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Philosophy of History

The concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of “learning from history.” And it suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the present, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that brought us to our current situation. It is therefore unsurprising that philosophers have sometimes turned their attention to efforts to examine history itself and the nature of historical knowledge. These reflections can be grouped together into a body of work called “philosophy of history.” This work is heterogeneous, comprising analyses and arguments of idealists, positivists, logicians, theologians, and others, and moving back and forth over the divides between European and Anglo-American philosophy, and between hermeneutics and positivism.

Given the plurality of voices within the “philosophy of history,” it is impossible to give one definition of the field that suits all these approaches. In fact, it is misleading to imagine that we refer to a single philosophical tradition when we invoke the phrase, “philosophy of history,” because the strands of research characterized here rarely engage in dialogue with each other. Still, we can usefully think of philosophers’ writings about history as clustering around several large questions, involving metaphysics, hermeneutics, epistemology, and ethics: (1) What does history consist of—individual actions, social structures, periods and regions, civilizations, large causal processes, divine intervention? (2) Does history as a whole have meaning, structure, or direction, beyond the individual events and actions that make it up? (3) What is involved in our knowing, representing, and explaining history? (4) To what extent do facts about human history create moral responsibilities for the present generation?

1.1 Actors, structures, and causes in history

1.2 selectivity and scale in history, 1.3 memory, history, and narrative, 2.1 universal or historical human nature, 2.2 does history possess directionality, 2.3 hegel’s philosophy of history, 2.4 hermeneutic approaches to history.

  • 2.5 Conceptual philosophy of history

3.1 General laws in history?

3.2 historical objectivity, 3.3 causation in history, 3.4 recent topics in the philosophy of history, 4. historiography and the philosophy of history, 5. historical understanding and the twentieth century, 6. ethics, history, and memory, other internet resources, related entries, 1. history and its representation.

What are the intellectual tasks that define the historian’s work? In a sense, this question is best answered on the basis of a careful reading of some good historians. But it will be useful to offer several simple answers to this foundational question as a sort of conceptual map of the nature of historical knowing.

First, historians are interested in providing conceptualizations and factual descriptions of events and circumstances in the past. This effort is an answer to questions like these: “What happened? What was it like? What were some of the circumstances and happenings that took place during this period in the past?” Sometimes this means simply reconstructing a complicated story from scattered historical sources—for example, in constructing a narrative of the Spanish Civil War or attempting to sort out the series of events that culminated in the Detroit race riot / uprising of 1967. But sometimes it means engaging in substantial conceptual work in order to arrive at a vocabulary in terms of which to characterize “what happened.” Concerning the disorders of 1967 in Detroit: was this a riot or an uprising? How did participants and contemporaries think about it?

Second, historians often want to answer “why” questions: “Why did this event occur? What were the conditions and forces that brought it about?” What were the motivations of the participants? This body of questions invites the historian to provide an explanation of the event or pattern he or she describes: the rise of fascism in Spain, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the occurrence of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1992 and later. And providing an explanation requires, most basically, an account of the causal mechanisms, background circumstances, and human choices that brought the outcome about. We explain an historical outcome when we identify the social causes, forces, events, and actions that brought it about, or made it more likely.

Third, and related to the previous point, historians are sometimes interested in answering a “how” question: “How did this outcome come to pass? What were the processes through which the outcome occurred?” How did the Prussian Army succeed in defeating the superior French Army in 1870? How did the Polish trade union Solidarity manage to bring about the end of Communist rule in Poland in 1989? Here the pragmatic interest of the historian’s account derives from the antecedent unlikelihood of the event in question: how was this outcome possible? This too is an explanation; but it is an answer to a “how possible” question rather than a “why necessary” question.

Fourth, often historians are interested in piecing together the human meanings and intentions that underlie a given complex series of historical actions. They want to help the reader make sense of the historical events and actions, in terms of the thoughts, motives, and states of mind of the participants. For example: Why did Napoleon III carelessly provoke Prussia into war in 1870? Why did the parties of the far right in Germany gain popular support among German citizens in the 1990s? Why did northern cities in the United States develop such marked patterns of racial segregation after World War II? Answers to questions like these require interpretation of actions, meanings, and intentions—of individual actors and of cultures that characterize whole populations. This aspect of historical thinking is “hermeneutic,” interpretive, and ethnographic.

And, of course, the historian faces an even more basic intellectual task: that of discovering and making sense of the archival and historical information that exists about a given event or time in the past. Historical data do not speak for themselves; archives are incomplete, ambiguous, contradictory, and confusing. The historian needs to interpret individual pieces of evidence, and he or she needs to be able to somehow fit the mass of evidence into a coherent and truthful story. Complex events like the Spanish Civil War present the historian with an ocean of historical traces in repositories and archives all over the world; these collections sometimes reflect specific efforts at concealment by the powerful (for example, Franco’s efforts to conceal all evidence of mass killings of Republicans after the end of fighting); and the historian’s task is to find ways of using this body of evidence to discern some of the truth about the past.

In short, historians conceptualize, describe, contextualize, explain, and interpret events and circumstances of the past. They sketch out ways of representing the complex activities and events of the past; they explain and interpret significant outcomes; and they base their findings on evidence in the present that bears upon facts about the past. Their accounts need to be grounded on the evidence of the available historical record, and their explanations and interpretations require that the historian arrive at hypotheses about social causes and cultural meanings. Historians can turn to the best available theories in the social and behavioral sciences to arrive at theories about causal mechanisms and human behavior; so historical statements depend ultimately upon factual inquiry and theoretical reasoning. Ultimately, the historian’s task is to shed light on the what, why, and how of the past, based on inferences from the evidence of the present.

Three preliminary issues are relevant to almost all discussions of history and the philosophy of history. The first is a set of issues having to do with the "ontology" of history, the kinds of entities, processes, and events that make up the historical past. This topic concerns the entities, forces, and structures that we postulate in describing the historical phenomena, whether the medieval manor or the Weimar Republic, and the theory we have of how these social entities depend upon the actions of the historical actors who embody them. The second issue has to do with the problems of selectivity unavoidable for the historian of any period or epoch. Here we take up the question of how the unavoidable selectivity of historical inquiry in terms of theme, location, scope, and scale influences the nature of historical knowledge. The third issue has to do with the complicated relationship that exists between history, narrative, and collective memory. This topic addresses the point that real human beings make history. And, as Marc Bloch insists (1953), we humans are historical beings, we tell stories about ourselves, and those stories sometimes themselves have major historical consequences. The collective memories and identities of Serb nationalism were a historical fact in the 1990s, and these elements of mythic collective identity led to massive bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, and murder during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia (Judt and Snyder, 2012; Judt, 2006).

An important problem for the philosophy of history is how to conceptualize “history” happenings. What are the "objects" of which history consists? Are there social structures or systems that play a role in history? Are there causes at work in the historical process? Or is history simply an concatenation of the actions and mental frameworks of myriad individuals, high and low? If both structures and actors are crucial to understanding history, what is the relationship between them?

Marc Bloch (1953) provided a very simple and penetrating definition of history. History is "man in time". By this he meant that history is the product of human action, creativity, invention, conflict, and interaction. Bloch was skeptical about many other categories commonly used to analyze history—periods, epochs, civilizations, reigns, and centuries. Instead, he advocated for what can be called an "actor-centered" conception of history. If there are structures and systems in history, they depend upon the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individual actors. If there are causes in history, they likewise depend upon the actions and interactions of human actors within a setting of humanly created institutions and norms. The task of the historian is to reconstruct the meanings, beliefs, values, purposes, constraints, and actions that jointly explain the moments of history, from the meaning of an ancient stele to the causes of the rapid defeat of France in 1940.

This perspective does not diminish the ontological importance of structures, systems, and ideologies in history. It simply forces the historian, like the social scientist, to be attentive to the problem of articulating the relationship that exists between actors and structures. A system of norms, a property system, and a moral ideology of feudal loyalty can all be understood as being both objectively present at a time and place, and being ontologically dependent upon the mental frameworks, actions, and relationships of the individual actors who make up these systems. This problem has been thoroughly discussed in the philosophy of social science under the rubric of "ontological individualism" (Zahle and Collin, 2014). Higher-level social entities are indeed causally powerful in the social world; and they depend entirely for their causal powers on the characteristics of the individual actors who constitute them. This is the requirement of microfoundations: extended social structures and causes depend upon microfoundations at the level of the individuals who constitute them (Little 2017). In particular, we need to have some idea about how individuals have been brought to think and act in the ways required by the structures and ideologies in which they function as adults. On this approach, history is the result of the actions and thoughts of vast numbers of actors, and institutions, structures, and norms are likewise embodied in the actions and mental frameworks of historically situated individuals. Such an approach helps to inoculate us against the error of reification of historical structures, periods, or forces, in favor of a more disaggregated conception of multiple actors and shifting conditions of action. This is the conception to which we are drawn when we understand history along the lines proposed by Bloch.

This orientation brings along with it the importance of analyzing closely the social and natural environment in which actors frame their choices. A historian’s account of the flow of human action eventuating in historical change unavoidably needs to take into account the institutional and situational environment in which these actions take place. Part of the social environment of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: property relations, political institutions, family structures, educational practices, religious and moral values. So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions, cultures, and practices. It is an important fact that a given period in time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important fact that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

Similar microfoundational accounts must be given in support of the idea of "causes in history". Once established, it is reasonably straightforward to see how a social structure such as a property system or an ideology "causes" a historical outcome: by constraining the choices of actors and contributing to their motivations and values in the choices they make, a structure or an ideology influences historically important events like social movements, market crashes, or outbreaks of ethnic violence. Structures influence individual actors, and individual actors collectively constitute structures. This approach gives a basis for judging that such-and-so circumstance “caused” a given historical change; but it also provides an understanding of the way in which this kind of historical cause is embodied and conveyed—through the actions and thoughts of individuals in response to given natural and social circumstances.

Are there large scale causes at work in historical processes? Historians often pose questions like these: “What were some of the causes of the fall of Rome?”, “what were the causes of the rise of fascism?”, or “what were the causes of the Industrial Revolution?”. These kinds of questions presuppose that there were grand causes at work that had grand effects. However, it is more plausible to believe that the causes of some very large and significant historical events are themselves small, granular, gradual, and cumulative. If this is the case, then there is no satisfyingly simple and high-level answer to the question, why did Rome fall? Moreover, astute historians like Bloch and his contemporaries recognized that there is a very large amount of contingency and path dependency in historical change (Pierson, 2004). Historical outcomes are not determined by a few large scale causes; instead, multiple local, contingent, and conjunctural processes and happening jointly come together in the production of the outcome of interest. It is possible, for example, that the collapse of the Roman Empire resulted from a myriad of very different contingencies and organizational features in different parts of the empire. A contingent account of the fall of Rome might refer to logistical difficulties in supplying armies in the German winter, particularly stubborn local resistance in Palestine, administrative decay in Roman Britain, population pressure in Egypt, and a particularly inept series of commanders in Gaul. Without drama, administrative and military collapse ensues. The best we can do sometimes is to identify a swarm of independent, small-scale processes and contingencies that eventually produced the large outcome of interest.

This approach might be called "actor-centered history": we explain a historical moment or event when we have an account of what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social, institutional, and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures, and examines the actions and practices of individuals as they lived their lives within these constraining and enabling circumstances. Further, it emphasizes the contingency and path-dependency of history, and it acknowledges the fact of heterogeneity of institutions, beliefs, and actions across time and place.

Historical research unavoidably requires selectivity in deciding what particular phenomena to emphasize. As Max Weber (1949) notes, there is an infinite depth to historical reality, and therefore it is necessary to select a finite representation of the object of study if we want to approach a problem rigorously. Let us imagine, for example, that a historian is interested in cities and their development over time. This might be pursued as an economic question, a question of regional geography, a question about cultural change, a question about poverty and segregation, a question about municipal governance, or a question about civil disturbances, and so one, for indefinitely many aspects of urban life. One generation of historians may be especially interested in cultural topics, while another generation is preoccupied with the organization of the economy at various points in history. The two orientations lead to very different historical representations of the past. Both inquiries lead to true depictions of the cities in question, but their findings and interpretations are very different. Likewise, the historian needs to make choices about location; is he or she interested in the cities of Britain, the cities of Europe, or all cities in the world? Further, the historian must consider whether to conduct a comparative history of cities, examining similarities and differences in the development of Paris and London; or instead restrict attention to a single case. Simply collecting “historical facts” about cities in the past is not a valid mode of historical inquiry. The question of how historians select and identify their subjects for research is an important one for the philosophy of history, and it has great significance for how we think about “knowing the past”.

Weber’s essays on methodology (1949) provide insight about these questions. Weber emphasizes the role that the scholar’s values play in his or her selection of a subject matter and a conceptual framework. So it is always open to historians of later generations to reevaluate prior interpretations of various aspects and periods of history. There is no general or comprehensive approach to defining the historical; there is only the possibility of a series of selective and value-guided approaches to defining specific aspects of history. We are always at liberty to bring forward new perspectives and new aspects of the problem, and to arrive at new insights about how the phenomena hang together when characterized in these new ways. This inherent selectivity of historical knowledge does not undermine the objectivity or veridicality of our knowledge; it merely entails that – like mathematics – history is inherently incomplete.

Doing history also forces the historian to make choices about the scale of the history with which he or she is concerned. Suppose we are interested in Asian history. Are we concerned with Asia as a continent, including China, India, Cambodia, and Japan, or the whole of China during the Ming Dynasty, or Hubei Province? Or if we define our interest in terms of a single important historical event like the Chinese Revolution, are we concerned with the whole of the Chinese Revolution, the base area of Yenan, or the specific experience of a handful of villages in Shandong during the 1940s? Given the fundamental heterogeneity of social life, the choice of scale makes an important difference to the findings.

Historians differ greatly around the decisions they make about scale. It is possible to treat any historical subject at the micro-scale. William Hinton provides what is almost a month-to-month description of the Chinese Revolution in Fanshen village—a collection of a few hundred families (Hinton 1966). Likewise, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie offers a deep treatment of the villagers of Montaillou; once again, a single village and a limited time (Le Roy Ladurie 1979). William Cronon provides a focused and detailed account of the development of Chicago as a metropolis for the middle of the United States (Cronon 1991). These histories are limited in time and space, and they can appropriately be called “micro-history.”

Macro-level history is possible as well. William McNeill provides a history of the world’s diseases (McNeill 1976); Massimo Livi-Bacci offers a history of the world’s population (Livi-Bacci 2007); and De Vries and Goudsblom provide an environmental history of the world (De Vries and Goudsblom 2002). In each of these cases, the historian has chosen a scale that encompasses virtually the whole of the globe, over millennia of time. These histories can certainly be called “macro-history.”

Both micro- and macro-histories have important shortcomings. Micro-history leaves us with the question, “how does this particular village shed light on anything larger?”. Macro-history leaves us with the question, “how do these large assertions about the nature of revolution or the importance of class conflict in mobilization apply in the context of Canada or Warsaw?”. The first threatens to be so particular as to lose all interest, whereas the second threatens to be so general as to lose all empirical relevance to real historical processes.

There is a third choice available to the historian that addresses both points. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis. This level of scale might be regional—for example, G. William Skinner’s analysis of the macro-regions of China (Skinner 1977). It might be national—for example, a social and political history of Indonesia. And it might be supra-national—for example, an economic history of Western Europe or comparative treatment of Eurasian history. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work. And this mid-level scale permits the historian to make substantive judgments about the “reach” of social processes that are likely to play a causal role in the story that needs telling. This level of analysis can be referred to as “meso-history,” and it appears to offer an ideal mix of specificity and generality.

What is the relation between history, memory, and narrative? We might put these concepts into a crude map by saying that "history" is an organized and evidence-based presentation of of the processes, actions, and events that have occurred for a people over an extended period of time; "memory" is the personal recollections and representations of individuals who lived through a series of events and processes; and "narratives" are the stories that ordinary people and historians weave together to make sense of the events and happenings through which a people and a person have lived. Collective memory, the idea that groups such as Welsh miners, Serbian villagers, or black Alabama farmers possess a collective representation of the past that binds them together, can be understood as a shared set of narratives and stories about the past events of the given group or community. We use narratives to make sense of things that have happened; to identify meanings and causes within this series of events; and to select the "important" events and processes out from the ordinary and inconsequential.

What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of how and why a situation or event came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome—the conditions at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes—either social or natural—may have played a role in influencing the outcome? So a narrative seeks to provide hermeneutic understanding of the outcome—why did actors behave as they did in bringing about the outcome?—and causal explanation —what social and natural processes were acting behind the backs of the actors in bringing about the outcome? And different narratives represent different mixes of hermeneutic and causal factors. A crucial and unavoidable feature of narrative history is the fact of selectivity. The narrative historian is forced to make choices and selections at every stage: between "significant" and "insignificant", between "sideshow" and "main event", and between levels of description.

It is evident that there are often multiple truthful, unbiased, and inconsistent narratives that can be told for a single complex event. Exactly because many things happened at once, actors’ motives were ambiguous, and the causal connections among events are debatable, it is possible to construct inconsistent narratives that are equally well supported by the evidence. Further, the intellectual interest that different historians bring to the happening can lead to differences in the narrative. One historian may be primarily interested in the role that different views of social justice played in the actions of the participants; another may be primarily interested in the role that social networks played; and a third may be especially interested in the role of charismatic personalities, with a consequent structuring to the narrative around the actions and speeches of the charismatic leader. Each of these may be truthful, objective, and unbiased—and inconsistent in important ways with the others. So narratives are underdetermined by the facts, and there is no such thing as an exhaustive and comprehensive telling of the story—only various tellings that emphasize one set of themes or another.

When we consider collective memory and social identity, we are also forced to recognize that powerful institutions attempt to shape the narrative of important events in ways that serve political interests. A group identity can be defined as a set of beliefs and stories about one’s home, one’s people, and one’s past. These ideas often involve answers to questions like these: Where did we come from? How did we get here? And perhaps, who are my enemies? So an identity involves a narrative, a creation story, or perhaps a remembrance of a long chain of disasters and crimes. Identity and collective memory are intertwined; monuments, songs, icons, and flags help to set the way points in the history of a people and the collective emotions that this group experiences. They have to do with the stories we tell each other about who we are; how our histories brought us to this place; and what large events shaped us as a "people". Governments, leaders, activists, and political parties all have an interest in shaping collective memory to their own ends. Collective memories and identities are interwoven with myths and folk histories. And, as Benedict Anderson (1983) demonstrated, these stories are more often than not fictions of various kinds, promulgated by individuals and groups who have an interest in shaping collective consciousness in one way or another.

The philosophy of history must pay attention to the nexus of experience, memory, and history. There is no single “Civil Rights era” experience or “Great Depression” experience; instead, historians must consider a wide range of sources and evidence, including oral histories, first-person accounts, photographs, and other traces of the human experience of the time to allow them to discern both variation and some degree of thematicization of memory and identity in the periods they study. Second, attention to history and memory highlights the amount of human and individual agency involved in memory. Memories must be created; agents must find frameworks within which to understand their moments of historical experience. Museums and monuments curate historical memories — often with biases of their own. A third and equally important point is the fact that memories become part of the political mobilization possibilities that exist for a group. Groups find their collective identities through shared understandings of the past; and these shared understandings provide a basis for future collective action. Paul Ricoeur’s  Time and Narrative (1984-1988) sheds profound light on the profound relations that extend among memory, identity, narrative, and history.

2. Continental philosophy of history

The topic of history has been treated frequently in modern European philosophy. A long, largely German, tradition of thought looks at history as a total and comprehensible process of events, structures, and processes, for which the philosophy of history can serve as an interpretive tool. This approach, speculative and meta-historical, aims to discern large, embracing patterns and directions in the unfolding of human history, persistent notwithstanding the erratic back-and-forth of particular historical developments. Modern philosophers raising this set of questions about the large direction and meaning of history include Vico, Herder, and Hegel. A somewhat different line of thought in the continental tradition that has been very relevant to the philosophy of history is the hermeneutic tradition of the human sciences. Through their emphasis on the “hermeneutic circle” through which humans undertake to understand the meanings created by other humans—in texts, symbols, and actions—hermeneutic philosophers such as Schleiermacher (1838), Dilthey (1860–1903), and Ricoeur (1984-1988, 2000) offer philosophical arguments for emphasizing the importance of narrative interpretation within our understanding of history. Understanding history means providing a narrative that makes sense of it from beginning to end.

Human beings make history; but what is the fundamental nature of the human being? Is there one fundamental “human nature,” or are the most basic features of humanity historically conditioned (Mandelbaum 1971)? Can the study of history shed light on this question? When we study different historical epochs, do we learn something about unchanging human beings—or do we learn about fundamental differences of motivation, reasoning, desire, and collectivity? Is humanity a historical product? Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1725) offered an interpretation of history that turned on the idea of a universal human nature and a universal history (see Berlin 2000 for commentary). Vico’s interpretation of the history of civilization offers the view that there is an underlying uniformity in human nature across historical settings that permits explanation of historical actions and processes. The common features of human nature give rise to a fixed series of stages of development of civil society, law, commerce, and government: universal human beings, faced with recurring civilizational challenges, produce the same set of responses over time. Two things are worth noting about this perspective on history: first, that it simplifies the task of interpreting and explaining history (because we can take it as given that we can understand the actors of the past based on our own experiences and nature); and second, it has an intellectual heir in twentieth-century social science theory in the form of rational choice theory as a basis for comprehensive social explanation.

Johann Gottfried Herder offers a strikingly different view about human nature and human ideas and motivations. Herder argues for the historical contextuality of human nature in his work, Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity (1791). He offers a historicized understanding of human nature, advocating the idea that human nature is itself a historical product and that human beings act differently in different periods of historical development (1800–1877, 1791). Herder’s views set the stage for the historicist philosophy of human nature later found in such nineteenth-century figures as Hegel and Nietzsche. His perspective too prefigures an important current of thought about the social world in the late twentieth century, the idea of the “social construction” of human nature and social identities (Anderson 1983; Hacking 1999; Foucault 1971).

Philosophers have raised questions about the meaning and structure of the totality of human history. Some philosophers have sought to discover a large organizing theme, meaning, or direction in human history. This may take the form of an effort to demonstrate how history enacts a divine order, or reveals a large pattern (cyclical, teleological, progressive), or plays out an important theme (for example, Hegel’s conception of history as the unfolding of human freedom discussed below). The ambition in each case is to demonstrate that the apparent contingency and arbitrariness of historical events can be related to a more fundamental underlying purpose or order.

This approach to history may be described as hermeneutic; but it is focused on interpretation of large historical features rather than the interpretation of individual meanings and actions. In effect, it treats the sweep of history as a complicated, tangled text, in which the interpreter assigns meanings to some elements of the story in order to fit these elements into the larger themes and motifs of the story. (Ranke makes this point explicitly (1881).)

A recurring current in this approach to the philosophy of history falls in the area of theodicy or eschatology: religiously inspired attempts to find meaning and structure in history by relating the past and present to some specific, divinely ordained plan. Theologians and religious thinkers have attempted to find meaning in historical events as expressions of divine will. One reason for theological interest in this question is the problem of evil; thus Leibniz’s Theodicy attempts to provide a logical interpretation of history that makes the tragedies of history compatible with a benevolent God’s will (1709). In the twentieth century, theologians such as Maritain (1957), Rust (1947), and Dawson (1929) offered systematic efforts to provide Christian interpretations of history.

Enlightenment thinkers rejected the religious interpretation of history but brought in their own teleology, the idea of progress—the idea that humanity is moving in the direction of better and more perfect civilization, and that this progression can be witnessed through study of the history of civilization (Condorcet 1795; Montesquieu 1748). Vico’s philosophy of history seeks to identify a foundational series of stages of human civilization. Different civilizations go through the same stages, because human nature is constant across history (Pompa 1990). Rousseau (1762a; 1762b) and Kant (1784–5; 1784–6) brought some of these assumptions about rationality and progress into their political philosophies, and Adam Smith embodies some of this optimism about the progressive effects of rationality in his account of the unfolding of the modern European economic system (1776). This effort to derive a fixed series of stages as a tool of interpretation of the history of civilization is repeated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it finds expression in Hegel’s philosophy (discussed below), as well as Marx’s materialist theory of the development of economic modes of production (Marx and Engels 1845–49; Marx and Engels 1848).

The effort to find directionality or stages in history found a new expression in the early twentieth century, in the hands of several “meta-historians” who sought to provide a macro-interpretation that brought order to world history: Spengler (1934), Toynbee (1934), Wittfogel (1935), and Lattimore (1932). These authors offered a reading of world history in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations, races, or cultures. Their writings were not primarily inspired by philosophical or theological theories, but they were also not works of primary historical scholarship. Spengler and Toynbee portrayed human history as a coherent process in which civilizations pass through specific stages of youth, maturity, and senescence. Wittfogel and Lattimore interpreted Asian civilizations in terms of large determining factors. Wittfogel contrasts China’s history with that of Europe by characterizing China’s civilization as one of “hydraulic despotism”, with the attendant consequence that China’s history was cyclical rather than directional. Lattimore applies the key of geographic and ecological determinism to the development of Asian civilization (Rowe 2007).

A legitimate criticism of many efforts to offer an interpretation of the sweep of history is the view that it looks for meaning where none can exist. Interpretation of individual actions and life histories is intelligible, because we can ground our attributions of meaning in a theory of the individual person as possessing and creating meanings. But there is no super-agent lying behind historical events—for example, the French Revolution—and so it is a metaphysical mistake to attempt to find the meaning of the features of the event (e.g., the Terror). The theological approach purports to evade this criticism by attributing agency to God as the author of history, but the assumption that there is a divine author of history takes the making of history out of the hands of humanity.

Efforts to discern large stages in history such as those of Vico, Spengler, or Toynbee are vulnerable to a different criticism based on their mono-causal interpretations of the full complexity of human history. These authors single out one factor that is thought to drive history: a universal human nature (Vico), or a common set of civilizational challenges (Spengler, Toynbee). But their hypotheses need to be evaluated on the basis of concrete historical evidence. And the evidence concerning the large features of historical change over the past three millennia offers little support for the idea of one fixed process of civilizational development. Instead, human history, at virtually every scale, appears to embody a large degree of contingency and multiple pathways of development. This is not to say that there are no credible “large historical” interpretations available for human history and society. For example, Michael Mann’s sociology of early agrarian civilizations (1986), De Vries and Goudsblom’s efforts at global environmental history (2002), and Jared Diamond’s treatment of disease and warfare (1997) offer examples of scholars who attempt to explain some large features of human history on the basis of a few common human circumstances: the efforts of states to collect revenues, the need of human communities to exploit resources, or the global transmission of disease. The challenge for macro-history is to preserve the discipline of empirical evaluation for the large hypotheses that are put forward.

Hegel’s philosophy of history is perhaps the most fully developed philosophical theory of history that attempts to discover meaning or direction in history (1824a, 1824b, 1857). Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition—the realization of human freedom. “The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world” (1857: 63). Hegel incorporates a deeper historicism into his philosophical theories than his predecessors or successors. He regards the relationship between “objective” history and the subjective development of the individual consciousness (“spirit”) as an intimate one; this is a central thesis in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). And he views it to be a central task for philosophy to comprehend its place in the unfolding of history. “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept” (1857: 62). Hegel constructs world history into a narrative of stages of human freedom, from the public freedom of the polis and the citizenship of the Roman Republic, to the individual freedom of the Protestant Reformation, to the civic freedom of the modern state. He attempts to incorporate the civilizations of India and China into his understanding of world history, though he regards those civilizations as static and therefore pre-historical (O’Brien 1975). He constructs specific moments as “world-historical” events that were in the process of bringing about the final, full stage of history and human freedom. For example, Napoleon’s conquest of much of Europe is portrayed as a world-historical event doing history’s work by establishing the terms of the rational bureaucratic state. Hegel finds reason in history; but it is a latent reason, and one that can only be comprehended when the fullness of history’s work is finished: “When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. … The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” ((Hegel 1821: 13). (See O’Brien (1975), Taylor (1975), and Kojève (1969) for treatments of Hegel’s philosophy of history.)

