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The Historical Distinctiveness of Central Europe

A Study in the Philosophy of History


Krzysztof Brzechczyn

The aim of this book is to explain economic dualism in the history of modern Europe. The emergence of the manorial-serf economy in the Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary in the 16th and the 17th centuries was the result of a cumulative impact of various circumstantial factors. The weakness of cities in Central Europe disturbed the social balance – so characteristic for Western-European societies – between burghers and the nobility. The political dominance of the nobility hampered the development of cities and limited the influence of burghers, paving the way to the rise of serfdom and manorial farms. These processes were accompanied by increased demand for agricultural products in Western Europe

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1 In Defense of the Theory of the Historical Process

1 In Defense of the Theory of the Historical Process

1 Introduction

From its very birth in the ancient Greece, philosophical thought has included a reflection over human society and its past. However, philosophy of history, as a separate philosophical discipline conscious of its object of study and methods, emerged in the Age of Enlightenment. Giambattista Vico, the Italian intellectual who lived at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, was named the pioneer of the discipline. He termed it the “new science.” Philosophical reflection over history was “new” in the sense that, in the Age of Reason, it escaped from the influence of religion and theology. Voltaire introduced the term “philosophy of history” in 1765.1 In the course of its evolution, the discipline has been understood as:

an interpretation of the past or of a fraction of the past using philosophical categories and concepts, or an explication of the past provided with reference to laws/models/theories responsible for social development;

a description of the past perceived from the perspective of universal history of human kind;

an evaluation and a search for meaning in history, or in separate historical events;

a theory of knowledge and historical cognition.

The Anglo-Saxon world offers an additional distinction into two branches of analytic (or critical) and speculative (or substantial) philosophy of history.2 ←19 | 20→Analytic philosophy of history belongs to philosophy of science, and it deals with the following issues concerning historical knowledge: modes of explanations, nature of a historical fact, structure of a historical narrative, status of historical laws. Substantial philosophy of history puts forward statements concerning the course of the historical process. Out of the above list, substantial philosophy of history has the first three features and analytic philosophy of history has the last feature. The substantial philosophy of history may predominantly emphasise the explanatory aspect of a given dimension of the past under study. Then it can be alternatively described as “theory of the historical process,” or “theoretical history.” When a given concept from substantial philosophy of history includes also the axiological aspect of the past, it is termed historiosophy.3

Regardless of the understanding of the substantial philosophy of history – minimalistic or maximalist – this type of humanistic reflection has raised a lot of controversy: from Karl R. Popper’s criticism of the impossibility to formulate laws governing historical development to Jean-François Lyotard’s claims about a totalitarian virus present in the very intention of constructing metanarratives. The present chapter offers a critical analysis of the accusations formulated by Isaiah Berlin, Karl R. Popper, Jean-François Lyotard, and Aviezer Tucker against the substantial philosophy of history.

2 On the Schematization of the Theory of the Historical Process

According to Isaiah Berlin, the characteristic feature of conceptions formulated within the substantial philosophy of history is their recognition of the past reality as a homogenous and universal developmental model. Berlin, such an understanding of history assumes that

[t];here is some single explanation of the order and attributes of persons, things, and events. Usually this consists in the advocacy of some fundamental category or principle ←20 | 21→which claims to act as an infallible guide both to the past and to the future, a magic lens revealing “inner,” inexorable, all-pervasive historical laws, invisible to the naked eye of the mere recorder of events, but capable, when understood, of giving the historian a unique sense of certainty – certainty not only of what in fact occurred, but of the reason why it could not have occurred otherwise.4

Substantial philosophy of history understood as above bears two characteristic features: it generates one universal model of history concerning a certain distinguished social entirety, such as Humanity, in which separate historical facts are perceived as necessary components of an order of events. According to Berlin,

[t];o understand is to perceive patterns. To offer historical explanations is not merely to describe a succession of events, but to make it intelligible; to make intelligible is to reveal the basic pattern – not one of several possible patterns, but the one unique plan which, by being as it is, fulfils only one particular purpose, and consequently is revealed as fitting in a specifiable fashion within the single “cosmic” overall schema which is the goal of the universe, the goal in virtue of which alone it is a universe at all, and not a chaos of unrelated bits and pieces [. . .]. Unless an event, or the character of an individual, or the activity of this or that institution or group or historical personage, is explained as a necessary consequence of its place in the pattern (and the larger, that is, the more comprehensive the schema, the more likely it is to be the true one), no explanation – and therefore no historical account – is being provided. The more inevitable an event or an action or a character can be exhibited as being, the better it has been understood, the profounder the researcher’s insight, the nearer we are to the one embracing, ultimate truth.5

For Berlin, this kind of approach to history was a manifestation of a “metaphysical fantasy.”6 His argument can be reconstructed in the following way: historical reality is typically multi-formed and multi-streamed. It is significantly more complex in reality than according to a philosopher of history, who is armed with “categories and rules,” hence it cannot be forced to fit into a Procrustean bed of any philosophy of history.7

←21 | 22→

A closer look at conceptions belonging to the substantial philosophy of history reveals that they can be divided into three types, according to the criterion of the degree of universality of the formulated statements:

(i) universalistic;

(ii)  dualistic;

(iii)  pluralistic.8

According to universalistic conceptions, theories/models/dependencies or developmental mechanisms formulated within them pertain to all societies equally. It needs to be admitted that the formulated dependencies are being frequently applied in a dogmatic manner in order to explicate a historical reality.

