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The Difference between History and Philosophy of History

Mises Daily: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 by

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[Excerpted from chapter 8 of Theory and History. An audio version of this article, excerpted from the forthcoming audiobook version, read by John Pruden, is available as a free MP3 download.]

'The Feast of Belshazzar' by Rembrandt

Before the 18th century, most dissertations dealing with human history in general (and not merely with concrete historical experience) interpreted history from the point of view of a definite philosophy of history. This philosophy was seldom clearly defined and particularized. Its tenets were taken for granted and implied in commenting on events.

Only in the Age of Enlightenment did some eminent philosophers abandon the traditional methods of the philosophy of history and stop brooding about the hidden purpose of providence directing the course of events. They inaugurated a new social philosophy, entirely different from what is called the philosophy of history. They looked upon human events from the point of view of the ends aimed at by acting men, instead of from the point of view of the plans ascribed to God or nature.

The significance of this radical change in the ideological outlook can best be illustrated by referring to Adam Smith's point of view. But in order to analyze the ideas of Smith we must first refer to Mandeville.

The older ethical systems were almost unanimous in the condemnation of self-interest. They were ready to find the self-interest of the tillers of the soil pardonable and very often tried to excuse or even to glorify the kings' lust for aggrandizement. But they were adamant in their disapprobation of other people's craving for well-being and riches. Referring to the Sermon on the Mount, they exalted self-denial and indifference with regard to the treasures which moth and rust corrupt, and branded self-interest a reprehensible vice.

Bernard de Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees tried to discredit this doctrine. He pointed out that self-interest and the desire for material well-being, commonly stigmatized as vices, are in fact the incentives whose operation makes for welfare, prosperity, and civilization.

Adam Smith adopted this idea. It was not the object of his studies to develop a philosophy of history according to the traditional pattern. He did not claim to have guessed the goals which providence has set for mankind and aims to realize by directing men's actions. He abstained from any assertions concerning the destiny of mankind and from any prognostication about the ineluctable end of historical change. He merely wanted to determine and to analyze the factors that had been instrumental in man's progress from the straitened conditions of older ages to the more satisfactory conditions of his own age.

It was from this point of view that he stressed the fact that "every part of nature, when attentively surveyed, equally demonstrates the providential care of its Author," and that "we may admire the wisdom and goodness of God, even in the weakness and folly of men." The rich, aiming at the "gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires," are "led by an invisible hand" in such a way that they "without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means for the multiplication of the species."

"Historians do not claim to know anything about the future. They deal only with the past."

Believing in the existence of God, Smith could not help tracing back all earthly things to him and his providential care, just as later the Catholic Frédéric Bastiat spoke of God's finger. But in referring in this way to God neither of them intended to make any assertion about the ends God may want to realize in historical evolution. The ends they dealt with in their writings were those aimed at by acting men, not by providence. The pre-established harmony to which they alluded did not affect their epistemological principles and the methods of their reasoning. It was merely a means devised to reconcile the purely secular and mundane procedures they applied in their scientific efforts with their religious beliefs. They borrowed this expedient from pious astronomers, physicists, and biologists who had resorted to it without deviating in their research from the empirical methods of the natural sciences.

What made it necessary for Adam Smith to look for such a reconciliation was the fact that — like Mandeville before him — he could not free himself from the standards and the terminology of traditional ethics, which condemned as vicious man's desire to improve his own material conditions. Consequently, he was faced with a paradox. How can it be that actions commonly blamed as vicious generate effects commonly praised as beneficial?

The utilitarian philosophers found the right answer. What results in benefits must not be rejected as morally bad. Only those actions are bad which produce bad results. But the utilitarian point of view did not prevail. Public opinion still clings to pre-Mandevillian ideas. It does not approve of a businessman's success in supplying the customers with merchandise that best suits their wishes. It looks askance at wealth acquired in trade and industry, and finds it pardonable only if the owner atones for it by endowing charitable institutions.

For the agnostic, atheistic, and antitheistic historians and economists there is no need to refer to Smith's and Bastiat's invisible hand. The Christian historians and economists who reject capitalism as an unfair system consider it blasphemous to describe egoism as a means providence has chosen in order to attain its ends. Thus the theological views of Smith and Bastiat no longer have any meaning for our age. But it is not impossible that the Christian churches and sects will one day discover that religious freedom can be realized only in a market economy and will stop supporting anticapitalistic tendencies. Then they will either cease to disapprove of self-interest or return to the solution suggested by these eminent thinkers.

Just as important as realizing the essential distinction between the philosophy of history and the new, purely mundane social philosophy which developed from the 18th century on is awareness of the difference between the stage-doctrine implied in almost every philosophy of history and the attempts of historians to divide the totality of historical events into various periods or ages.

In the context of a philosophy of history, the various states or stages are, as has been mentioned already, intermediary stations on the way to a final stage which will fully realize the plan of providence. For many Christian philosophies of history, the pattern was set by the four kingdoms of the Book of Daniel. The modern philosophies of history borrowed from Daniel the notion of the final stage of human affairs, the notion of "an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away."[1] However Hegel, Comte, and Marx may disagree with Daniel and with one another, they all accept this notion, which is an essential element in every philosophy of history. They announce either that the final stage has already been reached (Hegel), or that mankind is just entering it (Comte), or that its coming is to be expected every day (Marx).

The ages of history as distinguished by historians are of a different character. Historians do not claim to know anything about the future. They deal only with the past. Their periodization schemes aim at classifying historical phenomena without any presumption of forecasting future events. The readiness of many historians to press general history or special fields — like economic or social history or the history of warfare — into artificial subdivisions has had serious drawbacks. It has been a handicap rather than an aid to the study of history. It was often prompted by political bias. Modern historians agree in paying little attention to such period schemes. But what counts for us is merely establishing the fact that the epistemological character of the periodization of history by historians is different from the stage schemes of the philosophy of history.

Notes

[1] Dante, Paradiso, IV, 76: "The will does not die if it does not will."