A Thomistic Account of History

“Is history a science in the Aristotelian sense?”

Answered by Timothy Kearns, Editorial Director, Thomistica.org


History and related disciplines have no clearly established place within the Thomistic framework. There is evidence of this in the conflicting things Thomists say about history, particularly on the question of whether history is a science in the Aristotelian sense. Some Thomists (for example, Jacques Maritain, Charles De Koninck, and Glen Coughlin) argue that history is not a science because it treats of singulars which are unknowable.[1] Others (principally Benedict Ashley) claim both that it is not a science but that it can provide intellectual knowledge and a degree of certainty, although they offer no systematic account of why and how.[2] Still others (Charles De Koninck again, William Wallace, and Michael Buckley) argue that for various reasons history is a science, for example, because of the rational connections among acts (De Koninck), because of the necessity of the past (Wallace), or because of the influences of human beings on each other (Buckley).[3] Others (here we find most contemporary Thomists) refrain from addressing the question of whether or not it is a science in the Aristotelian sense but treat history as a discipline producing intellectual knowledge and limited certainty.[4] The only one of these views with wide acceptance is the fourth, that of most contemporary Thomists who draw on history but do not have an account of it.

This state of the Thomistic account of history is problematic for at least four reasons. First, since Thomism is based upon the system of thought articulated in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas, it is necessary that Thomists make coherent claims about how we can be said to know the past. Second, if Thomism is to integrate the disciplines, it will be necessary for Thomists to have an account of those disciplines related to the study of the past. Third, the interpretation of revelation, both in scripture and in the tradition of the Church, is a key activity for Thomists, but, since historical disciplines like textual criticism and archaeology have not been adequately integrated into the Thomistic framework, it is not clear what we are to make of those disciplines or how they relate to exegesis and theology. Fourth, if Thomists aim to solve the key problems of our time and renew Catholic intellectual life, then the marginalization of Thomistic thought since the Second Vatican Council must be understood and convincingly explained, and it will not be possible to accomplish this in the best way without an adequate understanding of history.

My goal in this paper is to outline an account of history within the Thomistic tradition that will solve the first two problems, making clear the status of historical knowledge and history’s place in the Thomistic framework of disciplines.[5] Since most Thomists seem to draw on history without claiming either that it is or is not a science, I will not primarily deal with opinions on that question; instead, I aim to provide an account of history that fits best with contemporary Thomistic practice. To do that, I begin with an analysis of the notion of history.


The term “history” in English has at least three key senses: first, the past itself; second, an account of the past; and, third, a discipline of learning.[6] Let me take each in turn, considering first the sense of the term in English and then the relevant senses of the related terms used by Aristotle and Aquinas.

By “the past” I mean anything that has been in any sense before the present time, anything that has had being before now. So, anything that has ever been actual in any sense is part of the past. Aristotle does not use the term ἱστορία in this way; instead, to refer to the past he uses phrases like τόδε γέγονε (Posterior Analytics II.12). The Greek term ἱστορία at his time meant inquiry in a general sense, and only later and in a secondary sense did it come to refer to accounts of the past. This sense, when the word was adopted into Latin, became the main sense of the word, and from there the Latin word historia came to mean, not an account of the past, but the past itself. Uses of historia in Latin to mean inquiry were secondary. Thus we see how Aquinas came to use the term historia to refer to the past; for example, in many commentaries on scripture he uses ordo historiae (e.g. at Exposition of the Psalms, Prologue) to mean the order of past events.

In the second sense, history, as an account of the past, can be either the written or oral account of something in the past, or it can be the understanding that an inquirer has of something in the past and its causes. Since any written account of the past is derived from the inquirer’s understanding of that past, history as the understanding of something in the past is prior to and more universal than history as a written account of that thing in the past. Aristotle uses ἱστορία to refer to a written account of the human past when in Poetics (9) he discusses the genre of written or oral accounts of what has happened in the past. This is where he points out that poetry is more philosophical than history, since history treats of what has happened and poetry treats of what may happen, poetry therefore expressing what is more universal. Aquinas too uses historia to refer to histories as written accounts of the human past (for example, at Summa theologiae II-II 2.7). Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas have occasion to refer specifically to the understanding of something in the past as opposed to the written account of it.