A good example of the approach to history described above is the Stalinist version of historical materialism popularized in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and in the socialist states of the Eastern Bloc in the years 1944–1956. Joseph Stalin put forward a binding interpretation of this form of Marxism in his work Dialectical and Historical Materialism published in 1938, where “the great leader of the proletariat” in a very authoritative manner outlined five-staged developmental model including primitive communal system, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The Marxist ideology proved detrimental to Marxism as such because, by legitimizing a totalitarian social system, it ceased to be a scientific theory developed by virtue of internal criticism and confrontation with empirical data.

However, the aforementioned universalism of the substantial philosophy of history is not characteristic solely for Marxism. It is also present in the social philosophy of liberalism, for example in Walt Whitman Rostow’s theory of modernization. According to this conception, the principal social factor is the development of modern science. The evolution of modern science and the successful application of its achievements brought about a modernization of economy, which, in turn, resulted in a creation of a modern nation state. According to Rostow, the history of all human societies evolves through the following five stages of economic development: traditional society, pre-conditions to modernization take-off, modernization take-off, drive to maturity, and age of mass consumption.

←22 | 23→

In traditional societies, modern science was yet to be developed and environmental conditions restricted economic growth. Family ties and clan relations dominated the social aspect of public life, and the entire social life had a hierarchical character. In traditional societies, the system of values was permeated with fatalism, or a conviction that, in all generations, individual members of society will have the same scope of life chances. According to Rostow,

[i];n terms of history then, with the phrase “traditional society” we are grouping the whole pre-Newtonian world: the dynasties in China; the civilization of the Middle East and the Mediterranean; the world of medieval Europe. And to them we add the post-Newtonian societies, which, for a time, remained untouched or unmoved by man’s new capability for regularly manipulating his environment to his economic advantage.9

The second stage described by Rostow as “pre-conditions to modernization take-off” is characterized by the application of the inventions of budding modern science, which brings about economic development. Simultaneously, agriculture was still the primary economic sector. In order to initiate a modernization take-off a society had to satisfy three conditions: to produce enough food to feed the growing town population, to serve as an outlet for production of the means of production, and owners should invest profits from agriculture into industrial production. This stage is characterized by the beginnings of international market and creation of nation states what is condition for a modernization take-off.

This was followed by an accelerated industrialization and urbanization of society. At this stage, the level of investment increased to 5–10 % of net national income, and a rapid advancement of particular industrial branches took place resulting in the development of remaining economic fields and transformations of political and public life. Rostow argues that all societies experienced the following developmental stage in various moments in history:

one approximately allocate the take-off of Britain to the two decades after 1783; France and the United States to the several decades preceding 1860; Germany, the third quarter of the nineteenth century; Japan, the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century; Russia and Canada the quarter-century or so preceding 1914; while during the 1950’s India and China have, in quite different ways, launched their respective take-offs.10

In the subsequent stage of historical development, which Rostow terms “the drive to maturity,” achievements of the previous stage were consolidated. In this phase of development, around 10–20 % of net national income was invested ←23 | 24→in economic growth. In the previous stage, mining and heavy industries were developed, while now the major investment was in the development of chemical, electrical, and machinery industries.

The final stage – the age of mass consumption – was reached when the primary income of the greater part of members of society had allowed for satisfaction of other demands, which go beyond basic needs, such as food, accommodation, and clothing. As society became predominantly urban, the majority of people was employed in the service sector. In the age of mass consumption, all members of society are capable of achieving prosperity – on account of welfare state institutions. At the time when Rostow formulated his claim, the United States (1946–1956), Western Europe and Japan (1950s) entered this stage of social advancement.

A contrast between European and Asian societies has become the foundation of dualistic theories. For instance, Karl August Wittfogel put forward a theory of hydraulic societies, which has revitalized the discussion on Asian social formation after the Second World War.11 According to Wittfogel, the tradition of distinguishing between occidental and oriental lines of development originates from the period when nomadic tribes proceeded from hunting and gathering to a sedentary life based on cultivation of land. The line of historical development was influenced by access or lack of access to water. In Europe, the abundance of water reservoirs ensured individual access to aquatic resources. However, the areas of Near East and Far East experienced shortages of water and rainfall. In order to survive, these societies were forced to organize irrigation works designed to tame large-scale rivers. The state was established to organize irrigation works and supervise the process of organization of production. Subsequently, it was no longer necessary to conduct regular irrigation works but the state organization founded for this purpose remained. In Asian societies, despotic-bureaucratic systems were established, hampering the development of private property and subjugating religious organizations.

With regard to the degree and scope of state interference into socio-economic life, Wittfogel distinguished between classic, marginal, and sub-marginal hydraulic societies. In classic hydraulic systems, state exercised direct control over irrigation works and organized them. Classic societies included: ancient ←24 | 25→Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, Inca, and Mesopotamian societies. In marginal hydraulic societies, the state dealt with building facilities and organization of ventures directly not associated with building canals, and additionally fulfilled a number of social functions, such as tax collection and defense. The Byzantine Empire is a good example of such society. Finally, in sub-marginal hydraulic systems developed in Russia and Turkey, state manifested its power in enforcing collection of taxes, developing defense systems against external aggression and maintaining legal order.