It is worth observing that Hegel’s philosophy of history is not the indefensible exercise of speculative philosophical reasoning that analytic philosophers sometimes paint it. His philosophical approach is not based solely on foundational apriori reasoning, and many of his interpretations of concrete historical developments are quite insightful. Instead he proposes an “immanent” encounter between philosophical reason and the historical given. Here is how W. H. Walsh (1960) describes Hegel’s intellectual project in his philosophy of history:

To accomplish this task the philosopher must take the results of empirical history as data, but it will not suffice for him merely to reproduce them. He must try to illuminate history by bringing his knowledge of the Idea, the formal articulation of reason, to bear upon it, striving, in a phrase Hegel uses elsewhere, to elevate empirical contents to the rank of necessary truth. (Walsh 1960: 143)

Hegel’s prescription is that the philosopher should seek to discover the rational within the real—not to impose the rational upon the real. “To comprehend what is, this is the task of philosophy, because what is, is reason” (1821: 11). His approach is neither purely philosophical nor purely empirical; instead, he undertakes to discover within the best historical knowledge of his time, an underlying rational principle that can be philosophically articulated (Avineri 1972).

Another important strand of continental philosophy of history proposes to apply hermeneutics to problems of historical interpretation. This approach focuses on the meaning of the actions and intentions of historical individuals rather than historical wholes. This tradition derives from the tradition of scholarly Biblical interpretation. Hermeneutic scholars emphasized the linguistic and symbolic core of human interactions and maintained that the techniques that had been developed for the purpose of interpreting texts could also be employed to interpret symbolic human actions and products. Wilhelm Dilthey maintained that the human sciences were inherently distinct from the natural sciences in that the former depend on the understanding of meaningful human actions, while the latter depend on causal explanation of non-intensional events (1883, 1860-1903, 1910). Human life is structured and carried out through meaningful action and symbolic expressions. Dilthey maintains that the intellectual tools of hermeneutics—the interpretation of meaningful texts—are suited to the interpretation of human action and history. The method of verstehen (understanding) makes a methodology of this approach; it invites the thinker to engage in an active construction of the meanings and intentions of the actors from their point of view (Outhwaite 1975). This line of interpretation of human history found expression in the twentieth-century philosophical writings of Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Foucault. This tradition approaches the philosophy of history from the perspective of meaning and language. It argues that historical knowledge depends upon interpretation of meaningful human actions and practices. Historians should probe historical events and actions in order to discover the interconnections of meaning and symbolic interaction that human actions have created (Sherratt 2006).

The hermeneutic tradition took an important new turn in the mid-twentieth century, as philosophers attempted to make sense of modern historical developments including war, racism, and the Holocaust. Narratives of progress were no longer compelling, following the terrible events of the first half of the twentieth century. The focus of this approach might be labeled “history as remembrance.” Contributors to this strand of thought emerged from twentieth-century European philosophy, including existentialism and Marxism, and were influenced by the search for meaning in the Holocaust. Paul Ricoeur draws out the parallels between personal memory, cultural memory, and history (2000). Dominick LaCapra brings the tools of interpretation theory and critical theory to bear on his treatment of the representation of the trauma of the Holocaust (1994, 1998). Others emphasize the role that folk histories play in the construction and interpretation of “our” past. This is a theme that has been taken up by contemporary historians, for example, by Michael Kammen in his treatment of public remembrance of the American Civil War (1991). Memory and the representation of the past play a key role in the formation of racial and national identities; numerous twentieth-century philosophers have noted the degree of subjectivity and construction that are inherent in the national memories represented in a group’s telling of its history.

Although not himself falling within the continental lineage, R. G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history falls within the general framework of hermeneutic philosophy of history (1946). Collingwood focuses on the question of how to specify the content of history. He argues that history is constituted by human actions. Actions are the result of intentional deliberation and choice; so historians are able to explain historical processes “from within” as a reconstruction of the thought processes of the agents who bring them about. He presents the idea of re-enactment as a solution to the problem of knowledge of the past from the point of view of the present. The past is accessible to historians in the present, because it is open to them to re-enact important historical moments through imaginative reconstruction of the actors’ states of mind and intentions. He describes this activity of re-enactment in the context of the historical problem of understanding Plato’s meanings as a philosopher or Caesar’s intentions as a ruler:

This re-enactment is only accomplished, in the case of Plato and Caesar respectively, so far as the historian brings to bear on the problem all the powers of his own mind and all his knowledge of philosophy and politics. It is not a passive surrender to the spell of another’s mind; it is a labour of active and therefore critical thinking. (Collingwood 1946: 215)

2.5 Conceptual history

The post-war German historian Reinhart Koselleck made important contributions to the philosophy of history that are largely independent from the other sources of Continental philosophy of history mentioned here. (Koselleck’s contributions are ably discussed in Olsen 2012.) Koselleck contributed to a “conceptual and critical theory of history” (2002, 2004). His major compendium, with Brunner and Conze, of the history of concepts of history in the German-speaking world is one of the major expressions of this work (Brunner, Conze, and Koselleck 1972-97). Koselleck believes there are three key tasks for the metahistorian or philosopher: to identify the concepts that are either possible or necessary in characterizing history; to locate those concepts within the context of the social and political discourses and conflicts of the time period; and to critically evaluate various of these concepts for their usefulness in historical analysis.

Key examples that Koselleck develops include “space of experience” and “horizon of expectation”. Examples of metahistorical categories in Koselleck’s account include “capacity to die and capacity to kill,” “friend and foe,” “inside and outside,” and “master and servant”. Koselleck represents these conceptual oppositions as representing conditions of possibility of any representation of history (Bouton 2016: 178).

A large part of Koselleck’s work thus involves identifying and describing various kinds of historical concepts. In order to represent history it is necessary to make use of a vocabulary that distinguishes the things we need to talk about; and historical concepts permit these identifications. This in turn requires both conceptual and historical treatment: how the concepts are understood, and how they have changed over time. Christophe Bouton encapsulates Koselleck’s approach in these terms: “[It is an] inquiry into the historical categories that are used in, or presupposed by, the experience of history at its different levels, as events, traces, and narratives” (Bouton 2016: 164). Further, Bouton argues that Koselleck also brings a critical perspective to the concepts that he discusses: he asks the question of validity (Bouton 2016). To what extent do these particular concepts work well to characterize history?

What this amounts to is the idea that history is the result of conceptualization of the past on the part of the people who tell it—professional historians, politicians, partisans, and ordinary citizens. (It is interesting to note that Koselleck’s research in the final years of his career focused on the meaning of public monuments, especially war memorials.) It is therefore an important, even crucial, task to investigate the historical concepts that have been used to characterize the past. A key concept that was of interest to Koselleck was the idea of “modernity”. This approach might seem to fall within the larger field of intellectual history; but Koselleck and other exponents believe that the historical concepts in use actually play a role as well in the concrete historical developments that occur within a period.

It is worth noticing that history comes into Koselleck’s notion of Begriffsgeschichte in two ways. Koselleck is concerned to uncover the logic and semantics of the concepts that have been used to describe historical events and processes; and he is interested in the historical evolution of some of those concepts over time. (In this latter interest his definition of the question parallels that of the so-called Cambridge School of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and J. G. A. Pocock.) Numerous observers emphasize the importance of political conflict in Koselleck’s account of historical concepts: concepts are used by partisans to define the field of battle over values and loyalties (Pankakoski 2010). More generally, Koselleck’s aim is to excavate the layers of meaning that have been associated with key historical concepts in different historical periods. (Whatmore and Young 2015 provide extensive and useful accounts of each of the positions mentioned here.)

Conceptual history may appear to have a Kantian background—an exploration of the “categories” of thought on the basis of which alone history is intelligible. But this appears not to be Koselleck’s intention, and his approach is not apriori. Rather, he looks at historical concepts on a spectrum of abstraction, from relatively close to events (the French Revolution) to more abstract (revolutionary change). Moreover, he makes rigorous attempts to discover the meanings and uses of these concepts in their historical contexts.

Koselleck’s work defines a separate space within the field of the philosophy of history. It has to do with meanings in history, but it is neither teleological nor hermeneutic. It takes seriously the obligation of the historian excavate the historical facts with scrupulous rigor, but it is not empiricist or reductionist. It emphasizes the dependence of “history” on the conceptual resources of those who live history and those who tell history, but it is not post-modernist or relativist. Koselleck provides an innovative and constructive way of formulating the problem of historical knowledge.

3. Anglo-American philosophy of history

The traditions of empiricism and Anglo-American philosophy have also devoted occasional attention to history. Philosophers in this tradition have avoided the questions of speculative philosophy of history and have instead raised questions about the logic and epistemology of historical knowledge. Here the guiding question is, “What are the logical and epistemological characteristics of historical knowledge and historical explanation?”.

David Hume’s empiricism cast a dominant key for almost all subsequent Anglo-American philosophy, and this influence extends to the interpretation of human behavior and the human sciences. Hume wrote a widely read history of England (1754–1762). His interpretation of history was based on the assumption of ordinary actions, motives, and causes, with no sympathy for theological interpretations of the past. His philosophical view of history was premised on the idea that explanations of the past can be based on the assumption of a fixed human nature.

Anglo-American interest in the philosophy of history was renewed at mid-twentieth century with the emergence of “analytical philosophy of history.” Representative contributors include Dray (1957, 1964, 1966), Danto (1965), and Gardiner (1952, 1974). This approach involves the application of the methods and tools of analytic philosophy to the special problems that arise in the pursuit of historical explanations and historical knowledge (Gardiner 1952). Here the interest is in the characteristics of historical knowledge: how we know facts about the past, what constitutes a good historical explanation, whether explanations in history require general laws, and whether historical knowledge is underdetermined by available historical evidence. Analytic philosophers emphasized the empirical and scientific status of historical knowledge, and attempted to understand this claim along the lines of the scientific standing of the natural sciences (Nagel 1961).

Philosophers in the analytic tradition are deeply skeptical about the power of non-empirical reason to arrive at substantive conclusions about the structure of the world—including human history. Philosophical reasoning by itself cannot be a source of substantive knowledge about the natural world, or about the sequence of events, actions, states, classes, empires, plagues, and conquests that we call “history.” Rather, substantive knowledge about the world can only derive from empirical investigation and logical analysis of the consequences of these findings. So analytic philosophers of history have had little interest in the large questions about the meaning and structure of history considered above. The practitioners of speculative philosophy of history, on the other hand, are convinced of the power of philosophical thought to reason through to a foundational understanding of history, and would be impatient with a call for a purely empirical and conceptual approach to the subject.

W. H. Walsh’s Philosophy of History (Walsh 1960 [1951]), first published in 1951 and revised in 1960, is an open-minded and well-grounded effort to provide an in-depth presentation of the field that crosses the separation between continental and analytical philosophy. The book attempts to treat both major questions driving much of the philosophy of history: the nature of historical knowledge and the possibility of gaining “metaphysical” knowledge about history. An Oxford philosopher trained in modern philosophy, Walsh was strongly influenced by Collingwood and was well aware of the European idealist tradition of philosophical thinking about history, including Rickert, Dilthey, and Croce, and he treats this tradition in a serious way. He draws the distinction between these traditions along the lines of “critical” and “speculative” philosophy of history. Walsh’s goal for the book is ambitious; he hopes to propose a framework within which the main questions about history can be addressed, including both major traditions. He advances the view that the historian is presented with a number of events, actions, and developments during a period. How do they hang together? The process of cognition through which the historian makes sense of a set of separate historical events Walsh refers to as “colligation” — “to locate a historical event in a larger historical process in terms of which it makes sense” (23).

Walsh fundamentally accepts Collingwood’s most basic premise: that history concerns conscious human action. Collingwood’s slogan was that “history is the science of the mind,” and Walsh appears to accept much of this perspective. So the key intellectual task for the historian, on this approach, is to reconstruct the reasons or motives that actors had at various points in history (and perhaps the conditions that led them to have these reasons and motives). This means that the tools of interpretation of meanings and reasons are crucial for the historian—much as the hermeneutic philosophers in the German tradition had argued.

Walsh suggests that the philosophical content of the philosophy of history falls naturally into two different sorts of inquiry, parallel to the distinction between philosophy of nature and philosophy of science. The first has to do with metaphysical questions about the reality of history as a whole; the latter has to do with the epistemic issues that arise in the pursuit and formulation of knowledge of history. He refers to these approaches as “speculative” and “critical” aspects of the philosophy of history. And he attempts to formulate a view of what the key questions are for each approach. Speculative philosophy of history asks about the meaning and purpose of the historical process. Critical philosophy of history is what we now refer to as “analytic” philosophy; it is the equivalent for history of what the philosophy of science is for nature.

The philosopher of science Carl Hempel stimulated analytic philosophers’ interest in historical knowledge in his essay, “The Function of General Laws in History” (1942). Hempel’s general theory of scientific explanation held that all scientific explanations require subsumption under general laws. Hempel considered historical explanation as an apparent exception to the covering-law model and attempted to show the suitability of the covering-law model even to this special case. He argued that valid historical explanations too must invoke general laws. The covering-law approach to historical explanation was supported by other analytical philosophers of science, including Ernest Nagel (1961). Hempel’s essay provoked a prolonged controversy between supporters who cited generalizations about human behavior as the relevant general laws, and critics who argued that historical explanations are more akin to explanations of individual behavior, based on interpretation that makes the outcome comprehensible. Especially important discussions were offered by William Dray (1957), Michael Scriven (1962), and Alan Donagan (1966). Donagan and others pointed out the difficulty that many social explanations depend on probabilistic regularities rather than universal laws. Others, including Scriven, pointed out the pragmatic features of explanation, suggesting that arguments that fall far short of deductive validity are nonetheless sufficient to “explain” a given historical event in a given context of belief. The most fundamental objections, however, are these: first, that there are virtually no good examples of universal laws in history, whether of human behavior or of historical event succession (Donagan 1966: 143–45); and second, that there are other compelling schemata through which we can understand historical actions and outcomes that do not involve subsumption under general laws (Elster 1989). These include the processes of reasoning through which we understand individual actions—analogous to the methods of verstehen and the interpretation of rational behavior mentioned above (Dray 1966: 131–37); and the processes through which we can trace out chains of causation and specific causal mechanisms without invoking universal laws.

A careful re-reading of these debates over the covering-law model in history suggests that the debate took place largely because of the erroneous assumption of the unity of science and the postulation of the regulative logical similarity of all areas of scientific reasoning to a few clear examples of explanation in a few natural sciences. This approach was a deeply impoverished one, and handicapped from the start in its ability to pose genuinely important questions about the nature of history and historical knowledge. Explanation of human actions and outcomes should not be understood along the lines of an explanation of why radiators burst when the temperature falls below zero degrees centigrade. As Donagan concludes, “It is harmful to overlook the fundamental identity of the social sciences with history, and to mutilate research into human affairs by remodeling the social sciences into deformed likenesses of physics” (1966: 157). The insistence on naturalistic models for social and historical research leads easily to a presumption in favor of the covering-law model of explanation, but this presumption is misleading.

Another issue that provoked significant attention among analytic philosophers of history is the issue of “objectivity.” Is it possible for historical knowledge to objectively represent the past? Or are forms of bias, omission, selection, and interpretation such as to make all historical representations dependent on the perspective of the individual historian? Does the fact that human actions are value-laden make it impossible for the historian to provide a non-value-laden account of those actions?

This topic divides into several different problems, as noted by John Passmore (1966: 76). The most studied of these within the analytic tradition is that of the value-ladenness of social action. Second is the possibility that the historian’s interpretations are themselves value-laden—raising the question of the capacity for objectivity or neutrality of the historian herself. Does the intellectual have the ability to investigate the world without regard to the biases that are built into her political or ethical beliefs, her ideology, or her commitments to a class or a social group? And third is the question of the objectivity of the historical circumstances themselves. Is there a fixed historical reality, independent from later representations of the facts? Or is history intrinsically “constructed,” with no objective reality independent from the ways in which it is constructed? Is there a reality corresponding to the phrase, “the French Revolution,” or is there simply an accumulation of written versions of the French Revolution?

There are solutions to each of these problems that are highly consonant with the philosophical assumptions of the analytic tradition. First, concerning values: There is no fundamental difficulty in reconciling the idea of a researcher with one set of religious values, who nonetheless carefully traces out the religious values of a historical actor possessing radically different values. This research can be done badly, of course; but there is no inherent epistemic barrier that makes it impossible for the researcher to examine the body of statements, behaviors, and contemporary cultural institutions corresponding to the other, and to come to a justified representation of the other. One need not share the values or worldview of a sans-culotte , in order to arrive at a justified appraisal of those values and worldview. This leads us to a resolution of the second issue as well—the possibility of neutrality on the part of the researcher. The set of epistemic values that we impart to scientists and historians include the value of intellectual discipline and a willingness to subject their hypotheses to the test of uncomfortable facts. Once again, review of the history of science and historical writing makes it apparent that this intellectual value has effect. There are plentiful examples of scientists and historians whose conclusions are guided by their interrogation of the evidence rather than their ideological presuppositions. Objectivity in pursuit of truth is itself a value, and one that can be followed.

Finally, on the question of the objectivity of the past: Is there a basis for saying that events or circumstances in the past have objective, fixed characteristics that are independent from our representation of those events? Is there a representation-independent reality underlying the large historical structures to which historians commonly refer (the Roman Empire, the Great Wall of China, the imperial administration of the Qianlong Emperor)? We can work our way carefully through this issue, by recognizing a distinction between the objectivity of past events, actions and circumstances, the objectivity of the contemporary facts that resulted from these past events, and the objectivity and fixity of large historical entities. The past occurred in precisely the way that it did—agents acted, droughts occurred, armies were defeated, new technologies were invented. These occurrences left traces of varying degrees of information richness; and these traces give us a rational basis for arriving at beliefs about the occurrences of the past. So we can offer a non-controversial interpretation of the “objectivity of the past.” However, this objectivity of events and occurrences does not extend very far upward as we consider more abstract historical events: the creation of the Greek city-state, the invention of Enlightenment rationality, the Taiping Rebellion. In each of these instances the noun’s referent is an interpretive construction by historical actors and historians, and one that may be undone by future historians. To refer to the “Taiping Rebellion” requires an act of synthesis of a large number of historical facts, along with an interpretive story that draws these facts together in this way rather than that way. The underlying facts of behavior, and their historical traces, remain; but the knitting-together of these facts into a large historical event does not constitute an objective historical entity. Consider research in the past twenty years that questions the existence of the “Industrial Revolution.” In this debate, the same set of historical facts were first constructed into an abrupt episode of qualitative change in technology and output in Western Europe; under the more recent interpretation, these changes were more gradual and less correctly characterized as a “revolution” (O’Brien and Keyder 1978). Or consider Arthur Waldron’s sustained and detailed argument to the effect that there was no “Great Wall of China,” as that structure is usually conceptualized (1990).

A third important set of issues that received attention from analytic philosophers concerned the role of causal ascriptions in historical explanations. What is involved in saying that “The American Civil War was caused by economic conflict between the North and the South”? Does causal ascription require identifying an underlying causal regularity—for example, “periods of rapid inflation cause political instability”? Is causation established by discovering a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Can we identify causal connections among historical events by tracing a series of causal mechanisms linking one to the next? This topic raises the related problem of determinism in history: are certain events inevitable in the circumstances? Was the fall of the Roman Empire inevitable, given the configuration of military and material circumstances prior to the crucial events?

Analytic philosophers of history most commonly approached these issues on the basis of a theory of causation drawn from positivist philosophy of science. This theory is ultimately grounded in Humean assumptions about causation: that causation is nothing but constant conjunction. So analytic philosophers were drawn to the covering-law model of explanation, because it appeared to provide a basis for asserting historical causation. As noted above, this approach to causal explanation is fatally flawed in the social sciences, because universal causal regularities among social phenomena are unavailable. So it is necessary either to arrive at other interpretations of causality or to abandon the language of causality. A second approach was to define causes in terms of a set of causally relevant conditions for the occurrence of the event—for example, necessary and/or sufficient conditions, or a set of conditions that enhance or reduce the likelihood of the event. This approach found support in “ordinary language” philosophy and in analysis of the use of causal language in such contexts as the courtroom (Hart and Honoré 1959). Counterfactual reasoning is an important element of discovery of a set of necessary and/or sufficient conditions; to say that \(C\) was necessary for the occurrence of \(E\) requires that we provide evidence that \(E\) would not have occurred if \(C\) were not present (Mackie 1965, 1974). And it is evident that there are causal circumstances in which no single factor is necessary for the occurrence of the effect; the outcome may be overdetermined by multiple independent factors.

The convergence of reasons and causes in historical processes is helpful in this context, because historical causes are frequently the effect of deliberate human action (Davidson 1963). So specifying the reason for the action is simultaneously identifying a part of the cause of the consequences of the action. It is often justifiable to identify a concrete action as the cause of a particular event (a circumstance that was sufficient in the existing circumstances to bring about the outcome), and it is feasible to provide a convincing interpretation of the reasons that led the actor to carry out the action.

What analytic philosophers of the 1960s did not come to, but what is crucial for current understanding of historical causality, is the feasibility of tracing causal mechanisms through a complex series of events (causal realism). Historical narratives often take the form of an account of a series of events, each of which was a causal condition or trigger for later events. Subsequent research in the philosophy of the social sciences has provided substantial support for historical explanations that depend on tracing a series of causal mechanisms (Little 2018; Hedström and Swedberg 1998).

English-speaking philosophy of history shifted significantly in the 1970s, beginning with the publication of Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) and Louis Mink’s writings of the same period (1966; Mink et al. 1987). The so-called “linguistic turn” that marked many areas of philosophy and literature also influenced the philosophy of history. Whereas analytic philosophy of history had emphasized scientific analogies for historical knowledge and advanced the goals of verifiability and generalizability in historical knowledge, English-speaking philosophers in the 1970s and 1980s were increasingly influenced by hermeneutic philosophy, post-modernism, and French literary theory (Rorty 1979). These philosophers emphasized the rhetoric of historical writing, the non-reducibility of historical narrative to a sequence of “facts”, and the degree of construction that is involved in historical representation. Affinities with literature and anthropology came to eclipse examples from the natural sciences as guides for representing historical knowledge and historical understanding. The richness and texture of the historical narrative came in for greater attention than the attempt to provide causal explanations of historical outcomes. Frank Ankersmit captured many of these themes in his treatment of historical narrative (1995; Ankersmit and Kellner 1995); see also Berkhofer (1995).

This “new” philosophy of history is distinguished from analytic philosophy of history in several important respects. It emphasizes historical narrative rather than historical causation. It is intellectually closer to the hermeneutic tradition than to the positivism that underlay the analytic philosophy of history of the 1960s. It highlights features of subjectivity and multiple interpretation over those of objectivity, truth, and correspondence to the facts. Another important strand in this approach to the philosophy of history is a clear theoretical preference for the historicist rather than the universalist position on the status of human nature—Herder rather than Vico. The prevalent perspective holds that human consciousness is itself a historical product, and that it is an important part of the historian’s work to piece together the mentality and assumptions of actors in the past (Pompa 1990). Significantly, contemporary historians such as Robert Darnton have turned to the tools of ethnography to permit this sort of discovery (1984).

Another important strand of thinking within analytic philosophy has focused attention on historical ontology (Hacking 2002, Little 2010). The topic of historical ontology is important, both for philosophers and for practicing historians. Ontology has to do with the question, what kinds of things do we need to postulate in a given realm? Historical ontology poses this question with regard to the realities of the past. Should large constructs like ‘revolution’, ‘market society’, ‘fascism’, or ‘Protestant religious identity’ be included in our ontology as real things? Or should we treat these ideas in a purely nominalistic way, treating them as convenient ways of aggregating complex patterns of social action and knowledge by large numbers of social actors in a time and place? Further, how should we think about the relationship between instances and categories in the realm of history, for example, the relation between the French, Chinese, or Russian Revolutions and the general category of ‘revolution’? Are there social kinds that recur in history, or is each historical formation unique in important ways? These are all questions of ontology, and the answers we give to them will have important consequences for how we conceptualize and explain the past.

When historians discuss methodological issues in their research they more commonly refer to “historiography” than to “philosophy of history.” What is the relation between these bodies of thought about the writing of history? We should begin by asking the basic question: what is historiography? In its most general sense, the term refers to the study of historians’ methods and practices. Any intellectual or creative practice is guided by a set of standards and heuristics about how to proceed, and “experts” evaluate the performances of practitioners based on their judgments of how well the practitioner meets the standards. So one task we always have in considering an expert activity is to attempt to identify these standards and criteria of good performance. This is true for theatre and literature, and it is true for writing history. Historiography is at least in part the effort to do this work for a particular body of historical writing. (Several handbooks contain a wealth of recent writings on various aspects of historiography; Tucker 2009, Bentley 1997, Breisach 2007. Important and innovative contributions to understanding the intellectual tasks of the historian include Bloch 1953 and Paul 2015.)

Historians normally make truth claims, and they ask us to accept those claims based on the reasoning they present. So a major aspect of the study of historiography has to do with defining the ideas of evidence, rigor, and standards of reasoning for historical inquiry. We presume that historians want to discover empirically supported truths about the past, and we presume that they want to offer inferences and interpretations that are somehow regulated by standards of scientific rationality. (Simon Schama challenges some of these ideas in Dead Certainties (Schama 1991).) So the apprentice practitioner seeks to gain knowledge of the practices of his/her elders in the profession: what counts as a compelling argument, how to assess a body of archival evidence, how to offer or criticize an interpretation of complex events that necessarily exceeds the available evidence. The historiographer has a related task: he/she would like to be able to codify the main methods and standards of one historical school or another.

There are other desiderata governing a good historical work, and these criteria may change from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. Discerning the historian’s goals is crucial to deciding how well he or she succeeds. So discovering these stylistic and aesthetic standards that guide the historian’s work is itself an important task for historiography. This means that the student of historiography will naturally be interested in the conventions of historical writing and rhetoric that are characteristic of a given period or school.

A full historiographic assessment of a given historian might include questions like these: What methods of discovery does he/she use? What rhetorical and persuasive goals does he/she pursue? What models of explanation? What paradigm of presentation? What standards of style and rhetoric? What interpretive assumptions?

A historical school might be defined as a group of interrelated historians who share a significant number of specific assumptions about evidence, explanation, and narrative. The Annales school, established by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the 1920s, represented a distinctive and fertile approach to social history (Burguière 2009), united by shared assumptions about both topics and intellectual approaches to the past. Historiography becomes itself historical when we recognize that frameworks of assumptions about historical knowledge and reasoning change over time. On this assumption, the history of historical thinking and writing is itself an important subject. How did historians of various periods in human history conduct their study and presentation of history? Under this rubric we find books on the historiography of the ancient Greeks; Renaissance historiography; or the historiography of German romanticism. Arnaldo Momigliano’s writings on the ancient historians fall in this category (Momigliano 1990). In a nutshell, Momigliano is looking at the several traditions of ancient history-writing as a set of normative practices that can be dissected and understood in their specificity and their cultural contexts.

