A Case for History as a Progressive Plan

Andre Schmidt

Prior to the 18th Century, the study of history presupposed its beginning and end as part of God’s divine plan for salvation. Whether through direct intervention or through less invasive tools such as Providence, God was the prime mover of history. As historiography matured the idea of history as a progressive process morphed. Divinity was replaced with a self-aware philosophical construct, such as Hegel’s world-spirit, Toynbee’s civilizations, or by the economic force in Marx’s view. Such progressive histories have gone out of fashion, with Toynbee’s possibly being the last of their long line. Current trends in historiography point toward a less sweeping view of history that focuses on social, gender, or ethnic issues. Other theorists such as Hayden White point to the language that history is written in as a fundamental component of history itself. When a long-term view of history is presented, it is done as a set of social or economic factors, not as a philosophically guided path toward an end state.

Does the idea of progressive history have fundamental flaws that have driven it out of favor as a historiographical tool? Or is its popularity just at a low point? Progressive history requires present consensus on a single philosophical view of history and that view must hold up under future scrutiny. Construction of such a philosophy of history has several problems, any of which will cause it to fail.

The first issue with progressive history is its reliance on a perfectly correct philosophy. Whether it is God, Hegel’s world spirit, Marx’s struggle over the means of production, or Toynbee’s civilizations, a prime mover pervades every historical event. No event occurs without the prime mover’s knowledge or furthering its interests. The prime mover’s intentions manifest themselves in the progressive plan, the destiny of mankind. All of history is the unfolding of this plan. The historian’s task therefore is to chronicle events and trends and fit all of them into this progressive plan. This seems like a simple task at first, but history is a constantly changing field. Leaving aside the task of fitting accepted history to the philosophy, new discoveries are made by archaeologists, memoirs are published, and accepted facts are revised or discarded.

The future therefore holds a set of problems that potentially cannot necessarily be resolved by the chosen philosophy. If it is sound, then it can weather these storms without change; future knowledge will “just fit”. If future information does not correspond to the philosophy, it must change or be rendered incorrect. Often the philosophy is left vague or adaptable so it can be reconciled with future developments. In a vague philosophy of progressive history, future developments can be interpreted to fit the intentions of the prime mover. Adaptable philosophy can also be adaptable or intentionally revisable so new facts can be fit into the worldview. Neither of these are qualities of an internally consistent progressive plan. Vagueness in the philosophy implies that the mover’s plan is not perfect. If an idea must be added or a paradigm shifted, the previous progressive plan is invalidated. If the plan is invalid, then the prime mover and the philosophy itself is wrong and not applicable to history. Revising the plan of the prime mover to incorporate new historical developments destroys its position as the prime mover of history. Even more importantly this revision must be carried out through the entire body of historical fact so that another unintended inconsistency is not added. Again though, if the plan needs revision, the philosophy is incorrect.

To avoid either vagueness or provisions for adaptation, the philosophy must be formulated correctly from the beginning. To do so, it must be built using consistent parts either from the bottom-up or the top-down. The bottom-up approach analyzes discrete historical units that, taken as a whole, all exhibit a common direction. Once this direction is revealed, a progressive plan and its prime mover can be found inductively and a philosophy created to explain the historical whole. This seems to be the approach that Toynbee uses when using civilization as the common unit of history. Toynbee portrays civilizations as following stages of growth, challenge-response, and collapse, though on a much larger scale than events or economic cycles. The residue of this collapse, religion, is carried onto the next civilization; the evolution of religion itself is the plan and religion the prime mover of the life cycle of civilizations.

