Meditation XIII, Historia – The Philosophy of History and History in Philosophy

The King’s Library

~ Our meeting today, my dear reader, is not one of coincidence, luck or blind chance. That we have met today means that we were meant to meet and our meeting could not have happened in any other way. It is inevitable that the past must be as it has been before the future can unfold. We may forget in the near future that this meeting has ever happened but we cannot change the fact that this encounter has already taken place.


All our thoughts regardless of whether they are still in our heads, in print or in speech are in reality an idea of the past. This is because the present is a fluid, fast moving interval that goes continuously into the abyss of an ever growing creature that we call the past. Time stops for no man and the idea of an absolute ‘now’ must be abandoned. We realize that the moment the word ‘now’ is uttered and heard, this idea of ‘now’ has already been added into our memory and into an unchangeable reality of the past. Our reality is ever-growing and accumulates in body and bulk as it moves from the past into the present and from present into the future. This is the central theme behind my last essay entitled, Khronos – The Philosophy of Time and its Implications.

If all our thoughts are products of the past, would it not mean that even our thoughts are subject to time? Surely even the brightest of us need time to think and this interval when the process of thought occurs will flow from the present into the past no matter how fast or short it is. Would this not also mean that everything we think of and speak of have already moved from the immediate interval we call the present into the realm of history? This should be especially true for written and printed material that have left the dynamic developments of our minds and enter into the static states of our books and screens. Would it not be safe to say that all works of philosophy that we know of today are in actual fact works in history?

We can feel being in the present, we are conscious of it and we experience it daily. However, we can never study or analyze the ‘present’ because whatever that is left under the microscope or telescope would be that of the past. Consider this my fellow readers, we can take a photo of the immediate present environment but once taken, it becomes a product of the past and not the present. Hence, no philosophy, thought or idea is ever ‘in’ the present. On the contrary, all philosophies, thoughts and ideas are products of the past. As a result, to understand reality as it is, we must understand the past. To understand the past, we must understand history. And to understand history, we must understand the philosophy of history.

To ask whether philosophy or history is more important is an impossible and meaningless task. This would be akin to one asking whether the chicken or egg first came into existence. An answer that we can speculate but only the heavens alone can know. The important thing to note here is that we cannot understand philosophy to its fullness without understanding history and conversely, we cannot understand history without understanding philosophy. Having said so, there are two approaches in which our human history is written and recorded. The first approach is a chronological approach in which events in history are recorded in sequence from earlier events to later events. The second approach is a comparative approach in which history is not recorded chronologically but comparatively, for example, comparing the civilization of China and that of France.

For now, we shall put aside the way history is recorded and look at its implications on philosophy.

A philosopher lives in a particular age or era and is highly influenced by his immediate surrounding environment as well as the prevalent schools of thought during his time. Understanding the historical context of a philosopher is an imperative for a better understanding of both the philosopher himself and his philosophy. Confucius advocated the restoration of traditional values and norms as a remedy for the social and political chaos of his times. Descartes on the other hand, modelled his philosophy on the mind and body dualism to make it in line with that of the Roman Catholic Church although other parts of his philosophy were not consistent with it. Both Voltaire and Rousseau were very deeply affected by the French political system and the pre-French Revolution atmosphere of their day leading to them both writing on liberty and equality.

In my opinion, it is not only important to understand the person and his philosophy, but also to understand why he philosophized in that particular manner and approach. Behold how the medieval Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers led to the revival of scepticism and rationalism of Descartes that led to the empiricism of Locke and the traditional English school of philosophy. Reflect also on how the Immanuel Kant’s philosophy synthesized the earlier philosophies and fostered the development of the philosophy of Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche from his own. In this manner, philosophy has built its superstructure on top of foundations of history and continues to evolve in form as new material is added to it.

It is rather ironic indeed that a great majority of men seem to love hating history. They claim it boring and long-winded, both dull and dry. So surely do they perceive its uselessness that history is always the last subject to study, its books the last to be bought and its impenetrable texts the ones’ to be read for a good night’s sleep. Ironic indeed that the same men send their children to school or go to school themselves! Do they not know that the great portion of education involves burying one’s self in a pile of historical works? Do they not realize that all we learn in college and university are from books in history and works of philosophy? To hate history is to hate education. And it does not take much philosophizing to come to the conclusion that the man who hates education is a fool indeed.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

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