Published Humanitas, Volume XX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2007

The precise meaning of the terms “historical understanding,” “historical sense,” or “historical consciousness” can vary greatly, but they are generally understood as referring to an awareness of the dependence of human existence on the development of events that have taken place in the past. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of thinkers from various fields of study, whose early expositors include Vico, Burke, Herder, Hegel, and Nietzsche, began to explore this theme. Along with this fundamental insight came the related understanding of the fact that the political choices we face, our language, our meanings, and our values, are embedded within and contingent upon unique, present circumstances. Despite the emergence of an increasingly widespread historical sensibility among philosophers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the further implications of these basic insights remain unclear and disputed. Consequently, many modern thinkers who share what may be broadly described as a historicist orientation nonetheless disagree on much else, including the implications of our historicity for human knowledge, freedom, and morals. Much of this article is therefore devoted to identifying a particular strain of historicism and defending it as an approach to thinking about morality and moral decision-making. The article will proceed by first introducing some of the historical aspects of Burke’s thinking and a unique brand of historicism that his thought inspires. It will then look more closely at the implications of this Burkean-inspired historical consciousness for an understanding of morality. Finally, it will explore how the past continues to “live” in the present insofar as it shapes the thought and action of moral decision-makers.

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