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How to write a personal statement for history

Tips for convincing history tutors that you deserve a place on their course

H istory is the tenth most popular subject to study at degree level in the UK, and with many universities forgoing candidate interviews, your personal statement is the most important way to make yourself stand out. The competition is fierce (the top universities require grades of A*AA), and a muddled or mediocre statement will harm your application.

So how can would-be historians impress application tutors? Dr Elizabeth Tingle, of Plymouth University, wants the statement to reflect the candidate who wrote it. She says: "When we talk about originality in personal statements, we really mean individuality."

Southampton University's Dr McHugh agrees that many applications are "too generic and vague. We want to get a sense of who you are as an individual, and what kind of student you would be."

This individuality should not be achieved through wild or outrageous methods; your statement doesn't need to be written in old English, or abstractly represent the consciousness of Thomas Cromwell. If you do something outrageously different, there's probably a reason why no one's done it before.

Instead, a personal statement should show something of you as a person, and convey your own unique engagement with history. Dr Ryrie, historian of religion at Durham says:

"The kind of personal statement that warms an admissions tutor's heart is the kind which is honest: which describes, in genuinely personal terms, quite why the student loves the subject, and conveys something of their passion for it".

'Passion', however, is a controversial word. UCL's Dr Jason Peacey complained that "it gets a bit tiring reading hundreds of forms where the student proclaims that they have a 'passion' for history".

Dr Ansari, head of history at Royal Holloway, agrees, and wants "genuine expressions of interest in history, but not in terms of 'I am passionate about...'. Simply wanting something strongly is not enough".

You need to convince admissions tutors that you have the intelligence and academic ability needed to successfully undertake a degree in the subject.

Dr Peacey says: "Students don't always do enough to explain what it is about history that interests them, why this interest can only be met by undertaking more study at a higher level, and what should make me think that they have the potential and ability to study at this level".

The same sentiments are also mentioned by Dr McGladdery, admissions officer at St Andrews. "Studying and writing about what happened in the past has little purpose if students cannot develop the skill of critical evaluation. Historiographical awareness is very important, as is the ability to present an opinion supported with evidence and cogent analysis."

Students who show that they have considered the subject in relation to other academic avenues are likely to impress. As Dr Gadja, of Oxford university, says:

"Historians like to take insight from a huge range of perspectives, so we are always delighted when students can demonstrate how their interest and ability at foreign languages, philosophy, or political thought, literature, and so on, might intersect with their historical interests, and be of use in their development as historians".

A clear, competent analysis of the ways in which your different subjects interact, and how this has aided your ability as a history student, can be a valuable inclusion in your personal statement.

Dr Gadja says that it is important to mention extra-curriculur interests. For Gadja, an interest in visiting museums, going to public lectures, and anything that shows an interest in history beyond the demands of one's A-level course, would be relevant.

If you have had any relevant work experience, do mention it, but it must have had a definite impact on your approach to thinking about history. If you haven't managed to gain experience in a historical field, though, don't worry too much.

Gadja says: "we certainly don't look for relevant work experience when making decisions – most applicants will not have had the fortunate opportunity to work in jobs relating to the heritage industry or similar, and that doesn't put them at a disadvantage at all".

Mention of non-academic areas in which you are wonderfully talented should be limited to a couple of sentences at most, and should always be linked back to the ways in which they have contributed to your academic or personal development; such as by improving time-management, or organisational skills.

Dr Simon Smith, of Oxford University, say: "Unlike some US universities or colleges, UK universities are not seeking to admit quotas of musicians, sports people, or thespians."

It is important to write the statement in clear, concise prose, avoiding the use of formulaic words or phrases. Dr Peacey says:

"If I had a pound for every time I had been told that history is important because, as George Santayana said, those who fail to understand the mistakes of the past will merely repeat them... then I would be a rich man indeed."

Try and avoid stilted references to the "eternal value" and "enduring fascination" of the past. Far more impressive is to explain and analyse what it is that makes you so interested in history, and specific areas in particular.

Above all, you should engage with the concepts that you are discussing, rather than just stating them. As Dr Ryrie says:

"Make us feel that you are a person of vision and imagination, for whom your outstanding A-level performance is just the beginning."

Avoid anything bland or dull, and make the personal statement a reflection of your individual talents and interests. You want your statement to be different and engaging, otherwise it will slip through admissions tutors' fingers without leaving a mark.

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Successful Personal Statement For History At Oxford

Last Updated: 6th April 2022

Author: Rob Needleman

Table of Contents

Welcome to our popular Personal Statement series where we present a successful Personal Statement, and our Oxbridge Tutors provide their feedback on it. 

Today, we are looking through a History applicant’s Personal Statement that helped secure a place at Oxford University. The History Course at Oxford combines the examination of large regions over extended periods of time with more focused work on smaller social groups, shorter periods and particular themes.

Read on to see how this candidate demonstrates that they can understand and analyse history.  

Here’s a breakdown of the Personal Statement (the applicant uses most of the 4,000 characters available):


The universities this candidate applied to were the following:

Enrolling on our Oxbridge History comprehensive Programme will give you access to Personal Statement redrafts. 

Your tutor will give you actionable feedback with insider tips on how to improve and make your Personal Statement Oxbridge quality for the best chances of success.  

History Personal Statement

My passion for history can best be explained by discussing the period of German Unification, which displays the most engrossing virtues of studying the subject. Firstly there is great scope for debate and exploration of the interlocking causations, examining the relative importance of Bismarck’s own role against the military strengthening of Prussia or the shifting international relations. But most interestingly it is a defining period in the shaping of modern Europe and the way in which it links the past to the present is most fascinating. Studying this period reveals how international relations progressed after the Napoleonic era leading to the way in which Germany was unified through war and thus became a country built around war. It is therefore arguable that this era created the state which would then trigger the two wars which have shaped the modern world. This period shows how history can give us a more rounded understanding of the world we live in, linking our mysterious and intriguing past to our all too familiar present surroundings. It is partly this, which motivates me to study history as in doing so I gain immense satisfaction from learning how our world has evolved.

An understanding of history also provides a fundamental backdrop for any other areas of study. I have found this through my other A-Level subjects, for example historical knowledge of politics in Britain was essential to AS politics, particularly when studying the political situation in Ireland. An understanding of past conflicts is indispensable when it comes to managing contemporary politics. Furthermore, whilst taking French the study of Un Sac De Billes by Joseph Joffo unearthed experiences of living under Vichy France. To learn a language fully it is important to immerse oneself in the culture and history of the country in order to develop a more rounded understanding of the people who live there. Thus it seems that history is inescapable; it not only provides vital background knowledge but also helps bring to life every other academic subject, which is why in my opinion, it is the most important.     

During my A Level history course, the Napoleonic era particularly fascinated me and I pursued my interest through further reading, looking specifically at Napoleon’s downfall, an area I found most compelling as it offers the greatest exposition of the psychology of this exceptional man. I read Digby Smith’s ‘The Decline and Fall of Napoleon’s Empire’ as well as Zamoyski’s ‘1812’. I picked up on several themes throughout Zamoyski’s book and developed my own opinions such as sympathetic stances towards General Barclay and the Tsar, but was particularly intrigued by how Napoleon let his ego drive his pre-war diplomacy and how Napoleon’s own role in the breakdown of the Treaty of Tilsit perhaps triggered his eventual downfall. The fact that I was so gripped by so many different themes within an historical study of one war also reveals another aspect of history that is so appealing to me. It offers vast numbers of different avenues to pursue in one’s research, whether it is Napoleon’s diplomacy or the fallibility of the Russian command.

Outside of my academic studies, I am a dedicated sportsman but have particularly flourished musically as a cellist, obtaining a grade 8 standard in year 11 and am a committed member of various ensembles. Music has coloured my historical studies, for example, I played various Shostakovich symphonies coinciding with my study of Stalinist Russia at GCSE, each with a very different feel depending upon his relationship with Stalin, but perhaps most moving was playing his 10 th symphony, a purely self-indulgent expression of relief after the death of the dictator. It is impossible to appreciate this great work without its historical context, which transforms the piece into something personal, attaching the listener emotionally. History is not only fascinating in itself, but it enriches our appreciation of all other interests.

For more inspiration, take a look through our other successful Personal Statement a nalysis articles:

Successful Personal Statement For Natural Science (Physical) At Cambridge

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The student speaks intelligently and successfully links their interests – both within history and outside of history – to the study of history on a wider scale. The statement is well organised and reads well. Paragraph three, in particular, has many strong points with a greater focus on what really interests the student and why. The student does well to focus on the different areas of exploration within history showing a strong awareness of the nuances within historical study.

Bad Points Of The Personal Statement

The statement focuses too much on what the student knows, rather than what interests the student – the first paragraph, in particular, reads too much like an essay, and less like an exploration of why this student actually wants to study history. The student risks falling into a trap of trying to teach and impress the admissions tutor with their knowledge instead of offering a more personal approach. The student also needs to try to avoid repetition, for example ‘most interestingly’ and ‘most fascinating’ within the same sentence in order to ensure the whole statement flows better.

UniAdmissions Overall Score:

This is a very strong, well-written Personal Statement. The student has clearly proved they can both understand and analyse history. The student perhaps needs to focus more on their own motivations behind studying history, but overall, the statement suggests a student with great potential and zeal for the subject. What would make the student stand out even more is a stronger closing statement – something to bring the whole personal statement together.

This Personal Statement for History is a great example of a strong, well-written Statement. The candidate’s interest and achievements are clearly shown which is vital to Admissions Tutors.

Remember, at Oxford, these Admissions Tutors are often the people who will be teaching you for the next few years, so you need to appeal directly to them.

There are plenty more successful personal statements and expert guides on our Free Personal Statement Resources page.

Our expert tutors are on hand to help you craft the perfect Personal Statement for your Oxford History application.

With our  Oxbridge History Premium Programme, we help you craft the perfect Personal   Statement , score highly on the HAT and teach you how to  Interview effectively .

Discover our  Oxbridge History Premium Programme  by clicking the button below to  enrol and triple your chances of success.

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Top Tips for a Cambridge Philosophy Personal Statement

Cambridge philosophy personal statement – top 10 tips: dos and don’ts  .

The Cambridge Personal Statement is a crucial component of your university application. It presents a unique opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from other applicants. You would be able to articulate your story and explain your interests beyond that of numbers on an admissions test. Furthermore, it gives the interviewer a chance to understand who you are, providing a platform to bounce off questions during your interview. 

They can tailor questions to your personality, interests, and commitment to who you are as a person and your amalgamation of experiences before you. To guide you through the arduous university application process, our Oxbridge application experts have compiled a list of top 10 Cambridge Philosophy Personal Statement tips– do’s and don’ts– for your Cambridge Philosophy Personal Statement for the 2024/25 application cycle. 

history and philosophy personal statement

General Philosophy Personal Statement Advice

Philosophy is a course that would be exciting for students who enjoy arguments on the benefits and disadvantages of a wide-reaching range of issues. Ideal candidates would be students who enjoy rigorous thought and are interested in the basis of knowledge, the foundation of value and political theory, as well as the nature of cognition, consciousness, and reason. 

In your philosophy personal statement, Cambridge tutors are looking for you to clearly demonstrate your interest in academic rigour and thought, as well as the fields outlined above. Furthermore, when planning out your personal statement, make sure you research Cambridge’s achievements in Philosophy and include it in your writing to illustrate your interest in Philosophy. 

Additionally, When creating your Cambridge personal statement, understandably you’ll be applying to four other University courses which may result in your statement being vaguer. The University of Cambridge is aware of such. It will require you to fill out an ‘Online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ)’ shortly after submitting the UCAS application, so make sure you’ve created another condensed version of your Philosophy personal statement that you can submit to Cambridge.

Top 5 Tips for Cambridge Philosophy Personal Statement

1. demonstrate why you are a good match for philosophy.

The traits that would make up a good philosophy student would be vastly different from the desirable traits of students from other courses. For example, some unique traits that they would be looking out for students who are capable of critical thinking, and those who enjoy rigorous analysis. Being open-minded is also crucial and in your philosophy personal statement, Cambridge is looking out for students who are able to consider new perspectives. Try and demonstrate how you display these traits in your Cambridge Philosophy personal statement. You can do so by explaining a specific experience that you had in the past and reflecting on how it has equipped with these desirable qualities.

2. Be well-read in philosophy or related fields

Philosophy is a subject that heavily focuses on human thought and the basis of knowledge. Hence, an ideal philosophy student would be well-read, both because they have a natural thirst for knowledge, and also because being well-informed or deeply versed would equip you with unique perspectives when pursuing your degree. Also, remember when writing your philosophy personal statement, Cambridge is definitely looking out for students who are well-read, and this is evident even on their page outlining the course. You definitely don’t need to be an expert (after all, you are going to university to study philosophy), but you should definitely do some preliminary reading. You can access their recommended reading list through their webpage: Cambridge Philosophy . Beyond that of reading, podcasts, documentaries, or even short news articles are a great way to kickstart your journey in being more deeply versed in literature and a wide range of perspectives. You can incorporate these various forms of mediums into your everyday lifestyle, such as watching a documentary instead of your usual TV series or listening to a podcast instead of your usual playlist on your way home from school.

3. Hone your ability to think outside the box

Once you’re happy with the content of your draft, check it, check it and check it again! Any mistakes in your Philosophy personal statement could count against your application. Spelling and grammar checking software will do most of the work but don’t rely on it completely, as it doesn’t pick up everything. These kinds of mistakes are really common, so don’t assume you won’t make them.