A second primary use of the concept of historiography is more present-oriented and methodological. It involves the study and analysis of historical methods of research, inquiry, inference, and presentation used by more-or-less contemporary historians. How do contemporary historians go about their tasks of understanding the past? Here we can reflect upon the historiographical challenges that confronted Philip Huang as he investigated the Chinese peasant economy in the 1920s and 1930s (Huang 1990), or the historiographical issues raised in Robert Darnton’s telling of a peculiar and trivial event, the Great Cat Massacre by printers’ apprentices in Paris in the 1730s (Darnton 1984). Sometimes these issues have to do with the scarcity or bias in the available bodies of historical records (for example, the fact that much of what Huang refers to about the village economy of North China was gathered by the research teams of the occupying Japanese army). Sometimes they have to do with the difficulty of interpreting historical sources (for example, the unavoidable necessity Darnton faced of providing meaningful interpretation of a range of documented actions that appear fundamentally irrational).

An important question that arises in recent historiography is that of the status of the notion of “global history.” One important reason for thinking globally as an historian is the fact that the history discipline—since the Greeks—has tended to be Eurocentric in its choice of topics, framing assumptions, and methods. Economic and political history, for example, often privileges the industrial revolution in England and the creation of the modern bureaucratic state in France, Britain, and Germany, as being exemplars of “modern” development in economics and politics. This has led to a tendency to look at other countries’ development as non-standard or stunted. So global history is, in part, a framework within which the historian avoids privileging one regional center as primary and others as secondary or peripheral. Bin Wong makes this point in China Transformed (Wong 1997).

Second is the related fact that when Western historical thinkers—for example, Hegel, Malthus, Montesquieu—have turned their attention to Asia, they have often engaged in a high degree of stereotyping without much factual historical knowledge. The ideas of Oriental despotism, Asian overpopulation, and Chinese stagnation have encouraged a cartoonish replacement of the intricate and diverse processes of development of different parts of Asia by a single-dimensional and reductive set of simplifying frameworks of thought. This is one of the points of Edward Said’s critique of orientalism (Said 1978). So doing “global” history means paying rigorous attention to the specificities of social, political, and cultural arrangements in other parts of the world besides Europe.

So a historiography that takes global diversity seriously should be expected to be more agnostic about patterns of development, and more open to discovery of surprising patterns, twists, and variations in the experiences of India, China, Indochina, the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Variation and complexity are what we should expect, not stereotyped simplicity. Clifford Geertz’s historical reconstruction of the “theatre state” of Bali is a case in point—he uncovers a complex system of governance, symbol, value, and hierarchy that represents a substantially different structure of politics than the models derived from the emergence of bureaucratic states in early modern Europe (Geertz 1980). A global history needs to free itself from Eurocentrism.

This step away from Eurocentrism in outlook should also be accompanied by a broadening of the geographical range of what is historically interesting. So a global history ought to be global and trans-national in its selection of topics—even while recognizing the fact that all historical research is selective. A globally oriented historian will recognize that the political systems of classical India are as interesting and complex as the organization of the Roman Republic.

An important current underlying much work in global history is the reality of colonialism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the equally important reality of anti-colonial struggles and nation building in the 1960s and 1970s. “The world” was important in the early-modern capitals of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium because those nations exerted colonial rule in various parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. So there was a specific interest in gaining certain kinds of knowledge about those societies—in order to better govern them and exploit them. And post-colonial states had a symmetrical interest in supporting global historiography in their own universities and knowledge systems, in order to better understand and better critique the forming relations of the past.

A final way in which history needs to become global is to incorporate the perspectives and historical traditions of historians in non-western countries into the mainstream of discussion of major world developments. Indian and Chinese historians have their own intellectual traditions in conducting historical research and explanation; a global history is one that pays attention to the insights and arguments of these traditions. So global historiography has to do with a broadened definition of the arena of historical change to include Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas; a recognition of the complexity and sophistication of institutions and systems in many parts of the world; a recognition of the trans-national interrelatedness that has existed among continents for at least four centuries; and a recognition of the complexity and distinctiveness of different national traditions of historiography

Dominic Sachsenmaier provides a significant recent discussion of some of these issues (Sachsenmaier 2011). Sachsenmaier devotes much of his attention to the last point mentioned here, the “multiple global perspectives” point. He wants to take this idea seriously and try to discover some of the implications of different national traditions of academic historiography. He writes, “It will become quite clear that in European societies the question of historiographical traditions tended to be answered in ways that were profoundly different from most academic communities in other parts of the world” (17).

As should be clear from these remarks, there is a degree of overlap between historiography and the philosophy of history in the fact that both are concerned with identifying and evaluating the standards of reasoning that are used in various historical traditions. That said, historiography is generally more descriptive and less evaluative than the philosophy of history. And it is more concerned with the specifics of research and writing than is the philosophy of history.

Every period presents challenges for the historian, and every period raises problems for historiography and the philosophy of history. The twentieth century is exceptional, however, even by this standard. Events of truly global significance occurred from beginning to end. War, totalitarianism, genocide, mass starvation, ideologies of murder and extermination, and states that dominated their populations with unprecedented violence all transpired during the century. The Holocaust (Snyder 2010, 2015), the Holodomor (Applebaum 2017), the Gulag (Applebaum 2003), and the cultural and ideological premises of the Nazi regime (Rabinbach et al 2020) have all presented historians with major new challenges of research, framing, and understanding. How should historians seek to come to grips with these complex and horrifying circumstances? These occurrences were highly complex and extended and often hidden: many thousands of active participants, many groups and populations, millions of victims, conflicting purposes and goals, new organizations and institutions, numerous ideologies. Moreover, through too many of these novelties is woven the theme of evil – deliberate destruction, degradation, and murder of masses of innocent human beings. The historian of virtually any aspect of the twentieth century is confronted with great problems of frame-setting, explanatory purpose, and moral reflection.

These facts about the twentieth century raise problems for the philosophy of history for several reasons. They challenge historians to consider the depth, detail, and human experience that the historian must convey of the events and experiences that war, genocide, and totalitarianism imposed on millions of people. The discovery and truthful documentation of the extent and lived experience of these crimes is a painful but crucial necessity. Second, historians are forced to reflect on the assumptions they bring to their research and interpretations – assumptions about geography, political causation, individual motivation, and behavior resulting in these crimes. Third, historians must reconsider and sharpen their hypotheses about causation of these vast and extended crimes against humanity. Fourth, it appears inescapable that historians have a human responsibility to contribute to worldwide changes in culture, memory, and politics in ways that make genocide and totalitarian oppression less likely in the future.

The ways in which historians have sought to understand the Holocaust have undergone important historical realignment in the past twenty years. Raul Hilberg (1961) and Lucy Dawidowicz (1975) captured much of the postwar historical consensus about the Holocaust. However, recent historians have offered new ways of thinking about the Nazi plan of extermination. Timothy Snyder (2010, 2015) argues that the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews has been importantly misunderstood—too centered on Germany, when the majority of genocide and murder occurred further east, in the lands that he calls the “bloodlands” of central Europe (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, the Soviet Union); largely focused on extermination camps, whereas most killing of Jews occurred near the cities and villages where they lived, and most commonly by gunfire; insufficiently attentive to the relationship between extermination of people and destruction of the institutions of state in subject countries; and without sufficient attention to Hitler’s own worldview, within which the Nazi war of extermination against Europe’s Jews was framed. Alexander Prusin (2010) conceptualizes the topic of mass murder in the period 1933–1945 in much the same geographical terms. Like Snyder, Prusin defines his subject matter as a region rather than a nation or collection of nations. The national borders that exist within the region are of less importance in his account than the facts of ethnic, religious, and community disparities that are evident across the region. Thus both historians argue that we need to understand the geography of the Holocaust differently. Snyder believes that these attempts at refocusing the way we understand the Holocaust lead to a new assessment: bad as we thought the Holocaust was, it was much, much worse.

Another strand of re-thinking that has occurred in the study of the Holocaust concerns a renewed focus on the motivations of the ordinary people who participated in the machinery of mass murder. A major field of research into ordinary behavior during the Holocaust was made possible by the availability of investigative files concerning the actions of a Hamburg police unit that was assigned special duties as “Order Police” in Poland in 1940. These duties amounted to collecting and massacring large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. Christopher Browning (1992) and Daniel Goldhagen (1996) made extensive use of investigatory files and testimonies of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. Both books came to shocking conclusions: very ordinary, middle-aged, apolitical men of the police unit picked up the work of murder and extermination with zeal and efficiency. They were not coerced, they were not indoctrinated, and they were not deranged; and yet they turned to the work of mass murder with enthusiasm. A small percentage of the men of the unit declined the shooting assignments, but the great majority did not. Another important example of research on ordinary people committing mass murder is Jan Gross’s (2001) case study of a single massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation, but not ordered or directed by the German occupation. Instead, this was a local, indigenous action by non-Jewish residents in the town who gathered up their Jewish neighbors and then murdered large numbers of them. Gross’s account has stimulated much debate, but Anna Bikont (2015) validates almost every detail of Gross’s original narrative.

As a different example, consider now the history of the Gulag in the Soviet Union. Anne Applebaum (2003) provides a detailed and honest history of the Gulag and its role in maintaining Soviet dictatorship. Stalin’s dictatorship depended on a leader, a party, and a set of institutions that worked to terrorize and repress the population of the USSR. The NKVD (the system of internal security police that enforced Stalin’s repression), a justice system that was embodied in the Moscow Show Trials of 1936–38, and especially the system of forced labor and prison camps that came to be known as the Gulag constituted the machinery of repression through which a population of several hundred million people were controlled, imprisoned, and repressed. Further, like the Nazi regime, Stalin used the slave labor of the camps to contribute to the economic output of the Soviet economy. Applebaum estimates that roughly two million prisoners inhabited several thousand camps of the Gulag at a time in the 1940s, and that as many as 18 million people had passed through the camps by 1953 (Applebaum 2003: 13). The economic role of the Gulag was considerable; significant portions of Soviet-era mining, logging, and manufacturing took place within the forced labor camps of the Gulag (13). Applebaum makes a crucial and important point about historical knowledge in her history of the Gulag: the inherent incompleteness of historical understanding and the mechanisms of overlooking and forgetting that get in the way of historical honesty. The public outside the USSR did not want to know about these realities. Applebaum notes that public knowledge of the camps in the West was available, but was de-dramatized and treated as a fairly minor part of the reality of the USSR. The reality—that the USSR embodied and depended upon a massive set of concentrations camps where millions of people were enslaved and sometimes killed—was never a major part of the Western conception of the USSR. She comments, "far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror" (18). Wide knowledge in the West of the scope and specific human catastrophe of the Gulag was first made available by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1974).

Similar references could be offered concerning Stalin’s war on the kulaks in the Ukraine (1930s), mass starvation in China (1958–61), the widespread violence of the Cultural Revolution in China (1966–1976), and the use of violence in the American South to enforce Jim Crow-era race relations (1930s–1960s). In each case terrible things took place on a wide scale, and barriers exist that make it difficult for historians and the public to come to know the details of these periods.

The twentieth century poses one additional challenge for the historian because it falls within the human memories of the living generation of historians grappling with its intricacies. When Tony Judt writes (2006) about the fall of Ceaușescu in Romania in 1989, or Timothy Snyder (2010) writes about the murderous actions of German order police in Ukraine in 1940, or Marc Bloch (1949) writes about the “strange defeat” of France in 1940, they are writing about events for which they themselves, or their parents, or Poles and Ukrainian Jews with whom they can interact, have direct lived experiences and memories. Timothy Snyder’s style of historical writing suggests that the nearness in time of the killings in the bloodlands both supports and warrants an especially personal and individual approach; thus Snyder’s use of many individual stories of victims of the killings of peasants, Jews, and other human victims of the killing machines of Hitler and Stalin suggests that he believes it is important for the historian to make an effort to convey the individual meanings of these events affecting millions of people. How does this accessibility of the recent past affect the problems facing the historian? Does it influence the ways in which historians select events, causes, and actions as “crucial”? Does this experiential access through living memory provide a more secure form of historical evidence than other sources available to the historian? Does it give rise to an experiential content and detail to historical writing that solve an interpretive problem for the reader – for example, how to put oneself in the position of a Ukrainian peasant slowly starving to death? Did the stories told in the Judt household in London in 1942 about beloved cousins then facing deadly threats in Brussels shape the historical consciousness of the adult historian (Judt and Snyder 2012)? Did Marc Bloch’s own experience as a French army officer in defeat at Dunkirk influence the way that he understood war and violence? Access to individuals who lived through the Holodomor or the Spanish Civil War is of course valuable historical evidence. Here too, however, Marc Bloch has important insights, for Bloch specifically challenges the idea that participants have an inherently more reliable or complete form of knowledge than more temporally distant historians (1953: chapter II). Memories and personal accounts are valuable for the historian, but equally, historians have access to other forms of historical evidence (archaeological, archival, government records, …) which may be comparably important and epistemically secure in attempting to piece together the complex history of Stalin’s war on the Ukrainian peasantry.

These topics in twentieth-century history create an important reminder for historians and for philosophers: a truthful understanding of inhuman atrocity is deeply important for humanity, and it is difficult to attain. We learn from Judt, Snyder, and Applebaum that there are powerful mechanisms of deception and forgetting that stand in the way of an honest accounting of these periods of the recent human past. Discovering and telling the truth about our past is the highest and most important moral imperative that history conveys.

As the previous section suggests, there is an ethical dimension involved in the quest for historical knowledge. Historians have obligations of truthfulness and objectivity; peoples have obligations of honest recognition; and nations have obligations of memory and reconciliation.

Historians themselves have obligations of truthfulness and objectivity in the accounts they provide of the past. This topic has occupied much of the discussion of history and ethics in the past few years (Fay 2004). Much of this discussion has centered on the intellectual virtues to which historians need to aspire, such as truthfulness, objectivity, and persistence (Creyghton et al 2016, Paul 2015). Perhaps more generally, we might argue that historians have an obligation to deliberately and actively include those aspects of the past for further research that are the most morally troublesome—for example, the origins and experience of slavery during the eighteenth century in the American South, or the role of the Gulag in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. We may reasonably fault the historian of the American South in the nineteenth century who confines her investigation to the economics of the cotton industry without examining the role of slavery in that industry, or the historian of the USSR who studies the institutions of engineering research in the 1950s while ignoring the fact of forced labor camps. Historians have an obligation to squarely confront the hard truths of their subject matter.

There is a broader ethical question to ask about history that goes beyond the professional ethics of the historian to the responsibilities of the public in relation to its own history. The facts of genocide and other crimes against humanity make it clear that there are moral reasons for believing that all of humanity has a moral responsibility to attempt to discover our past with honesty and exactness. In particular, the facts of past horrific actions (genocide, mass repression, slavery, suppression of ethnic minorities, dictatorship) create a moral responsibility for historians and the public alike to uncover the details, causes, and consequences of those actions.

The thread of honesty and truthfulness runs through all of these ethical issues. Tony Judt (1992) argues that a people or nation at a point in time have a collective responsibility to face the facts of its own history honestly and without mythology. Judt’s points can be distilled into a few key ideas. Knowledge of the past matters in the present; being truthful about the past is a key responsibility for all of us. Standing in the way of honest recognition is the fact that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments. The result is "myth-making", according to Judt. Anna Wylegala (2017) illustrates the moral importance and complexity of this kind of investigation with regard to collective memory in post-1991 Ukraine. The history of the twentieth century has shown itself to be especially prone to myth-making, whether about resistance to Nazi occupation or refusal to collaborate with Soviet-installed regimes in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Judt (1992) argues that a very pervasive process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in post-war Europe. But, Judt argues, bad myths give rise eventually to bad collective behavior—more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future. Judt expresses throughout his work a credo of truth-telling about the past: we have a weighty obligation to discover, represent, and understand the circumstances of our past, even when those facts are deeply unpalatable. Myth-making about the past is not only bad history and bad politics, it is morally deficient.

This observation brings us to a final way in which moral questions arise in the context of honest history. The crimes of the past have consequences in the present. The facts of trans-Atlantic slavery continue to have consequences for millions of descendants of the men and women who were transported from Africa to the Americas; the facts of the Rwandan genocide have consequences for the living victims of these mass killings and their kin; and the fact of colonial exploitation of the Congo or southern Africa has consequences for the current poverty of much of Africa. Does knowledge of the crimes of the past create for the current generation an obligation of engagement in contributing actively to healing those wounds in the present and preventing their recurrence in the future? Does “truth and reconciliation” require more than simply recognizing ugly truths about the past? Does it require that we act differently, individually and collectively? It is of course a tragic and immutable reality of the human condition that the past cannot be changed; the murdered cannot be unmurdered, and the primary perpetrators of horrific crimes within a few generations are certainly beyond the reach of justice. The future is deeply contingent, while the past is fixed and unchangeable. But does this immutability imply that the present generation has no obligations created by past crimes? Or rather, does knowing the truth about our past create for us the obligation to learn from those tragic human actions how to avoid such crimes in the future? Does honest knowledge of the human crimes of the past bring with it an obligation to strive in good faith to address the consequences of those crimes in the present? Finally, can knowledge of history help us to become more empathetic, more just, and more farsighted in our dealings with each other in the grand affairs that make up future history? One would hope so; and perhaps this is the most pressing moral obligation of all that is created by our recognition of our own historicity.

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  • UnderstandingSociety , maintained by Daniel Little (University of Michigan-Dearborn).

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Acknowledgement is offered to Christopher Bouton for valuable feedback on section 2.5.

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From the President

Why Study You-Know-What?

Our Reasons for Doing What We Do

Jacqueline Jones | Jan 13, 2021

Jackie Jones

W hy study history? The answers depend on who asks the question and who ventures a reply. 

We all have our own reasons for doing what we do. I came to a study of history via a curiosity about my hometown, a village in New Castle County, Delaware. I also appreciated the aesthetics of doing archival research and the sheer enjoyment of assembling a coherent story from disparate, scattered pieces of evidence. Everybody loves a good story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And we crave encounters with characters, in the past as in the present, men and women who are fascinating in their own way, whether admirable or repellant. The readers of Perspectives well know that on a personal level, the act of crafting these stories, to enlighten and entertain, can be immensely satisfying.

Yet even if we historians have our reasons for studying the past, we often find ourselves needing to make the case to people not in the discipline—our students, museum visitors, grant officers at funding agencies, readers of newspaper op-eds, corporate executives, heads of government agencies, budget-conscious deans and provosts. We might be good at “doing” history, but are we good at convincing other people that learning about history is worthwhile? 

Standing before a class of 400 undergraduates in a US history introductory course on the first day of the semester, I have always felt compelled to give my students some good reasons to be there. In Texas, the state legislature requires that all public university undergraduates take two courses in US history. Anyone who has ever taught a required course knows it’s a challenge. The instructor must (try to) get students engaged in a topic that some have little interest in and others actively despise. I always thought I owed it to the skeptics to make a pitch and try to convince them that learning about the United States since 1865 was worth their time.

I often began by reciting the reasons why an understanding of history is good for you. Over 20 years ago, Peter Stearns offered an elegant rumination on the value of a history education: history helps us understand people and societies; history helps us understand change and how the society we live in came to be; history contributes to moral understanding; history provides identity; studying history is essential for good citizenship; a study of history helps to develop essential skills; and history is useful in the world of work. 

We might be good at “doing” history, but are we good at convincing other people that learning about history is worthwhile?

Last fall, Stearns updated his essay to account for changes in the economy, higher education, and the discipline over the last quarter century or so. Today, he notes, any discussion of the value of the discipline needs to highlight the kinds of jobs available to history majors; we cannot simply ignore our students’ well-founded concern for their future. We must give them license to study and enjoy history without the worry that they will never be able to make a living if they do so in a serious way. To that end, my department at the University of Texas at Austin has developed a web page called “ What History Majors Do ,” and the AHA also has a section on its website called “ Careers for History Majors .”

In his updated essay, Stearns also suggests that we must stress how historical data can help us to understand the diverse, dynamic world we are living in now—a history that informs the present. In recent decades, the study of history has expanded in terms of content, methodologies, and digital tools to provide context for complex contemporary issues, from racial ideologies and the global economy to pandemics and politics. I recall my daughter coming home from high school one afternoon, throwing her schoolbooks on the kitchen table, and announcing her history homework assignment for the evening with considerable dread and disgust. This 16-year-old, so focused on the here and now, had a hard time wrapping her head around the idea that people and events in the past could or should matter to her. “It’s history—get over it, Mom!” she exclaimed. By linking historical knowledge to the ideas and things people care about today, we might have a better chance of convincing a larger audience that what we do is socially useful work. 

What other arguments might resonate with the resistant or the indifferent? The late civil rights activist and US representative John Lewis (1940–2020) wrote an essay that he asked be published the day of his funeral (July 17, 2020). In it, he wrote about the history of reformers and radicals and their strategies for change:

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time.

Lewis was making the case that an understanding of historic fights for justice is a precondition for meaningful social change.

Still, not everyone is interested in social movements. And most students are focused on another area of study in any case, with their sights set firmly on careers such as nursing, forest management, pharmacy, law, or journalism. Here we might make the case to them—and to college and university administrators—that all occupations have a history. One’s vocation can be enhanced and enriched by an appreciation for the way it has developed over time, and for the people in the past who helped to shape it into what it is today.

We can make the case that the study of history is an outlet for creative expression.

Finally, we can make the case that the study of history is an outlet for creative expression—literary, visual, and aural. It is a privilege and a challenge to be able to write or teach or craft exhibits with a particular audience in mind. Some students find their way to history via assignments that draw on their particular talents—as budding writers or filmmakers, as visual learners or musicians. As historians, we have an opportunity to seek innovative means to report on what we have found in the archives or other kinds of repositories of information about the past. 

Returning to that big undergraduate history survey course: No instructor can convince a resistant, even resentful student on the first day of class that an understanding of history opens up exciting new realms of knowledge and experience. Students have to arrive at the conclusion on their own over the course of the semester. As the weeks go by, they might begin to focus on a particular piece of the historical enterprise that intrigues them—an appreciation for the history of their own communities and cultures, for the words of people who lived in the past, for historical evidence and different interpretations of it, for the different ways we bring history to life, for the pieces of a mystery that is the great human drama. And certainly if we can convey to other people the excitement that drew us historians to the discipline to begin with, we need not offer a laundry list of the reasons why the study of history is good for all of us.

In the end, we make our best case when we describe our own journey as historians, for there are as many compelling responses to the question “Why study history?” as there are people who ask and historians who answer.

Jacqueline Jones is president of AHA.

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1. Knowing who we are

Historical memory is the key to self-identity, to seeing one's place in the stream of time, and one's connectedness with all of humankind. We are part of an ancient chain, and the long hand of the past is upon us—for good or ill—just as our hands will rest on our descendants for years to come. Denied knowledge of one's roots and of one's place in the great stream of human history, the individual is deprived of the fullest sense of self and of that sense of shared community on which one's fullest personal development as well as responsible citizenship depends.

2. Preparing to live in the world

World history helps prepare young people for college studies, international experience, and active participation in civic life. It helps get them ready for the roles they will inevitably play as citizens of both their country and the world. A "global citizen" is simply a national citizen who knows and cares about the history and contemporary affairs of all humankind, a person who can in some measure think, speak, and write about world issues and problems intelligently and confidently.

3. Attaining cultural literacy on a world scale

World history contributes to our cultural literacy. Human beings, unlike other species, have the gift of language, that is, symbolic thinking and communication. That means that humans also have what World History for Us All calls collective learning (Glossary-No Javascript) , the ability to learn from one another and to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next.

Making world history a core subject in schools broadens the fund of knowledge that we all share. It helps us speak and write to one another in clearer and more intricate ways. This does not mean that world history courses should be exactly the same in every school district. But societies should aim for general agreement regarding the common stock of both world-scale knowledge and historical thinking skills that children ought to possess when they graduate from high school.

Teaching Units | Foundations of this Curriculum | Questions and Themes | Glossary | Teachers' Comments | Evaluate this Site | Curriculum at a Glance | Links | Contact Us

Dr. David K. Naugle is chair and professor of Philosophy at Dallas Baptist University. He earned a Th.D. in systematic theology, and a Ph.D. in humanities with concentrations in philosophy and English literature. He is also the director of the Paideia College Society (formerly Pew College Society) the goal of which is the transformation of students, the reformation of the Church and the renewal of the various aspects of cultural life. Dr. Naugle serves as a Fellow for the Wilberforce Forum, the Christian worldview think tank sponsored by Prison Fellowship in Washington, D. C. He serves as an associate editor of Findings , a quarterly journal produced by the Wilberforce Forum on worldview issues. He is also the editor of The Worldview Church E-Newsletter  published by the Wilberforce Forum as an information source designed to encourage Church leaders to implement a Christian worldview in their congregations. Dr. Naugle is the author of Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), selected by Christianity Today magazine as the 2003 book of the year in the theology and ethics category. Prior to his post at DBU, Dr. Naugle was an adjunct professor of religion at the University of Texas at Arlington from 1980-1988.

In the introductory remarks to his book Heretics , G. K. Chesterton writes these crucial words about the importance of worldview:

But there are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.” [1]

I was struck by this quote when I first read it, and I am still struck by it today. After all, what could be more important or powerful than the way individuals conceptualize reality? Is any thing more fundamental than a person’s set of presuppositions and assumptions about the basic make up of the universe? What is more significant than a human being’s foundational system of beliefs? Is there anything more profound or influential than the answers to the deeper questions that the very presence of the universe poses to us all? In agreement, then, with Gilbert Keith Chesterton, I submit that the most practical and important thing about a human being is his or her view of the universe and theory of the cosmos — that is, the content and implications of one’s worldview.

  For this reason, I believe that conceiving of biblical faith as a worldview has been one of the more important developments in the recent history of the Church. Though such a generous vision of reality is rooted in the best of the Church’s tradition, for various reasons — especially the reductionistic pressures stemming from modernism — this bigger biblical picture of things has virtually vanished. “We have rather lost sight of the idea,” Dorothy Sayers once noted, “that Christianity is supposed to be an interpretation of the universe.” [2] In recent memory, however, this larger perspective has been hidden under a basket and its light almost extinguished.

In this contemporary setting of dwarfed versions of the faith, the concept of worldview has, in a sense, come to the rescue. It offers the Church a fresh perspective on the holistic nature, cosmic dimensions, and universal applications of the faith. Plus, the explanatory power, intellectual coherence, and pragmatic effectiveness of a Christian worldview not only make it exceedingly relevant for believers personally, but also establish it as a solid foundation for vigorous cultural and academic engagement. For these reasons, then, we will do well to understand as much as we can about the history of the concept of worldview, its theological meaning, and its implications on a variety of prominent human enterprises. That is what I seek to accomplish in this presentation. We begin, then, with a look at the origin of worldview as a concept and its history in the evangelical Church.

A History of the Concept of Worldview

There is virtually universal recognition that the notable Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant coined the term Weltanschauung , that is, worldview in his work Critique of Judgment, published in 1790. It originates in a quintessential Kantian paragraph that emphasizes the power of the perception of the human mind. Kant writes, “If the human mind is nonetheless to be able even to think the given infinite without contradiction, it must have within itself a power that is supersensible, whose idea of the noumenon cannot be intuited but can yet be regarded as the substrate underlying what is mere appearance, namely, our intuition of the world” [ Weltanschauung ]. [3] That last phrase — “our intuition of the world” — is an English translation of Kant’s coined German term Weltanschauung .

The context of this quotation suggests that for Kant, Weltanschauung means something rather simple like a perception of the world gained empirically. Martin Heidegger notes that Kant employed Weltanschauung in reference to the mundus sensibilis , that is, as a “world-intuition in the sense of contemplation of the world given to the senses” [4]

From its coinage in Kant, who used the term only once and for whom it was of minor significance, it evolved rather quickly to refer to an intellectual conception of the universe from the perspective of a human knower. Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy, with its emphasis on the knowing and willing self as the cognitive and moral center of the universe, created the conceptual space in which the notion of worldview could flourish. The term was adopted by Kant’s successors and soon became a celebrated concept in German intellectual life.

