The Relationship Between History and Philosophy

29 Jun

  Philosophy as a subject involves an active engagement with various thoughts; thinking is what philosophers have indulged in from the ancient till the contemporary times and to understand this process we need to rely upon the disciple of history to describe the sociopolitical setup that contributed to the development of an idea.

            Here, in this paper I have attempted to expound the intimate relationship that history and philosophy share which enables us to interpret one through the other.

        Let’s begin by describing the two words; History and Philosophy. The former by definition implies a study of events in a Chronological order so; it is an objective analysis of the various eras. The latter on the other hand is defined as a love for wisdom which can indicate knowing the nature of reality, the idea of God, the purpose of existence, political thinking etc. hence it is more of a subjective approach. Thus, this objectivity and subjectivity complement each other in to understand ideas with clarity.

      For instance, one has to acquire knowledge regarding the functioning of Ancient Greece to comprehend Ancient Greek thought. As an example, to grasp Platonic Philosophy one has to know the socio-political climate that was prevalent in the Athenian society then; even about Socrates and his death as a consequence of democracy that were two factors of influence over Plato also we have to know about Sparta whose military education was an inspiration for the formulation of the idea of ‘the guardians’ and their training. This specific information can be garnered only through the study of History.

      Every epoch due to its prevalent historic revolutions has contributed in developing its own philosophy due to contemplation of the philosophers in tandem to the prevalent thought of the time or against it. To illustrate, the medieval period is recognized for its dominance of the religious faith; in Europe it manifested into the superiority of the Christian Theology and the extreme authority of the church. In such an atmosphere, St Aquinas who was a theologian was greatly influenced by the Aristotelian philosophy; He developed a hierarchical concept of the “levels of being” beginning from God to angels to demons to humans to animals to plants to minerals and he claimed as Aristotle that God was the ‘‘First Cause” of existence. He also propounded that Philosophy and theology are complementary; one can reach the knowledge of God through reason and through faith but the latter was more prominent as if we are unable to rationally theorize God then it can lead to unforeseen consequences even death.

        Another example would be that of Baruch Spinoza who said, “God is nature and nature is God” that is pantheistic in its structure but this concept diminishes the superior identity ascribed to God in the Hierarchy in the traditional thinking. This idea came in conflict with the prevailing Jewish orthodoxy that was prevalent in Amsterdam then and he was excommunicated. Moreover, because of the ambiguity of his thought, his views were neither accepted by the theists nor by the atheists.        

        Understanding history also enables us to endorse a comparative study between philosophies that emerged in different parts of the world at different periods of time. For instance, Scholars have been able to enumerate similar features from Kautilya’s ‘Arthashatra’ and Nićcolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ which are manifestations of two different historical Junctures. Anyhow, only lateral comparisons are possible as the conditions in Europe were quite different from those in India during Chanakya’s times which were structured by early Hinduism also, he prescribed an ordering of the society based upon Manusmriti which paves a different path than Machiavelli [1]. However, to state a few: a major similarity between the theorists would be the split between ethics and political science; for them, politics was amoral that is its actions go beyond moral principles. Secondly, for both, the primary objective of the state is security against external threats and internal harmony. Thirdly, both of them mention about the divine right of the king; Chanakya uses Hindu cosmology to authorize monarchy. He writes People, overwhelmed by the law of the fishes, made Manu, the son of Visaavat, their king. Here, Visaavat is a reference to Sun god. Whereas, for Machiavelli, this divine right is a gimmick to lend power to the ruler. He says, The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are [1]. It is fascinating to sense the similarities though the theorists are poles apart by the division of time and space. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the possibility that Machiavelli could have read Arthashatra as we did have a good trade relation with Europe but the fact is that Chanakya’s masterpiece was considered a lost text until it was rediscovered by R. Shamashastry in 1904.

         Interestingly, even Philosophy has its own understanding of history. Here, I make an attempt to describe the views of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Henrich Marx. Hegel’s philosophy is undoubtedly the most ambiguous that we can ever come across; as Bertrand Russell mentions in his ‘The Problems of Philosophy’, “Hegel’s philosophy is very difficult, and commentators differ as to the true interpretation of it.” Even through all the ambiguity, his thought on historicism which is classified as dialectical Idealism stands prominent. In his ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’, he says, “History is the process whereby the Spirit discovers itself and its own concept.” Through the dialectical process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, where History produces the contradictions, there is a realization of the ‘Absolute Idea’or the ‘World Spirit’.

        Karl Marx was majorly inspired by Hegel and he adapted the dialectical process but being influenced by Feuerbach, he replaced the Idea with the Material world that consists of conflicts between two economic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat thus coining his theory of ‘Dialectical Materialism’. For him, All history is the history of class struggle and he split world history into different epochs: primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. Each epoch will have its own contradictions which would be historical and would lead to a new epoch. Marx could predict that capitalism would fall because of its inherent contradictions and after a revolution; a “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be established. Finally, with the arrival of communism there would be an “end of history” as there would no longer be any contradiction to give rise to a new epoch.  Unfortunately, this perfect socio-political reality was misrepresented by the communist societies of U.S.S.R, China etc. which can be said to have propagated a sort of state capitalism.

     To encapsulate, this paper covers how historically philosophy can be understood by talking about how an idea can be comprehended with reference to the socio- political setup in which the philosopher lived and thought and how philosophies that emerged in different periods and places through the study of history. It also, mentions how philosophically history can be interpreted by trying to describe the views of Hegel and Marx.



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