Is there a Conservative Philosophy of History?

Conservative historians have long battled the left over the proper interpretation of the facts of history, but in arguments about the philosophy of history, conservatives have ceded the field almost entirely. At first glance, it appears that conservative historians have no philosophy of history, or that they even reject theoretical and philosophical discussions about the nature of history, which they see as a diversion from what historians actually do. Conservative skepticism of the philosophy of history seems to be rooted in two major concerns. First, conservatives are generally skeptical of grand speculative philosophies of history (e.g. Hegel, Marx, Toynbee, and Spengler), which, like the gnostics of old, claim some esoteric knowledge. And second, conservatives are rightly bewildered and dismayed by the postmodern, skeptical bent of most professional philosophy of history written in the past forty years. Conservatives interested in philosophical discussion about history will quickly be turned off by the jargon-filled, nearly nonsensical research published in field journals where philosophers of history discuss topics like narrativity, poetics, and subjectivity, ad nauseum.

But conservative historians should recognize there is a lot written in the philosophy of history which is neither so speculative nor so skeptical. What I refer to is the critical, analytical philosophy of history, a form of inquiry about history that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, and which continues to be written in the shadow of postmodern theorizing today.  I don’t suppose that there should be a conservative philosophy of history to counter Marx, or that an answer to the riddle of history is possible or desirable. My argument here is only that while one can deny that there are philosophical problems about history, one cannot truly avoid dealing with them. Knowledge problems, problems of causation, problems of literary form, etc., are concerns for every historian, including conservative historians, and including those who claim that they are only working in the tradition of common sense. And this is not only because one man’s common sense is another man’s nonsense. It is also because those who use the “argumentum ad common sense-ium” are dodging real philosophical problems.

Philosophical questions about history are not, I think, unrelated from questions of historical methods and the role of history in society.  History plays as essential a role for conservatives as it does for anyone else. Conservatives believe that history is a guide for individual moral action, that it strengthens the bonds of families, helps communities retain their traditions, and legitimizes national sovereignty. In short, conservatives cherish history as a source of wisdom that keeps intact a fragile order in society. Political debates, moreover, often rest on historical interpretations, and these interpretations are reflections of philosophical views of history. A coherent conservative philosophy of history could be a uniting force. At present, however, there is no single modern conservative philosophy of history that rivals in clarity and social impact the major philosophies of history on the left, views of history which dominate academic discussions and infiltrate the popular mind. While conservatives often reflect on what history is for, they seldom discuss what history is.

Contrast the unarticulated, academically absent conservative philosophy of history with the ubiquitous Marxist view of history. It is difficult to get through an undergraduate program today without encountering Marx’s material dialectic, his stage theory of history, or his predictions about the teleological inevitability of communism. Marxist history shaped generations of students and scholars, even in liberal countries, with Eric Hobsbawm and Michel Foucault, among others, asserting that modern professional history had become possible without drawing on Marx. Even today, a good number of American history professors call themselves Marxists, although exactly what part of Marx’s theory of history they still defend is less clear.

Meanwhile, progressive history, and with it, the view that the left is on the correct side of history, has an even stronger hold on academia and in popular culture. Indeed, progressive history defines the mainstream. It is, in many ways, the modern American equivalent of what Herbert Butterfield once identified as “whig history,” a triumphalist, self-assured interpretation of history that looks uncritically to the past, with its self-justifying narrative already in hand. The more condensed, the more paraphrased we make our history, the more progressive it becomes.  American history textbooks, the AP History test, and the median undergraduate history survey is dominated by the progressive critique of markets, praise of government action, and assumption of social and moral progress. Terms like “Gilded Age” and “robber barons” shape the nature of the conversation, and the selection of events like the haymarket riot, trust-busting legislation, and praise of political action demonstrate a narrative set by progressive labor historians, in which it becomes difficult to teach certain chapters in American history as anything other than a record of capital’s abuse of labor. Alongside Marxist and progressive history, all kinds of social and cultural history, feminist history, and postmodern history emanate from the left. The majority of the best works on twentieth century historiography as well read like road maps through history written on the left.

