Reflection upon the nature of history, or of historical thinking. The term was used in the 18th century (e.g. by Voltaire) to mean critical historical thinking, as opposed to the mere collection and repetition of stories about the past. In Hegel it came to mean universal or world history. The Enlightenment confidence that the age of superstition and barbarism was being replaced by science, reason, and understanding gave history a progressive moral thread, and under the influence of Herder and Kant this idea took further hold, so that philosophy of history came to be the detection of a grand system, the unfolding of the evolution of human nature as witnessed in successive stages (the progress of rationality or of Spirit). This essentially speculative philosophy of history is given an extra Kantian twist in Fichte, in whom the association of temporal succession with logical implication introduces the idea that concepts themselves are the dynamic engine of historical change. The idea is only readily intelligible within the framework of absolute idealism, in which the world of nature and that of thought become identified. The work of Herder, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling is synthesized by Hegel: history has a plot. This is the moral development of man, equated with freedom within the state; this in turn is the development of selfconsciousness of spirit, a process of thought or a logical development in which various necessary moments in the life of the concept are successively achieved and improved upon. Hegel's method is at its most successful when the subject is the history of ideas, and the evolution of thinking may march in step with the logical oppositions and their resolution encountered by various systems of thought.
With Marx and Engels there emerges a rather different kind of story, based upon Hegel's progressive structure but delaying the achievement of the goal of history to a future in which the political conditions for freedom come to exist, so that economic and political factors rather than ‘reason’ are in the engine room. Although large-scale speculative history continued to be written (Spengler's The Decline of the West, 1918, is a notable late example), by the late 19th century large-scale speculation of this kind became supplanted by a more critical concern with the nature of historical understanding, and in particular with a comparison between the methods of natural science and those of the historian. For writers such as Windelband and Dilthey, it is important to show both that the human sciences such as history are objective and legitimate, but that they are in some way different from the enquiry of the scientist. Since the subject-matter is the past thought and actions of human beings, what is needed is an ability to re-live that past thought, knowing the deliberations of past agents as if they were the historian's own. The most influential British writer on this theme was Collingwood, whose The Idea of History (1946) contains an extensive defence of the Verstehen approach (see also simulation theory). The question of the form of historical explanation, and the fact that general laws have either no place or an apparently minor place in the human sciences, is also prominent in thought about the distinctive nature of our historical understanding of ourselves and others.