Guide Theories of the Will in the History of Philosophy

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May be repeated for credit 9 semester credit hours maximum. Instructor consent required. PHIL Contemporary Conceptions of Human Nature 3 semester credit hours Emphasis on contemporary conceptions of human nature and the human condition, stressing the cultural and historical settings. PHIL Philosophy of Technology 3 semester credit hours An examination of the nature of technology and its role in personal life and society. Focus on the conceptualization of technology, the relation of science to technology, the impact of technology on science and ethics, and the influence of technology on culture.

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PHIL Philosophy of Medicine 3 semester credit hours This course will focus on various theories related to the philosophy of medicine. Is history largely of interest because of the objective causal relations that exist among historical events and structures like the absolutist state or the Roman Empire? Or is history an agglomeration of the actions and mental frameworks of myriad individuals, high and low? But what if the reality of history is significantly different from what is implied by this approach? What if the causes of some very large and significant historical events are themselves small, granular, gradual, and cumulative?

What if there is no satisfyingly simple and high-level answer to the question, why did Rome fall? What if, instead, the best we can do in some of these cases is to identify a swarm of independent, small-scale processes and contingencies that eventually produced the large outcome of interest? More radically, it is worth considering whether this way of thinking about history as a series of causes and effects is even remotely suited to its subject matter.

What if we think that the language of static causes does not work particularly well in the context of history? What if we take seriously the idea that history is the result of the actions and thoughts of vast numbers of actors, so history is a flow of action and knowledge rather than a sequence of causes and effects? What if we believe that there is an overwhelming amount of contingency and path dependency in history? Do these alternative conceptions of history suggest that we need to ask different questions about large historical changes?

Here is an alternative way of thinking of history: we might focus on history as a set of social conditions and processes that constrain and propel actions, rather than as a discrete set of causes and effects. We might couch historical explanations in terms of how individual actors low and high acted in the context of these conditions; and we might interpret the large outcomes as no more than the aggregation of these countless actors and their actions. Such an approach would help to inoculate us against the error of reification of historical structures, periods, or forces, in favor of a more disaggregated conception of multiple actors and shifting conditions of action.

This orientation brings along with it the importance of analyzing closely the social and natural environment in which actors frame their choices. Our account of the flow of human action eventuating in historical change unavoidably needs to take into account the institutional and situational environment in which these actions take place. Part of the topography of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: property relations, political institutions, family structures, educational practices, religious and moral values.

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So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions and practices. Social circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act.

It is an important circumstance that a given period in time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited.

Will (philosophy)

Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action. What all of this suggests is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects, structures and events. It is a view of history that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures, and that gives less priority to the framework of cause and effect.

Doing history forces us to make choices about the scale of the history with which we are concerned. Suppose we are interested in Asian history. Are we concerned with Asia as a continent, or China, or Shandong Province? Or in historical terms, are we concerned with the whole of the Chinese Revolution, the base area of Yenan, or the specific experience of a handful of villages in Shandong during the s?

Philosophy of History theory

And given the fundamental heterogeneity of social life, the choice of scale makes a big difference to the findings. Historians differ fundamentally around the decisions they make about scale.

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William Hinton provides what is almost a month-to-month description of the Chinese Revolution in Fanshen village—a collection of a few hundred families Hinton, The book covers a few years and the events of a few hundred people. Likewise, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie offers a deep treatment of the villagers of Montaillou; once again, a single village and a limited time Le Roy Ladurie, William Cronon provides a focused and detailed account of the development of Chicago as a metropolis for the middle of the United States Cronon, At the other end of the scale spectrum, William McNeill provides a history of the world's diseases McNeill, ; Massimo Livi-Bacci offers a history of the world's population Livi-Bacci, ; and De Vries and Goudsblom provide an environmental history of the world De Vries and Goudsblom, In each of these cases, the historian has chosen a scale that encompasses virtually the whole of the globe, over millennia of time.

Both micro- and macro-histories have important shortcomings. The first threatens to be so particular as to lose all interest, whereas the second threatens to be so general as to lose all empirical relevance to real historical processes. There is a third choice available to the historian that addresses both points. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis. This level of scale might be regional-for example, G. William Skinner's analysis of the macro-regions of China Skinner, It might be national—for example, a social and political history of Indonesia.

And it might be supra-national—for example, an economic history of Western Europe or comparative treatment of Eurasian history. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work. The topic of history has been treated frequently in modern European philosophy. A long, largely German, tradition of thought looks at history as a total and comprehensible process of events, structures, and processes, for which the philosophy of history can serve as an interpretive tool.