In the third sense, history is a discipline of learning. By “discipline”, I mean anything that is itself an art, science, practice, or skill, or may be said to be part of some larger art, science, practice, or skill; a discipline of learning seems to be one ordered to understanding in some central way. Now, it is not always clear what we mean when we talk about history as a discipline, but we must mean something like what is carried on in academic history departments by professional historians. What historians do is inquire into the specifically human past in order to understand it. That reveals a key restriction for history in this sense: historians focus on acts carried out by human beings and on what is related to such acts. Within history departments particularly, history is carried out as a discipline in two ways. First, as an activity whereby one understands the human past. This is the principal and defining activity of historians. But, second, history is also carried out as the explanation and development of the methodology of producing accounts of the past; this is what we usually call “historiography”. Significantly, neither Aristotle nor Aquinas use the term “history” in precisely either of these senses. This fact is particularly relevant to a consideration of history within the Aristotelian tradition because introducing the notion of history as the activity of understanding the past allows us to see that, although history as a written account of the past is not as universal as poetry, nevertheless, history understood as the activity of understanding the past is more philosophical than poetry because history in this sense aims to discover truth, which poetry does not.

We can now see an order among these different senses of history. Since the activity of understanding the past is what produces accounts of the past, and since historiography is the explanation and justification of the activity of understanding the past, all of which lead to the description of the past itself as “history”, every sense of the term “history” derives from the activity of understanding the past.

But there is also an even more general sense of history, one less commonly noted: that of the non-human past. History, when it seeks to understand the human past, investigates the contingent particulars of the human past as well as everything causally related to those particulars. But we can just as well inquire into the contingent particulars of the past of any contingent subject: the past of our universe, the geological past of our planet, the past of living things. We can and often do call these inquiries and the accounts that result from them “histories”. So, the term “history” also has this wider sense, inquiry into the past in general, from which the human past emerges as a special subject of inquiry into the past in general. Since the other senses of the term “history” are derived from history as inquiry into the human past and since we have now seen that inquiry into the human past is just a special case of inquiry into the past in general, it is clear that inquiry into the past in general is the most universal and proper sense of the term “history”.

How is this general notion of history related to the Greek term ἱστορία and the Latin term historia that Aristotle and Aquinas used? Both knew of history as an account of the human past, as we saw above, but this is not the most general sense of the relevant Greek and Latin words. In general, ἱστορία means inquiry or research, for example, an inquiry about the soul (De anima I.1 402a1-3). For Aristotle’s account of ἱστορία in general, a key passage is in the Prior Analytics (I.30 46a18-27). There he says that experience gives the principles of any science, and if we have apprehended all the attributes of the thing under consideration, then we can make the demonstrations relevant to the science; then, he goes on (46a24-27), “For if nothing that truly belongs to the subjects has been left out of our collection of facts [κατὰ τὴν ἱστορίαν], then concerning every fact, if a demonstration for it exists, we will be able to find that demonstration and demonstrate it, while if it does not naturally have a demonstration, we will be able to make that evident.”[7] This indicates that ἱστορία for Aristotle is something like general inquiry into the matters under study, the beginning of a science.[8] It seems related to but higher than experience, since experience tends to be inchoate and unsystematic, and Aristotle indicates that a general account resulting from an inquiry should, in the ideal case, not omit any of the true attributes of the thing.[9] We see, then, that for Aristotle ἱστορία is a general inquiry that is in some sense part of and subordinate to a science.

