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Old Tuesday, July 26, 2005
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Default The Philosophical Interpretation Of History

THE PHILOSOPHICAL INTERPRETATION OF HISTORY
M. M. SHARIF



When we discuss the philosophy of history, the content of our topic is philosophical and not sociological. Sociology deals with human relations and the forces that determine the laws that govern and the phenomena that arise from these relations from time to time. The sociologist attempts to discover the effects of such forces as heredity, climate, race, instinct, means of production and ideas. He tries to study the specific characteristics, repeated features and constant relations of the lives of individual groups: specific characteristics such as modes and customs, repeated features like rises and falls, conflicts, cycles, isolation, interaction, imitation, migration and mobility; causal correlations such as those that hold between climate and culture, technology and fine arts, city life and criminality, scarcity and suicide, forms of religious and political organisations. The philosopher of history is not concerned with these details of group life; nor does he study the history of the individual groups and specific questions relating to them as ends in themselves. From these fields he only collects material for the solution of his main problems. He is concerned mainly with the life course of humankind as a whole, and his chief problem is the determination of the nature of change in the history of man. His second question relates to the law of change in the lives of individual groups, civilisations or cultures. Thus, his first question is that of the dynamics and destiny of man; and, second, the dynamics and destiny of groups of men. It is to these questions that I mainly devote main attention.

The 20th century philosophies of history are more sociological than philosophical. This turn in the philosophy of history has its advantages as well as disadvantages. Its main advantage consists in a collection of vast material on which a philosophy of history can be based. Its main disadvantage lies in the narrowness of outlook which often goes with work in narrow fields.

Some 20th century philosophers of history such as Paul Ligeti, Frank Chambers and Charles Lalo confine themselves to the study of art phenomena and draw conclusions about the dynamics of culture in general. Their conclusions which touch the two philosophical questions stated above are:

1. That art forms, like waves in the ocean, rise, develop and decline.
2. That the tidal ebb and flow of art in general is an index of the tidal waves of human culture in general and individual cultures in particular.
3. That side by side with these larger waves there arise, so to say, 'surface ripples' or shorter waves within the same art form corresponding to smaller changes in social cultures.

These conclusions I readily accept. But these thinkers advance another hypothesis which to me does not seem true. According to most of them, it is always the same art and the same type or style of art which rises at one stage in the life history of each culture: one art or art form at its dawn, another at its maturity and yet another at its decline, when gradually both art and the corresponding culture die. I do not accept this conclusion. The life history of Greek art is not identical with that of European art or Hindu or Muslim art. In some cultures, like the Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu and Muslim, it was literature which blossomed before any other art; in some others such as the French, German and English, it was architecture; and in the culture of the Greeks it was music. The art of the Palaeolithic people reached a maturity and artistic perfection which did not correspond to their stage of culture. In some cultures, as the Egyptian, art shows several waves, several ups and downs, rather than one cycle of birth, maturity and decline. Unlike most other cultures, Muslim culture has given no place to sculpture, and its music has risen simultaneously with its architecture. Thus it is not true that the sequence of the rise of different arts is the same in all cultures. Nor is it true that the same sequence appears in the style of each art in every culture. Facts do not support this thesis, for the earliest style of art in some cultures is symbolic, in others naturalistic, formal, impressionistic or expressionistic.

There is a group of 20th century philosophers of history who view a society or culture as an organism which has only one life cycle. Like the life of any individual organism, the life of a culture has its childhood, maturity, old age and death; its spring, summer, winter and autumn. Just as a living organism cannot be revived after its death, even so a culture or a society can not be revived once it is dead. Biological, geographical and racial causes can to a limited extent influence its life course, but cannot change its inevitable cycle. They agree with the aestheticians whose position I have just discussed that social history is like a wave, it has a rise and then it falls never to rise again. To this group belong Danilevsky, Spengler and Toynbee. The view that the dynamism of society is like the dynamism of a wave we have already accepted; but are the two other doctrines expounded by these philosophers equally true? First, is it true that a given society is a living organism and, second, that it has only one unrepeated life course? Let us take the first. Is a society or a culture an organism? Long ago, Plato took a state to be an individual writ large. A similar mistake now is being made. All analogies are true only up to a point and not beyond that. To view a society on the analogy of an individual organism is definitely wrong. No society is so completely unified into an organic whole that it should be viewed as an organism.