Weltanschauung captured the imaginations not only of the German intelligentsia, but of thinkers throughoutEurope and beyond. The term’s success is seen by how readily it was adopted by writers in other European languages either as a loanword, especially in the Romance languages, or as a copy word in the idiom of Slavic and Germanic languages.

This concept, indeed, had legs. Given its prominence, it was impossible for it to remain isolated on the Continent for long. Soon it crossed the channel to Great Britain and made its way across the Atlantic to the United States. According to the Oxford English Dictionary , within seventy-eight years of its inaugural use in Kant’s Critique of Judgment , Weltanschauung entered the English language in 1868 its naturalized form as “worldview.” Ten years later, the German term itself gained currency as a loan word in Anglo-American academic discourse. Since their mid-nineteenth-century beginnings, both Weltanschauung and worldview have flourished, and become significant terms in the thought and vocabulary of thinking people in the English-speaking world.

Throughout the nineteenth century, therefore, Weltanschauung became enormously popular. By the 1890s, the Scottish theologian James Orr could say that as a concept, it had become “in a manner indispensable.” [5] It is no wonder, then, that Orr himself, as well as Abraham Kuyper, capitalized on its notoriety as a convenient and potent expression to configure their respective versions of a comprehensive Christian worldview of Calvinist persuasion.

Original Worldview Thinkers in Protestant Evangelicalism

The headwaters of the worldview tradition among Protestant evangelicals can be traced to two primary sources, both of which flow from the theological wellsprings of the reformer from Geneva , John Calvin (1509-1564). [6] The first is the Scottish Presbyterian theologian, apologist, minister, and educator James Orr (1844-1913). The second is the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Appropriating the concept from the broader intellectual milieu on the European continent, these two seminal thinkers introduced the vocabulary of worldview into the current of reformed Christian thought, and from there into the broader evangelical church. In their creative efforts, they gave birth to an agenda to conceive of biblical faith as a vigorous, coherent vision of reality that opened up Christianity to full flower with benefits inside the Church and as a way to meet the challenges of the modern world head on.

James Orr (1844-1913). The opportunity for James Orr to articulate the Christian faith as a worldview arose when he was invited by the United Presbyterian Theological College in Edinburgh to present the first of the Kerr Lectures whose stated purpose was for “the promotion of the study of Scientific theology.” [7] These addresses took him three years to prepare, were delivered in 1891, and were published in 1893 as The Christian View of God and the World As Centering in the Incarnation . [8] In this book, he devoted the first chapter and several endnotes to the concept of worldview in general, and to the idea of a Christian worldview in particular.

According to Orr, a worldview denoted “the widest view which the mind can take of things in the effort to grasp them together as a whole from the standpoint of some particular philosophy or theology.” [9] The Christian faith in Orr’s opinion provides such a standpoint, developing its loftiest principle and view of life into “an ordered whole.” [10] While explaining and defending Christian doctrines atomistically may have its place, Orr believed that the worldview concept enabled him to set forth and validate Christianity in its entirety as a coherent system. Given the increasingly anti-Christian Zeitgeist of the late nineteenth century, he perceived “that if Christianity is to be effectually defended from the attacks made upon it, it is the comprehensive method which is rapidly becoming the more urgent.” [11] Nothing less than a fresh, coherent presentation of the Christian definition of reality in all its fullness would be adequate for the times.

Orr’s biblically based worldview was centered in the incarnation, as the second half his book title indicates. Belief in Jesus entailed a whole host of additional convictions, forming an overall view of things. He writes:

He who with his whole heart believes in Jesus as the Son of God is thereby committed to much else besides. He is committed to a view of God, to a view of man, to a view of sin, to a view of Redemption, to a view of human destiny, found only in Christianity. This forms a “Weltanschauung,” or “Christian view of the world,” which stands in marked contrast with theories wrought out from a purely philosophical or scientific standpoint. [12]

For Orr, then, biblical belief in Jesus Christ logically entailed a commitment to a complete Weltanschauung . Christianity was a christocentric vision of life, a revolutionary and apologetically expedient approach to the faith necessitated by the challenges of modernity at its apex.

Both Gordon H. Clark and Carl F. H. Henry appear to be the heirs of Orr’s worldview legacy. As a professional philosopher writing from an evangelical point of view, Gordon Clark (1902-1986) was recognized at the height of his powers as “perhaps the dean of those twentieth century American philosophers who have sought to develop a Christian Weltanschauung consistent with the Christian Scriptures.” [13] Indeed, the title and content of one of his best-known books — A Christian View of Men and Things — suggests continuity with Orr’s work. [14]

Orr’s worldview tradition influenced the late Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) as well. During his student days at Wheaton College, Henry became enamored of comprehending and defending the faith as a total “world-life view” by reading Orr’s volume. In his autobiography, he recalls that “It was James Orr’s great work, The Christian View of God and the World , used as a Senior text in theism, that did the most to give me a cogently comprehensive view of reality and life in a Christian context.” [15] Through Henry, the idea of worldview in general and the notion of the Christian worldview in particular has been promoted widely among professional theologians and the evangelical public. “His emphasis was always on the big picture,” said Kenneth Kantzer. “Above all he sought to think clearly and effectively, consistently and comprehensively, about the total Christian world and life view.” [16] This outlook animated his words in the influential manifesto The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism (1947) that challenged the born again church to trace out and apply the redemptive power of the Christian gospel to the totality of human thought and culture.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Meanwhile, to back track just a bit, about the same time James Orr was publishing his influential worldview volume in Scotland, a similar agenda was developing on the European continent. This time it was being promoted by an increasingly prominent Dutch ecclesiastical and political figure named Abraham Kuyper. A noted journalist, politician, educator, and theologian with mosaic vigor, Kuyper is especially remembered as the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880, and as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905. The source of this man’s remarkable contributions is found in a powerful spiritual vision derived from the theology of the protestant reformers (primarily Calvin) that centered upon the sovereignty of the biblical God over all aspects of reality.

For Kuyper, if non-Christian worldviews characterized by idolatry and religious insubordination are worked out across the whole spectrum of life (which they are), then likewise Christianity must also be articulated in terms of a comprehensive vision of reality engendering the worship of God and submission to His will in all things. [17] Indeed, when Kuyper was at the height of his powers, he had the opportunity to demonstrate that his beloved Calvinism was more than a just a church polity or doctrinaire religion, but rather an all encompassing Weltanschauung when he was invited to deliver the prestigious Stone Lectures at Princeton University in 1898. These addresses and the book that resulted from them, Lectures on Calvinism , became a second, influential source for conceiving of Christianity as a worldview among evangelical Protestants. [18]

Interestingly enough, Kuyper’s reading of James Orr’s recently published book The Christian View of God and the World was likely a turning point in his own thinking. It underscored the value of Weltanschauung in his eyes, and prompted him to cast his entire lectures on Calvinism as a comprehensive vision of the world and of life within it. Indeed, the similarities between the two thinkers on worldview are remarkable, and it appears that Kuyper drew considerably from Orr’s thought on the topic. [19]

Like Orr before him, Kuyper saw his present cultural moment defined in both Europe and America by a life and death struggle between two antithetical worldviews, or as he called them, “life-systems.” As Orr proposed in his own lectures, Kuyper argued that a piecemeal apologetic approach must be replaced with a strategy that countered an all-encompassing modernism with a comprehensive Christian Weltanschauung . In his concluding lecture on “Calvinism and the Future,” Kuyper makes this point with great clarity and power:

With such a coherent world and life-view, firmly resting on its principle and self-consistent in its splendid structure, Modernism now confronts Christianity; and against this deadly danger, ye, Christians, cannot successfully defend your sanctuary, but by placing in opposition to all this, a life-and world-view of your own, founded as firmly on the base of your own principle, wrought out with the same clearness and glittering in an equally logical consistency . [20]

In his lectures on Calvinism, therefore, Kuyper presents Reformed Christianity as a total framework of biblical thought, draws out its implications in the areas of religion, politics, science, and art, and suggests the kind of role it ought to play in the future of the world. So conceived and articulated, it could take its place along side the other great systems of human thought including paganism, Islamism, Romanism, and modernism, and be effective in the spiritual and intellectual warfare being waged in the modern world for cultural dominance.

This conception of Calvinistic Christianity subsumed under the rubric of worldview was appropriated by Kuyper’s followers — the Dutch neo-Calvinists or Kuyperians — and passed down to subsequent generations. [21] Eventually it migrated with them across the Atlantic, and became a significant theme among them as an immigrant community in North America. Both Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario, Canada — where Kuyperian ideals and worldview thinking have flourished — were birthed out of this tradition.

Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-84). This forceful Reformed interpretation of Christian faith also influenced Francis A. Schaeffer, without whom no discussion on the evangelical history of worldview would be complete. He affirmed what is now a commonplace that all people have a worldview and nobody, whether ditch-digger or professional thinker, can live without one. Philosophy is the only unavoidable occupation. [22] Also, his rich interpretation of a Christianity that was intellectually credible and embraced the whole of life was uniquely attractive to many. Indeed, his discussion of a significant range of cultural issues from a Christian point of view was quite refreshing after decades of fundamentalist obscurantism.

The Swiss missionary and founder of L’Abri Fellowship recommended a Christian worldview as the only realistic answer to the pervasive emptiness and despair of modern, secular life. Schaeffer was passionate for the comprehensive system of “true truth” set forth in the Scriptures. In Escape From Reason Schaeffer says, “I love the biblical system as a system,” [23] and in The God Who Is There he explains why:

The Christian system (what is taught in the whole Bible) is a unity of thought. Christianity is not just a lot of bits and pieces — there is a beginning and an end, a whole system of truth, and this system is the only system that will stand up to all the questions that are presented to us as we face the reality of existence. [24]

Schaeffer articulated his understanding of the biblical Weltanschauung in the first three books he published. The trilogy of The God Who Is There , Escape From Reason , and He Is There and He Is Not Silent formed the hub of his system, and his other works gave expression to his conception of the Christian vision as if they were spokes. [25] An entire generation of evangelicals, myself included, cut their worldview teeth on Schaeffer’s work and thus have him to thank for stimulating an abiding interest in cultivating a comprehensive, systematic understanding of biblical faith with all of its attendant personal, intellectual and cultural implications.

Collectively, then, these noted thinkers handed the worldview baton off to others who have been running with it quite effectively ever since. Brian Walsh, Richard Middleton, Albert Wolters, Arthur Holmes, James Sire, Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey are just a few of the authors who have promoted worldview thinking and living vigorously in the evangelical community. [26] As a matter of fact, in the entire history of worldview, no single philosophic school or religious community has given more sustained attention to or taken more advantage of this concept than Protestant evangelicals. This extensive use of the worldview concept carries with it certain assets to be sure. But its use, perhaps even its overuse, also fosters some liabilities as well. Some debate the suitability of the notion in the Church, and confusion exists regarding its basic definition and character. In light of these and other issues that have clouded the worldview sky, I think it prudent to offer some theological reflections on the worldview concept in an attempt to clarify its role and identity in the evangelical Christian community where God’s Word reigns as the supreme authority.

Theological Reflections on Worldview

In tracing out the history of the worldview concept in a variety of disciplines, it is fascinating to observe how basic descriptions of it reflect the worldview of the one offering the description. For example, Hegel’s idealism, Kierkegaard’s theism, Dilthey’s historicism, Nietzsche’s atheism, Husserl’s phenomenology, Jaspers’ existentialism, Heidegger’s ontologism, Wittgenstein’s linguisticism, and the postmodernists’ skepticism affected their hypotheses on worldview deeply. There is a sociological relativity to theorizing about worldview. Any view of worldview, therefore, is itself worldview dependent.

The question, then, emerges regarding the implications of a Christian worldview on worldview theory: what nuances does Christian theism as a Weltanschauung impart to the notion of Weltanschauung itself? How do Scripture and theology contribute to our understanding of this important idea?

This is an important task. Several critics have voiced concerns about possible menacing connotations associated with worldview when it comes to its use in the Church. By the time James Orr and Abraham Kuyper appropriated worldview for Christian purposes, it had already become drenched with modern implications. Within the framework of European idealism and romanticism, it connoted a thoroughgoing subjectivism and a person or culture-relative perspective on reality. Consequently, worldviews were not considered “facts,” but “values,” and were consigned to the domain of private life.

The status of worldview becomes even more questionable in the context of postmodernism which is characterized famously by an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” [27] As reified constructs and as instruments of power and violence, worldviews must be “deconstructed” and shown to be nothing more than privatized micronarratives possessing little, if any, public authority. [28]

Given this background, evangelicals who employ the language of worldview regularly would be irresponsible to neglect the historical development of this term and the significations it has acquired in modern and postmodern parlance. The question, then, is this: Can worldview be regenerated and baptized in biblical waters, cleansing it of modern and postmodern impurities, making it useful for Christian service? [29]  I believe that it can.

If believers can be sanctified and if culture can be renewed, then perhaps an intellectual conception can be converted as well. Even biblical authors themselves frequently appropriated language and concepts from their surrounding cultures and used them in the context of Holy Scripture with fresh theistic meaning to convey the unique content and wisdom of divine revelation. Has this not provided something of a precedent that has been followed in post-canonical theological reflection when it comes to employing non-biblical terms and concepts to convey biblical themes and truths? Perhaps worldview falls into this category!

As a matter of fact, plucking the concept of Weltanschauung out of recent intellectual discourse and using it for Christian purposes can be compared admirably to St. Augustine’s ancient strategy of appropriating pagan notions and employing them suitably in the church. He believed firmly that all truth was God’s truth, and in his famous “Egyptian Gold” analogy in De Doctrina Christiana , he explains on the basis of a story found in Exodus 11-12 how that truth can be recovered and utilized in superior ways by believers. For just as the Israelites appropriated the gold and silver of the Egyptians and used it service to God, so Christians can appropriate the intellectual gold and silver of non-Christian thinkers and employ it in Christian service as well. [30]

Now I submit that the notion of worldview is a valuable piece of “Egyptian gold.” If we follow Augustine’s reasoning, we can propose that believers need to claim it for their own, and convert it to Christian use. In doing so, however, we must cleanse it of its pagan associations, reform it biblically, and make it a concept serviceable to the kingdom of God. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10: 5b, “. . . we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” The theological reflections that follow will attempt to do just that.

  My goal in reflecting on worldview theologically is to discern what inferences or connotations are built into this notion when it is examined from a Christian standpoint. Overall, I will make four assertions that impart biblically based nuances to worldview that stand in noticeable contrast to its secular significations.

Issues of objectivity . To the extent that the term worldview has been tinted or tainted for over two centuries with the hues of relativism, an affirmation of theological, cosmological, and moral objectivity rooted in God is the antidote. Worldview in Christian perspective affirms the existence of the Trinitarian God whose essential character of love and justice establishes the moral order of the universe and whose word, wisdom, and law define and govern all aspects of created existence. God is the ultimate reality whose Trinitarian nature, essential character, moral excellence, wonderful works, and sovereign rule constitute the objective reference point for all reality. As a construct ontologically grounded in God Himself, the nuance of objectivity is built into worldview from a Christian perspective.

Issues of subjectivity . In its philosophic history, worldview has also been understood in subjectivist terms as an individual’s particular interpretation of life. As cognitive, affective, and volitional beings, all people by necessity must understand, care about, and act in the world. Christian theology would agree, recognizing this to be the operation of the heart. Worldview in Christian perspective affirms that human beings as God’s image and likeness are anchored and integrated in the heart as the subjective sphere of consciousness which is decisive for shaping a vision of life and fulfilling the function typically ascribed to the notion of worldview . Life proceeds “kardioptically, out of “a vision of the heart.” That, I propose, is basically what a worldview is. I will develop this thesis in a bit more detail shortly.

Issues of sin and spiritual warfare . People are in a fallen condition, however. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness and manufacture surrogate deities and errant perspectives on the world. Worldview in Christian perspective, therefore, implies the catastrophic effects of sin on the human heart, resulting in the fabrication of false, idolatrous belief systems in place of God, and the engagement of the human race in cosmic spiritual warfare in which the truth about reality and the meaning of life are at stake. There is no way out from this spiritual, intellectual, and moral destitution apart from the grace of God.

Issues of grace and redemption . The merciful character of God and His redemptive work are the central elements in biblical thought. Worldview in Christian perspective affirms the gracious inbreaking of the kingdom of God into human history in the person and work of Jesus Christ who atones for sin, defeats the principalities and powers, and enables those who believe in Him to obtain a knowledge of the true God as the creator, judge, and savior of the whole cosmos. This kind of salvific transaction is wholly transformative in converting believers to God and renewing their perspectives on the whole of reality by truth. The formation of a Christian worldview, therefore, is ultimately a function of God’s saving grace.

Thus the implications of a divinely grounded objectivity, the reality of a heart-based human subjectivity, along with the themes of sin and spiritual warfare, grace and redemption are the inferences built into the notion of worldview in a Christian context.

Let me return now to the issue of subjectivity in this Christian reflection on worldview. The point I wish to emphasize is that the biblical teaching about the centrality of the “heart” in human life is a key to defining the notion of “worldview.” Theologian Gordon Spykman states, “the imago Dei embraces our entire selfhood in all its variegated functions centered and unified in the heart.” Similarly, Karl Barth affirms that “the heart is not merely a but the reality of man, both wholly of soul and wholly of body.” [31]

These theological claims about the heart as the core of the person are supported by the fact that the Scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments teach in 1,000 or so uses (855 OT; 150 NT) that it is the seat and source of the intellect, affections, will, and spirituality as the location where we think, feel, choose and worship. Proverbs 4: 23 and 27: 19 state respectively that “from the heart flow the springs of life,” and that “the heart of man reflects man.” Jesus supports this perspective, stating in Matthew 6: 21 that what a person values most as one’s treasure in life resides in the heart. In Luke 6: 43-45 He adds that from the heart flow all our deeds and words, for “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” St. Paul prayed that “the eyes of the heart” would be enlightened so that believers might understand the magnitude of their callings in Christ (Eph. 1: 18). Thus, in the Old and New Testaments, for the Savior, and in the teaching of the Apostle Paul, the heart is the cornerstone of human existence.

On the basis of this biblical doctrine of the heart, I would like to make three suggestions about the concept of worldview. First, I propose that the heart and its content as the center of human consciousness creates and constitutes what we commonly refer to as a worldview. What the heart is and does in a biblical way is what the philosophers were getting at in various ways, though unconsciously, in devising and using the concept of worldview. Biblically speaking, then, life proceeds “kardioptically,” out of a vision of the heart, and that’s what I think a worldview is! It is a vision of the heart which is “our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” [32] It is a vision of God, the universe, our world and our selves — rooted and grounded in the human heart. The heart of the matter of worldview is that worldview is a matter of the heart with its deeply embedded ideas, its profound affections, its life-determining choices, and its essential religion. For according to its specific disposition, it grinds its own “lenses,” metaphorically speaking, through which it perceives the world and life within it. As a function of the heart, therefore, Weltanschauung is an existential concept, indeed, a biblical concept, essential to human identity as the image and likeness of God.

Second, things that enter into the heart shape its vision of things, forming the basic assumptions upon which life proceeds. Before the springs flow out of the heart as a way of life, something must first and continue to flow into it to form a perspective on the world. Things are internalized before they are externalized. What the heart receives determines what it eventually conceives . What influences, then, shape a heart and determine its image of life? Certainly one’s natural genetic inheritance, native personality traits, and inborn insights are critical components of the heart’s composition. It is also deeply influenced by the manifold experiences of life. From early on, a torrential amount of content is poured into the reservoir of the heart from seemingly unlimited sources of varying quality, some of it pure, some of it polluted. [33]   Once the powerful forces of both nature and nurture have shaped the content and dispositions of a heart, they comprise the “presuppositional basis of life.” [34]

Presuppositions “… refer us,” says Ted Peters, “to our fundamental vision of reality and the self-evident truths which are tacitly acknowledged in everything we comprehend and assert.” [35]   And as Michael Polanyi observes, when we acknowledge a set of presuppositions as an interpretative framework for life, “we may be said to dwell in them as we do in our own body.” [36]

In any case, the heart sustains an interactive or reciprocal relationship with the external world, and in the process, obtains an underlying vision of life, though it is difficult to explain exactly how it all happens. [37]   In this dynamic process, basic assumptions are either ignored, discovered, followed, confirmed, challenged, put in crisis, reaffirmed, replaced, and solidified as the individual clings to a first, second, third, or even more “naïvetés” until death. Thus worldviews are always works in progress. The proverbial warning to watch over the heart, therefore, could not be more prudent.

Third, the things that proceed out of the heart as a way of life reflect its true worldview . The best test to determine what vision of life truly grips a heart is to examine one’s basic “conversation” in the world, to employ an antique term from the King’s English. Truth claims and professed beliefs may or may not correspond with one’s actual way of life. One’s actual way of life may or may not correspond to one’s truth claims or professed beliefs. If there is agreement, there is integrity. If there isn’t, there is hypocrisy. In any case, concrete behavior is a clear indicator of true belief, and whatever true beliefs reside in the heart and form its vision is what will show up in real life. Therefore, examine a person carefully (perhaps even yourself): listen to him speak, watch him act, observe his attitudes, detect his beliefs, and in a short while you will be led back to the tap root of his life in the basic assumptions of the his heart which supply him with his genuine conception and way of life, ideas, beliefs, and words to the contrary notwithstanding.   

Now this concept of worldview as a vision of the heart as I have articulated here and in my book, is acceptable as far as it goes. But now I think it needs to be augmented. Though this description has a strong existential thrust, I detect a lingering Cartesianism in my formulation in which the heart as the psychic center of the human person still remains a somewhat disembodied and independent thing which thinks, feels, wills, and worships. With the help of Michael Polanyi mediated through the recent, capable work of Esther Lightcap Meeks, I have recognized that this heart needs to be rooted in the physical body and this “enhearted” body or embodied heart needs to be anchored in the ebb and flow of the real world.

God not only made the heart, but also the body, as He also made the world, and there is a divinely ordained coherence that unites them. Not only is there a bodily basis of all thought, as Polanyi taught, but the most basic way of being in and accessing the world is through the body. Worldviews grow out of lived bodily experience and it is from their embodied situations that people decipher the world in felt semiotic, narratival, rational, epistemic, and hermeneutical ways. This basic way of being in the world through the heart-body unity constitutes a worldview.

This bodily-based world consciousness is something of which most people are not typically cognizant since it is an object of subsidiary, rather than of focal awareness, to employ Polanyian categories once again. Just as the body is not the object of direct attention in its daily operations, so neither is there conscious awareness of worldview assumptions which constitute a vision of life. Instead both are indwelt tacitly. As Polanyi states, “when we accept a certain set of pre-suppositions and use them as our interpretative framework, we may be said to indwell them as we do in our own body.… As they are themselves our ultimate framework, they are essentially inarticulable.” [38] Normally, people are as unconscious of their worldviews as they are of their bodies, unless both become the object of purposeful examination. Learning what it is like to live in a body tacitly is a helpful step in learning what it is like to have a worldview, and vice versa. [39] Thus this world oriented, bodily based, heart centered understanding of worldview may provide a more complete picture, and may do greater justice to an overall biblical anthropology.

There are two additional points that figure prominently in my concept of a worldview that merit very brief consideration. These are their semiotic and narrative character. In light of the fact that Umberto Eco argues that the whole of culture must and can be studied as a semiotic phenomenon, [40] and the fact that a defining trait of human persons as imago Dei who possess logos is the ability to use one thing to stand for another thing especially in the form of letters, words, speech and written discourse, and because Scripture teaches that the entire universe should be conceived pansemiotically and interpreted as a sign of God and His glorious power (e.g., Psa. 19: 1), it seemed wise to examine the nature and function of worldview sub specie semiotica . St. Augustine was also an catalyst in this regard in his demonstration of the role and power of signs in the process of communication and the acquisition of knowledge. As he states forthrightly in his De Doctrina Christiana , “Things are learned about through signs,” and in this magisterial treatise he recognizes clearly that semiotic systems and symbolic worlds of various kinds are at the heart of the human drama insofar as they convey either the wine of truth and of error.

My suggestion is that there is a certain set or string of symbols that present the meaning of life and possess unique cultural power. These are rightly designated as “worldview.” As an individual’s or culture’s foundation and system of meaning, they are promulgated through countless communicative avenues and mysteriously find their way to the inner most regions of the embodied heart that resides in the world. They inform the categories of consciousness that define human existence and provide an interpretation and way of life. They are the putative object of faith, the basis for hope, and the essential source of individual and socio-cultural security.

More often than not, and this is the second point, they have been formulated, received and indwelt as a set of narratives or stories that establish a particular outlook on life. Semiotically constituted human beings in want of a solution to the riddles of the universe primarily fulfill this need in their trademark activity of telling stories that form a symbolic world for which people are inclined to live and even die.   The power of stories to establish a context for life has been recognized since time immemorial by the traditions’ greatest thinkers.

These stories that establish a symbolic world do indeed guide all forms of human activity. Worldview narratives create a particular kind of “mind,” and serve in a normative fashion as “controlling stories.” [41] The most fundamental stories associated with a Weltanschauung — those closest to its metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical epicenter — possess a kind of finality as the ultimate interpretation of reality in all its multifaceted aspects. Such stories are considered sacred, and they provide the adhesive that unites those who believe in them into a society characterized by shared perspectives and a common way of life. They also provide a tenacious grid by which competing narratives and alternative claims to truth are judged. Controlling stories, therefore, function in a regulatory fashion both positively and negatively, and are able to bind those who accept them into an intellectual or spiritual commonwealth. Thus the bulk of human praxis does seem to be under the jurisdiction of a worldview, including the significant activities of reasoning, interpreting, and knowing.

Philosophical Implications

Worldview and rationality . What is rational? What influence, if any, does a worldview have upon the operation and content of reason? Is rationality free from or dependent upon a worldview framework? Is there an “arch” or “olympian” kind of rationality transcending worldviews that is the same for all? [42] Or is what is reasonable worldview dependent?

Three questions will illustrate the precise thrust of this inquiry regarding the relation of worldview and rationality. First, are the beliefs of primitive cultures less “rational” than those of the modern, scientific West? Second, in the conflict between Jews, Greeks, and Christians regarding the credibility of the New Testament gospel, with which party does rationality side? Third, do human beings manifest the utmost in rational virtue when they insist that for a proposition to be true, it must be a part of the noetic structure of strong foundationalism?

These questions and their answers reflect intense debates among anthropologists about what constitutes cultural rationality , among Jews, Gentiles and Christians concerning religious rationality , and among philosophers over epistemic rationality . These differences make one thing clear: what is reasonable or what constitutes rationality is dependent upon prior commitments. What a person deems to be rational or irrational appears to be a function of the reasoner’s worldview.

This is not to suggest that the actual laws of logic are altered by cultural context or philosophic orientation. The laws of non-contradiction, identity, and excluded middle are, indeed, universal. The content, however, with which these laws of logic function, is markedly different. In Aristotelian terms, the formal cause of rationality is the same, but its material cause may vary considerably. Bare reason is embarrassed by nakedness and always seeks to be clothed in a worldview tradition.