Drawing as he does on the Aristotelian tradition, Aquinas has nearly the same sense for the Latin word historia. In his commentary on the De anima (I.1.6), for example, Aquinas says that Aristotle uses the term historia to describe his treatise on the soul “because he is going to discuss the soul in a general way, without attempting in this treatise a thorough examination [finalem inquisitionem] of all its properties.”[10] Similarly, in his commentary on the De coelo (III.1.547), Aquinas notes that the greater part of historia naturalis is about bodies. Here, historia naturalis gets quite close to the older English term “natural history” referring to the activities of observational biologists and geologists in the field.[11] Aquinas also picks up on the more precise way Aristotle uses ἱστορία, namely as a stage in the movement toward scientific knowledge. In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (II 11.2.3), Aquinas says that just as through locutio we do not acquire full knowledge of the subject being discussed, so too through historia we come to know something not known beforehand, but our intellect is not fully enlightened. Historia, then, in the key sense for Aquinas, is much like Aristotle’s notion; in particular, it gives knowledge of the subject in some sense but not knowledge of the highest kind. Although Aquinas and Aristotle do not emphasize this connection of historia with the beginnings of science, that aspect was picked up and developed by later Aristotelians in the renaissance.[12]

This Aristotelian notion of ἱστορία as inquiry in general does not match up perfectly with any of our contemporary notions of history. This is because, even in its widest modern sense, as inquiry into the past, history is specifically related to the past, which is not the case with Aristotelian ἱστορία and terms derived from it. Nevertheless, Aristotelian ἱστορία, since it is simply inquiry in general, includes inquiry into the past within it. If inquiry into the past is part of inquiry in general, then, inquiry within any discipline includes inquiry into the past relevant to that discipline and its subjects. This suggests that for Aristotle and Aquinas inquiry into the past relevant to a given discipline is a part of that discipline. A confirmation of this is that Aristotle and Aquinas often begin their inquiries with an account of the past of the relevant inquiry.

Having briefly surveyed the senses of the term, I propose a definition of history in the most general sense: history is inquiry both into singular contingents in the past and into everything that is causally related to those singular contingents, an inquiry that is for the sake of understanding the things themselves and their causes.


Each of the problems related to history that I began with raises a corresponding question. The question that the possibility of the knowledge of the past raises is this: since on the Aristotelian understanding of knowledge the subjects of intellectual knowledge are universal and necessary, can we be said to know contingent singulars at all? On this point, Aquinas is quite clear that we can.[13] He asks explicitly whether our intellect can know singulars (Summa theologiae I 86.1), and he answers that, although the intellect cannot know the singular as such, it can know the singular indirectly. He distinguishes: to know the singular directly is to know it as perceived by the senses, as existing now in front of me; but to know the singular indirectly is to know it as represented by the phantasm. Elsewhere, Aquinas clarifies in what way singulars are intelligible to human beings (Quaetiones disputatae de anima 20, ad 16): the singular in so far as it is sensible does not become intelligible, but the singular does become intelligible in so far as an immaterial form can represent it. So, for Thomas, material singulars are intelligible and are capable of being known by human beings, just not as such. Similarly, we can also know contingents, as is clear from the fact, Aquinas says (Summa theologiae I 86.3), that we have sciences of contingent things, like the moral sciences and natural sciences like biology. Such knowledge of contingents is, however, imperfect, since contingent things only have imperfect being and can thus only be known imperfectly (Summa theologiae I 79.9). (For a complete treatment of this question, see Book VI, Lecture 1 of Aquinas’s commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics.)  So, we do have intellectual knowledge of contingents too, albeit imperfect.

In so far as history studies the singular contingent, it can only produce indirect and imperfect knowledge of its subjects. In so far as history studies universals related to singular contingents, the knowledge it produces is direct and derives its perfection from its subjects. Now, the knowledge we can have of things in the past is conditioned by the fact that those things are in the past and so are no longer directly accessible to our senses. Knowledge of things in the past is always predicated upon knowledge of things in the present. This is the essential limitation of historical knowledge qua historical. Before we can indicate the methods of knowing the past by means of the present, we first need to lay out where knowledge of the past fits within the Thomistic framework of disciplines. This is to ask the question corresponding to the second problem I began with.


