Emergence of new interpretations or visions of History as regards the evolution of Mankind

The 19th century was also crucial also for the evolution of the theory of History, since during it some new general interpretations or visions of History arose, in addition to the establishment of the liberal interpretation, outlined in its basic elements in the classic work of F. Guizot History of Civilization in Europe from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the French Revolution (1828-1830). I am thinking above all of Hegelian, Comtian and Marxist interpretations, which –as well as the liberal one-  prolonged and developed rationalism and enlightened optimism by different means.

The paradigmatic Hegelian interpretation, one of the four prototypes analyzed in the outstanding synthesis by J. Ferrater Mora (1), is an astonishingly grandiose idealistic and teleological vision, according to which History is first of all the progressive self-awareness of the universal spirit (the Weltgeist). This universal spirit of peoples and individuals uses them for its own purposes by means of ruses, as a sort of immanent Providence. Dialectic Hegelian interpretation, which was to enjoy enormous influence and was in some respects connected with Liberalism, inasmuch as History is a realization of values, lies at some distance from it because of its statist tendency. In the Hegelian interpretation of History, individual freedom was highly diluted before the State.

Hegel’s teleologism was shared by the interpretation of history that Comte, the father of Sociology and science-based Positivism (2), developed. Comte’s doctrine of the three stages in Mankind’s evolution (teleological, metaphysic and positive or scientific) is renowned. And both this and his social policy motto of order and progress were to have a notable influence on the cultural climate of his time, specially, but not only, in France under the Second Empire.      

In fact, Comte’s influence on later historiographical practice can be considered ambiguous. On the one hand, historians were able to find in it a statement in favor of the importance of obtaining reliable data. In this respect, some labelled –or used to label– certain historians as “positivists”, for they remained very close to empirical “data”. (Some texts of Fustel of Coulanges about clinging to texts could be interpreted in this sense). On the other hand, nonetheless, Comte claimed protagonism and hegemony over History for Sociology. Only Sociology might aspire to discover the laws that governed the evolution of humankind – it was presupposed that the evolution that had hitherto been followed by the West was the route that other cultural areas would follow in the future. Therefore, in some respects, Comte favoured dialogue between History and Sociology, but really the submission of the former to the latter. 

Marx (1818-1883) can be placed in Hegel’s teleological and dialectic trail, and shared, together with the majority of his contemporaries, Comte’s science-based approach. However, Marx also fed off the revolutionary atmosphere, favoured by the hard situation of the proletariat in the initial stages of industrialization. Marx was to create a markedly materialistic interpretation of History, which at the same time was a major revolutionary project, based on the class struggle, not free of messianism or of utopianism (3). It is true that, as Kolakowski points out, there is not one statement on Marxism that fails to be controversial. I have just mentioned his much-debated and influential proposal because, even as a current or historiographical tendency Marxism (or better marxisms) has/have to be situated, because of its/their dissemination and influence, above all in the 20th century; in the historico-cultural context in which it appeared and it must be explained that Marx’s vision of History belongs to the 19th century.

F. Sánchez Marcos

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(1) Ferrater Mora, José (1982). Cuatro visiones de la historia universal. San Agustín, Vico, Voltaire, Hegel. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.

(2) Comte, A. (1830-1852). Positivist philosophy course, 6 vols. From lesson 47 on Comte speaks about sociology and/or social physics and defines it in the work as “the positive study of all the fundamental laws characteristic of social phenomena”.

(3) Marx, Karl H. (1867). The Capital, vol. 1.