Maritain on the Philosophy of History

While reading Jacques Maritain’s On the Philosophy of History (1957), I recall that many traditional thinkers have refuted the idea of a “philosophy of history.” This is because history is seen as an order or a process in time. This process is not in itself an essence or a substance. But post-Christian thinkers like Voltaire, Hegel and Marx erred on this point, trying to create an ideology whereby human events could be treated as predictable “patterns” and materially quantifiable “forces.” It is this “gnosticism of history,” however, that the French philosopher rejects.

As Maritain points out: “For many years the very notion of the philosophy of history was held in bad repute because of Hegel…. [who] regarded himself as a kind of philosopher-God recreating not only human history but the whole universe.” To avoid being pedantic it may be more appropriate to speak here of a philosophical view of history, since historical study is not an empirical science. Indeed, an important part of Maritain’s argument is the nature of historical understanding itself. The ideas that we have about the past are inductively abstracted from the data of unique human experiences. This goes back to the Aristotelian/Thomistic concept that human beings obtain all knowledge through the senses. They then reflect upon this sensory data and arrive at general truths.

History cannot be approached in a deductive or a priori manner. Nevertheless the past would be nothing more than a set of random, disconnected facts if it was not verified against abstract philosophical truths. In that respect a philosophy of history is the meeting point of the ideal and the concrete. Says Maritain: “The philosophy of history is the final application of philosophical truths, not to the conduct of the individual man, but to the entire movement of humanity.” Human events cannot be “rationally [or simplistically] explained nor reconstructed according to necessitating laws. But history can be characterized, interpreted or deciphered in a certain measure and as to certain general aspects.”

Because this study is related to individual experience it is closest in its discipline to moral philosophy rather than metaphysics (a point Hegel
misunderstood). “The philosophy of history has an impact on our actions,” explains Maritain. 

If we lack good principles we run the risk of applying them wrongly…. For instance, we run the risk of slavishly imitating the past, or of thinking, on the contrary, that everything in the past is finished and has to be done away with.

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