Has History a Meaning?

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Professor Benjamin Farrington
Professor Benjamin Farrington (1891 – 1974)
Professor Vere Gordon Childe
Professor Vere Gordon Childe (1892 – 1957)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 18 April 1950. Chaired by Professor V Gordon Childe and presented by Professor Benjamin Farrington.

The ‘meaning’ of history is simply our maximal understanding of historical process: an understanding now available to us for the very first time, and one capable of making us wiser.

This comprehension is the product of a collective and protracted intellectual effort, an effort which has produced, from the Renaissance onwards, a way of thinking about history totally different from that of the ancient and mediaeval worlds. It separated history from theology, and averred the importance of historical situations as both shapers of human thought and as themselves shaped by human beings. These points were given special emphasis by Vico, who viewed history as a science which revealed the natural laws of the development of human society. Such development was rightly seen by Vico as a social process. Hence it was not a biological one, though it certainly rested on capacities derived from biological evolution.

Vico’s perspective was adopted and indeed completed by Marx. Marx examined the economic and technological aspects of human development, an area neglected by Vico, and saw history as an inter-action between man and nature via technology. This view entailed a complete rejection of religious interpretations of history, but also the assertion that morality has an entirely human source, and is inseparable from social context. The social nature of morality, and of culture in all its aspects, is one of the most important things our education system should impart to the young.

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