And yet, ask anyone, left or right, what the conservative philosophy of history is, – what it stands for – and you will struggle to get a definite answer. The caricature is that conservatives believe the following about history: (1) things were better (morally, socially, politically, culturally) at some point in the past; (2) objective facts about the past can be known; (3) history ought to impart moral lessons; and (4) the proper subjects of history are powerful men and politics. The conservative view of history might be described more colloquially as “everything is going to hell.” It is true after all that a common theme in conservative history is “decline”, the opposite of progress.

While modern conservative philosophy of history is nowhere well defined and brought together, in the United States at least it seems to me to have a few essential elements that go beyond such caricature. These include (1) a clear influence of the Judeo-Christian view of the world and a general acceptance of providence and teleology; (2) a preference for ideas over materialist explanations of history; (3) skepticism of social scientific collectivist models, (4) and a belief that history imparts general lessons and even divine wisdom. This is, I believe, a more charitable description of conservative philosophy of history, even it falls short of a true systematic philosophy.

Conservatives interested in the philosophy of history must wrestle with some of the field’s traditional questions. For example: What is history as a discipline, is it a science, an art, something else? Do historical developments follow some great plan, and is there some shape to the past or predictability in how events unfold?  Can we induce historical laws of behavior from empirical data? What is history for, and is it primarily a tool to teach morality, or is history on its own meaningless? Finally, they must ask how can we know anything about the past. Can we even make true statements about the past?

Collingwood and Subjectivity             

The first step in developing a clear, coherent conservative philosophy of history is to dismiss the misconception that conservatives believe in some naïve form of history as the recreation of an objective past, and to recognize how conservative historians have in practice already dealt with epistemological problems. Conservative historians are often mistaken to be direct heirs of Leopold Von Ranke, who is, in turn, routinely misunderstood as some paragon of objectivity. Ranke encouraged historians not to let biases overwhelm their interpretations. Ranke  called for exacting methods, but he was under no illusion that a perfectly objective history could be written. In other words, Ranke was perfectly aware of the subjectivity of facts, and he developed a method not to dismiss the problem of skepticism but to get around it. Conservative historians follow roughly the historicist paradigm set by Von Ranke and his successors, with their belief in the existence of the past, and the ability to reconstruct ideas and intentions from archival sources. And conservative historians, like Von Ranke, are attracted to the history of politics and to the biographies of great men. But while historians on the left made a sharp break from Von Ranke in the 20th century, distinctly conservative thinkers in the United States seldom tried to defend him, and went instead in different directions, influenced by different people.

The grandfather-figure of modern conservative writing on the philosophy of history is in fact not the German von Ranke, but the Englishman R[obin] G. Collingwood.  Conservatives in the 20th century owed much to Collingwood, and looked up to him as “nearly correct” in his view of history. Some of this admiration for Collingwood must be ascribed to the easy access to his work, which was well-known was available in most large university libraries. Conservative thinkers like Gordon Clark and Russell Kirk, not trained in history, and unfamiliar with the intricacies of the historiography of the philosophy of history, discovered Collingwood even when they didn’t discover say Louis Mink or Maurice Mandelbaum, other figures at the center of the field. Collingwood was everything a mid-twentieth century American conservative looked for in a mentor: elite, British, and Christian. That his works were well-written and in English also meant Collingwood was more accessible than his German or French peers.

Collingwood famously described history as a re-enactment of thought. What this meant is up for debate, but what is clear is that Collingwood denied materialist explanations of history and placed ideas front and center. Collingwood’s influence is clearest perhaps in the works of Michael Oakeshott. Not only does Oakeshott affirm a similar epistemology, but he supports a historical past created by the present. “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” he wrote. The historical past, Oakeshott says “is the world which present evidence creates in the present.” Despite Oakeshott’s insistence on ideas, he can, at times, sound much like a postmodernist, if one is not careful to notice his distinction between the past and “made” history.

“History is not the correspondence of an idea with an event, for there is no event which is not an idea. History is the historian’s experience. It is ‘made’ by nobody save the historian; to write history is the only way of making it. It is a world, and a world of ideas. It begins with a world of ideas; nothing can come to the historian which is isolated, meaningless or a merely ‘material.’ And the explicit end in history is to make a given world more a world, to make it coherent. The course of events is, then the result, not the material of history; or rather, it is at once material and result. ” (Oakeshott, Experience and its Modes, 99)

The lesson for conservatives here, I think, is that questioning the epistemological fundamentals of historical thinking does not necessarily entail the rejection of history, but can instead provide a stronger philosophical basis on which we do history.

