How are we to make sense of history? This is a pivotal question for Merleau-Ponty, and one that he poses at several different, though interwoven, levels. These levels include our personal and our intersubjective lives and the more general level of what he calls “public history” (TL: 39–45). At the former levels he raises questions concerning how individually situated and intersubjective selves are instantiated, shaped, and shape themselves in time. At the latter level, that of “public history”, he asks how we are to make sense of large-scale historical processes – the temporal transformations of societies and states, the transitions between large-scale epochs, and whether or not we may discern a clear directionality, or even progress, in human societies. Although these levels are, for Merleau-Ponty, interconnected, it is his exploration of history at the large-scale “public” level that is the primary topic of this chapter.
Our common-sense views of history of this “public”, or general, kind are most often subtended by one of two kinds of assumption. We often conceive history as having a cumulative, or pre-given, trajectory that unfolds over time – as the necessary “progress” of freedom, or reason, or human well-being, for example. Or else we see it as essentially random and unpredictable, as the outcome of diverse actions, contingent events and conjunctures, as exemplified in the claim that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand “caused” the First World War. Both of these common-sense views of history also inform positions within the philosophy of history, with Hegel (1770–1831) arguably formulating the classic argument for the former conception and Nietzsche (1844–1900) for the latter.