Introduction to the Philosophies of History Network (PoH)

Today Michael Kelly introduces the Philosophies of History project based at the University of Leeds, but currently going global!

Welcome to Philosophies of History, an international project dedicated to re-emerging discourses and developing networks for collaboration in the theories and philosophies of ‘History’. We began our existence in early 2012 as a group of postgraduates exploring the interplay between history and philosophy and how each influence, and occasionally undermine, the other. These features and curiosities are still central to our project, though we have widely expanded and warmly welcome and encourage participation by all those interested in the philosophy of History.

The general aim of this inter-disciplinary project is to foster open and frank discussions on the construction, performance and interpretation of ‘History’. The purpose is to analyse critically the ways in which we deal with ‘the past’, or pasts, and in so doing help to generate fresh discourses and debates about ‘History’ and ‘Historiography’ their relationship to other disciplines of inquiry, and ultimately their place in social thinking and meaning.

Our original meetings were held only in Leeds, roughly once per month during the academic year.  When we began, we were the first new postgraduate group dedicated to the philosophy of History in the UK in over a decade, and subsequently the first international network of scholars in philosophy of History to be formed in Europe covering the same period of time. Subsequently, a new series, one Centre and an International Network have emerged in the north of England, London and on the Continent, in Belgium. Philosophies of History is very excited about these movements – notably, the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham and the International Network for the Theory of History – and we are working in close collegiality with them. We hope to hold a joint conference in London between us in May or June 2014.

In the meantime Philosophies of History is running our regular seminars again in Leeds, but also expanding well beyond. In Leeds this year we are holding only four seminars, structured similar to the usual Leeds format – two hours, short presentation, fine cheeses and wine, lots of discussion in an open, friendly environment – but with added dedication to conversation now that we have established a basis of participants and general level of comfort.

In addition to the seminars being carried on in Leeds by the Regional Directors there, these same types of meetings will be introduced this year in Canterbury, at the University of Kent. We have also expanded our activities beyond the UK and Europe. We are presently developing reading groups and seminars in Reykjavik (Iceland), São Paulo (Brazil) and Cambridge (Massachusetts, at Harvard University), which will begin this year. Already under way are our meetings, discussions and planning in Israel/Palestine, in Tel Aviv (Cohn Institute, Tel Aviv University), Jerusalem (The Hebrew University & Van Leer Institute) and Ramallah (Birzeit University). At each of these, respectively will be lectures, reading groups and cross-border meetings between students and faculty in Israel and the West Bank/Palestine.

At the moment we are focusing on establishing firm grounding for and dialogue between these international networks and regional groups, but that said, we are always open to suggestions for new affiliations and sponsorships worldwide. As hinted at above, we are currently planning a spring conference in London and would be pleased to hear ideas and proposals for panels, talks and sponsorships. We will be publishing an edited volume in due course as well.

General introduction to our way of thinking
In the inaugural seminars in Leeds we exclusively covered the same topic, a testament to its importance to the series as a whole. In these meetings we interrogated the question of ‘what is History?’, along with its complicated friend, the notion of the ‘philosophy of History’. We chose not to label our project and these seminars ‘theories of philosophy’ because doing so would put the seminars in danger of becoming one-dimensional, in the theoretical sense that Herbert Marcuse meant. Theories of History would provide us with the necessary critical apparatus to explore History as a cultural, intellectual and academic phenomenon, but would not provide a framework for interpreting History as a mode of thought, and a discipline, which ‘philosophies of History’ we hope will allow us to do.
Through the phrase ‘philosophies of History’, we have paired together the two concepts as modifying nouns with History as the point of reference, or, the descriptor. This allows us to focus on History as the main target of inquiry, however, to do it justice we should also think to some initial extent about the supposed set of which it is a part (at the very least, grammatically). Thus, to spin our seminar’s question around, what is philosophy? This is of course just as complex a question as ‘what is History?’, not least because, we imagine, one does not view the question as an essentialist one.  What is important for the present, though we will see where the discussion takes us, is to consider the following: what is philosophy in relation to History, what is a philosophy of History, and how can there be multiple philosophies? Is History a philosophical inquiry? The answer to such as question, we think, depends on one’s approach to writing history. Is the attempt being made to question perceived knowledge?  If so, is it being done simply for its own sake, or is it attempting to suggest alternative ‘answers’ or narratives about a past ‘neighbourhood’, or world? Would we agree with the great ‘anti-philosophers’, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Lacan, that the latter methodology is not really philosophy at all? What then can we say is a philosophy of History, and how does it help to interrogate the very concept of ‘History’?

After discussing the relationship of Philosophy to History, we turn our energies directly at History and begin to ponder, what it is. The word ‘History’ is thrown around widely today (not that this is necessarily different from certain moments in the past, a connection we should explore). One of the favourite, and the most obvious and rightly-deserved, targets to attack for this hapless use of the term ‘History’ is the media, which keeps telling us that such and such moment or action is historical, or that people are constantly ‘making History’. What the <insert profanity here> does this mean? What is ‘making History’? In media discourse it would seem that all one needs to do to make History is act, but to act specifically in accordance with the media’s (status quo, capitalist) ideals of what should be remembered and noted as important moments (e.g. when the banlieue riots in Paris, or those in London, or the unreported uprisings in Mexico occurred, reporters were not telling us jubilantly that ‘we are watching History being made’). No historians are needed, it seems, to make History, or, the ‘historian’ is in fact the media, which defines the historical for the future. This is a frightening notion indeed since it would seem that we are establishing History as an uncritical, immediate response to pre-defined, non-radical events of the present…an idea Isidore of Seville in the 7th century would say is the ‘nature’ of History, but are we comfortable with this today as ‘History’?

Lest we not be so comfortable though within our academic walls, the media is not the only source that is feeding us ‘History’ as a Lacanian ‘objet petit a’, a specific object of desire that must drive our actions towards a singular goal, for the media this is leading us down the main-stream like cattle, as the way to reach the lofty of heights of ‘History’. Many philosophers and historians too have uncritically accepted, knowingly or not, such a socially dangerous and non-analytical philosophy of History and subsequent methodologies. Some of these writers are even considered the avant-garde of their respective fields, even as radicals.
Furthermore, historians continue to grapple with elementary concepts in philosophy, while leading philosophers put forth theories they claim to legitimate by using History, but which is in turn equally as elementary as the historians’ considerations of philosophy. We believe that these inter-disciplinary attempts are done ‘in good faith’ but that there exists such a gap between the two fields that merging one into the other often deflates the work at hand. A reason for this is the lack of understanding across disciplines of the methods, historiographies, debates, and rationale of the others’ fields.

With all of these considerations in mind it is evident that now is an important time to critically interpret, re-evaluate and build novel, cross-faculty philosophies, theories and pedagogies of History, a response to shared intellectual pursuits. We hope that Philosophies of History will be able to forge fruitful discussions between its participants whether one’s aim is as a historian seeking to better understand their own work, or as a philosopher trying to place History scholarly, as a music theorist or literary critic endeavouring to explain your own present through historical terms and research non-reliant on old paradigms of determinist or categorical trajectories, or whether your concern is political, academic and otherwise interested in the past, present or future of History.
If you have any suggestions, comments or questions please feel free to contact us anytime at
Sincere regards,

The Convenors
General Director & Middle East Coordinator
Michael J. Kelly, Visiting Professor, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Regional Directors
Hervin Fernández y Aceves, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
John Papadopolous, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Catalin Taranu, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Richard Thomason, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Otavio Luis Vieira Pinto, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds
Stephen Werronen, Lecturer, Universtiy of Kent
Jason R. Berg, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Leeds