Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.3, 401-412
Published Online August 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 401
Nominalism and History
Cody Franchetti
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia Universit y, New York, USA
Received March 23rd, 2013; revised April 23rd, 2013; accept ed May 1st, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Cody Franchetti. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The paper focuses on Nominalism in history, its application, and its historiographical implications. By
engaging with recent scholarship as well as classic works, a survey of Nominalism’s role in the discipline
of history is made; such examination is timely, since it has been done but scantily in a purely historical
context. In the light of recent theoretical works, which often display aporias over the nature and method of
historical enquiry, the paper offers new considerations on historical theory, which in the author’s view
may solve some of the contradictions that have surfaced in recent times. The Nominalistic stance is ar-
gued against by disputing theorists such as Paul Veyne, who has made a case for Nominalism in history.
A brief philosophical section introduces Nominalism in its metaphysical dimension and the discussion is
speedily brought to its significance for history. The paper also proposes a solution to the misconstrued yet
too often vague application of scientism in history, and offers theoretical grounds that might solve some
of the ‘stormy grounds’ historiography finds itself today. Articles by Marcel Gauchet and History and
Theory’s Anton Froeyman and Bert Leuridan are engaged with, as well as Murray Murphy’s books on the
philosophy of history. Works by Georg Gadamer, Marc Bloch, Benedetto Croce, Hyppolite Taine, and
Anthony Grafton crucially inform the discussion and brace the consequential conclusion.
Keywords: Nominalism; Particulars & Universals in History; Nomothetic History; Empiricism;
Hermeneutics; History as Humanity vs Science; Historical Narrative
The role of Nominalism in history has been seldom discussed,
seldom considered, and even more seldom analyzed. Surely if
asked, any historian would tender an opinion on the Nominal-
ist/Realist antithesis, and favor one persuasion over the other as
it relates their convictions about what is sound historical meth-
odology. But most, I venture to say, would recognize that they
have not given deep thought about how this crucial philosophi-
cal argument applies to their historical thinking. The dispute
between Realists and Nominalists has raged in metaphysics for
over two millennia—and is still the source of animated de-
bates—but in historical circles the argument, save a few in-
stances, has not been confronted directly on its own, diametri-
cal terms. The aim of this essay is to present the reader with an
assessment of the role of Nominalism in history, which, as far
as I know, has not yet been wholly laid out for an outright his-
torical readership. Although I shall present the various pertinent
sources and their theories in order for readers to form an opin-
ion of their own, I should like to point out that this essay’s ob-
jective is to discredit the idea that strict Nominalism alone be
an apposite stance in conceiving history. Still, I believe particu-
lars to be the cornerstone for historical understanding; and yet, I
am also convinced that historians who ignore universals and
exclusively scrutinize particulars will find their work wanting
of characteristics, which if overlooked, shall fatally compro-
mise their historical apprehension. In other words, I wish to
show that though particulars have a vital place in history—and
we shall see why—Nominalism is epistemologically deficient,
especially in history, for universals are an inalienable aspect of
human understanding, a n d t h u s are essential for a thorough con-
ception of history and a comprehensive historical grasp: his-
tory’s singularly extensive compass requires a broad vision that
accepts both universals and particulars.
Robert Hume appositely stated that, “[t]he philosophy of his-
tory has long been a stormy ground, and it will probably remain
so.” (Hume, 1999: p. 13) In fact, philosophers of history are
continuously examining and arguing over the ontology of his-
tory; its fractious, hybrid nature is ultimately an endless source
of speculation and fervid discussion. The main point of conten-
tion—which is also fundamental for our analysis—seems to me
the question of whether history is a science or a humanistic
pursuit, and, if it is the latter, how and in what way does it dif-
fer from other humanistic disciplines, due to its para-scientific
slant. While it is not the task of this essay—providentially—to
enter this acerbic dispute, our study of Nominalism and history
must necessarily include a discussion of history as science and
history as a humanity, because those who favor the Nominalis-
tic stance tend toward the persuasion of history as a form of
empirical knowledge, and thus view it through scientific lenses;
on the other hand, Realists envision history as a discipline un-
der the aegis of the humanities, whose epistemic tools are her-
meneutics rather than Method.1
I will show that despite the quagmire of opinions, currents,
and theories, whether one regards history as a science or as a
1As has been shown by Gadamer in Truth and Method. Gadamer, however,
did not write about Nominalism at all.
humanistic pursuit strict Nominalism is fatally reductive to
either conviction: it is in serious philosophical tension with the
former and irreconcilable with the latter.
Since Nominalism and Realism’s connection to history can
best be judged with a clear understanding of their more abstract,
philosophical perspective, I will first present the Nominal-
ist/Realist antithesis in its purely philosophical dimension; this
should provide the necessary understanding when the argument
is applied to history. Next, I will cover the few, meaningful
sources that pertain to our discussion; these shall be from dif-
ferent philosophies of history, which examine the question on a
purely historiographical basis. I have already stated that the
sources dealing directly with Nominalism and history are
scanty: philosophers of history who labor either for the scien-
tific or the humanistic view often do not confront Nominalism
and Realism directly, and thus some degree of inference shall
be required to locate their stance from their arguments.2 I will
then cover the most heated and productive dispute—that between
Paul Veyne and Marcel Gauchet, over the legitimacy of his-
torical Nominalism—which is the only modern debate directly
centered on the philosophical and historiographical positions
we are examining. Lastly, I will both attempt to present what
seems to me the most sensible solution to the tendentious,
Nominalist/Realist polemic and provide a sound argument
against these unnecessarily polarized tenets and their role in
history. I hope to provide at the very least, a certain degree of
mental order—of food for thought—rarely furnished to the
practicing historian, on the relation of Nominalism and history.
A Brief Philosophical Preparation
It is a well-known fact that the first to posit the theory of
universals was Plato. This epistemological theory is of cardinal
importance: it has engaged metaphysical speculation since its
inception; its claims have been as fecund as any great question
in philosophy. In fact, whether we know the world through its
intelligible manifestations, through direct perception, or, whe-
ther we only really know the world through Forms, the unintel-
ligible, is really the marrow of epistemology. Throughout his
dialogues, Plato continuously alludes to what he refers to as
“Forms”. The Republic is the classic, most quoted example:
“shall we proceed as usual and begin by assuming the existence
of a single nature or Form for every set of things which we call
by the same name?” (Plato, 1961: p. 820) These words, pro-
nounced by Socrates in the dialogue, are as ambiguous as they
are famous. David Armstrong, who has devoted the most com-
prehensive modern survey of Nominalism and Realism in his
two-volume work, Universals & Scientific Realism, points out
the ambiguity of this passage: “But is Plato here arguing that
the Form is required for the name to be meaningful? That is the
way in which he is often interpreted. However, it is at least as
plausible to suggest that the underlying argument is that same-
ness of name requires sameness of nature in the things named.”
(Armstrong, 1978: Vol. 1, p. 98) Despite the ambiguity of the
act of naming things3 in the statement quoted from Repub-
lic—whether sameness of name requires sameness of nature in
the things named or whether Forms are a prerequisite for the
ability to name things—particulars are understood by Plato to
be a subset of Forms (“the existence of a single nature or Form
for every set of things which we call by the same name”). In
Parmenides, Plato is more specific in detailing the discrete
existence of Forms: “Do you believe that there is such a thing
as likeness itself apart from the likeness that we possess? Cer-
tainly I do, said Socrates.” (Plato, 1961: p. 924) Here Plato is
positing that universals and particulars exist as separate entities.
The Platonic theory of Forms is very complex due to the al-
lusive, almost epigrammatic way which Plato scatters his dia-
logues with his references to them; Plato’s idea of universals is
open to a number of interpretations, which may lead to rather
different conclusions. It is not our concern here to examine the
theory of universals in all its metaphysical ramifications, but to
lay the basic philosophical principles which will be engaged
when discussing Nominalism and Realism and their role in
historical perception; the reader must merely be made aware of
the choices offered by this vital epistemological dilemma: does
our knowledge stem exclusively through our direct perception
of particulars or as an emanation of Forms? Do we accept or
reject the existence of universals? This is the question which
has fomented endless discussion—and in some cases derision:
Wittgenstein famously claimed this problem to be a non-issue.
