Historical determinism, subjective choice, and their relations

Historical determinism, subjective choice, and the relations between the two are important issues in historical studies. Great controversy among scholars exists over these issues. This chapter focuses on such controversy in the hope to elicit more discussion from my scholarly peers.

The classification of historical philosophy and the theoretical origins of historical nondeterminism

Historical determinism and historical nondeterminism oppose each other in their understanding of historical development. We will first explore the theoretical origins of historical nondeterminism. We will begin our exploration by defining historical philosophy and its classification. Before that, we need to first define “history.” Generally, “history” may have two definitions. One, history refers to human activities and products (past, present, and future) and human plans for the future. Two, history refers to the narration and interpretation of human activities and products (past, present, and future) and human plans for the future. For our purpose, we will use “history” for the first definition, and “historical interpretation” for the second definition.

In Western English-speaking countries, there is a duality in historical philosophy, again based on two different definitions of “history.” This duality was first proposed by the British historical philosopher Walsh in Philosophy of History: An Introduction published in 1951. Walsh calls the study of the historical process itself the “speculative philosophy of history,” and the interpretation of history as the “critical philosophy of history.” In German-speaking countries, however, the two terms that straddle our duality are respectively “material philosophy of history” and “formalistic philosophy of history.” In the vocabulary of Chinese scholars, the two terms are, respectively, “metaphysics of history”/“the philosophy of histoiy”/“ontological history” on the one hand, and on the other, “historiographic epistemology”/“historiographic philosophy’7“philosophy of historical epistemology.”1

It should be noted that, in philosophy of history, the term “history” encompasses the past, the present, and the future along the dimension of time. For example, almost all studies of philosophy of history cover human destiny and historical trends. Hence, the past, the present, and the future all need to be involved. As another example, when we say that someone will change history through a certain feat, it will inevitably involve that person's present and future. The past, the present, and the future compose an integrated trinity of time. The past evolves to become the present, which in turn evolves to become the future, all determined by the intrinsic dynamics and contradictions within the historical process. To understand human history correctly, we must consider the integrated trinity of time. The study of the philosophy of history reviews the past, guides the present, and plans for a better future.

According to research by Max Nordau, a French scholar, the term “philosophy of history” was first used by the French thinker Jean Bodin in 1650, and then by Voltaire in 1765. However, neither of them had built a systematic philosophy of history. Italian historical philosopher Battista Vico is generally considered the founder of the discipline of philosophy of history. His book New Science (frill name: Principles of New Science about the Common Nature of Nations) published in 1725 inaugurated the Western philosophy of history. However, at Vico’s time, philosophy of history had not yet been recognized as a discipline. That recognition did not come until two publications: The first part of Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind by German historical philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder in 1784, and Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History published posthumously in 1837.2

Since the establishment of the philosophy of history between early 18th and late 19th centuries, Western historical philosophers devoted themselves to exploring the question on historical ontology—the essence of the historical process. Therefore, this period may be called the stage of ontology in the philosophy of history. Herbert Bradley, a British neo-Hegelian, published The Presuppositions of Critical History in 1874, which marked the historical philosophy’s turn toward epistemology. Bradley’s work explored how historical understanding becomes possible. The work systematically discussed the possibility of reaching an objective understanding of history. As a result, many Western historical philosophers regard Bradley as one of the founders of critical historical philosophy (or “historical epistemology” as known today).

From the late 1800s to late 1930s, Western philosophy of history transitioned to epistemology. Many historical philosophers at this time combined investigation of historical ontology with that of historical epistemology. The year 1938 saw two publications in the field: Introduction to the Philosophy of History by Raymond Aron, a French historian, and The Problem of Historical Knowledge: An Answer to Relativism by American historical philosopher Maurice Mandelbaum. These publications officially inaugurated historical epistemology as an independent discipline. In 1951, Walsh named the discipline “Critical Philosophy of History.” Speculative philosophy of history has a history of over 200 years, and has long dominated the modem Western philosophy of history. Speculative historical philosophers, such as Vico, Fourier, Kant, Hegel, Comte, Spengler, Toynbee, and Jaspers, all advocated historical determinism. However, from late 1800s, speculative philosophy of history began to diminish, while critical philosophy of history flourished from a subsidiary into a leader in historical studies. Voltaire, Windelband, Rickert, Bradley, Croce, Collingwood, and many other critical historical philosophers doubted, denied, and criticized historical determinism, especially that by Marx. The negation and criticism of historical determinism in Chinese academia generally follow the influence of Western critical historical philosophers.

Some Chinese scholars dichotomize between historical determinism and the human possibility to change the world. They believe that Marxist philosophy is only about changing the world, and that Marxist philosophy affirms the human capability to change world history—an idea that presupposes the changeability of the world. That is, history is not a predetermined immutability (historical determinism is sometimes interpreted as “pure predetermination.” This represents a misinterpretation of historical determinism as intended by historical materialism. This will be analyzed in detail below). If we accept Marx’s historical materialism as a kind of historical determinism, it may seem logically impossible and incomprehensible for humankind to change the world. That is, we now face the argument that historical determinism contradicts the concepts of the world's changeability and subjective choice. Therefore, the argument goes, historical determinism is wrong; historical materialism can only be historical nondeterminism rather than historical determinism. But I will have to disagree and demonstrate below that the above argument is not appropriately formulated.

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