Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Position Paper # 11 Arthur C. Danto


Substantive and Analytical Philosophy

What is History indeed? Is it merely study of what happened in the past? Suppose that we know everything ever happened before and its detail, then could we say that we know History? The answer is obviously “no”. I am not insisting that knowing what happened in the past is not important. Rather, I would like to emphasize that History is something more than knowing about past.

Arthur C. Danto, in the first part of his book “Narration and Knowledge (1985)” tries to talk about two kinds of inquiry are covered by the expression ‘Philosophy of History’ as substantive and analytical philosophy of History. When he talks about substantive philosophy of History, he would like to sharply distinguish whole of History from whole of past. It is quite interesting topic for me as I study philosophy of History. Danto, in his book “Narration and Knowledge (1985)” supposes that we have Ideal Chronicle by which we know everything that ever happened. Then he says that even if we know all the events took place in the past, and we have ideally complete account of them, it is still not whole of History. Rather, it is good source or data for whole of History. (Danto 1985) Base on this theory, I would say that History is something more than knowing about past events.

Then, he suggests two distinct kinds of such theories, descriptive and explanatory. What he means by descriptive theory is simply which seeks to show a pattern amongst the events which make up the whole past. And explanatory theory refers to explaining of what descriptive theory has found. (Danto, 1985) I would agree with Danto insisting that those two kinds of theories must be connected to be qualified as a philosophy of History. It is quite obvious and simple idea. If we are to explain some Historical events, out explanation should be based on factual evidence and support of descriptive theory. And also description without explanation is just meaningless. I believe that studying History must contain both description and explanation.

However, Danto was actually opposite to substantive philosophy. For me some parts of substantive theory were agreeable that say about connection of descriptive and explanatory theory. But like Danto, I would have to disagree with substantive theory. And I find the error of substantive theory in Danto’s line explaining of it and I quote: “a truly successful Historical theory would go beyond the data gathered by History, not only reducing them to a pattern, but predicting, and explaining, all the events of future History. (Danto 1985) This line simply means that substantive Historians are trying to write the History of events before it they have happened. I think it is quite wild idea. I believe that God would tell us what will happen through His servant and we call it a prophecy and I actually believe in it. However, it seems to be so wild for me that we can make prediction of the event that will take place in the future based on our Historical understanding. Moreover, the problem is that substantive Historians also try to give an account of the past events based on the account of future.

So I would agree with Danto saying that our knowledge of the past is always limited by our ignorance of the future. (Danto, 1985) This is a main point of analytical philosophy of History proposed by Danto. Actually, some events are somehow predictable but indeed in general we do not know what will happen in the future.


Incomplete History

That is why History is incomplete. History cannot be completed at once or in one generation. True Historical understating actually comes later. The result that one’s act will bring is not known at that time but later. For instance, when Rosa Park refused to sit at the back of the bus, none of people in that bus knew that the incident in that bus would initiate the Civil Right movement in the United States.

Indeed, History is History because it is story of the past. What does it mean? History is that of future people. We cannot really consider our time as History right now but it will be History for our next generation. Therefore, the analysis of Historical event of Rosa Park does not belong to those who were in that bus but to people of the future from the time that event took place. People who come later are the one who can give significance of the event of Rosa Park which was starting point of Civil Right movement in the United States.

History is somehow process of present or future people to evaluate various past events. Consider that French people of 18th century did not really realize that they were making monumental civil movement for freedom. In fact, they were just hungry and angry at unjust king and his kingdom. It is their descendants who evaluate and consider the civil movement took place during 18th century as monumental. Likewise, this simple but obvious explanation on Historical understanding and evaluation could prove the error of substantive philosophy of History that I have stated above.

Those who come later have privilege to evaluate and give meaning to Historical events took place. And it is History indeed. That is why Ideal Chronicle is not really History but just sources of History.

So, if Ideal Chronicle is not complete History, and if we cannot explain Historical events with Ideal Chronicle, then how can we analyze and explain them? What form should Historical text take? Danto has the answer to these questions. The answer is “Narration”


Narration and Knowledge

According to Danto, History is simply a story of the past and the form of stories is always in narrative. I would have to agree with him because it is a general fact that most of Historians tell us stories.

Narrative form of stories actually has the ability that Ideal Chronicle does not have. This ability of narration is that it can tensed sentence. What does it mean? Narration enables Historian to speak of extended events by employing what Danto calls Project verb which is a certain range of our verbs of description of action refer to events which actually are not discrete at all. (Staloff, 1995)

Ideal Chronicle cannot say for instance, in September of 1939 the Second World War began because the declaration of the war came some time later. Likewise, Ideal Chronicle cannot give significance of certain event. What it can contain is just description of event happening in present tense.

As what I have stated above, giving of significance of certain event belongs to future people from the time that the event takes place. In other word, narration of Historical event belongs to future. That is the privilege of the people who come later.

Let us go back to the Second World War. Unlike Ideal Chronicle, narration can give significance of the Second World War by using project verbs. In narration, we can say like this: “In September of 1939, the Second World War which would be the most terrible fighting which has never happened before has begun. This war was intended by Hitler, the German leader who had ambition of conquest all of European continent.”

Truly, Ideal Chronicle cannot give us significance of the Second World War like specifically when it began, and what was the factor that caused it. The reason why narration of the people or let us say Historians, can give significance of the World War II is that they have knowledge of historical context of that time in terms of states of each of European nations and their relationship with one another etc. And they even know how it ended. So narration may use synthesis of Historical context in order to explain certain Historical event and of course it would be much better account of event than ideal chronicle whose ability is merely description of state of the events happening.

Some are saying that narration would distort and exaggerate events as it tries to make them dramatic, exciting and interesting. In fact, it is true that narrative form of Historical text sometimes loses its objectivity. However, I would say that what is good about narrative is that it can still give us significance and emphasis of certain events. Therefore, as long as narrative account does not get out of factual Historical context in order to be too dramatic, I would want to consider it as one of the best way in bringing account of Historical knowledge.
I wish and believe that what I argue above could give clear account of importance and value of narration in History. I strongly agree with Danto saying History is a story. Isn’t it that the word “History” itself tells us something? History is his story, a man’s story.


Danto, A.C. (1985). Narration and knowledge. Columbia University.

Staloff, D. (1995) The search for a meaningful past philosophies, theories, and
interpretations [Audiobook]. The Teaching Company.

Braudel, F. (1982). On history. (S. Matthews, Trans.). University of Chicago. (Original
work published 1969).

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