But let us now define with as much clarity as possible what
Nominalists and Realists believe. I shall call upon David Arm-
strong’s definition for both terms:
There are those philosophers who hold that when we say
truly that two tokens are of the same type, then sameness
is to be understood in terms of strict identity. The two
different tokens have something strictly identical. […] If,
for instance, two different things have the same color,
then this must be taken strictly. One and the same thing,
the color, is a constituent of the two things. Historically,
these philosophers are called Realists and are said to be-
lieve in the reality of universals.
On the other side there are philosophers who think that
when we say that a number of tokens are all of the same
type, then all that we are saying is that the different tokens
are non-overlapping parts of some larger whole or unity
(the tokens are all member of one class, or they all resem-
ble each other in a certain way, or some other such for-
mula). The sameness of the tokens is only loose and
These philosophers hold with John Locke, that “all things
that exist are only particulars”. There are no strict identi-
ties reaching across different tokens; there are no univer-
sals. Philosophers who hold such a view are traditionally
called Nominalists. (Armstrong, 1989: p. 5)
In other words, Nominalism is the rejection of universals,
while Realism is the belief in their existence. There are various
forms of Nominalism—Concept Nominalism, Class Nominal-
ism, Resemblance Nominalism, which all fall under the so-
called heading of Predicate Nominalism—as well as various
kinds of Realism: Immanent Realism and Scientific Realism.
These distinctions are immaterial to our discussion and I shall
relegate them to broader, strictly metaphysical discussions. It is
now time to speak of the concepts outlined above in relation to
history and see how they affect our conceiving history.
2Such inferences shall not unmotivated and neither discretionary nor arbi-
3Plato dedicated his Cratylus to discussing the implications of naming
things (especially at the end of the dialogue from sections 438 to 440), man
as a name- gi ving cre ature, and language’s relationship to truth.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Particulars and History
The first to proclaim that historians dealt above all with par-
ticulars, or “singulars”, as he referred to them, was Aristotle. In
Poetics Aristotle distinguished the historian from the poet as
The distinction between historian and poet is not in the
one writing prose and the other verse—you might put the
work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a spe-
cies of history; it consists really in this, that the one de-
scribes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of
thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more phi-
losophic and of graver import than history, since its
statements are of the nature rather of universals; the
statements of history are singulars. (Aristotle, 1946: p.
Aristotle thus inaugurated the Nominalist viewpoint in the
discipline of history. This persuasion had enough thrust to per-
severe until today and has been the source of many fruitful
debates in historiography, though most debates are not always
conscious of the Nominalism/Realism antithesis at their root
nor its implications when applied to the discipline of history;
furthermore, the friction between universals and particulars is
aggravated, when, as historians, we apply the indefeasible ele-
ment of our discipline—temporality—in our consideration. For
example, when we say that, “a certain person whom we saw
today is the very same person that we saw yesterday […] does
that mean that the person today and the person yesterday are
actually identical?” (Armstrong, 1989: p. 3) Thus we can see
how temporality complicates particulars and their perception,
for we can say with some confidence that the person yesterday
is the same as the person today. But only loosely. Strictly
speaking, “they are different temporal parts of a single four-
dimensional entity, the person.” (Armstrong, 1989: p. 4) This
ties itself to a principle—controversial in philosophy—called
the Identity of Indiscernibles, which holds that “if a and b have
all their properties in common, then a is identical with b. In
other words, sameness of properties gives sameness of thing.”
(Armstrong, 1989: p. 3) Universals, too, are affected by this
principle, for in order to recognize them—just as we do par-
ticulars—we must apply the principle of Identity of Indis-
cernibles. In history, this involves the recognition of sameness
through time for universals—if we believe in them, of course.
But since history is the study of the change of human practices,
particulars clearly bear greater significance for the historian, for
it is by analyzing particulars that we can readily recognize
change: temporality makes particulars dependent on their tem-
porary instant, and therefore significant inasmuch as they reveal
the historical moment we are examining. On the other hand, in
the animated debate between Paul Veyne and Marcel Gauchet,
we shall see that universals are not to be discounted. The dis-
pute was centered on particulars—how, why, and to what ex-
tent they are meaningful in historical inquiry. In examining
their claims, I think what should transpire is that particulars
alone and the refutation of universals—Nominalism—severely
limits the historian’s gaze.
Paul Veyne and the Chimera of the
Nominalist Historian
Paul Veyne is the modern historian who wrote explicitly
about Nominalism and history, and who argued for a Nominal-
ist outlook. He wrote about it in his theoretical writings on his-
tory. His first book, Writing History, is full of driving ideas
about historical methodology as well as fruitful considerations
about the ways a historian crafts his work. Though throughout
the book Veyne offers a number of stimulating insights, he
often stumbles in contradictions that mar the coherence of his
thought: Veyne’s view of history is staunchly Nominalist, yet
his statements are often incongruous with the implications of
Nominalism. Very early he states that, “nothing is more rea-
sonable than a Nominalist conception of history” (Veyne, 1984:
p. 43) and explains the legitimacy of this position by stating
that “we know historical types do not exist in themselves, that
events are not reproduced with the constancy of living species,
that the typical in history is a choice […] in short, the types are
infinite in number, since they exist only through us. Once again,
we have to come to the conclusion of historical Nominalism.”
(Veyne, 1984: p. 121) Veyne’s argument is essentially that the
historian ought to look to particulars and reject universals
—which here he calls “historical types”—sin ce only the former
can reveal the historical moment in its uniqueness, thus imply-
ing that the belief in universals hampers a historian’s under-
standing. In his most well known essay, Foucault Revolution-
izes History, Veyne further expanded this idea:
In short, in any given era the set of practices gives rise, on
a given material point, to a unique historical countenance
in which we think we recognize what is called, in vague
terms, historical science or religion; but what takes shape
at that same point in another era will have its own unique
and very different countenance and, conversely, a coun-
tenance vaguely similar to the earlier one will take shape
at a some other point. This is what denying the existence
of natural objects means: across the ages we do not en-
counter the evolution or modification of a single object
that always appears in the same place. (Veyne, 1997: p.
Again, Veyne makes a powerful and convincing case for the
uniqueness of any historical moment, but he is less persuasive
when he argues that across the ages we never encounter the
same things. A few pages later, Veyne drives this point further:
“there is no concrete trans-historical truth.” (Veyne, 1997: p.
Marcel Gauchet fulminated Veyne for his extreme Nominal-
ist position. In an article called Le nominalisme historien. A
propos de Foucault révolutionne lhistoire de Paul Veyne,
Gauchet faulted Veyne for the stringent Nominalism he dis-
played in his essay on Foucault, and claimed Veyne’s ideas to
be the result of a naïve skepticism “scepticisme naïf” (Gauchet,
1984: p. 409), reminiscent of a second-degree scientism that
could never allow authentic historicity. For Gauchet, the
Nominalist epistemology is a “nullifying” philosophy: “[with
his] strange epistemology, no time is seriously considered by
Veyne to historical conditions of formation of this knowledge
of historical fact according to standards of accuracy. This gen-
eralized genealogy excludes but one genealogy: its own. In
other words, everything is historical, except history.” (Gauchet,
1986: p. 407)4 Furthermore, according to Gauchet, Veyne is
ignorant of the foundations of historical methodology. He refers
4Or, étrange épistémologie, à aucun moment il n’est sérieusement réfléchi
chez Veyne aux conditions historiques de constitution de cette connaissance
du fait historique selon des normes d’exactitude. Cette vision généalogique
généralisée n’exclut qu’une généalogie: la sienne propre. Tout est hiostori-
ue, en somme, sauf l’histoire.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 403
to Veyne’s “authentic misunderstanding” citing Veyne’s claim
that historians of antiquity and the Middle Ages were a-critical,
because they built their histories upon their predecessors’. Ac-
cording to Gauchet, this view is summary and erroneous, since
Gauchet points out that historians before historicism were in-
deed critical5 but were so with completely different criteria
from our own. For Gauchet, Veyne’s ignorance creates a fatal
blind spot in Veyne’s historical epistemology; it is that spot,
which accounts for the Nominalist’s fortune.