In his comparison of the historical development of Asian and European societies, Wittfogel claimed that Asian societies are characterized by state ownership of the means of production, despotism, dominance of the collective over the individual, and social stagnation. In contrast, characteristic features of European societies included: private ownership of the means of production, political freedom manifested in bottom-up formation of civil organizations, dominance of the individual over collective and dynamic development.

According to Wittfogel, capitalistic societies derive from the feudal system formed in the Western developmental line, while the system of real socialism in the Soviet Union and China derives from hydraulic systems formed in the oriental developmental line:

The agrarian despotism of the old society, which, at most, was semi-managerial, combines total political power which limited social and intellectual control. The industrial despotism of the fully developed and totally managerial apparatus society combines total political power with total social and intellectual control.12

Based on this, Wittfogel claims that the two developmental lines had been distinguished in the past and there were no new separate developmental lines distinguished afterwards. Moreover, hydraulic societies found their continuation in real socialism and feudalism – in democratic capitalism.

Pluralistic conceptions presume existence of many types of societies evolving according to distinct regularities. Samuel Huntington’s theory, which employs the concept of civilization, is one of such conceptions:

A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other ←25 | 26→species. It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions and by the subjective self-identification of people.13

Nonetheless, nation states are the most influential entities on the international arena and, as emphasized by Huntington, their interests, making covenants, and conflicts are defined by cultural factors, which determine their civilizational identity. As cultural formations, civilizations do not have clearly defined political boundaries and their political structure is characterized by great diversity. As a result, civilizations may include a single country (i.e. Japanese civilization) or a number of sovereign countries (i.e. Western civilization). The latter type of civilizations may be centered on a recognizable leading state (i.e. Russia in the civilization of Eastern Orthodox Christianity) or there may be no leader (e.g. in the Latin-American civilization or in the Islamic civilization, a number of countries aspire to the role of a leader; however, as of now, none of them managed to gain dominance over others). Huntington differentiated seven currently existing civilizations and one emergent:

Sinic or Chinese civilization – dating back to the 15th century BC; its cultural core is Confucianism; it encompasses China, Vietnam, and South Korea and Chinese communities living abroad;

Japanese civilization – emerged from Chinese civilization between the 1st and the 4th centuries;

Hindu civilization – formed around in the 14th century BC; its cultural core is Hinduism;

Islamic civilization – created in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula; currently spreading over North Africa, Near East, and Central Asian countries; it encompasses a number of cultures: Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Malayan;

Orthodox civilization – a continuation of the Byzantine civilization; differs from Western Christianity by two hundred years of Tatar rule, bureaucratic despotism and restrained contact with Western cultural tendencies: the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment;

Western civilization – dating back to the 8th and the 9th centuries; its characteristic features include: heritage of classical antiquity, Catholicism and Protestantism, a multiplicity of European languages, separation of spiritual and secular power, the rule of law, social pluralism, development of representative institutions, and individualism;

←26 | 27→

Latin-American civilization – despite being a formation of European civilization, its developmental line differs from Western civilization in terms of culture, politics, and economy. Latin-American culture, authoritarian and corporate, is a synthesis of a dominant Catholic culture and native Indian cultures;

African civilization (potential) – the north of the continent belongs to Islamic civilization; African civilization will come to existence if the societies living on the south part of the Sahara overcome antagonisms and tribal identities in favor of an African identity.14

Cultural identity of a civilization to a large extent influences developmental lines of societies forming particular civilizations. Huntington states that it is a key factor in the future development of relations between the West and other civilizations.

If we treat Berlin’s criticisms as a criterion for a typology of the theory of the historical process, some of these conceptions will be subject to his charges (universalistic conceptions) and some will not.15 For this reason, Berlin’s critique is partially legitimate.

3 On the Prognoses in the Theory of the Historical Process

Karl R. Popper questioned the usefulness of formulating laws of historical development and possibility of putting prognoses in the historical sciences. According to him, a historicist doctrine (in its naturalistic version) of the social sciences is modeled on the natural sciences. Since these sciences (astronomy) are capable of making predictions regarding natural phenomena with a high degree of precision and for a long time ahead, i.e. solar eclipse, so should the social sciences be capable of forecasting certain social phenomena, i.e. revolutions? Following from this, the social sciences have fundamentally the same tasks as the natural sciences – formulation of scientific prophecies capable of predicting the social and political evolution of the humankind. Based on such prophecies, it is possible to determine the tasks of politics, which, following Marx’s definition, are ←27 | 28→supposed to ease the “labor pains” preceding the predicable, inevitable political events. Popper argued that,

[a];dmittedly all theoretical sciences are predicting sciences. Admittedly there are social sciences, which are theoretical. But to these admissions imply – as the historicists believe – that the task of the social sciences is historical prophecy? It looks like it: but this impression disappears once we make a clear distinction between what I shall call “scientific prediction” on the one side and “unconditional historical prophecies” on the other. Historicism fails to make this important distinction.16

Scientific predictions usually have a conditional character. If certain changes occur, they will be accompanied by other phenomena (if the temperature of water in a kettle increases, the water starts to boil). The physicist will say that under certain conditions the kettle will explode, the economist will say that under certain conditions a black market will develop, etc. From such conditional scientific prognoses and historical statements ascertaining the fulfilment of possible conditions, it is sometimes possible to draw unconditional predictions – under the modus ponens argument. If a doctor diagnoses scarlet fever, he/she then concludes that a patient will have a rash.