Recently, Alasdair MacIntyre has supported this contention that rationality is rooted in various historical traditions. His concern in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is, of course, on moral matters, in particular the conception of justice. In his investigation, however, he recognized that rival conceptions of justice presupposed rival conceptions of rationality. The Enlightenment’s attempt to formulate an objective view of reason that could adjudicate this matter failed. Thus, MacIntyre takes the discussion to a deeper level, and argues for a conception of rational inquiry that is embodied in a tradition. The rationality of doctrines has to be understood in terms of historical context. For this reason, MacIntyre asserts, there are “rationalities rather than [a] rationality.” [43] At the end of the day, he seems to be saying that the questions about “whose justice” and “which rationality” is a matter intimately related to worldview. As he puts it, “ it has become evident that conceptions of justice and of practical rationality generally and characteristically confront us as closely related aspects of some larger, more or less well-articulated, overall view of human life and of its place in nature .” [44]

If MacIntyre’s analysis stands, then it seems prudent to assert that what is deemed to be rational is dependent on a larger frame of reference in which the perceived logic of the universe inheres. A fundamental outlook on life determines how the saw of reason itself cuts. Along these lines, let me state unequivocally my conviction that the true cosmic rationality resides in the Trinitarian God and His graciously revealed infallible Word.

Worldview and hermeneutics . The goal of modern thinkers was to design an objective method of understanding that circumvents the problem of hermeneutic circle in which the meaning of texts is determined in advance by the scholars’ aprioris . Their goal was to move as far away from interpretation as possible in hopes of obtaining scientific certitude. Why fool around with values when facts will do?

This separation of knowledge and interpretation, however, seems naive, unrealistic, and self-referentially incoherent: naive in its view of human nature, unrealistic in its expectation of a self-dispossessed objectivity, and incoherent in its establishment of a prejudice against prejudice. As Hans Georg Gadamer has pointed out famously, “There is one prejudice of the Enlightenment that defines its essence: the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power.” [45]

The Enlightenment’s effort at stamping out all question-begging traditions became the new question-begging tradition of modernity. The intention to escape human subjectivity and its hermeneutic influence by means of the objectivity of science failed. In the contest, then, between Enlightenment objectivism and the hermeneutic circle, the latter, as postmodern critics have gleefully pointed out, triumphed over the former. The process of interpretation, like reason, is guided by prejudices and is tradition-bound. As Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) affirmed, “there cannot be any such thing as exegesis without presuppositions.” [46] It is influenced significantly, according to the present argument, by worldview.

Both Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer have critiqued this Enlightenment objectivist position by reconnecting humanity to being, history, and the world. [47] This re-immersion into stream of human experience effectively eliminated the possibility of a “God’s eye point of view” in all attempts to explain the nature of things immaculately. Therefore, no one is an interpretative island existing independently as a purely rational hermeneutic entity. The modern image of the solitary individual divested of self-interests in a scientific pursuit of objective knowledge of the world stands in contrast to the communitarian ideals of the premodern and postmodern periods. In both of these eras, the power of history and a narrative tradition to shape consciousness is recognized, along with its hermeneutic implications. [48] Comprehension of things does not take place in a vacuum but in social, historical and linguistic contexts.

This raises the most important question, however, in the matter of relating hermeneutics and worldview is whether or not any final meaning is possible. The answer, so it seems, depends on one’s worldview! If both God and humanity are dead — the two original sources of hermeneutical meaning, taking the cosmos with them and leaving nothing in their place — then we are left with nothing but pointless talk. As Stanley Rosen has affirmed, “If nothing is real, the real is nothing; there is no difference between the written lines of a text and the blank spaces between them.” [49] On the other hand, as George Steiner has pointed out, God’s existence changes everything hermeneutically. A universe derived from and ordered by the Logos of God is the foundation and reference point by which to interpret the world truthfully. As Steiner puts it in his book Real Presences , “the wager on the meaning of meaning . . . is a wager on transcendence.” [50]

Thus, not only is the art and science of interpretation affected by a worldview, but the question about the very possibility of meaning itself is also worldview dependent. The question hinges on the decision between the antithetical worldviews of atheism or theism. For if there is no God, there is no final meaning, but if there is, it makes all the difference in the world. God and His Word constitute the world’s true hermeneutic.

Worldview and epistemology . If the presence of a worldview affects reasoning and interpreting in significant ways, then what kind of impact does it have on the process of knowing itself? When it comes to worldview and knowledge, are its adherents connected with reality or just their view of it? Or is it perhaps a little bit of both? Three views are commonly recognized in responding to this query.

Naïve or common sense realism argues that comprehension of the cosmos is direct and accurate, substantially unaffected by worldview presuppositions or any other person-relative influences. Critical realism posits an objectively existing world and the possibility of trustworthy knowledge of it. But it also recognizes the prejudices that inevitably accompany human knowing and demands an ongoing critical conversation about the essentials of one’s outlook.   Creative anti-realism is a view positing a radical disjunction between what is actually there and the many creative views of it. Worldviews in this context are all there are, belief systems that are reified and sustain no necessary connection to reality as such.

I submit that critical realism is the most responsible position in judging between these three options relating worldview and knowledge. This viewpoint avoids the dogmatism and arrogance of modernity, and the skepticism and despair of postmodernity. Rather, it promotes a sensible view of human knowledge marked by both epistemic confidence and humility. It is a golden mean epistemology that seeks to avoid the excesses and deficiencies of its competitors.

There is, therefore, no view from nowhere! All things are known from somewhere! Depending upon where one stands will determine whether or not things are obscured or clarified. As C. S. Lewis says in The Magician’s Nephew , “For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” [51]

There is, therefore, a persistent need for interaction with other perspectives to challenge and certify our take on the nature of things. I see things in my framework you do not see; you see things in your framework I do not see. I see and point out your shortcomings; you see and point out my shortcomings. Through these respective contributions and mutual criticisms, through the exercise of what Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called a “dialogical imagination,” the desideratum is an ever-increasing understanding of reality. [52] At least in part, knowledge about the world is the fruit of a dialectical process rooted in a great conversation that ultimately must take its cue from the Greatest Conversation between God and humanity rooted in Scripture which is the world’s and the church’s true truth.

A worldview, then, constitutes the symbolic universe that has profound implications on a variety of significant human practices. It digs the channels in which the waters of reason flow. It establishes the hermeneutic framework by which texts are interpreted. It is that mental medium through which world is known. Human life in its variegated aspects, so it seems, proceeds “kardioptically” out of a vision of an embodied heart living in the world. Theologically speaking, to get that vision right requires a gracious work of the sovereign, Trinitarian God who has revealed Himself as the creator, judge, and redeemer of the world. This big biblical picture of the Christian faith as a comprehensive, coherent, and vivifying interpretation of all aspects of life was preeminently attractive and relevant to astute thinkers like James Orr and Abraham Kuyper and their worldview disciples. They and their followers introduced this larger, worldview way of apprehending the Christian faith into the culture and history of the evangelical Church. Thus the history, theology and implications of this notion of worldview serve to confirm my intuitive attraction to G. K. Chesterton’s conviction “that the most practical and important thing about a person is still his view of the universe.”                                                

Thank you very much.

[1]   G. K. Chesterton, Heretics , in The Complete Works of G. K. Chesterton , ed. David Dooley, vol. 1, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 41.

[2]   Dorothy L. Sayers, 1937-1944: From Novelist to Playwright , vol. 2 of The Letters of Dorothy Sayers, ed. Barbara Reynolds, preface P. D. James (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998),158.

[3]   Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment: Including the First Introduction , trans. and intro. Werner S. Pluhar, with a foreword by Mary J. Gregor (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 111-2 (emphasis original).

[4]   Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology , trans., intro., and lexicon Albert Hofstadter, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 4.

[5]   James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World as Centering in the Incarnation (New York: Scribner, 1887; reprint, The Christian View of God and the World , with a foreword by Vernon C. Grounds, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1989), 365.

[6]   Calvin apparently recognized that his own theological system constituted the basis for a “Christian philosophy,” which may be roughly analogous to a Christian worldview. In introducing the subject matter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion , he informs his readers that God provides guidance to help simple people discover “the sum of what God meant to teach them in his Word.” He then says that this cannot be done in any better way than “to treat the chief and weightiest matters comprised in the Christian philosophy.” See his Institutes of the Christian Religion , The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. and indexed Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 6.

[7]   Proceedings of the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church (1887): 489-490, quoted in Scorgie, The Call for Continuity , 47.

[8]   James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World As Centering in the Incarnation (Edinburgh, Scotland: Andrew Eliot, 1893). This book has undergone many editions and reprints, the most recent being The Christian View of God and the World , foreword Vernon C. Grounds (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1989).

[9]   Orr, The Christian View , 3.

[10]   Orr, The Christian View , 3.

[11]   Orr, The Christian View , 4.

[12]   Orr, The Christian View , 4.

[13]   Ronald H. Nash, preface to The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark: A Festschrift , ed. Ronald H. Nash (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), 5.

[14]   Gordon H. Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981).

[15]   Carl F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Waco, TX:   Word, 1986): 75.

[16]   Kenneth S. Kantzer, “Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry: An Appreciation,” in God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F. H. Henry , ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 372.

[17]   R. D. Henderson, “How Abraham Kuyper Became a Kuyperian,” Christian Scholars Review 22 (1992): 22, 34-35.

[18]   Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[19]   Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 93-94.

[20]   Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism , 189-190 (emphasis his).

[21]   For example, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), D. H. T. Vollenhoven (1892-1978), Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987).

[22]   Francis A Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent , vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview , 2d ed.   (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 279-280.

[23]   Francis A Schaeffer, Escape From Reason , vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview , 2d ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 221.

[24]   Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There , vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview , 2d ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 178.

[25]   The subtitle to Schaeffer’s Complete Works is aptly designated “A Christian Worldview.” Volume one deals with a Christian view of philosophy containing the three books mentioned above. Volume two deals with a Christian view of the Bible as truth. Volume three deals with a Christian view of spirituality. Volume four deals with a Christian view of the church. Volume five deals with a Christian view of the West. See Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview , 2d ed. 5 vols. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982).

[26]   David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), Appendix A.  

[27]   Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge , trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, foreword Fredric Jameson, Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.

[28]   Rowe, “Society after the Subject,” 156-183.

[29]   Sander Griffioen, Richard Mouw, and Paul Marshall, “Introduction,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science , Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 8, 10.

[30]   St. Augustine, Teaching Christianity: De Doctrina Christiana , The Works of St. Augustine for the 21st Century, intro., trans., notes Edmund Hill, vol 11 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996), 159-160 (§2.60).

[31]   Gordon J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 227; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics , trans. Harold Knight, J. K. S. Reid, R. H. Fuller (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), III/2, p. 436.

[32]   William James, “Is Life Worth Living,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York, c. 1896; reprint, New York: Dover, 1956), 62; quoted in William J. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomena to Passional Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 97.

[33]   I think here of these lines from singer/song writer Kate Campbell in the chorus to her song, “How Much Can One Heart Hold?” ( Monuments , 2002, Large River Music).

“How much can one heart hold,

A pound of dirt or a pound of gold,

We may never know the truth be told

How much can one heart hold.”

[34] A felicitous expression I heard in a lecture by David Aikman at The Oxbridge Conference sponsored by the C. S. Lewis Foundation in the summer of 1998, celebrating the centennial of the birth of C. S. Lewis. Here is a definition of a presupposition based on its etymology: pre-sub-ponere  = that which is posited (believed) underneath (taken for ganted) in advance (a priori).

[35]   Ted Peters, “The Nature and Role of Presupposition: An Inquiry into Contemporary Hermeneutics,” International Philosophical Quarterly 14 (June 1974): 210.

[36]   Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958, 1962), 60.

[37]   William James, A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1925), 13.

[38]   Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 60.  

[39]   Dr. Esther L. Meek, “Working Implications of the Subsidiary Nature of Worldviews,” a paper presented at the Midwest Regional Evangelical Theological Society Conference, Lincoln Christian College, March 19, 2004. See also Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).    

[40]   Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics , Advances in Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 22.  

[41]   Wright, The New Testament , 41-42. Wright acknowledges that the idea of “controlling stories” is derived from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s concept of “control beliefs” which he discusses in his Reason within the Bounds of Religion , 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 67.

[42]   The idea of an “arch-rationalism” as an absolutist style of reason is from Ian Hacking, “Language, Truth and Reason,” in Rationality and Relativism , ed. Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), 51-53; the notion of “olympian reason” as a reasoning process from a “god’s eye point of view” is from Herbert Simon, Reason in Human Affairs (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983), 34-35.

[43]   Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 9.

[44]   MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 389 (emphasis added).

[45]   Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method , 2d rev. ed., trans. rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1993), 270.

[46]   Rudolph Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” in New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings , selected, ed. trans., Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 146.

[47]   Martin Heidegger, Being and Time , trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962). Gadamer, Truth and Method .

[48]   Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 143.

[49]   Stanley Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics , Odéon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 161.

[50]   George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 4.

[51]   C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan, Collier Books, 1955, 1970), 125.

[52] Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays , trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 7.  

Originally given as a lecture at Cornerstone University September, 2004.

© Copyright David Naugle . Used by permission.

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Broadening My Worldview Through Writing

How I Write and Learn

By Sophie T., a Writing Coach

This pandemic has no doubt made learning a huge challenge—but if anything positive has come out of my learning experience, it’s that I am constantly pushed to think critically about the world every time I put pen to paper.

In one of my classes last semester, our task was to develop a public health intervention targeting a health issue of our choosing. On the first day, my professor urged us to consider current societal contexts (like COVID, social justice movements, and politics) to ensure that our intervention would be relevant, appropriate, and impactful. For example, if we were interested in cancer survivors’ mental health, perhaps our intervention would be a peer support group. But how might COVID-19 affect that? Would an online support group work?

That class freshly reminded me of all the ways I could use writing assignments to broaden my worldview—not just during a pandemic, but anytime. In contemplating this further, I recognized that writing assignments have helped me grow in several major ways:

On the left is coffee in an orange mug on a table. On the right is a black laptop with an article pulled up on the screen.

  • They’ve shaped my opinions (and shown me that it’s ok to change my opinion based on what I learn): Lots of writing assignments require students to do research and develop an argument. Through doing those assignments, I’ve improved my skills in considering various viewpoints (including ones I disagree with), assessing the credibility of my sources, and gradually fleshing out my perspective on the issue at hand. For example, my current views on identities such as race, gender, and sexual orientation have certainly evolved after I’ve had to reckon with them across dozens of argumentative writing assignments. Those views in turn shape how I perceive my own identities and how I interact with other people.

The Abstract section in the American Journal of Human Biology titled “Changing body norms in the context of increasing body size: Samoa in 1995 and 2018."

Reflecting on my way-too-many years as a student, I have come to realize that many of the causes that I care most about started as writing assignments for class—like my research in body image, which began as a series of reflections I wrote about weight stigma in a class aptly called Stigma and Health. Or my interest in media representation of marginalized groups, which grew out of a final paper I wrote for a disability studies class, where I examined the function of ableist language in articles by The Onion .

I remember stepping into those classrooms not thinking they were all that related to my career path. But here I am, thousands of words and hundreds of coffees later, having opened my mind to knowledge and perspectives that ended up shaping my worldview profoundly. I can’t wait to see what new worlds my future classes will open!

A grey striped cat is curled up and sleeping on a beige couch between the author’s feet.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach , a peer tutor , or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here .

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  • 3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation

One of the most common problems in helping students to become thoughtful readers of historical narrative is the compulsion students feel to find the one right answer, the one essential fact, the one authoritative interpretation. “Am I on the right track?” “Is this what you want?” they ask. Or, worse yet, they rush to closure, reporting back as self-evident truths the facts or conclusions presented in the document or text.

These problems are deeply rooted in the conventional ways in which textbooks have presented history: a succession of facts marching straight to a settled outcome. To overcome these problems requires the use of more than a single source: of history books other than textbooks and of a rich variety of historical documents and artifacts that present alternative voices, accounts, and interpretations or perspectives on the past.

Students need to realize that historians may differ on the facts they incorporate in the development of their narratives and disagree as well on how those facts are to be interpreted. Thus, “history” is usually taken to mean what happened in the past; but written history is a dialogue among historians, not only about what happened but about why and how events unfolded. The study of history is not only remembering answers. It requires following and evaluating arguments and arriving at usable, even if tentative, conclusions based on the available evidence.

To engage in  historical analysis and interpretation  students must draw upon their skills of historical comprehension . In fact, there is no sharp line separating the two categories. Certain of the skills involved in comprehension overlap the skills involved in analysis and are essential to it. For example, identifying the author or source of a historical document or narrative and assessing its credibility (comprehension) is prerequisite to comparing competing historical narratives (analysis). Analysis builds upon the skills of comprehension; it obliges the student to assess the evidence on which the historian has drawn and determine the soundness of interpretations created from that evidence. It goes without saying that in acquiring these analytical skills students must develop the ability to differentiate between expressions of opinion, no matter how passionately delivered, and informed hypotheses grounded in historical evidence.

Well-written historical narrative has the power to promote students’ analysis of historical causality–of how change occurs in society, of how human intentions matter, and how ends are influenced by the means of carrying them out, in what has been called the tangle of process and outcomes. Few challenges can be more fascinating to students than unraveling the often dramatic complications of cause. And nothing is more dangerous than a simple, monocausal explanation of past experiences and present problems.

Finally, well-written historical narratives can also alert students to the traps of  lineality and inevitability . Students must understand the relevance of the past to their own times, but they need also to avoid the trap of lineality, of drawing straight lines between past and present, as though earlier movements were being propelled teleologically toward some rendezvous with destiny in the late 20th century.

A related trap is that of thinking that events have unfolded inevitably–that the way things are is the way they had to be, and thus that individuals lack free will and the capacity for making choices. Unless students can conceive that history could have turned out differently, they may unconsciously accept the notion that the future is also inevitable or predetermined, and that human agency and individual action count for nothing. No attitude is more likely to feed civic apathy, cynicism, and resignation–precisely what we hope the study of history will fend off. Whether in dealing with the main narrative or with a topic in depth, we must always try, in one historian’s words, to “restore to the past the options it once had.”

HISTORICAL THINKING STANDARD 3

The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation:

Therefore, the student is able to:

  • Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas , values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.
  • Consider multiple perspectives  of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears.
  • Analyze cause-and-effect relationships  bearing in mind  multiple causation including (a)  the importance of the individual  in history; (b)  the influence of ideas , human interests, and beliefs; and (c) the role of chance, the accidental and the irrational.
  • Draw comparisons across eras and regions in order to define enduring issues as well as large-scale or long-term developments that transcend regional and temporal boundaries.
  • Distinguish between unsupported expressions of opinion and informed hypotheses grounded in historical evidence.
  • Compare competing historical narratives.
  • Challenge arguments of historical inevitability  by formulating examples of historical contingency, of how different choices could have led to different consequences.
  • Hold interpretations of history as tentative , subject to changes as new information is uncovered, new voices heard, and new interpretations broached.
  • Evaluate major debates among historians  concerning alternative interpretations of the past.
  • Hypothesize the influence of the past , including both the limitations and opportunities made possible by past decisions.

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knowledge of history enriches one's worldview essay

A Multi-Perspective Reflection on How Indigenous Knowledge and Related Ideas Can Improve Science Education for Sustainability

  • Open access
  • Published: 09 January 2020
  • Volume 29 , pages 145–185, ( 2020 )

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  • Robby Zidny   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4727-3984 1 , 2 ,
  • Jesper Sjöström   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-3083-1716 3 &
  • Ingo Eilks   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0453-4491 4  

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A Correction to this article was published on 13 March 2021

This article has been updated

Indigenous knowledge provides specific views of the world held by various indigenous peoples. It offers different views on nature and science that generally differ from traditional Western science. Futhermore, it introduces different perspectives on nature and the human in nature. Coming basically from a Western perspective on nature and science, the paper analyzes the literature in science education focusing on research and practices of integrating indigenous knowledge with science education. The paper suggests Didaktik models and frameworks for how to elaborate on and design science education for sustainability that takes indigenous knowledge and related non-Western and alternative Western ideas into consideration. To do so, indigenous knowledge is contextualized with regards to related terms (e.g., ethnoscience), and with Eastern perspectives (e.g., Buddhism), and alternative Western thinking (e.g., post-human Bildung ). This critical review provides justification for a stronger reflection about how to include views, aspects, and practices from indigenous communities into science teaching and learning. It also suggests that indigenous knowledge offers rich and authentic contexts for science learning. At the same time, it provides chances to reflect views on nature and science in contemporary (Western) science education for contributing to the development of more balanced and holistic worldviews, intercultural understanding, and sustainability.

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1 Introduction

One of the main problems in science education—is the perception of students that a lot of their secondary science lessons are neither interesting, engaging, nor relevant (Anderhag et al. 2016 ; Potvin and Hasni 2014 ; Stuckey et al. 2013 ). This is in line with Holbrook ( 2005 ) who discussed that learning of science is perceived not to be relevant in the view of students and thus becomes unpopular to them. A main factor for the missing perception of relevance is suggested in a lack of connections of the teaching of science to the everyday life of students and society (Childs et al. 2015 ; Hofstein et al. 2011 ). To raise the relevance of science education as part of relevant education, science education should accept a more thorough role in preparing students to become critical citizens (e.g., Sjöström and Eilks 2018 ). The role of science education is to prepare students to think responsibly, critically, and creatively in responding to societal issues caused by the impact of science and technology on life and society (e.g., Holbrook and Rannikmäe 2007 ; Hofstein et al. 2011 ; Sjöström 2013 ; Stuckey et al. 2013 ).

To improve the relevance of science education, science teaching requires new ways in the curriculum and pedagogy beyond the mere learning of science theories and facts (Eilks and Hofstein 2015 ). Science learning should be based on everyday life and societal situations that frame conceptual learning to enable students to appreciate the meaningfulness of science (e.g., Greeno 1998 ; Østergaard 2017 ). For acquiring more relevant science teaching and learning—as well as for innovating the curriculum—theory-driven and evidence-based curriculum development for science education and corresponding teacher education are needed (Hugerat et al. 2015 ). Accordingly, it is important to implement new topics and pedagogies in science teaching and to change teacher education programs. One source for such new topics is sustainability thinking and action, and a corresponding related educational paradigm is called Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (Burmeister et al. 2012 ). ESD in connection with science education has been suggested to have potential to contribute to all three domains of relevant science teaching (personal, societal, and vocational relevance) (Eilks and Hofstein 2014 ). It is relevant for individual action, e.g., in cases involving consumption of resources, participation in societal debates about issues of sustainable development, or careers related to sustainability in science and technology (Sjöström et al. 2015 ).

However, it should be mentioned that the ESD movement has been criticized for a too instrumental view on the relationship between science, technology, and society. The possibilities of environmental technology for solving environmental problems are emphasized, whereas the need for other societal and behavioral changes is not so much mentioned. Such a view is called ecological modernization (e.g., Læssøe 2010 ; Kopnina 2014 ). Education for sustainability (EfS) is a more critical alternative to a narrow-focused ESD (e.g., Simonneaux and Simonneaux 2012 ; Birdsall 2013 ). According to Albe ( 2013 ), it requires the individual to take the political dimension of environmental issues and their intrinsic power relationships into consideration. The aim is to empower the individual for acting responsibly in terms of sustainability, which was also identified by Stuckey et al. ( 2013 ) as an essential justification in their model of relevant science education. Yet another related and critically oriented alternative to mainstream ESD is called ecojustice education (Mueller 2009 ). In this paper, we use the term science education for sustainability describing science education driven by critical and alternative Western views on the transformation to a sustainable world.

According to Savelyeva ( 2017 ), the dominant Western sustainability discourse is based on an anthropocentric conception, where nature needs to be managed within the three pillars of sustainability: ecological, economic, and societal sustainability. Such a view on the human-nature relationship is oriented towards producing a sustainable person. However, as will be explained more in detail below, alternative Western—and less anthropocentric—sustainability discourses have been suggested, such as self-reflective subjectivity (Straume 2015 ), transformative sustainability learning (Barrett et al. 2017 ), a virtue ethics approach (Jordan and Kristjánsson 2017 ), and eco-reflexive Bildung (Sjöström et al. 2016 ; Sjöström 2018 ).

Science is practised based on natural and environmental resources in any given cultural and socio-economic context. However, the picture of science represented in many textbooks all over the world often neglects its cultural component or restricts it to a Western view on the history of science (e.g., Forawi 2015 ; Khaddour et al. 2017 ; Ideland 2018 ). Indigenous views on nature and indigenous knowledge in science at different levels vary among societies and cultures across the globe. The wisdom of indigenous knowledge is often based on sacred respect of nature, due to indigenous peoples’ relationships and responsibilities towards nature (Knudtson and Suzuki 1992 ). Thus, learning about indigenous knowledge may help students recognizing this intimate connection between humans and nature in the foreground of culture from their regional environment or beyond.

Recently, Sjöström ( 2018 ) discussed science education driven by different worldviews. Especially he discussed how science teachers’ identities are related to their worldviews, cultural values, and educational philosophies, and all these are influenced by the individual’s perspectives towards it. Different educational approaches in science education and corresponding eco(logy) views were commented on by Sjöström in relation to the transformation of educational practice. The focus was especially pointed on the similarities between Asian neo-Confucianism and alternative-Western North-European reflexive Bildung (see further below).

Indigenous cultures and the culture of (alternative) Western modern science might complement each other in students’ everyday world experiences. The introduction of indigenous knowledge in the classroom will represent different cultural backgrounds and might help improve the interpretation of this knowledge (Botha 2012 ), so that it makes science more relevant to students in culturally diverse classrooms (de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ). In addition, the incorporation of indigenous knowledge into school curricula might help to enable students to gain positive experiences and develop corresponding attitudes towards science. It might help students to maintain the values of their local cultural wisdom (Kasanda et al. 2005 ; de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ; Ng’asike 2011 ; Perin 2011 ).

Some research used indigenous knowledge to contextualize science curricula by a cultural context (Chandra 2014 ; Hamlin 2013 ; Kimmerer 2012 ; Sumida Huaman 2016 ; van Lopik 2012 ). Indigenous knowledge offers rich contexts which have the potential to contribute understanding the relationship of environmental, sociocultural, and spiritual understandings of life and nature. This approach could be appropriate to accommodate sociocultural demand in science education curricula as well as to raise students’ perception of the relevance of science learning. Aikenhead ( 2001 ) found, however, that possible conflicts may arise when students have the problem of taking information from one knowledge system and placing it into another. There is a number of barriers enabling indigenous knowledge to co-exist in the science curriculum and in the minds of learners and teachers. Barriers are related to limitations of time and corresponding learning materials, prescribed curricula, the selection of appropriate pedagogies, and teachers’ doubts in conveying topics containing spiritual aspects in science (Snively and Williams 2016 ). Teachers have to be aware that it is especially tricky to handle indigenous spiritual views with sufficient care and respect.

Coming from a Western view on nature and science, this analysis attempts to examine the potential role of indigenous knowledge to enhance the relevance of science education with a certain view on education for sustainability. Our view is that the sciences, as well as many other subject areas, have important roles in education for sustainability (Sjöström et al. 2015 ; Sjöström et al. 2016 ). The paper suggests Didaktik models (in the following called “didactic models”) (e.g., Jank and Meyer 1991 ; Blankertz 1975 ; Meyer 2012 ; Arnold 2012 ) and frameworks for how to elaborate on and design EfS that takes indigenous knowledge and related non-Western and alternative Western ideas into consideration. Didaktik can be seen as the professional science for teachers and has a long history in Germany, central Europe, and Scandinavia (e.g., Seel 1999 ; Schneuwly 2011 ; Ingerman and Wickman 2015 ).

A theoretical framework, which contributes multiple reference disciplines of science education (Duit 2007 ), is proposed for adopting indigenous knowledge in science learning. This approach encompasses the interdisciplinary nature of relevant science education to carry out science education research and development. It could provide guidance for research-based curriculum development to construct an indigenous knowledge framework for raising the relevance of science education and students’ perception thereof.

