Philosophy of history

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Philosophy of history is a branch of philosophy that deals both with the meaning that may be attributed to human history and the practice of analyzing history. The classic version also speculates about a possible underlying teleological principle in this development, and asks typical questions like: is there a design, a purpose, a guiding principle that governs history? Voltaire was the first who used the term "la philosophie de l'histoire" in his Essai Sur les Mœurs et l'Esprit des Nations[1]. Philosophy of history should not be confused with historiography, which examines the history as an academic discipline and is reflecting on the use of methods and procedures,[2] nor is it equal to the history of philosophy that studies the evolution of philosophical ideas.

Difference with historiography

The boundary between philosophy of history and historiography is not always very clear, especially if we assume that historiography is something more than arranging all the facts chronologically and selection and interpretation come into play. However, if we see historians interpreting history within the framework of some "greater plan" - be it theological, teleological or whatsoever - then it is reasonable to speak of philosophy of history. Another typical feature of the philosopher of history is that he will look for "laws" by which past or future events could be explained or foretold. On the other hand, a historian who occupies himself with mapping the historical facts of a region is clearly not concerned with the philosophy of history.

Two flavours

The term "history" has two distinct meanings:

  1. in the first place it refers to events in the history of man that actually occurred: the facts
  2. the other refers to the discipline of history itself

This resulted in two "flavours" of philosophy of history:

  1. the substantive or speculative philosophy of history
  2. the critical or analytic philosophy of history

Simply stated: a philosopher of history can study history by focusing on the maelstrom of events from the past and then attempt to discover meaningful patterns and maybe determine the direction history is taking. Or he focuses on the practice and theory of historiography itself.

Speculative philosophy of history

Analytic philosophy of history

History of philosophy of history

Greco-Roman Antiquity

Christian doctrine of Salvation

18th century

Giambattista Vico and Scienza nuova




Classical German philosophy of history



Marx and historical materialism

20th century

Oswald Spengler and The Decline of the West

Arnold J. Toynbee en William H. McNeill

Sources and references

  1. Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of Nations
  2. In that respect this discipline is to be regarded as a part of the philosophy of history.