However, it is possible to formulate unconditional prophecies without theoretical justification, on which conditional scientific predictions are based – these predictions can come true by accident.

The historicist does not derive his/her prophecies from conditional scientific predictions, as this is impossible. In Popper’s view, predictions can be formulated about isolated, stationary, and recurrent systems. Among such systems are: the Solar System, life cycles of biological organisms, or weather cycles. However, the method of long-term prediction cannot be applied to the history of humankind, since in the development of human societies there appear non-repetitive phenomena. And, according to Popper, prediction is conditional on repetitiveness – as long as certain phenomena are repetitive, predictions can be made. This type of repetitiveness can be found in how new religions emerge or tyranny arises. Still, another of Propper’s arguments is that historical development is mainly non-repetitive and thus unpredictable:

The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge. […]

←28 | 29→

1. We cannot predict, by rational or scientific method, the future growth of our scientific knowledge. […]

2. We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.

3. This means that we must reject the possibility of a theoretical history; that is to say, of a historical social science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction.17

What is left, then, for the social sciences? According to Popper, the principal task of the theoretical social sciences is “to trace unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions.”18 Popper illustrates this by describing an intention to purchase a house in a certain neighbourhood. The intention of the buyer is certainly not to bring about an increase of prices of the houses in the chosen neighborhood. However, the very fact of there appearing a potential buyer on the market will lead to a boost in the prices of the houses. The aforementioned task brings the theoretical social sciences close to the experimental natural sciences. Both types of sciences formulate praxeological rules stating what can be achieved:

The second law of thermodynamics can be expressed as the technological warning, “You cannot build a machine which is 100 per cent efficient.” A similar rule of the social sciences would be, “You cannot, without increasing productivity, raise the real income of the working population” […] These examples may show the way in which the social sciences are practically important. They do not allow us to make historical prophecies, but they may give us an idea of what can, and what cannot, be done in the political field.19

In the presentation of Popper’s views on the role of the social sciences, it is important to distinguish a negative aspect, or what the social sciences should not be doing, and a positive aspect, or what the social sciences should be doing. Let us begin with the negative aspect. In his analysis of Popper’s argumentation, Leszek Nowak states that the assumption (i) of the argument is the most typical statement concerning the historical process.20 As Nowak argues, “[i];f one attempts to ←29 | 30→prove incorrectness of a certain domain of thought, in an argument purported for this he/she cannot use claims belonging to the very domain in question.”21 According to Nowak, Popper makes the same mistake that the representatives of the Vienna Circle were charged with, namely, to prove logical impossibility of metaphysics on the basis of a particular claim belonging to a certain type of metaphysics – materialist metaphysics of physicalism. In this case, Popper, as Nowak claims, demonstrates the impossibility of the theory of history on the basis of an idealist theory of history, which may or may not be accepted.22 Whereas assumption (ii) is true – to predict a future discovery means to know it in advance, but it is not this assumption which is in fact absent from Popper’s argument, but its enthymeme that is employed in Popper’s argument: “To predict the future course of history it is indispensible to know the content of future scientific knowledge.”23 In Nowak’s opinion, however, this assumption is false, since the shape of the influence of future scientific theories on many significant social phenomena can be determined entirely independently of their content: we do not know anything about the state of future paediatrics and about the findings made in this domain in the future, but we do not have to know this to predict a number of quantities. It will suffice that, by extrapolating the type of dependencies present to-date, we will predict further drop of mortality of infants. It should be noted at this point that assumption (ii2) also tacitly contains the prognosis about the continuous growth of human knowledge. One might ask, on what ground, if, as stated by Popper, forecasting in the social sciences is impossible.

4 On the Loss of Nostalgia for the Metanarrative

The postmodern intellectual formation is founded on the critique of modernism and the philosophy of the Enlightenment.24 Postmodern thought perceives ←30 | 31→modernity as a formation dominated by rationalist fundamentalism, universalism, absolutism of the chosen truth, optimism, naïve trust in progress, admiration of science and technology, separation of the subject and object of cognition, exclusiveness, and contempt for inferior civilizations. The feature of modernity is generation of a metanarrative constituting its ultimate legitimization. Lyotard’s notion of metanarrative is a very broad term encompassing not only universalistic religion but also great philosophical systems, such as Hegelianism and Marxism, and finally any theoretical system which attempts to grasp the variety and volatility of social reality within one formula. Lyotard distinguished between two types of metanarratives understood in the above sense: the narrative of emancipation and a substantial narrative. The former referred to the people in metaphysical terms and called for the necessity to liberate them by means of science. The latter referred to the Spirit instead of the people, and science was to be a tool of great synthesis. The characteristic feature of the current social development is the disappearance of metanarratives, since, as Lyotard points out, “the most people lost the nostalgia for the lost metanarrative.”25 This state of affairs was partially influenced by extra-cultural, partially intra-cultural factors. In the present post-industrial society the majority of people is placed in the role of consumers, while the greater part of society is employed in the service sector. Individuals are becoming less and less attached to one occupation or place of residence. In all societies, the circulation of information and access to it have become crucial. There has also been a remarkable increase in the power of the mass media, which constantly produce images serving as substitutes of a direct ←31 | 32→view of the world, thereby creating a virtual reality for the receivers. A homogenous cultural canon is now replaced with pluralism of cultures, ideologies, and language games, of the same significance. This brings about a crisis of a social identity because traditional social entireties, such as nation, class, Church, state, have become disintegrated. This state of affairs is designed to lead to the atrophy of all metanarratives, which have so far enabled individuals to integrate separate aspects of their existence into one whole.

