Members of the Centre cooperate on following projects:
Bloomsbury Handbook for The philosophy of “Big History”
The scope of historiographic knowledge has broadened dramatically in space and time in the last few decades. Global or World History has been advancing at accelerated speed since the pioneering work of William McNeill. It has refocused historiography on global processes and the historical interactions between geographically distant areas and culturally distinct societies through trade, migration, exchange of ideas and species, the spread of diseases, and so on. “Big History” or “Deep History” has been expanding the scope of historiography in time to include all the past by broadening its evidential base beyond surviving documents to the analysis of information signals from the past such as material remains, languages, ancient DNA, and the use of new techniques such as carbon-dating, the extraction of ancient DNA, and the analysis of background radiation from the origin of the universe. (Christian 2018) The resulting Big History is decidedly non-anthropocentric. Humans appeared only very recently from a much “deeper” past. The human era within the framework of big history corresponds with a brief period in the history of Earth, the “Anthropocene.”
The major schools of philosophy of historiography and history fit anthropocentric, “small,” or “shallow,” local historiographies of the recent human past, inferred almost exclusively from documents. Some have focused on philosophical analyses of the historiographic understanding of the choices and actions of historical agents. This brought the philosophy of historiography close to the philosophies of action and mind. Other philosophies of historiography have analyzed the narrative structure of popular works of historiography and so approached the philosophy of literature and literary theory. The big history of the universe, our planet, and life is mostly not made of human choices and actions, is not based on archival documents, and though it has a beginning and may have an end, it has no known narrative structure with heroes or villains to connect the two; it is neither a tragedy nor a comedy, it just is, without a meaning or purpose.
History, big and small, happened entirely in the past. Though this is a tautology, too many philosophers and historians neglected to notice that it entails that history cannot be observed. Historical periods are non-replicable and must be inferred from the information they transmitted to the present. These properties of History raise philosophical ontological and epistemic questions about the nature of the past and its historiographic representations; the forms and reliabilities of inferences of knowledge of the past, especially the “deep” past. Since historical sciences infer the past from information signals received in the present from the past, a philosophy of Big History may be close to the new field of philosophy of information.
Few exceptional philosophers have worked on aspects of the epistemology and ontology of the historical sciences: Elliott Sober (1988) wrote about the philosophy of phylogenic inference; Gould (1989, 2002) wrote about the evolutionary history of life and historical contingency and necessity; Cleland (2001) on geology, Derek Turner (2007) about paleontology, Currie (2018) about “deep” paleontology, geology, and archaeology, Wylie (2002) about archaeology, and Tucker (2004) about human historiography and historical linguistics. But a general philosophical discussion of the ontology of Big History and the epistemology of the historical sciences; the past, its representations and the relations between the two is missing, with the exception few articles. (Cleland 2009, 2011; Tucker 2012) The Handbook will initiate a philosophical analysis and discussion of Big history, of the ontology and epistemology of the past, and the synthesis of the historical sciences.
Christian, David (2018) Origin Story: A Big History of Everything. New York: Little Brown.
Cleland, Carol E. (2001) “Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method,” Geology, Vol. 29, No. 11, 987–990.
Cleland, Carol (2009) “Philosophical Issues in Natural History and Its Historiography,” in Aviezer Tucker ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 44-62.
Cleland, Carol (2011) “Prediction and Explanation in Historical Natural Science,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 62, 551-582.
Currie, Adrian (2018) Rock, bone and ruin: an optimist’s guide to the historical sciences. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Gould, Stephen Jay (1989) Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, New York: Norton.
Gould, Stephen Jay (2002) The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Sober, Elliott (1988) Reconstructing the Past: Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Tucker, Aviezer (2004) Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tucker, Aviezer (2012) “Sciences of Tokens and Types: The Difference between History and the Social Sciences,” in Harold Kincaid ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 274-297.
Turner, Derek (2007) Making Prehistory: Historical Science and the Scientific Realism Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wylie, Alison (2002) Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology, Berkeley CA: University of California Press.
Updated: 29. 09. 2023