It is a growing sense of the failures of the political programs and ideals associated with the Enlightenment that moved participants in this subtradition to engage in a critical appraisal of earlier notions and promote more open and radically new conceptions of emancipation and liberation. Thus, instead of emphasizing an unmediated attachment to human rights, economic equality, and individual liberties, participants within this subtradition argue that a true form of critique must take into consideration a critical reflection on those very potent political discourses. So, for example, Foucault's work is a consistent attempt to critique taken-for-granted assumptions concerning power, the body, the individual as bearer of rights, and progress (all of which became importantly defined via the Enlightenment) all for the sake of critiquing the way in which traditional renderings are actually hindering an important understanding of the development of new forms of emancipation and autonomy. Indeed, drawing on Nietzsche's genealogical method, Foucault argued that history should avoid totalizing visions in which history displays itself as an easily recognized catalogue of human development and identity formation, and instead promote the deconstruction and “dissipation” (1998: 386) of comforting myths and conceptions of human identity and individuality.
The philosopher of science Carl Hempel stimulated analyticphilosophers' interest in historical knowledge in his essay,“The Function of General Laws in History” (1942). Hempel'sgeneral theory of scientific explanation held that all scientificexplanations require subsumption under general laws. Hempel consideredhistorical explanation as an apparent exception to the covering-lawmodel and attempted to show the suitability of the covering-law modeleven to this special case. He argued that valid historicalexplanations too must invoke general laws. The covering-law approachto historical explanation was supported by other analyticalphilosophers of science, including Ernest Nagel (1961). Hempel's essayprovoked a prolonged controversy between supporters who citedgeneralizations about human behavior as the relevant general laws, andcritics who argued that historical explanations are more akin toexplanations of individual behavior, based on interpretation thatmakes the outcome comprehensible. Especially important discussionswere offered by William Dray (1957), Michael Scriven (1962), and AlanDonagan (1966). Donagan and others pointed out the difficulty thatmany social explanations depend on probabilistic regularities ratherthan universal laws. Others, including Scriven, pointed out thepragmatic features of explanation, suggesting that arguments that fallfar short of deductive validity are nonetheless sufficient to“explain” a given historical event in a given context ofbelief. The most fundamental objections, however, are these: first,that there are virtually no good examples of universal laws inhistory, whether of human behavior or of historical event succession(Donagan 1966: 143–45); and second, that there are othercompelling schemata through which we can understand historical actionsand outcomes that do not involve subsumption under general laws(Elster 1989). These include the processes of reasoning through whichwe understand individual actions—analogous to the methods ofverstehen and the interpretation of rational behaviormentioned above (Dray 1966: 131–37); and the processes throughwhich we can trace out chains of causation and specific causalmechanisms without invoking universal laws.
The topic of history has been treated frequently in modern Europeanphilosophy. A long, largely German, tradition of thought looks athistory as a total and comprehensible process of events, structures,and processes, for which the philosophy of history can serve as aninterpretive tool. This approach, speculative and meta-historical,aims to discern large, embracing patterns and directions in theunfolding of human history, persistent notwithstanding the erraticback-and-forth of particular historical developments. Modernphilosophers raising this set of questions about the large directionand meaning of history include Vico, Herder, and Hegel. A somewhatdifferent line of thought in the continental tradition that has beenvery relevant to the philosophy of history is the hermeneutictradition of the human sciences. Through their emphasis on the“hermeneutic circle” through which humans undertake tounderstand the meanings created by other humans—in texts,symbols, and actions—hermeneutic philosophers such asSchleiermacher (1838), Dilthey (1860–1903), and Ricoeur (2000)offer philosophical arguments for emphasizing the importance ofnarrative interpretation within our understanding of history.
The post-war German historian Reinhart Koselleck made importantcontributions to the philosophy of history that are largelyindependent from the other sources of Continental philosophy ofhistory mentioned here. (Koselleck’s contributions are ablydiscussed in Olsen 2012.) Koselleck contributed to a “conceptualand critical theory of history” (2002, 2004). His majorcompendium, with Brunner and Conze, of the history of concepts ofhistory in the German-speaking world is one of the major expressionsof this work (Brunner, Conze, and Koselleck 1972-97). Koselleckbelieves there are three key tasks for the metahistorian orphilosopher: to identify the concepts that are either possible ornecessary in characterizing history; to locate those concepts withinthe context of the social and political discourses and conflicts ofthe time period; and to critically evaluate various of these conceptsfor their usefulness in historical analysis.
The political writings of Niccolo Machiavelli were the first to break with these traditions of political philosophy. Machiavelli believed that the study of political history could yield general principles to guide statesmen in the conduct of politics, diplomacy, and war. He studied existing and historical political institutions, and the actions of great statesmen, not for the purpose of discerning a morally ideal-state, but to identify institutional arrangements that would maintain social order and political stability. The separation of politics from any metaphysical or theological foundation led subsequent political philosophers to seek a new basis for legitimate political authority, although, in the end, solutions such as reason, natural law, custom, and tradition were superceded by the idea that sovereignty resides in a nation’s people.
Second is the related fact that when Western historicalthinkers—for example, Hegel, Malthus, Montesquieu—haveturned their attention to Asia, they have often engaged in a highdegree of stereotyping without much factual historical knowledge. Theideas of Oriental despotism, Asian overpopulation, and Chinesestagnation have encouraged a cartoonish replacement of the intricateand diverse processes of development of different parts of Asia by asingle-dimensional and reductive set of simplifying frameworks ofthought. This is one of the points of Edward Said's critique oforientalism (Said 1978). So doing “global” history meanspaying rigorous attention to the specificities of social, political,and cultural arrangements in other parts of the world besidesEurope.
This orientation brings along with it the importance of analyzingclosely the social and natural environment in which actors frame theirchoices. Our account of the flow of human action eventuating inhistorical change unavoidably needs to take into account theinstitutional and situational environment in which these actions takeplace. Part of the topography of a period of historical change is theensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period:property relations, political institutions, family structures,educational practices, religious and moral values. So historicalexplanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment ofinstitutions and practices. This approach gives a basis for judgingthat such-and-so circumstance “caused” a given historicalchange; but it also provides an understanding of the way in which thiskind of historical cause is embodied and conveyed—through theactions and thoughts of individuals in response to given natural andsocial circumstances.
This topic divides into several different problems, as noted by JohnPassmore (1966: 76). The most studied of these within the analytictradition is that of the value-ladenness of social action. Second isthe possibility that the historian's interpretations are themselvesvalue-laden—raising the question of the capacity for objectivityor neutrality of the historian herself. Does the intellectual have theability to investigate the world without regard to the biases that arebuilt into her political or ethical beliefs, her ideology, or hercommitments to a class or a social group? And third is the question ofthe objectivity of the historical circumstances themselves. Is there afixed historical reality, independent from later representations ofthe facts? Or is history intrinsically “constructed,” withno objective reality independent from the ways in which it isconstructed? Is there a reality corresponding to the phrase,“the French Revolution,” or is there simply anaccumulation of written versions of the French Revolution?