Why Study History? On Its Epistemic Benefits and Its Relation to the Sciences

Philosophy 92 (3):399-420 (2017)
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I try to return the focus of the philosophy of history to the nature of understanding, with a particular emphasis on Louis Mink’s project of exploring how historical understanding compares to the understanding we find in the natural sciences. On the whole, I come to a conclusion that Mink almost certainly would not have liked: that the understanding offered by history has a very similar epistemic profile to the understanding offered by the sciences, a similarity that stems from the fact that both are concerned with grasping how the objects of their study are structured, or how the various elements of the things they study depend upon and relate to one another. At the same time, however, I claim that historical inquiry naturally puts us in a position to acquire further epistemic goods, including the old-fashioned epistemic good of wisdom, which is plausibly constituted by knowledge of how to live well. This is something the natural sciences cannot offer, and it is part of the reason why history is such an important form of inquiry.

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Stephen Grimm
Fordham University


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