History, Philosophy of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

History, Philosophy of


the branch of philosophy that is concerned with interpreting the historical process and historical knowledge. The field of inquiry of the philosophy of history has undergone a marked change in content over the course of history. While definite conceptions about the past and future of mankind had been advanced by historiographers even in ancient times, such concepts were yet to be incorporated into a formal system.

In the view of such medieval Christian philosophers as Augustine, history’s chief moving force was divine providence, which existed outside of history; people were merely actors in the drama whose author was god. In opposition to this concept, a secular philosophy of history took shape during the Renaissance. Major contributions were made by J. Bodin, by the 17th-century English materialists, including F. Bacon and T. Hobbes, and especially by G. Vico with his cyclical theory of historical development. The term “philosophy of history” was first used by Voltaire, who had in mind the universal historical review of human culture. J. G. Herder was the first to regard the philosophy of history as a special discipline designed to explore the general problems of history, to determine whether human societies develop according to certain definite and unchanging laws, and—if so—to discover the nature of such laws.

During the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries the philosophy of history was primarily a general theory of historical development. Philosophers sought to define the goal, the moving forces, and the meaning of the historical process. While the force governing history might be given various names, such as divine providence or universal reason, in every case it was still a force outside of history—manifested in history but not created within it.

Nevertheless, this classical philosophy of history contributed to the development of some important concepts, including the theory of progress of M. J. A. Condorcet, the problem of the unity of the historical process and the multiplicity of its forms, the objective determination of the laws of history, and the question of freedom and necessity. These ideas came to a culmination in the theory of G. Hegel. Hegel attempted to represent history as a single orderly process wherein each period, while inimitably unique, at the same time represents one of the successive steps in mankind’s general course of development. On the other hand, Hegel regarded the historical process as merely the infinite self-unfolding of reason, or idea. Hence the abstract quality of the Hegelian philosophy of history, with its unsubstantiated explanation of history’s actual course.

During the second half of the 19th century the center of attention moved away, to a considerable degree, from the metaphysical and ontological problems that were the traditional concern of the philosophy of history and shifted to other social sciences—to the point that the positivist theoreticians proclaimed the end of any philosophy of history, which was to be replaced by sociology. Sociology alone, however, could not encompass the entire field of inquiry of the philosophy of history. The crisis of positivist evolutionism at the turn of the 19th century brought forth some new variants of the cyclical theory of historical development—namely, those advanced by O. Spengler, A. Toynbee, and P. A. Sorokin.

The question of the meaning of history remains the central problem in the Christian philosophy of history and, to some extent, in existentialism (as exemplified by K. Jaspers). In the bourgeois philosophy of history of the 20th century, the global problems of world history and contemporary civilization are often treated irrationally, pessimistically, and in a pointedly anti-Marxist spirit.

Another form of philosophy of history was developed in the late 19th century and became known as the critical school; within it, two basic trends may be distinguished: one is epistemological, while the other is logical and methodological. The foundations of epistemological theory were laid by W. Dilthey with his critical approach to historical knowledge; this theory, which goes beyond the bounds of historiography proper, analyzes historical consciousness in the broad sense of the term. Thus B. Croce’s theory of historiography is merely another manifestation of the “philosophy of the spirit.” The neo-Kantian philosophy of history of W. Windelband and H. Rickert is closely related to the doctrine of values. Such approaches are basically inspired by the allegedly substantial and epistemological specificity of history, which is held to be distinct from both natural science and the “naturalized” social sciences—and particularly from sociology. The most important among these trends is the phenomenological school.

The “analytical” trend of the philosophy of history, which is linked to the positivist tradition, is primarily concerned with the logical and methodological study of the science of history; this school holds that the purpose of philosophy is not to prescribe the rules of the historical method but rather to describe and analyze the historian’s research procedures and methods of presentation, and above all the specific logic of historical knowledge. The major proponents of this approach are E. Nagel, C. Hempel, P. Gardiner, and W. Dray. Historians, too, have shown a growing interest in the philosophy of history with its increasingly complex problems and methods. History and Theory, an international journal on the philosophy of history, has been published in the USA since 1960.

