the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 25:  Has History Any Meaning?

"History has no meaning, I contend. But this contention does not imply that all we can do about it is to look aghast at the history of political power, or that we must look on it as a cruel joke. For we can interpret it, with an eye to those problems of power politics whose solution we choose to attempt in our time. We can interpret the history of power politics from the point of view of our fight for the open society, for a rule of reason, for justice, freedom, equality, and for the control of international crime. Although history has no ends, we can impose these ends of ours upon it; and although history has no meaning, we can give it a meaning."

In this chapter Popper is revealed as something like an existentialist (without hysteria) with the message that history has no meaning but we can give it meaning!

Section I explains the importance of theories and/or points of view to organize our selection of facts from the vast amount of information that we collect if we are so inclined.

Section II is a more detailed account of the role of theories in scientific research.

Section III explains the role of problems, issues or points of view in compiling historical narratives.

Section IV focuses on the question of meaning and purpose in history.

"In approaching the end of this book, I wish again to remind the reader that these chapters were not intended as anything like a full history of historicism; they are merely scattered marginal notes to such a history, and rather personal notes to boot.…This does not mean that much in this book is purely a matter of opinion; in the few cases where I am explaining my personal proposals or decisions in moral and political matters, I have always made the personal character of the proposal or decision clear. It rather means that the selection of the subject matter treated is a matter of personal choice to a much greater extent than it would be, say, in a scientific treatise."

He went on to suggest that the this difference is a matter of degree because even the data assembled in (natural) scientific research is not merely a ‘body of facts’, it is to some extent a collection that depends on the collector’s interests, that is, on a point of view. This would appear to open the door for the subjectivism and the sociology of science but that is not really the case.

"So far, the position of history is analogous to that of the natural sciences, for example, that of physics. But if we compare the part played by a ‘point of view ‘in history with that played by a ‘point of view’ in physics, then we find a great difference. In physics, as we have seen, the ‘point of view’ is usually presented by a physical theory which can be tested by searching for new facts. In history, the matter is not quite so simple."

In a nutshell, the generalizing sciences search for general laws, and the historical sciences seek for explanation of particular events. For the generalizing sciences it is the laws that are under investigation and they are subjected to tests where the evidence is more or less “given”. Of course that is a serious over-simplification because experimental data can be highly problematic for several reasons, including the fact that our obsevations are theory-dependent.

Points of view and interpretations.

"For historians, unlike scientists, there are no general theories that can be used to select and organize facts. We need further selective principles, points of view which are at the same time centres of interest. Some of these are provided by preconceived ideas which in some way resemble universal laws, such as the idea that what is important for history is the character of the ‘Great Men’, or the ‘national character’, or moral ideas, or economic conditions, etc…I shall call such historical theories, in contradistinction to scientific theories, ‘general interpretations’."

These general interpretations are the themes or the problems, or the issues that provide the organizing principle and the continuity in a historical narrative.

"But this does not mean, of course, that all interpretations are of equal merit. First, there are always interpretations which are not really in keeping with the accepted records; secondly, there are some which need a number of more or less plausible auxiliary hypotheses if they are to escape falsification by the records; next, there are some that are unable to connect a number of facts which another interpretation can connect, and in so far ‘explain’. There may accordingly be a considerable amount of progress even within the field of historical interpretation…"

It is necessary to resolve the problem of different (and possibly incompatible) interpretations of history. One of the most problematic is the idea of progress itself. Are we making progress, are things getting better or worse? The simple answer is “It depends what you are talking about”.

"For example, the interpretation that man steadily progresses is incompatible with the interpretation that he steadily slips back or retrogresses. But the ‘point of view’ of one who looks on human history as a history of progress is not necessarily incompatible with that of one who looks on it as a history of retrogression; that is to say, we could write a history of human progress towards freedom (containing, for example, the story of the fight against slavery) and another history of human retrogression and oppression."

The point is that these two histories are not logically inconsistent, rather they are complementary to each other, like two views of the same scene from different vantage points. He then went on to note the need for each generation to write its own history in order to come to grips with contemporary problems and issues, and maybe to learn from the past.

The proliferation of narratives and points of view is not an invitation to relativism because all interpretations have to stand up to criticism and historians need to be conscious of their own point of view, to be willing to reconsider it, and to avoid as much as possible giving in to unconscious bias in the selection and interpretation of facts. Of course the seletion of evidence is just that, selective, but the point is to use the evidence in a critical and not an uncritical manner. As a public document the historical narrative will have to stand up to criticicsm from other people who may not be charitably inclined towards the views of the author. Desirable featurs of the story in addition to its capacity to stand up to criticism will include its  fertility, its ability to prompt fresh ideas and elucidate new sources of information, also its topical interest and the way it illuminates the problems of the day.