The influence of Collingwood is clear in other conservative thinkers like Owen Barfield and John Lucks. Barfield, similar to Collingwood, defined history as “re-enactment in imagination.” Again, this emphasis on the history of ideas, as opposed to the dominant materialism or positivism of the twentieth century is a key strain that has held together most conservative views of history. Barfield, for his part, made a few important distinctions along these lines. First, he distinguished evolution as a unconscious process from history as a conscious process. He explained that evolution preceded history. Barfield also distinguished between perceiving and thinking, such that perceiving is a passive process and thinking an active one.  Historical thinking is moving from material to immaterial, from literal to figurative.  In the literal, what we perceive, we cannot connect to others. Only in shared ideas, in thought of the immaterial, can we be social and express stories.  At the center of the history of ideas, Barfield believed, was language, and so he was intimately interested in the way that words shifted meaning, particular from denoting perceptions to denoting things. “Language,” Barfield said, is “an echo reverberating from the source of all individual minds, of all individual selves.” (Barfield, History, Guilt and Habit, 41). He thought that the human species, had, over time, turned literal things into immaterial concepts, which made our language more complex and capable of expressing the abstract.  He recognized, however, that some linguistic changes occurred in the opposite direction, such that abstract concepts could become concrete. Owen Barfield, through his consideration of language, emphasized that history is a consciously directed process. He distinguished between history made of thought, and evolution, an unconscious process. Unlike Collingwood and Oakeshott, Barfield thought of history in the singular, as just one thing. Barfield gives us another reason to know that history studies consciousness, not just material.

Like Collingwood and his followers, John Lukacs opposed determinism and any social scientific laws, siding instead with history as a record of unique ideas of individuals. But Lukacs also inherited a line of historcism running through Benedetto Croce, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Gilbert Droysen. He opposed the view that history should either be objective or subjective. Instead, he proposed that historical knowledge was personal, that there was ultimate truths in the world, but humans were unable to fully get at them. He opposed objectivity in history on the grounds that there could not be one valid history written for all people, and he disposed of subjectivity because, he said, it denied the existence of truth, replacing it with relativeness and meaningless. One gets the view, however, that Lukacs straw-manned much of his opposition, and that his view of personal historical knowledge has no perceptible difference from mainline historians who recognize that our views are subject to the observers (and thus subjective). For a scholar who believed in the existence of truth, it is surprising that Lukacs holds such anti-Austrian views on economics. Economic truth, he thought, was nothing close to objective, but was a “mental construct” and a “ “fictio” in every sense of the word.” (John Lukacs, “About Historical Factors, of the Hierarchy of Powers” (original 1968) reprinted in Mark G. Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson, eds. Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge: A Reader (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005). This rejection of a prior concepts in economics corresponded with Lukac’s view, inspired by his reading of Heisenburg and Kuhn, that science and mathematics did not exist prior to the human mind.  There seems, however, to be some false equivocation here, since historians who believe in subjectivity are not typically speaking of the nature of reality, but of one’s ability to interpret it, to get at its essence. The Austrians meanwhile, were particularly concerned with the subjectivity of values, which is an entirely different thing than the subjectivity of facts, or the denial of absolute universal truth. When Lukacs talks about objectivity and subjectivity, he is referring to the nature of reality, not to a method of inquiry.

Dealing with Historicism

             Conservatives like to believe in fixed, objective, and universal truths. For this reason, the specter of historicism haunts conservative historians. Historicism, admittedly a term with many meanings, basically stands for the view that facts and values are contingent on human experience in time and place. To put something into a historical context is to “historicize it” and, in that, change our understanding of the thing in question. There are, however, a spectrum of views which have been called historicist, and the dividing lines might be drawn between those who think that all, some, or no truths are historically contingent. Some historicists would deny a single logic or mathematics as a universal (such as Lukacs does), others deny universal values (such as historical relativists who say that we cannot judge past societies on present or any universal moral codes). Some historicists (those who Karl Popper called such) believe that we can work from particular to discover universals, such that historical data can be used to predict the direction of history.