4. Structure your Philosophy personal statement well to enhance readability

Especially when you are trying to convey a huge range of ideas in your Cambridge personal statement, or to explain your story and why you are a good fit for philosophy at Cambridge, it can be difficult to communicate it in the way you intended. Hence, sticking to a good structure would help you convey your thoughts better. For example, in your personal statement, you should explore your philosophy interests. Do you have a topic that deeply intrigues you and is the beginning of your exposure to this field? You can then spend later paragraphs explaining how you explored this interest, through concrete experiences and actions, such as that of reading or participating in conferences and competitions. You can then conclude by summarising your points and ending them with an impactful statement.

5. Starting early and getting people around you or seniors to proofread your Cambridge Philosophy personal statement

Especially when we are explaining our personal story or beliefs, we might not be the best judge of our own work as we might not be objective about it. Hence, it would be good to get seniors you know who are currently pursuing philosophy at Cambridge to proofread your work and provide feedback. Even if you do not know of such seniors, getting friends or family to proofread your work can also provide valuable feedback on readability! Don’t share your Philosophy personal statement in case it gets plagiarised by someone else. Furthermore, starting early would be extremely helpful and you would be thankful when completing your applications. If you are finding yourself to be in a slump or having writer’s block, start by listing out all your experiences and interests, then create a separate list of good qualities of philosophy students, and finally a list of what the philosophy course at Cambridge is about. You can match your experiences and interests to the qualities and details of the course, and slowly flesh out paragraphs to start. Once you complete your draft, it would also be good to leave and come back to it a week later with a fresh mind.

Top 5 things to AVOID for your Cambridge Philosophy Personal Statement

1. sacrificing readability over conciseness.

It can be tempting, predominantly for a course such as Philosophy, to fill and embellish your Cambridge Philosophy personal statement with difficult vocabulary or unconventional words. However, if you are not used to such language, do not feel pressured to decorate your Cambridge personal statement with a fancy vocabulary. This is because when reading your personal statement, philosophy tutors may find it difficult to understand what you’re really trying to say. Imagine this– tutors would get through hundreds of applicants per day. Similarly to getting through articles or academic journals full of jargon you are unfamiliar with, it would be tough for tutors to focus on what you are trying to communicate if you use too difficult vocabulary. The first and foremost aim of your Cambridge Philosophy personal statement is for the reader to understand what you are trying to convey, and sometimes fancy vocabulary gets in the way of that. Prioritise conciseness and readability, and sometimes simple language, especially when you are trying to describe complex topics, is best for that!

2. Be afraid to admit that you don’t know something

You are going to university to learn and to study for the degree after all. Although it is a plus point for you to be well-read and thoughtful, Cambridge tutors definitely don’t expect 18 or 19 years old to know everything there is to know. In fact, admitting that you don’t know something, but still being able to apply first principles and logic to a foreign topic, could be advantageous to you. Tutors consider it impressive when they encounter a student who recognises the complexity and difficulty of philosophical issues.

3. Think that there is a right answer or a fixed answer to any problem

Especially in a course like philosophy, Cambridge tutors are looking for students who are able to have an open-minded view on things. For example, students who are able to challenge a well-respected or widely accepted view whilst displaying sound logic, or being able to defend a view in exceptional circumstances and grey areas, would be ideal candidates for the course. Try not to be fixed in your views, even if you strongly believe in something– you can have an opinion or belief in a topic or idea, but that also still leaves space for the understanding and acceptance of other views.

4. Writing an essay on a school of thought instead of a Cambridge personal statement

Especially for a course such as philosophy, when explaining a particular school of thought, you could end up writing a personal statement that looks like an argumentative essay instead. Remember to keep the focus of the Cambridge Philosophy personal statement– explaining why YOU are a good fit for the philosophy course at Cambridge. Cambridge admissions tutors would be familiar with any philosophy you are trying to explain, and they are not reading a textbook or to learn a new perspective on it– they are looking to learn about you.

5. Only expect to have one draft of your Cambridge Philosophy personal statement

Your first draft will never be your best draft. When planning your timeline for your Cambridge Philosophy personal statement, always factor in time to allow multiple drafts to be completed. It is also important to not leave it to the last minute. This is because it would show in the quality of your work, and tutors would be able to tell if it is rushed. Furthermore, you might miss out on relevant experiences because you were not able to remember them in time.

→What is a Cambridge Philosophy personal statement?

A Cambridge Philosophy personal statement is a document that applicants to the University of Cambridge’s Philosophy program submit as part of their application. The personal statement allows applicants to showcase their academic background, relevant experiences, and motivation for studying Philosophy at Cambridge.

→What should I include in my Cambridge Philosophy personal statement?

Your personal statement should highlight your academic background and relevant experiences, as well as your motivation for studying Philosophy at Cambridge. You should also demonstrate your critical thinking skills, ability to analyze complex issues, and passion for philosophical inquiry.

→What kind of experiences should I include in my Cambridge Philosophy personal statement?

You should include experiences that demonstrate your interest in and preparation for studying Philosophy at Cambridge. This can include relevant coursework, research projects, internships, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities that showcase your passion for philosophical inquiry.

→How long should my Cambridge Philosophy personal statement be?

Cambridge University recommends that your personal statement should be no longer than 4,000 characters, or about 500 words. It is important to be concise and focus on the most relevant and compelling aspects of your experience and qualifications.

→What qualities are Cambridge Philosophy admissions looking for in applicants?

Cambridge Philosophy admissions are looking for applicants who demonstrate a strong academic record, critical thinking skills, creativity, and a genuine interest in philosophical inquiry. They also value experiences that demonstrate leadership, teamwork, and communication skills.

→What is the interview process like for Cambridge Philosophy?

The interview process for Cambridge Philosophy typically involves a one-on-one interview with a faculty member or admissions officer. The interview will focus on your academic background, personal statement, and motivation for studying Philosophy at Cambridge. It may also include questions about your understanding of the field and your interest in specific areas of study.

→How important is the personal statement in the Cambridge Philosophy admissions process?

The personal statement is an important part of the Cambridge Philosophy admissions process, as it provides admissions officers with insights into your academic background, experiences, and motivation for studying Philosophy. It is an opportunity to showcase your unique perspective and strengths as an applicant.

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Philosophy of History

The concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of “learning from history.” And it suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the present, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that brought us to our current situation. It is therefore unsurprising that philosophers have sometimes turned their attention to efforts to examine history itself and the nature of historical knowledge. These reflections can be grouped together into a body of work called “philosophy of history.” This work is heterogeneous, comprising analyses and arguments of idealists, positivists, logicians, theologians, and others, and moving back and forth over the divides between European and Anglo-American philosophy, and between hermeneutics and positivism.

Given the plurality of voices within the “philosophy of history,” it is impossible to give one definition of the field that suits all these approaches. In fact, it is misleading to imagine that we refer to a single philosophical tradition when we invoke the phrase, “philosophy of history,” because the strands of research characterized here rarely engage in dialogue with each other. Still, we can usefully think of philosophers’ writings about history as clustering around several large questions, involving metaphysics, hermeneutics, epistemology, and ethics: (1) What does history consist of—individual actions, social structures, periods and regions, civilizations, large causal processes, divine intervention? (2) Does history as a whole have meaning, structure, or direction, beyond the individual events and actions that make it up? (3) What is involved in our knowing, representing, and explaining history? (4) To what extent do facts about human history create moral responsibilities for the present generation?

1.1 Actors, structures, and causes in history

1.2 selectivity and scale in history, 1.3 memory, history, and narrative, 2.1 universal or historical human nature, 2.2 does history possess directionality, 2.3 hegel’s philosophy of history, 2.4 hermeneutic approaches to history.

  • 2.5 Conceptual philosophy of history

3.1 General laws in history?

3.2 historical objectivity, 3.3 causation in history, 3.4 recent topics in the philosophy of history, 4. historiography and the philosophy of history, 5. historical understanding and the twentieth century, 6. ethics, history, and memory, other internet resources, related entries, 1. history and its representation.

What are the intellectual tasks that define the historian’s work? In a sense, this question is best answered on the basis of a careful reading of some good historians. But it will be useful to offer several simple answers to this foundational question as a sort of conceptual map of the nature of historical knowing.

First, historians are interested in providing conceptualizations and factual descriptions of events and circumstances in the past. This effort is an answer to questions like these: “What happened? What was it like? What were some of the circumstances and happenings that took place during this period in the past?” Sometimes this means simply reconstructing a complicated story from scattered historical sources—for example, in constructing a narrative of the Spanish Civil War or attempting to sort out the series of events that culminated in the Detroit race riot / uprising of 1967. But sometimes it means engaging in substantial conceptual work in order to arrive at a vocabulary in terms of which to characterize “what happened.” Concerning the disorders of 1967 in Detroit: was this a riot or an uprising? How did participants and contemporaries think about it?

Second, historians often want to answer “why” questions: “Why did this event occur? What were the conditions and forces that brought it about?” What were the motivations of the participants? This body of questions invites the historian to provide an explanation of the event or pattern he or she describes: the rise of fascism in Spain, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the occurrence of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1992 and later. And providing an explanation requires, most basically, an account of the causal mechanisms, background circumstances, and human choices that brought the outcome about. We explain an historical outcome when we identify the social causes, forces, events, and actions that brought it about, or made it more likely.

Third, and related to the previous point, historians are sometimes interested in answering a “how” question: “How did this outcome come to pass? What were the processes through which the outcome occurred?” How did the Prussian Army succeed in defeating the superior French Army in 1870? How did the Polish trade union Solidarity manage to bring about the end of Communist rule in Poland in 1989? Here the pragmatic interest of the historian’s account derives from the antecedent unlikelihood of the event in question: how was this outcome possible? This too is an explanation; but it is an answer to a “how possible” question rather than a “why necessary” question.

Fourth, often historians are interested in piecing together the human meanings and intentions that underlie a given complex series of historical actions. They want to help the reader make sense of the historical events and actions, in terms of the thoughts, motives, and states of mind of the participants. For example: Why did Napoleon III carelessly provoke Prussia into war in 1870? Why did the parties of the far right in Germany gain popular support among German citizens in the 1990s? Why did northern cities in the United States develop such marked patterns of racial segregation after World War II? Answers to questions like these require interpretation of actions, meanings, and intentions—of individual actors and of cultures that characterize whole populations. This aspect of historical thinking is “hermeneutic,” interpretive, and ethnographic.

And, of course, the historian faces an even more basic intellectual task: that of discovering and making sense of the archival and historical information that exists about a given event or time in the past. Historical data do not speak for themselves; archives are incomplete, ambiguous, contradictory, and confusing. The historian needs to interpret individual pieces of evidence, and he or she needs to be able to somehow fit the mass of evidence into a coherent and truthful story. Complex events like the Spanish Civil War present the historian with an ocean of historical traces in repositories and archives all over the world; these collections sometimes reflect specific efforts at concealment by the powerful (for example, Franco’s efforts to conceal all evidence of mass killings of Republicans after the end of fighting); and the historian’s task is to find ways of using this body of evidence to discern some of the truth about the past.

In short, historians conceptualize, describe, contextualize, explain, and interpret events and circumstances of the past. They sketch out ways of representing the complex activities and events of the past; they explain and interpret significant outcomes; and they base their findings on evidence in the present that bears upon facts about the past. Their accounts need to be grounded on the evidence of the available historical record, and their explanations and interpretations require that the historian arrive at hypotheses about social causes and cultural meanings. Historians can turn to the best available theories in the social and behavioral sciences to arrive at theories about causal mechanisms and human behavior; so historical statements depend ultimately upon factual inquiry and theoretical reasoning. Ultimately, the historian’s task is to shed light on the what, why, and how of the past, based on inferences from the evidence of the present.

Three preliminary issues are relevant to almost all discussions of history and the philosophy of history. The first is a set of issues having to do with the "ontology" of history, the kinds of entities, processes, and events that make up the historical past. This topic concerns the entities, forces, and structures that we postulate in describing the historical phenomena, whether the medieval manor or the Weimar Republic, and the theory we have of how these social entities depend upon the actions of the historical actors who embody them. The second issue has to do with the problems of selectivity unavoidable for the historian of any period or epoch. Here we take up the question of how the unavoidable selectivity of historical inquiry in terms of theme, location, scope, and scale influences the nature of historical knowledge. The third issue has to do with the complicated relationship that exists between history, narrative, and collective memory. This topic addresses the point that real human beings make history. And, as Marc Bloch insists (1953), we humans are historical beings, we tell stories about ourselves, and those stories sometimes themselves have major historical consequences. The collective memories and identities of Serb nationalism were a historical fact in the 1990s, and these elements of mythic collective identity led to massive bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, and murder during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia (Judt and Snyder, 2012; Judt, 2006).

An important problem for the philosophy of history is how to conceptualize “history” happenings. What are the "objects" of which history consists? Are there social structures or systems that play a role in history? Are there causes at work in the historical process? Or is history simply an concatenation of the actions and mental frameworks of myriad individuals, high and low? If both structures and actors are crucial to understanding history, what is the relationship between them?

Marc Bloch (1953) provided a very simple and penetrating definition of history. History is "man in time". By this he meant that history is the product of human action, creativity, invention, conflict, and interaction. Bloch was skeptical about many other categories commonly used to analyze history—periods, epochs, civilizations, reigns, and centuries. Instead, he advocated for what can be called an "actor-centered" conception of history. If there are structures and systems in history, they depend upon the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individual actors. If there are causes in history, they likewise depend upon the actions and interactions of human actors within a setting of humanly created institutions and norms. The task of the historian is to reconstruct the meanings, beliefs, values, purposes, constraints, and actions that jointly explain the moments of history, from the meaning of an ancient stele to the causes of the rapid defeat of France in 1940.