2 Indigenous Knowledge and Related Concepts in the Science Education Literature

The search method in this paper used several scientific literature databases, namely Web of Science, ERIC, Science Direct, and Google Scholar. Several keywords were used to find literature related to the following three main points: (1) a conceptual framework of indigenous knowledge, which includes the definition and concept of indigenous knowledge, the perspective of indigenous knowledge and Western modern science, indigenous knowledge in science education, and the role of indigenous knowledge to promote sustainable development; (2) the relevance of science learning through indigenous knowledge, which encompasses the relevance of science learning in general and indigenous knowledge as a context that supports the relevance of science learning; and (3) research designs and pedagogical approaches to integrate indigenous knowledge in learning and education for sustainability education in science education.

The term indigenous knowledge is broadly defined as the local knowledge held by indigenous peoples or local knowledge unique to a particular culture or society (Warren et al. 1993 ). The search for the term “indigenous knowledge” in the databases located articles pertaining to a number of different terms. Other notions of indigenous knowledge include indigenous science, traditional ecological knowledge, traditional knowledge, ethnoscience, native science, traditional wisdom, Maori science, and Yupiaq science. The search for the term “indigenous knowledge” in the Web of Science produced as much as 8436 hits (retrieved on 2018-01-29), including 577 educational research articles either combined with science education or combined with other related topics (plant sciences, environmental sciences, anthropology, environmental studies, and others). From the 577 educational articles, 446 are peer-reviewed research papers, and only a few articles discuss specific conceptual frameworks of indigenous knowledge. The search in ERIC showed 2404 results for the search term “indigenous knowledge” (retrieved on 2018-01-29). From this database, many review papers and research journal papers were found which are specifically discussing the concept of indigenous knowledge. Some research papers also focus on the relationship between indigenous knowledge and sustainable development. Similar results were also found in Science Direct and Google Scholar that mostly contain empirical and theoretical articles on indigenous knowledge. Of the many terms related to indigenous knowledge, the terminology of indigenous science, ethnoscience, and traditional ecological knowledge were the most frequently used in the literature related to science education, so the search then focused these three terms. Because of the abundance of available articles, potential articles were screened based on the relevant titles. As a result, 22 articles were selected which are directly focusing conceptual frameworks of indigenous knowledge. To complement the perspective with Western modern science and alternative Western thinking, some literature on the philosophy of science education were added by further literature searches.

The literature search for the relevance of science learning was done by using the keyword “relevant science education.” It generated 5363 articles (retrieved on 2018-01-29) in ERIC (consisting of 3178 journal articles, reports articles, book chapter, and others). A more specific search was done combining “relevant science education” with “indigenous knowledge” that brought up articles relating to the sociocultural contexts of science and socio-scientific issues. Further analysis focused on raising the relevance of science learning by indigenous knowledge in terms of promoting environmental protection and sustainable development. Thirty relevant articles were identified including some of the same articles as in the previous literature search.

Further analysis of previously obtained articles was aimed to complement the literature on the topic of research designs and pedagogical approaches to integrate indigenous knowledge in science learning. The search was done with the keyword “pedagogical approach for integrating indigenous knowledge.” This search generated 70 hits in ERIC and 942 results in Science Direct (retrieved on 2018-01-29). A screening for empirical research in anthropological and psychological paradigms, designing instructional approaches to introducing indigenous knowledge into science classrooms and using indigenous science to contextualize science learning by a sociocultural context, identified 14 articles. Further analysis of the articles from this search identified the need for more design research in science education for the integration of indigenous knowledge. One strategy identified in the literature is the Model of Educational Reconstruction (Duit et al. 2005 ). Search results using the keywords “Model of Educational Reconstruction” produced 88,816 hits in ERIC (retrieved on 2018-01-29). Screening related titles with science education identified seven articles. A search on the development of learning designs accommodated to the relevance of science learning for sustainable development, as well as to promote sustainable development, was added. The search for the keyword “ESD in Science Education” generated 148.499 articles on the ERIC database (retrieved on 2018-01-29). Some articles based on topics related to sustainability and referring to context- and/or socio-scientific issue–based science education were identified this way (Table 1 ).

3 Indigenous Knowledge, Western Modern Science, and Alternative Western Thinking

3.1 concepts to characterize indigenous knowledge.

Based on an analysis of terms, there are differences in the use of terms Indigenous (with capital I) and indigenous (with lowercase i). According to Wilson ( 2008 ), Indigenous (with capital I) refers to original inhabitants or first peoples in unique cultures who have experiences of European imperialism and colonialism. Indigenous peoples have a long history of live experience with their land and the legacy from the ancestor, and their future generations (Wilson 2008 ; Kim 2018 ). Meanwhile, the term indigenous (with lowercase i) refers to “things that have developed ‘home-grown’ in specific places” (Wilson 2008 , p. 15). In this paper, it is suggested to follow Kim’s ( 2018 ) point of view to use the term “indigenous” (with lowercase i) to positioning oneself as an indigenous to one’s homeland. The first author is indigenous to Indonesia, which is a country that has many traditional tribes and indigenous societies. These societies affect the culture of people living near indigenous environments but not living indigenous lifestyles. Even though the first author considers himself not to belong to an indigenous community, he spent his childhood in a rural environment, and he felt the experience of indigenous knowledge in his daily life as well as he was influenced by the culture of modern society. The first author is also able to speak an indigenous language (second language) used by one of the Indonesian indigenous peoples (Baduy Tribe) and interacted with them in a study focusing the Baduy’s science-related knowledge (Zidny and Eilks 2018 ). This study is part of a project to educationally reconstruct indigenous knowledge in science education in Indonesia in order to enhance the relevance of science learning as well as to promote education for sustainability. Meanwhile, the other authors are coming from central and northern European backgrounds with experience to Eurocentric cultures. In line with Kim ( 2018 ), all authors position themselves as an “ally” to indigenous people and still maintaining their personal cultural and integrity. In this regard, Kovach ( 2009 ) encouraged non-indigenous knowledge academics to incorporate a decolonizing agenda to support indigenous scholarship. The term “decolonization” is defined as a process to acknowledge the values of indigenous knowledge and wisdom (Afonso 2013 ) and bring together both indigenous and non-indigenous people to learn and respect indigenous knowledge (Kim 2018 ).

In the last few decades, studies on the knowledge of indigenous cultures involved various disciplines both from the natural and from the social sciences. There is no universal definition available about this kind of knowledge and many terms are used to describe what indigenous people know (Berkes 1993 ). Some scholars define indigenous knowledge by several terms and their respective perceptions. Snively and Williams ( 2016 ) argue that this distinction describes a way to distinguish heterogeneous cultural groups’ ways of knowing about nature. Many terms to describe indigenous knowledge have been used in the literature in science education (Table 2 ).

Ogawa ( 1995 ) proposed to understand science education in a “multiscience” perspective in order to foster “multicultural science education” contributing to the field of science education. The idea of a multiscience perspective acknowledges the existence of numerous types of science at play in science classrooms. Ogawa defined science in a multiscience perspective encompassing three categories: personal science (referring to science at the individual level), indigenous science (referring to science at the cultural or society level), and Western modern science (referring to a collective rational perceiving reality shared and authorized by the scientific community). In a more recent publication, Aikenhead and Ogawa ( 2007 ) proposed a new definition about science. They proposed a concept of science which explores three cultural ways of understanding nature. It changes the key terms to become more authentic to better represent each culture’s collective, yet heterogeneous, worldview, meta-physics, epistemology, and values. They also suggested dividing the ways of understanding nature into the following three categories:

An indigenous way (referring to indigenous nations in North America)

Indigenous ways of living in nature are more authentic. This view is used to describe indigenous knowledge, which encompasses indigenous ways of knowing. Ways of living in nature are action-oriented, which must be experienced in the context of living in a particular place in nature, in the pursuit of wisdom, and in the context of multiple relationships. One example of this kind of knowledge is the Yupiaq way of understanding nature, which has the focus of surviving the extreme condition in the tundra (Kawagley et al. 1998 ).

A neo-indigenous way (bringing up distinctive ways of Asian nations of knowing nature)

A neo-indigenous way of knowing is based in far more heterogeneous indigenous cultures, which are influenced by the traditions of Islamic and Japanese cultures. The term “indigenous science” is used by Japanese literature in the context of a multiple-science perspective. Indigenous science is a collective rational perceiving reality experienced by particular culture-dependent societies (Ogawa 1995 ).

Euro-American (Western modern) scientific way

Eurocentric sciences represent a way of knowing about nature and it was modified to fit Eurocentric worldviews, meta-physics, epistemologies, and value systems. This also includes knowledge appropriated over the ages from many other cultures (e.g., Islam, India, and China).

3.2 Defining Indigenous Science and Related Terms

From the same perspective, Snively and Corsiglia ( 2000 ) defined indigenous science as science obtained from the long-resident oral community and the knowledge which has been explored and recorded by biological scientists. They interpreted indigenous science as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). The concept of TEK is used by various scientists in the fields of biology, botany, ecology, geology, medicine, climatology, and other fields related to human activity on the environment guided by traditional wisdom (Andrews 1988 ; Berkes 1988 , 1993 ; Berkes and Mackenzie 1978 , Inglis 1993 ; Warren 1997 ; Williams and Baines 1993 ). Even so, Snively and Corsiglia ( 2000 ) stated that the definition of TEK is not accepted universally because of the ambiguity in the meaning of traditional and ecological knowledge . Other scholars prefer the term “indigenous knowledge” to avoid the debate about tradition and give emphasis on indigenous people (Berkes 1993 ). In addition, Snively and Corsiglia ( 2000 ) argued that TEK does not represent the whole of indigenous knowledge because it also contributes to some aspects of Western modern science. Therefore, TEK is the product of both Western modern science and indigenous knowledge (Kim et al. 2017 ).

Snively and Williams ( 2016 ) distinguished the scope of indigenous knowledge, indigenous science, traditional ecological knowledge, and Western science as follows:

Indigenous knowledge ( IK ): The local knowledge held by indigenous peoples or local knowledge unique to a particular culture or society (Warren et al. 1993 ). IK is a broad category that includes indigenous science.

Indigenous science ( IS ): IS is the science-related knowledge of indigenous cultures.

Traditional ecological knowledge ( TEK ): TEK refers to the land-related, place-based knowledge of long-resident, usually oral indigenous peoples, and as noted, consider it a subset of the broader categories of IK and IS. TEK is not about ecological relationships exclusively, but about many fields of science in its general sense including agriculture, astronomy, medicine, geology, architecture, navigation, and so on.

Western science (WS): WS represents Western or Eurocentric science in the means of modern Western science knowledge. Here, Western science knowledge is understood as mainstream Western modern science, i.e., acknowledging that also in modern Western societies’ alternative worldviews and views on science and nature exist (Korver-Glenn et al. 2015 ). Such views are here called “alternative Western thinking.”

To understand the relationship between indigenous knowledge, indigenous science, and TEK, Kim and Dionne ( 2014 ) suggest the “cup of water” analogy (Fig.  1 ). This analogy illustrates science as a cup or container, and knowledge as water that fills the cup. The shape of the water will adjust to the shape of the cup that holds it. Science is described as a collection of knowledge and methods that shape the perception of knowledge (Kim and Dionne 2014 ). Thus, knowledge will be perceived differently according to the form of science that reflects cultural traditions and the perspective of those who adhere to it. Western or European knowledge is shaped by Western modern science (WMS) who adhere to the culture and perspective of Western or European societies (Aikenhead 1996 ; Kim and Dionne 2014 ). Indigenous knowledge is formed by indigenous science which adheres to the culture and perspective of indigenous society, while TEK is part of the indigenous knowledge which is guided by indigenous science methods that are in parallel with WMS in terms of presenting solutions to ecological problems. Thus, TEK does not represent the whole indigenous knowledge system and has some similarities and differences with WMS (Kim and Dionne 2014 ).

figure 1

Relationship between indigenous knowledge (IK), indigenous science (IS), and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) (adapted from Kim and Dionne 2014 )

The term of IK in science education is also known as “ethnoscience.” Ethnoscience was first introduced by anthropologists in an ethnography approach that refers to a system of knowledge and cognition built to classify and interpret objects, activities, and events in a particular culture (Sturtevant 1964 ; Hardesty 1977 ). According to Snively and Corsiglia ( 2000 ), also IS is sometimes referred to as ethnoscience, which consists of the knowledge of indigenous expansionists (e.g., the Aztec, Mayan, or Mongolian empires) as well as the long-term residents of origin knowledge (i.e., the Inuit, the Aboriginal people of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, Micronesia, and New Zealand). Abonyi ( 1999 ) emphasizes that the indigenous own thinking and relation to life is a fundamental focus of ethnoscience to realize their vision of the world. He also notes that ethnoscience may have potentially the same branches as Western modern science because it is concerned with natural objects and events. Accordingly, the dimensions of ethnoscience would include a number of disciplines, namely ethnochemistry, ethnophysics, ethnobiology, ethnomedicine, and ethnoagriculture (Abonyi et al. 2014 ). Ethnoscience might have the same characteristics as TEK because it has been categorized into various disciplines of WMS-based scientific knowledge. Table 3 summarizes all the terminology, definitions, and acronyms related to indigenous knowledge in this paper.

All in all, this analysis is not intended to make contention about the different definitions of indigenous knowledge. Despite there are some different perspectives of scholars to define knowledge systems, we support the view of Snively and Williams ( 2016 ) that this distinction simply serves as a way to distinguish between highly heterogeneous groups and their ways of knowing nature.

3.3 Perspectives of Indigenous Knowledge

There is some literature in science education which has identified various characteristics and opposing views between Western modern science and indigenous knowledge. Nakashima and Roué ( 2002 ) identified that indigenous knowledge is often spiritual and does not make distinctions between empirical and sacred knowledge in contrast to Western modern science, which is mainly positivist and materialist. They also emphasized that Western modern science generally tries to use controllable experimental environments on their subject of study, while on the contrary indigenous knowledge depends on its context and particular local cultural conditions. In addition, indigenous knowledge adopts a more holistic approach, whereas on the opposite, Western modern science often tries to separate observations into different disciplines (Iaccarino 2003 ).

The perspective of Western contemporary culture and philosophy encourages us an interesting idea about the different forms of knowledge. Feyerabend ( 1987 ) acknowledged that any form of knowledge makes sense only within its own cultural context, and doubted people’s contention that the absolute truth criteria are only being determined by Western modern science. This is in line with Bateson ( 1979 ) who pointed out that the actual representation of knowledge depends on the observer’s view. Therefore, every culture has its way of viewing the world so they may have developed unique strategies for doing science (Murfin 1994 ). The theory of multicultural education in science also proposed the same ideas which recognize science as a cultural enterprise. Aikenhead ( 1996 , p.8) stated that “science itself is a subculture of Western or Euro-American culture, and so Western science can be thought of as ‘subculture science’”. It is based on the worldview presuppositions that nature and the universe are ordered, uniform, and comprehensible. However, Hansson ( 2014 ) has shown that many upper secondary students view scientific laws as only valid locally and that they differentiate between their own views and the views they associate with Western science. This indicates that also many Western people have a “personal science” (Ogawa 1995 ) way of thinking.

At the same time, it is widely known that there is a different perspective between Western modern science and indigenous knowledge in the context of strategies to create and transmit knowledge (Mazzocchi 2006 ). Eijck and Roth ( 2007 ) pointed out that both domains of knowledge are incommensurable and cannot be reduced to each other, because they are based on different processes of knowledge construction. Therefore, it is difficult to analyze one form of knowledge using the criteria of another tradition. Despite there are many distinctions on both sides, Stephens ( 2000 ) discovered the common ground between indigenous knowledge and Western modern science (Table 4 ), even though there are some suggestions to improve the content (e.g., Aikenhead and Ogawa 2007 ). Stephens ( 2000 ) emphasized that correlating one with another would be validated local knowledge as a pathway to science learning, and demonstrated that the exploration of multiple knowledge systems could enrich both perspectives to create thoughtful dialog.

3.4 Indigenous Knowledge and Alternative Western Thinking

Ideologically mainstream Western science can be described with labels such as positivism, objectivism, reductionism, rationalism, and modernism (e.g., Sjöström 2007 ). Many of these characteristics can be explained by the body-mind dualism that has been promulgated in Western civilization all since René Descartes (e.g., Bernstein 1983 ). It is called a Cartesian view and also includes the view that human beings are seen as separate from nature and with rights to exploit the Earth and its resources. In contrast to Western dualisms and modernism, most Eastern philosophies are more holistic and system-oriented (e.g., Hwang 2013 ). For example, Neo-Confucianism has been suggested as an alternative to the dominant Western sustainability discourse (Savelyeva 2017 ). Humans are positioned in harmony with cosmos and such a view can be called cosmoanthropic : “everything in the universe, including humans, shares life and deserves greatest respect […] cosmos is not an object, physical reality, or a mechanical entity; cosmos is a dynamic and ever-changing interpretive reality, which reflects human understanding, sense-making and interpretation of the universe” (Savelyeva 2017 , pp. 511–512).

Another more recent Korean philosophy, highly influenced by Neo-Confucianism, but also based on, e.g., Taoism and Buddhism, is called Donghak (=Eastern learning). Moon ( 2017 ) describes that in Donghak the interconnection and equal relations between God, human, nature, and cosmos go beyond the anthropocentric understanding of any human-nature relations. Similarly, Wang ( 2016 ) has discussed Taoism and Buddhism in relation to the concepts of self-realization and the ecological self-according to ecosophy , the eco-living philosophy developed by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. It is strongly influenced by Buddhist traditions and can be explained as a lifestyle that incorporates ecological harmony and ecological wisdom.

Recently, De Angelis ( 2018 )—in the context of sustainability—compared Buddhist/Eastern spiritual perspectives and indigenous-community learning with alternative Western thinking such as transformative learning theory (Sterling 2011 ) and Dewey’s experience-thinking (see further below). De Angelis ( 2018 ) proposes that they all—to a higher or lower degree—share the notions of inner experience , oneness of reality , and moral sustainable values . Other similarities are awareness of context and a holistic orientation . She writes: “human beings are seen as strictly interconnected and co-existing with nature and their self-development is conceived in harmonious terms with it” (p. 184). Values, feelings, and emotions are seen as significantly contributing to various transformative processes. Furthermore, she emphasizes that her intention is to give “a voice to ‘other’ ways of perceiving the relationship between humans and the environment” (p. 189).

As indicated with the examples above, many of the ideas that are characteristic of Eastern philosophies and indigenous knowledge (according to Table 4 ) can also be found in some alternative Western thinking. Examples include holistic thinking, an integrated worldview, and respect for all living things. Below, we more in detail describe the following three interrelated philosophical directions of alternative Western thinking: (a) a post-human version of the European notion of Bildung , (b) phenomenology and embodied knowledge, and (c) network-thinking, respectively:

Post-human Bildung : In Central and Northern Europe, there is a philosophical and educational tradition called Bildung (Sjöström et al. 2017 ). It was in its modern educational meaning coined in Germany in the late eighteenth century and then spread to Scandinavia. However, the real origins of the concept can be traced back to the Middle Age, when it had theological and spiritual connotations (Horlacher 2016 ; Reichenbach 2016 ). Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) introduced the term as early as in the late thirteenth century when he translated the Bible from Latin into German. He used it as a term for transcending “natural existence and reach real humanity” (Horlacher 2016 , p. 8). Then it took roughly five hundred years until the term started to be used in educational contexts, meaning self-formation. The rooting of Bildung in Romanticism was later intertwined with contemporary ideas of Enlightenment (Reichenbach 2014 ). It became also connected to morality and virtue, or in one word to humanity (Reichenbach 2016 ).

Generally, the following five historical elements of Bildung can be identified:

Biological-organic growth process (self-knowledge is a prerequisite for humanism)

Religious elements (transparency for a spiritual world in contrast to only materialism)

Connection to ancient cultures

Enlightenment thoughts (forming informed and useful democratic citizens)

Socio-political dimension (emancipation)

The two main elements of Bildung are autonomous self-formation and reflective and responsible societal (inter)actions. Most versions of Bildung are highly influenced by Western modernism (Sjöström 2018 ), although alternatives, which in a way connect to the roots of the concept, have developed during the last two decades. Rucker and Gerónimo ( 2017 ) have theoretically connected the concept to the complexity and some scholars have started to discuss it from postmodern, post-human, and sustainability perspectives, where both relations and responsibility are emphasized (e.g., Taylor 2017 ; Sjöström 2018 ; Rowson 2019 ). Taylor ( 2017 ) asked if a post-humanist Bildung is possible and she seems to think so:

A posthuman Bildung is a lifelong task of realizing one’s responsibility within an ecology of world relations, it occurs outside as well as inside formal education, in virtual as well as’real’ places. [… It] is a matter of spirituality and materiality which means that it is not an ‘inner process’ but an educative practice oriented to making a material difference in the world. [… It is] education as an ethico-onto-epistemological quest for (better ways of) knowing-in-becoming. (pp. 432–433)

With many similarities to the Eastern thoughts of co-living, and just like “ecosophy” in a Western context, two of us have discussed what we call eco-reflexive Bildung (Sjöström et al. 2016 ). It adds an eco-dimension to critical-reflexive Bildung and has similarities to the cosmoanthropic view described above as well as to Donghak . These ideas have in common the view of life and society as interdependent and an inseparable whole.

Phenomenology and embodied knowledge: The discussion about Bildung connects to the second alternative Western idea, which is life-world phenomenology and connected embodied experiences (Bengtsson 2013 ). These ideas are based on philosophical thinking originating from the philosophers Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and Husserl. Bengtsson ( 2013 ) describes this understanding by the view that the life of the individual and the world is interdependent and that the lived body is a subject of experiencing, acting, understanding, and being in the world. John Dewey had similar thoughts about the experience (Retter 2012 ) and Brickhouse ( 2001 ) has emphasized the importance of an embodied science education, which overcomes the body-mind dualism.

Related to this, some science education scholars have emphasized the role of wonder, esthetic experience, romantic understanding, and environmental awareness in science education (e.g., Dahlin et al. 2009 ; Hadzigeorgiou and Schulz 2014 ; Østergaard 2017 ). Hadzigeorgiou and Schulz ( 2014 ) focused on the following six ideas: (1) the emotional sensitivity towards nature, (2) the centrality of sense experience, (3) the importance of holistic experiences, (4) the importance of the notions of mystery and wonder, (5) the power of science to transform people’s outlook on the natural world, and (6) the importance of the relationship between science and philosophy. These six ideas are related to “relations between self, others and nature” and to Dewey’s esthetic (phenomenological existence) and reflective (pragmatic existence) experience (Quay 2013 ). It can also be described by “being-in-the-world” and “a total, relational whole” (p. 148).

Dahlin et al. ( 2009 ) have argued for a phenomenological perspective on science and science education and they discussed how it can foster students’ rooting (see also Østergaard et al. 2008 ). By phenomenology, they emphasized that all human experiences are important and that “subject and object must be seen as belonging together, as two aspects of one (non-dualistic) whole” (Dahlin et al. 2009 , p. 186). Furthermore, they are critical to cognitionism and technisation and instead emphasize the rich complexity of nature and lived experience. In contrast to both constructivism and sociocultural learning, they describe phenomenology to be more open to esthetic, ethical, and moral dimensions of science. These views have similarities to Eastern philosophies and indigenous knowledge.

Network-thinking: The third alternative and related Western idea is network-thinking by, e.g., the French sociologist Michael Callon (born 1945) and the French philosopher Bruno Latour (born 1947). A conflict between modernism and postmodernism in science education has been identified by Blades ( 2008 ). This tension is related to the tension between views in traditional science education versus more progressive views in the area of environmental education (Dillon 2014 ). In an article about emancipation in science education, Zembylas ( 2006 ) discussed the philosophy of meta-reality by Roy Bhaskar. He claimed that Bhaskar’s ideas offer an interesting alternative to modernist and postmodernist accounts. Bhaskar viewed everything as connected—humans, nonhumans, and “things.” These thoughts are similar to some thinking of actor-network theory developed by, e.g., Callon and Latour. In Latour’s networks, knowledge and power are not separable and he claims that it is not possible to stay outside a field of competing networks for giving an objective description of the state of affairs. Latour ( 2004 ) introduced the concept matters of concern to refer to the highly complex, uncertain, and risky state of affairs in which human and non-human entities are intimately entangled.

Network-oriented science education focuses on interactive relational production of knowledge. Colucci-Gray and Camino ( 2014 ) write about “science of relationships” and “epistemic and reflexive knowledge” (see also Colucci-Gray et al. 2013 ). More recently, the same authors suggested activities that aim at developing reflexivity about the individual’s position in the global, ecological web. They related it to the thinking of Gandhi and emphasized ideas such as non-duality and interdependency, and relational ways of knowing (Colucci-Gray and Camino 2016 ). Except for cognitive and social development, they also emphasized emotional and spiritual development. On the question what should be the narratives of science education, they answered non-human relationships, interactions between science, values and learning, embodied experiences, and interdisciplinarity. In addition to Gandhi’s philosophy they also refer to ecosophy and different Eastern traditions.

Brayboy and Maughan ( 2009 ) have pointed out that the objective for most culturally relevant science learning is not to put indigenous knowledge and Western modern science in opposition to one another, but instead to extend knowledge systems and find value and new perspectives for teaching and learning from both. This is aligned with the perspective of two-eyed seeing as a means to build bridges and “to help these cultures find ways to live in mutual respect of each other’s strengths and ways” (Hatcher et al. 2009 , p. 146): “Through two-eyed seeing students may learn to see from one eye with the strengths of indigenous ways of knowing and from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing.” McKeon ( 2012 ) used the perspective of “two-eyed seeing” for weaving the knowledge from the views of non-indigenous environmental educators to enrich environmental education by indigenous understandings. The indigenous understandings are communicated through oral tradition to teach about the interconnectedness of nature and the concepts of transformation, holism, caring, and responsibility. The core ideas in environmental education (systems theory, ecological literacy, bio-philia, and place-based education) can obtain advantage from and connect to foundational values of indigenous education (Mckeon 2012 ).

4 Indigenous Knowledge in Science Education

4.1 conceptual frameworks of indigenous knowledge in science education.

Studies in constructivism opened up the science educators to understand science not only as a body of knowledge but also as a way of thinking. Indigenous science is the knowledge which reflects the indigenous way of thinking about the physical world (Abonyi et al. 2014 ). Thus, constructivism provides the opportunity for indigenous science to adjoin with Western modern scientific views. The perspective of constructivism suggests that knowledge is not a kind of thinking that can be copied between individuals, but rather has to be reconstructed by each learner (Taber 2014 ). According to Taber ( 2013 ), human learning is interpretive (a sense-making process to produce a perception of the world), incremental (integrating the existing knowledge and understanding which enable learners to make sense), and iterative (reinforces the existing interpretation). Accordingly, once learners have developed a particular understanding, then they will interpret new information according to this way of thinking and tend to learn it in a way that reinforces the existing interpretation. The indigenous ways of thinking can provide corresponding learners with a broader (more holistic) view of the world to understand science and nature beyond a non-Western perspective (Kim and Dionne 2014 ). The integration of indigenous knowledge in science education provides a holistic learning framework of the study, which make learners with an indigenous background able to understand the role of their societal and cultural context in the production of scientific knowledge (Aikenhead and Michell 2011 ). It has potential to facilitate learners to make own sense of their world and reinforces their existing interpretation of natural phenomena.

Cobern ( 1996 ) suggested that learning is the active process of constructing a conceptual framework based on the interpretation of learners’ prior knowledge, rather than the process of transmission which only make learners memorize knowledge. The interpretation is affected by the personal and culturally embedded background of knowledge of the learners that make learning processes meaningful. This view suggests building a conceptualization of scientific knowledge in which it is reasonable to expect culture-specific understandings of science (Cobern 1996 ). Accordingly, in the perspective of any learners, indigenous science can serve as a base for the construction of reality by linking culture to advance scientific knowledge (Abonyi et al. 2014 ). Moreover, incorporating indigenous knowledge in science education for all may help to reflect the different intellectual traditions of various cultures adjoined with scientific knowledge to solve relevant problems in the context of its ecological, societal, and economic ramifications.