The materialist interpretation of history, eliminating all that is supernatural, or nonhistorical, represents a genuinely scientific philosophy of history. As K. Marx demonstrated, history is created by people, who are simultaneously actors in and authors of their own world-historical drama. The way in which people create history, however, is not arbitrary; rather, it is based on existing objective conditions. The results of the activity of previous human generations are objectively embodied in any given stage of development of the productive forces and production relations; for each succeeding generation, these results are a given, independent of that generation’s own will, and representing the objective conditions of its activity. The development of society is thus a natural historical process that follows regular patterns. This process, however, is not an automatic one. As a society achieves maturity, its growing material needs are reflected in the interest of its most important classes; in an antagonistic society, these needs are realized through class struggle. Some major contributions to the development of historical materialism were those of V. I. Lenin—for example, the theory of the subjective factor, the dialectics of social being and social consciousness, and the characteristic properties of the laws of social progress in modern times.

The new materialist interpretation of history represented a radical departure from speculative philosophies of history. Philosophy no longer claims to describe some a priori scheme of world-historical development. Although the study of the past, as well as of the present, cannot do without some definite theoretical premises, these abstractions “by no means afford a recipe or schema . . . for neatly trimming the epochs of history. On the contrary, the difficulties begin only when one sets about the examination and arrangement of the material—whether of a past epoch or of the present—and its actual presentation” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 26).

Contemporary Marxist scholarship does not include the philosophy of history as an independent branch. The relevant problems are predominantly worked out within the framework of historical materialism—which in fact is, precisely, the Marxist philosophy of history—as well as within the logical framework of scientific research, which includes the specific logic of the historical method, the types and forms of historical description, and the construction of historical explanations. Such problems of the philosophy of history as the periodization of world history and the analysis of particular historical conceptions may also be treated within the framework of historical research papers. The central concerns of Soviet scholars are the general laws and the dialectics of the historical process, the theory of socioeconomic formations, the global problems of civilization, the characteristic features of social development in our time, and the interrelation of history and the other social and natural sciences.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Nemetskaia ideologiia. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Ibid., vol. 4.
Marx, K. “Predislovie” [“K kritike politicheskoi ekonomii”]. Ibid., vol. 13.
Lenin, V. I. Chto takoe “druz’ia naroda” i kak oni voiuiut protiv sotsial-demokratov? Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1.
Asmus, V. F. Marks i burzhuaznyi istorizm. Moscow-Leningrad, 1933.
Kon, I. S. Filosofskii idealizm i krizis burzhuaznoi istoricheskoi mysli. Moscow, 1959.
Frantsov, G. P. Istoricheskie puti sotsial’noi mysli. Moscow, 1965.
Filosofskie problemy istoricheskoi nauki. Moscow, 1969.
Istoricheskii materializm kak teoriia sotsial’nogo poznaniia i deiatel’nosti. Moscow, 1972.
Konrad, N.I. Zapad i Vostok [2nd ed.]. Moscow, 1972.
Markarian, E. S. O genezise chelovecheskoi deiatel’nosti i kul’tury. Yerevan, 1973.
Gulyga, A. V. Estetika istorii. Moscow, 1974.
Fedoseev, P. N. Dialektika sovremennoi epokhi, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1975.
Skvortsov, L. V., Dialektika ob”ektivnogo i sub”ektivnogo v filosofii istorii. Moscow, 1975.
Filosofiia i metodologiia istorii. Moscow, 1976.
Aron, R. La Philosophic critique de I’histoire, 3rd ed. Paris, 1964.
Dray, W. H. Philosophy of History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964.
Danto, A. C. Analytical Philosophy of History. Cambridge, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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