Western Historiography From The Renaissance Period To Karl Marx

The focus of this chapter is an examination of some aspects of the growth and development of Western philosophy of history, particularly from the Renaissance age to the 19th century.
Western Philosophy of History in the Renaissance Age
The Renaissance spirit was essentially a reaction to the medieval Christian conception of historical scholarship and it sought to bring out all aspects of culture to the pre-medieval classical standard. It aimed to bring out a fresh orientation to historical study. The focus was now on human actions and divine plan received less and less attention. Historical thought, once more, placed man in the centre of its picture. History for the Renaissance historian became the history of human passion. The modus operandi of the Renaissance historians is best summarized in the words of Petrach: “The word of God is closed.”

The first major characteristic of Renaissance historiography is that it was critical in outlook. During the age, the uncritical attitude of Christian historiography was given great attention. There began a feverish examination of all available documents which in the medieval period were unquestionable and unquestioned. Under the critical lenses of the renaissance writers most of these documents were proved to be forgeries. For instance, Lorenzo Valla, through the critical techniques of textual criticism, was able to undermine the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine and the Apostles’ Creed.  This critical outlook was increased by the translation of the Bible and other Christian documents into local languages. Here, the example of Erasmus will suffice. In 1516 he published a Greek translation of the New Testament to introduce a more rational conception of the Christian doctrine and to emancipate man’s mind from the frivolous and pedantic methods of scholastic theologians. The era also witnessed the invention of movable printing presses and this consequently increased literary activity.
Another characteristic feature of Christian historiography that came into grip with the Renaissance spirit was its universalism. While Christian historiography looked at all men as members of a single family, the Renaissance writers went back to the particularistic history especially that of the Italian city –states. Examples of these works include Nicollo Machiavelli’s History of Florence and Brunny’s History of Florence.  Giuciadinni also wrote with the aim of infusing the spirit of nationalism among the different Italian city states.
Moreover, providence, a major feature of Christian historiography, had no place in the writings of Renaissance writers. The Christian writers laid much stress on the Original Sin, the Second Coming, etc., the Renaissance writers took into account only the social, political and economic development of human society. History was not a revelation of a plan but a critical study of human passion. Thus Machiavelli came up with the idea that “the end justifies the means.” This dictum implies that man is the architect of his own fortune or misfortune and there could not be any set out plan for historical development. In addition, Brunny’s writings were characterized by the elimination of providence as a historical cause. This was the first History of Florence based on accurate examination of sources.
Rene Descartes and the Spirit of Renaissance
Perhaps the greatest figure that the Renaissance produced was Rene Descartes. Descartes was a great thinker and he contributed substantially to the growth of the natural sciences, especially mathematics and physics, and although he recognized history as a discipline, he did not see it as a branch of knowledge at all. This view point is lucidly stated in his Discourse on Method:
I thought by now that I have spent enough labour on the study of ancient languages, on the reading of ancient authors and on their histories and narratives. To live with man of an earlier age is traveling in foreign lands. It is useful to know something of the manners of other peoples in order to judge more impartially of our own and not despise  and ridicule whatever differs from them alike men who travel too long end up by being strangers in their own homes and those who study curiously the actions of antiquity are ignorant of what is done among ourselves today… and men who try to model their own acts upon them are prone to the madness of romantic paladins and meditate hyperbolic deeds…. Moreover, these narratives tell of things which cannot have happened as if they had really taken place, and to invite us to attempt what is really beyond our powers or to hope for what is beyond our powers or to hope for what is beyond our fate. And even histories though they be and neither exaggerating nor flattering the value of things omit circumstances of a meaner  and less dignified kind in order to become more worthy of readers’ attention.
This quote can be reduced into four main issues. The first is what Collingwood calls “historical escapism,” i.e., the belief that a historian is a traveler who by leaving away from home becomes a stranger to his own age.  The second issue is historical pyrrhonism, i.e., historical narratives are not reliable and trustworthy accounts of the past. The third issue relates to the rejection of history as an instrument of understanding of human societies since these narratives themselves are not correct. Fourthly, history is seen as fantasy building; that historians always attempt to depict an event more than it really was.
With regards to the first postulation, it is not true that the practice of history makes the historian ignorant of his own age or generation.  In fact, the historian can only have a thorough grasp of the past only if he is firmly rooted in the present. The traditional practice of the historian is not to live entirely out of his down age but to be a respectable man of his own age and to interpret the past from the standpoint of that age. Immanuel Kant, indeed, later proved that historical knowledge is possible not only without the historians abandoning the standpoint of his own age, but precisely because he does not abandon the standpoint.