McKinley and Stewart ( 2012 ) point out four major themes of research and development associated with integrating indigenous knowledge into science education. These are (a) equity of learning outcomes for students from non-Western backgrounds, (b) contributions of indigenous knowledge to the knowledge base of Western modern science, (c) environmental concerns over sustainability, and (d) inclusion of the nature, philosophy, and limits of science. For instance, Lowan-Trudeau ( 2012 ) developed a model based on métissage (the metis methodologies) to incorporate Western and indigenous knowledge and philosophy into ecological identities and pedagogical praxis. Métissage offers the diversity of views and experiences about nature which is required for the development of environmental education research for future generations. Environmental education researchers from all cultural backgrounds are encouraged to acknowledge and engage with indigenous knowledge, philosophies, and methodologies (Lowan-Trudeau 2012 ) .

The integration of indigenous knowledge in education should recognize indigenous frameworks and methodologies to give more attention to their history, politics, cultural beliefs, and philosophical views as well as to balance the Western perspective (Smith 1999 , 2002 ). For instance, some Maori scholars have used their frameworks and methodologies to incorporate indigenous knowledge in education. Smith ( 1999 ) suggested Kaupapa Maori as a research approach to reconstruct and recognize indigenous knowledge of Maori people rather than using mainstream research that is too Western paradigm-oriented. The term of Kaupapa Maori describes the Maori worldview that incorporates their thinking and understanding about practice and philosophy living (Smith 1997 ; Pihama and Cram 2002 ). Based on the framework and key principles of Kaupapa Maori , Maori’s scholars developed oral traditions and narrative inquiry approaches to express their experiences. Ware, Breheny, and Forster ( 2018 ) developed a Māori approach called Kaupapa Kōrero to collect, introduce, and understand Māori experiences and also interrelatedness and influence of their societal expectations, indigeneity, and culture. In school education, Lee ( 2002 ) suggested the akonga Maori framework to view Maori secondary teachers’ experiences in relation to teacher education in ways that are culturally responsive and culturally relevant to Maori students. This framework offers education providers to be more involved with Maori students in preparing them for their work in secondary schools.

In the literature, the integration of indigenous knowledge with science education has been widely distilled and packaged based on the different genres and cultures of Western modern science disciplines in the form of TEK (Afonso Nhalevilo 2013 ; Bermudez et al. 2017 ; Chandra 2014 ; Chinn 2009 ; Funk et al. 2015 ; Hamlin 2013 ; Kim and Dionne 2014 ; Kimmerer 2012 ; Sumida Huaman 2016 ; van Lopik 2012 ; Nadasdy 1999 ; Simpson 1999 ). Based on the suggested polygon framework of TEK (Houde 2007 ; Kim et al. 2017 ), it is suggested that TEK pedagogy should respect five dimensions as in the didactic model in Fig.  2 .

figure 2

TEK Polygon Framework (Kim et al. 2017 )

Using the polygon framework of TEK, Kim et al. ( 2017 ) explored current pedagogical conceptualizations of knowledge systems in science education and criticized the implication of TEK (Table 5 ).

Reflecting on the conceptualization of the TEK polygon in science education, it is suggested that TEK should be interpreted as the product of both Western modern science and indigenous knowledge because it has distilled indigenous knowledge into Western modern science framework. The two knowledge systems should complement each other, should work together, and should be acknowledged in their respective entities. It is also suggested to take certain aspects into account when incorporating indigenous knowledge in science education:

An educational approach to indigenous knowledge should give more attention to socioculture, history, and current politics of a place in addition to ecological and environmental aspects (Smith 2002 ; Ruitenberg 2005 ; Kim et al. 2017 ). This approach gives the student opportunities to learn science more authentically beyond their physical environments. From local environments, learners have a wealth of information regarding the diverse rural sociocultural and ecological connections. Avery and Hains ( 2017 ) suggest that the diverse knowledge of rural children, which is inherited by elders’ wisdom, must be respected in order to solve the complex problems in the new age of the Anthropocene. The knowledge should be cultivated to enrich science education pedagogies and practices which can be learned from individual and unique rural contexts. Moreover, supporting and valuing students’ knowledge in urban science education is also a necessity. Science education should recognize urban students’ ways of communicating and participating in order to support the effective teaching of science to students with different cultural backgrounds in urban science classrooms (Edmin Emdin 2011 ).

The pedagogy of multiculturalism of indigenous knowledge in science education must attempt to acknowledge the multiple perspective ways of knowing the differences and similarities of as well as relations of different types of knowledge systems (Ogawa 1995 ; Aikenhead 1996 ; Mueller and Tippins 2010 ; Kim and Dionne 2014 ). Kapyrka and Dockstator ( 2012 ) suggest an educational approach to encourage teachers and students to promote respective cultural understandings and collaborative solutions between indigenous and Western worldviews.

Indigenous cosmological grounding must be involved to help revitalize cultural identities for indigenous students (McGregor 2004 ; Kimmerer 2012 ). For instance, Sutherland and Swayze ( 2012 ) used the indigenous framework of Ininiwikisk n tamowin (the knowledge of the people in how we understand the Earth) as a model for science and math programs in indigenous settings. This framework was applied to a culturally relevant environmental education program, as a process of lifelong learning, and to give a broad understanding of interconnected relationships with nature, living and non-living entities in the environment and beyond (Sutherland and Swayze 2012 ).

Science education should recognize the significant wisdom values of indigenous knowledge that encompass spirituals, philosophical, worldviews, and stories of indigenous communities (Kawagley et al. 1998 ; Kawagley and Barnhardt 1998 ; McGregor 2004 ). All these aspects are necessary as a reflection on multiple perspective ways of knowing (Snively 1995 ) and as appreciation on the interconnected relationships of human and nature as well as to maintain the values of local cultural wisdom (Kasanda et al. 2005 ; de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ; Ng’asike 2011 ; Perin 2011 ).

Collaborative work with indigenous experts is needed to understand nature from an indigenous perspective (Garroutte 1999 ; Kim and Dionne 2014 ). The knowledge holders and communities must be involved to avoid diminishing or misrepresenting knowledge (Kim et al. 2017 ).

4.2 The Potential Role of Indigenous Knowledge for Transformative Education

According to the goal of twenty-first century education, Bell ( 2016 ) suggested that conventional teaching models must shift to a transformative style of education in order for humankind to learn how to live more sustainably. This implication could accommodate student transformative experiences in which they use ideas from the science classroom to see and experience the world differently in their everyday lives (Pugh et al. 2017 ). The involvement of transformative education with sustainable science has the potential to play an integral role in this paradigmatic shift, which requires the wider legitimation of our ecology as a highly interconnected system of life (Williams 2013 ). The students can use their ideas and beliefs in another way of knowing nature, which contributes to a better understanding of social, cultural, economic, political, and natural aspects of local environments. Indigenous science could provide a potential topic in pedagogical approaches for transformative education towards a sustainable future.

There exists a general agreement on the need to reform scientific expertise by developing new ways of understanding knowledge to cope with challenging sustainability issues (Sjöström et al. 2016 ). Transdisciplinary aspects of sustainability became acknowledged as a transformational stream of sustainability science (Tejedor et al. 2018 ). Indigenous science can provide one of these transdisciplinary aspects of sustainability, which proposes a different way of knowing. It has potential to provide learners with a different view of the world to understand scientific knowledge and more holistic learning, which learners make able to understand the role of the social and cultural context in the production of scientific knowledge (Aikenhead and Michell 2011 ; Kim and Dionne 2014 ).

By integrating multiple ways of knowing into science classrooms, students can learn the value of traditional ways of knowing. They can learn to utilize a conceptual eco-reflexive perspective and to acknowledge that learning and understanding are part of a complex system that includes experience, culture, and context, as well as mainstream science that is taught in class (Mack et al. 2012 ). This process can facilitate transformative experiences which encompass three characteristics: (1) motivated use (application of learning in “free-choice” contexts), (2) expansion of perception (seeing objects, events, or issues through the lens of the content), and (3) experiential value (valuing content for how it enriches everyday experience) (Pugh et al. 2017 ). The transformation of science education for learners is not merely a set of strategies related to changing learners’ behavior, changing the curriculum or pedagogy, changing definitions of science, or changing governance. Transformation of (science) education will also need to occur in the wider context to respect both indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge (Snively and Williams 2016 ).

4.3 The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Science Education for Sustainability

Despite indigenous knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries, its existence has been neglected and tended to be largely omitted from science curricula (Kibirige and van Rooyen 2006 ), as many other aspects of society and culture are (Hofstein et al. 2011 ). With the growing consideration of several problems facing the world, such as hunger, poverty, diseases, and environmental degradation, issues due to the weakness of Western modern science to overcome it has opened the insight and interest of the global community to take into account more thoroughly indigenous knowledge as a solution (Senanayake 2006 ; Odora Hoppers 2004 ). For instance, scientists have identified indigenous peoples’ practices to survive their life in nature: indigenous soil taxonomies; soil fertility; agronomic practices (terracing), such as contour banding, fallowing, organic fertilizer application, crop-rotation, and multi-cropping; conservation of soil and water; and anti-desertification practices (Atteh 1989 ; Lalonde 1993 ). Practices of indigenous pest control systems gained new interest for wide use in tropical countries. An ancient known mention of a poisonous plant having bio-pesticide activities is Azadirachta indica . This plant contains compounds which have been established as a pivotal insecticidal ingredient (Chaudhary et al. 2017 ).

The acknowledgement of the knowledge and practices of indigenous people to promote sustainable development has increased around the globe. For instance, UNESCO created the Local and Indigenous Knowledge System (LINKS) (UNESCO 2002 ). This program has a goal to explore the ways that indigenous and local knowledge systems contribute to understanding, mitigating and adapting to climate change, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss. In addition, as part of its education for a sustainable future project, UNESCO launched the Teaching and Learning for Sustainable Future: A Multimedia Teacher Education Program (UNESCO 2002 ). It provides professional development for student teachers, teachers, curriculum developers, education policymakers, and authors of educational materials. This program also encourages teachers and students to gain enhanced respect for local cultures, their wisdom and ethics, and suggests ways of teaching and learning locally relevant knowledge and skills.

The integration of an indigenous perspective in science education has been widely applied by scholars in some regions, including Africa, Australia, Asia, and America. Ogunniyi and Hewson ( 2008 ) analyzed a teacher training course in South Africa to improve the ability of teachers to integrate indigenous knowledge into their science classrooms. Ogunniyi and Ogawa ( 2008 ) addressed the challenges in the development and implementation of indigenous science curricula in Africa and Japan. In Canada, Bridging the Gap (BTG) program provides inner-city students from Winnipeg in Manitoba with culturally relevant, science-based environmental education. This program content brings together environmental education and local indigenous knowledge and pedagogies (Sutherland and Swayze 2012 ). Reintegration of indigenous knowledge into education has also been carried out for a long time in Alaska. This process was initiated by the AKRSI (Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative) program that reconstructs indigenous knowledge of Alaska people and develops pedagogical practices by incorporating indigenous ways of knowing into formal education (Barnhardt et al. 2000 ). This process aims to connect learning processes inside classroom and experience outside school so that it can broaden and deepen the students understanding as well as encouraging them to learn about traditional culture and values (Barnhardt 2007 ). Moreover, in Indonesia, there is a bold attempt to reconstruct ethnoscience to promote the values of nature conservation and develop critical self-reflection on own cultural backgrounds (Parmin et al. 2017 ; Rahmawati et al. 2017 ; Widiyatmoko et al. 2015 ). In higher education, Australian undergraduate programs implemented indigenous studies in their curricula. The results suggest that the program can promote the greater capacity for students’ skills in critical reflections (Bullen & Roberts 2019 ).

Furthermore, the integration of indigenous knowledge is also involved in science teacher’s professional development programs. Sylva et al. ( 2010 ) conducted a study to transform science teacher professional development to facilitate teachers to make the content related to the environment and agriculture science fields more relevant to Hawaiian students’ lives and backgrounds. Chinn ( 2014 ) suggested that scientific inquiry learning associated with indigenous knowledge and sustainability practices supports the development of ecological attention of teachers. In addition, long-term professional development providing situated learning through cross-cultural immersion and interdisciplinary instruction also supports teachers to develop cross-cultural knowledge and literacy (Chinn 2006 ).

The application of indigenous knowledge to promote education for sustainability in various parts of the world is recognized. Teachers and students participating in sustainability and environmental education programs, as well as science education programs, should be considered potential beneficiaries of published research on indigenous science.

5 Raising the Relevance of Science Learning Through Indigenous Knowledge

5.1 the relevance of science learning.

The term relevance in science learning has many different meanings that can be viewed from different perspectives. Relevance can be defined as students’ interest in learning (Ramsden 1998 ; Childs 2006 ; Holbrook 2005 ), usefulness or student’s needs (Keller 1983 ; Simon and Amos 2011 ), or aspects of the application of science and technology to raise welfare and sustainability in social, economic, environmental, and political issues (De Haan 2006 ; Hofstein and Kesner 2006 ; Knamiller 1984 ). Stuckey et al. ( 2013 ) attempted to formulate a comprehensive understanding of relevance in science education and suggested a model of relevance by linking different dimensions of the relevance of science education. The model encompasses three main dimensions:

Individual relevance, with an emphasis on students’ interests and the development of individual intellectual skills

Societal relevance, by facilitating the student’s competence to engage responsibly in the present and future society

Vocational relevance, by providing vocational orientation and preparation for career development

Stuckey et al. ( 2013 ) suggested curriculum development to move dynamically to accommodate the relevance of science learning in its different dimensions and aspects (Eilks and Hofstein 2015 ). Current curricula in many countries are suggested to overcome a preference for learning based on scientific principles and facts that have been done in the “Golden Age” of the science curriculum in the 1950s and 1960s (Bybee 1997 ). At that time, the curriculum was designed using a discipline-based structured approach to provide effective learning about the concepts, theories, and facts of science (Eilks et al. 2013 ). The curriculum of science at that time is today considered irrelevant for most learners as it only accommodates the emphasis in the selection and preparation of a minority of students to become scientists and engineers (De Boer 2000 ; Stuckey et al. 2013 ).

Over time, science curriculum development has undergone significant changes (Eilks et al. 2013 ). The curriculum development in late 1990 to early 2000 was done by suggesting context-based science education and creating meaningful learning for students in many countries (e.g., King and Ritchie 2012 ). The contexts used were considered relevant from the perspective of Western modern science. However, in the viewpoint of global science, relevance must be concerned with the natural and environmental phenomena described by science in various contexts and cultural forms. Different views on science should be accepted by students with respect to different environments based on cultural identity, time, and society. One of the problems experienced by students in science education in developing countries is the feeling that learning science is like recognizing foreign cultures (Maddock 1981 ) and this is also experienced by students in industrialized countries (Aikenhead 1996 ; Costa 1995 ). The phenomenon occurs due to the fundamental differences between Western modern science and the knowledge systems of many non-Western cultures (Aikenhead 1997 ; Jegede 1995 ). The same issue is also expressed by Kibirige and van Rooyen ( 2006 ) suggesting that students with indigenous backgrounds may experience a conflict between Western modern science, that they learn in school, with their indigenous knowledge. As already described above, a similar conflict can also be expected for many students with a Western background, when their “personal science view” differ from the views of mainstream Western science (Ogawa 1995 ; Hansson 2014 ). Surely this is a challenge for researchers and educators who want to reach the goal of relevant science education for all students by bridging the difference between student’s experiences in their cultural context and the world of Western science.

5.2 Indigenous Knowledge as a Socio-scientific and Cultural Context to Accommodate Relevance in Science Education

In order to realize relevant science education in a contemporary view, it is necessary to consider socio-scientific and cultural contexts in science education (Stuckey et al. 2013 ; Sjöström et al. 2017 ; Sjöström 2018 ). As Ogawa ( 1995 ) emphasizes, every culture has its own science called “indigenous science.” Thus, every student must become aware of his individual, personal “indigenous” knowledge to constructs his knowledge of Western science. The focus of learning cannot be restricted to provide the student scientifically acceptable information, but should be to help students understand the concepts and explore the differences and similarities between their ideas, beliefs, values, and experiences with modern science concepts (Snively and Corsiglia 2000 ). The same view is also affirmed by Abonyi ( 1999 ) who stated that current instructional approaches in science education, which often do not take into consideration prior cultural beliefs, will lack in a contribution to students’ interest in science. In consequence, it might negatively influence students’ understanding and attitudes towards science learning (Alshammari et al. 2015 ).

The introduction of indigenous knowledge in the classroom can represent different cultural backgrounds of the learners and might improve their interpretation of knowledge (Botha 2012 ). It might have the potential to make science learning more relevant to students in culturally diverse classrooms (de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ). Related to this, Hayes et al. ( 2015 ) stated that societal culture has a major impact on the functioning of schools and the complexity of factors which affects the way schools teach science. The incorporation of indigenous knowledge into school curricula has the potential to enable students to gain further experiences and develop corresponding attitudes towards science. In the same time, it might help indigenous students to maintain the values of their local cultural wisdom (Kasanda et al. 2005 ; de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ; Ng’asike 2011 ; Perin 2011 ). Another goal of integrating indigenous knowledge in classroom learning is to reduce the notion that learning science is “strange” from the students’ own point of views by providing insights that views on science and nature can be different from culture to culture (Mashoko 2014 ). Knowledge can be seen as a dynamic process within the context of sociocultural and ecological relations. Accordingly, knowledge is not sourced only from the teachers but can be found in the experience of the students living, which is a prominent feature of the rural experiential environment (Avery and Hains 2017 ). Kawagley et al. ( 1998 ) contended that although indigenous ways of knowing are different from the Western way of thinking, their knowledge is scientific and relevant to the current situation because it is obtained from the results of long-term environmental observations combined with experiments in a natural setting. Indigenous science for science learning is relevant for students because they can learn traditional knowledge and skills that are still relevant to today’s life, as well as to find values and apply new insights to their practice which is essential for their survival (Kawagley et al. 1998 ; Barnhardt and Kawagley 2008 ).

Students bring ideas and beliefs based on their previous experiences in the classroom. The differences in cultural backgrounds cause them interpret the concept of science differently from a common scientific view. Accordingly, the exploration of multicultural science learning is required that brings students’ prior knowledge into the classroom. In many cases, the cultural aspect of the multicultural science context is important because it plays a role in providing valuable scientific knowledge and is also a pedagogical bridge linked mainly to multicultural students of science (Atwater and Riley 1993 ; Hodson 1993 ; Stanley and Brickhouse 1994 ). The relevant approach to this goal is by developing culturally sensitive curricula and teaching methods that integrate indigenous knowledge—and the variety of different cultural views—into the science curriculum (Aikenhead and Jegede 1999 ).

Zimmerman and Weible ( 2017 ) developed science learning curricula based on the sociocultural conceptualization of learning with specific consideration of place to understand how students’ rural experiences intersect with school-based learning. They suggested that education which focuses only on scientific concepts is not enough to support young people to become representative of their community. The learners need support in methods of presenting evidence and arguments, which can be facilitated in science classroom to convince key stakeholders in their rural community. This is important to make science learning meaningful and can lead to the development of various kinds of environmental meanings as learning outcomes.

Snively and Williams ( 2016 ) suggest that science educators must strive to design new curricula that represent a balanced perspective. Furthermore, they should expose students to multiple ways of understanding science. Indigenous perspectives have the potential to give insight and guidance to the kind of environmental ethics and deep understanding that we must gain as we attempt to solve the increasingly complex problems of the twenty-first century. For instance, the empirical study of the integration of indigenous perspective in science education has become a model of science education in Canada, with sustainability at its core (Fig.  3 ) (Murray 2015 ). Sustainability sciences should provide a balanced approach to how society alters the physical environment and how the state of the environment shapes society (Snively and Williams 2016 ).

figure 3

Three dimensions of science education with the sustainability sciences as the foundation, as described in this didactic model by (Murray 2015 )

Murray ( 2015 ) emphasized in a magazine article that the focus of sustainability sciences is not merely on environmental science. It should also recognize science outside of environmental, citizenship, and cultural contexts. Therefore, it is important to make strong connections among the pure sciences, sustainability issues, socio-scientific issues, and the relevance of the curriculum (Murray 2015 ; Stuckey et al. 2013 ). According to Fig. 3 , sustainability sciences can integrate multiple perspectives on science worldviews and accommodate the three dimensions of the relevance of science education (individual, societal, and vocational relevance). In this case, indigenous science can be a source for socio-scientific and cultural issues which promote the relevance of science education. Accordingly, new pedagogical approaches should address indigenous science in order to enhance the relevance of science learning as well as to promote sustainable development.

As can be seen in Fig. 3 , Murray ( 2015 ) uses the term Vision III for multiple perspectives on scientific worldviews and indigenous systems of knowing, complementing Western traditions. This is included in our previous use of the term, although our Vision III of scientific literacy and science education is even broader in scope (Sjöström and Eilks 2018 ). Our view is inspired by an eco-reflexive understanding of Bildung . It describes a socio-political-philosophical vision of science education aiming at dialogical emancipation, critical global citizenship, and socio-ecojustice. This has consequences for the science curriculum that needs to incorporate more thoroughly societal perspectives—under inclusion of indigenous perspectives—and needs to incorporate stronger socio-scientific issue–based science education of a “hot” type (Simonneaux 2014 ). Controversial, relevant, and authentic socio-scientific issues, e.g., from the sustainability debate, shall become the drivers for the curriculum (Simonneaux and Simonneaux 2012 ). Corresponding research, curriculum development, and teacher continuous professional development need to be intensified. Recently, Sjöström ( 2018 ) discussed eco-reflexive Bildung - and a Vision III–driven science education as an alternative to science education based on Western modernism. It integrates cognitive and affective domains and includes complex socio-scientific and environmental issues, but also philosophical-moral-political-existential and indigenous perspectives more in general.

Recent pedagogical approaches involving socio-scientific issues to teach science imply the role of science and technology for society, both present and future (Marks and Eilks 2009 ; Sadler 2011 ). Students are suggested to develop general skills facilitated by science education to achieve the goals of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (Eilks et al. 2013 ). In ESD-type curricula, learning encompasses the reflection and interaction of the application of science in its societal, economic, and ecological contexts (Burmeister et al. 2012 ; De Haan 2006 ; Wheeler 2000 ). ESD in connection with science education is suggested to have the potential to contribute to personal, societal, and vocational science teaching (Stuckey et al. 2013 ). It is relevant for individual action, e.g., in cases involving consumption of resources, participation in societal debates about issues of sustainable development, or careers related to sustainable chemistry and technology (Eilks and Hofstein 2014 ; Sjöström et al. 2015 ). Reflections on indigenous knowledge and its relatedness to Western modern science can form another focus in this selection of cases, especially if it becomes locally and regionally relevant.

Khaddoor et al. (2017) emphasized that the picture of science represented in many textbooks all over the world often neglects its societal and cultural components, and restricts it to a Western view on the history of science. Addressing indigenous knowledge in the framework of ESD, to promote relevant science education, may help students recognizing the intimate connection between humans and nature in culture. It would create science learning directly relevant to daily life and society along with regional-specific examples, but could also lead to intercultural learning. Moreover, it could facilitate authentic science experiences, which engage students with cultural-historical views (Roth et al. 2008a ).

6 Research Frameworks and Didactic Models for Adopting Indigenous Science in Science Education

There are different foci of research on integrating indigenous science in science education. Some scholars suggest attention to empirical research in anthropological and psychological paradigms. This research tries to investigate the process of knowledge transition from a student’s life-world into science classrooms, which forms a cross-cultural experience (Aikenhead and Jegede 1999 ). The research focuses on conceptualized transition as “cultural border crossing” (Aikenhead 1996 ) and cognitive conflicts arising from different cultural settings (Jegede 1995 ). They need to be addressed and resolved as “collateral learning.” Research suggests investigating the nature of student’s prior knowledge and beliefs about scientific phenomena when exposed to a cross-cultural topic (Herbert 2008 ).

Other research aims to design instructional approaches that introduce indigenous science into the science classroom. Abonyi ( 1999 ) explored the effect of ethnoscience-based instructional approaches on student’s conception of scientific phenomena and attitudes towards science. The study aimed to resolve the cognitive conflicts of African students as a result of differences between their cultural background and Western science. In a similar approach, Aikenhead ( 2001 ) developed instructional strategies by involving the aboriginal community. The strategies involved the discussion about local content with elders and the aboriginal community to construct an aboriginal science education framework. Key values as a context for integration were identified. However, conflict arose when students faced the problem of taking information from one knowledge system and placing it into another. Also contextualization by indigenous science is a topic of research and development (Chandra 2014 ; Hamlin 2013 ; Kimmerer 2012 ; Sumida Huaman 2016 ; van Lopik 2012 ). Sometimes, indigenous science is used to contextualize curricula. This approach is suggested to be appropriate to accommodate sociocultural demands in science curricula as well as to meet students’ perception of relevance. However, it is necessary to consider the students’ perspectives about scientific phenomena formed by the two different knowledge systems (indigenous science and Western modern science) to avoid misconceptions and conflicts that can arise. The systemic evidence and research-based development of the curriculum is suggested to construct a reliable knowledge framework to fit indigenous science with currently operated science education curricula.

To introduce indigenous knowledge as content and contexts into science education, a multidiscipline view on science education is needed. For this, didactic models and theories might be useful. According to Duit ( 2015 , p. 325), Didaktik “stands for a multifaceted view of planning and performing the instruction. It is based on the German concept of Bildung [… and] concerns the analytical process of transposing (and transforming) human knowledge (the cultural heritage) into knowledge for schooling that contributes to Bildung .” It is suggested that didactic models can help teachers in their didactic choices (why? what? how? to teach). Furthermore, they can be useful in the design, action, and analysis of teaching, but also for critical meta-reflection about for instance teaching traditions. When used systematically, they can also be helpful in teacher professional development and have potential to contribute to research-informed teaching (Duit 2015 ).

