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50 chapters can seem rather daunting, but most of the chapters average only around 10 to 15 pages a piece, and they are very well written by highly qualified individuals that have pondered these questions on the philosophy of history and historiography for most of their careers. Not light reading....
Philosophy of science or, more broadly, intellectual philosophy, is endlessly entertaining. Generally, it's about having very bright people attempting to respond to fundamental questions about our knowledge of the world. What does "knowledge of the world" really mean? What is scientific knowledge? How does it relate to theory or to observation? What is a theory and how do we decide which theories are better? True, none of these questions matter a great deal individually. Still, good intellectual philosophy is vigorous mental exercise, and does tend to give the reader a fresh perspective on things that do matter.
So it was with much optimism and cheerful anticipation that I began to read this selection of essays on the philosophy of history. I did not finish it. Unfortunately, it seems that either (a) philosophy of history is radically different from philosophy of science, or (b) the editor was singularly inept.
Two features in particular were discouraging. First, whacking away for hours at a cartoon stereotype of a kind of historiography allegedly practiced about a century ago isn't philosophy. Nobody writes that kind of history any more. In fact, I suspect that no one ever really did. It's a straw man with a painted bag for a head -- not even an appropriate subject for ad hominem arguments. It's trivial and uninteresting to watch an author deconstruct her own construct.
Second, the authors ignore an enormous body of practical and academic study of the critical issues. One really valuable point made (but then ignored) by several of the authors is that the critical issues in philosophy of history are precisely same as those encountered in law: the nature of causation, the reliability of mixed sources of evidence about the past, the requirements for rules of evidence, the accommodation of differing perceptions, the appropriate procedures and substantive burdens of evidence to apply, the proper melding of normative standards with "objective" fact. Frankly, to any thoughtful lawyer, the essays in this collection seem remarkably naive and kind of -- well -- primitive.
But, God forbid that these particular philosophers of history, at any rate, should pay any heed to anything as distastefully practical as law or, for that matter, history. This seems odd since, as a rule, philosophers of science do listen to scientists, even if their aims and methods are different. Perhaps this is because even the Paul Feyerebends of POS have faith in the scientific enterprise. The authors of this book lack an equivalent faith in the enterprise of history. They mostly seem interested in listening to themselves. This is just as well, since it's hard to see why anyone else would want to.
12 of 25 people found this review helpful
I was disappointed by this veritable Chinese puzzle of a book. It seems more like a dictionary of technical terms, or a series of algebraic formulae for those already in the loop. It was way above my head and not, I believe for the man on the Clapham Omnibus, the summary was definitely very misleading. The narrator too has an unpleasing delivery which compounded the disappointment.