The main task which an authentic epistemology of today
must provide: dissolve the sophisms that naturally result
in this renewed version of universal mobility. The fact
that everything is historical does not mean that everything
is relative, that history is made of nothing but radical het-
erogeneities and woven by singular, incomparable emer-
gences. But it is precisely this challenge, that all is his-
torical, that must be met. What does it mean, exactly?
That death, tears, childhood, dreams, sexuality, folly are
historical in their essence and not like natural objects al-
ways identical with themselves; but what does that truly
mean? Since there is uncertainty about this point, skeptic-
cism and historical Nominalism arise and thrive. (Gauchet,
1986: p. 406)6
However Gauchet did explain particulars’ own, rightful place
in conceiving history, and wrote about it exemplarily: “History
[is] the emergence, the advent of forms than cannot be ex-
plained, except by missing what matters in them, that is, what
these forms have that is incomparable. From this comes the
necessity of the historian’s Nominalism, the only position that
can adequately open him to the inexplicable singularities of a
process of permanent innovation.” (Gauchet, 1986: p. 403)7
Paying close attention to particulars to make the historian
“open to the singularities” of a period is a process which we
shall examine in its metaphysical dimension; but after Gau-
chet’s sensible statement we have established particulars’ exi-
gency and that universals alone are insufficient for conceiving
history. For example, if we consider the idea of “the State” we
surely cannot find much in common among the Roman State in
the first century AD, the State under Louis XIV, and, say, the
bureaucratic Napoleonic State.8 Clearly, if we were to look
exclusively through the lens of forms we’d make historically
insignificant statements. (However, further on I shall present a
more sophisticated concept of universals that discounts Nomi-
nalism in every epistem o log ical maneuver.)
Gauchet thus expounded brilliantly on the need to concen-
trate on particulars in historical enquiry. But the benefits of a
composed Nominalism in conceiving history surely are not new:
“Herder set a universal historical worldview against the En-
lightenment’s teleological view of history […] to acknowledge
that each period has its own right to exist, in its own perfec-
tion.” (Gadamer, 2004: p. 198) I think it should now be evident
that particulars do have a fundamental role in our understanding
of a historical moment.
And yet, as Fustel de Coulanges said, “History is not the ac-
cumulation of facts and events of every sort that have been
produced in the past: it is the science of human societies”
(Bloch, 2005: p. 71)9 and as such, one must be aware that, as
we saw above, contrary to Veyne’s stating the contrary, “trans-
historical truths” exist, because there are constants in human
nature—vanity, rapacity, the wish for a better position in soci-
ety, love, lust, etc. And the historian who disregards timeless
human traits inevitably shall not set them against the period he
is studying—which is of course exemplary and unrepeat-
able—thus finding his compass of vision considerably dimin-
ished by such heedlessness. Furthermore, Veyne’s negation of
trans-historical truths presents another, perhaps greater problem,
especially for historians: a generation inherits certain beliefs
and practices from a previous one; as that transference occurs,
these beliefs and practices gradually change. By denying these
constants the effects of temporality on man are ignored. That is
nonsensical for an historian, whose charge is to be a most sen-
sitive needle on the scale of change over time.
Let us remember Dilthey’s precept that “we can explain
things but we understand men”. This important distinction
shoulders us to what is probably the most insightful quote from
Marc Bloch’s The Historians Craft, that undisputed master-
piece of twentieth-century historical methodology: “If men,
who are the object of our study, fail to understand us, how can
we feel that we have accomplished more than half our mis-
sion?” (Bloch, 1953: p. 86-87) Therefore, if we be understand-
ing of men, how could we discount universals, which inexora-
bly constitute his nature? And furthermore, the rightful insis-
tence that these two great historians placed on understanding
over explanation is really a charge that explanation in history
has scientific inclinations, either by virtue of an unobtainable
law-covering model, or by impossible empiricism for the causal
explanations of events. And so, a crucial aporia rises before us
here: a choice must be made between hermeneutic and scien-
tific knowledge, for a hermeneut cannot be an empiricist. This
was demonstrated most powerfully by Gadamer in Truth and
Method: Gadamer revealed hermeneutics to be an ulterior form
of knowledge bearing truth outside Method—the indefeasible
foundation of natural science.
5He is quite right in saying so: see Nadel, 1964.
6[…] la tâche prioritaire que doit se proposer une authentique épistémologie
historique ajourd’hui: dissoudre les sophismes qui paraissent naturellement
découler de cette version renouvelée de l’universelle mobilité. Le fait que
tout est historique ne signifie aucunement que tout est relatif, que l’histoire
n’est fait que d’hétérogénéités radicals et tissé que des surgissements in-
comparables. Mais c’est très précisément à ce défi du tout est historique
qu’il s’agit de répondre. Qu’est-ce au juste que cela veut dire? Que la mort,
les larmes, l’enfance, la rêve, la sexualité, la folie soient d’essence histori-
que et non pas autant d’objets naturels toujours identiques à eux-mêmes,
qu’est-ce que cela véritablement signifie? Car c’est de l’incertitude sur ce
point que naissent et prospérent le scepticisme et le nominalisme histori-
7L’histoire qui est le surgissement, l’avénement de formes qui ne saurient
s’expliquer , sauf à manquer ce qui compte en elles, à savoir ce que’elles
comportent d’incomparable. D’où le nécessaire nominalisme de l’historien,
seul à meme de l’ouvrir adéquatement aux singularités inexplicables d’un
processus d’innovation permane nte.
8The example is Gauchet’s.
With this in mind, Veyne’s contradictions begin to emerge,
and they reveal to be problematic. Two contradictions in
Veyne’s Writing History, which diminish the efficacy of his
theory considerably, are most pertinent to our discussion. The
first is his statement that “[t]he historical explanation is not
nomologic, it is casual; as casual, it contains something gen-
eral”. Is Veyne flirting here with Realism (“it contains some-
thing general”) and contradicting his purported Nominalism
9La storia non è l’accumulazione degli avvenimenti d’ogni tipo che si sono
prodotti nel passato: essa è la scienza delle società umane.
Marc Bloch cited de Coulages’s affirmation in his last, scattered papers on
history, written just bef or e being sho t in 1944 by the Gestapo.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
with the irruption of universals in historical explanation? Sec-
ondly, Veyne, argues that “history is not a science.” (Veyne,
1884: p. 144) But Veyne, in his essay on Foucault, praised him
for his empiricism—for statements such as, “history becomes
an empirical science of events and that radical mode of being
that prescribes their destiny to all empirical beings, to those
particular beings that we are” (Foucault, 1994: p. 219)—which
according to Veyne made Foucault a better kind of historian.
We have already seen the ontological tension that arises from
these two positions standing side by side, for it is impossible
for them to be bridged in any way.
Even in his most defensible apology for Nominalism Veyne
finds himself hampered by this single-handed theoretical con-
cern: “[…] historical Nominalism, the vague character of sub-
lunary causality, makes it that no order of causes constantly
imposes itself as more decisive than the others.” (Veyne, 1984:
p. 280) I think Veyne’s insistence on Nominalism, is the mani-
festation of a natural and widespread fear among historians
—the fear of being faulted for not being sufficiently analytical.
But analytical acumen is but one ingredient that makes a great
historian. And so, Gauchet’s charge of Veyne’s relative igno-
rance of historical methodology seems correct to me: Veyne’s
statement above, which upon its first reading seems sound, is
really only valid for attempts at causal explanations of histori-
cal events, but it is utterly useless for broader notions of history,
which as I suggested above, must also understand man, and,
gauge with great accuracy the change in human practices. It is
worthwhile here to remember Vico’s celebrated dictum that
history “discloses the realm of culture, not nature”: and so, the
historian who handles culture must take into account human
temperament, and the latter—it should be stressed again—has
universals and forms that ought not to be dismissed. In addition,
Vico’s statement is an excellent refutation—on its own—for
using natural science’s practices (contra Veyne and his empiri-
cal stance).
