Philosophy Philosophy of History
Daniel Little
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0043


When philosophers have written about “history,” they have often had different and even incompatible goals in mind. One tradition of philosophers, generally from Continental Europe and originating in the 18th century, has wanted to contribute to answers to large questions about the nature of history as it presented itself over time as a compound of individuals, actions, nations, and civilizations: Does history have a direction? Is there a unity to history? Does history have meaning? Is there a plan to history? Do civilizations rise and fall? Is materialism or idealism the better framework for understanding the movement of history? This approach to the study of history is often referred to as “speculative” or “substantive.” A second tradition, related to the first, applies the methods and frameworks of hermeneutics to the understanding of history. Within this approach, the central task of historians is to provide intelligible explications of the actions chosen by historical actors. A third tradition, largely Anglo-American and 20th-century, rejects the goal of providing commentary on “history” at all, and focuses instead on historical knowledge and historical explanation. This analytic tradition focuses on epistemology of historical knowledge rather than the metaphysics or large meanings of historical reality.

Data Sources

The discipline of the philosophy of history has developed a number of specialized journals in which current debates and research findings are published. History and Theory, published at Wesleyan University, has had the greatest sustained impact over the past half-century. Clio focuses on the intersection of literature, history, and philosophy. History and Memory focuses on the ways in which memory, public and private, represents the past. The Journal of the Philosophy of History is a relatively recent journal (2010) that aims to create a venue for new appreciation of the centrality of history in many topics of philosophical concern. Rethinking History is aimed at historians with interest in some of the methodological issues their discipline raises. Several articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are of interest to students of the philosophy of history, including Ramberg and Gjesdal 2010 and Little 2010.

  • Clio.

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    A journal devoted to exploring the interconnections among historical writing, literary representations of the past, and philosophical reflections on historical knowledge.

  • History and Memory.

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    A specialized journal emphasizing studies of the ways in which human memory systems represent and understand the past.

  • History and Theory.

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    The primary journal in English providing a venue for discussions of the nature of historical knowledge, historical narrative, and the historical process.

  • Journal of the Philosophy of History.

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    A new journal aimed at stimulating new thinking about the nature of history and historical representation.

  • Little, Daniel. “Philosophy of history.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.

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    A detailed overview of the philosophy of history from the 17th century to the present, including both Continental and English-speaking contributions.

  • Ramberg, Bjorn, and Kristin Gjesdal. “Hermeneutics.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.

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    An excellent exposition of the methodology and philosophy of hermeneutics, with special relevance to problems of interpreting historical events.

  • Rethinking History.

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    A journal that is addressed to working historians with interests in the conceptual and methodological issues that arise in the practice of historical research.

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