An individual organism is born; it grows and dies, and its species is perpetuated by reproduction: but a culture cannot repeat itself in the species by reproduction. Revival of an individual organism is impossible, but the revival of a culture by the infusion of new events is possible. Each individual organism is a completely integrated whole or a complete Gestalt, but though such an integration is an ideal of each culture, it has never been achieved by any culture. Each culture is a super-system consisting of some large systems such as religion, language, law, philosophy, science, fine arts, ethics, economics, technology, politics, territorial sway, associations, customs and mores. Each of these consists of smaller systems, as science includes physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, etc., and each of these smaller systems is comprised of yet smaller systems, as mathematics is comprised of geometry, algebra and arithmetic, and so on. Besides these systems, there are partly connected or wholly isolated congeries, unorganised heaps within these systems and super-systems. Thus, "a total culture of any organised group consists not of one cultural system but of a multitude of vast and small cultural systems that are partly in harmony, partly out of harmony, with one another, and in addition many congeries of various kinds."

So much about the organismic side of the theory of Danilevsky, Spengler and Toynbee. What about its cyclical side? Is the life of a culture like that of a meteor, beginning, rising, falling and then disappearing for ever? Does the history of a society or a culture see only one spring, one summer and one autumn and then in its winter it is completely closed? These thinkers concede that the length of each period may be different with different peoples and cultures, but, according to them, the cycle is just one moving curve or one wave that rises and falls only once. This position also seems to be wrong. As the researches of Kroeber and Sorokin have conclusively shown, "Many great cultural or social systems or civilisations have many cycles, many social, intellectual and political ups and downs in their virtually indefinitely long span of life, instead of just a life cycle, one period of blossoming and one of the decline. In the dynamics of intellectual and aesthetic creativity, Egyptian civilisation rose and fell at least four times, Graeco-Roman-Byzantine culture several times. Similarly, China and India had two big creative impulses; Japan and Germany, four; France and England, three; and their economico-political rise did not coincide with the course of their intellectual activity."

This shows that there is "no universal law decreeing that every culture, having once flowered, must wither without any chance of flowering." A culture may rise in one field at one time, in another field at another, and thus as a whole see many rises and falls. If by the birth of a civilisation these writers mean a sudden appearance of a total unit like that of an organism, and by death a total disintegration, then a total culture is never born, nor does it ever die. At its so-called birth each culture takes over living systems or parts of a preceding culture and integrates them with newly born items. Again, to talk about the death or disappearance of a culture or civilisation is meaningless. A part of a total culture, its art or its religion, may disappear, but a considerable part of it is always taken over by other groups by whom it is often developed further and expanded. States are born and they die; but cultures like the mingled waters of different waves are never born as organisms, nor do they die as organisms. Ancient Greece as a state died, but after its death a great deal of Greek culture spread far and wide and is still living as an important element in the cultures of Europe. Jewish states ceased to exist, but much of Jewish culture was taken over by Christianity and Islam. No culture dies in toto, though all die in parts. In respect of those parts of culture which live, each culture is immortal. Each culture or civilisation emerges gradually from pre-existing cultures. As a whole it may have several peaks, may see many ups and downs and thus flourish for millennia, decline into a latent existence, re-emerge and again become dominant for a certain period and then decline once more to appear again. Even when dominated by other cultures a considerable part of it may live as an element fully or partly integrated in those cultures.

Last edited by Emaan; Tuesday, July 26, 2005 at 03:53 AM.
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Again, the cycle of birth, maturity, decline and death can be determined by the determination of the life-span of a civilisation, but there is no agreement of these writers on this point. What according to Danilevsky is one civilisation, say, the ancient Semitic civilisation, is treated by Toynbee as three civilisations, the Babylonian, Hittite and Sumeric, and by Spengler as two, the Magian and Babylonian. In the life history of a people one notices one birth-and-death sequence, the other two, the third three. The births and deaths of cultures seen by one writer are not noticed at all by the others. When the beginning and end of a culture cannot be determined, it is extravagant to talk about its birth and death and its unrepeatable cycle. A civilisation can see many ups and downs and there is nothing against the possibility of its regeneration. No culture dies completely. Some elements of each die out and others merge as living factors in other cultures.