Despite my quibbles with Veyne’s theoretical writing, I
should like to point out that when he actually writes history,
Veyne is a great historian, and practices history in the most
integral fashion. But in his theoretical writings there is an un-
derlying philosophical uneasiness, which stands in the way of
his speculations. However, this should not diminish Veyne’s
accomplishments in our eyes, since often people do something
very well even if the theory they use to explain what they do is
Nominalism’s Attempts at a View of History
Conforming to Scientific Knowledge
An interesting yet defective attempt for a philosophy of his-
tory analogous to science and that brims with sharp Nominalis-
tic positions is offered by Murray Murphy. In his book, Phi-
losophical Foundations of Historical Knowledge, Murphy seeks
rather hopelessly to reconcile the theories of historical causal
explanation put forth by Carl Hempel and Paul Oppenheim in
their Deductive-Nomological model for scientific explanation
—with which they sought to explain any given historical event
with a series of “logically deductive premises” (Murphy, 1994:
p. 98)—and the concept of “culture”, which according to Mur-
phy must also be considered as an explanation for human ac-
tions. Murphy casts eight propositions about historical knowl-
edge, which he believes to be verifiable; the last is also the
thorniest, for it states that “human actions are casually explain-
able.” (Murphy, 1994: p. x)
For human actions to be casually explainable, Murphy up-
holds to the so-called “covering law”:
This […] model of explanation [is] from the metaphorical
idea that the general law “covers” the particular case. It
involves certain presuppositions that should be noted. One
is that all laws are general, that is, the law cannot contain
any reference to a particular. This was seen as necessary
to rule out “general” statements such as “All chairs in this
room are made of wood”. For the same reason, Hempel
and Oppenheim stipulated that laws could contain only
purely qualitative properties, so that properties referring to
particulars (e.g., “earthly”) are proscribed. (Murphy, 1994:
p. 98)
At first this may seem to be a Realist position, since laws
evince some form of ‘generality’ and are meant to be universal.
But Nominalists hold that only physical particulars in space and
time exist, and that universals, which do not, are at best subse-
quent to particular things; therefore general laws are brought
into being by particulars, and, in the case of history, laws would
provide predictability, which of course is unfeasible. Robert
Hume, who, in his excellent book, Reconstructing Contexts:
The Aims and Principles of Archaeo-Historicism labels himself
an empiricist, attacks Murphy’s view by saying, “I think Mur-
phy is overstating his case. To say that human action has causes
is one thing; to say that we can identify them is something else”
(Hume, 1999: p. 15). The last clause is apodictic: it is disarm-
ingly obvious that every historian who has attempted to predict
the future by using casual explanations for past events to forge
laws for events, such as, say, revolutions, has always failed.
Obviously, the covering law refutes universals categorically
and places Murphy firmly in the Nominalist camp; Murphy
accepts the covering law as an explanation for causality of
events as well as action in history: “I believe there is no real
doubt that the covering law model provides an explanation for
an action […]” (Murphy, 1994: p. 155). Hume expounds on the
reasons for the mania of giving history a scientific footing to
give it epistemological certainty as well as the deriving distor-
tions of such attempts brilliantly.
Historians have long suffered from a dangerous hankering
to be as precise and rigorous as physicists, and more than
half a century ago history took a terrible turn when Hem-
pel published “The Function of General Laws in History”.
Historians spent the next thirty years trying to get out
from under the demands that follow from Hempel’s at-
tempt to impose on history the logical structure of expla-
nation he found in physics. The gist of the “covering law
model” is simplicity itself: explanation can be achieved
“by subsuming what is to be explained under a general
In the cold aftermath of repentance at leisure, this is mani-
festly a lunatic idea. If history has general “laws”, they are
not of the sort to be found in classical physics. Physical
science attempts to deal with something more or less avai-
lable in the present; history attempts to explain the past
now unrecapturable except via extrapolation from traces.
The degree to which billiard balls can be used to explain
human behaviour is evidently limited. More than a cen-
tury ago Dilthey rightly distinguished between physical
science (concerned with causal explanation of present
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 405
phenomena) and history (concerned with comprehension
of a vanished past). (Hume, 1999: pp. 15-16)
That a self-proclaimed empiricist like Robert Hume states
unequivocally the fatal pitfalls of scientism applied to history is
significant; and lunacy is indeed what incites a statement by
Michael Scriven, which Murphy quotes in defense of his eighth
proposition, which as we saw above states that “human actions
are casually explainable”, and which Scriven drives to its par-
oxistic locus: “causality is the most important explanatory func-
tion in history.” (Murphy, 1994: p. 102) Now I should like to
know which historian, in Scriven’s or Murphy’s view, has fully
explained the cause(s) of, say, the French Revolution, which is
about the most written event in history. Can an arsenal of “sci-
entists” redact a nomological system for the Revolution? Com-
pared to these desiccated attempts, Hyppolite Taine’s overem-
phasized and infinitely figurative concept of “l’esprit classique”
is indeed a tonic—for the comprehension of the spirit which
animated the Revolution:
[Taine’s] thesis is that the philosophy of the eighteenth
century was the product of the “classic spirit”, which was
invented by Descartes and the essence of which was to
pursue the absolute, and worship uniformity. When the
French mind turned to politics it proceeded to prescribe
according to the dictates of pure reason. This neglect of
the individual, the concrete, the real, was the mark alike in
literature, of the Philosophes and of the Revolution, and
its predominance was the main cause of the tragedies of
modern France. (Gooch, 1952: p. 228)10
Taine, like most historians of the nineteenth century, be-
lieved that history had both scientific and literary claims, which
lent his history to a number of critical approaches. In his great
work, Les Origines de la France Contemporaine, Taine had
mastered the lessons of the august German school of history of
the nineteenth century—that great efflorescence, which had
produced unparalleled works written by men who engaged in
the rigorous praxis of basing their histories on primary sources,
as well as the necessity of understanding the reasons behind the
actions of men. Accordingly, Taine employed a monumental
archival knowledge with an almost unique, insightful psycho-
logical understanding; his great work is thus at the same time
political philosophy, psychological history, social ethics, and,
owing to its unique literary focus, literary criticism as well. For
Taine, history was both an art and a science; his concept of the
“esprit classique” sought—as Dilthey urged—also to compre-
hend, not just to explain. Bloch’s reiteration of this is thus note-
worthy: “This faculty of understanding the living is, in very
truth, the master quality of the historian.” (Bloch, 1953: p. 43)
The rich idea of “l’esprit classique” opposes Veyne’s much
vaunted idea that Foucault’s merit—and supposed superior-
ity—was that he was both an empiricist and a profoundly skep-
tical thinker “who believed only in the truth of facts […] never
in the truth of ideas” (Veyne, 2010: p. 1)11 and that thanks to
this supposedly sharpened, empiricist gaze, he managed to
“peel away the banalities and notice that there is more to ex-
plain” (Veyne, 1997: p. 156) than what was previously under-
stood about a period. But in arguing that Foucault revolution-
ized history Veyne forced the issue.12 Again, the example of the
French Revolution stands before us: if we are to explain it
through facts, such as, among others, the failure of France to
reflect “the change of the distribution of property and wealth
[that] ceased to be the prerogative of a few” (Acton, 2000: p. 1),
or the 1788 drought, we shall find that facts are not at all
enough: I can think of a number of droughts and food shortages
in numerous principalities in the eighteenth century, non of
which resulted in a revolution, as neither did the iniquitous and
anachronistic socio-economic conditions of the Kingdom of the
Two Sicilies in the nineteenth century. Taine’s argument of the
thought that permeated France has much import and cannot be
discounted: unquestionably, ideas do exist and possess a truth
just as facts do, much to Veyne’s discomfiture.
