A Critical Philosophy of History?
Luc Ferry and Philippe Raynaud's reading of Kant and Weber

Rares Piloiu

Could a philosophy of history be contrived today without attracting the suspicious eye of the modern reader, familiar with the hesitation of a political philosopher like Hannah Arendt toward any theoretical systematization of history? If, indeed, philosophical speculation on the meaning of history has drawn a line (however sinuous) from metaphysics to modern totalitarianism, as has been often argued, where could one start asking the question about the possible relation between philosophy and history? In order to address this issue, an overview of the meanings of the concept of "philosophy of history" must be presented.

In the second volume of the English-version triptych Political Philosophy, co-authored by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, volume dedicated to the system of the philosophies of history, Luc Ferry (1992) argues that there is not only one philosophy of history, that which tries to find a regulative principle at work in history and use it to make estimations and predictions about the future. All philosophies of history have as a task the definition of a regulative principle, but while some use it at the level of the interpretation of the historical science, others employ it for ethical or ontological purposes. In brief, the common interpretation of the syntagm "philosophy of history", which is characterized by the literal translatability of a speculative theory into practice, also known as "speculative philosophy of history", is only a species of the genre "philosophy of history".

What does, therefore, characterize the genre "philosophy of history"? First, it is a philosophy, and as a philosophy it inquires into the nature of what we know about reality. The question philosophy asks is different from that asked by natural sciences, which is a question addressed directly to reality: it is a question addressed to the sciences and, more generally, to what we know by way of the sciences. As Heidegger put it in Being and Time, the question of philosophy (or metaphysics) is ontological (what is that we know about reality?), and not ontical (what is reality?). Secondly, the object that is inquired is a science, namely history, whose practice of investigation into the nature of the real is questioned at the level of more abstract concepts. We must distinguish here between the level of epistemological self-awareness of the discipline of history, embodied in the theory of history (a sub-discipline dealing with the methods of history as science) and the level of abstraction represented by the philosophy of history: while the former judges the appropriateness of certain methods for the attainment of an unobjectionable goal (the accurate description and interpretation of the past), the latter speculates on the ontological, ethical or epistemological nature of the values informing the respective methods (objectivity, rigor, etc.): "If these values themselves with which we approach the facts are made the objects of analysis, we are…conducting studies in the philosophy of history" (Weber 1949 160). In this respect, the philosophy of history reserves itself the luxury of setting a free relationship between the means and the ends of the historical discipline, combining them in conformity with the nature of the questions it asks.

The nature of the philosophy of history, it results, is to establish a relevant relationship between the means and the ends of the discipline of history, or between its methods and goals. The philosophical critique of historical science raises therefore the problem of the legitimacy of the goal traditionally adopted within the discipline (the Rankean ideal of showing the facts "as they really were", or as an expression of the intentionality of their authors) and shows that the particular adoption of this goal is the result of a specific understanding of the relationship between theory and praxis. According to this critique, the process at work within the discipline of history rests on the assumption that rationalization is able to render the real intelligible through investigative means, such as recourse to documents or the contrastive method. However, this relationship between theory and praxis is not the only possible one. Ferry maintains that the various combinations between the two are accountable for the different variants of philosophies of history, of which he identifies five:

1)The philosophy of the "cunning of reason": it represents the Hegelian rationalistic philosophy of history, in which the real is expected to coincide with the rational from a theoretical point of view (that of God). Ferry coins this conception "theoretical ontology". 2) The moral view of history: practical ontology, based on the idea that human history is the attempt at actualizing a set of transcendent values, actualization which however is not guaranteed in advance. As an example of this philosophy one can consider Fichte’s response to Rehberg’s anti-revolutionary social theory (explained in detail in Alexis Philonenko’s Théorie et Praxis dans la pensée morale et politique de Kant et de Fichte en 1793): while Rehberg explains that the French revolution applied abstract ideals to a historical reality that could not be conceptualized, Fichte argued that humanity must guide itself in the name of transcendent ideals. 3) The Marxist combination of both 1) and 2): history is intelligible theoretically but it also requires its actualization through a set of beliefs (confusion from which arise some of the dilemmas of the Second International and even Stalinism, to a certain extent, Ferry argues). 4) The Heideggerian refusal of both a practical and theoretical ontology (both the rationalization and the moralization of social activities are impossible). 5) A philosophy based on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, with echoes in Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber, which allows for both an epistemology and an ethics, without however rendering them identical with either theory or praxis.