Another group of 19th century philosophers of history avoid these pitfalls and give an integral interpretation of history. To this group belong Northrop, Kroeber, Schubart, Berdyaev, Schweitzer and Sorokin. Northrop, however, weakens his position by basing cultural systems on philosophies and philosophies on science. He ignores the fact that many cultural beliefs are based on revelations or intuitive apprehensions. Jewish, Muslim and Hindu cultures have philosophies based on revelation as much as reason. The source of some social beliefs may even be irrational and non-rational, often contradicting scientific theories. Kroeber's weakness consists in making the number of geniuses rather than the number of achievements the criterion of cultural maturity. Schweitzer rightly contends that each flourishing civilisation has a minimum of ethical values vigorously functioning, and the decay of ethical values is the decay of civilisations.

Whatever their differences in other matters, in one thing the 20th century philosophers of history are unanimous, and that is in their denunciation of 'progress'. I associate myself with them in this. Just as in biology progress has been explained by a trend from lower to higher or from less perfect to more perfect, or from less differentiated and integrated to more differentiated and integrated, similarly, Herder, Fichte, Kant and Hegel and almost all the philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries explained the evolution of human society by one principle, one social trend, and their theories were thus stamped with the linear law of progress. The present day writers' criticism of them is perfectly justified against viewing progress as a line, ascending straight or spirally, whether it is Fichte's line advancing as a sequence of certain values or Herder's and Kant's from violence and war to justice and peace, or Hegel's to ever-increasing freedom of the idea, or Spencer's to greater differentiation and integration, or Tonnie's advancing from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or Durkheim's from a state of society based on mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, or Buckle's from diminishing influence of physical laws to an increasing influence of mental laws, or Navicow's from physiological determination to purely intellectual competition, or any other line of a single principle explaining the evolution of human society as a whole. Everyone of the 18th and 19th century thinkers understood history as if it were identical with Western history. They viewed history as one straight line of events moving across the Western world. They divided this line into three periods, ancient, medieval and modern, and lumped together Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Babylonian, Iranian, Greek and Roman civilisations, each of which had passed through several stages of development, into one group of ancient history. Histories of other civilisations and peoples did not count, except for those events which could be easily linked with the chain of events in the history of the West. Toynbee justly describes this conception as an egocentric illusion; his view is shared by all recent philosophers of history.

Every civilisation has a history of its own and each has its own ancient, medieval and modern periods. In most cases these periods are not identical with the ancient, medieval and modern periods of the Western culture starting from the Greek. Several cultures preceded Western culture and some starting earlier are contemporaneous with it. They cannot be thrown into oblivion because they cannot be placed in the three periods of the cultures of the West: ancient, medieval and modern. Western culture is not the measure of all humanity and its achievements. One cannot measure other cultures and civilisations or the whole of history by the three-knotted yardstick of progress in the West. Humankind consists of a number of great and small countries each having its own drama, its own language, its own ideas, its own passions, its own customs and habits, its own possibilities, its own goals and its own life-course. If it must be represented lineally, it would not be one line but several lines or rather bands of variegated and constantly changing colours, reflecting one another's life and merging into one another.

Turning to the logic of historys, a controversy has gone on for a long time about the laws that govern historical sequences. Vico in the 18th century contended, under the deep impression of the lawfulness prevailing in natural sciences, that historical events also follow each other according to the unswerving laws of Nature. The law of mechanical causality is universal in its sway. The same view was held by Saint Simon, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx and in recent times by Mandelbaum and Wiener. On the other hand, idealists like Max Weber, Windleband and Rickert are of the view that the objects of history are not units with universal qualities, but unique unrepeatable events in a particular space and a specific time. Therefore, no physical laws can be formed about them. Historical events are undoubtedly exposed to influences from biological, geological, geographical and racial forces; yet they are always carried by human beings who use and surmount these forces. Mechanical laws relate to facts, whereas historical events relate to values.

Therefore, the historical order of law is different from the physical law of mechanical causation. To me it seems that both groups go to extremes. The empiricists take no account of the freedom of the will and the resolves, choices, and goals of human beings; the idealists forget that even human beings are not minds, but body-minds, and though they initiate events from their own internal sources, they place them in the chain of mechanical causality. It is true that historical events and the lives of civilisation and culture follow each other according to the inner laws of their own nature. Yet history consists in moral, intellectual and aesthetic achievements based on resolute choices using causation -- a Divine gift -- as a tool, now obeying and now revolting against divine will working within them and in the world around them, now cooperating and now fighting with one another, now falling and now rising, and thus carving out their own destinies.