"To sum up, there can be no history of ‘the past as it actually did happen’; there can only be historical interpretations, and none of them final; and every generation has a right to frame its own. But not only has it a right to frame its own interpretations, it also has a kind of obligation to do so; for there is indeed a pressing need to be answered. We want to know how our troubles are related to the past, and we want to see the line along which we may progress towards the solution of what we feel, and what we choose, to be our main tasks. It is this need which, if not answered by rational and fair means, produces historicist interpretations. Under its pressure the historicist substitutes for a rational question : ‘What are we to choose as our most urgent problems, how did they arise, and along what roads may we proceed to solve them?’ the irrational and apparently factual question : ‘Which way are we going? What, in essence, is the part that history has destined us to play?’"

The meaning of history

The question of destiny and our role in the great historical narrative brings us back to the starting point of the book, to Popper’s criticism of the idea of historical determinism and the notion that there is a great plan that is being played out.  Is there a meaning in history?

"I answer : History has no meaning. In order to give reasons for this opinion, I must first say something about that ‘history’ which people have in mind when they ask whether it has meaning. So far, I have myself spoken about ‘history’ as if it did not need any explanation. That is no longer possible; for I wish to make it clear that ‘history’ in the sense in which most people speak of it simply does not exist; and this is at least one reason why I say that it has no meaning."

"There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life. And one of these is the history of political power. This is elevated into the history of the world. But this, I hold, is an offence against every decent conception of mankind. It is hardly better than to treat the history of embezzlement or of robbery or of poisoning as the history of mankind. For the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder (including, it is true, some of the attempts to suppress them). This history is taught in schools, and some of the greatest criminals are extolled as its heroes."

"A universal history of mankind would have to be the story of all men and women “the history of all human hopes, struggles, and sufferings” because nobody is more important than anyone else (a highly egalitarian view!). But that history cannot be written, it is far too rich, all narratives have to be selective and focussed. But with this we arrive at the many histories; and among them, at that history of international crime and mass murder which has been advertised as the history of mankind."

"But why has just the history of power been selected, and not, for example, that of religion, or of poetry? There are several reasons. One is that power affects us all, and poetry only a few. Another is that men are inclined to worship power. But there can be no doubt that the worship of power is one of the worst kinds of human idolatries, a relic of the time of the cage, of human servitude. The worship of power is born of fear, an emotion which is rightly despised. A third reason why power politics has been made the core of ‘history’ is that those in power wanted to be worshipped and could enforce their wishes. Many historians wrote under the supervision of the emperors, the generals and the dictators."

This is a dangerous situation and it easily leads to the corruption of historians and to the propagation of uncritical, even worshipful, attitudes towards strong leaders, just because they were strong and successful, regardless of the harm they did. This thought led Popper into some extended commentary on the Christian view of history and the extent to which this has helped or hindered good historical research and writing. It also led him to some criticisms of Hegel by Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer regarding the tone of historical writing especially among nationalistic German academics.

"And, indeed, our intellectual as well as our ethical education is corrupt. It is perverted by the admiration of brilliance, of the way things are said, which takes the place of a critical appreciation of the things that are said (and the things that are done). It is perverted by the romantic idea of the splendour of the stage of History on which we are the actors. We are educated to act with an eye to the gallery.
The whole problem of educating man to a sane appreciation of his own importance relative to that of other individuals is thoroughly muddled by these ethics of fame and fate, by a morality which perpetuates an educational system that is still based upon the classics with their romantic view of the history of power and their romantic tribal morality which goes back to Heraclitus; a system whose ultimate basis is the worship of power. Instead of a sober combination of individualism and altruism (to use these labels again)—that is to say, instead of a position like ‘What really matters are human individuals, but I do not take this to mean that it is I who matter very much’—a romantic combination of egoism and collectivism is taken for granted. That is to say, the importance of the self, of its emotional life and its ‘self-expression’, is romantically exaggerated; and with it, the tension between the ‘personality’ and the group, the collective…"

"It is under the influence of such romantic ideas that individualism is still identified with egoism, as it was by Plato, and altruism with collectivism (i.e. with the substitution of group egoism for the individualist egoism). But this bars the way even to a clear formulation of the main problem, the problem of how to obtain a sane appreciation of one’s own importance in relation to other individuals.

"History has no meaning, I contend. But this contention does not imply that all we can do about it is to look aghast at the history of political power, or that we must look on it as a cruel joke. For we can interpret it, with an eye to those problems of power politics whose solution we choose to attempt in our time. We can interpret the history of power politics from the point of view of our fight for the open society, for a rule of reason, for justice, freedom, equality, and for the control of international crime."

The chapter (and the book) ends with a flourish, an existential flourish even, one of the reasons that for a time I described Popper's position as "existentialism without hysteria".

"Although history has no ends, we can impose these ends of ours upon it; and although history has no meaning, we can give it a meaning."

Chapter 24 The Revolt Against ReasonStart of The Shorter OSE

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper