In the nineteenth century, historians were desparately in need of a champion to clarify the nature of reason, and to guide them in the challenge of making sense of man’s complex past. Newton’s genius had shown the power of man’s mind to penetrate nature’s inner workings, but no one had been able to articulate on a more abstract level the nature of the Newtonian triumph in science, and explain how it could be reproduced in other areas.
If historians were to pattern their work on the succesful model of the physical scientists, they would need to find a means of transposing the methods of physics into the domain of history. The way to do this, however, was unclear. The historian, for example, could not create the controled conditions of a laboratory to test his ideas, nor could the actions of human beings be reduced to mathematical principles. And yet, the challenge of deriving general knowledge from historical data is in some ways the same as that of finding general laws from observed physical phenoma. It is the challenge of transforming a plethora of concrete information, by some process of abstraction, into an intelligible system. The importance of this project was evident to the more philosophical historians. If natural science could find laws and a natural order in the physical world, could a social science not achieve the same for civilization (and thus derive the proper foundation of social systems)?
Unfortunately, in their quest to give history a Newtonian clarity, historians found no worthy ally among philosophers. In the wake of the clash between the rationalists and empiricists, philosophy was at an impasse. The former group believed human knowledge was imprinted by some ineffable, non-experiential means. And sadly–despite the example of disciplined Newtonian thinking and the best efforts of John Locke–the latter group had been unable to articulate a proper alternative. Empiricism had degenerated into the skepticism of Hume.
Finally, instead of a champion, the Western mind met with an insidious assailant, Immanuel Kant, in whose assessment philosophy’s aims were pronounced unattainable and the achievements of science inconsequential. Man, said Kant, is flawed by nature–he is formed of “crooked timber.” Human consciousness, he explained, is by its nature divorced from reality. It perceives reality by certain means, and because this apparatus processes the incoming information, it prevents us from gleaning reality as it really is. Any thinking we do based on such a foundation, including, for instance, the derivation of “natural laws,” is thus completely subjective, and any claim we make to actually understanding the essential nature of things is merely presumption–unless based on faith (for which Kant infamously made “room”).
What then of history? More next time.