Skipping over several important issues we come to the views of two philosophers whose thought has had great influence on the development of philosophy of history, namely Hegel and Marx. As is well known, Hegel is a dialectical idealist for whome the whole world is the development of the idea, a rational entity. It advances by posing itself as a thesis, and develops from itself its own opposite or antithesis. The two ideas, instead of constantly remaining at war, unite in an idea which is the synthesis of both and becomes the thesis for another triad. Thus triad after triad takes the world to even higher reaches of progress. The historical process is thus a process of antagonisms and reconciliations. The idea divides itself into the 'idea in itself' (the world of history) and the 'idea in its otherness' (the world as nature). Hegel's division of the world into watertight compartments has vitiated the thought of several of his successors, Rickert, Windleband and Spengler and even Bergson. If electrons, amoeba, fleas, fish and apes begin to speak, they can reasonably ask why, born of the same cosmic energy, determined by the same laws, and having the same limited freedom, they should be supposed to be mere nature having no history. To divide the world-stuff into nature and history is unwarranted; history consists of sequences of groups of events. We have learned since Einstein that objects in nature are also groups of events with no essential difference between the nature and history. The only difference is that up to a certain stage there is no learning by experience; beyond that there is. According to Hegel, the linear progress of the Idea or Intelligence in winning rational freedom culminates in the State, the best example of which is the German State. Such a line of thought justifies internal tyranny, external aggression and wars between states. It finds no place in the historical process for world organisations like the UN or the World Bank and is falsified by the factual existence of such institutions in the present stage of world history. Intelligence is really only one aspect of the human mind, and there seems to be no ground for regarding this one knowing aspect, or only one kind of world-stuff, i.e., humankind, to be the essence of the world-stuff.

The mind of one who rejects Hegel's idealism at once turns to Marx. Marxian dialectic is exactly the same as Hegel's, though the world-stuff is not the Idea, but matter. Marx uses this word 'matter' in the sense in which it was used by the 19th century French materialists. But the idea of matter as inert mass has been discarded even by present-day physics. World-stuff is now regarded as energy which can take the form of mass. Dialectical materialism, however, is not disapproved by this change of meaning of the word 'matter'. It can still be held in terms of realistic dialectic -- the terms in which the present-day Marxists hold it. With the new terminology, then, the Marxist dialectic takes this form: something real (a thesis) creates from within itself its opposite, another real (antithesis). Instead of warring perpetually with each other the two unite into a synthesis (a third real) which becomes the thesis of another triad. This goes from triad to triad till, in the social sphere, this dialectic of reals leads to the actualisation of a classless society. Our objection to Hegel's position, that he does not find any place for international organisations in the historical process, does not apply to Marx, but the objection that Hegel considers war a necessary part of the historical process applies equally to Marx. Hegel's system encourages wars between nations, Marx's between classes. Besides, Marxism is self-contradictory, for, while it recognises the inevitability or necessity of the causal law, it also recognises initiative and free creativity by classes in changing the world. Both Marx and Hegel make history completely determined and totally ignore the universal law of human nature, that people, becoming dissatisfied with their situation at all moments of their lives except when they are in sound sleep, are in pursuit of ideals and values (which before their realisation are mere ideas). Thus if efficient causes push them on as both Hegel and Marx recognise, final causes are constantly exercising their pull, which both Hegel and Marx ignore.
The recognition of final causes brings me to my own hypothesis which I would call dialectical purposivism.

According to dialectical purposivism, human beings and their ideals are logical contraries, in so far as the former are real and the latter are ideal, whereas real and ideal cannot be attributed to the same subject. Nor can a person and his ideal be thought of in the relation of subject and predicate. For, an ideal of a person is what a person is not. There is no real opposition between two ideals or between two reals, but there is a genuine incompatibility between a real and an ideal. What is real is not ideal and whatever is ideal is not real, both are opposed in their essence. Hegelian ideas are, Marxist reals are not, of opposite natures. They are in conflict in their functions; mutually warring ideas or warring reals and are separated by hostility and hatred. The incompatibles of dialectical purposivism are so in their nature, but not in their function; they are bound by love and affection and, though rational discrepants, are volitionally and emotionally in harmony. In the movement of history real selves are attracted by ideals, and in realising them are synthesised with them. I have called this movement dialectical, but it is totally different from the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic. Whereas their thesis and antithesis are struggling against each other, here one is struggling not 'against' but 'for' the other. The formula of the dynamic of history, according to this conception, will be: a real (thesis) creates from within itself an ideal (antithesis)both of which by mutual harmony unite into another real (synthesis) that becomes the thesis of another triad, and thus from triad to triad. The dialectic of human society, according to this formula, is not a struggle of warring classes or warring nations, but a struggle against limitations to realise goals and ideals, which goals and ideals are willed and loved rather than fought against. This is a dialectic of love rather than of hatred. It leads individuals, masses, classes, nations and civilisations from lower to higher and from higher to yet higher reaches of achievement. It is a dialectic which recognises the over all necessity of a transcendentally determined process (a divine order), and take notice of the partial freedom of social entities and of the place of mechanical determination as a tool in human hands.