This perspective does not diminish the ontological importance of structures, systems, and ideologies in history. It simply forces the historian, like the social scientist, to be attentive to the problem of articulating the relationship that exists between actors and structures. A system of norms, a property system, and a moral ideology of feudal loyalty can all be understood as being both objectively present at a time and place, and being ontologically dependent upon the mental frameworks, actions, and relationships of the individual actors who make up these systems. This problem has been thoroughly discussed in the philosophy of social science under the rubric of "ontological individualism" (Zahle and Collin, 2014). Higher-level social entities are indeed causally powerful in the social world; and they depend entirely for their causal powers on the characteristics of the individual actors who constitute them. This is the requirement of microfoundations: extended social structures and causes depend upon microfoundations at the level of the individuals who constitute them (Little 2017). In particular, we need to have some idea about how individuals have been brought to think and act in the ways required by the structures and ideologies in which they function as adults. On this approach, history is the result of the actions and thoughts of vast numbers of actors, and institutions, structures, and norms are likewise embodied in the actions and mental frameworks of historically situated individuals. Such an approach helps 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 is the conception to which we are drawn when we understand history along the lines proposed by Bloch.

This orientation brings along with it the importance of analyzing closely the social and natural environment in which actors frame their choices. A historian’s 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 social environment 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. So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions, cultures, and practices. It is an important fact 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 fact that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

Similar microfoundational accounts must be given in support of the idea of "causes in history". Once established, it is reasonably straightforward to see how a social structure such as a property system or an ideology "causes" a historical outcome: by constraining the choices of actors and contributing to their motivations and values in the choices they make, a structure or an ideology influences historically important events like social movements, market crashes, or outbreaks of ethnic violence. Structures influence individual actors, and individual actors collectively constitute structures. This approach gives a basis for judging that such-and-so circumstance “caused” a given historical change; but it also provides an understanding of the way in which this kind of historical cause is embodied and conveyed—through the actions and thoughts of individuals in response to given natural and social circumstances.

Are there large scale causes at work in historical processes? Historians often pose questions like these: “What were some of the causes of the fall of Rome?”, “what were the causes of the rise of fascism?”, or “what were the causes of the Industrial Revolution?”. These kinds of questions presuppose that there were grand causes at work that had grand effects. However, it is more plausible to believe that the causes of some very large and significant historical events are themselves small, granular, gradual, and cumulative. If this is the case, then there is no satisfyingly simple and high-level answer to the question, why did Rome fall? Moreover, astute historians like Bloch and his contemporaries recognized that there is a very large amount of contingency and path dependency in historical change (Pierson, 2004). Historical outcomes are not determined by a few large scale causes; instead, multiple local, contingent, and conjunctural processes and happening jointly come together in the production of the outcome of interest. It is possible, for example, that the collapse of the Roman Empire resulted from a myriad of very different contingencies and organizational features in different parts of the empire. A contingent account of the fall of Rome might refer to logistical difficulties in supplying armies in the German winter, particularly stubborn local resistance in Palestine, administrative decay in Roman Britain, population pressure in Egypt, and a particularly inept series of commanders in Gaul. Without drama, administrative and military collapse ensues. The best we can do sometimes is to identify a swarm of independent, small-scale processes and contingencies that eventually produced the large outcome of interest.

This approach might be called "actor-centered history": we explain a historical moment or event when we have an account of what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social, institutional, and environmental conditions framed their choices. 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 examines the actions and practices of individuals as they lived their lives within these constraining and enabling circumstances. Further, it emphasizes the contingency and path-dependency of history, and it acknowledges the fact of heterogeneity of institutions, beliefs, and actions across time and place.

Historical research unavoidably requires selectivity in deciding what particular phenomena to emphasize. As Max Weber (1949) notes, there is an infinite depth to historical reality, and therefore it is necessary to select a finite representation of the object of study if we want to approach a problem rigorously. Let us imagine, for example, that a historian is interested in cities and their development over time. This might be pursued as an economic question, a question of regional geography, a question about cultural change, a question about poverty and segregation, a question about municipal governance, or a question about civil disturbances, and so one, for indefinitely many aspects of urban life. One generation of historians may be especially interested in cultural topics, while another generation is preoccupied with the organization of the economy at various points in history. The two orientations lead to very different historical representations of the past. Both inquiries lead to true depictions of the cities in question, but their findings and interpretations are very different. Likewise, the historian needs to make choices about location; is he or she interested in the cities of Britain, the cities of Europe, or all cities in the world? Further, the historian must consider whether to conduct a comparative history of cities, examining similarities and differences in the development of Paris and London; or instead restrict attention to a single case. Simply collecting “historical facts” about cities in the past is not a valid mode of historical inquiry. The question of how historians select and identify their subjects for research is an important one for the philosophy of history, and it has great significance for how we think about “knowing the past”.

Weber’s essays on methodology (1949) provide insight about these questions. Weber emphasizes the role that the scholar’s values play in his or her selection of a subject matter and a conceptual framework. So it is always open to historians of later generations to reevaluate prior interpretations of various aspects and periods of history. There is no general or comprehensive approach to defining the historical; there is only the possibility of a series of selective and value-guided approaches to defining specific aspects of history. We are always at liberty to bring forward new perspectives and new aspects of the problem, and to arrive at new insights about how the phenomena hang together when characterized in these new ways. This inherent selectivity of historical knowledge does not undermine the objectivity or veridicality of our knowledge; it merely entails that – like mathematics – history is inherently incomplete.

Doing history also forces the historian to make choices about the scale of the history with which he or she is concerned. Suppose we are interested in Asian history. Are we concerned with Asia as a continent, including China, India, Cambodia, and Japan, or the whole of China during the Ming Dynasty, or Hubei Province? Or if we define our interest in terms of a single important historical event like the Chinese Revolution, 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 1940s? Given the fundamental heterogeneity of social life, the choice of scale makes an important difference to the findings.

Historians differ greatly around the decisions they make about scale. It is possible to treat any historical subject at the micro-scale. 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 1966). 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 1979). William Cronon provides a focused and detailed account of the development of Chicago as a metropolis for the middle of the United States (Cronon 1991). These histories are limited in time and space, and they can appropriately be called “micro-history.”

Macro-level history is possible as well. William McNeill provides a history of the world’s diseases (McNeill 1976); Massimo Livi-Bacci offers a history of the world’s population (Livi-Bacci 2007); and De Vries and Goudsblom provide an environmental history of the world (De Vries and Goudsblom 2002). In each of these cases, the historian has chosen a scale that encompasses virtually the whole of the globe, over millennia of time. These histories can certainly be called “macro-history.”

Both micro- and macro-histories have important shortcomings. Micro-history leaves us with the question, “how does this particular village shed light on anything larger?”. Macro-history leaves us with the question, “how do these large assertions about the nature of revolution or the importance of class conflict in mobilization apply in the context of Canada or Warsaw?”. 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 1977). 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. And this mid-level scale permits the historian to make substantive judgments about the “reach” of social processes that are likely to play a causal role in the story that needs telling. This level of analysis can be referred to as “meso-history,” and it appears to offer an ideal mix of specificity and generality.

What is the relation between history, memory, and narrative? We might put these concepts into a crude map by saying that "history" is an organized and evidence-based presentation of of the processes, actions, and events that have occurred for a people over an extended period of time; "memory" is the personal recollections and representations of individuals who lived through a series of events and processes; and "narratives" are the stories that ordinary people and historians weave together to make sense of the events and happenings through which a people and a person have lived. Collective memory, the idea that groups such as Welsh miners, Serbian villagers, or black Alabama farmers possess a collective representation of the past that binds them together, can be understood as a shared set of narratives and stories about the past events of the given group or community. We use narratives to make sense of things that have happened; to identify meanings and causes within this series of events; and to select the "important" events and processes out from the ordinary and inconsequential.

What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of how and why a situation or event came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome—the conditions at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes—either social or natural—may have played a role in influencing the outcome? So a narrative seeks to provide hermeneutic understanding of the outcome—why did actors behave as they did in bringing about the outcome?—and causal explanation —what social and natural processes were acting behind the backs of the actors in bringing about the outcome? And different narratives represent different mixes of hermeneutic and causal factors. A crucial and unavoidable feature of narrative history is the fact of selectivity. The narrative historian is forced to make choices and selections at every stage: between "significant" and "insignificant", between "sideshow" and "main event", and between levels of description.

It is evident that there are often multiple truthful, unbiased, and inconsistent narratives that can be told for a single complex event. Exactly because many things happened at once, actors’ motives were ambiguous, and the causal connections among events are debatable, it is possible to construct inconsistent narratives that are equally well supported by the evidence. Further, the intellectual interest that different historians bring to the happening can lead to differences in the narrative. One historian may be primarily interested in the role that different views of social justice played in the actions of the participants; another may be primarily interested in the role that social networks played; and a third may be especially interested in the role of charismatic personalities, with a consequent structuring to the narrative around the actions and speeches of the charismatic leader. Each of these may be truthful, objective, and unbiased—and inconsistent in important ways with the others. So narratives are underdetermined by the facts, and there is no such thing as an exhaustive and comprehensive telling of the story—only various tellings that emphasize one set of themes or another.

When we consider collective memory and social identity, we are also forced to recognize that powerful institutions attempt to shape the narrative of important events in ways that serve political interests. A group identity can be defined as a set of beliefs and stories about one’s home, one’s people, and one’s past. These ideas often involve answers to questions like these: Where did we come from? How did we get here? And perhaps, who are my enemies? So an identity involves a narrative, a creation story, or perhaps a remembrance of a long chain of disasters and crimes. Identity and collective memory are intertwined; monuments, songs, icons, and flags help to set the way points in the history of a people and the collective emotions that this group experiences. They have to do with the stories we tell each other about who we are; how our histories brought us to this place; and what large events shaped us as a "people". Governments, leaders, activists, and political parties all have an interest in shaping collective memory to their own ends. Collective memories and identities are interwoven with myths and folk histories. And, as Benedict Anderson (1983) demonstrated, these stories are more often than not fictions of various kinds, promulgated by individuals and groups who have an interest in shaping collective consciousness in one way or another.

The philosophy of history must pay attention to the nexus of experience, memory, and history. There is no single “Civil Rights era” experience or “Great Depression” experience; instead, historians must consider a wide range of sources and evidence, including oral histories, first-person accounts, photographs, and other traces of the human experience of the time to allow them to discern both variation and some degree of thematicization of memory and identity in the periods they study. Second, attention to history and memory highlights the amount of human and individual agency involved in memory. Memories must be created; agents must find frameworks within which to understand their moments of historical experience. Museums and monuments curate historical memories — often with biases of their own. A third and equally important point is the fact that memories become part of the political mobilization possibilities that exist for a group. Groups find their collective identities through shared understandings of the past; and these shared understandings provide a basis for future collective action. Paul Ricoeur’s  Time and Narrative (1984-1988) sheds profound light on the profound relations that extend among memory, identity, narrative, and history.

2. Continental philosophy of history

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. 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. Through their emphasis on the “hermeneutic circle” through which humans undertake to understand the meanings created by other humans—in texts, symbols, and actions—hermeneutic philosophers such as Schleiermacher (1838), Dilthey (1860–1903), and Ricoeur (1984-1988, 2000) offer philosophical arguments for emphasizing the importance of narrative interpretation within our understanding of history. Understanding history means providing a narrative that makes sense of it from beginning to end.

Human beings make history; but what is the fundamental nature of the human being? Is there one fundamental “human nature,” or are the most basic features of humanity historically conditioned (Mandelbaum 1971)? 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 (1725) offered an interpretation of history that turned on the idea of a universal human nature and a universal history (see Berlin 2000 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 (1791). 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 (1800–1877, 1791). Herder’s views set the stage for the historicist philosophy of human nature later found in such nineteenth-century figures as Hegel and Nietzsche. His perspective too prefigures an important current of thought about the social world in the late twentieth century, the idea of the “social construction” of human nature and social identities (Anderson 1983; Hacking 1999; Foucault 1971).

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 (1881).)

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 (1709). In the twentieth century, theologians such as Maritain (1957), Rust (1947), and Dawson (1929) 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 1795; Montesquieu 1748). 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 1990). Rousseau (1762a; 1762b) and Kant (1784–5; 1784–6) 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 (1776). 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 1845–49; Marx and Engels 1848).

The effort to find directionality or stages in history found a new expression in the early twentieth century, in the hands of several “meta-historians” who sought to provide a macro-interpretation that brought order to world history: Spengler (1934), Toynbee (1934), Wittfogel (1935), and Lattimore (1932). 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. Wittfogel contrasts China’s history with that of Europe by characterizing China’s civilization as one of “hydraulic despotism”, with the attendant consequence that China’s history was cyclical rather than directional. Lattimore applies the key of geographic and ecological determinism to the development of Asian civilization (Rowe 2007).

A legitimate criticism of many efforts to offer an interpretation of the sweep of history is the view that it looks for meaning where none can exist. Interpretation of individual actions and life histories is intelligible, because we can ground our attributions of meaning in a theory of the individual person as possessing and creating meanings. But there is no super-agent lying behind historical events—for example, the French Revolution—and so it is a metaphysical mistake to attempt to find the meaning of the features of the event (e.g., the Terror). The theological approach purports to evade this criticism by attributing agency to God as the author of history, but the assumption that there is a divine author of history takes the making of history out of the hands of humanity.

Efforts to discern large stages in history such as those of Vico, Spengler, or Toynbee are vulnerable to a different criticism based on their mono-causal interpretations of the full complexity of human history. These authors single out one factor that is thought to drive history: a universal human nature (Vico), or a common set of civilizational challenges (Spengler, Toynbee). But their hypotheses need to be evaluated on the basis of concrete historical evidence. And the evidence concerning the large features of historical change over the past three millennia offers little support for the idea of one fixed process of civilizational development. Instead, human history, at virtually every scale, appears to embody a large degree of contingency and multiple pathways of development. This is not to say that there are no credible “large historical” interpretations available for human history and society. For example, Michael Mann’s sociology of early agrarian civilizations (1986), De Vries and Goudsblom’s efforts at global environmental history (2002), and Jared Diamond’s treatment of disease and warfare (1997) offer examples of scholars who attempt to explain some large features of human history on the basis of a few common human circumstances: the efforts of states to collect revenues, the need of human communities to exploit resources, or the global transmission of disease. The challenge for macro-history is to preserve the discipline of empirical evaluation for the large hypotheses that are put forward.

