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History

The Great Library of Alexandria
The Great Library of Alexandria

The importance of History is wonderfully summed up in Leopold von Ranke’s famous interdict: ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen.’ A phrase which is perhaps best translated as ‘how it essentially was.’ By it, Ranke meant that he wanted to penetrate to the inner being of the past. Those who undertake to write about history do well to meditate on Ranke’s meaning.

As a philosopher of history my thinking always looks back to project solutions forward. In doing so I am cognisant that each generation has seen a ‘turning point,’ asked very similar questions and, in a manifestation of Santayana’s prophetic phrase, often repeated the mistakes of the past. Part of the cause for this repetition of error is, as R. G. Collingwood noted, we too often ask the wrong questions by only enquiring about what people did, rather than trying to understand what they thought. In such a context we often give the right answer to the question, but, because it is the wrong question, fail to resolve the issue which persists for the next generation.

If the present leadership continues this trend of asking the wrong questions, no matter how well it may answer, the history of our time, far from being a turning point, will be described using A. J. P. Taylor’s famous phrase: ‘history reached its turning
point and failed to turn.’