Karl Marx, Carl G. Hempel and Robin G. Collingwood on the Empirical Nature of History

Essay 2011 10 Pages

Philosophy - Philosophy of the 19th Century



History has been described variously. History is the study of past events especially the political, social and economic developments of a country, a continent or the world[1]. It is also past events especially when considered as a whole. It is also the systematic description of past events, for example, the writing of a new history of Europe. History is also a series of past events or experiences connected with an object, a person or a place[2]. History as a term comes from the Greek word historie. This word was used by Herodotus, meaning to research or to investigate.

In our study of history therefore, it means to investigate the human past, for example, activities of man during a time period. In history, we investigate the causes of events to come up with evidence to bring up the truth. The question ‘why?’ is important in human investigation so as to know about how and when. This simple explanation of what history is will guide us in exploring the extent to which history is a science.

If history investigates the causes of events, comes up with evidence for the truth then surely it must be connected to science and scientific inquiry. This paper will define what science is, the conceptions of history by different scholars in order to come up with a position of the extent to which history is a science.

Having defined history, at least lexically, what then is science? If we have to understand to what extent history a science is, then it is important for us to know what science is. Salient in this query is what makes a discipline such as history a science. Are there any characteristics of science? What is the relationship between history and science?

Science is lexically defined as, organized knowledge, especially when obtained by observation and testing of facts, about the physical world, natural laws and society[3]. It is also the study leading to such knowledge. What we can deduce from this definition is that scientific knowledge is not only limited to the physical world but also society. Let us remember that history studies past events in a society be it a country, continent or the world. Perhaps, we can say, from the above definitions that history is a science to the extent that is knowledge obtained by observation and testing of facts of a given human society.

In order for us to answer the question on what constitutes a science, we infer characteristics of science. Moreover, science progresses through the use of the scientific method. This method refers to principles and procedures used in the systematic pursuit of inter-subjectively accessible knowledge, involving as necessary conditions the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation or experiment, formulation of hypotheses and testing and confirmation of the hypotheses formulated.

In brief, this method implies: (I) identifying a problem, (ii) examining background knowledge, (iii) choosing a hypothesis, (IV) drawing testable consequences, (v) critical examination and statistically processing data and finally (VI) evaluating the hypothesis. In our quest to determine the extent to which history is a science, we must look at whether, if at all, it corresponds to the scientific method.

Scientists, in this case, of natural sciences, normally observe nature, classify data, then using logic; they conduct experiments, and then form hypotheses which express findings mathematically and lastly come up with a theory. Let us look at different scholars who have come up with theories of history in relation to scientific progress. We shall at least mention Robin George Collingwood, Karl Jaspers, Carl G. Hempel and Karl Marx.


R.G Collingwood was a British philosopher and practicing archaeologist best known for his work in aesthetics and the philosophy of history. His philosophy occupied center stage in the 1950s and 1960s in the debate concerning the nature of explanation in the social sciences and whether they are ultimately reducible to explanations in the natural sciences.

In 1924, he wrote Speculum Mentis[4] -dialectic in the forms of experience, art, religion, science, history and philosophy. Following publication of his book- An Essay on Philosophical Method in 1933, he focused his philosophical of history and the philosophy of nature. From lectures on the above, the basis of the posthumously published The Idea of History in 1946 and The Idea of Nature in 1945 was formed. But what is Collingwood’s position with regards to history as a science?

According to Collingwood, the science which is dedicated to the study of mind is history. This claim that history is the study of mind is prima facie[5] counter-intuitive because many of us tend to think of history as a descriptive science of the past rather than as a normative science of thought. Collingwood arrives at the claim that history is the study of mind by reflecting on what we mean by the word ‘history’. He claims that when speaking about history, we do not usually mean ‘natural history’. In ordinary usage history tends not to be identified with natural but history of human affairs.

Collingwood argues that, if we reflect carefully on what we mean by history, we do not mean history of human beings in so far as they are purely natural beings, but a history of human beings in so far as they are rational beings. This, in my opinion, is the first instance of determining to what extent history is a science. That is, to Collingwood, history is a science if it focuses on rationality in human beings. But I digress. What Collingwood argues is that, the subject matter of history, therefore is provided not by natural but rational processes.

As Collingwood puts it, the so-called Res Gestae [6] “ are not the actions, in the widest sense of that word, which are done by animals of the specie called human : they are actions in another sense of the same word, equally familiar but narrower, actions done by reasonable agents in pursuit of ends determined by their reason.”[7] History proper, then, is the history of mind.

According to Collingwood, the subject matter of history, understood as a science of the mind, is actions-actions of rational human beings. These actions, constituting historical investigation, argues Collingwood, have an ‘inside’ that events, lack. That is, whereas events are explained under a general law obtained by inductive generalizations, actions are explained by looking for the motive that renders behavior intelligible.

History for Collingwood differs from natural science because in the former, as opposed to the latter, the relationship between the explanans and the explanandum is logical rather than empirical.

In line with Collingwood’s conception of philosophical analysis as a second order enquiry into first order forms of knowledge, it is therefore the task of the philosophy of history to make explicit the explanatory principles that are implicit in the practice of historians. It is the task of the philosophy of history to detect bad history or explanations that pass themselves as historical whilst they are not.[8]

In other words, the historian is concerned with rational connections rather than with inductive generalizations. Implied by this statement, we can argue that as Collingwood does, and say, history is a science to the extent that rationalism is employed over inductive generalizations.

According to Collingwood, genuine history seeks to recover the meaning behind the statements, not whether they are true or false. In investigating actions of historical agents, Collingwood, reminds us, historians cannot presuppose that the agents whose actions they are trying to interpret share the same background epistemic premises.

Presumption of rationality is a presupposition of historical enquiry, but historians must presuppose that agents are rational not in substantive sense that they hold true beliefs, but in the more minimal sense that they can infer validity from premises to conclusions and act on the practical syllogism. Next, we shall consider Carl G. Hempel.


[1] Cowie, A. P (Ed); Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English , 1992, Pg. 590

[2] Ibid, Pg. 590

[3] Ibid, Pg. 1130

[4] Giuseppina D’ Oro, James Connelly; Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; First published Wednesday, 11th January 2006, revised Monday, 17th May 2010.

[5] Based on what seems to be so without further or deeper investigation

[6] Giuseppina D’ Oro, James Connelly; Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; First published Wednesday, 11th January 2006, revised Monday, 17th May 2010.

[7] W.H Dray, Jan Van der Dussen (Eds); The Principles of History , 1999.

[8] Op Cit, Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


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Title: Karl Marx, Carl G. Hempel and Robin G. Collingwood on the Empirical Nature of History