Philosophy of History

1)I dont know much about history, and I wouldnt give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. Its tradition. We dont want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinkers damn is the history we make today. Henry Ford, Interview in Chicago Tribune (25 May 1916)

What is Fords point Why did he say this Is he right Does his views of American traditions have any bearing on the past, or on todays historians

The above mentioned quote by Henry Ford, is a representation of the idea that history is nothing more than tradition, which is not only old and useless but also an obstacle on the path towards progress.  Fords point is, that its utterly useless to involve oneself with history since it is tradition, which is antithetical to progress. What is more important is to involve one self with the present since that where all the action and possibility for the future lies. Thus its a call to neglect and ignore history, condemning it as something useless per se. This idea got currency with the onset of modernity and post-modernity. The modern era was marked by a fundamental shift in the make-up of society due to industrialized mass-production and technological advance. The idea of progress, with the advent of industrial mass production and scientific rationality, got a completely new dimension. Ford was one of the beacon of this new wave of production of not only industrial products, but also ideas. History then, was seen in a very negative light as something unrelated, unscientific and antithetical to this reworked idea of progress. It was dismissed as nothing more than mythology, which was associated with irrationality. Furthermore, since mythology was seen as a manifestation of orthodoxy, as a result history was also given the same connotation, thus garnering disdain.

However, as the disillusionment with modernity later showed, to neglect history is not only disastrous but almost suicidal. History is not just a collection of stories, its a method, an approach that helps humans understand their own selves and their past. Its a biological and psychological fact that individuals need memory to function, normal functioning without memory is not possible. Likewise, groups of individuals (i.e. societies) also need memory to function properly, but their memory needs to be collective memory. Collective memory is the guiding principle for humanity, and can be termed history. Not only is it necessary for the functioning of the group as a whole, but its also helps to understand people, societies, change in society and the processes that shape the identity of groups and individuals.

This view of American tradition has had a very strong bearing on the past in that it shaped an entire societys response to a certain problem that of history. That is, whether to accept and learn from history or to reject and ignore it. The latter option was chosen most of the times over the period of last couple of centuries and this led to a multitude of conflicts of all sorts, from wars to political unrests, and from financial recessions to identity crises. It even impacted the historians of the era, who in keeping with zeitgeist, in fact did produce bunk, their work neither adding to the amount of knowledge, nor helping the society like other social sciences. Thus what Ford said, was not just his personal opinion, but a representation of a bigger malady inflicting the society at a certain period in its history, affecting all and sundry.

2) Is history a science Why or why not Is science divorced from its own past What can science do for history What(if anything) can history do for science Is scientific method a myth Does historical method exist Is it possible What is the relation between history, rationality, and objective, verifiable truth

To say whether history is (or is not) a science, it is absolutely necessary to delineate what is science. Science is today marked by positivism and empiricism. The method that puts science into practice is the scientific method which is, in very short, the application of empiricism and positivism to the real world in a systematic manner. There are other notions that are allied to science and scientific method, most importantly objectivity. To be a science then, history and historical method has to be equally rational and objective.

The one major object of science is that it tries to find out causality in the universe. History, and indeed all social sciences also attempts the same, but their view of causality is different. Influenced by positivism, science looks for universal causal regularity, leading to causal laws which are the hallmark of science. Social phenomenon can not have such universal causal laws. The alternative that history looks for then, are causally relevant conditions, that is, conditions sufficient and necessary for the occurrence of an event. This implies there may not be just one single factor that causes a phenomenon. The outcome may be the result of multiple factors all acting at the same time, in the same direction. Thus on an ontological level, its not possible to have causal laws like in science, but its possible to have social causation i.e. human agency acting within the constraint of structures, along with multiple other factors. This is the causal mechanism that history may attempt to find and which forms the basis of the historical method. Then to the extent that this exercise yields to discovery of causal mechanisms, history can be merited as science since the object of both history and science is to determine causality.
To find out the link between history and objective, verifiable truth, recourse to the question what constitutes objectivity in history is necessary. To be objective, it has to be established whether historian can be neutral or not, whether value-laded nature of social actions can be avoided and finally whether the historical circumstances themselves are objective realities or social constructions. In the first case, historian can achieve the daunting task by exposing the research to the rigors of uncomfortable and conflicting facts and disproving his bias. In the second case, historian can examine the behaviors and statements of all the agencies and come to an unbiased conclusion, devoid of the value-laded nature. And finally in the last case, it needs to be shown that historical entities are of two kinds, material and abstract. Material entities like Byzantine Empire and Great Wall of China existed independently of our representation of them, while abstract entities exist only in so far as we represent them in a certain way e.g. Renaissance, Industrial Age. Thus on an epistemological level, history can be objective to the extent that you employ the evidence to justify your construction and interpretation of history.
What science can do for history is that it can lend its systematic and rational approach to the study of universe to history. History is perhaps the only discipline that has been categorized under both humanities and social sciences, for the reason that many practitioners of the discipline have not applied the historical method in its true form that is both objective and in a sense empirical, like the scientific method. What history can do for science is that since it is much more liberal in its understanding of causality as compared to science which tends to be more radical, it can lend science respect for the alternate understanding of causality, and as a result for the social sciences too.

