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Idea of History

Controversies And Models, Hermeneutical Principles, Many Ideas, Current Approaches, Bibliography

"History" began, with Herodotus (5th century B.C.E.), as a form of empirical inquiry and has had an adventurous semantic career since its early Greek coinage. It has come to refer not only to procedures of investigation but also to speculations about the past. From the very beginning there was confusion between history as what happened in the past and history as memory and description of human events and, on a further level, conjectures about their larger meaning. The definition of history ranged from the study of particulars to philosophical reflection, and the idea of history had a corresponding range of reference both in theory and in practice. For Herodotus, history was intended not only to cast light on the customs of the "barbarians" but also to explain the causes of the wars with the Persians.

For the Romans history was designed, as with Livy (59 B.C.E.–17 C.E.), not only to celebrate national traditions but also, as with Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), to furnish moral lessons for careful readers; and in both models the political-nationalist and the moral-exemplarist modes of historical writing entered into alliance with rhetoric and its apparatus of persuasion and inspiration as manifested in "art of history" (ars historica). At its best, history was, in the words of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (fl. c. 20 B.C.E.), "philosophy teaching by example." These motives were all preserved in the conception of history of Christian authors, with the addition of an overarching providential design inherited from Judaism, which itself arose in the context of Near Eastern—and for Western authors "barbarian"—religions. Not that the idea of history in some sense was limited to the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions, but the writings of other cultures remained outside the Western sphere until the early modern period.

The key to the conceptualization of history is the effort to essentialize the past, first in a Herodotean or Thucydidean narrative, and then in more rational, conjectural, philosophical, and religious ways. The "past" became (in Arnold Toynbee's phrase) an "intelligible field of study," and anthropomorphism as well as religious beliefs and ethnic prejudices came into play in the interpretation of the results of historical inquiry. In the West this meant above all the biblical framework and history as the "grand design of god," which posited human experience in time as a pilgrimage under the laws of providence. From St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) history was seen as the "education of the human race," whether on the way to a final judgment or to an earthly destiny represented as progress, destiny, or a cyclical trajectory. To be ignorant of history, in the often-cited words of Cicero, was always to remain a child. This line of thought was pursued within the framework of a "world history," which transcended the parochial biblical story, which was extended by "conjectural" methods in the eighteenth century, which, in the work especially of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), eventuated in the genre of the "philosophy of history," which was given a more secular and "scientific" twist by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Karl Marx (1818–1883) and their followers, and which today is preserved in attempts at global history.

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