image of the Hölderlinturm in Tübingen

Philosophy of History

Philosophy 204

Professor William Blattner
Department of Philosophy
Office: 240 New North
Phone: (202) 687-4528

This course will be offered Spring 2009.

Course Description:

Quick Description:

We will look at four broad topics within the philosophy of history:

Detailed Description

In this course we will explore philosophical questions that arise in connection with the phenomenon of history and our attempts to study and write about it. We will focus on three main issues:

  1. Grand Philosophical Narratives of History: Patterns, Progress, and the End of History. We will begin by looking at some of the grand narratives of history offered by philosophers. The two most common forms of grand narratives were (i) cyclical "rise and fall" stories modeled on the growth of an individual from infancy into maturity and beyond to decline (Vico, Spengler), and (ii) stories of linear progress (Comte and other 19th century thinkers impressed by the liberating effects of modern science). (iii) Hegel presented a new sort of narrative, in which historical change is guided by a form of historical reason immanent within human history culminating in the "End of History," when the demands of reason have been satisfied. (iv) Hegel's successors extracted the idea of "laws of history" and the concept of the End of History to build deterministic and teleological historical systems. We'll look at Marx's theory of history and probably also Francis Fukuyama's neo-conservative and neo-Hegelian conception of liberal democracy as the End of History.
  2. The Rise of Scientific History. Partly as reaction against the grand philosophical schemes that we will have examined in part 1 of the course, the concept of "scientific history" rose to prominence: a study of history that simply represents "what happened," rather than judging it or spinning it into some all-comprehending narrative. This impulse towards "scientific history" then dovetailed with the dominance of the empiricist paradigm in science to produce modern historical positivism, the idea that we can only learn what actually happened by way of developing causal theories of historical change. We will look at some of the early German proponents of "scientific history," such as Ranke, and then focus on John Stuart Mill's Logic of the Moral Sciences.
  3. Hermeneutics and the Historicst Rebellion Against Scientific History. Although the fundamental impulse of historicism – the view that historical events and agents must be understood in terms of their particularity, rather than as exemplars of historical laws or patterns – predates the controversies about scientific history, the historicist revolt against positivist history really ignited in the late 19th century. Wilhelm Dilthey led the charge with his argument that human action (and therefore history) must be understood in terms of its meaning, rather than explained by subsumption under causal laws. As the 20th century wore on two further models of historicist historical analysis were added to Dilthey's hermeneutics: Collingwood's conception of subjective reconstruction and post-World War II theories of narrativity. We will look at these two models and the way they develop the basic impulse of historicism.
  4. Post-modernist Approaches to History. We will finish the semester by looking at post-modernist reflections on history, in particular Jean-François Lyotard's The Post-Modern Condition, in which he argues that there can be no unifying narrative of human history in the post-modern age. (This will also give you a taste of post-modern philosophical thought.)


Course Requirements:

Students will write three short (5 pp.) papers due roughly evenly throughout the semester.


Course Prerequisites:

Students must have satisfied their University core requirements in philosophy in order to enroll in this course. There are no further prerequisites.

This is a 200-level course, which means that graduate students may not enroll in it.





I will manage the day-to-day business of this course through Blackboard.

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