The imposing—and slanted—theoretical structure that Mur-
phy is elevating, is irretrievably weakened by a fatal contradict-
tion, which is his latest work, Truth and History, is most fla-
grantly evident:
History, as all historians agree [sic], is a form of empirical
knowledge. Accordingly, the logic of history is similar to
that of other forms of empirical knowledge. The basis of
historical work is evidence, which as every philosopher of
history, from Collingwood on, has agreed, consists of ob-
servations made on artifacts from the past. […] It follows
that the historian’s basic task is the finding and the inter-
pretation of such artifacts. (Murphy, 2009: p. 177)
Interpretation? Is Murphy stretching his hand to hermeneu-
tics? Again, as with Veyne, the empirically-leaning historian is
faced with the irreconcilable, logical disjunction of being both
an empiricist and a hermeneutist—a hopeless desire. Murphy
also manifests a serious epistemological inconsistency when at
first he states, “as an empiricist, I do not believe there is any
way of knowing reality except through the theory that best ex-
plains our data, and I see nothing to be gained by the belief in
an unknowable metaphysical entity.” (Murphy, 2009: p. 12)
But only a page later, Murphy takes umbrage with Bas van
Fraassen, whom he considers too severe an empiricist, due to
his intransigence,13 which he considers it to be “an extreme
form of empiricism that denies reality to anything not directly
observable by us with our unaided senses.” (Murphy, 2009: p.
14) But empiricism is severe in that it must obey rigorous rules
and it does not allow unobservable data to be admitted for
theoretical purposes. It need be so: if we were to betray its
framework—Method—our entire scientific knowledge would
Let me address Murphy’s statement that “History, as all his-
torians agree, is a form of empirical knowledge”. Can empiri-
cism, explanation, causality, and all these conceptual ingredi-
ents of the scientifically minded, yield statements of such pro-
fundity as the following by Johann Huizinga?
The great divide in the perception of the beauty of life
comes much more between the Renaissance and the mod-
ern period than between the Middle Ages and the Renais-
sance. The turnabout occurs at the point where art and life
10For Taine’ s own, extensi ve presentatio n of “l’espri t classique”, s ee Chap-
ter 2 of Book 3 in: Taine, 1986.
11Here Veyne is projecting his thought onto Foucault’s: in The Order o
Things, Foucault evinces a clear regard for ideas and their veracity (See
next footnote).
12Veyne misrepresents his interpretation of Foucault in a number of ways.
For a closer look at Veyne’s flawed interpretation of Foucault, see
Franchetti, 2011.
13See Fraassen, 1980.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
begin to diverge. It is the point where art begins to be no
longer in the midst of life, as a noble part of the joy of life
itself, but outside of life as something to be highly vener-
ated, as something to turn to in moments of edification or
rest. The old dualism separating God and the world has
thus returned in another form, that of the separation of art
and life. Now a line has been drawn right through the en-
joyments offered by life. Henceforth they are separated
into two halves—one lower, one higher. For medieval
man they were all sinful without exception; now they are
all considered permissible, but their ethical evaluation
differs according to their greater or lesser degree of spiri-
[…] For the medieval man enjoyment per se is sinful. The
Renaissance had managed to free itself from the rejection
of all the joy of life as something sinful, but had not yet
found a new way of separating the higher and lower en-
joyments of life; the Renaissance wanted an unencum-
bered enjoyment of all of life. The new distinction is the
compromise between the Renaissance and Puritanism that
is at the base of modern spiritual attitudes. It amounted to
a mutual capitulation in which one side insisted on saving
beauty while the other insisted on the condemnation of sin.
[…] Only after the Puritan worldview lost its intensity did
the Renaissance receptiveness to all the joys of life gain
ground again; perhaps even more ground than before, be-
cause beginning the eighteenth century there is a tendency
to regard the natural per se as an element of the ethically
good. Anyone attempting to draw the dividing line be-
tween the higher and lower enjoyments of life according
to the dictates of ethical consciousness would no longer
separate art from sensuous enjoyment, the enjoyment of
nature from the cult of the body, the elevated from the
natural, but would only separate egotism, lies, and vanity
from purity. (Huizinga, 1996: pp. 40-41)
Can logical induction yield insights into human nature such
as this by Fernand Braudel?
Pius V was inde ed one of these “upstarts”, n ot a “ pr i nc el y”
pope, not a man familiar with the ways of the world and
prepared to make those compromises without which ‘the
world’ would not go round. He had the passion, rigour
and intransigence of the poor. (Braudel, 1995: p. 1027)
These excerpts whose breadth reveal a singular comprehen-
sion of the past and of the human spirit is not based on mere
particulars: it is an understanding that springs from the pro-
found knowledge of a period’s facts inspirited with the impulse
of universality and a deep understanding of a specific culture,
which undoubtedly includes particulars, but goes beyond them.
(Reading the work of such historians reveals Collingwood’s
notion that history is really the history of thought applied to
history as bracing.) These remarkable excerpts come from his-
torical masterworks of the twentieth century; both works are
still source of admiration—and discussion. Is it possible that a
Nominalist outlook by itself power such statements? Could the
rejection of universals ever produce such singularly penetrating
insights? I do not think so. A view that sees no strict identities
reaching across different tokens—particulars—as the sole
source of knowledge could never achieve what a Huzinga or a
Braudel has. Surely, I am obviously not concerned with resolv-
ing the dispute—it never shall be—over whether history is a
form of knowledge that is attained through Method, or whether
its knowledge is hermeneutic, different and autonomous from
science, and thus belonging to the field of the humanities, but, I
am concerned about arguing against Nominalism’s inadequacy,
whatever persuasion a historian may hold about the nature of
the knowledge of history.
Murphy is a potent thinker, but he is trapped by an episte-
mology “that is an empirical discipline located within science,
rather than an a priori discipline prior to science” (Murphy,
1994, p. xii)14 and as such, he has an ax to grind, the ax of em-
piricism—a most encumbering ax—and after reading his lucid
but overwrought ruminations one parts from his books feeling
that the ideologue has exerted himself far too much to wield
this ax, which may just be too grueling for history.
The reason for a number of philosophers of history’s case for
Nominalism—and there are a number of them—is, I think, the
fear of the specter of arbitrariness. And so, to avoid being la-
beled relativistic, the insecure historian legitimizes his method-
ology behind a gray scientism. I hope this essay be a warning to
lesser historians who are not a Veyne, and do not possess his
capability of immersing himself in a period’s specificity—
regardless of the way he says one must go about it—and take
refuge in a clerical empiricism which shears all beauty, effect,
and meaning to their writing: the rejection of anything universal
is the death of anything really historical, because it circumvents
the human element—through time, of course—the paramount
object of the historian’s gaze.
Let us examine more closely the claim that predictive laws
and the generalizations they allow, be they casual or non-casual,
are functional or indeed even possible in history. I wish to look
at this more closely, because so much literature has been de-
voted to devise some kind of lawfulness in history. In a recent
article in History and Theory, Bert Leuridan and Anton Froey-
man argue for the use of general laws in historiography without
the more extreme leanings of a Hempel or a Murphy: in no
place do they claim history to be an empirical science. However,
they insist that “laws in history can be made […] clear and
fruitful” (Leuridan; Froeyman, 2012: p. 182) by applying
“pragmatic laws”, a “milder” form of lawfulness developed by
Sandra Mitchell, which essentially holds that “evaluation is
context-dependent” (Leuridan; Froeyman, 2012: p. 177) and
thus “scientific generalizations […] will seldom be completely
universal […]; the important question is how and to what extent
they are contingent. This means that if we want to use a gener-
alization, we need to assess the st ability of these conditions. […]
Stability is a very important parameter for the evaluation of a
generalization’s usefulness.” (Leuridan; Froeyman, 2012: p.
177) Through this context-dependent view Leuridan and Froey-
man believe a scientific generalization resembling a law is be-
lieved to be possible in history.