The Kantian model, deduced by Ferry from the Critique of Judgement, advances an explanatory non-determinist model between theory and praxis. To start with, Ferry makes clear what the problem of cognition is for Kant by separating between "perception", "concept" and "idea". "Perception" plays in Kant the role of immediate, intuitive receptacle of the empirical world, as it opens itself to us (Kant universalizes this notion by formulating the existence of a perception-model, so-called, "pure intuition", a generic type of all intuitions or condition of possibility through the a priori character of how objects are intuited by us: in space and time). "Concept" is the abstract form that organizes perception but exists outside of it: it functions like sets do in mathematics, organizing reality according to regularities. The "Idea" is, in its original form, a purely metaphysical concept. It tries to deduce particular situations from concepts directly, without the mediation of intuition or without the test of the empirical. If idea is followed in its metaphysical consequences, it will invariably fall into theoretical ontology, Ferry argues. It is necessary, therefore, to launch a relativization of the notion of "Idea" without however, rendering it impossible.

The Kantian deconstruction of "Idea" retains its striving for intelligibility while depriving it of immediate application into the empirical. Instead, the Idea is conceived schematically, or as a heuristic device through which the universality of the concept renders the empirical intelligible to us without merging them metaphysically. The way reflection works is, therefore, not from the general toward the particular (like in the case of Hegel), but from the particular toward the general. This induction should not, however, be considered completely devoid of organization, as the irrationalist epistemology would maintain, but lead with universally valid conceptual means. For facilitating our understanding, Ferry offers the example of the conception of a triangle, which according to a metaphysical model is always present in our minds and all we have to do is to draw it, while according to an anti-conceptual model we always have in mind a particular triangle which we then draw on paper. If, nonetheless, we pose the problem in Kantian terms, we always operate with the universally valid concept of a triangle, which consists of the conditions of possibility of a triangle (three angles, 180 degrees) which we then actualize in a specific form. The translation, therefore, from the conceptual into the real is neither literal, nor arbitrary and the "deconstructed" Idea functions as the synthetic third term through which we make rational knowledge possible:

Although in its fetishized form the Idea of a system is unschematizable or unrepresentable, it can be schematized and hence have some meaning as a requirement: since to schematize a concept is to transform it into a set of rules for constructing an object in time, to schematize the Idea of a system amounts to conceiving of it as an imperative addressed to the human understanding to work to form our scientific knowledge as much as possible into a system (Ferry 1992, 89).

The Kantian function of synthetic judgement prevents, therefore, both theory and praxis from coming in a relation of indeterminacy or (over)determinacy with each other. This critical philosophy of knowledge has found the appropriate expression in the epistemology of social sciences through the writings of Max Weber, whose approach to methodology seems to stay under the sign of the Kantian type of relation between theory and praxis.

It is therefore relevant why Philippe Raynaud (1987) analyzes the Weberian sociological project in view of the thorny problem of modern rationality. Caught in between the determinist model of natural and positive sciences and the relativist one of phenomenology, modern social sciences faced a fundamental conundrum. Aware of these contradictions in the modern intellectual traditions, Max Weber attempted to expand the scope of Kant’s critical philosophy to the domain of sociological and historical knowledge and arrive at both a descriptive and interpretative methodology.

Weber’s capital contribution to the philosophy of history is two fold, as emphasized both in Raymond Aron’s Main Currents in Sociological Thought (1989) and in Philippe Raynaud’s Max Weber et les dilemmes de la raison moderne (1987): 1) he laid the foundations for a philosophically valid science of history and 2) legitimized the heuristic function of speculative analysis. This partition of Weber’s endeavor corresponds roughly to the relationship between theory and praxis, which he was very intent upon keeping apart. In the Methodology of Social Sciences (1949), Weber makes a meaningful distinction between the actual empirical character of causal explanations and the interpretation of the values motivating a particular causal chain. He maintained that, according to the typology of the types of action, rationality in rapport to goals and rationality in rapport to values can be complementary to each other, but never identical. In other terms, if the historian can judge the practical effectiveness of a certain action toward the attainment of a goal in order to shed light on the selection of those events relevant for the causal chain, he cannot make any substantial claim about the selection of values motivating that mode of action. As a consequence, any attempt at reducing facts and values to a mutual ontology (as in the cases of the four previous philosophies) is bound to a logical fallacy: "Causal analysis provides absolutely no value judgement and a value judgement is absolutely not a causal explanation" (Weber 123).

As Philippe Raynaud explained, Weber defined his methodology in opposition to the Hegelian paradigm of the "concluded science", trying to eliminate the metaphysical burden on the social sciences and approach them as much as possible to the ideal of exactitude provided by the natural sciences. Under the influence of Wilhelm Dilthey, Weber demonstrated that, far from being at loss from a scientific point of view because of the motivational obscurity of their actors, social sciences held a more advantageous position in comparison with the natural sciences. While the latter could explain phenomena but could not provide a motivation for them, social sciences could both explain them from an empirical point of view (the role of history) and interpret them from the point of view of the motivation of their actors (the role of sociology). The transition from an explanatory approach to history to an interpretative approach to history posed a problem of epistemological relevance: to what extent does an evaluation of values help one grasp the meaning of a particular historical act?