History as defined above (inquiry into the past in general) clearly pertains to the investigations of the subjects of any discipline that treats of contingents, in so far as those contingents are in the past. This is because history in the wide sense simply is the investigation both of contingents in the past and of things related causally to those contingents. Since contingents in the past possess their intelligibility from their forms, not from the fact that they are in the past (since that is accidental)[14], any given past contingent is already the proper subject of some discipline, namely the discipline that studies that kind of thing in that respect. A confirmation of this is that key aspects of what we use to discover the contingent past related to a given discipline are proper to that discipline: for example, the astronomer uses the methods of astronomy to investigate the origins and history of a star. As we saw above, this view of history as a part of every discipline is implied in the Aristotelian notion of ἱστορία. So, every past contingent is studied by the discipline that studies that kind of thing; for example, the history of living things is part of biology, the history of the earth is part of geology, etc. This implies that we know the past through the present, not by a general method, but by means of the methods specific to a given discipline. History in the wide sense, then, is not a discipline of its own; it is an aspect of other disciplines.

Further, it might seem that inquiry into the past only pertains to those disciplines that study contingents, but this is not the case. Consider: in addition to investigations into past contingent subjects of a discipline, there are also investigations into the past related to the discipline itself, for example, how that discipline was discovered and articulated and how it has developed down to the present. In such cases, history in the wide sense investigates, not the subjects of the discipline, but the past of the discipline itself as a human activity. And this investigation into the past of a discipline is always possible even for a discipline whose subjects are necessary, since the past of the discipline is the result of human acts and is therefore contingent—one need only think, for example, of the contingency in the history of mathematics. The inquiries into the past of a given discipline study certain human acts in the past, not in general, but in so far as those human acts are ordered to understanding the subjects of the discipline; otherwise, such acts would not be part of the past of that discipline. Since it is clear that studying the past of a discipline is often undertaken for the sake of a better understanding of the subjects of the discipline and since whatever is aimed at the understanding of the discipline’s subjects is part of the discipline, then inquiry into the past of the discipline as such is part of the discipline itself. [15] A confirmation of this is that anyone investigating the past of a discipline must know the discipline’s principles, methods, and conclusions in order to understand human acts in the past related to them; thus, the historian of a discipline must also be a practitioner of that discipline.

So, we arrive at two key conclusions relevant to history’s place in the Thomistic framework: first, inquiry into the past relevant to a contingent subject is part of the discipline that studies that subject in general; and, second, the study of the past of a given discipline is part of that discipline too. This shows how to answer the question of whether history is a science: history as the activity whereby one understands the past in general is not a separate science, but it is a part of every discipline; history is not a science, but we can have historical knowledge; knowledge of the past is part of the disciplines that study the various aspects of the past. Thus we see history’s place in the framework of disciplines.

