasoning of an author and the logic of a text; don’t merely state an author’s view or recount a text’s contents.
  1. Conclusion: Offer reasoned conclusions that are your own. Do not merely agree or disagree with an author; do not merely admire or abuse a text.

You will have an opportunity to revise this paper, but don’t turn it in as a rough draft.  The paper is expected to have a fully developed argument, to be free of writing and typography errors, and to employ correct citation with a complete bibliography.


beyond our assigned readings

Ankersmit, Frank and Hans Kellner, eds.  A New Philosophy of History.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995.  Excellent examples of recent theory.

Arendt, Hannah.  “The Concept of History:  Ancient and  Modern.”  In Between Past and Future.  New York:  Viking, 1968.  One of the most politically and historically savvy of recent philosophers.

Benjamin, Walter.  “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”  Trans. Harry Zohn.  In Illuminations.  New York:  Schocken, 1969.  Benjamin’s ideas, indebted to both Marxism and Judaism but limited by neither, are much cited of late.

Carr, David.  Time, Narrative, and History.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1991.  Very clear arguments for narrativism.

Collingwood, R. G.  The Idea of History.  Rev. ed.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1994.  A wonderful read, and a much referenced position: history as imaginative re-enactment of agents’ thoughts.

Danto, Arthur.  Narration and Knowledge (incorporating Analytical Philosophy of History).  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1985.  A seminal work for the revival of analytic philosophy of history in the 1960s; emphasizes action and narrative understanding.

Flynn, Thomas R.  Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, Vols. 1-2.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1997, 2005.  Very clear, stimulating treatment of issues between Sartre’s still-heavy ethical and historical commitments and Foucault’s seemingly post-ethical, post-historical moves.

Hegel, G.W.F.  Phenomenology of Spirit.  Trans. A. V. Miller.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1977.  This is the book that first drew concrete history into fundamental philosophy in a powerful way.

Jaspers, Karl.  The Origin and Goal of History.  Trans. Michael Bullock.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1953.  Invented the notion of the “Axial Age.”

Jenkins, Keith.  Why History?  Ethics and Postmodernity.  New York:  Routledge, 1999.  Useful review of postmodernism issues.

Koselleck, Reinhard.  Futures Past.  On the Semantics of Historical Time.   Trans. Keith Tribe.   New York:  Columbia University Press, 2004.  A recent classic on the history of history concepts, especially from the Enlightenment forward.

Kramer, Lloyd and Sarah Maza, eds.  A Companion to Western Historical Thought.  Oxford:       Blackwell, 2002.

Löwith, Karl.  Meaning in History.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1949.  Great study of the greatest Western philosophies of history.

Lowenthal, David.  The Past is a Foreign Country.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.  Interesting on nostalgia and “heritage.”

McNeill, J. R., et al.  Theme issue on environmental history.  History and Theory 42/4 (Dec. 2003).

McNeill, William.  Mythistory and Other Essays.  Chicago:  University of Chicago, 1986.            Influential theory by a great historian (The Rise of the West, Plagues and Peoples).

Neville, Robert.  Eternity and Time’s Flow.  Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1993.  Possibly helpful for those who want to relate the concepts of eternity and history.

Patocka, Jan, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History.  Trans. Erazim Kohák.  Chicago:  Open Court, 1996.  Interesting ideal of a Europe defined by spiritual responsibility.

Popper, Karl.  The Open Society and Its Enemies.  5th ed.  2 vols.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.  Great attack on Hegel and historicism.

Ricoeur, Paul.  Memory, History, Forgetting.  Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004 .  The most influential recent Continental philosopher of history (d. 2005).

_______.  Time and Narrative.  3 vols.  Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1984‑88.  Profound post-Heideggerian treatment of time; sorts out the categories of fiction and history.

Royce, Josiah.  The Problem of Christianity.  2 vols.  Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2001.  Big picture of history geared to principles of loyalty and inclusive community.

Sartre, Jean‑Paul.  Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vols. 1-2.  Trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith.  London:  Verso, 1976, 1985.  Deep, detailed theory of collective action.

_______.  Notebooks for an Ethics.  Trans. David Pellauer.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1992.  Contains many relevant remarks for Sartre’s view.

Wood, David.  The Deconstruction of Time.  Atlantic Highlands:  Humanities, 1989.  Very interesting on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.

Wyschogrod, Edith.  An Ethics of RememberingHistory, Heterology, and the Nameless Others.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1998.  A postmodern philosopher.



  1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late.  Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.

One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence.  (For example, someone who missed class 7 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.)  The reason for this:  our in‑class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

  1. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent.  Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date.  No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations.  Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  1. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  1. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism.  Plagiarized work will receive no credit and will be referred to the college Honor Council.
  1. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end.  The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.