Duit ( 2007 ) also has emphasized that multiple reference disciplines are relevant to understand and design science education. The reference disciplines are suggested to support science education research and development. These reference disciplines include the sciences, philosophy, and history of science, pedagogy, and psychology, and furthermore (Fig.  4 ). We suggest that local wisdom of indigenous science—where appropriate—could be named as a further reference discipline, or it could be understood implicitly as being part of science (incorporating also its non-Western body of knowledge), the history and philosophy of science (referring to the different history and maybe varying philosophy of non-Western science), and aspects of sociology, anthropology, and ethics.

figure 4

A model of reference disciplines for science education (Duit 2007 )

A research-based model to dig into the content and context of indigenous knowledge for science education is the Model of Educational Reconstruction (MER) (Duit et al. 2005 ). This model links (1) the analysis of content structure, (2) research on teaching and learning, and (3) development and evaluation of instruction. It may also provide a framework to allow an educational reconstruction of indigenous science content in such a way that the resulting instruction meets students’ perspectives, abilities, and needs. Incorporating indigenous science perspective by educational reconstruction might provide a complex representation of indigenous science for education. The complexity may result from the integrated environmental, social, and idiosyncratic contexts, in order to demonstrate their role for the life of the individual in society. The integration of indigenous science as a sociocultural context for scientific questions can also provide social demand in science learning. Diethelm et al. ( 2012 ) and Grillenberger et al. ( 2016 ) adapted social demands in educational construction to develop the innovative topic of computer science. This approach suggests identifying social demands that are relevant for students to cope with requirements that society puts on them in their everyday lives. Transferred to the aspect of indigenous knowledge in science education, a resulting didactic model might look as suggested in Fig.  5 .

figure 5

Educational design framework to incorporate indigenous knowledge with science education (developed based on: Diethelm et al. 2012 )

Based on the educational design framework, any phenomenon or process from indigenous science in question shall be analyzed both from the Western and indigenous perspectives. The analysis can provide a different view on one’s own knowledge system as well as it has the potential to enrich both perspectives to create a thoughtful dialog (Stephens 2000 ). The context and content relevant to the }indigenous science issue, which are contrasted by the Western view on the phenomenon/process, are analyzed based on the three perspectives Western modern science, students, and teachers. The analysis is suggested to facilitate the process of elementarization and the construction of the scientific content structure for instruction that can be enriched by putting it into contexts that are accessible for the learners (Duit 2007 ). The indigenous perspective on the phenomenon/process has potential to offer authentic contexts for science learning and encompasses sociocultural aspects from local wisdom values (e.g., tradition, beliefs, ethics, supernatural) (Pauka et al. 2005 ; Rist and Dahdouh-Guebas 2006 ) as well as from sustainability values (e.g., nature conservation and adapting to climate change) (Snively and Corsiglia 2000 ; Snively and Williams 2016 ). It is necessary to analyze also the social demands of educational significance of the context generated from the indigenous perspective. It offers a chance to reflect Western views on science and nature in science education for contributing to the development of more balanced and holistic worldviews as well as the development of intercultural understanding and respect (Brayboy and Maughan 2009 ; Hatcher et al. 2009 ; de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ). Moreover, the indigenous ways of knowing can be used as starting points and anchors for scientific knowledge (Roth et al. 2008b ). Thus, the indigenous ways of knowing might also help to shape the knowledge already held in Western societies. The investigation of teachers’ and students’ perspective on indigenous knowledge is needed in order to identify their attitude, belief, and experiences towards the system of knowledge (Cronje et al. 2015 ; Fasasi 2017 ). The analysis also provides valuable information to avoid the conflict that could arise when the learners face different knowledge systems.

For the purpose of curriculum design, different perspectives (science, students, teachers, and society) are suggested to be analyzed to identify suitable content, contexts, and phenomena/processes for teaching about indigenous science. The structure in Fig. 5 takes into consideration that Diethelm et al. ( 2012 ) added two significant components to the original educational reconstruction model by Duit et al. ( 2005 ). One component is that contexts and phenomena are integrated, which suggest that science learning should start from a “real-world” phenomenon embedded in a context to open connections to prior experience of the student. This aims at encouraging students’ interest, and to show application situations of the intended knowledge. The second improvement is the analysis of social demands, which is a very important step to consider the educational significance of intended learning content, especially when it comes to integrating indigenous knowledge as part of a society’s wisdom other than Western modern science. The social demands might differ substantially in different places and cultures (countries, school, rural, or city areas). Accordingly, it is necessary to assess the educational significance of a certain topic respecting the specific circumstances, especially if it is culturally bounded. Analysis of social demands is a very important step to identify the educational significance of a certain topic (Diethelm et al. 2012 ). In the context of indigenous science, the analysis could be emphasized on the role of indigenous ways of knowing to promote education for sustainability. By drawing on indigenous knowledge, the issues connected to sustainability education can be included in the curriculum to provide an essential context for learning science.

The analysis of the science content structure informs how the phenomenon can be explained scientifically as well as to determine the required knowledge needed to understand the phenomenon or process (Diethelm et al. 2012 ). This step decides which concepts of modern science have to be dealt with in the lesson (Diethelm et al. 2012 ; Grillenberger et al. 2016 ). Meanwhile, the investigation of the students’ perspectives includes their cognitive and affective perspectives (Diethelm et al. 2012 ; Kattmann et al. 1996 ). The aim is to find out more general perspectives of certain groups of learners and different conceptualizations that students have when explaining scientific phenomena, concepts, or methods. Diethelm et al. ( 2012 ) considered this perspective an “official” scientific view, even if it was correct or not. The teachers’ perspective is needed as a key factor for the learning design and its implementation. This is because every teacher has different domain-specific knowledge and attitudes. In order to investigate the perspective of the student and teachers’ perspective about the phenomena of indigenous science, Snively ( 1995 ) introduced a five-step approach for exploring the two perspectives (Western science and indigenous science), when teaching about one concept or topic of interest. The process includes the following: (1) choose the topic of interest, (2) identify personal knowledge, (3) research the various perspectives, (4) reflect, and (5) evaluate the process (Table 6 ). This approach emphasized that discussion of the two perspectives might interpret the scientific phenomena differently, but the learner should see the overlap and reinforce each other.

The selection of phenomena is the central focus of the suggested framework in Fig. 5 . It emphasizes that learning science—as one out of different options—can start from a relevant indigenous context. Accordingly, certain phenomena should be perceived with senses and ideally have a surprising or mysterious element and thus triggers curiosity (Grillenberger et al. 2016 ). Indigenous science contains scientific phenomena embedded with spirits, magic, religion, and personal experiences (Pauka et al. 2005 ). Spiritual aspects of indigenous society are not used as religious instruction in the curriculum, but as an acknowledgement of the responsibility and dependence of living beings on ecosystems and respect for the mysteries of the universe (Kawagley et al. 1998 ). It can provide an interesting topic for the students as well as encourage them to explore local wisdom behind the scientific phenomena. Indigenous ways of knowing can become starting points and anchors for useful scientific knowledge (Roth et al. 2008b ). Figure 5 suggests that indigenous science deals with scientific phenomena to be explained by science. Furthermore, the scientific phenomena are embedded in a particular cultural context that can be used to encourage students to explore the differences and similarities between their ideas, beliefs, values, and experiences between those coming from indigenous knowledge and Western science, respectively.

Design and arrangement of learning should include development and implementation as well as reflection of teacher and student experience. This process identifies ideas and concepts relevant for teaching as well as it includes developing design principles. The reflection can be repeated in order to suit the learning environments to the particular demands of a given setting (Grillenberger et al. 2016 ). For the process of design and development, Diethelm et al. ( 2012 ) proposed the Berlin Model of planning processes (e.g., Zierer and Seel 2012 ; Duit 2015 ), which encompasses four different decision areas: intentions (objectives, competencies, outcomes), content (topics, knowledge), teaching methods, and media. In the development of learning design, it should be considered the pedagogical approach which accommodates the relevance of science learning for learners as well as to promote sustainability. Eilks et al. ( 2013 ) used ESD-type curricula to develop the general skills of students facilitated by science education to achieve the goals of education for sustainable development. This pedagogical approach also involved socio-scientific issues to raise relevance in science learning that implicates the role of science and technology for society both present and future (Marks and Eilks 2009 ). Burmeister et al. ( 2012 ) pointed out four different basic models to implement issues of sustainable development into science education:

Adopting principles from sustainable practices in science and technology to the science education laboratory work

Adding sustainable science as content in science education

Using controversial sustainability issues for socio-scientific issues which drive science education.

Science education as a part of sustainability-driven school development

Models 2 (context-based) and 3 (socio-scientific issues-based) seem suitable for the integration of indigenous science context into science education. Indigenous science can provide the contexts for science learning with a view on sustainability when learners at the same time explore the Western science perspective related to the indigenous way of knowing and behind any natural phenomena. Moreover, students can be encouraged with socio-scientific issues (SSI) relevant to indigenous people including a discussion of differences in the ways indigenous and Western science, respectively, view natural phenomena, how modern Western and indigenous people develop solutions, and the reasons why they do so. This can establish a base for discussion about environmental and technological issues between people with (post-)modern Western and indigenous thinking for establishing sustainable societies (Snively and Williams 2016 ).

Accordingly, the SSI approach in the learning activity should give more attention to students’ soft skill development such as argumentation (Belova et al. 2015 ), decision-making (Feierabend and Eilks 2011 ), reasoning skills (Sadler and Zeidler 2005 ), and using appropriate information (Belova et al. 2015 ). In sociocultural means, for instance, it is about using the argumentation-based course to enhance the understanding of different worldviews (nature of science and indigenous knowledge) in global awareness of the impact of scientific, technological, and industrial activities on the environment (Ogunniyi and Hewson 2008 ). Another example is the discussion about the controversial issue regarding Western and traditional medicine. It can be discussed in terms of reflection on the moral principles that underpin science (de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ) and can be useful to develop argumentation and reasoning skills.

The integration of indigenous knowledge in science education also should consider the learning objectives based on the different target of educational level (school science, higher education, and across educational levels). In school science, some studies used context-based learning about indigenous knowledge to motivate and foster interest in science learning (Abonyi 2002 ; Hiwatig 2008 ; Fasasi 2017 ). This approach also could lead to intercultural understanding and respect in science learning (Brayboy and Maughan 2009 ; Hatcher et al. 2009 ; de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ), as stated by Burford et al. ( 2012 ) as interculturality, which means “the inherent equality of different knowledge systems is acknowledged, with collaborative decision-making and an awareness of learning together towards share goals” (p. 33). In terms of sustainability, the learning attention should emphasize to bring together indigenous and non-indigenous students to learn about the environments, respecting their each culture, and educating future citizens to make wise decisions regarding long-term sustainable communities and environments (Snively and Williams 2016 ). This is, however, not limited to the inclusion of indigenous knowledge but should aim at all the different cultures present in multicultural classrooms.

In higher education, indigenous perspectives can contribute to greener science (e.g., ethnochemistry, ethnobotany, ethnomedicine). This includes learning about other substances and processes adopted from indigenous science, which are also in the focus of green chemistry (e.g., Sjöström and Talanquer 2018 ) and green agriculture. For instance, it can involve learning activities that involves the discussion about the development of highly effective biodegradable pesticides from neem tree oil ( Azadirachta indica ) by East Indian and North African peoples over 2000 years ago (Snively and Williams 2016 ). The information about biodegradable pesticide compounds from the neem tree could be used as a starting point to develop green chemistry lab activities. Across the educational levels, the focus of learning can give more emphasis on the nature of science views (more transdisciplinary and holistic), which parallels the discussion on sustainable and green science. The learning activity must shift to a transformative style by using ideas from the science classroom and multi-perspective views about sustainable science to see and experience the world differently in learner everyday lives (Murray 2015 ; Pugh et al. 2017 ). Accordingly, transformative education should be driven to reform the existing ways of knowing and understanding, to critically reflect on the values, beliefs, and worldviews that underpin them as well as to share the meanings that can contribute to sustainability (Sjöström et al. 2016 ; Tejedor et al. 2018 ; Mack et al. 2012 ).

7 Conclusion

Indigenous knowledge about nature and science generally differs from the traditional and dominant Western modern view of science in research and technical applications (Nakashima and Roué 2002 ; Iaccarino 2003 ; Mazzocchi 2006 ). It provides a different, alternative perspective on nature and the human in nature on its own right (Murfin 1994 ; Ogawa 1995 ) and therefore becomes authentic to persons having an indigenous background. It is also interesting that—more or less—similar ideas to the local wisdom of indigenous science also exist in Eastern spiritual thinking and alternative Western thinking. Such ideas are relevant to promote intercultural and intergenerational understanding and respect (Brayboy and Maughan 2009 ; Hatcher et al. 2009 ; de Beer and Whitlock 2009 ). From the discussion provided in this paper, it is suggested to carefully adopt views on and from indigenous knowledge into science education. Indigenous knowledge can provide further perspectives on nature and help us to reflect the nature of science. It offers rich contexts to initiate learning and connect science education with more holistic worldviews needed for promoting sustainability (e.g., Aikenhead and Michell 2011 ; Kim and Dionne 2014 ; Kim et al. 2017 ).

There is a lot of literature justifying a more thorough inclusion of culture into (science) education (e.g., Savelyeva 2017 ; Moon 2017 ; Wang 2016 ; Sjöström et al. 2017 ; Sjöström 2018 ). Justifications can be derived from different sources, like the concept of Bildung (Sjöström et al. 2017 ), as shown above. Indigenous cultures can play a role by strengthening the cultural component of science education (Hatcher et al. 2009 ; Murray 2015 ). For this, research on indigenous knowledge in science needs to be analyzed with respect to its potential for science education. It might be educationally reconstructed for integrating it into science teaching and learning. Here we have presented some frameworks and didactic models for how to elaborate on and design science education for sustainability that take indigenous knowledge and related non-Western and alternative Western ideas into consideration. Further work needs to focus on evidence-based curriculum development in science education on the integration of indigenous knowledge. This development, however, needs special care and sensitivity because it deals with different cultures, worldviews, and ethical considerations. Further discussion might also include aspects of the historical development of indigenous knowledge, the history of colonialism, and the long-term effects colonialism still has on societies and science education in many parts of the world (e.g., Boisselle 2016 ; Ryan 2008 ). Such a discussion, just like the discussion in this paper, needs respect to indigenous communities; if possible, it could be done in cooperation and exchange with persons from the corresponding communities.

Change history

13 march 2021.

A Correction to this paper has been published: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-021-00194-2

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We are grateful for the support afforded by the Islamic Development Bank and the Indonesian Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Indonesia.

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Zidny, R., Sjöström, J. & Eilks, I. A Multi-Perspective Reflection on How Indigenous Knowledge and Related Ideas Can Improve Science Education for Sustainability. Sci & Educ 29 , 145–185 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-019-00100-x

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The Importance of Studying History Essay

The saying goes that those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it. The last few years have proven that is far more than just a cliché. History encompasses every other subject that is taught and every lesson that is learned. The danger of avoiding knowledge is far greater than the effort it requires to learn. Those who avoid studying history because it is boring or doesn’t affect them today are only setting themselves up for an avoidable failure tomorrow. History can enrich one’s life far more than most of the entertainments that take people away from it in contemporary society.

An excellent example of how history can be a benefit to one—could even possibly save one’s career or even one’s life—is being played out on a world stage. The fallout from the current war in Iraq, both political and otherwise, could have avoided. The deterioration of the situation there could have been predicted by anyone who has cracked open a history book. The fall of Saddam Hussein as the ruler of Iraq is eerily analogous to the situation that befell the Balkans following the death of communist dictator Marshall Tito. Like Iraq, Yugoslavia was a nation of warring factions that were held together primarily through the strong arm of a ruthless leader. When Tito died the country disintegrated into a civil war that claimed millions of lives. Iraq, to anyone paying attention, held the same promise. Had someone inside Pres. Bush’s White House merely done an internet search on Yugoslavian history, Bush’s career as well as the lives of thousands might have been saved.

History also enriches one’s life by giving a sense of place and heritage. Unless you know where you came from, you can’t know where you are going. It is important to understand the structure of time that has led us to where we are. Too often people make foolish statements while claiming to have great knowledge. It may be as meaningless as saying they know who originally sung a popular song when in fact they are referring to a later cover version, or it can be as vital as knowing the history of the Middle East so you no longer make the ridiculous claim that Islam is responsible for all the horrors and violence that are taking place today. Without knowing the history of the Crusades and the religious intolerance of the Christians, too many people today live under the delusion that the violence of Muslim terrorists is occurring in some kind of vacuum. Learning history helps to connect the dots to better understand the course of events that have brought us to this place.

History is the subject that binds all else together. Studying music or science or engineering is fine, but one is missing vital elements if they don’t fully appreciate where the knowledge that they have access to today came from. Without understanding the path that brought men to the state of knowledge at his access today, there is also the risk of repeating the mistakes that delayed the introduction of that knowledge. Everything is done in shifts; all knowledge is accomplished over time and through trial and error. If we avoid history, we tend to avoid learning about the error and the trials. And by doing that we increase the chances of wasting time with our trials made as to the result of unnecessary errors. History is the timeline of man’s accomplishments. To avoid learning about it is to suggest that we have learned nothing of value at all.

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What is art history and where is it going?

Peter Paul Rubens, three paintings from the 24-picture cycle Rubens painted for the Medici Gallery in the Luxembourg Palace, Paris. From left to right: Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV, Arrival (or Disembarkation) of Marie de’ Medici at Marseilles, 1621–25, oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Peter Paul Rubens, three paintings from the 24-picture cycle Rubens painted for the Medici Gallery in the Luxembourg Palace, Paris. From left to right: Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici , The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV , Arrival (or Disembarkation) of Marie de’ Medici at Marseilles , 1621–25, oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Art history might seem like a relatively straightforward concept: “art” and “history” are subjects most of us first studied in elementary school. In practice, however, the idea of “the history of art” raises complex questions. What exactly do we mean by art, and what kind of history (or histories) should we explore? Let’s consider each term further.

Art versus artifact

The word “art” is derived from the Latin ars , which originally meant “skill” or “craft.” These meanings are still primary in other English words derived from ars , such as “artifact” (a thing made by human skill) and “artisan” (a person skilled at making things). The meanings of “art” and “artist,” however, are not so straightforward. We understand art as involving more than just skilled craftsmanship. What exactly distinguishes a work of art from an artifact, or an artist from an artisan?

When asked this question, students typically come up with several ideas. One is beauty. Much art is visually striking, and in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the analysis of aesthetic qualities was indeed central in art history. During this time, art that imitated ancient Greek and Roman art (the art of classical antiquity ), was considered to embody a timeless perfection. Art historians focused on the so-called fine arts—painting, sculpture, and architecture—analyzing the virtues of their forms. Over the past century and a half, however, both art and art history have evolved radically.

Left: Lysippos, Apoxyomenos (Scraper), Roman copy after a bronze statue from c. 330 B.C.E., 6′ 9″ high (Vatican Museums); right: Kiki Smith, Untitled, 1990, 198.1 × 181.6 × 54 cm, beeswax and microcrystalline wax figures on metal stands (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) © Kiki Smith

Left: Lysippos, Apoxyomenos (Scraper) , Roman copy after a bronze statue from c. 330 B.C.E., 81 inches high (Vatican Museums, photo: Steven Zucker , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Kiki Smith, male figure from Untitled , 1990, 198.1 x 181.6 x 54 cm, beeswax and microcrystalline wax figures on metal stands (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) © Kiki Smith

Artists turned away from the classical tradition, embracing new media and aesthetic ideals, and art historians shifted their focus from the analysis of art’s formal beauty to interpretation of its cultural meaning. Today we understand beauty as subjective—a cultural construct that varies across time and space. While most art continues to be primarily visual, and visual analysis is still a fundamental tool used by art historians, beauty itself is no longer considered an essential attribute of art.

Images of Peter and Paul appear much the same through the centuries in Byzantine icons. Left: glass bowl base, 4th century, Roman (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); center: mosaics, 11th century, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece; right: panel icon, 17th century, Greek (Temple Gallery).

Images of Peter and Paul appear much the same through the centuries in Byzantine icons. Left: glass bowl base, 4th century, Roman ( The Metropolitan Museum of Art ); center: mosaics, 11th century, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece; right: panel icon, 17th century, Greek ( Temple Gallery ).

A second common answer to the question of what distinguishes art emphasizes originality, creativity, and imagination. This reflects a modern understanding of art as a manifestation of the ingenuity of the artist. This idea, however, originated five hundred years ago in Renaissance Europe , and is not directly applicable to many of the works studied by art historians. For example, in the case of ancient Egyptian art or Byzantine icons , the preservation of tradition was more valued than innovation. While the idea of ingenuity is certainly important in the history of art, it is not a universal attribute of the works studied by art historians.

All this might lead one to conclude that definitions of art, like those of beauty, are subjective and unstable. One solution to this dilemma is to propose that art is distinguished primarily by its visual agency, that is, by its ability to captivate viewers. Artifacts may be interesting, but art, I suggest, has the potential to move us—emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. It may do this through its visual characteristics (scale, composition, color, etc.), expression of ideas, craftsmanship, ingenuity, rarity, or some combination of these or other qualities. How art engages varies, but in some manner, art takes us beyond the everyday and ordinary experience. The greatest examples attest to the extremes of human ambition, skill, imagination, perception, and feeling. As such, art prompts us to reflect on fundamental aspects of what it is to be human. Any artifact, as a product of human skill, might provide insight into the human condition. But art, in moving beyond the commonplace, has the potential to do so in more profound ways. Art, then, is perhaps best understood as a special class of artifact, exceptional in its ability to make us think and feel through visual experience.

Coatlicue, c. 1500, Mexica (Aztec), found on the SE edge of the Plaza Mayor/Zocalo in Mexico City, basalt, 257 cm high (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Coatlicue , c. 1500, Mexica (Aztec), found on the SE edge of the Plaza Mayor/Zocalo in Mexico City, basalt, 257 cm high (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; photo: Steven Zucker , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

History: Making Sense of the Past

Like definitions of art and beauty, ideas about history have changed over time. It might seem that writing history should be straightforward—it’s all based on facts, isn’t it? In theory, yes, but the evidence surviving from the past is vast, fragmentary, and messy. Historians must make decisions about what to include and exclude, how to organize the material, and what to say about it. In doing so, they create narratives that explain the past in ways that make sense in the present. Inevitably, as the present changes, these narratives are updated, rewritten, or discarded altogether and replaced with new ones. All history, then, is subjective—as much a product of the time and place it was written as of the evidence from the past that it interprets.

The discipline of art history developed in Europe during the colonial period (roughly the 15th to the mid-20th century). Early art historians emphasized the European tradition, celebrating its Greek and Roman origins and the ideals of academic art . By the mid-20th century, a standard narrative for “Western art” was established that traced its development from the prehistoric , ancient , and medieval Mediterranean to modern Europe and the United States . Art from the rest of the world, labeled “non-Western art,” was typically treated only marginally and from a colonialist perspective.

The immense sociocultural changes that took place in the 20th century led art historians to amend these narratives. Accounts of Western art that once featured only white males were revised to include artists of color and women. The traditional focus on painting, sculpture, and architecture was expanded to include so-called minor arts such as ceramics and textiles and contemporary media such as video and performance art . Interest in non-Western art increased, accelerating dramatically in recent years.

Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba), 16th century, Edo peoples, Court of Benin, Nigeria, ivory, iron, copper, 23.8 x 12.7 x 8.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba), 16th century, Edo peoples, Court of Benin, Nigeria, ivory, iron, copper, 23.8 x 12.7 x 8.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; photo: Steven Zucker , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Today, the biggest social development facing art history is globalism. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, familiarity with different cultures and facility with diversity are essential. Art history, as the story of exceptional artifacts from a broad range of cultures, has a role to play in developing these skills. Now art historians ponder and debate how to reconcile the discipline’s European intellectual origins and its problematic colonialist legacy with contemporary multiculturalism and how to write art history in a global era.

Smarthistory’s videos and articles reflect this history of art history. Since the site was originally created to support a course in Western art and history, the content initially focused on the most celebrated works of the Western canon. With the key periods and civilizations of this tradition now well-represented and a growing number of scholars contributing, the range of objects and topics has increased in recent years. Most importantly, substantial coverage of world traditions outside the West has been added. As the site continues to expand, the works and perspectives presented will evolve in step with contemporary trends in art history. In fact, as innovators in the use of digital media and the internet to create, disseminate, and interrogate art historical knowledge, Smarthistory and its users have the potential to help shape the future of the discipline.

Additional resources

“ Introduction: Learning to look and think critically ,” a chapter in Reframing Art History (our free art history textbook).

“ Introduction: Close looking and approaches to art ,” a chapter in Reframing Art History (our free art history textbook)—especially useful for materials related to formal (visual) analysis.

Check out all the chapters on world art in  Reframing Art History .

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  3. Philosophy of History

    Philosophy of History. First published Sun Feb 18, 2007; substantive revision Tue Nov 24, 2020. The concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of "learning ...

  4. A Point Of View: What is history's role in society?

    8 October 2012 History is just as important as science and engineering when it comes to fostering innovation and helping people to think analytically, says Sarah Dunant. A few weeks ago, an...

  5. Why Study You-Know-What?

    I came to a study of history via a curiosity about my hometown, a village in New Castle County, Delaware. I also appreciated the aesthetics of doing archival research and the sheer enjoyment of assembling a coherent story from disparate, scattered pieces of evidence. Everybody loves a good story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  6. World History for Us All: Why Learn World History?

    World History for Us All emphasizes three rationales for investigating the human past. 1. Knowing who we are. Study of world history is the broadest and most searching approach to the question of who we are as both individuals and members of groups. Exploring how humankind has changed since its hominid ancestors walked the earth is the best way ...

  7. Worldview: History, Theology, Implications

    Dr. Naugle is the author of Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), selected by Christianity Today magazine as the 2003 book of the year in the theology and ethics category. Prior to his post at DBU, Dr. Naugle was an adjunct professor of religion at the University of Texas at Arlington from 1980-1988.

  8. How science transformed the world in 100 years

    Science is the pursuit of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. That pursuit of knowledge has also shaped the way we view the world, as has the application of the knowledge. It has ...

  9. Broadening My Worldview Through Writing

    That class freshly reminded me of all the ways I could use writing assignments to broaden my worldview—not just during a pandemic, but anytime. In contemplating this further, I recognized that writing assignments have helped me grow in several major ways: They've provided spaces for me to learn about issues outside of my radar or comfort ...

  10. 3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation

    The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation: Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences. Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears.

  11. Historical Overview

    A solid understanding of such history enriches one's stylistic knowledge. In brief, the survey shows how ancient disciplines continue to influence modern-day stylistics. ... It refers to the habitual choices of all language patterns to reflect his/her personality or worldview. The individual style of a writer is characterized by idiosyncratic ...

  12. One's World View Essay

    One's World View Essay Satisfactory Essays 919 Words 4 Pages Open Document Using the concept of a world view', identify some of the beliefs and attitudes, particularly to education and learning, that you bring to your learning now. Reflect critically on how your world view has been shaped by factors such as your gender, age or community.

  13. The Importance of Historical Knowledge: Quotes About Studying and

    In theory, of course, all events have equal historical importance—the creation of a women's school in nineteenth-century America, the introduction of the stirrup, the domestication of the chicken, or the introduction of the necktie.

  14. A Multi-Perspective Reflection on How Indigenous Knowledge ...

    Indigenous knowledge provides specific views of the world held by various indigenous peoples. It offers different views on nature and science that generally differ from traditional Western science. Futhermore, it introduces different perspectives on nature and the human in nature. Coming basically from a Western perspective on nature and science, the paper analyzes the literature in science ...

  15. The Importance of Studying History

    The Importance of Studying History Essay. The saying goes that those who don't remember history are condemned to repeat it. The last few years have proven that is far more than just a cliché. History encompasses every other subject that is taught and every lesson that is learned. The danger of avoiding knowledge is far greater than the ...

  16. Personal Worldview Essay With an Example

    July 31, 2021 by Prasanna Worldview Essay: The worldview basically means perspective. The present society comprises numerous worldviews. A great many people will in general force convictions from various religions, however regularly stick to one principle worldview.

  17. » What is art history and where is it going?

    The word "art" is derived from the Latin ars, which originally meant "skill" or "craft.". These meanings are still primary in other English words derived from ars, such as "artifact" (a thing made by human skill) and "artisan" (a person skilled at making things). The meanings of "art" and "artist," however, are not ...

  18. Quora

    We would like to show you a description here but the site won't allow us.

  19. Knowledge of history enriches one's worldview: yes or no?

    Knowledge of history enriches one's worldview: yes or no? - Brainly.in 11.06.2020 History Secondary School answered Knowledge of history enriches one's worldview: yes or no? See answer Advertisement ak5265561 Answer: Yes please mark as brainly Advertisement Answer:Yes please mark as brainly

  20. Debate competition, knowledge of history enriches ones world view

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  21. Impact of History on Worldview knowledge

    History plays a significant role in shaping the worldview of all cultural groups. Ultimately, as a counselor, understanding these influences assists in developing your cultural competence.

  22. Impact of History on Worldview knowledge

    Impact of History on Worldview knowledge Just from $6.9/Page Order Essay Deepening your knowledge of racial and/or ethnic groups and culture in general requires an understanding of the influences that have led to a particular group's worldview.

  23. Does Knowledge Of History Enriches One's Worldview?

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