Towards an Evolutionary Epistemology of History

What has come to be known as the ‘linguistic turn’ in historical theory over the past forty years or so has finished what the two World Wars began in demolishing the confidence that the historical discipline possessed at the turn of the twentieth century. This confidence was most memorably expressed by Lord Acton that one day we would possess ‘ultimate history’. Today most historians are probably more inclined to subscribe to Pieter Geyl’s view that history is ‘an argument without end’. Yet the jettisoning of a teleological goal for historical accounts does not mean that we have to also part with the idea of progress; we just need a new definition of it. In this article I argue that we should adopt an evolutionary epistemology of history which sees progress as something pushed from behind, rather than aiming at an undefined point in the future; but this is not the only advantage an evolutionary epistemology can offer us. I go on to outline two further aspects of evolutionary epistemology which may benefit historical theorists.