This approach, speculative and meta-historical, aims to discern large, embracing patterns and directions in the unfolding of human history, persistent notwithstanding the erratic back-and-forth of particular historical developments.

Goals and Objectives

Modern philosophers raising this set of questions about the large direction and meaning of history include Vico, Herder, and Hegel. A somewhat different line of thought in the continental tradition that has been very relevant to the philosophy of history is the hermeneutic tradition of the human sciences. Human beings make history; but what is the fundamental nature of the human being? Can the study of history shed light on this question? When we study different historical epochs, do we learn something about unchanging human beings—or do we learn about fundamental differences of motivation, reasoning, desire, and collectivity?

Is humanity a historical product? Giambattista Vico's New Science offered an interpretation of history that turned on the idea of a universal human nature and a universal history see Berlin for commentary. Vico's interpretation of the history of civilization offers the view that there is an underlying uniformity in human nature across historical settings that permits explanation of historical actions and processes.

The common features of human nature give rise to a fixed series of stages of development of civil society, law, commerce, and government: universal human beings, faced with recurring civilizational challenges, produce the same set of responses over time. Two things are worth noting about this perspective on history: first, that it simplifies the task of interpreting and explaining history because we can take it as given that we can understand the actors of the past based on our own experiences and nature ; and second, it has an intellectual heir in twentieth-century social science theory in the form of rational choice theory as a basis for comprehensive social explanation.


Johann Gottfried Herder offers a strikingly different view about human nature and human ideas and motivations. Herder argues for the historical contextuality of human nature in his work, Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity He offers a historicized understanding of human nature, advocating the idea that human nature is itself a historical product and that human beings act differently in different periods of historical development —, Herder's views set the stage for the historicist philosophy of human nature later found in such nineteenth century figures as Hegel and Nietzsche.

Philosophers have raised questions about the meaning and structure of the totality of human history. Some philosophers have sought to discover a large organizing theme, meaning, or direction in human history. This may take the form of an effort to demonstrate how history enacts a divine order, or reveals a large pattern cyclical, teleological, progressive , or plays out an important theme for example, Hegel's conception of history as the unfolding of human freedom discussed below.

The ambition in each case is to demonstrate that the apparent contingency and arbitrariness of historical events can be related to a more fundamental underlying purpose or order. This approach to history may be described as hermeneutic; but it is focused on interpretation of large historical features rather than the interpretation of individual meanings and actions. In effect, it treats the sweep of history as a complicated, tangled text, in which the interpreter assigns meanings to some elements of the story in order to fit these elements into the larger themes and motifs of the story.

Ranke makes this point explicitly A recurring current in this approach to the philosophy of history falls in the area of theodicy or eschatology: religiously inspired attempts to find meaning and structure in history by relating the past and present to some specific, divinely ordained plan. Theologians and religious thinkers have attempted to find meaning in historical events as expressions of divine will. One reason for theological interest in this question is the problem of evil; thus Leibniz's Theodicy attempts to provide a logical interpretation of history that makes the tragedies of history compatible with a benevolent God's will In the twentieth century, theologians such as Maritain , Rust , and Dawson offered systematic efforts to provide Christian interpretations of history.

Enlightenment thinkers rejected the religious interpretation of history but brought in their own teleology, the idea of progress—the idea that humanity is moving in the direction of better and more perfect civilization, and that this progression can be witnessed through study of the history of civilization Condorcet ; Montesquieu Vico's philosophy of history seeks to identify a foundational series of stages of human civilization. Different civilizations go through the same stages, because human nature is constant across history Pompa Rousseau a; b and Kant —5; —6 brought some of these assumptions about rationality and progress into their political philosophies, and Adam Smith embodies some of this optimism about the progressive effects of rationality in his account of the unfolding of the modern European economic system This effort to derive a fixed series of stages as a tool of interpretation of the history of civilization is repeated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it finds expression in Hegel's philosophy discussed below , as well as Marx's materialist theory of the development of economic modes of production Marx and Engels —49; Marx and Engels These authors offered a reading of world history in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations, races, or cultures.

Their writings were not primarily inspired by philosophical or theological theories, but they were also not works of primary historical scholarship. Spengler and Toynbee portrayed human history as a coherent process in which civilizations pass through specific stages of youth, maturity, and senescence. Wittfogel and Lattimore interpreted Asian civilizations in terms of large determining factors.