Lyotard’s claim about the disappearance of metanarratives may be understood at least in three different ways:

ontologically – the nature of the historical process does not allow for the construction of a metanarrative;

normatively – metanarratives should not be constructed;

sociologically – nowadays, scholars and intellecutals do not construct metanarratives.26

Let us note that Lyotard’s claim interpreted ontologically can be criticized the same way as Popper’s thesis: Lyotard formulates a claim about the impossibility of constructing a metanarrative based on statements belonging to a type of metanarrative, that is to say, the postmodern metanarrative. If, and to what extent, the said metanarrative is accurate is yet another question. At the same time, however, Lyotard’s claim understood in normative terms – adopting an assumption that a metanarrative is morally suspicious since it brings about unfavorable (totalitarian) social consequences – entails the very same theory of social consequences, namely, an idealistic theory of totalitarianism, which can be expressed in the following way: the construction of metanarratives brings about the emergence of totalitarian systems and so it itself belongs to the metanarrative questioned by Lyotard.27

Nonetheless, the easiest way to prove the fallacy of Lyotard’s statement interpreted sociologically is to search the online database of a large university library by typing the term “philosophy of history.” Randal Collins called the ←32 | 33→period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s a golden age in the development of macro-history (or comparative historical sociology).28 During that period, the following works were published: Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship; Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, vols. I–III; Theda Skocpol, State and Social Revolutions; Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990; Ernest Gellner, Sword, Plough and Book. Structure of Human History; and others.29

5 On the Teleology of Substantial Philosophy of History

The critique of substantial philosophy of history formulated quite recently by Aviezer Tucker, who claims that a constitutive feature of such philosophy of history is the answer to the question of meaning (sense, goal) of history. As a result, all philosophers of history who provide answers to this question seek to occupy a privileged position in the historical process:

From the temporal vantage point of the end of the process, whether it is linear or cyclical, it is possible to discern its direction and meaning. Therefore philosophies of history from Hebrew prophets to Fukuyama through Vico, Hegel, Marx, Toynbee, and Kennedy have had to include apocalyptic themes in their philosophy to justify their claim to understand the whole historical process.30

The apocalyptic theme consists in a conviction of the end of history as we know it, one that defines the course and meaning of the historical process. According to Tucker, however, philosophers of history have no privileged position and their works are not a reflection of the self-consciousness of history; at most, they constitute a useful tool in understanding the intellectual history of their times. The time when various philosophies of history gain popularity, it is marked by periods of discontinuation and radical social change. It is then that mainly religiously oriented people ask questions like: where are we going and where have ←33 | 34→we come from? Does history have a meaning? Answers to these questions may be found in various philosophies of history, even though, as Tucker claims, there is no scientific answer to be found.

It seems that the author unnecessarily combines two different characteristics shared by philosophies of history, which do not have to go together: the final stage and meaning (sense, goal, or value) of history assumed by a given philosophy of history. These two categories have been defined differently and they are logically independent.31 Crossing the two criteria, we may obtain four types of conceptions in substantial philosophy of history (listed in the table below).

Tab. 1: Types of substantial philosophies of history

Philosophy of History




F and T (i)

F and N-T (ii)


N-F and T (iii)

N-F and N-T(iv)

Finalistic-teleological conceptions (i) assume that history leads to some kind of final stage, which is somehow valorized. Depending on the kind of valorization of the final stage of the historical process, we may distinguish between optimistic and pessimistic finalistic-teleological conceptions. Optimistic versions include the conceptions of such great thinkers as Augustine of Hippo, Comte, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Fukuyama.32 The most popular finalistic-teleological substantial philosophy of history in the pessimistic version is, for example, Spengler’s conception.

We may also distinguish finalistic and non-teleological conceptions (ii), i.e. conceptions that assume some kind of final stage of history but cannot define the sense of history. Here belong some catastrophic theories, namely those of consequential catastrophism, according to which the decline of the world as we know it and the associated system of values is inevitable.33 However, the predicted total ←34 | 35→catastrophe of the world is not fulfilment of any underlying sense or the goal in history.

Non-finalistic and teleological conceptions (iii) include philosophies of history assuming that socio-historical reality is unchangeable or those that adopt a cyclic view of history. The latter allowed for some kind of restricted historical changes embedded in repetitive and generally inflexible developmental cycles. Polybius, Plato and the stoics developed that view of history popular in Antiquity. According to them, the meaning of history consisted in unveiling the essence of lasting phenomena, i.e. human passions, characters of nations, the laws of the Logos.34

Non-finalistic and non-teleological conceptions (iv) assume the invariability (or a cyclic model) of history and negate any characterization of the goal of history. This type of orientation in philosophy of history did not yet lead to the emergence of fully-fledged theories of the historical process.35 One can presuppose that conceptions inspired by the chaos theory belong to this kind of reflection in the substantial philosophy of history.