This argument is astute but it suffers from an ontological fal-
lacy—as we’ve seen repeatedly, that of using scientific prac-
tices to define, delineate, and delimit historical apprehension.
These stilted and somewhat artificial efforts are again the result
of the fear of relativism, as if without some scientifically pos-
tured grounding history would cease to be a sound form of
knowledge, like the natural sciences. These strained efforts
seem to me unnecessary. The sibylline pretensions of causality
in history are the result of a confusion about the epistemology
of history, which in my view is hermeneutics and not scientific
14Murphy fol lows Quine’s view of epistemology and plainly states so.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 407
method. If historiographers and philosophers of history did not
have misconceptions about historical knowledge, or if they did
not harbor any uncertainty of any other form of truth that is not
scientific, it seems to me that they would not keep spearheading
historical theory down a spurious path; and a lot of intellectual
energy would not be dissipated.
It is perhaps for this reason, too, that footnotes became such
an essential part of historical writing in modern times; as An-
thony Grafton admirably put it, “footnotes are the outward and
visible signs of this kind of history’s inward grace—the grace
infused into history when it was transformed from an eloquent
narrative into a critical discipline.” (Grafton, 1997: p. 24) In
other words, footnotes are the underpinning of a discipline that
its practitioners and theorists are often fearful could drift into
mendacious waters. Grafton explains that the origin of history’s
uncertainty was, in fact, “the vogue for Cartesian philosophy
and experimental science. That, in turn, explains why Bayl e felt
it necessary to argue, at length, against the fashionable view
that mathematics had an advantage over historical knowledge,
in that ‘it leads to truths not susceptible to doubt’.” (Grafton,
1997: p. 208) We ought to keep in mind that a number of
thinkers, of no less caliber than a Pascal, a Liebnitz, a Spinoza,
a Bayle, a Vico all reacted against this constricting view of
knowledge and argued “that those pure mathematicians and
physicists, who are ignorant of and despise all other forms of
knowledge, are wrong” (Grafton, 1997: p. 210)15 and that “cer-
titudes of history, though different from those of mathematics,
were far more concrete, more applicable to human life, and
even more certain in a metaphysical sense than the profound
abstractions of mathematics.” (Grafton, 1997: p. 208)16
That it was an illustrious scientist, who in modern times
peremptorily contrasted between the two forms of knowledge
we have been discussing is ironic: in a lecture given at the
commencement of the academic year at the University of Hei-
delberg in 1862, Herman von Helmholtz made the historic dis-
tinction between the natural sciences and the human sciences,
declaring the latter to be of superior and humane significance.
It is not easy for a scientific man to convey to the scholar
or a jurist a clear idea of a complicated process of nature;
he must demand of them a great power of abstraction
from the phenomena, as well as a certain skill in the use
of geometrical and mechanical conceptions, in which it is
difficult for them to follow him. On the other hand an art-
ist will perhaps find the natural philosopher too much in-
clined to mechanical and material explanations, which
seem to him commonplace, and chilling as his feeling and
enthusiasm. Nor will the scholar or the historian, who
have some common ground with the theologian or the ju-
rist, fare better with the natural philosopher. They will
find him shockingly indifferent to literary treasures, per-
haps even more indifferent than he ought to be to the his-
tory of his own science. In short, there is no denying that,
while the moral sciences deal directly with the nearest and
dearest interests of the human mind, and with the institu-
tions it has brought into being, the natural sciences are
concerned with dead, indifferent matter, obviously indis-
pensable for the sake of its practical utility, but apparently
without any immediate bearing on the cultivation of the
intellect. (Helmholtz, 1873: p. 9)
Helmholtz also argued against employing natural sciences’
epistemological parameters—what he called “logical induc-
tion”—in the human sciences:
We might possibly, in opposition to logical induction
which reduces a question to clearly-defined universal
propositions, call the moral science’s kind of reasoning
aesthetic induction, because it is most conspicuous in the
higher class of works of art. It is an essential part of an
artist’s talent to reproduce by words, by form, by colour,
or by music, the external indications of a character or a
state of mind, and by a kind of instinctive intuition, un-
controlled by any definable rule, to seize the necessary
steps which we pass from one mood to another. If we do
find that the artist has consciously worked after general
rules and abstractions, we think his work poor and com-
monplace, and cease to admire. On the contrary, the
works of great artists bring before us characters with such
a lifelikeness, with such a wealth of individual traits and
such an overwhelming conviction of truth, that they al-
most seem to be more real than the reality itself, because
all disturbing influences are eliminated. (Helmholtz, 1873:
p. 16)
Finally, Helmholtz made an unequivocal statement about
“aesthetic induction”: “This latter kind of induction, which can
never be perfectly assimilated to forms of logical reasoning, nor
pressed so far as to establish universal laws, plays a most im-
portant part in human life.” (Helmholtz, 1873: p. 15) That a
man who was first and foremost a scientist, a physicist of no
less caliber than the teacher of Max Plank, the pioneer of
Quantum Physics, wrote such resounding words emphasizing
the humanities’ superior importance is a lesson to all of us,
especially to those who doubt the truth that the humanities re-
veal. But Helmholtz was a man of immense breadth of vision
and is a figure in a class of his own who transcended the
boundaries of science and art.17
If we compare Helmholtz’s idea that “logical induction” is
not applicable to human sciences with Veyne’s theory of “ret-
rodiction”, Helmholtz’s superior footing from which he is look-
ing at the humanities is evident: Veyne wrote that, “[h]istorical
synthesis is nothing but this operation of filling in; we shall call
it ‘retrodiction’, borrowing the word from the theory of income-
plete knowledge that is the theory of probabilities. […] So all
‘retrodiction’ calls into play a causal explanation and perhaps
even a true law. To study historical synthesis, or ‘retrodiction’,
is to study the part played in history by induction and in what
‘historical causality’ consists.” (Veyne, 1984: pp. 144-145)
Once again, these statements are spurred from the view that
“logical induction” yields a superior form of knowledge to that
of “aesthetic induction”. But Helmholtz annulled this fallacy. If
Veyne had been acquainted with the modern German school of
17In addition to the countless and fundamental contributions to science—
the law of conservation of energy, the electromagnetic equation, the inven-
tion of the acoustics resonator, the invention of the ophthalmoscope, and
much more—Helmholtz laid out ideas, which were later developed by
Freud that were indispensible for his forming of the concept of the uncon-
scious. Furthermore, this authentic polymath developed the “Helmholtz
resonator”, which was able to identify the pitch and the frequency of any
sound; this machine as well as the book he wrote called On the Sensatio ns
of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music influenced musi-
cologists up until the twentieth century.
15The quote is from Spinoza.
16The quote is from Bayle.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
hermeneutics, which was commenced by Schleiermacher in the
early nineteenth century and culminated with Gadamer18 in the
late twentieth, who knows what interesting flowering of ideas
for historiography would have flourished from his pen!
A Broader Concept of Universals
I wish to show that universals are not an incongruity in his-
tory—and neither in science—if we look at them from a wider
I cannot understand these other ingenious theories of cau-
sation. If someone tells me that the reason why a given
object is beautiful is that it has a gorgeous color or shape
or any such attribute, I disregard all these explanations—I
find them all confusing—and I cling simply and straight-
forwardly and no doubt foolishly to the explanation that
the one thing that makes that object beautiful is the pres-
ence in it or association with it, in whatever way the rela-
tion comes about, of absolute beauty. I do not go so far as
to insist upon the precise details—only upon the fact that
it is by beauty that beautiful things are beautiful. (Plato,
1961: pp. 81-82)
In this excerpt from Phaedo, Plato postulates that universals
are capable of acting upon particulars (“it is by beauty that
beautiful things are beautiful”): “In Phaedo, Plato endowed his
Forms with casual power. They act upon particulars, giving the
latter their nature, to the extent that they have a nature.” (Arm-
strong, 1978: Vol. 1, p. 128) Armstrong’s just observation
brings him to theorize that universals and particulars may be
conciliated even in empirical sciences, “since universals match
up with the fundamental particles that science tells us about.”