The hypothesis is not linear because it envisages society as a vast number of interacting individuals and intermingling and interacting classes, societies and cultures, and humanity as a whole moving towards infinite ideals -- now rising, now falling, but on the whole developing by their realisation. It is like the clouds constantly rising from the foothills of the Himalayan range, now mingling, now separating, now flying over the peaks, now sinking into the valleys, and yet ascending from hill to hill in search of the highest peak, the Everest.

This hypothesis avoids the Spencerian idea of steady progress, because it recognises ups and downs in human affairs and the rise and fall of different civilisations at different stages of world history. It avoids measuring the dynamic of history by the three-knotted rod of Western culture and does not shelve the question of change in human society as a whole.
There is one important question which I should like to touch briefly. The 20th century social philosophers are unanimous in maintaining that the Western culture (whether it is called European with Danilevsky, Faustic with Spengler, Western Heroic with Toynbee and Kroeber, Heroic Promethean with Schubart, or Western Sensate with Sorokin) is now declining, and see no chance of its survival except as a living factor in a new culture. Most hold that its geographical centre must shift from the West to elsewhere and all agree that its character must change from the present one to what is called by Danilevsky, Spengler, Toynbee, Schubart and Berdyaev religiously ideational, by Northrop, aesthetic-theoretic, by Schweitzer voluntaristically ethical and rational, and by Sorokin ideational-sensate. In short, all agree that the coming culture would be a synthesis of the Western culture which is rationalistic, empirical, humanistic, sensate and secular and the Eastern cultures, which are basically intuitional, ideational, ethical and religious, and would be characterised by love, solidarity, cooperation and reconciliation.
Such a synthesis was envisaged and a warning was given to the West earlier by Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Herder, Rickert, von Hartmann and others, but no heed was paid. Now Danilevsky, Schubart and to some extent Spengler think that the centre of the coming culture is likely to be Russia, where, they hold, the above synthesis is taking place. But this view is most surprising, because the Communistic culture that Russia developed was rational, humanistic, non-ethical and non-religious -- not at all of the type they envisaged.

On the other hand, that if a new culture emerges, and emerge it must, its centre must develop in a place other than Russia. It cannot be China because Russian secularism, collectivism, material dynamism, anti-religionism and non-ethicism radically conflict with Taoism and Buddhism. Perhaps it will be America if she combines with her own Western culture the spirit of the East and attends to ends as values, or the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent if it synthesises its own culture with the spirit of the West and attends to means as values. Conscious efforts are being made on both sides and it remains to be seen which succeeds. The third possibility, however, that the West, after imbibing new elements of religion and ethics, may have another revival, cannot be completely ruled out. But will it do so?

To sum up, I have accepted the main conclusions of the aestheticians insofar as they relate to change in society as a whole, but have rejected them insofar as they concern the history of individual civilisations and cultures. I have rejected the view of Danilevsky, Spengler and Toynbee regarding the life span of cultures because it is cyclic and organic. I have not accepted the views of the 18th and 19th century philosophers, because they take a linear view of history. I have agreed with most of the findings of the integralist school insofar as they relate to the history of civilisations, but I have not subscribed to their view that the question of change in society as a whole is not worthy of consideration. I have not agreed with the empiricists, for they close their eyes to final causes, nor with the idealists because they deny that mechanical causes have any role to play in human history. I have not agreed with Hegel because he completely ignores the factual, nor with Marx because he completely ignores the ideal. Finally, I have given my own hypothesis that the culture of the future will be a synthesis of the East and West, centred either in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, or in America, or, by remote chance in the West.

Last edited by Emaan; Tuesday, July 26, 2005 at 04:07 AM.
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