One important implication of this account of history’s place among the discipline is that the activity by which we understand the specifically human past (the third and most common sense of “history” above) is also not its own discipline nor is it studied for its own sake. Which discipline is inquiry into the human past part of? The answer is the discipline that studies properly human action, namely moral science. This is clear in the case of the past relevant to a given community or tradition, since, as Aristotle points out (Rhetoric I.4), because one must know the details of how one’s community came to be the way it is in order to direct that community well, the knowledge of the past of a political community is part of politics.[16] But the scope of history’s investigations of the human past must be wider still. Aquinas argues (Summa contra gentiles III.85) that customs and habits, those acquired from childhood especially, determine in key part the choices that human beings make. So, inquiry into the human past, being part of moral science, does not only include things like the history of ethics or accounts of key political events; it also includes knowledge of customs and habits and the causes of both. Aquinas could easily have added here that, since human beings live by seeking what they perceive to be good, an account of how goods have been perceived and understood throughout time is also relevant to moral science, as are those things causally related to accounts and perceptions of what is good, i.e. concepts, ideas, arguments, languages, texts, individual persons, etc. What are generally called “the humanities” also seem largely to be parts of moral science. To see this, consider the art of literature: one can read literature to be formed (which is the end of the art); one can study literature to know how to make it (studying it as an art, part of the traditional liberal art rhetorica); or one can study literature in order to understand key aspects of the society that produced that literature (studying it as part of moral science, which is what we usually mean when we include literature among the humanities). To elaborate on this last point, the genres of literature, for example, will be related to the social conditions of the given society; likewise, literature presents an account of something good, and that account is always related to the notion of the good life as lived in that community, even if it is a negative response to that community’s account of the good life. In the study of the past, we can also discover general features of a given community or tradition and we can aim to understand how such features relate causally to individual acts or to customs and habits or to other communities or traditions. A community orders its common life not arbitrarily but according to the conception of happiness that its members have (in general); and so every community has a manner of realizing its members’ idea of human happiness through an ordering of customs and habits. This is one way to understand what culture is, a community’s manner of realizing happiness through an ordering of customs and habits. Cultures in this sense seem to be the highest objects of that part of moral science that investigates the human past. This is for two reasons: first, cultures are history’s most intelligible aspects (customs, habits, and their ordering to a set of ends are more universal and thus more intelligible than particular acts); second, it is through a knowledge of specific cultures that such investigations contribute most to moral science, since we need knowledge of our own culture to order our community well. The key principle from which the above considerations follow is that human beings pursue happiness and perfection in political community in everything they do, and, hence, we see that the scope for the investigation of the human past is wide-ranging and covers every aspect of that past.[17]

The fact that the study of the human past is part of moral science can be confirmed from the contemporary discipline of history itself. In the first place, history began with a clear focus on politics in authors like Herodotus and Thucydides and progressed slowly to widen out its purview to such an extent that among contemporary historians anything in the human past can be the subject of historical inquiry; its scope, then, slowly expanded from what is narrowly politics to what is broadly moral science.[18] Likewise, since history is part of moral science, one would expect to find in the study of the human past the kinds of disagreements that are common in ethics and politics; and this is just what we do find, as arguments over how to interpret the past reveal.[19] Again as part of moral science, history should only be able to attain a limited and imperfect degree of certainty in its acts of understanding, and this too is what we find, since history does not admit of mathematical certainty and historians know this very well. Even in discussions, not of specific parts of the past, but of the historiographical method itself, the various approaches to the relevant questions divide along largely political and ethical lines.[20] Inquiry into the human past, then, however wide its scope, is part of moral science.

Although by no means a complete account of the study of the human past, the above outlines the place of history in moral science, its certainty, methods, and the subjects of investigation of the properly human past.


The account of history I have argued for here can be summarized as follows. History is inquiry both into singular contingents in the past and into everything causally related to those singular contingents, for the sake of understanding the things themselves and their causes. It is possible to understand such singulars and what is related to them because, although the intellect knows singulars indirectly and contingents imperfectly, it still does know them. Inquiry into the past relevant to a contingent subject is part of the discipline that studies that subject in general, as is the study of the past of a given discipline. It follows from this account that the study of the human past is chiefly part of moral science, with all that implies. History, then, is not a discipline in its own right, much less a science in itself, although historical knowledge can be scientific. Such an account solves the first two problems presented above, the status of historical knowledge and the place of history in the framework of disciplines. This account confirms the validity of drawing on history to elucidate various aspects of contemporary Thomistic projects and suggests some useful directions to expand those projects. In later work, I hope to use this notion of history in order to show how the historical disciplines like textual criticism and archaeology fit into theology’s central task, the interpretation of revelation. This will be an attempt to answer the challenge of historical biblical criticism and its relation to theology.

[1] Jacques Maritain, On the Philosophy of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957); Charles De Koninck, “A Note on History” (unpublished manuscript; accessed on September 23rd, 2015 at http://www.charlesdekoninck.com/art-and-morality-with-a-note-on-history/); R. Glen Coughlin, “History and Liberal Education”, The Aquinas Review 5.1 (1998), 1-40.