If God exists and morality is objective, then it seems to many conservatives that historical facts must be objective as well. Historicism then, seems to be a counter to the philosophers that argue for a prime cause or mover in history, whether it is God and providence, materialism, some other dialectic. Leo Strauss and those who believe in natural rights are natural enemies of the historicists, because they believe that natural rights exist outside of time and place. But historicism, in some of its guises, is not as much a thing to be feared as some conservatives worry. Historicists of the type Popper identified see universality as a-historical and therefore completely speculative or false. But there is room for subjective values and facts even in a system with universal morals and objective truths. Even the most devout Christian must recognize that humans have their own values that differ from the values of the divine. In fact, this, the doctrine of sin, seems to me to be a central message of scripture.

Perhaps the most promising conservative thinker on historicism in recent years has been Claes Ryn, an arch anti-Straussian. Ryn thinks that we can discover the universal through the particular, that the universal transcends history but can only be seen in its concrete manifestations. Where Lukacs takes his historicism from Heisenberg and Kuhn, Ryn takes it from Benedetto Croce. He attacks the view that historical particulars are entirely distinct from universal norms, which Strauss sees as discoverable only by reason, as part of nature, but not in particular historical processes. Ryn develops what he calls “value-centered historicism”, recognition of the uniqueness of human experiences in a synthesis with universal non-historical or a-historical truths.  In this view, moral universality enters into historical circumstances.  Ryn writes  “In the latter perspective, not only is real universality not separated from particulars of history; it is seen to be present to human consciousness only in concrete form. Ethical universality is at the same time transcendent of historical experience and immanent in it” ( ) It is important, in Ryn’s views, to see ethical universality in historically concrete circumstances.   “Exposure to history serves as a corrective to the confining biases of time and place and enriches the individual’s sense of what has genuine and enduring value.” Attempts to first define a universal morality and then impose it on history fail, but discovering universal values through human experience and a study of history provides traditions that do direct people towards ethical norms and are more relevant for actual living.  “Abstract principles can be more or less expressive of universality, but by themselves they are, precisely because of their lack of concreteness, actually without real normative authority.” (Claes Ryn, “Universality and History: The Concrete as Normative” Humanita 6:1 (Fall 1992/ Winter 1993).)

From What History is to What History is For

Conservatives historians need to do more than wrestle with the nature of historical facts and values. They also need to better explain how their views of history translate from the philosophical to the practical realm.

That history should be used to structure society along certain moral and political ends, is a quite clear theme in the works of Kirk, Burke, Voegelin, Dawson, etc.  It should not come as a surprise then that many of the relevant thinkers here, from Kirk to Voegelin, Oakeshott, and Barfield, is that they were primarily political philosophers, not trained historians. They cared little for historical methods or questions of subjectivity and objectivity. Much of conservative philosophy of history looks like political theory, both in its broad scope, and with a tendency to appeal to previous authorities. On the ground, and in practice, conservative philosophers of history in the past century have failed to gain much of a mainstream audience, have tended to publish their ideas in book-form rather than in peer-reviewed articles.

There are today a small number of acolytes who keep alive individual conservative philosophers of history. Mainly appearing in conservative journals, the typical pattern is to praise a thinker for his erudition, breadth of knowledge, perhaps his Catholicism or Presbyterianism, and then argue that the thinker is neglected and unknown, partly because he is so profound. We see this frequently with articles on people like Voegelin, Dawson, and certainly Lukacs. But these articles generally don’t engage in philosophical debates, and don’t try to engage historians on the left, or historians on the center, or indeed historians at all. The problem is, conservative historians have been too reluctant to explain why the ideas matter and how they can be applied.

Can conservatives offer a substantial, positive and actionable philosophy of history? Conservatives must not, indeed can not, give up on the idea that history teaches, but they need to be clear about precisely what it is that history teaches. There are conservatives historians who believe history teaches us broad, universal truths, that it gives us order and meaning. Christopher Dawson, for example, presents an approach to studying history that is supposed to pay off not only in greater understanding but in moral improvement.

