Review of Metaphysics 21 (4):667 - 698 (1968)

THE LENGTHENING SHELF of books on the special problems of historical knowledge reminds us that few obiter dicta have worn quite as badly as Santayana's remark that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Though it epitomizes a recurrent mood of impatience with those who refuse to acknowledge our own favorite analogies between present problems and past disasters, yet it leaves one feeling uneasily committed to a set of underlying presuppositions which one would not care to make explicit. Is the historical process of itself really repetitive? How many great historical changes have been brought about—as in the Renaissance—by those who did know history and wished to repeat its classic forms? Or is it possible, as Santayana suggests, that knowledge of history brings release from otherwise ineluctable forces and their consequences? What in Santayana's time seemed a radical denial of the commonplace notion of inevitable progress now appears as the most conservative of nineteenth-century attitudes: the belief that historical reality is there, weaving and reweaving its tangled web, subject like the laws of nature to discovery and perhaps exploitation, but remaining a field of real entities and forces whether discovered or not. Santayana's dictum is of a piece with all those claims which begin, "History shows that...." But few historians or philosophers now have much sympathy even with the possibility of such claims. Were there significantly repetitive patterns of major events, historical knowledge would indeed make the present an elaborate form of déjà vu. Yet historians above all are reluctant to claim that their subject is a manual of politics or of anything else. Call any current event "another Munich," and any historian worth his salt will list seventeen important respects in which that event does not, and even could not resemble Chamberlain's ill-starred agreement.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632
DOI revmetaph196821467
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