Document Type


Publication Date




Publication Title

Historically Speaking








In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

We tend to think of the great ridge that rose up inside the historical profession some three decades ago, splitting historians into two camps, as some kind of epistemological event. Ancient disagreements about the nature (and existence ) of truth suddenly became more extreme and divisive. Now, the biggest flags wave over the "relativists" on one side, and the "truth seekers" on the other. Smaller banners ("moderate historicists," "construetivists ," "positivists," etc.) fly here and there along the slopes of lower-lying ranges on each side of the great divide, itself breached by passes and tunnels excavated by historians loathe to commit themselves to either camp. But there is another way of looking at what divides historians. Who we think we are affects what we think we can know: "We are encouraged these days," Thomas Nagel has pointed out, "to think of ourselves as contingent organisms arbitrarily thrown up by evolution . There is no reason in advance to expect a finite creature like that to be able to do more than accumulate information at the perceptual and conceptual level it occupies by nature."1 I argue (from the standpoint of philosophical realism) that disagreements rooted in different epistemological assumptions might also be understood as rival ways of answering the question, "Who is the human person?" I find it curious that even as we cram our journals with articles about "identity," we don't seem to acknowledge the deeper differences over how we define the most fundamental of all identities. I argue, furthermore, that these differences in philosophical anthropology have ethical consequences for the writing of history: different anthropologies lead to fundamentally different ethics of knowledge. And those ethics come into play whenever historians choose topics to investigate, apply methods of research, and propose interpretations. First, to the anthropological question. Of all the branches of philosophy, Henri-Irénée Marrou argued, historical knowledge depends most on that dealing with anthropology. He likened the historian's chosen philosophy of man to an axle or a nervous system, so that what we write as historians "stands or falls" with our philosophical anthropology, our idea of the human person.2 Most historians agree that we need to take into account both the spontaneity and creativity of the individual person as well as the limits and conditions that restrict individual freedom. So, just who is this free being who makes history, including the ideologies and institutions that condition his or her very freedom? One reason that the question has excited so little interest among historians may be the extreme historicism that prevails today. Of what use is a theory of the person when one assumes that all of man's works and his very identity are nothing but expressions of history itself, and therefore merely relative to some time and place?3 What passed for philosophical anthropology in the 20th century ended up being the reductio ad absurdum of Rousseau's idea of man as malleable, bereft of any fixed nature. "Man is what has happened to him, what he has done," said José Ortega y Gasset, theorist of historicism. "This is why it makes no sense to put limits on what man is capable of being." Man has no nature, the Spanish philosopher declared; he only has a history.4 It is, I submit, this particularly miserable idea of the human person—namely, the belief that our nature is nothing but our historicity —that ultimately accounts for the vague sensation among some of us that in reading a good deal of history today we are drinking from a poisoned well. What's wrong with the water is not so much the relativistic assumptions about knowledge and truth but its Rousseauian naturalism. The water is not potable because it is not compatible with whom we know ourselves to be. Why should historians be guided by a belief in man's essential nature? Because without it, anything man does, as well as anything he has done, is as valuable or as valueless as anything else. History would be meaningless.


Copyright © 2005 Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Historically Speaking 6:4 March/April 2005, 35-37. Reprinted with permission by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Original Publication Citation

Holden, R. H. (2005). What is your anthropology? What are your ethics? Historically Speaking, 6(4), 35-37.