(Armstrong, 1989: p. 88) That should settle the case for the
importance of universals in history with those, like Veyne, who
tirelessly advocate for Nominalism for conceiving history. Fur-
thermore, Armstrong rightly notes that “particulars have prop-
erties that stand in relations” (Armstrong, 1978: Vol. 2, p. 133)
thus echoing Plato’s Parmenides, “I see nothing strange in […]
a proof that all things are one by having a share in unity and at
the same time many by sharing in plurality.” (Plato, 1961: p.
923) Throughout his two volumes, Armstrong’s thorough dis-
cussion of Nominalism and Realism has the aim of accounting
for universals’ existence as well as their having a role compati-
ble with empiricism; by having shown that universals them-
selves possess properties and relations, which constitute laws of
nature,19 he revoked the incompatibility of universals with
empirical knowledge.
That is a tonic against the most skeptical philosophical
thinkers, and, for what concerns us, the skeptical historiogra-
phers whom we have been examining.
So if an ideal is responsible for a manifestation of a particu-
lar, how would that manifest itself in practice—in conceiving
history? For example, the idea of a unified Christian Empire
existed from Charlemagne to Charles V; but in 800 AD what
was achieved was very different from what the empire came to
be under emperor Frederick II; and that, too, was different dur-
ing Charles V’s rule. Frances Yates, for example, pointed out
that Charles’ abdication in 1555 was an implicit realization that
the figure of an emperor under whom a unified Christianity
could exist was anachronistic: the ideal of a Christian Empire
had vanished.20 In fact, the only real case for the existence of a
Christian empire may be made for the fourth century AD, as
André Piganiol persuasively outlined in his LEmpire Chré-
tien.21 According to him, for seventy years, from 325—the year
of the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the
Church (promoted by Constantine the Great), in which the
Trinity, the relationship between God the Father and The Son,
the drafting of the Credo Niceum, as well as other fundaments
of doctrinal orthodoxy where settled—to 395—when Theodo-
sius, the last emperor to rule over both halves of the Christian-
ized Roman Empire died and the empire splintered forever in
East and West, with the latter soon disintegrating with the Goth
invasions—according to Piganiol a unified, Christian empire
did exist. The perspective of such works, so rich in historical
comprehension, is certainly the consequence of a regard for
universals as well as particulars. And that seems to me under-
standing of a vanished past of the utmost value, just like the
magisterial examples of Huizinga and Braudel.
With this concept of “powered” universals, even Gauchet’s
justification for Nominalism can be criticized. If history is the
study of change of human practices through time, and if, as
Gauchet suggests, we understand historical events or practice
merely as particulars, and thus Nominalism is “the only posi-
tion that can adequately open him to the inexplicable singulari-
ties of a process of permanent innovation”, how are we to com-
pare these singularities with another, if we do not see particu-
lars as standing in relations? Would it be possible to set, using
our example above, the Council of Nicaea in relation to the
idea of empire? How could we make historical conclusions, if
not against the necessary, immovable fixity of the universal
which the particular we are examining is a set of? And even in
the differentiation of particulars themselves—a fundamental
task of the historian, as we’ve seen in the examples of “the
State” in different epochs—how can one do so without univer-
sals? “Lacking universals, a Nominalist cannot relate them! So
he is nailed to the Humean or the Singularist cross.” (Arm-
strong, 1978: Vol. 2, p. 151)
Dilthey spoke most convincingly of the relationship, and
consequently of the existence of universals when he wrote that,
“The individual always experiences, thinks, and acts in a sphere
of commonality, and only in such a sphere does he understand.
Everything that has been understood carries, as it were, the
mark of familiarity derived from such common features. We
live in this atmosphere; it surrounds us constantly; […] we
ourselves are woven into this common sphere. This results in a
reciprocal dependence the way we apprehend each particular of
the human sciences within the communal, historical whole of
which it is a part […] In the progress of the human sciences,
[…] we apprehend the human world around us [from] the re-
ciprocal dependence of universal and singular knowledge.”
(Dilthey, 2002: pp. 168, 174)
In closing this essay I wish to sum up briefly the conclusions
we can draw about Nominalism in history, and, as a result of
my discussion, offer a view of history that may settle the
18For a discussion of the progre ssion of hermeneutics’ gradual appropriation
of its foundational role in history, see Franchetti, 2013.
19See Armstrong, 1978: Vol. 2, p. 4
20See Yates, 1975: pp. 20-28.
21See Piganiol, 1947.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 409
“stormy grounds” of historiography.
Particulars, we have seen, are fundamental for the historian
to decipher, discern, and distinguish the period or the event he
is scrutinizing; but, the consciousness of universals, too, is es-
sential for the apprehension of any human occurrence. Nomi-
nalism or Nominalistic stances are upheld in historiography due
to the disquieting but false pretense that accepting universals
will induce haziness to the historian’s gaze: it is time that histo-
rians lose this fear, for the historian recreates a tapestry of the
past through many “a ‘track’, as it were—the mark, perceptible
to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible,
has left behind.” (Bloch, 1953: p. 55) And so, both particulars
and universals are essential for us to make sense of the
world—even more so for historians who have to make sense of
a world that no longer exists except in traces of it. Armstrong
stated it perfectly when he said that, “[t]he conclusion drawn is
that particularity and universality, irreducible to each other, are
both involved in all existence.” (Armstrong, 1978: Vol. 1, p. xiv)
This statement relates just as well to history.
Therefore particulars are absolutely indispensable, but the
rejection of universals, Nominalism, is absolutely dispensable.
Especially if we accept Armstrong’s wider view of universals
that I have presented above, which makes universals reconcile-
able with empiricism. And that buries Nominalism for a
Veyne—who not only stresses empiricism in historical appre-
hension, but also openly reject universals—but also for a Fou-
cault and a Murphy, whom we have seen fixed on a view of
history as an empir ical discipline.
As to the status of history as an empirical discipline, we have
seen that even if we were to accept the foolish idea that history
is nothing but empirical knowledge, universals still could not
be discounted. I hope to have shown to some extent that Nomi-
nalism in history is a misconstrual of the historian’s methodol-
ogy, since, though essential, the scrutiny of particulars cannot
occur without the awareness of universals. The historian must
therefore harmonize both an empirical stance—especially when
sources from the past are faced—and hermeneutical under-
standing. It is for this reason that history is an enormously dif-
ficult discipline, which Macaulay justly acknowledged to have
but few masters; and it is for this reason that we historians must
constantly be able to shift our thought from a macro to a micro
degree of understanding; historical knowledge is just that.
It is true that history is indeed a form of factual knowledge,
but since it pertains to occurrences in the past that cannot be
tested, it cannot be considered a purely empirical discipline; yet,
of course, there is factual evidence that forbids statements such
as, “Louis XIV waged war against China in the tenth century”.
That satisfies one of history’s offices—that of making accurate,
discernible statements about the past. But obviously history has
—justly—much wider contentions. Where the latter lie, inter-
pretation enters the historian’s arsenal. And it is here that we
are faced with a crux, which has cast an endless conceptual
proble m of hi story ’s natu re: Murp hy has justly sta ted that, “it is
fair to say that the philosophy of history is currently something
of a mess.” (Murphy, 1994: p. x) This “mess” is principally due
to the difficulty for minds grounded in an age which accepts
scientific facts as the only source of truth to bridge the gap
between Method and hermeneutics.22 I think it is precisely here
that the fulcrum of the problem—and the solution—of the phi-
losophy of history lies.
Salient examples are the texts we have examined: Veyne and
Murphy all proclaim in their introductions that “history is not a
science”, but in their discussion of “historical truth” they cannot
hold back from Nominalism or logical formulae with lots of P’s
and Q’s. This rather clearly shows that these historiographers
have not bridged the gap between Method and hermeneutics,
our discipline’s most equivocal aspect, which Anthony Grafton
so rightly defined as “that strange hybrid of science and art.”