3) This was indeed the greatest reverse experienced by any Greek army. They had come with the intention of enslaving others, and now found themselves in fear of enslavement themselvesand yet the pure scale of the danger still hanging over them made all this seem bearable (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, VII, 75 tr. Martin Hammond, intro. P.J. Rhodes New York Oxford, 2009, 407).
What is Thucydidess point Why did he say this Is he right Does his view of Athenian history have any bearing on America, or on the problems we face today

In this passage from Book 7 of the History of Peloponnesian War, Thucydides is referring to the final battle between the armies of Athens and Syracuse, resulting in the defeat and eventual shameful retreat of the Athenian army. Stripped of their cavalry, navy and morale as a consequence of the war, Athenians were retreating back on foot. Shameful enough in its own merit, they also had the constant danger of the enemy coming in their stride and attacking them. This, according to Thucydides, was the danger hanging over them that made their shameful flight sans their honor, cavalry and navy, bearable.  Thus the army that came with high aims, was returning humiliated and stripped of its own honor.

Even though Athens of 421 BC and America of today are separated by well over 2400 years of history, yet there are parallels between the two that have strong bearing on America and the problems we face today. The main cause of the war, according to Thucydides, was the increasing power of Athens (Athenian Empire) as compared to other city-states in post-Persian wars era. Since Athens was a democracy while Sparta had a military-led government, there also developed an ideological conflict between these two most powerful city-states. With increasing power and influence, Athens started to interfere in other city-states for a multitude of reasons, but notably to further increase its own power and prestige. These policies of Athens caused resentment among the city-states and led to the 27 year long Peloponnesian Wars, resulting not only in the utter destruction of Athens, but also leaving all the other city-states severely weakened. Juxtaposing the Athens of 421 BC to the America of 2010, similarities start becoming apparent soon. Just like Athens, Americas power is steadily increasing in the aftermath of the Cold War. Flag bearer of democracy and liberty, it is increasingly interfering in other countries of the world, causing resentment among not only in these countries, but also among its own citizens back home. And lastly, it has also initiated the War on Terror, which like Peloponnesian War, is not only costing expensive, but is also deemed to go on for a long time. The justification of the two wars is also the same, that short-term terrors and casualties will lead to a long-term peace, when in fact it led to the annihilation of the superpower of the time. As Corinthians pleaded with their allies in the Assembly at Sparta to sanction the war, arguing that peace gains fresh stability out of war, so do the Americans argue that in order to secure peace for America and for the world, this War is inevitable.

The lessons from the sad story of Athens are many. Firstly, it can be observed that two major reasons that contribute to the fall of empires, as evident from the practice of Athens, are the doctrine of preemptive strike and foreign intervention. The same is true for America today, with its policies of preemptive strikes and foreign intervention in different countries in the name of War on Terror. Secondly, the pride of ones military might at the base and start of such wars meets with a sorry end. The pride of America over its military might is already suffering from serious casualties in different war zones. Just as Pericles couldnt foresee the plague that hit Athens during the war, there are many plagues already in the making that might hit this military machine, discontentment at home, financial recession and loss of moral of army to name a few.

To avoid the fate that Athens met 2400 years ago then, it is imperative that America learn the lessons that history has in store for it, before it is too late.


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