In The Methodology of Social Sciences, Weber demonstrated that the evaluative relation to values, aside from appealing to universalizable categories–i.e., the values themselves, does not provide us with the necessary motivation of the fact under analysis, but is rather a heuristic means by which we can approximate the meaning of the fact in light of a certain value and, by means of a study of the recurrence of certain patterns, expand the signification of the interpretative model to more and more abstract cultural units. Thus, the interpretative model Weber adopted in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism should not be seen as the expression of a necessary translation of the logic of values (Calvinism, work ethic) into reality (capitalism), but rather as a heuristic device by means of which the recurrence of certain behavioral and market patterns can be expressed together in a meaningful way. An implication of this theoretical approach would necessarily state that the interpretative model (or "ideal-type", in Weber’s terminology) does not apply to all situations equally, nor does it predict the future with the assuredness of an iron law.

Hence, while an event pertains to an actual causal link, it can also be made into an illustration of a concept that is crystallized in relation to values and can therefore function as a heuristic means in support of the interpretation of more and more abstract cultural units:

This…integration of the "particular fact" as a link, i.e., as a real causal factor into a real, hence concrete context with the use among other things of the products of conceptualization on the one hand as exemplificatory and on the other as heuristic devices [is] the logical goal of the "historical cultural sciences (Weber 1949, 135).

Nonetheless, in spite of the explanatory relation established between historical causality and conceptualization through heuristic means, the two must stay separate logically, as they pertain to different modes of analysis: "…the ‘components of an historical nexus’ (Zusammenhang) are a different thing from an ‘heuristic means.’" (Weber 142) As a consequence, one can record the causal enchaining of events and shed light upon them by way of the logic of values (universally rationalizable), without, however, incorporating in the recourse to reason the rationale of the causal chain: "à l’inverse de la ‘logique’ qui conduit de la tradition à la rationalité, la dynamique de l’évolution est causalement intelligible sans être rationnelle" (Raynaud 1987, 211).

It becomes clear, therefore, how the logic of the "ideal types" is not at a remove from that of the deconstructed Kantian "Idea", functioning as a synthesis (a median third term which does not, however, incorporate dialectically the first two terms) between the particular, empirical facts and the conceptual rationality of values. By denying the identity of method and "being", whether effectuated in a rationally Hegelian way or in an anti-determinist (Heideggerian or Nietzschean) way, Weber’s epistemology of social sciences defines itself in opposition to ontology. Philippe Raynaud demonstrates that one cannot overcome the problem of Hegelian monism by denying the sense of the ontological relation between methodology and being (or that between theory and praxis) in the sense in which Heidgger and the tradition he inspired did, but by surpassing the very nature of the ontological question: "l’oubli des limites de l’explication historique ne provient pas d’une erreur sur la nature de la réalité historique mais plutôt d’une confusion entre le méthode et l’être et on ne dépasse donc nullement l’illusion rationaliste si l’on se place sur la même plan (ontologique) qu’elle" (Raynaud 33).

One problem that concerned highly the ontological philosophies of history was the issue of human freedom. As Heidegger and others (most notably Hannah Arendt) correctly pointed out, the deterministic conception of history as is present in the Hegelian speculative model and equally in the Marxist science of history denies any freedom to the acting individual subject, predetermining for him the direction and meaning of history. To this, however, they opposed a dogmatically free individual (Heidegger’s own philosophy is nonetheless problematic in this respect, since he ultimately subordinates the individual to the "call" of tradition or Being, at other times), whose actions are meaningless in rapport to the indeterminacy of history itself. Weber (1949) took issue with this problem and, in the critique of Eduard Meyer’s historical method emphasized the dual nature of human freedom as acting in history: on the one hand, accident or free will matter to history and they are not, as Meyer argued, to be overlooked for the sake of focusing on systemic changes or clearly intelligible sources of authority and change. On the other hand, Weber argued, it would be mistaken to consider human freedom of choice or even accidents as totally unrationalizable: the recourse to rational explanation in view of the causality of events or even that of values can show us "negatively" what the consequences of an accident were by what the possible outcome might have been had the accident not taken place (the specific Weberian interpretation of causality) or what the intentions of the human agent might have been (in light of the typology of actions which, when not rational, they can be traditional or emotional). Weber demonstrated, therefore, that free human acts can be rationalized for the purposes of social sciences, without, however, rationalizing human freedom in general. Or, as Luc Ferry (1992) put it in relation to the Kantian notion of "Idea", the identity of the rational and reality is possible, whereas that between the rational and the real is not.

