'The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant' by Henry Kissinger (1950)

Henry Kissinger in the Class of 1950 Harvard yearbook.

A selection from Henry Kissinger's The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant, 1950.

The Meaning of History was Kissinger's senior honors thesis at Harvard. According to Niall Furguson, it made history by being the longest honors thesis at Harvard. Kissinger's doctoral dissertation
Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich) was later published with the title A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (1957) and deals with the end of the Napoleonic wars and the establishment of the framework of a European peace.

As The Meaning of History is difficult to acquire we will rely on secondary texts to furnish us with a synopsis and some quotes.

The following excerpts are from Henry Kissinger and the American Approach to Foreign Policy By Gregory D. Cleva, 1989 p.30-p.

(Note: see also Kissinger and the Meaning of History by Peter W. Dickson)

Kissinger's honors thesis is divided into five sections:

Section 1: "The Argument," in which he introdues the central thesis he will discuss against the background of each scholar's philosophy;

Section 2: "History-as-Intuition (Spengler)";

Section 3: "History-as-an-Empirical-Science (Toynbee)";

Section 4: "History and Man's Experience of Morality (Kant)"; and

Section 5: "The Sense of Responsibility," in which he offers his own answers to the questions he poses and outlines his own philosophy of history.

Kissinger adopts a novel methodology by trying to convey the essence of each author's work in that individual's own style. (This is especially significant in the section on Spengler because of the latter's poetic and metaphysical passages.) Kissinger argues that purely analytical criticism of Spengler and, to some extent Toynbee, "falsifies the real essence of [their] philosophy." Kissinger's pairing of Spengler and Toynbee, contemporaries who share a cyclical view of history, with the [eighteenth] century German philosopher Kant is central to his thesis. His historicism develops from this union.

Kissinger begins "The Meaning of History" by posing its central question as a paradox-- i.e., actions in retrospect appear inevitable, yet we act with the conviction of choice. Kissinger asks how we can reconcile our knowledge that events seem to occur irrevocably with our inward experience of freedom.

Kissinger confronts a second question in his introductory chapter-- the question of historical understanding. [...] Kissinger poses this epistemological question:

Is history an open book... that contains in itself all the asperations of mankind as well as the key to the world's purpose? Or does history reveal a series of meaningless incidents, a challenge to our normative concepts, only through conformity to which it can obtain significance? Is meaning, in short, an attribute of reality or a metaphysical construction attendant on our recognition of significance?

How Kissinger answers this question of historical understanding is significant. He concludes that the meaning of history cannot be derived empirically from the facts themselves. He rejects the principle of verifiability proposed by the logical positivists; the latter maintain that facts are true if they correspond to reality. Kissinger argues that anthropological research shows that different cultures create their own views of reality-- facts are by no means absolute. [...] Kissinger writes that "an inward experience cannot be proved by empirical data. A philosophy of history without a profound metaphysics will forever juxtapose surface data and can never satisfy the totality of man's desire for meaning." Instead, we must approach history philosophically, because the questions we ask of it will determine the answers it yields.

Thus meaning represents the emanation of a metaphysical context. Just as every man in a certain sense creates his picture of the world, just as the scientist can find in nature only what he puts in it in the formulation of his hypothesis, just as every question determines at least the range of answers, so history does not exhibit the same portent to everybody but yields only the meanings inherent in the nature of the our query. Therefore, too, the philosophy of history is inseparable from metaphysics, and involves a deep awareness of the mysteries and possibilities not only of nature but of human nature.

Meaning in history lies in the philosophical approach we take toward it. Kissinger equates the philosophy of history with metaphysics, describing it as "metaphysics of a very high order." The question he then confronts is: how did Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant address the problem of necessity and freedom in history? How did their metaphysical beliefs resolve this paradox? "In the reaction of the various thinkers to the problem of human necessity and human freedom, in their capacity to experience depths inaccessible to reason alone, lies the answer to the meaning of history."
Kissinger next presents an extended commentary on the philosophy and works of each thinker. [...] He discusses Spengler's Decline of the West, Toynbee's A Study of History, Kant's Idea for a Universal History, Essay on Eternal[/Perpetual] Peace, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Pure Reason in detail. The contrast between the views of Spengler and Toynbee and those of Kant provides the key to Kissinger's thesis.