As demonstrated above, Tucker’s objections hold true solely for finalistic and teleological conceptions of the philosophy of history. Conceptions of type (ii) and (iii), and particularly non-finalistic and non-teleological conceptions of type (iv), do not fall under Tucker’s critique. Therefore, a question arises whether they belong to the substantial philosophy of history in Tucker’s understanding. Namely, he assumes that a defining feature of conceptions belonging to this domain of philosophy is their reliance on finalistic (in an apocalyptic version) and teleological motives. Tucker’s definition seems to be at least arbitrary. Apocalyptic motives are not a constant feature of substantial philosophy of history. They only emerged at a given time in the development of philosophy of history. According to Norman Cohn, until ca. 1500 BC the peoples of the Middle East believed in the existence of a stable and organized world. However, it was always under a threat from the forces of disorder of natural or supernatural origin. In the cosmogonic combat myth, the conflict between the forces of order and the forces of chaos acquired a symbolic dimension. Between 1500–1200 BC, the apocalyptic myth became popular thanks to Zarathustra – the forces of evil will be finally defeated and a new order will be created on the earth, and there will be no misery or suffering.36

←35 | 36→

Moreover, it is difficult to agree with the claim that the existence of ethical values determines the non-scientific and speculative character of the philosophy of history. Thus, the mere presence of values in the cognitive process does not determine the speculative character of the substantial philosophy of history but the possible functions that these values fulfill: heuristic or argumentative. Ethical values play a crucial heuristic role in formulating a problem under investigation, constructing initial model of a theory, or in its later developments. However, the subsequent process of substantiating the theory should proceed according to standard scientific procedures. The theory should be amended in case any discrepancies between theoretical outcomes and empirical data are detected. Usually, changes to the theory are made as a result of considering the influence of some factors, which had been ignored in its previous version.

The procedure looks different when the ethical values assumed by a given theory play an argumentative role. In that case, actual data inconsistent with the system of values adopted by a given theory are discarded and ignored by its author. Historiographic analyses and investigations merely serve the purpose of proving the truth and ethical value of the theory of the historical process. Here, the normative level of the theory, which describes the world as it should be and does not allow for the existence of any empirical reality inconsistent with the adopted system of values, is mixed with the descriptive level, which renders the world as it is. However, it must be noted that mixing descriptive and normative themes is not unique to the philosophy of history – it is actually present in many theories belonging to the humanities.

As demonstrated above, in his critique of theoretical history, Tucker – similarly to the above-mentioned Berlin – rightly captured the characteristics of some theories of the historical process but he erroneously ascribed them to the entire domain of the substantial philosophy of history.

6 On the Need for the Theory of the Historical Process

Isaiah Berlin and Aviezer Tucker both make the mistake of taking a part for the whole (pars pro toto). They distinguish certain characteristics (schematism and teleology, respectively) of the substantial philosophy of history, viewed as disqualifying, and ascribe them to the entire literature belonging to this philosophical domain. Whereas by treating the above features as a criterion for classification of the theory of the historical process, we will discover that only some of the theories have these features, while others do not.

Although Berlin criticized schematism and universalism of the substantial philosophies of history, one can observe an interesting paradox. As it turns out, ←36 | 37→liberal philosophy of history is not free from universalism, a charge eagerly made by the supporters of liberalism against its ideological adversaries.37 Rostow’s theory, which has been treated as an alternative to the vision of history presented by the authors of The Communist Manifesto, adopts a universalistic view on the past ignoring civilizational diversification.

The same vision of the past is present in a number of various theories of modernization, which are currently being developed, claiming spread of industrial market economy and democratic welfare state institutions on a global scale. Francis Fukuyama explicitly adopted the universalistic approach in his work on the liberal end of history. Fukuyama understands history in a Hegelian way, as a “single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all people in all times.”38 This vision of history is not only universalistic but also finalistic. According to Fukuyama, the history of human kind does not evolve ad finem, but it will end when the most essential needs are satisfied. Then “there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.”39

This brief presentation of the conceptions concerning the theory of historical process allows one to draw three conclusions. First, the deep structure of the theories under analysis is independent from its content. The theories of both Marxist and liberal provenance adopt a universalistic view of history. Interestingly, it appears that a number of liberalistic conceptions of history may become more dogmatic than the Marxist theories (allowing for a multi-variant approach to the historical development). Second, the universalistic vision of history is not the only structure of discourse present in substantial philosophy of history. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the pluralistic variant of the theory of the historical process, which posits the presence of many civilizations evolving in accordance to various developmental mechanisms. Finally, the inclusion of other aspects of the substantial philosophy of history, i.e. of teleology and finalism, demonstrates that this field of the humanities is even more diversified. Explanatory, normative, and prognostic threads entwine in varying proportions in theories belonging to this philosophical area. As a result, to accuse substantial ←37 | 38→philosophy of history in toto of uniformization of the historical process is to imply uniformity, which proves incomprehension of this field of the humanities.

In turn, Popper and Lyotard found their charges on tacitly adopted claims belonging to the very scientific field they criticize. Popper draws his arguments on the impossibility to formulate prognoses from the idealistic philosophy of history, while Lyotard’s arguments concerning the loss of interest in metanarratives are based on a certain characteristic of contemporary society, which itself belongs to the metanarrative questioned by him, which may or may not be shared.

