The Philosophy of History by Mark Day

The words ‘history’ and ‘past’ are often used inter-changeably. There is, though, a proper technical distinction. The past is everything that has receded into time. It is complete and irrecoverable (setting aside for the moment any speculation about time travel). History is what is written about the past. It is an interpretation of the past. Otherwise it would not be possible to have multiple accounts by different authors of the same period or events.

Points like this open up a whole subterranean dimension to the activity of ‘doing history’. The more one looks at it, the more intriguing it all gets. To get going in this area first pick up the well respected standard primer The Philosophy of History (2008) by Mark Day. This is a currently very useful companion to the subject. It provides an accessible and comprehensive introduction to all the major philosophical concepts, issues and debates raised by history. The book offers a lucid treatment of existing approaches to the philosophy of history and also breaks new ground by extending the major debates in this area. Subjects examined include: the centrality of historical language; objections to historical truth and realism; the relationship between the philosophy of history and the philosophy of science; historical interpretation and narrative; philosophical accounts of historical reasoning from the evidence. The text clearly presents and criticizes the arguments of the major philosophers and historians who have contributed to our understanding of the philosophy of history.

Follow up with:

A. Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language (London, 2001). (

D. Carr, Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington, IN, 1986). (

A. Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (Cambridge, 2004). (

For a lifetime immersion in the philosophy of history follow the bibliographies at these links and

Also listen to the Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ episode (45 minutes) on the subject of how the writing of history has changed over time. Available at the link  With Paul Cartledge, AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture and Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge; John Burrow, Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg.

272 pages in Continuum paperback edition

ISBN 978-0826488480

If the past is not in some sense still ‘there’ how could we know anything about it?

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