Paraphrasing Spengler, Kissinger explains that "the history of each culture [consists of] a ripening and deepening of its soul-picture."

Returning to the central paradox of necessity and freedom, he finds that both Spengler and Toynbee emphasize the necessity of historical occurrence-- i.e., the cyclical recurrence of historical patterns. Their metaphysical approaches diminish the... element of human freedom in history. It is on this basis that Kissinger ultimately judges their philosophies of history as inadequate explanations of history's meaning.
Kissinger is attracted to the poetical lyricism of Spengler's work and to his tragic vision. He takes from Spengler a feeling for history's "becoming"-- a feeling that Spengler attributes in his philosophy to the influence of Goethe. History is life and development, movement and destiny. [...] Kissinger observes that:

Purely analytical criticism of Spengler will, however, never discover the profounder levels of his philosophy. These reside in his evocation of those elements of life that will ever be the subject of an inner experience, in his intuition of a mystic relationship to the infinite... . Spengler's vision encompassed an approach to history which-- whatever our opinion of his conclusions-- transcended the mere causal analysis of data and the shallow dogmatism of many progress theories. [...] After all has been said, the conviction remains that Spengler has found a poetry in life which rises above the barren systematization of its manifestations.

Yet Kissinger faults Spengler's philosophy... for the view that great cultures develop organically in a determined pattern. Spengler sees a fatedness in historical occurrences that attracts Kissinger... . This fatedness, however, leaves out the inner dimension of freedom and the role of choice in history.

Similarly, Kissinger finds elements to admire in Toynbee's scholarship. His own writings are heavily influenced by Toynbee's analysis of civilizations-- particularly the factors involved in their breakdown. [...] But overall, Kissinger finds Toynbee's philosophy lacking, because it does not address the element of freedom in history either.

Gap. p. 34

Against this background, Kissinger turns to Kant. He sees in Kant's thought as counterbalancing the determinism of Spengler and Toynbee. Kant's metaphysical and epistemological idealism provides Kissinger with an understanding of the element of freedom in history. The contrast between the determinism of Spengler and Toynbee and the indeterminism of Kant is central to Kissinger's argument.


The following excerpts are from Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson ( ):

"The Meaning of History" has gone down in history as the longest ever thesis written by a Harvard senior... . But its size was not the most remarkable thing about it. In a dazzling distillation..., Kissinger gives us not just Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant but also Collingwood, Dante, Darwin, Descartes, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Hegel, Hobbes, Holmes, Homer, Hume, Locke, Milton, Plato, Sartre, Schweitzer, Spinoza, Tolstoy, Vico, Virgil, and Whitehead... .

Much of the dissertation is taken up with detailed exposition of the three key authors' arguments... .

Surprisingly, Kissinger elected not to discuss the obvious question, namely how the three authors thought differently about causation in history. Instead, he chose to focus on a deeper and more difficult question: their treatment of the fundamental tension... between any theory of historical determinism and our sense as individuals of free will.

In the life of every person there comes a point when he realizes that out of all the seemingly limitless possibilities of his youth he has in fact become one actuality. No longer is life a broad plain with forests and mountains beckoning all-around, but it becomes apparent that one's journey across the meadows has indeed followed a regular path. [...] We have come up against the problem of Necessity and Freedom, of the irrevocability of our actions, of the directedness of our life. [...] The desire to reconcile our experience of freedom with a determined environment is the lament of poetry and the dilemma of philosophy. [...] What is the meaning of a causality that accomplishes itself under the mode of freedom?

As Kissinger showed, each of his chosen authorities offered a different answer to this question.