For Eric Voegelin as well, history provides patterns which reveal themselves gradually in humanity’s search for meaning, and discoveries of transcendent meaning are the turning points of history. Voegelin believes that we know things experientially, from a particular point of view, and that our knowledge is mediated through language. Like Lukacs, he denies the subject-object dichotomy. For Voegelin, history serves a purpose as a source of information, but it is not just evets in time and place. History is, rather, a philosophical experience, a study of ideas. Opposed to social science prediction, and the view of history as a grand process, he thinks of it as a process of philosophical discovery. Voegelin stresses that our empirical knowledge informs our models of the world, but that our experiences are mediated through these models in a mutual interconnected process. According to Voegelin biographer Michael Frederici, “The primary objective of this political philosophy was not to recover historical information but to recover an understanding of the process by which man becomes conscious of transcendent-divine reality.”  (xxxii)  History’s purpose is in this view is the experience of seeking transcendent order, or symbolization of truth. Perhaps from Voegelin conservatives recognize that history is a process of self-understanding, and a rough guide for social organization and behavior. There view is that history inspires virtues and creates great men; that it is the working out of providence. All of this seems rather vague however, and what knowledge of Voegelin’s ideas actually means in practice is unclear.

Perhaps conservatives can interpret Voegelin’s conservative approach to knowledge, rooted in epistemic humility, as a reason to be skeptical about prediction. The approach to evidence might be described this way: that while the left believes that history gives us knowledge, the right believes that history gives us wisdom.  Knowledge can be applied with scientific accuracy to avoid repeating similar mistakes. Wisdom, however, is the application of knowledge of a particular thing towards situations in general, or towards similar situations.  Knowledge allows for prediction and precise actions, but wisdom for general principles of action. This is no small way explains the differing attitudes of liberal and conservative history teaches.  The liberal history teacher has more knowledge of textbook history than those around him. Having knowledge gives us the pretense of being able to better solve problems. Liberal teachers lament the lack of historical knowledge of the ordinary student, and believe that with more knowledge the student may become liberal in orientation. History teachers who are conservative believe that students show recognize the moral lessons of the past and identify analogous situations in their own lives. History lessons, in this view, will not necessarily make students smarter or better, more informed voters, but these lessons will better equip students to live meaningful lives.

Voegelin, and many other conservatives see history as the school of political wisdom, even a source for defense of political views.  Indeed, conservative political philosophy relies heavily on history as a source of its arguments. Conservatives have strong opinions about history and like to have a favored figure, a font of wisdom. Kirk had Burke, Nisbet had DeTocqueville, Jaffa had Lincoln. But a conservative theory of history is not necessarily a political history. While conservatives and liberals might disagree about interpretation, the game of getting history right, or getting is wrong, is a game of two sides ramming their skulls into each other. The conservative philosophy of history should help us recognize the fragility of our historical narratives, casting doubt on our affiliation with a political team. A conservative philosophy of history warns against the fetishization of the new and the failures of central planning. It shows that history can be a source of tradition, identify, and humility.

Practicalities of a New Conservative Philosophy of History

Conservatives tend to see history as a profession, akin to ministerial work, or like doctors, who aid society. Less do conservative historians see their work as a discipline, that is, a set of distinct practices and rules aiming at a core of knowledge. This may be one reason why conservatives are outsiders in history departments. They have not entirely lost the battle to write history, but they have almost completely lost the battle to define history.

Fredrich Hayek wrote that “conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas.” (“Why I am Not a Conservative. Reprinted in Frank S. Meyer, ed. What is Conservatism” page 119-120) In the struggle to define and understand history, conservatives need to enunciate a credible alternative philosophy, one that is represented in journals, presented in classrooms, and has social impact.

The discipline of history changes, as it should, to address new concerns. But there are old concerns worth addressing, particularly the history of ideas that conservative historian rightly see as an integral part of the discipline. History does not have a set of vocabulary terms to learn like in economics: free-rider, collective action, transaction cost, comparative advantage, etc. Only the Marxist historians have developed something like this with terms like dialectic, stages of production, late-stage capitalism, etc. Conservative historians could develop their own vocabulary, but they don’t have to. They could develop new views about the philosophy of history, but they could also simply be more aware of, and draw more from the conservative historical tradition that has, to some degree, already addressed philosophical problems.

The philosophy of history is not distinct from historical content. We should not have historians who only research, write, and teach without reflecting on the nature of what they are doing. Conversely, philosophers of history should also be practicing historians. By asking difficult questions about our discipline, we can come to better understand our purpose and motivation. Then, we will recognize that our philosophical views of history are not independent from our work. Our philosophy helps us determine what to write about, it shapes history departments, historiography, culture, and politics. This is why conservatives too need a philosophy of history.

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