The Philosophers as Historians and the Philosophy of History
Many past political, economic, and social philosophers were historians. This includes Locke, Hume, Keynes, Hegel, Cicero, Marx, Mises, Aristotle, Kant, Smith, Plato, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Engels, Rousseau, Hobbes, etc.
This list isn’t even close to exhaustive. See another non-exhaustive list of Prominent Historians and Philosophers). Philosophy is often thought of as an ethereal field, not a practical one as the natural sciences or mathematics. In fact only a few fields of philosophy touch on pure metaphysics, theology, and ontology.
Meanwhile, even the branches of philosophy that do focus on the metaphysical and theological tend to have a focus on history. Such is the case with the philosophies of Descartes, Aquinas, and Augustine.
The reasoning is somewhat simple, philosophers are typically trying to examine aspects of the human condition and human interaction, and the most obvious place to look for clues, justifications, and answers is in the history books.
Studying past cultures can tell us a lot about our current culture and the other cultures of the world, by understanding history, we can remove ourselves from our bias toward the present day and better understand ourselves.
Given this, we not only get socioeconomic philosophers that are also historians but a whole loosely defined field of philosophy called “the Philosophy of History” with Hegel’s philosophy of history being a good example of this.
PHILOSOPHY – Hegel. Hegel pointed out that history can be used to understand ourselves and the world we live in. This being the concept on this page and the underlying theme of nearly all the important sociopolitical philosophers, especially the empiricists.
Marx’s Theory of History. No philosopher gets a worse reputation than Marx. Most would be surprised to hear that he was in many ways a historian first. As the video points out, Marx didn’t consider himself “a Marxist.”
TIP: Hegel was Marx’s main influence, especially early on. As a young man, Marx hadn’t read Adam Smith and didn’t yet have a theory of Capital or Communism. He was more an existentialist interested in Hegelianism, alienation, the French Revolution, and solving the problem of the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It wasn’t until Marx met Engels that he had the idea that the working class (the proletariat) could be “the agent and instrument of the final revolution in history.” When we quote Marx, we aren’t praising his theories on workers and their revolutions. If anything, revolutions, like the French revolution and October revolution should invoke at least some worry. We are discussing Marx’s theory of history from his Marxist theory of historical materialism (the theory that comes between his old and later work and leads him to his later economic philosophy). It can sometimes feel frustrating that we throw out young Marx with the older Marx’s bathwater. It is easier to view a person’s beliefs as a static entity rather than a developing theoretical construction. However, explaining why radical liberal revolutions don’t work could be more useful than pretending they never happened, and thus learning nothing. At least the far less divisive Keynes thought so. Hegel and others aside, Marx was the first to explicitly study human societies and their development over time by comparing the roles of capital and labor in producing the material requirements of life from generation to generation. This theory led to Communism and Communism has presented a threat to Capitalism. However, that doesn’t discredit its truths or discredit the idea of looking at the state of nature and history to understand the evolution of economics and government better. In fact, Marx was doing the same thing that Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu did before him. One could make the case that it is those who used Marx’s theory like the Jacobins used Rousseau’s, who present the primary problem in practice. See Marxism–Leninism-Stalinism for an example. See Marx Paris: 1843–1845. See more on Marx, the Social Contract, and the State of Nature. Learn more about Marx.
The Division of Powers- Montesquieu. Perhaps no philosopher noted above provided as many examples pulled from history to form their theories as Montesquieu. The separation of powers theory isn’t invented; it is gleaned carefully from the historic nations of Rome, Athens, Sparta, Lycia, and others.
Rousseau: Popular Sovereignty and General Will. Popular Sovereignty is what the Civil War and the French Revolution were fought over. Rousseau didn’t just present the concept of the General Will as a theory. He used empirical evidence from history to justify his moral and ethical philosophy. Smith and Locke, even more than Rousseau, took care to use historic and empirical evidence to justify their theories and form the basis of classical liberalism. The philosophers provided the foundation upon which Western social theory rests, and in nearly all cases they based their philosophies on history.