The separation of facts from values has, aside from its ethical and political aspects (underscored thoroughly by Leo Strauss, 1975), a special relevance for the drafting of a theory of scientific knowledge: it manages to maintain the distinction between the object and the method of analysis. This distinction makes the scientific approach to social or historical facts once again possible, given that Hegel identified the object of knowledge with the rational whole in itself (the scholar’s point of view is irrelevant) and the phenomenological critique with the value system behind the method (the scholar’s point of view is ontological). By this token, the value choice of each approach is free in relation with the analyzed object. As Raymond Aron (1989) explains:

Values […] are created by human decisions that differ radically in kind from the procedures by which the mind apprehends reality and elaborates truth. It may be–as certain neo-Kantian philosophers have held–that truth itself is a value, but there remains a fndamental difference between the order of science and the order of value, because the essence of the first is subjection of the mind to facts, reasons, demonstrations, and proofs, while the essence of the second is free choice and free affirmation: no one can be forced by means of a demonstration to accept a value he does not believe in (Aron, 250).

In his Max Weber et les dillemmes de la raison moderne, Philippe Raynaud has drawn an interesting comparison between the Weberian project of an epistemology of social sciences and Kant’s philosophy with the purpose of emphasizing the compatibility between an epistemology of historical science and a philosophy of history (Raynaud 1987, 64). However, the limits of both enterprises have to be drawn out in order to understand the scope to which one could speak of a typically Weberian philosophy of history. As Raynaud shows, Weber has tried to found at the same time the possibility of conceiving history as a positive and metaphysically neutral science and maintain a metaphysically determined component (the recourse to values) in the articulation of this project. Kant’s deconstruction of metaphysics embarked upon a similar project, although, as Raynaud indicated, some differences arise in the theorization of history between the two thinkers: 1) Kant thought of the science of history in terms of the empirical given to which a pre-made philosophy of history was applied; Weber believed that whenever we approach the empirical, it becomes apparent to us through the lenses of the values we search–which does not amount to the same as saying that history is fabricated in the method applied to it. 2) Kant’s philosophy of history is that of the "design of nature", whose function is not essential, however, like in Hegel, but rather formal, and as a consequence functions as a guide, not as a necessity; Weber’s philosophy of history is that of the speculative types, or the "ideal types", which are conceived heuristically and which always have to face the "hard" test of the facts–in this respect, Weber’s "ideal types" have also a formal function. It results, from both the similarities and differences between them that a conjunction of science and philosophy in the case of Weber is conceivable only in the terms of the critical philosophy of knowledge that both him and Kant adopted.

Reconsidering the problem of theory and praxis through the lenses of Weber’s methodology it becomes clear that the uniqueness of his project consists in the fact that, unlike other philosophies of history which have established a relation of overdetermination or indetermination between them with the purpose of founding an ontology or even an ethics, it has managed to define a project for an epistemology of social sciences which allows for: 1) an "objective" definition of history as a science in line with the principles of scientific rational investigation and for a speculative freedom of a metaphysically "deconstructed" nature and 2) the pre-rational indeterminacy of the real and its "interpretative" conceptualization. As Weber’s main source of philosophical inspiration, Kantian critical philosophy stated the disjunction between object and concept, signification and causality, value and fact. The implications of this conception both for politics, law and social sciences is huge, in that as the latter is concerned and amply demonstrated by Weber, the object for the critical method is to explain the subjective nature of interpretation as well as its rational validity. The discussion of the relation between the goals and means of historical research that the philosophies of history called into question received with Weber a new meaning: far from being arbitrary or necessary, the relationship must be critical (in Kantian sense). In this sense one could speak of a critical philosophy of history.



Aron, Raymond. Main currents in sociological thought. Translated by Richard Howard and Helen Weaver. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

Ferry, Luc. The system of philosophies of history. Translated by Franklin Philip. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub. Co., 1987.

Philonenko, Alexis. Théorie et praxis dans la pensée morale et politique de Kant et de Fichte en 1793. Paris: J. Vrin, 1968.

Raynaud, Phillipe. Max Weber et les dilemmes de la raison moderne. Paris: Quadrige/PUF, 1987.

Strauss, Leo. Political philosophy; six essays. Edited by Hilail Gildin. Indianapolis: Pegasus, 1975.

Weber, Max. The methodology of the social sciences. Translated and edited by Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. New York: Free Press, 1949.

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