(Grafton, 1997: p. 235)
So why are so many theoreticians so attached to a Nominalist
position? As I have already noted, I think it is because in their
eyes the spect er of arbitrarine ss is raised every time we make a
statement that employs universals, for it seems to them that
calling upon universals leads down the relativistic path.
“The generations just prior to our own, in the last decades of
the nineteenth century and even in the first years of the twenti-
eth, were as if mesmerized by the Comtian conception of phy-
sical science. This hypnotic schema, extending to every prov-
ince of the intellect, seemed to them to prove that no authentic
discipline could exist which did not lead, by immediate and
irrefutable demonstrations, to the formulation of absolute cer-
tainties in the form of sovereign and universal laws.” (Bloch,
1953: p. 14)
I believe along with Bloch and many others, that there is no
need to apply scientism to history for fear of not being taken
seriously; I have read endless, dispiriting volumes23 that not
only blindly defend Nominalism but advance even more radical
and misconceived ideas of empirical strictures and law-cover-
ing models for history. The Nominalist view restricts from a
complete and exhaustive understanding of history, because no
matter which view one has of history, Nominalism is deficient,
since it is irreconcilable from a humanistic perspective, and,
from a scientific standpoint, Armstrong has convincingly noted
that “where there are laws there exist universals.” (Armstrong,
1978: Vol. 2, p. 151) But such attempts to apply natural sci-
ences’ systems to history imply that history is incapable of un-
veiling or unveiling truths opposed to scientific understanding.
[…] the human sciences are a long way from regarding
themselves as simply inferior to the natural sciences. In-
stead, possessed of the intellectual heritage of German
classicism, they carried forward the proud awareness that
they were the true representatives of humanism. The pe-
riod of German classicism had not only brought about a
renewal of literature and aesthetic criticism, which over-
came the outmoded baroque ideal of taste and of Enlight-
enment rationalism; it had also given the idea of humanity,
and the ideal of enlightened reason, a fundamentally new
content. More than anyone, Herder transcended the per-
fectionism of the Enlightenment with this new ideal of
“cultivating the human” and thus prepared the ground for
the growth of the historical sciences in the nineteenth
century. The concept of self-formation, education, or cul-
tivation (Bildung), which became supremely important at
the time, was perhaps the greatest idea of the eighteenth
century […] (Gadamer, 2004: p. 8).
I should like to offer at this point a most compelling example
of the untenability of strictly empirical views of history, which
23Mark Day’s The Philosophy of History; Georg Iggers’s Historiography in
the Twentieth Century; What is History Now? Edited by David Carradine; to
cite just a few.
22Here lies Gadamer’s invaluable contribution to our field: the persevering
and patient elucidat ion that hermeneutics is a practi ce and not a method.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
touches ever so closely upon history’s essence itself. Say, for
example, that historian a has read exactly the same texts per-
taining to the Renaissance as historian b. Their vision and un-
derstanding of that period shall inevitably differ considerably.
How can a view of history as an empirical form of knowledge
withstand, let alone explain any discrepancy at all? Here, in my
view, lies the marrow of history’s dilemma: that different ac-
counts would spring from sources identical with each other is
the ever fascinating aspect of history, for history is but the
thought of different men. The very root itself of the word “his-
tory” points to this: its root “his” is the Indo-European “vid”
which simply means “view”, suggesting that the cardinal factor
in history-making is indeed a historian’s own, particular out-
The latter is achieved by integrating judiciously history’s
singular, three main elements, which are unique to it: philology,
hermeneutics, narrative. These are, according to me, the critical,
constitutive elements of history. The first element is the most
scientific in nature. Peculiarly though, it did not have historical
pretensions at first, or, as some would rightly claim, it did not
propose—or expect—to inaugurate modern historiography:
when Lorenzo Valla wrote his devastating On the Donation of
Constantine in 1440, he did not expect that what was intended
mainly as a linguistic feat aimed at proving the Vatican’s for-
gery24 of a document purporting the Church to be the inheritor
of the Roman Empire by the hands of emperor Constantine the
Great would lead to a fundamental branch of modern historiog-
raphy. But it did and from a philological endeavor modern his-
tory sprung into being.25 The second, hermeneutics, is, as I have
been suggesting throughout this essay, the practice through
which an historian understands history and is able to articulate
it. Narrative is the third element of history, which a history
inevitably calls for in writing it. Despite the Annales school of
history displaced for a while a strictly narrative focus—which
was the cornerstone of the vast, synthetic historical works until
the nineteenth century—I agree with Paul Ricoeur that “the nar-
rativist interpretation is correct in its clear perception that the
specifically historical property of history is preserved only by
the ties, which continue to connect historical explanation to our
narrative understanding.” (Ricoeur, 1984: Vol. 1, p. 228) And
even Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean
World in the Age of Philip II which is perhaps the greatest work
to come out of the Annales school, as well as the most argu-
mentative work against narrative in history, in its entirety is
experienced as “a grand narrative of the retreat of the Mediter-
ranean from general history.” (Ricoeur, 1984: Vol. 1, p. 217)
Yet, the narrativist claim is quickly returned in favor and does
not need much defense today: through Arthur Danto, Paul Ri-
coeur and the postmodernist stance of Hayden White, narra-
tive in history has been restored, though, at times, with some
gross exaggerations.
If we were to acknowledge that the historian’s task is to co-
ordinate this triangulation I have outlined, I think many misun-
derstandings and their resulting abuses, which disorient current
historiography would be avoided.
Lastly, I should like to mention Benedetto Croce, who of late
is overlooked in English-speaking historiography. Croce was an
authentic philosopher as well as an historian, who did not ex-
hibit aporias in his thought; he elicited Collingwood’s admira-
tion, who said of him that “it was the clean cut wh ich he [Croce]
made in 1893 between the idea of history and the idea of sci-
ence that enabled him to develop the conception of history so
much farther than any philosopher of his generation.” (Coll-
ingwood, 1946: p. 193)
Croce’s argument toward an identity of history completely
independent from empiricism was to unhinge it from the idea of
“universal history”. Universal history was an inheritance of
German idealism; it was an ideal shared by the German histori-
cal school of the nineteenth century, which believed there was a
history that existed in itself that was an objective act of
self-consciousness part of a wider, collective consciousness.
This was a manifestation of a concept that had originated in the
eighteenth century with Voltaire’s Essai sur les Moeurs, but
which sprouted fully in Germany with Hegel’s concept of
Weltgeist; its effects persisted in historians’ thought throughout
the nineteenth century. Ranke was a paradigmatic example, for
he believed history to be composed of “spiritual beings” which
in their totality would constitute “world history”; Droysen
sought to understand the “inner essence” of things; Dilthey
conceived of the historical world as a text to be deciphered. But
Croce thought that “unless there is some way of knowing the
real that is independent of our data, the postulation of such an
independent reality leaves us with an unknowable ding-an-
sich.” (Croce, 1923: p. 14) Croce then spoke crucially on the
“thing-in-itself” in history: “we know at every moment all the
history that we need to know […] that ‘remaining’ history is the
eternal phantom of the ‘ding-an-sich’, which is neither the
‘thing’ nor ‘in-itself’, but only the imaginative projection of the
infinity of our action and of our knowledge.” (Croce, 1923: p.
55) This statement was Croce’s way of dispelling the notion of
universal history. But Croce made sure to add that “to negate
universal history does not mean to negate the universal in his-
tory.” (Croce, 1923: p. 59)
Nominalism—the rejection of universals—again just seems
to be an unsuitable stance in any sound philosophy of history.
I do not believe that we live in a Fukuyama-like moment (at
the “end of history”) but I do believe that if we continue to
abuse and stretch history’s fabric with theoretical forcings,
Marc Bloch’s warning may come true:
It is not itself inconceivable that our civilization may, one
day, turn away from history, and historians could do well
to reflect upon this possibility. If they do not take care,
there is danger that badly understood history could in-
volve good history in its disrepute. But should we come to
this, it would be at the cost of a serious rupture with our
most unvarying intellectual traditions. (Bloch, 1954: p. 5)
It is our task to see that this not be so.
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