Secondly, Descartes’ viewpoint that historical narratives relate events that could not have happened.  This wholesome dismissal of historical narratives as fallacy is spurious. However, the substantive issue seems to be that Descartes was advocating a critical approach to historical past and adoption of such measures would be the answer to his own objection.  Thirdly, Descartes’ belief that history had no value, which Hegel later summarized in the dictum: “The practical lesson of history is that no one ever learns anything from history”, is a gross misunderstanding of the historical process. Although the mistakes of the past are somehow committed in the present, the intensity and gravity of such mistakes are doubtlessly lessened by an awareness of the problems engendered in the past.  In fact, there is always a conscious attempt in all human societies to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
Finally, Descartes’ postulation that historical narratives romanticized the splendor of the past when interpreted in its contextual social setting was a call to practitioners of the profession to improve on their research.  Indeed, he was propounding the criterion by which historical narratives could be criticized and which the truths concealed or mystified could be rediscovered. There is no gainsaying that his suggestion was futile and that he could be in mathematics and physics. Hence, the thesis remained underdeveloped and was to be taken up later by Gambatista Vico in the 18th century.  As a matter of fact, the attitude of Descartes to history was one of skepticism and his writings were geared towards driving away people from history and to embrace the exact science.
Cartesian Historiography
Curiously, the historical skepticism that was characteristic of the latter part of the Renaissance period did not discourage historians in their pursuit of their research efforts, satisfying themselves that a critical period of history was possible.  In fact, towards the later part of the 17th century the Cartesian school of thought emerged. This looked a paradox in view of Descartes’ anti-utilitarian idea of history.  However, it is called Cartesian historiography because, like Cartesian philosophy, it was based on systematic skepticism and thoroughgoing recognition of critical principle.  The main idea of the new school was that the testimonies of written authorities must not be accepted or regarded as valid until they have been subjected to three modes of analysis.  One, Descartes’ own implicit rule that no authority must induce us to believe what we know cannot have happened. Second, the rule that different authorities must be confronted and harmonized.  Third, the rule that written authorities must be confronted by use of non-literary evidence. The position of this school is best articulated by the Tillemonte’s History of the Roman Emperors. For instance, his work was the first attempt to write Roman history of saints in a critical manner, dismissing most of the myths and the miraculous events. It is to the credit of the Bollandists that we owe the idea of taking cognizance of the medium of distortion through which information had passed.  However, the greatest of the Cartesian scholars were Gottfried von Leibniz and Spinoza. It was Leibniz who applied the new method of historical scholarship to the history of philosophy with remarkable success. Spinoza, on the other hand, recorded his feats as the founder of Biblical criticisms. Despite their contributions that the Cartesians made to history as a field of enquiry, practitioners of the profession found their position inadequate.  The group that launched tirade against the Cartesian school is known as the anti-Cartesians, with Gambatista Vico as one of the key leaders of the movement.
Gambatista Vico and the Anti-Cartesians
He was one of the leading figures of the anti-Cartesian movement. Although, an Italian, he was resident in France and this placed him at a vantage position to observe and examine the philosophical controversies as regards theories of knowledge that were raging at the time.  Like Descartes, he agreed that mathematics and physics could yield viable area of knowledge. He, however, rejected the Cartesian viewpoint that only mathematics and physics could yield knowledge. Hence, he attacked the Cartesian principle that the criterion of truth is the clear and distinct idea.  To be precise, he regarded this as a subjective criterion. According to him, for anyone to regard his ideas as fair and distinct he must have first believed them. Belief, according to Vico, “is nothing but the vivacity of our perception.” He illustrated this with a mathematical example: the mathematician who postulated a number of general rules started with hypotheses and fictions.  The fact that ABC with AB equals AC is an indication that he first created it in his own mind before inviting others with convincing argument to embrace his theory. If mathematics which is an abstract invention can be regarded as a valid knowledge it follows therefore, so argued Vico, that history which is specially made by the human mind would be an object of human knowledge.
Vico also extended the frontiers of knowledge by convincingly demonstrating that history is the study of the genesis and development of human societies and their institutions.  Through elaborate studies of the customs, language and culture of the people he came in contact with, he was able to demonstrate that history is essentially the study of human actions devoid of divine intervention, no matter how minute.  It was with Vico that history acquired its modem idea of being an enquiry into the human past.
Apart from demonstrating that history is a viable area of knowledge which deals with the human past, Gambatista Vico also advised the practitioners of the profession against certain heresies which, more often than not, they are likely to encounter in their various researches. First, he warned against the natural tendencies of romanticizing the past.  Second, he also warned the historian against being over-nationalistic in their works. Although he agreed that history is a means of fostering national unity, he noted that there is a danger where history is distorted to serve that purpose. Third, he appealed to historian not to be conceited but to have what C. Wright Mills refers to as “sociological imagination.” He enjoined historians to have empathy with their characters and to bear in mind that these historical actors were not academically minded when that these historical actors were making history.  Finally, he warned against the natural tendencies that when two similar industries are found in an area, one necessarily derives from the other. He regarded such a thinking as a historical fallacy because it could be possible that the people concerned probably had the same inventive geniuses.