However, there is some truth to Lyotard’s statement about the disappearance of nostalgia for metanarratives. Lyotard points to the social conditioning of the demand for metanarratives or its lack, and not to the state-of-the-art social sciences and humanities. For this reason, one may recognize that the loss of nostalgia for metanarratives is socially conditioned and as such seems to be more of a temporary than a permanent character. In a period of social stabilization, the demand for metanarratives is dropping. Public life becomes repetitive and predictable. People no longer ask philosophers of history for explanations of their social reality because they are perfectly able to understand it themselves. Metanarratives, if anyone cares to create them at all, are presented at boring academic conferences and published in professional journals by specialist publishing houses. They do not make the headlines in newspapers or on television. In times of crisis and social disturbance, when – to use Arnold Toynbee’s metaphor – history speeds up, the situation looks completely different. It is then that people lose their social orientation and no longer know what tomorrow brings. Then there comes a time for a philosopher of history because, in such social conditions, an intellectual demand for metanarratives is rapidly increasing. Whether that demand will be satisfied or not depends on the existence of previous metanarratives capable of explaining the volatility of the social world which had already been created in the times of social silence. The rule outlined above at least partially explains the origins of the work, which initiated philosophical reflection on history, at least in our civilization. On 24th August 410, the army of Visigoths headed by Alaric I conquered and sacked Rome. For people living at the time, this traumatic experience can be compared to the September 11 attacks in the USA. Then arose a need to understand the reasons for defeat. In general, people sought the reasons for misery in the vengeance of the Roman gods who had been abandoned by the Romans. Interestingly, Christians, despite their belief in one God, adopted this view and even attributed existence and certain causative power to Roman gods. It was in this intellectual atmosphere that Augustine of Hippo, at the instigation of Marcellinus, a high-ranking Roman official, begun working on the first three volumes of De Civitate Dei, aimed at demonstrating ←38 | 39→the fallacy of the above-mentioned views. In the years 410–426, his work grew to 22 volumes presenting a view of history alternative to the one expressed in Antiquity, and which has been largely preserved until the 18th century.40 We may likewise explain the popularity of Lyotard’s claim put forward in The Postmodern Condition of 1979. The book was written at a time of stability in Western countries – the first signs of crisis in the welfare state were not fully visible at the time, there was a period of détente between the USA and the Soviet Union concluded with the latter’s invasion on Afghanistan in December 1979. The Solidarity revolution in Poland was yet to break out, and the anti-modernizing and anti-American consequences of the Iranian revolution undermining the American hegemony in the Third World were still to display themselves (the occupation of American embassy took place in March 1980). Nostalgia for metanarratives increased after the fall of communism between 1989 and 1991. It was no coincidence that Fukuyama’s The End of History, which offered an interpretation of the events that had taken place in the Eastern block in the Hegelian terms, gained so much popularity in the first half of the 1990s. Similarly, the increasing confrontation between the West and the Islamic world brought about a growing popularity of the claims presented in Samuel’s Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations at the beginning of the 21st century. The concept of the civilizational conflict has by now become a journalistic cliché used to explain both terrorist attacks and Western policy against Arab states. Is it possible to live without metanarratives? It does not seem so. Moreover, in the current logic of social development, the actions of individuals, groups, classes, and societies equipped with the latest technologies generate social consequences of scale, which has been unthinkable until now. In an increasingly globalized world, human activity in one corner of the world brings about unexpected and frequently adverse consequences in another part of the world. In a world of growing interdependencies, the demand for great-scope social theories is expected to increase because such theories enable us to predict and explain the consequences of human actions. Whether the increase in cognitive demand for metanarratives will meet intellectual supply is yet another issue.

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1 Zbigniew Kuderowicz, Filozofia dziejów (Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna, 1983), pp. 5–7.

2 See for example: Ronald Field Atkinson Knowledge and Explanation in History. An Introduction to the Philosophy of History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 8–10; Arthur Danto, Analytical Philosophy of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), William Henry Walsh, An Introduction to Philosophy of History (New York: The Harvester Press, 1976), pp. 9–24; in Polish literature, the above distinction corresponds with a division into an ontological and an epistemological dimension of the philosophy of history, see: Andrzej F. Grabski, Kształty historii (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Łódzkie, 1985), pp. 47–48; Dawid Rogacz, Chińska filozofia historii. Od początków do końca XVIII wieku (Poznań: Wyd. Naukowe UAM 2019), pp. 24–31.

3 For instance, according to Zbigniew Kuderowicz (Kuderowicz, Filozofia dziejów, p. 5) and Karl Löwith, search for meaning in the past is a substantial feature of the philosophy of history. Löwith claims that, “the term ‘philosophy of history’ is used to mean a systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning;” see: Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 1. On various conceptions of the meaning of history, see also: Tadeusz Buksiński, “Czy historia ma sens?,” in: Zaproszenie do filozofii, eds. Krzysztof Łastowski and Paweł Zeidler (Poznań: Humaniora, 2001), pp. 99–115.

4 Isaiah Berlin, “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century,” in: Berlin, Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1949] 2002), p. 55.

5 Isaiah Berlin, “Historical Inevitability,” in: Berlin, Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1954] 2002), pp. 104–105.

6 Berlin, “Historical Inevitability,” p. 56.

7 Moreover, Berlin formulated an accusation of immoralism of the substantial philosophy of history. For a polemic with this charge, see: Leszek Nowak, Władza. Próba teorii idealizacyjnej (Warszawa: In Plus, 1988), pp. 160–163.

8 For other classifications of the theory of historical process, see: Marek Wichrowski, Spór o naturę procesu historycznego. Od Hebrajczyków do śmierci Fryderyka Nietzschego (Warszawa: Semper, 1995), pp. 9–13; Kenneth Ghosh, “Some Theories of Universal History,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 7 (1964), pp. 1–20.

9 Walt W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth. A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), p. 5.