Hegel’s philosophy of history is perhaps the most fully developed philosophical theory of history that attempts to discover meaning or direction in history (1824a, 1824b, 1857). Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition—the realization of human freedom. “The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world” (1857: 63). Hegel incorporates a deeper historicism into his philosophical theories than his predecessors or successors. He regards the relationship between “objective” history and the subjective development of the individual consciousness (“spirit”) as an intimate one; this is a central thesis in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). And he views it to be a central task for philosophy to comprehend its place in the unfolding of history. “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept” (1857: 62). Hegel constructs world history into a narrative of stages of human freedom, from the public freedom of the polis and the citizenship of the Roman Republic, to the individual freedom of the Protestant Reformation, to the civic freedom of the modern state. He attempts to incorporate the civilizations of India and China into his understanding of world history, though he regards those civilizations as static and therefore pre-historical (O’Brien 1975). He constructs specific moments as “world-historical” events that were in the process of bringing about the final, full stage of history and human freedom. For example, Napoleon’s conquest of much of Europe is portrayed as a world-historical event doing history’s work by establishing the terms of the rational bureaucratic state. Hegel finds reason in history; but it is a latent reason, and one that can only be comprehended when the fullness of history’s work is finished: “When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. … The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” ((Hegel 1821: 13). (See O’Brien (1975), Taylor (1975), and Kojève (1969) for treatments of Hegel’s philosophy of history.)

It is worth observing that Hegel’s philosophy of history is not the indefensible exercise of speculative philosophical reasoning that analytic philosophers sometimes paint it. His philosophical approach is not based solely on foundational apriori reasoning, and many of his interpretations of concrete historical developments are quite insightful. Instead he proposes an “immanent” encounter between philosophical reason and the historical given. Here is how W. H. Walsh (1960) describes Hegel’s intellectual project in his philosophy of history:

To accomplish this task the philosopher must take the results of empirical history as data, but it will not suffice for him merely to reproduce them. He must try to illuminate history by bringing his knowledge of the Idea, the formal articulation of reason, to bear upon it, striving, in a phrase Hegel uses elsewhere, to elevate empirical contents to the rank of necessary truth. (Walsh 1960: 143)

Hegel’s prescription is that the philosopher should seek to discover the rational within the real—not to impose the rational upon the real. “To comprehend what is, this is the task of philosophy, because what is, is reason” (1821: 11). His approach is neither purely philosophical nor purely empirical; instead, he undertakes to discover within the best historical knowledge of his time, an underlying rational principle that can be philosophically articulated (Avineri 1972).

Another important strand of continental philosophy of history proposes to apply hermeneutics to problems of historical interpretation. This approach focuses on the meaning of the actions and intentions of historical individuals rather than historical wholes. This tradition derives from the tradition of scholarly Biblical interpretation. Hermeneutic scholars emphasized the linguistic and symbolic core of human interactions and maintained that the techniques that had been developed for the purpose of interpreting texts could also be employed to interpret symbolic human actions and products. Wilhelm Dilthey maintained that the human sciences were inherently distinct from the natural sciences in that the former depend on the understanding of meaningful human actions, while the latter depend on causal explanation of non-intensional events (1883, 1860-1903, 1910). Human life is structured and carried out through meaningful action and symbolic expressions. Dilthey maintains that the intellectual tools of hermeneutics—the interpretation of meaningful texts—are suited to the interpretation of human action and history. The method of verstehen (understanding) makes a methodology of this approach; it invites the thinker to engage in an active construction of the meanings and intentions of the actors from their point of view (Outhwaite 1975). This line of interpretation of human history found expression in the twentieth-century philosophical writings of Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Foucault. This tradition approaches the philosophy of history from the perspective of meaning and language. It argues that historical knowledge depends upon interpretation of meaningful human actions and practices. Historians should probe historical events and actions in order to discover the interconnections of meaning and symbolic interaction that human actions have created (Sherratt 2006).

The hermeneutic tradition took an important new turn in the mid-twentieth century, as philosophers attempted to make sense of modern historical developments including war, racism, and the Holocaust. Narratives of progress were no longer compelling, following the terrible events of the first half of the twentieth century. The focus of this approach might be labeled “history as remembrance.” Contributors to this strand of thought emerged from twentieth-century European philosophy, including existentialism and Marxism, and were influenced by the search for meaning in the Holocaust. Paul Ricoeur draws out the parallels between personal memory, cultural memory, and history (2000). Dominick LaCapra brings the tools of interpretation theory and critical theory to bear on his treatment of the representation of the trauma of the Holocaust (1994, 1998). Others emphasize the role that folk histories play in the construction and interpretation of “our” past. This is a theme that has been taken up by contemporary historians, for example, by Michael Kammen in his treatment of public remembrance of the American Civil War (1991). Memory and the representation of the past play a key role in the formation of racial and national identities; numerous twentieth-century philosophers have noted the degree of subjectivity and construction that are inherent in the national memories represented in a group’s telling of its history.

Although not himself falling within the continental lineage, R. G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history falls within the general framework of hermeneutic philosophy of history (1946). Collingwood focuses on the question of how to specify the content of history. He argues that history is constituted by human actions. Actions are the result of intentional deliberation and choice; so historians are able to explain historical processes “from within” as a reconstruction of the thought processes of the agents who bring them about. He presents the idea of re-enactment as a solution to the problem of knowledge of the past from the point of view of the present. The past is accessible to historians in the present, because it is open to them to re-enact important historical moments through imaginative reconstruction of the actors’ states of mind and intentions. He describes this activity of re-enactment in the context of the historical problem of understanding Plato’s meanings as a philosopher or Caesar’s intentions as a ruler:

This re-enactment is only accomplished, in the case of Plato and Caesar respectively, so far as the historian brings to bear on the problem all the powers of his own mind and all his knowledge of philosophy and politics. It is not a passive surrender to the spell of another’s mind; it is a labour of active and therefore critical thinking. (Collingwood 1946: 215)

2.5 Conceptual history

The post-war German historian Reinhart Koselleck made important contributions to the philosophy of history that are largely independent from the other sources of Continental philosophy of history mentioned here. (Koselleck’s contributions are ably discussed in Olsen 2012.) Koselleck contributed to a “conceptual and critical theory of history” (2002, 2004). His major compendium, with Brunner and Conze, of the history of concepts of history in the German-speaking world is one of the major expressions of this work (Brunner, Conze, and Koselleck 1972-97). Koselleck believes there are three key tasks for the metahistorian or philosopher: to identify the concepts that are either possible or necessary in characterizing history; to locate those concepts within the context of the social and political discourses and conflicts of the time period; and to critically evaluate various of these concepts for their usefulness in historical analysis.

Key examples that Koselleck develops include “space of experience” and “horizon of expectation”. Examples of metahistorical categories in Koselleck’s account include “capacity to die and capacity to kill,” “friend and foe,” “inside and outside,” and “master and servant”. Koselleck represents these conceptual oppositions as representing conditions of possibility of any representation of history (Bouton 2016: 178).

A large part of Koselleck’s work thus involves identifying and describing various kinds of historical concepts. In order to represent history it is necessary to make use of a vocabulary that distinguishes the things we need to talk about; and historical concepts permit these identifications. This in turn requires both conceptual and historical treatment: how the concepts are understood, and how they have changed over time. Christophe Bouton encapsulates Koselleck’s approach in these terms: “[It is an] inquiry into the historical categories that are used in, or presupposed by, the experience of history at its different levels, as events, traces, and narratives” (Bouton 2016: 164). Further, Bouton argues that Koselleck also brings a critical perspective to the concepts that he discusses: he asks the question of validity (Bouton 2016). To what extent do these particular concepts work well to characterize history?

What this amounts to is the idea that history is the result of conceptualization of the past on the part of the people who tell it—professional historians, politicians, partisans, and ordinary citizens. (It is interesting to note that Koselleck’s research in the final years of his career focused on the meaning of public monuments, especially war memorials.) It is therefore an important, even crucial, task to investigate the historical concepts that have been used to characterize the past. A key concept that was of interest to Koselleck was the idea of “modernity”. This approach might seem to fall within the larger field of intellectual history; but Koselleck and other exponents believe that the historical concepts in use actually play a role as well in the concrete historical developments that occur within a period.

It is worth noticing that history comes into Koselleck’s notion of Begriffsgeschichte in two ways. Koselleck is concerned to uncover the logic and semantics of the concepts that have been used to describe historical events and processes; and he is interested in the historical evolution of some of those concepts over time. (In this latter interest his definition of the question parallels that of the so-called Cambridge School of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and J. G. A. Pocock.) Numerous observers emphasize the importance of political conflict in Koselleck’s account of historical concepts: concepts are used by partisans to define the field of battle over values and loyalties (Pankakoski 2010). More generally, Koselleck’s aim is to excavate the layers of meaning that have been associated with key historical concepts in different historical periods. (Whatmore and Young 2015 provide extensive and useful accounts of each of the positions mentioned here.)

Conceptual history may appear to have a Kantian background—an exploration of the “categories” of thought on the basis of which alone history is intelligible. But this appears not to be Koselleck’s intention, and his approach is not apriori. Rather, he looks at historical concepts on a spectrum of abstraction, from relatively close to events (the French Revolution) to more abstract (revolutionary change). Moreover, he makes rigorous attempts to discover the meanings and uses of these concepts in their historical contexts.

Koselleck’s work defines a separate space within the field of the philosophy of history. It has to do with meanings in history, but it is neither teleological nor hermeneutic. It takes seriously the obligation of the historian excavate the historical facts with scrupulous rigor, but it is not empiricist or reductionist. It emphasizes the dependence of “history” on the conceptual resources of those who live history and those who tell history, but it is not post-modernist or relativist. Koselleck provides an innovative and constructive way of formulating the problem of historical knowledge.

3. Anglo-American philosophy of history

The traditions of empiricism and Anglo-American philosophy have also devoted occasional attention to history. Philosophers in this tradition have avoided the questions of speculative philosophy of history and have instead raised questions about the logic and epistemology of historical knowledge. Here the guiding question is, “What are the logical and epistemological characteristics of historical knowledge and historical explanation?”.

David Hume’s empiricism cast a dominant key for almost all subsequent Anglo-American philosophy, and this influence extends to the interpretation of human behavior and the human sciences. Hume wrote a widely read history of England (1754–1762). His interpretation of history was based on the assumption of ordinary actions, motives, and causes, with no sympathy for theological interpretations of the past. His philosophical view of history was premised on the idea that explanations of the past can be based on the assumption of a fixed human nature.

Anglo-American interest in the philosophy of history was renewed at mid-twentieth century with the emergence of “analytical philosophy of history.” Representative contributors include Dray (1957, 1964, 1966), Danto (1965), and Gardiner (1952, 1974). This approach involves the application of the methods and tools of analytic philosophy to the special problems that arise in the pursuit of historical explanations and historical knowledge (Gardiner 1952). Here the interest is in the characteristics of historical knowledge: how we know facts about the past, what constitutes a good historical explanation, whether explanations in history require general laws, and whether historical knowledge is underdetermined by available historical evidence. Analytic philosophers emphasized the empirical and scientific status of historical knowledge, and attempted to understand this claim along the lines of the scientific standing of the natural sciences (Nagel 1961).

Philosophers in the analytic tradition are deeply skeptical about the power of non-empirical reason to arrive at substantive conclusions about the structure of the world—including human history. Philosophical reasoning by itself cannot be a source of substantive knowledge about the natural world, or about the sequence of events, actions, states, classes, empires, plagues, and conquests that we call “history.” Rather, substantive knowledge about the world can only derive from empirical investigation and logical analysis of the consequences of these findings. So analytic philosophers of history have had little interest in the large questions about the meaning and structure of history considered above. The practitioners of speculative philosophy of history, on the other hand, are convinced of the power of philosophical thought to reason through to a foundational understanding of history, and would be impatient with a call for a purely empirical and conceptual approach to the subject.

W. H. Walsh’s Philosophy of History (Walsh 1960 [1951]), first published in 1951 and revised in 1960, is an open-minded and well-grounded effort to provide an in-depth presentation of the field that crosses the separation between continental and analytical philosophy. The book attempts to treat both major questions driving much of the philosophy of history: the nature of historical knowledge and the possibility of gaining “metaphysical” knowledge about history. An Oxford philosopher trained in modern philosophy, Walsh was strongly influenced by Collingwood and was well aware of the European idealist tradition of philosophical thinking about history, including Rickert, Dilthey, and Croce, and he treats this tradition in a serious way. He draws the distinction between these traditions along the lines of “critical” and “speculative” philosophy of history. Walsh’s goal for the book is ambitious; he hopes to propose a framework within which the main questions about history can be addressed, including both major traditions. He advances the view that the historian is presented with a number of events, actions, and developments during a period. How do they hang together? The process of cognition through which the historian makes sense of a set of separate historical events Walsh refers to as “colligation” — “to locate a historical event in a larger historical process in terms of which it makes sense” (23).

Walsh fundamentally accepts Collingwood’s most basic premise: that history concerns conscious human action. Collingwood’s slogan was that “history is the science of the mind,” and Walsh appears to accept much of this perspective. So the key intellectual task for the historian, on this approach, is to reconstruct the reasons or motives that actors had at various points in history (and perhaps the conditions that led them to have these reasons and motives). This means that the tools of interpretation of meanings and reasons are crucial for the historian—much as the hermeneutic philosophers in the German tradition had argued.

