What Is History?

Shapes of Philosophical History

by Frank E. Manuel
Stanford, 166 pp., $4.75

The Prophets of Paris

by Frank E. Manuel
Harper & Row, 349 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Utopias and Utopian Thought

edited by Frank E. Manuel
Houghton Mifflin, 321 pp., $6.50

The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators From Vico to Freud

by Bruce Mazlish
Harper & Row, 484 pp., $10.95

The Unique and the Universal

by J.L. Talmon
Braziller, 320 pp., $6.50

What is history about? What, to be more specific, is the so-called philosophy of history about? We know who invented the term: It was Voltaire who in 1765 wrote a pseudonymous tract on the subject (characteristically, to amuse a lady friend). But Voltaire, as was his habit, popularized a notion already developed by a more original thinker—in this case Turgot, who in 1750, at the ripe age of twenty-three, had addressed the Sorbonne on a topic then quite new and startling: the “progressions of the human mind.” The title was preserved by Condorcet for his famous essay of 1794, composed in the shadow of the guillotine, the Sketch of a Historical Survey of the Progressions of the Human Mind. Thus the concept of a philosophical history, or philosophical treatment of history, made its appearance on the eve of the Revolution and took final form while the great event was in progress. After Turgot and Condorcet had left the scene, it was taken up, and converted into a rudimentary sociology, by Saint-Simon. Fourier, and Comte: the second generation of the “prophets of Paris” discussed by Professor Manuel. While across the Rhine, in the footsteps of Kant and Herder, Hegel set about to underpin the new doctrine with a metaphysic of his own, later to be “stood on its feet” by Marx. So far the story is familiar, and the authors here under discussion have a wealth of material to go on.

Nonetheless we still need to be told what exactly the term “philosophy of history” was meant to convey. Voltaire, Condorcet, and the other pioneers clearly supposed they were describing mankind’s emergence from barbarism to civilization. Their successors became progressively more modest. As time went on, they narrowed their field of vision from the whole of human history to that of Western Europe, then to the history of particular institutions, and finally to their own age. Then it occurred to someone that the business of the historian was itself an interesting subject, worthy of sustained thought. “Philosophy of history” thus came to mean “reflection upon the writing of history,” rather than concern with the historical process (if there was one). By now the circle is closed: Historians are so busy writing about historiography that they scarcely have time left to consider what actually happened. As for the philosophers, their task has been re-defined for them: It is no longer to write about the meaning of history, but to ascertain what historians have thought of it. From an author not represented in this collection I quote the following statement (contained in an introduction to a volume of essays on the philosophy of history): “Philosophy of history today is about historical knowledge, not about history itself.”

THIS SEEMS WORTH PONDERING. It is true, of course, that other branches of specialized investigation too can be viewed under a double aspect: that of their ostensible theme, and that of the mental discipline to which the study of the subject gives rise. “Chemistry.” to take…

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