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Rescuing Hempel From His World

1 January 2006


This paper makes the case for the relevance of C. G. Hempel’s 1942 proposal of the usage of «covering laws» in History. To do so, it argues that such a proposal reflects how 18 and 19th centuries «philosophy of History» became methods or epistemology of History. This carried a change in meaning of «History»: no longer a succession of past events but the study of documented human action (including of scientific kind in general), its distinction vis-à-vis philosophy, sociology etc., becomes a minor matter as far as logic of research is concerned. Also present in this paper is the conception of theory as a conceptual mode of narrative, and the defense of a development of theories alongside their practice, not apart from them. Authors considered besides Hempel range from Max Weber to Sigmund Freud, from Arthur C. Danto to Albert O. Hirschmann.

Except for a few desultory efforts to account for paradigm shifts, or in what Foucault designates enoncés, I can think of very little in the philosophy of History from the middle- 1960’s to the present. Somewhere someone in the last decade must have written about explanation, even about historical explanation – but I cannot think of an example offhand. (It should be noted that, as editor of the Journal of Philosophy, I see a fair sample each year of what philosophers offer as their most advanced work: my estimate is that a contribution on any aspect of the philosophy of history occurs at a rate of one per thousand submissions.) It is not just that the topic is under extreme neglect. It is, rather, that there is hardly room in the present scene of philosophy for discussion of its issues. So to find someone actively working at them would be almost as encounter a historically displaced person, like someone doing abstract expressionist canvasses as if the whole subsequent history of art had not taken place. Or like encountering Japanese soldiers on some obscure atoll who never found out that the war had ended. Arthur C. Danto (in Ankersmit and Kellner 1995: 72/3)


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