Another area where Vico recorded some feats was in making use of linguistic and mythology as sources of history.  More importantly, Vico lived before his time especially by advocating that history could be learned from oral traditions, and that oral traditions, no matter how beautifully rendered, are not history but sources of history.  In particular, Vico said, “All oral traditions are true but none of them mean exactly what they say.” For the historian to have a proper grasp of the truth embedded in the traditions, they need to be interpreted. This was a new method of historical research at the time and Vico deserves more credit for propounding such a theory when it is realized that as recent as the 1960s, some Oxford professors of history still dismissed oral tradition as arrant nonsense.  The intellectual ideas of Vico did not enjoy much support during his lifetime and for a long time after his death. It was not until the 18th century that scholars Locke and Beghin later returned to the viewpoint he had earlier expressed.  In a nutshell, Vico’s contributions are two fold: He convincingly demonstrated that history constituted a valid source of knowledge and that the methodology of the historian could be as critical just as many of the natural sciences.  Second, Vico demonstrated that history could be learned from linguistics and mythology. Although these two disciplines have now become common place in historical inquiry, they constituted a novel idea at the time.
The Post-Renaissance Tradition
By the second half of the 18th century history had gained an acceptance in Western Europe as a discipline worthy of serious study.  The German historical school contributed immensely to this development. From 1784 there began in Germany a tradition of looking at the past critically and philosophically.  The age of the school spanned about 40 years beginning with Herder and reaching its peak with Hegel. Its major importance is in the stimulation of ideas which influenced historical thinking and the nature of history writing.  Although Herder was the first of the German scholars to put the new ideas into writing the most important was Immanuel Kant whose ideas influenced the works of virtually all scholars in the group.
Indeed, Kant’s could be referred to as the fountain-head of the German historical school. For most succeeding philosophers of history passed through his hands or were influenced by his ideas. Kant Hegel insists that the study of courses is a necessity for the understanding of history.  The idea of dialectics pervaded that works of succeeding generation of philosophers of history. One of these was Karl Marx. Marx was a German Jew who lived his early life in Germany and later moved to France. In 1845 when he was expelled from France, he went to Britain and there he spent the rest of his life.  While in Germany and France, Marx studies and contacts with the works of the socialist philosophers had great impact in him. Using the idea of Utopian socialism Marx propounded that history is the study of the class struggle between the haves and have-nots for the means of productions. He also believed that human history moves towards of productions.  He also believed that human history moves towards an ultimate goal which is the maximum enjoyment ‘The totality of Marx ideas is termed “historical materialism.” This doctrine emphasizes the material aspect of human nature as determining the cause of human history. It is an attempt to make all other aspects of human civilization subordinate to economic situation. Although Marx is regarded as the apostle of historical materialism, his works and that of Engels go hand-in-hand.
Marx and Engels contended that economic factors are the ultimate decisive factors in the development of human society.  They argued that man has some economic pursuits and to way the individual lives is related to means of production. Life itself involves eating, drinking, habitation and clothing.  The first historical act therefore, was the production of the means to satisfy these needs. Thus they argued that historical development of a society is determined by its economic structure. They also argued that the major dynamics of historical development is the relation of the classes of the people to production which in itself is determined by those who control the means of production and those who sell labour. Historical materialism submits that every human society is made up of two opposing classes and Marx concluded:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
The belief of the two apostles of historical materialism was that to understand history one has to relate man’s actions to the economic situation. From their theoretical arguments they gave a general framework for the interpretation of historical development through out the ages: when the material means of production changes the ages: when the material means of production changes.  Such change marks an epoch in the historical development mankind
They also attempted a periodization of history into four main stages: The first was primitive communism. The second was ancient slavery. The third was medieval feudalism, and capitalism the fourth. Marx argued that the development of capitalism brought with it misery to the have-nots.  They misery, he argued, would force on them the need to fight and throw off the yoke and build a classless society which is he ultimate goal towards which history is moving.
Many criticisms have been leveled against the interpretation of history.  However, two major criticisms stand out clearly. The first is the emphasis on the other factors that one cannot lose sight of in historical development.  These include political and religious factors; not all human actions are economically motivated. The second major criticism is in the apocalyptic nature of Marxian doctrine.  By anticipating a stage of classless society, Marx turned himself into a prophet and prophesy is not history.
In spite of these criticisms and other controversies which historical materialism has generated, the ideas of Marx have continued to attract the attention of scholars in various aspects of social studies in different part of the world.