Since the bottom-up approach is built up from the analysis of discrete events, those events must be completely understood to form conclusions. The historical record is rarely kind enough to provide concrete understanding of what has happened previously. When evidence does exist, there is no guarantee that it is being interpreted correctly. Ideas, concepts and words may mean completely different things now than they did in previous times. Even allegedly well known ideas may mean different things; the democracy of ancient Athens is “far away from the ways and thoughts we moderns are accustomed to” (Fustel de Coulanges 186). Nor can an event be fully known because not all of the causes of an event can be accounted for. Hempel’s analysis of the nature of events and causes in his essay “The Function of General Laws in History” makes an historical event’s causes (and the event itself) a matter of probability, not certainty. This leads to the possibility of later knowledge or interpretation coming to light that can change an event’s cause and the nature of the event itself. Since events are products of uncertain causes, any progressive plan based on them is subject to uncertainty and cannot be a historical law. Thus, the bottom-up strategy of creating a progressive plan is not foolproof.

Can a top-down method of philosophical construction succeed where the bottom-up has failed? First a philosophy must be promulgated to explain why history has taken its previous course and where it is going; the specific events are reconciled with the theory after the fact. History is taken as a whole, much as the living organism mentioned by Spengler. Where Spengler saw just cultures as organisms, a top-down theory sees all of history itself as the organic whole, the unfolding of the progressive plan. He claims that since “we can count, measure, dissect only the lifeless and so much of the living as can be dissociated from livingness,” that historical understanding can only come from the whole (Spengler 198). Historical knowledge however is found from the lifeless documents and artifacts from the past. The living organism cannot be isolated and studied; only these pieces of evidence can. These incomplete pieces of evidence form probable fact (“probable” due to Hempel’s theorem of historical probability), and from these probable facts, events themselves can be discerned.

So to create a top-down philosophy, the living organism of history requires a long view outside of history to be completely understood. Totally abstracting away the inconveniently uncertain facts may provide a way to ascertain this long view. Unfortunately historians themselves are still inside of the historical frame of reference and incapable of seeing a progressive plan from afar to determine its truthfulness. It is impossible ever to be outside the historical frame of reference (that is, history). Where the bottom-up view fails because the events that ground it are not reliably known, the top-down view demands that not only the philosophy fits historical facts, but that its end goal is correct. It is not completely flawed as the bottom-up method is, however; a progressive philosophy is not ruled out. If history’s true nature can be known it can only be found by deduction, not induction.

How can anyone find this overall progressive plan and deduce its prime mover? It will require both a long view of historical events and causes and uncommon insight. The inclusion of disciplines outside of history, such as economics and sociology, has contributed to a more thorough understanding of historical events. As more professions bring their expertise to the field, their interpretations can be added into the whole body of knowledge. When the historical body of knowledge is sufficiently large, then the progressive plan of history may be found. Jacques Barzun speaks of a historian’s esprit de finesse, the exemplary insight into a subject that makes possible “assessing connectedness and strength of influence” (Barzun 394). Barzun limits this esprit to synthesizing common ideas in cultural history. Taken on a larger scale, progressive history can be found by applying historical and philosophical insight, the esprit de finesse, to a sufficiently large body of knowledge.

The progressive plan and prime mover of history as a matter of faith is not a new concept but a plan based on interdisciplinary knowledge filtered through insight has yet to be widely accepted. It will take extraordinary work, not only in history but in its allied disciplines, to make progressive history return to being a valid historical theory. Since the bottom-up method cannot create a valid progressive plan, a top-down approach needs to be used. It requires an excellent grasp of historical events and trends and a stroke of insight to formulate a plan that will stand up to future discoveries. To succeed in that respect, the progressive plan can must conserve all previous evidence and remain valid as new evidence is found and interpretations change. A progressive plan and the idea of progressive history require a leap of insight by both the originator and by those who accept it. While this universal progressive history has gone out of style, it remains one of the major unfulfilled works of history.

Works Cited

  • Barzun, Jacques. “Cultural History: A Synthesis” in The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Fritz Stern, ed. New York: Random House, 1972.
  • Fustel de Coulanges, N. D. Inaugural Lecture” in The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Fritz Stern, ed. New York: Random House, 1972.
  • Spengler, Oswald. “The World as History” in Theories of History: readings from Classical and Contemporary Sources. Patrick L. Gardnier, ed. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1959.