Walsh suggests that the philosophical content of the philosophy of history falls naturally into two different sorts of inquiry, parallel to the distinction between philosophy of nature and philosophy of science. The first has to do with metaphysical questions about the reality of history as a whole; the latter has to do with the epistemic issues that arise in the pursuit and formulation of knowledge of history. He refers to these approaches as “speculative” and “critical” aspects of the philosophy of history. And he attempts to formulate a view of what the key questions are for each approach. Speculative philosophy of history asks about the meaning and purpose of the historical process. Critical philosophy of history is what we now refer to as “analytic” philosophy; it is the equivalent for history of what the philosophy of science is for nature.

The philosopher of science Carl Hempel stimulated analytic philosophers’ interest in historical knowledge in his essay, “The Function of General Laws in History” (1942). Hempel’s general theory of scientific explanation held that all scientific explanations require subsumption under general laws. Hempel considered historical explanation as an apparent exception to the covering-law model and attempted to show the suitability of the covering-law model even to this special case. He argued that valid historical explanations too must invoke general laws. The covering-law approach to historical explanation was supported by other analytical philosophers of science, including Ernest Nagel (1961). Hempel’s essay provoked a prolonged controversy between supporters who cited generalizations about human behavior as the relevant general laws, and critics who argued that historical explanations are more akin to explanations of individual behavior, based on interpretation that makes the outcome comprehensible. Especially important discussions were offered by William Dray (1957), Michael Scriven (1962), and Alan Donagan (1966). Donagan and others pointed out the difficulty that many social explanations depend on probabilistic regularities rather than universal laws. Others, including Scriven, pointed out the pragmatic features of explanation, suggesting that arguments that fall far short of deductive validity are nonetheless sufficient to “explain” a given historical event in a given context of belief. The most fundamental objections, however, are these: first, that there are virtually no good examples of universal laws in history, whether of human behavior or of historical event succession (Donagan 1966: 143–45); and second, that there are other compelling schemata through which we can understand historical actions and outcomes that do not involve subsumption under general laws (Elster 1989). These include the processes of reasoning through which we understand individual actions—analogous to the methods of verstehen and the interpretation of rational behavior mentioned above (Dray 1966: 131–37); and the processes through which we can trace out chains of causation and specific causal mechanisms without invoking universal laws.

A careful re-reading of these debates over the covering-law model in history suggests that the debate took place largely because of the erroneous assumption of the unity of science and the postulation of the regulative logical similarity of all areas of scientific reasoning to a few clear examples of explanation in a few natural sciences. This approach was a deeply impoverished one, and handicapped from the start in its ability to pose genuinely important questions about the nature of history and historical knowledge. Explanation of human actions and outcomes should not be understood along the lines of an explanation of why radiators burst when the temperature falls below zero degrees centigrade. As Donagan concludes, “It is harmful to overlook the fundamental identity of the social sciences with history, and to mutilate research into human affairs by remodeling the social sciences into deformed likenesses of physics” (1966: 157). The insistence on naturalistic models for social and historical research leads easily to a presumption in favor of the covering-law model of explanation, but this presumption is misleading.

Another issue that provoked significant attention among analytic philosophers of history is the issue of “objectivity.” Is it possible for historical knowledge to objectively represent the past? Or are forms of bias, omission, selection, and interpretation such as to make all historical representations dependent on the perspective of the individual historian? Does the fact that human actions are value-laden make it impossible for the historian to provide a non-value-laden account of those actions?

This topic divides into several different problems, as noted by John Passmore (1966: 76). The most studied of these within the analytic tradition is that of the value-ladenness of social action. Second is the possibility that the historian’s interpretations are themselves value-laden—raising the question of the capacity for objectivity or neutrality of the historian herself. Does the intellectual have the ability to investigate the world without regard to the biases that are built into her political or ethical beliefs, her ideology, or her commitments to a class or a social group? And third is the question of the objectivity of the historical circumstances themselves. Is there a fixed historical reality, independent from later representations of the facts? Or is history intrinsically “constructed,” with no objective reality independent from the ways in which it is constructed? Is there a reality corresponding to the phrase, “the French Revolution,” or is there simply an accumulation of written versions of the French Revolution?

There are solutions to each of these problems that are highly consonant with the philosophical assumptions of the analytic tradition. First, concerning values: There is no fundamental difficulty in reconciling the idea of a researcher with one set of religious values, who nonetheless carefully traces out the religious values of a historical actor possessing radically different values. This research can be done badly, of course; but there is no inherent epistemic barrier that makes it impossible for the researcher to examine the body of statements, behaviors, and contemporary cultural institutions corresponding to the other, and to come to a justified representation of the other. One need not share the values or worldview of a sans-culotte , in order to arrive at a justified appraisal of those values and worldview. This leads us to a resolution of the second issue as well—the possibility of neutrality on the part of the researcher. The set of epistemic values that we impart to scientists and historians include the value of intellectual discipline and a willingness to subject their hypotheses to the test of uncomfortable facts. Once again, review of the history of science and historical writing makes it apparent that this intellectual value has effect. There are plentiful examples of scientists and historians whose conclusions are guided by their interrogation of the evidence rather than their ideological presuppositions. Objectivity in pursuit of truth is itself a value, and one that can be followed.

Finally, on the question of the objectivity of the past: Is there a basis for saying that events or circumstances in the past have objective, fixed characteristics that are independent from our representation of those events? Is there a representation-independent reality underlying the large historical structures to which historians commonly refer (the Roman Empire, the Great Wall of China, the imperial administration of the Qianlong Emperor)? We can work our way carefully through this issue, by recognizing a distinction between the objectivity of past events, actions and circumstances, the objectivity of the contemporary facts that resulted from these past events, and the objectivity and fixity of large historical entities. The past occurred in precisely the way that it did—agents acted, droughts occurred, armies were defeated, new technologies were invented. These occurrences left traces of varying degrees of information richness; and these traces give us a rational basis for arriving at beliefs about the occurrences of the past. So we can offer a non-controversial interpretation of the “objectivity of the past.” However, this objectivity of events and occurrences does not extend very far upward as we consider more abstract historical events: the creation of the Greek city-state, the invention of Enlightenment rationality, the Taiping Rebellion. In each of these instances the noun’s referent is an interpretive construction by historical actors and historians, and one that may be undone by future historians. To refer to the “Taiping Rebellion” requires an act of synthesis of a large number of historical facts, along with an interpretive story that draws these facts together in this way rather than that way. The underlying facts of behavior, and their historical traces, remain; but the knitting-together of these facts into a large historical event does not constitute an objective historical entity. Consider research in the past twenty years that questions the existence of the “Industrial Revolution.” In this debate, the same set of historical facts were first constructed into an abrupt episode of qualitative change in technology and output in Western Europe; under the more recent interpretation, these changes were more gradual and less correctly characterized as a “revolution” (O’Brien and Keyder 1978). Or consider Arthur Waldron’s sustained and detailed argument to the effect that there was no “Great Wall of China,” as that structure is usually conceptualized (1990).

A third important set of issues that received attention from analytic philosophers concerned the role of causal ascriptions in historical explanations. What is involved in saying that “The American Civil War was caused by economic conflict between the North and the South”? Does causal ascription require identifying an underlying causal regularity—for example, “periods of rapid inflation cause political instability”? Is causation established by discovering a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Can we identify causal connections among historical events by tracing a series of causal mechanisms linking one to the next? This topic raises the related problem of determinism in history: are certain events inevitable in the circumstances? Was the fall of the Roman Empire inevitable, given the configuration of military and material circumstances prior to the crucial events?

Analytic philosophers of history most commonly approached these issues on the basis of a theory of causation drawn from positivist philosophy of science. This theory is ultimately grounded in Humean assumptions about causation: that causation is nothing but constant conjunction. So analytic philosophers were drawn to the covering-law model of explanation, because it appeared to provide a basis for asserting historical causation. As noted above, this approach to causal explanation is fatally flawed in the social sciences, because universal causal regularities among social phenomena are unavailable. So it is necessary either to arrive at other interpretations of causality or to abandon the language of causality. A second approach was to define causes in terms of a set of causally relevant conditions for the occurrence of the event—for example, necessary and/or sufficient conditions, or a set of conditions that enhance or reduce the likelihood of the event. This approach found support in “ordinary language” philosophy and in analysis of the use of causal language in such contexts as the courtroom (Hart and Honoré 1959). Counterfactual reasoning is an important element of discovery of a set of necessary and/or sufficient conditions; to say that \(C\) was necessary for the occurrence of \(E\) requires that we provide evidence that \(E\) would not have occurred if \(C\) were not present (Mackie 1965, 1974). And it is evident that there are causal circumstances in which no single factor is necessary for the occurrence of the effect; the outcome may be overdetermined by multiple independent factors.

The convergence of reasons and causes in historical processes is helpful in this context, because historical causes are frequently the effect of deliberate human action (Davidson 1963). So specifying the reason for the action is simultaneously identifying a part of the cause of the consequences of the action. It is often justifiable to identify a concrete action as the cause of a particular event (a circumstance that was sufficient in the existing circumstances to bring about the outcome), and it is feasible to provide a convincing interpretation of the reasons that led the actor to carry out the action.

What analytic philosophers of the 1960s did not come to, but what is crucial for current understanding of historical causality, is the feasibility of tracing causal mechanisms through a complex series of events (causal realism). Historical narratives often take the form of an account of a series of events, each of which was a causal condition or trigger for later events. Subsequent research in the philosophy of the social sciences has provided substantial support for historical explanations that depend on tracing a series of causal mechanisms (Little 2018; Hedström and Swedberg 1998).

English-speaking philosophy of history shifted significantly in the 1970s, beginning with the publication of Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) and Louis Mink’s writings of the same period (1966; Mink et al. 1987). The so-called “linguistic turn” that marked many areas of philosophy and literature also influenced the philosophy of history. Whereas analytic philosophy of history had emphasized scientific analogies for historical knowledge and advanced the goals of verifiability and generalizability in historical knowledge, English-speaking philosophers in the 1970s and 1980s were increasingly influenced by hermeneutic philosophy, post-modernism, and French literary theory (Rorty 1979). These philosophers emphasized the rhetoric of historical writing, the non-reducibility of historical narrative to a sequence of “facts”, and the degree of construction that is involved in historical representation. Affinities with literature and anthropology came to eclipse examples from the natural sciences as guides for representing historical knowledge and historical understanding. The richness and texture of the historical narrative came in for greater attention than the attempt to provide causal explanations of historical outcomes. Frank Ankersmit captured many of these themes in his treatment of historical narrative (1995; Ankersmit and Kellner 1995); see also Berkhofer (1995).

This “new” philosophy of history is distinguished from analytic philosophy of history in several important respects. It emphasizes historical narrative rather than historical causation. It is intellectually closer to the hermeneutic tradition than to the positivism that underlay the analytic philosophy of history of the 1960s. It highlights features of subjectivity and multiple interpretation over those of objectivity, truth, and correspondence to the facts. Another important strand in this approach to the philosophy of history is a clear theoretical preference for the historicist rather than the universalist position on the status of human nature—Herder rather than Vico. The prevalent perspective holds that human consciousness is itself a historical product, and that it is an important part of the historian’s work to piece together the mentality and assumptions of actors in the past (Pompa 1990). Significantly, contemporary historians such as Robert Darnton have turned to the tools of ethnography to permit this sort of discovery (1984).

Another important strand of thinking within analytic philosophy has focused attention on historical ontology (Hacking 2002, Little 2010). The topic of historical ontology is important, both for philosophers and for practicing historians. Ontology has to do with the question, what kinds of things do we need to postulate in a given realm? Historical ontology poses this question with regard to the realities of the past. Should large constructs like ‘revolution’, ‘market society’, ‘fascism’, or ‘Protestant religious identity’ be included in our ontology as real things? Or should we treat these ideas in a purely nominalistic way, treating them as convenient ways of aggregating complex patterns of social action and knowledge by large numbers of social actors in a time and place? Further, how should we think about the relationship between instances and categories in the realm of history, for example, the relation between the French, Chinese, or Russian Revolutions and the general category of ‘revolution’? Are there social kinds that recur in history, or is each historical formation unique in important ways? These are all questions of ontology, and the answers we give to them will have important consequences for how we conceptualize and explain the past.

When historians discuss methodological issues in their research they more commonly refer to “historiography” than to “philosophy of history.” What is the relation between these bodies of thought about the writing of history? We should begin by asking the basic question: what is historiography? In its most general sense, the term refers to the study of historians’ methods and practices. Any intellectual or creative practice is guided by a set of standards and heuristics about how to proceed, and “experts” evaluate the performances of practitioners based on their judgments of how well the practitioner meets the standards. So one task we always have in considering an expert activity is to attempt to identify these standards and criteria of good performance. This is true for theatre and literature, and it is true for writing history. Historiography is at least in part the effort to do this work for a particular body of historical writing. (Several handbooks contain a wealth of recent writings on various aspects of historiography; Tucker 2009, Bentley 1997, Breisach 2007. Important and innovative contributions to understanding the intellectual tasks of the historian include Bloch 1953 and Paul 2015.)

Historians normally make truth claims, and they ask us to accept those claims based on the reasoning they present. So a major aspect of the study of historiography has to do with defining the ideas of evidence, rigor, and standards of reasoning for historical inquiry. We presume that historians want to discover empirically supported truths about the past, and we presume that they want to offer inferences and interpretations that are somehow regulated by standards of scientific rationality. (Simon Schama challenges some of these ideas in Dead Certainties (Schama 1991).) So the apprentice practitioner seeks to gain knowledge of the practices of his/her elders in the profession: what counts as a compelling argument, how to assess a body of archival evidence, how to offer or criticize an interpretation of complex events that necessarily exceeds the available evidence. The historiographer has a related task: he/she would like to be able to codify the main methods and standards of one historical school or another.