[2] Benedict Ashley, The Way toward Wisdom: An Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Approach to Metaphysics (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 315-321.

[3] Charles De Koninck, “The Nature of Man and His Historical Being”, Laval Théologique et Philosophique 5.2 (1949), 271-277: narration of past events “may also reveal more or less rational connections that exist among [those events], and … the term ‘history’ also serves to designate the kind of knowledge ordained to the discovery of such connections. … History tends towards a certain universality and thus towards the estate of a ‘science’” (271); Michael Buckley, “A Thomistic Philosophy of History”, New Scholasticism 35.3 (1961), 342-362; William Wallace, The Elements of Philosophy: A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1977), 183-185, 268.

[4] The most obvious example here is that of Alasdair MacIntyre, in particular in After Virtue, Third Edition (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

[5] The state of history and how to classify historical knowledge is hardly a problem only for Thomists, though. For the crisis in history within the wider academy at the end of the last century and into this one, see Georg Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997; with a new epilogue by the author, 2005).

[6] This is a more general version of the set of distinctions Jorge Gracia makes in his Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography (Buffalo, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 39-107. Wallace also begins with something like this distinction (Elements of Philosophy, 268).

[7] Aristotle, Prior Analytics, translated with introduction, notes, and commentary by Robin Smith (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), 49. Aristotle Loeb edition for the Greek. !!!!!!

[8] George Kennedy makes this point in his translation and commentary on the Rhetoric (Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, translated by George Kennedy, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 52.

[9] For an in-depth discussion, see T. Irwin, Aristotle’s First Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 29-32.

[10] Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De anima, translated by K. Foster and S. Humphries, introduction by Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1994), 3.

[11] Aquinas also has another general Latin word for inquiry, namely inquisitio; it seems that he prefers historia in those cases in which he is drawing directly on the translation of Aristotle, which tend to use historia. For example, the word historia in this more Greek sense does not appear in the Summa theologiae.

[12] For details of this trend, see the collection of papers Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe, edited by Gianna Pomata and Nancy Siraisi (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005).

[13] For the full range of texts in Thomas’s corpus treating the issue, see George Klubertanz, “St. Thomas and the Knowledge of the Singular”, New Scholasticism 26.2 (1952), 135-166.

[14] Aquinas is clear (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, 10.3) that the difference between past and present is accidental to what is intelligible.

[15] The past of a discipline may be studied from any number of perspectives (ethics, politics, philosophical psychology, etc.), but what is most determinative about the human acts in the past related to the discipline is that they are aimed in some way at understanding the subjects of the discipline; such acts are most properly studied, then, by the discipline itself.

[16] In outlining what were commonly the five main topics of rhetoric in his day, Aristotle includes in each case the historical knowledge relevant to the topic in his description of what the orator needs to understand; at the end of his treatment of the five topics, he says, “But all these subjects belong to politics, not to rhetoric” (On Rhetoric, Kennedy translation, 52).

[17] The past of the various disciplines can be studied in more than one way. Typically, such past is studied for the sake of the discipline itself, in which case such study is part of the discipline. But we can also investigate the past of a discipline with respect to how it relates to other aspects of the past more directly part of moral science, e.g. ancient physics and its relation to ancient politics.

[18] This is clear from any broad survey of the development of historiography, for example, Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Third Edition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[19] For examples of this related to the study of antiquity, see Neville Morley, Theories, Models, and Concepts in Ancient History (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[20] The book that brings this out most clearly is Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1999). Bentley pays particular attention to the historical context of the theories of history and how their proponents developed those theories in part as a response to their own circumstances.

About Timothy Kearns

Timothy Kearns received his PhD (2014) and MA (2007) from the Center for Medieval and Byzantine Studies at The Catholic University of America and his BA in Classics from University of Texas at Austin (2001).

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