A common view amongst historiographers, plain old historians, and the uncritical public at large is that, as interpreters of texts, we have an unproblematic access to the real meanings of the texts we interpret. This is what might be called the unproblematic or realist conception of historiography and is advanced by exponents such as R.G. Collingwood, G.R. Elton, and E.H. Carr. Implicit in all of these approaches is a straightforward naive empiricism about the past -- it is the historian's job to faithfully represent and reconstruct the past through the diverse archive that remains of it (mostly textual, but also artifactual, etc.). In other words, there is an Historical Reality (The Way Things Really Are) that we need only excavate and discover in order to ascertain the truth about historical events. This Historical Reality is normally manifest in one of two distinct forms: either the Reality of the meaning of a text or the Reality of the context (historical, sociological, psychological, etc.) in which that text means something.

Counter to this view is another tradition of historiographers and historians that question the utility and accuracy of concepts such as Historical Reality and The Past as an object of historical and scientific scrutiny. This trend in historiography has been recently expressed by figures such as Keith Jenkins, Hayden White, and Richard Rorty -- as well as many philosophers on the continent (Michel Foucault and J.F. Lyotard included). What concerns these theorists is the reification of rhetorical tropes such as the past, what happened, etc. into discrete and factual presences such as The Past that have the singular right to determine and justify our historical narratives. They are concerned about the way that most historians of philosophy privilege some kind of Reality that backs up and justifies any historical wanderings. They can't see why most historians of philosophy assume that there is a Way Things Really Are. (Of course, this critique runs through much more than just historiography -- it can also be seen in many of the critiques against the project of modern philosophy instituted by Descartes and Kant, critiques issuing from figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche, John Dewey, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.) According to these theorists, history is not a matter of access to either Meanings or Contexts, but a hermeneutic exercise in meanings and contexts. They argue that historians aren’t busy retrieving the past or even really reconstructing it; what they are doing is creating a past. Unlike the realists who model historical scholarship after science, these theorists model historical scholarship after literature. This approach was summarized by Jane Austen's remark on history: "I can't think why it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention" (Northanger Abbey, chapter 14).

Yet another important strain in the philosophy of history are the overarching systems developed by theorists like Marx, Hegel, and Spengler who reconstruct history according to the rationality of some system of which history is an expresion. For instance, in Marxism history is shaped by, and is an expression of, class struggle and the various stages of economic dialectic. For Hegel, it is the progressive unfolding of the Idea (freedom, rationality) in the actual events of human history. For these theorists, historiography determines our histories and historical practices according to a rationality that subsumes both our historiographical methodologies and our histories, as the actual events of the past. Like those who are empirical and scientific about history, the systematizers of history also assume that there is a Historical Reality that the historian can unearth -- the main difference, however, is that they are not empirical about access to this historical reality, but rather argue that its contents can be discovered only through an actual progression of rational thought (and, when the unfolding of their rational dialectic gives way to an attempt at empirical example, the histories of Hegel and Marx often do leave us wandering about the rhetorical gaps in their texts). History, according to these theorists, isn't neutral and independent of human activity, but part and parcel of it -- informing human life and also informed by it, but nonetheless Real and accessible to those with the right methodology.

For more information, see also history and historiography.

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