There are other desiderata governing a good historical work, and these criteria may change from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. Discerning the historian’s goals is crucial to deciding how well he or she succeeds. So discovering these stylistic and aesthetic standards that guide the historian’s work is itself an important task for historiography. This means that the student of historiography will naturally be interested in the conventions of historical writing and rhetoric that are characteristic of a given period or school.

A full historiographic assessment of a given historian might include questions like these: What methods of discovery does he/she use? What rhetorical and persuasive goals does he/she pursue? What models of explanation? What paradigm of presentation? What standards of style and rhetoric? What interpretive assumptions?

A historical school might be defined as a group of interrelated historians who share a significant number of specific assumptions about evidence, explanation, and narrative. The Annales school, established by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the 1920s, represented a distinctive and fertile approach to social history (Burguière 2009), united by shared assumptions about both topics and intellectual approaches to the past. Historiography becomes itself historical when we recognize that frameworks of assumptions about historical knowledge and reasoning change over time. On this assumption, the history of historical thinking and writing is itself an important subject. How did historians of various periods in human history conduct their study and presentation of history? Under this rubric we find books on the historiography of the ancient Greeks; Renaissance historiography; or the historiography of German romanticism. Arnaldo Momigliano’s writings on the ancient historians fall in this category (Momigliano 1990). In a nutshell, Momigliano is looking at the several traditions of ancient history-writing as a set of normative practices that can be dissected and understood in their specificity and their cultural contexts.

A second primary use of the concept of historiography is more present-oriented and methodological. It involves the study and analysis of historical methods of research, inquiry, inference, and presentation used by more-or-less contemporary historians. How do contemporary historians go about their tasks of understanding the past? Here we can reflect upon the historiographical challenges that confronted Philip Huang as he investigated the Chinese peasant economy in the 1920s and 1930s (Huang 1990), or the historiographical issues raised in Robert Darnton’s telling of a peculiar and trivial event, the Great Cat Massacre by printers’ apprentices in Paris in the 1730s (Darnton 1984). Sometimes these issues have to do with the scarcity or bias in the available bodies of historical records (for example, the fact that much of what Huang refers to about the village economy of North China was gathered by the research teams of the occupying Japanese army). Sometimes they have to do with the difficulty of interpreting historical sources (for example, the unavoidable necessity Darnton faced of providing meaningful interpretation of a range of documented actions that appear fundamentally irrational).

An important question that arises in recent historiography is that of the status of the notion of “global history.” One important reason for thinking globally as an historian is the fact that the history discipline—since the Greeks—has tended to be Eurocentric in its choice of topics, framing assumptions, and methods. Economic and political history, for example, often privileges the industrial revolution in England and the creation of the modern bureaucratic state in France, Britain, and Germany, as being exemplars of “modern” development in economics and politics. This has led to a tendency to look at other countries’ development as non-standard or stunted. So global history is, in part, a framework within which the historian avoids privileging one regional center as primary and others as secondary or peripheral. Bin Wong makes this point in China Transformed (Wong 1997).

Second is the related fact that when Western historical thinkers—for example, Hegel, Malthus, Montesquieu—have turned their attention to Asia, they have often engaged in a high degree of stereotyping without much factual historical knowledge. The ideas of Oriental despotism, Asian overpopulation, and Chinese stagnation have encouraged a cartoonish replacement of the intricate and diverse processes of development of different parts of Asia by a single-dimensional and reductive set of simplifying frameworks of thought. This is one of the points of Edward Said’s critique of orientalism (Said 1978). So doing “global” history means paying rigorous attention to the specificities of social, political, and cultural arrangements in other parts of the world besides Europe.

So a historiography that takes global diversity seriously should be expected to be more agnostic about patterns of development, and more open to discovery of surprising patterns, twists, and variations in the experiences of India, China, Indochina, the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Variation and complexity are what we should expect, not stereotyped simplicity. Clifford Geertz’s historical reconstruction of the “theatre state” of Bali is a case in point—he uncovers a complex system of governance, symbol, value, and hierarchy that represents a substantially different structure of politics than the models derived from the emergence of bureaucratic states in early modern Europe (Geertz 1980). A global history needs to free itself from Eurocentrism.

This step away from Eurocentrism in outlook should also be accompanied by a broadening of the geographical range of what is historically interesting. So a global history ought to be global and trans-national in its selection of topics—even while recognizing the fact that all historical research is selective. A globally oriented historian will recognize that the political systems of classical India are as interesting and complex as the organization of the Roman Republic.

An important current underlying much work in global history is the reality of colonialism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the equally important reality of anti-colonial struggles and nation building in the 1960s and 1970s. “The world” was important in the early-modern capitals of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium because those nations exerted colonial rule in various parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. So there was a specific interest in gaining certain kinds of knowledge about those societies—in order to better govern them and exploit them. And post-colonial states had a symmetrical interest in supporting global historiography in their own universities and knowledge systems, in order to better understand and better critique the forming relations of the past.

A final way in which history needs to become global is to incorporate the perspectives and historical traditions of historians in non-western countries into the mainstream of discussion of major world developments. Indian and Chinese historians have their own intellectual traditions in conducting historical research and explanation; a global history is one that pays attention to the insights and arguments of these traditions. So global historiography has to do with a broadened definition of the arena of historical change to include Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas; a recognition of the complexity and sophistication of institutions and systems in many parts of the world; a recognition of the trans-national interrelatedness that has existed among continents for at least four centuries; and a recognition of the complexity and distinctiveness of different national traditions of historiography

Dominic Sachsenmaier provides a significant recent discussion of some of these issues (Sachsenmaier 2011). Sachsenmaier devotes much of his attention to the last point mentioned here, the “multiple global perspectives” point. He wants to take this idea seriously and try to discover some of the implications of different national traditions of academic historiography. He writes, “It will become quite clear that in European societies the question of historiographical traditions tended to be answered in ways that were profoundly different from most academic communities in other parts of the world” (17).

As should be clear from these remarks, there is a degree of overlap between historiography and the philosophy of history in the fact that both are concerned with identifying and evaluating the standards of reasoning that are used in various historical traditions. That said, historiography is generally more descriptive and less evaluative than the philosophy of history. And it is more concerned with the specifics of research and writing than is the philosophy of history.

Every period presents challenges for the historian, and every period raises problems for historiography and the philosophy of history. The twentieth century is exceptional, however, even by this standard. Events of truly global significance occurred from beginning to end. War, totalitarianism, genocide, mass starvation, ideologies of murder and extermination, and states that dominated their populations with unprecedented violence all transpired during the century. The Holocaust (Snyder 2010, 2015), the Holodomor (Applebaum 2017), the Gulag (Applebaum 2003), and the cultural and ideological premises of the Nazi regime (Rabinbach et al 2020) have all presented historians with major new challenges of research, framing, and understanding. How should historians seek to come to grips with these complex and horrifying circumstances? These occurrences were highly complex and extended and often hidden: many thousands of active participants, many groups and populations, millions of victims, conflicting purposes and goals, new organizations and institutions, numerous ideologies. Moreover, through too many of these novelties is woven the theme of evil – deliberate destruction, degradation, and murder of masses of innocent human beings. The historian of virtually any aspect of the twentieth century is confronted with great problems of frame-setting, explanatory purpose, and moral reflection.

These facts about the twentieth century raise problems for the philosophy of history for several reasons. They challenge historians to consider the depth, detail, and human experience that the historian must convey of the events and experiences that war, genocide, and totalitarianism imposed on millions of people. The discovery and truthful documentation of the extent and lived experience of these crimes is a painful but crucial necessity. Second, historians are forced to reflect on the assumptions they bring to their research and interpretations – assumptions about geography, political causation, individual motivation, and behavior resulting in these crimes. Third, historians must reconsider and sharpen their hypotheses about causation of these vast and extended crimes against humanity. Fourth, it appears inescapable that historians have a human responsibility to contribute to worldwide changes in culture, memory, and politics in ways that make genocide and totalitarian oppression less likely in the future.

The ways in which historians have sought to understand the Holocaust have undergone important historical realignment in the past twenty years. Raul Hilberg (1961) and Lucy Dawidowicz (1975) captured much of the postwar historical consensus about the Holocaust. However, recent historians have offered new ways of thinking about the Nazi plan of extermination. Timothy Snyder (2010, 2015) argues that the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews has been importantly misunderstood—too centered on Germany, when the majority of genocide and murder occurred further east, in the lands that he calls the “bloodlands” of central Europe (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, the Soviet Union); largely focused on extermination camps, whereas most killing of Jews occurred near the cities and villages where they lived, and most commonly by gunfire; insufficiently attentive to the relationship between extermination of people and destruction of the institutions of state in subject countries; and without sufficient attention to Hitler’s own worldview, within which the Nazi war of extermination against Europe’s Jews was framed. Alexander Prusin (2010) conceptualizes the topic of mass murder in the period 1933–1945 in much the same geographical terms. Like Snyder, Prusin defines his subject matter as a region rather than a nation or collection of nations. The national borders that exist within the region are of less importance in his account than the facts of ethnic, religious, and community disparities that are evident across the region. Thus both historians argue that we need to understand the geography of the Holocaust differently. Snyder believes that these attempts at refocusing the way we understand the Holocaust lead to a new assessment: bad as we thought the Holocaust was, it was much, much worse.

Another strand of re-thinking that has occurred in the study of the Holocaust concerns a renewed focus on the motivations of the ordinary people who participated in the machinery of mass murder. A major field of research into ordinary behavior during the Holocaust was made possible by the availability of investigative files concerning the actions of a Hamburg police unit that was assigned special duties as “Order Police” in Poland in 1940. These duties amounted to collecting and massacring large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. Christopher Browning (1992) and Daniel Goldhagen (1996) made extensive use of investigatory files and testimonies of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. Both books came to shocking conclusions: very ordinary, middle-aged, apolitical men of the police unit picked up the work of murder and extermination with zeal and efficiency. They were not coerced, they were not indoctrinated, and they were not deranged; and yet they turned to the work of mass murder with enthusiasm. A small percentage of the men of the unit declined the shooting assignments, but the great majority did not. Another important example of research on ordinary people committing mass murder is Jan Gross’s (2001) case study of a single massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation, but not ordered or directed by the German occupation. Instead, this was a local, indigenous action by non-Jewish residents in the town who gathered up their Jewish neighbors and then murdered large numbers of them. Gross’s account has stimulated much debate, but Anna Bikont (2015) validates almost every detail of Gross’s original narrative.

As a different example, consider now the history of the Gulag in the Soviet Union. Anne Applebaum (2003) provides a detailed and honest history of the Gulag and its role in maintaining Soviet dictatorship. Stalin’s dictatorship depended on a leader, a party, and a set of institutions that worked to terrorize and repress the population of the USSR. The NKVD (the system of internal security police that enforced Stalin’s repression), a justice system that was embodied in the Moscow Show Trials of 1936–38, and especially the system of forced labor and prison camps that came to be known as the Gulag constituted the machinery of repression through which a population of several hundred million people were controlled, imprisoned, and repressed. Further, like the Nazi regime, Stalin used the slave labor of the camps to contribute to the economic output of the Soviet economy. Applebaum estimates that roughly two million prisoners inhabited several thousand camps of the Gulag at a time in the 1940s, and that as many as 18 million people had passed through the camps by 1953 (Applebaum 2003: 13). The economic role of the Gulag was considerable; significant portions of Soviet-era mining, logging, and manufacturing took place within the forced labor camps of the Gulag (13). Applebaum makes a crucial and important point about historical knowledge in her history of the Gulag: the inherent incompleteness of historical understanding and the mechanisms of overlooking and forgetting that get in the way of historical honesty. The public outside the USSR did not want to know about these realities. Applebaum notes that public knowledge of the camps in the West was available, but was de-dramatized and treated as a fairly minor part of the reality of the USSR. The reality—that the USSR embodied and depended upon a massive set of concentrations camps where millions of people were enslaved and sometimes killed—was never a major part of the Western conception of the USSR. She comments, "far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror" (18). Wide knowledge in the West of the scope and specific human catastrophe of the Gulag was first made available by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1974).

Similar references could be offered concerning Stalin’s war on the kulaks in the Ukraine (1930s), mass starvation in China (1958–61), the widespread violence of the Cultural Revolution in China (1966–1976), and the use of violence in the American South to enforce Jim Crow-era race relations (1930s–1960s). In each case terrible things took place on a wide scale, and barriers exist that make it difficult for historians and the public to come to know the details of these periods.

The twentieth century poses one additional challenge for the historian because it falls within the human memories of the living generation of historians grappling with its intricacies. When Tony Judt writes (2006) about the fall of Ceaușescu in Romania in 1989, or Timothy Snyder (2010) writes about the murderous actions of German order police in Ukraine in 1940, or Marc Bloch (1949) writes about the “strange defeat” of France in 1940, they are writing about events for which they themselves, or their parents, or Poles and Ukrainian Jews with whom they can interact, have direct lived experiences and memories. Timothy Snyder’s style of historical writing suggests that the nearness in time of the killings in the bloodlands both supports and warrants an especially personal and individual approach; thus Snyder’s use of many individual stories of victims of the killings of peasants, Jews, and other human victims of the killing machines of Hitler and Stalin suggests that he believes it is important for the historian to make an effort to convey the individual meanings of these events affecting millions of people. How does this accessibility of the recent past affect the problems facing the historian? Does it influence the ways in which historians select events, causes, and actions as “crucial”? Does this experiential access through living memory provide a more secure form of historical evidence than other sources available to the historian? Does it give rise to an experiential content and detail to historical writing that solve an interpretive problem for the reader – for example, how to put oneself in the position of a Ukrainian peasant slowly starving to death? Did the stories told in the Judt household in London in 1942 about beloved cousins then facing deadly threats in Brussels shape the historical consciousness of the adult historian (Judt and Snyder 2012)? Did Marc Bloch’s own experience as a French army officer in defeat at Dunkirk influence the way that he understood war and violence? Access to individuals who lived through the Holodomor or the Spanish Civil War is of course valuable historical evidence. Here too, however, Marc Bloch has important insights, for Bloch specifically challenges the idea that participants have an inherently more reliable or complete form of knowledge than more temporally distant historians (1953: chapter II). Memories and personal accounts are valuable for the historian, but equally, historians have access to other forms of historical evidence (archaeological, archival, government records, …) which may be comparably important and epistemically secure in attempting to piece together the complex history of Stalin’s war on the Ukrainian peasantry.

These topics in twentieth-century history create an important reminder for historians and for philosophers: a truthful understanding of inhuman atrocity is deeply important for humanity, and it is difficult to attain. We learn from Judt, Snyder, and Applebaum that there are powerful mechanisms of deception and forgetting that stand in the way of an honest accounting of these periods of the recent human past. Discovering and telling the truth about our past is the highest and most important moral imperative that history conveys.

As the previous section suggests, there is an ethical dimension involved in the quest for historical knowledge. Historians have obligations of truthfulness and objectivity; peoples have obligations of honest recognition; and nations have obligations of memory and reconciliation.

Historians themselves have obligations of truthfulness and objectivity in the accounts they provide of the past. This topic has occupied much of the discussion of history and ethics in the past few years (Fay 2004). Much of this discussion has centered on the intellectual virtues to which historians need to aspire, such as truthfulness, objectivity, and persistence (Creyghton et al 2016, Paul 2015). Perhaps more generally, we might argue that historians have an obligation to deliberately and actively include those aspects of the past for further research that are the most morally troublesome—for example, the origins and experience of slavery during the eighteenth century in the American South, or the role of the Gulag in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. We may reasonably fault the historian of the American South in the nineteenth century who confines her investigation to the economics of the cotton industry without examining the role of slavery in that industry, or the historian of the USSR who studies the institutions of engineering research in the 1950s while ignoring the fact of forced labor camps. Historians have an obligation to squarely confront the hard truths of their subject matter.

There is a broader ethical question to ask about history that goes beyond the professional ethics of the historian to the responsibilities of the public in relation to its own history. The facts of genocide and other crimes against humanity make it clear that there are moral reasons for believing that all of humanity has a moral responsibility to attempt to discover our past with honesty and exactness. In particular, the facts of past horrific actions (genocide, mass repression, slavery, suppression of ethnic minorities, dictatorship) create a moral responsibility for historians and the public alike to uncover the details, causes, and consequences of those actions.

The thread of honesty and truthfulness runs through all of these ethical issues. Tony Judt (1992) argues that a people or nation at a point in time have a collective responsibility to face the facts of its own history honestly and without mythology. Judt’s points can be distilled into a few key ideas. Knowledge of the past matters in the present; being truthful about the past is a key responsibility for all of us. Standing in the way of honest recognition is the fact that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments. The result is "myth-making", according to Judt. Anna Wylegala (2017) illustrates the moral importance and complexity of this kind of investigation with regard to collective memory in post-1991 Ukraine. The history of the twentieth century has shown itself to be especially prone to myth-making, whether about resistance to Nazi occupation or refusal to collaborate with Soviet-installed regimes in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Judt (1992) argues that a very pervasive process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in post-war Europe. But, Judt argues, bad myths give rise eventually to bad collective behavior—more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future. Judt expresses throughout his work a credo of truth-telling about the past: we have a weighty obligation to discover, represent, and understand the circumstances of our past, even when those facts are deeply unpalatable. Myth-making about the past is not only bad history and bad politics, it is morally deficient.

This observation brings us to a final way in which moral questions arise in the context of honest history. The crimes of the past have consequences in the present. The facts of trans-Atlantic slavery continue to have consequences for millions of descendants of the men and women who were transported from Africa to the Americas; the facts of the Rwandan genocide have consequences for the living victims of these mass killings and their kin; and the fact of colonial exploitation of the Congo or southern Africa has consequences for the current poverty of much of Africa. Does knowledge of the crimes of the past create for the current generation an obligation of engagement in contributing actively to healing those wounds in the present and preventing their recurrence in the future? Does “truth and reconciliation” require more than simply recognizing ugly truths about the past? Does it require that we act differently, individually and collectively? It is of course a tragic and immutable reality of the human condition that the past cannot be changed; the murdered cannot be unmurdered, and the primary perpetrators of horrific crimes within a few generations are certainly beyond the reach of justice. The future is deeply contingent, while the past is fixed and unchangeable. But does this immutability imply that the present generation has no obligations created by past crimes? Or rather, does knowing the truth about our past create for us the obligation to learn from those tragic human actions how to avoid such crimes in the future? Does honest knowledge of the human crimes of the past bring with it an obligation to strive in good faith to address the consequences of those crimes in the present? Finally, can knowledge of history help us to become more empathetic, more just, and more farsighted in our dealings with each other in the grand affairs that make up future history? One would hope so; and perhaps this is the most pressing moral obligation of all that is created by our recognition of our own historicity.

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  • Scriven, Michael, 1962. “Explanations, Predictions, and Laws”, in Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Volume 3), H. Feigl and G. Maxwell (eds.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 170–230/
  • Sherratt, Yvonne, 2006. Continental philosophy of social science: Hermeneutics, genealogy, critical theory , Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Skinner, G. William, 1977. “Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China”, in In The City in Late Imperial China , G. W. Skinner (ed.), Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 211–249.
  • Smith, Adam, 1776 [1976]. An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations , R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (eds.), Glasgow edition of the works and correspondence of Adam Smith , Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
  • Snyder, Timothy, 2010. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin , New York: Basic Books.
  • –––, 2015. Black Earth: The Holocaust as history and warning , New York: Tim Duggan Books.
  • Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich, 1974. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation , New York: Harper & Row.
  • Spengler, Oswald, and Charles Francis Atkinson, 1934. The decline of the west , New York: A.A. Knopf.
  • Taylor, Charles, 1975. Hegel , Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1985. “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man”, in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 , C. Taylor (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15–57.
  • Toynbee, Arnold Joseph, 1934. A study of history , London: Oxford University Press.
  • Tucker, Aviezer (ed.), 2009. A companion to the philosophy of history and historiography , Chichester, U.K., Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Vico, Giambattista, 1725. The first new science , L. Pompa (ed.), Cambridge texts in the history of political thought , Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
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  • Walsh, William Henry, 1960 [1951]. Philosophy of history: An introduction, New York: Harper, 1951.
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  • White, Hayden V., 1973. Metahistory: The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe , Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Wittfogel, Karl, 1935. “The Stages of Development in Chinese Economic and Social History”, in The Asiatic Mode of Production: Science and Politics , A. M. Bailey and J. R. Llobera (ed.), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 113–40.
  • Wong, R. Bin, 1997. China transformed: Historical change and the limits of European experience , Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Wylegala, Anna, 2017. “Managing the Difficult Past: Ukrainian Collective Memory and Public Debates on History”, Nationalities Papers , 45(5): 780–97.
  • Zahle Julie and Finn Collin, eds., 2014. Individualism, holism, explanation and emergence , Dordrecht, London, New York: Springer.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • History and Theory , at historyandtheory.org.
  • UnderstandingSociety , maintained by Daniel Little (University of Michigan-Dearborn).

Berlin, Isaiah | Dilthey, Wilhelm | Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich | Hempel, Carl | Herder, Johann Gottfried von | hermeneutics | -->historiography --> | Ricoeur, Paul | Vico, Giambattista


Acknowledgement is offered to Christopher Bouton for valuable feedback on section 2.5.

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Little < delittle @ umd . umich . edu >

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Preparing for Philosophy at University: Reading, Personal Statement and Oxbridge Interview Questions

Philosophy university applications.

Philosophy is an absolutely fascinating subject to explore at university. It allows for the study of the evolution of human thought, the basis of knowledge and the theory that underpins our political structures. Its relevance is applicable to topical societal debates from the definition of gender, to what constitutes personhood, encouraging passionate discussion. Philosophy requires rigorous analytical thought that develops your ability to root out underlying assumptions and deconstruct arguments developing skills useful for many professions.

Reading Around Philosophy - How and Why

If you are aiming to apply for the best UK Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, it is crucial that reading makes up a large portion of your preparation for the application process. Analysis of your reading should be incorporated throughout your philosophy personal statement, and be used as evidence in your potential Oxbridge philosophy interviews.

Your philosophy personal statement should incorporate an engaging overview of your reading, and your thoughts and opinion on the texts. Make sure you don’t include an exhaustive list of texts without analysis (name-dropping), and on the other side, refrain from turning your personal statement into an essay on texts you have read. Keep some texts up your sleeve to bring up at interview (if applicable) rather than mentioning everything you have read in your personal statement

Make notes as you read of anything you find interesting as well as a summary of each book; this will help you to remember its contents and save you loads of time when you come writing your personal statement, preparing for interview etc.

Discuss your reading with a parent or friend; this can help you clarify what you thought of it and ensure that you can speak confidently about it

Philosophy Reading Suggestions - What to Read

The Cambridge Philosophy reading list is a great place to start. You could also try Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics and Volker Halbach’s The Logic Manual . Try working through the first few chapters of Halbach if you have the time as this will expose you to formal logic and would certainly impress an interviewer.

Other Recommended Reading for Philosophy

Classic philosophy texts.

The classic text suggested is Simon Blackburn’s Think . It explores the central themes of philosophical study in an accessible format

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell is a more academic text detailing the history of philosophical thought. It follows closely from the Oxford philosophy courses emphasis on the seminal philosophical texts

Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton is a good introduction to the subject for those that haven’t studied it previously. It should highlight what areas of philosophy might especially interest you

history and philosophy personal statement

Other Interesting Books

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics offers an accessible introduction to practical ethics which explores complex social problems from euthanasia to discrimination

Simone De Beauvoir The Second Sex considers human history through a feminist lens

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism offers a short explanation of existentialist thought that offers a starting point for critical debate of modern philosophy

Bell Hooks: Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism fascinatingly examines how prejudice operates at the intersection of race and sex for Black Women

Beyond the Library: Non-Text Preparation Suggestions for University Philosophy

Remember to look beyond the literary in your preparation! Your exploration into philosophy can take many forms – seek out videos, educational podcasts, lectures, essay competitions – anything that caters to your interests and specialities.

Events/ Talks

We recommend looking up talks in your area (or online) as they can be a hugely beneficial way of delving into subject areas beyond your syllabus and igniting your interests. In London, The New College of Humanities often hosts engaging talks by AC Grayling. Also check out Gresham College’s lectures: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch/?subcat=philosophy .

Podcasts/YouTube Videos

AC Grayling - What We Now Know about Science, History and the Mind (Youtube)

Noam Chomsky – Cambridge Union Address (Youtube)

In Our Time: Philosophy

The Partially Examined Life

Watching debates on YouTube can be very helpful - try Sam Harris who also has a fantastic podcast ( https://samharris.org/podcast/ ). Aim to adopt his rational, logical style of arguing

Philosophy Personal Statement

Topical Issues in Philosophy

These are a few example key topics and debates philosophers are thinking about at the moment. Undertake your own research and try to add to the list!:

Feminist Philosophy – questions such as what is gender? Should surrogacy be treated as economic labour?

Artificial Intelligence – considers how AI effects our conceptions of knowledge, consciousness and free will

Euthanasia – practical ethics incorporates moral discussion around euthanasia

Some Philosophers You Might Want to Be Aware Of

Descartes – heralded as the first modern philosopher, his theory of metaphysics is essential to the study of philosophy

John Stuart Mill – developed the ethical theory of Utilitarianism and contributed significantly to political theory

Immanuel Kant – his works span epistemology, ethics and metaphysics. Modern philosophy is sometimes referred to as Post-Kantian revealing how expansive his influence has been

What to Include in Your Philosophy Personal Statement

The personal statement is just one of the many things that universities look at, alongside all the other elements of your application profile. A great personal statement won’t get you in, but a bad one can certainly count you out. It is important to give the tutors a springboard into conversation at interview if applying for Oxbridge.

Write in simple, straightforward, everyday English. Express yourself as succinctly as possible using short sentences. Do not get weighed down in jargon or complicated terminology – us it properly if you do

We recommend ~500 words, 3/4 paragraphs and 1 very short paragraph on extracurriculars at the end, mostly relating to the course. The function of this paragraph is to show that you are a real person with interests outside academia. It is not a factor in their assessment of you as a prospective applicant. Use it as an opportunity to add colour to you as an individual, rather than to brag about getting sports colours or being a prefect; make it quirky, interesting and unique

In the subject paragraphs, do not try to tell any form of grand narrative about either you or the subject e.g. “the first moment I realised I wanted to study Philosophy was” or even “Philosophy is the most important subject because”; these come across as pompous and insincere

It is a common misconception that you need to include lots of books in your personal statement: only include them if you have read them and the specific thing mentioned is highly relevant to your point, or it had a large bearing on your interest in the subject. It is much better to simply write about the ideas, concepts and theories that have captured your attention through your work at school and how you’ve explored them in your own reading

Ensure that you offer your own opinion on the things you’ve read. If you disagree with a philosopher then say so, but remember: the tutor might have spent his/her entire career studying that particular philosopher and might think she is the best thing since sliced bread so support your disagreement rationally and be prepared to justify in more detail at interview

Oxbridge Philosophy Interview Questions

What is an Oxbridge Philosophy interview like?

This is often regarded as the most daunting element of the whole Oxbridge admissions process, but if approached in the right way this can be a (relatively) stress free and even possibly enjoyable experience(!) Interviews may include discussion of:

Your application (personal statement, any submitted work). You might be asked to expand on things mentioned in your personal statement, so make sure you feel comfortable talking about everything you’ve said in more depth

A recent book you have enjoyed

Topical issues in philosophy

Hypothetical scenarios: One Oxford Philosophy applicant (Applying for PPE), was asked to discuss the possibility of a machine thinking - the tutors tried to think of scenarios where the student’s views were inconsistent and probe into their reasoning process

Logical problems: You may be given a logical problem to consider to examine the process of your thinking. How did you get to your answer? What assumptions have you made? Where might there be ambiguities?

Ethical questions e.g. If we had an obligation not to kill animals, would we also have an obligation to intervene to prevent a predator attacking its prey?

Abstract/ theoretical questions e.g. “Why do we care about you having a stable identity that continues over time?”

Thought experiments

Questions on a passage from a text

This list is not exhaustive – every interview is different, and may include a myriad of different formats of question.

A Few Example Oxbridge Philosophy Interview Questions to Practice

If you lost a leg, would you be the same person?

To what extent are you determined by your DNA, your upbringing, your cultural norms?

‘It may be bad taste to commit genocide in a computer game, but it is no more wrong than it would be right to alleviate world poverty in a computer game.’ Do you agree?

How you prepare is entirely up to you – all you can do is explore, read, and practise verbalising responses to example questions as much as possible in the lead-up! Find things you enjoy, demonstrate your enthusiasm and genuine interest in the subject at interview, and you’ll be on the right track for success.

By Elspeth (U2 Philosophy and Theology Tutor - Trinity College, Oxford Graduate)

Are You Applying For Philosophy as a Single Honours or Joint Honours Course at Oxbridge?

Oxbridge philosophy tutoring.

U2 offers ad hoc sessions as well as wider Oxbridge Mentoring programmes ( book a free consultation  to discuss options). We have a great team of Oxbridge-educated Philosophy tutors including 1st Class, Master’s and PhD level graduates.

The Process:

1) We suggest a Philosophy graduate as a tutor and send their full CV for review. Our tutors are deeply familiar with the admissions process to study Philosophy at the University of Oxford and Cambridge, and are well-placed to guide you through personal statement curation, the entrance exam (if applicable) and interview process. We have tutors from the straight Cambridge Philosophy course, as well as Joint Honours tutors in French and Philosophy, PPE, PPL etc.

2) We typically suggest beginning with a 1.5 hour informal assessment/ taster session , where the tutor will informally assess the student’s current performance level at for application, including test and interview. Following this, we issue a report with feedback, and structure a plan to best prepare.

3) U2’s approach for regular Philosophy application sessions: The main focus of tutorial sessions will be to explore material that can be discussed in the personal statement and at interview. Tutors ensure each student refines their interests within Philosophy, and is exposed to a range of approaches and new concepts, guiding students in their reading and wider subject exploration. Together, we build a case for the student, exploring their special interests in the subject and honing skills for the admissions test if applicable.

Frequency of sessions can be decided between student and tutor. Students can take either ad hoc sessions, or we structure a full programme for preparation, which may include further co-curricular opportunities such as our research projects , our Philosophy Summer School and Oxbridge mock interview days. Oxbridge tutoring presents a wonderful opportunity to learn from and be inspired by some extraordinary academic minds. We would be delighted to support you through what can be a challenging, but hugely rewarding process.

Sessions from £75/h.

Preparing for Theology at University: Reading, Personal Statement and Oxbridge Interview Questions

Applying for music at oxbridge: the course, and how to craft a standout music personal statement.

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Sample Personal History Statement

history and philosophy personal statement

by Talha Omer, MBA, M.Eng., Harvard & Cornell Grad

In personal statement samples by field.

A personal history statement (PHS) provides an insight into your academic and professional endeavors. It should include your notable achievements as well as the challenges you have faced. The purpose of a PHS is to provide the admissions committee with a better understanding of your personality, your motivation, and how your prior experiences have prepared you for the future.

Here is a sample personal history statement of a student who applied to the anthropology program and got into several top schools like Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford.

Growing up in a family and society that strictly adhered to the traditional roles of a “proper conservative woman,” I have found pride in breaking free from these restrictive cultural expectations and in embracing my own identity and self-expression.

As the first female in my family to study arts, I remember feeling discouraged when, during a sixth-grade science class, I was lectured by my teacher on the importance of hard sciences and the perceived uselessness of arts. This came after she saw my notebook filled with a detailed sketch of the circulatory system of a frog. Her face betrayed her disdain. The muffled laughter of my classmates seemed to confirm her notions – as if to say that only the truly intelligent pursued careers in the hard sciences.

During my tenth-grade, my family pressured me to choose a science-based curriculum over one that focused on arts and humanities. But I refused to give in and instead found a way to combine my love of art with my disdain for science. When words failed me and I felt stifled by my circumstances, art became a reliable outlet for self-expression, full of vibrant colors and offering endless opportunities for creativity.

During my senior high school year, I finally took control of my own future and decided to study fine arts. This choice opened the doors to a whole new realm of possibilities, allowing me to pursue the future I had always dreamed of. In college, I approached my studies with a sense of exploration, as if I were an adventurer in uncharted territory. Each new topic and area of knowledge helped me to grow in objectivity, intellect, and wisdom.

My journey through the world of art and culture has been filled with magnificent pieces and spellbinding paintings, as well as the opportunity to learn about and appreciate the glorious civilizations that reached the pinnacle of trade, art, and culture. My coursework in the history of art piqued my interest in anthropology, and I was particularly fascinated by the ancient Egyptian civilization, whose artifacts, hieroglyphics, and art offered a window into its evolving languages, unique architecture, and transformative culture. Similarly, in Greek civilization, I discovered how art and politics intersected and shaped public opinion, and how philosophy and politics were intertwined.

Art is often thought of as an individual expression, but when considered as a collection, it can have a powerful impact on society. I am fascinated by the relationship between the arts and the evolution of social, political, cultural, and religious systems and constructs.

It has been difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I have lived in two worlds that often seem incompatible. On a daily basis, I find myself immersed in a culture that imposes strict rules that limit my intellectual and expressive freedom. Whenever I had the opportunity, I immersed myself in the emotive world of curiosity, human expression, and perspective, where individuals create cultures that have outlasted even the most famous nations throughout history. Unfortunately, this parallel universe abruptly came to an end when I graduated.

Working as a professional graphic designer and photographer made it clear to me that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree. Unfortunately, it took me over a year and a half to convince my family to allow me to do so, rather than simply getting engaged and becoming the first female in my family to pursue a graduate degree.

Attending the country’s premier National College of Arts allowed me to expand my education and skills across the fine arts. This broader exposure helped to refine my academic interests, and I was able to bring these interests together in my thesis on self-harm.

My experimental short film, “Pain of Disappointment,” and accompanying paper explored how the society cope with the expectations placed on them by their families to be successful. The film and paper highlighted the prevalence of self-harm in the society, and how it manifests itself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Through this project, I sought to educate people about self-harm and its impact on our society.

As the first woman in my family to pursue an advanced degree outside of the country, I hope to use the science of Anthropology to explore how individuals can transform negative energies into positive expressions that contribute to and benefit society. Additionally, as a woman growing up in a male-domindated society, I am interested in using Visual Anthropology to study suppressed issues and effectively inform all segments of society, including those who are illiterate, in order to empower everyone to reclaim their pride.


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PERSONAL STATEMENT EXAMPLE Philosophy and Politics Personal Statement

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Apply for a degree in World Philosophies to learn what constitutes reality, beauty, knowledge and happiness.

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Philosophy and Politics Personal Statement

My interest in philosophy came from my interest in politics; a quest for a deeper understanding of politics lead to much philosophical contemplation, particularly of ethics. I attended a 10 week course entitled ‘Contemporary Society and Great Moral Issues’ run by Oxford University, to develop my understanding. I am interested in agnosticism and I feel that it has been unfairly treated by scholars such as Richard Dawkins, however I found the book ‘Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto’ by Lesley Hazleton to be very insightful, as it seeks not to paint agnosticism as a midpoint between theism and atheism but rather as a doctrine which has a unique grounding. As part of my A Level, I have studied Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics. I read a description and critical analysis of the theory by William Barclay in which he criticises Fletcher’s supposed support of the actions of a character in the play ‘The Rainmaker’. However upon consulting Fletcher’s book, I found that this was actually a straw-man; Fletcher merely gives a quote from the play and puts it in context, he does not condone the actions of the character. Barclay presents Fletcher’s ethic in a twisted format, then criticises the twisted format he has created. I find this manipulation of academics’ work particularly interesting and look forward to exploring it more at university.

I am a member of the Labour Party and I am involved with local and national politics; I was a member of the Wokingham online campaign team for the 2017 general election, and I have canvassed in Stoke , Wokingham, Reading and several London constituencies this year. In May 2017 I joined Progress (the ‘New Labour’ faction within the Labour Party) and regularly listen to their Progressive Britain podcast. I also have an interest in economics, which again is rooted in politics. I have found that in order to engage in much political debate, one requires an understanding of economics, macroeconomics in particular. I have a specific interest in the economics of socialism; which appears to have had little success in recent history, yet socialism still seems to attract a large following, however I mainly attribute this following not to the economics of the ideology but to the social aspect of it.

After university, I intend to work in the public sector to put back into society, most likely as a teacher of religious studies. I worked as a learning assistant at Kumon (an educational company), in which I worked with primary school aged children, teaching Maths and English. Last year I volunteered as a classroom assistant in a Year 8 Religious Studies class to broaden my experience of teaching. I worked with one boy who struggled to understand the Buddhist concept of ‘annica’, but after working with him in one lesson and explaining and discussing the implications it might have on the rest of the world, he came to a full understanding, which I found very rewarding.

In 2016 I was nominated by my headmaster to become a Rank Foundation Leadership Award Holder. Award Holders are recognised as having ‘outstanding leadership potential’, must attend leadership days and complete two, two week Community Action Placements, one of which I have completed as a teacher at the Outdoor Educational Trust, Ufton Court. I competed in public speaking and debating on an international scale at the IISPSC in October 2017. I was formerly a triathlete and runner, competing at national level in Triathlon. I competed in the English Schools Cross Country final in 2014, coming 35th and securing a team victory, and the following year I ran a top 50 5km time for my age group nationally. In 2016 I was awarded the David Pearson Memorial Travel Award which allowed me to travel to Hyderabad, India, where I worked in an orphanage for 10 days. It was a truly eye-opening experience and was very influential in my decisions about a career. I look forward to similar activities at university and studying a course I will thoroughly enjoy.

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History & english literature personal statement example.

History and English Literature have been by far my most exciting studies in the Sixth Form. Ever since discovering historical literature I have been engrossed by the way the two disciplines coexist and entwine, an interest intensified by school ventures to the Reichstag building, Ypres battlefield and Auschwitz.

My drive to understand the intricacies of foreign relations and populist rebellion has inspired me to study transcripts of tapes recorded during the Cuban Missile Crisis and read Zola's 'Germinal' respectively. Literature and History are, to me, inextricably linked. To explore the consequences of war, revolution and social change upon a generation of poets, playwrights and authors is to understand the making of the modern world, and it is that which I find so utterly compelling.

It strikes me as essential that Literature students should understand the social conditions in which their favourite authors were inspired or condemned. My study of the James Baldwin novels 'Giovanni's Room' and 'Another Country' offered absorbing accounts of rage, sexuality and racial segregation, paralleling the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. Baldwin's evocative experiences within the novel urged me to study the turbulence of the Kennedy Presidency in my History coursework.

I am deeply passionate about investigating the relationship between literary works and historical context and aspire to continue in this field after University; therefore I am confident that a joint degree in History and English Literature is the ideal course for me.

Studying Politics at A Level has greatly complemented my study of both History and English Literature by enabling me to assess the complicated relationships of power that exist today while improving my critical essay-writing skills. Studying Drama to AS Level has not only increased my confidence and public speaking abilities but taught me the importance of teamwork and commitment to the cast.

I have used these skills in the school Debating Society, of which I am a founding member and have recently qualified for the regional round of the Debating Matters competition. Research required for debate preparation has broadened my knowledge of political and scientific topics relevant today and taught me how to form cohesive, rational arguments and authenticate evidence.

I took part in a Mediabox course in which I wrote and directed a short film in July 2007. This provided me with the ability to accept constructive criticism and strengthened my written work. I am also an aspiring poet and regularly attend the poetry discussion group at my local bookshop.

This has allowed me to receive feedback, refine and develop my own literary style. One of my biggest achievements was being asked to read in the Northern Liners festival last year at Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society.

As a regular speaker at UK Youth Parliament meetings I have had the opportunity to structure and maintain arguments and represent the viewpoints of others in an engaging and imaginative format. Assisting in History lessons as a classroom supporter has allowed me to offer guidance, listen and relate to younger students.

Being a Ranger at a local Guiding branch for three years and currently undertaking the v50 voluntary project has also taught me the values of organisation and time management; with careful planning I am able to meet all deadlines.

Having thoroughly enjoyed my A Level studies so far, the challenges and opportunities that a joint degree in History and English Literature will provide is a thrilling prospect and I eagerly look forward to my time at University.

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This personal statement was written by lolcartz1991 for application in 2000.

lolcartz1991's Comments

I'm pretty happy with my personal statement. With it I applied to Cardiff, Southampton, Lancaster, Leicester and St. Andrews universities last week. I hope it helps :)

This personal statement is unrated

Related Personal Statements

Wed, 17/10/2012 - 20:08

This personal statement is inspiring, informative, and above all helpful. I want to study the same course as you and how you structure and write your personal statement has been important in helping me think about my personal statement when I apply next year. Thank you!

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