10 Rostow, The Stages, p. 9.

11 According to Jarosław Bratkiewicz, the tradition to distinguish between occidental and oriental development line was initiated by Herodotus in Antiquity, cf. Jarosław Bratkiewicz, Teoria przedkapitalistycznej formacji społecznej w kulturach orientalnych. Interpretacja badań i polemik (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1989), pp. 3–12.

12 Karl A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism. A Comparative Study of Total Power (Yale: University Press, 1972), p. 440.

13 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 43.

14 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, pp. 45–48.

15 It is noteworthy that in terms of non-Marxian historical materialism, the accusation of schematization is discussed in: Leszek Nowak, Katarzyna Paprzycka and Marcin Paprzycki, “On Multilinearity of Socialism,” in: Social System, Rationality and Revolution, eds. Leszek Nowak and Marcin Paprzycki (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993), pp. 355–371.

16 Karl Raimund Popper, “Prediction and Prophesy in the Social Science,” in: Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: the Growth of Scientific Knowlegde (New York: Harper & Row, [1948] 1968), p. 339.

17 Karl Raimund Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Harper & Row, [1944/45] 1964), pp. vi–vii.

18 Popper, “Prediction and Prophesy,” p. 342.

19 Popper, “Prediction and Prophesy,” p. 343.

20 Leszek Nowak, Power and Civil Society. Towards a Dynamic Theory of Real Socialism (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), pp. 217–221. For a comprehensive critical presentation of Popper’s views on the problem o possibility of conducting theoretical history, see: Nikolai S. Rozov, “An Apologia for Theoretical History,” History and Theory, Vol. 37 (1997), pp. 336–352.

21 Leszek Nowak, Własność i władza, Vol. 1 (Poznań: Nakom, 1991), p. 244.

22 It is not accepted by John A. Hall who states that inventions essential for the functioning of a feudal social structure in the early Middle Ages: iron plough and mill have had been invented in the Roman times, but they themselves did not bring about a transformation of the social structures of the Roman Empire, see: John A. Hall, Powers and Liberties. The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 6–7.

23 Nowak, Power and Civil Society, p. 218.

24 I draw on a description provided by the following authors: Ted Benton and Ian Craib, Philosophy of Social Science: Philosophical Foundations of Social Thought (New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 171–173; Jerzy Szacki, Historia myśli socjologicznej (Warszawa: PWN, 2004), pp. 901–921. It is worth recalling Lorenz’s description according to which the intellectual in question formation is characterised by the following three features: anti-reductionism combined with anti-unitarianism and anti-objectivism. The initial two features bring about distrust toward any metanarratives in history and a rejection of any possibility of reducing pluralism present in history to a unity. At the same time, however, anti-objectivism rejects the idea that there is a reality independent from its symbolic (particularly linguistic) representations. According to Lorenz, the above trends have been independently developed in the modern thought, and only their postmodern combination is original; see: Chris Lorenz. “ ‘You got your history, I got mine.’ Some Reflections on Truth and Objectivity in History,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften, Vol 4 (1999) p. 563. On the theoretical interpretation of postmodernism, see also: Leszek Nowak, “On Postmodernist Philosophy: An Attempt to Identify its Historical Sense,” in: The Postmodernist Critique of the Project of Enlightenment, ed. Sven-Eric Liedman (Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997), pp. 123–134.

25 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 41.

26 I draw on slightly modified criteria allowing for a distinction between three types of nomothetism and idiographism presented in: Jerzy Malewski and Jerzy Topolski, “The Nomothetic versus the Idiographic Approach to History,” in: Idealization XIII: Modeling in History, ed. Krzysztof Brzechczyn (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, [1960] 2009), pp. 299–310.

27 For the above reconstruction, see: Leszek Nowak, Byt i myśl. U podstaw negatywistycznej metafizyki unitarnej, Vol. I: Nicość i istnienie (Poznań: Wyd. Zysk i S-ka, 1998), pp. 13–21.

28 Randal Collins, Macrohistory. Essays in Sociology of the Long Run (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 3.

29 Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System (New York: Academic Press, 1974); Theda Skocpol, State and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990 (Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1990); Ernest Gellner, Sword, Plough and Book. Structure of Human History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

30 Aviezer Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 16.

31 For different concepts of the sense of history, see: Buksiński, “Czy historia ma sens?,” and for different concepts of the end of history, see: Ewa Domańska, “On Various Ends of History,” Journal of the Interdisciplinary Crossroads, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2004), pp. 283–292.

32 Based on the characteristics of concepts of historical processes offered in: Wichrowski, Spór o naturę procesu historycznego, pp. 100–101.

33 According to Leszek Gawor, that view of catastrophism was shared by two Polish thinkers of the interwar period: Marian Zdziechowski and Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz, see: Leszek Gawor, Katastrofizm konsekwentny. O poglądach Marian Zdziechowskiego i Stanislawa Ignacego Witkiewicza (Lublin: Wyd. UMCS, 1998).

34 Buksiński, “Czy historia ma sens?,” p. 102.

35 Wichrowski, Spór o naturę procesu historycznego, p. 101.

36 Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come. The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (London: Yale University Press, 2001).

37 The above paradox was recognized in: Nowak, “On Postmodernist Philosophy,” pp. 11–13.

38 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992), p. xii.

39 Fukuyama, The End of History, p. xiii.

40 Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (Overland Park, Publishing, 2017).