Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy of History Course: Herodotus to The History Channel

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.


What is history? A possible definition is: History is change over time. But what kind of change are we talking about?

Given that history is everything that has happened, what kind of selection processes are used to ‘make history’? Aristotle believes that what is important is not “the thing which has happened, but rather what might have happened…and may happen again”. In other words, history must understand the universal significance of events and be able to give knowledge of human nature and people’s predictable behaviour. Can history teach us in this way? And if so, will we ever ‘learn from history’?

During this course, we will consider what history is and study the ideas of some of the great philosophers as they come to grips with the meaning and methods of history. We will also consider biography and history in TV and film. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) self-consciously plays with ‘history’ altering certain ‘facts’ as a critical act about how we construct history. We will consider ‘The History Channel’: History has always been popular as a form of entertainment: what are the compromises which must be made to make it entertaining?

Aims

The aims of this course are to:

  • provide an overview of the origins and complexities of the philosophy of history
  • consider the mechanisms involved in how history is recorded and disseminated
  • show the important role played by history in our understanding of human nature
  • provide an understanding of the complex structure of the internal workings of history in making the political landscape
  • consider new forms of history dissemination such as film, an example being Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
  • consider ‘The History Channel’: History has always been popular as a form of entertainment: what are the compromises which must be made to make it entertaining?

Outcomes

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the main theories of history from the Greeks to the present
  • discuss issues such as: Is history a form of ‘fiction’; does it have a pattern; and what is that pattern?
  • discuss whether history is a useful predictor of the future.

Content

What is history?

Does history have a pattern, or is it just a series of random, unpredictable events? If it does have a pattern, what is that pattern, and does it determine the future beyond any individual or collective human will? It is a claim of modern historiography that history should be objective and free from ideological prescriptions, but is this ever possible?

Herodotus (484 BC): The father of history

Herodotus is taken to be the first historian because he: uses human testimony and empirical observation rather than mythological stories as the content of his histories; gives a narrative to the events; looks for causal connects between events; and gives some commentary on the probability of events being true and their significance.

Late Greek and Roman history

We will discuss selected readings from Thucydides and Lucian’s work How to Write History (Second Century AD).

Universal narratives: Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Aristotle does not think much of histories which just chronicle events, he believes that what is important is not: “the thing which has happened, but rather what might have happened…and may happen again” in other words history must understand the universal significance of events, and be able to give knowledge of human nature and people’s predictable behavior. We will review selective readings from The Poetics (350 B.C.E).

Hegel (1770-1831)

Does history have a Teleology? Certainly, many of the philosophers of history have thought so: Hegel defines it as 'the progress of human consciousnesses. Extracts from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Extracts from Stephen Houlgate’s book Freedom, Truth and History (1991).

The Romantics

This week we will take a selection of philosophers from the 19th century who attempt to understand history from a ‘poetic’ point of view.

Modernism

Modernists in general see history in terms of progress in technology, science, economics, human equality and individual freedom. Alternatively, postmodernism does not understand history to have a teleological process of human social progress. We will consider these alternatives.

Biography, autobiography and history

Can individual subjective experiences of humans be considered history? Text Biography and History (2010) by Barbara Caine.

History and film

Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) self-consciously plays with ‘history’ altering certain ‘facts’ as a critical act concerning how we construct history. Many people’s ‘knowledge’ of history comes not from reading history books but through popular culture, particularly film and television.

The History Channel

History has always been popular as a form of entertainment. What are the compromises which must be made to make it entertaining?

Intended audience

Anyone with a general interest in the philosophy of history.

Delivery style

Lecture/seminar

Materials

Course notes will be provided electronically.

Features

  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

Philosophy of History Course: Herodotus to The History Channel

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