Skip to main content
Select Source:

Teggart, Frederick J.

Teggart, Frederick J.


Frederick John Teggart (1870-1946), American historian, is known for his work on the theory of history and for the application of scientific method to historical and social investigation.

Teggart was born in 1870 in Belfast, Ireland. There he attended the Methodist college and, later, Trinity College, Dublin. He came to the United States in 1888 and was graduated from Stanford in 1894. From 1893 to 1916 he was engaged in library administration. He held teaching posts in both history and political science in the University of California at Berkeley but is more widely remembered as the founder in 1919 of the department of social institutions, of which he remained chairman until his retirement in 1940. This department was celebrated on the campus and elsewhere for Teggart’s introductory course on the history of the idea of progress. As the first course on this subject ever to be offered in the United States, it influenced many students who later became professors, and it helped to inspire the expansion of the literature on the subject. He was honored by the university in 1935 with an appointment as faculty research lecturer and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1943.

Teggart was concerned with the question whether dated or historical material may be utilized for ends other than the composition of narrative. It seemed clear to him that since such data “[constitute] the record of human experience in its broader aspects,” it is a matter of highest importance to ascertain whether this dated record, when properly organized, is amenable to the scientific mandate of verification. To his mind, verification turns upon the acceptance of three precepts allying historical investigation with scientific inquiry. He maintained, first, that the aim of the historian who wishes to employ scientific method should be the isolation and investigation of a problem. Second, the problem should have reference to a class of phenomena—in the case of the historian, to a class of datable events. Third, he called upon the investigator to base his procedure, as in all scientific inquiry, upon the elementary technique of comparison—the comparison of classes of dated events at differing periods of time and among differing human groups.

The exposition or exemplification of this proposed type of historical inquiry is presented in two major studies: The Processes of History (1918) and Rome and China (1939).

The answer to the question “Can scientific method be applied to history?” is affirmative in both books. In the Processes it is supported by a program of research stating what is regarded as the most general problem confronting students of mankind and, according to Teggart, its most promising general solution.

Since men, like their animal brethren, are divided into countless groups (usually called cultures), the central problem for all humanists, and one of almost overwhelming magnitude and difficulty, turns upon the question of how man has come to be as he is—culturally different. This ultimate question had confronted the environmentalist, the racialist, and the social evolutionist; no acceptable solution had been reached. How then, asked Teggart, may a new start be made? How may historians with their documentary treasure and the aid of scientific method arrive at a more credible solution?

The first observation Teggart made in the Processes in this connection is that human history is not unitary but pluralistic; it is not one dated sequence of happenings but a plurality of sequences associated with a plurality of cultures. The second observation is geographical. Europe and Asia (areas in which dated human histories have been enacted to a marked degree) are geographically indissoluble, and the Eurasian land mass has been the site of plural cultures and plural histories. When scientific method in its elementary aspect of comparison is employed, it promptly reveals not merely a large collection of dated historical series but a collection in which uniformities—political, geographical, and psychological—are observable. It discloses common steps, or similar sequences of events, by which man in Europe and Asia came to be what he is. It reveals (1) that political organization, or the advancement from an earlier system of kindred relationships, has been restricted to certain small areas in geographical pockets on the land mass; (2) that these small politicized or advanced areas have occurred not only in geographical pockets but at the termini of routes of travel or of group migration; and hence, (3) that political organization, civil society, or civilization has arisen at points of human contact, pressure, conflict, or war, followed by the release of at least some measure of individual initiative.

At this point, in order to emphasize the critical importance of using dated materials for ends other than narrative, to convince future students of the practicability and fruitfulness of allying scientific method with the study of dated events, and to obey one of the fundamental injunctions of science, Teggart felt it necessary to verify at least some of the elements of his general solution by presenting at least one test case. This step, so customary in the sciences but so rare in historical studies, was taken in Rome and China: A Study of Correlations in Historical Events (1939). Here again the theater of action and investigation was Eurasia, but in conformity with scientific practice, only one phase of the original solution or hypothesis was chosen for immediate confirmation. The phase Teggart selected was that class of recurrent events familiar to all students of history, namely, the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire during the period from 58 B.C. to A.D. 107. Taking this limited time span, he sought to account for the appearance of a recurrent historical phenomenon, a genus of the larger species of recurrent human migrations discussed in the Processes.

After a tireless examination of the barbarian penetrations of the far-flung Roman boundaries, together with their antecedent tribal movements in mid-Asia, the substantiation of this phase of the general hypothesis seemed to be complete. Just as on the larger canvas of the Processes the recurrent appearance of civil society was preceded by conditions of contact including war, so, in the more particularized study, every barbarian uprising in Europe followed the outbreak of war either on the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire or in the western regions of the Chinese Empire.

Thus, the investigation established correlations in historical events, and these correlations, themselves new historical facts, became in turn proper subjects for continued scientific examination and explanation.

The discovery, under conscientious control, that at least some classes of dated events exhibit correlation is a matter of profound importance in historiography and in the history of thought. It demonstrates a type of human historical fact that hitherto has not received attention and suggests the presence of other correlations to be elicited by historical research.

Teggart is known also for his work on other problems in historical and social theory. In the Prolegomena to History (1916) and the Theory of History (1925) he discussed historiography, the philosophy of history, the history of civilizations, and the theory of social change in its broadest sense. He urged readers to be aware of the historical and naive dependence of the social studies upon the natural sciences and asserted that the refusal of historians, anthropologists, and sociologists to define their assumptions, or to trace the history of their organizing ideas, had left them at the mercy of unexamined, inherited, and antiquated preconceptions. He emphasized the need for close cooperation between history and anthropology —the study of man civilized and primitive, literate and nonliterate—-on the basis of a unified set of principles of organization.

Margaret T. Hodgen

[See alsoARCHEOLOGY; Ethnology; History, article on culture History. Directly related are the entries Evolution; Historiography; and the biography of Childe


1910 The Circumstance or the Substance of History. American Historical Review 15:709-719.

1916 Prolegomena to History: The Relation of History to Literature, Philosophy, and Science. University of California Publications in History, Vol. 4, No. 3. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1918 The Processes of History. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

1919a Anthropology and History. Journal of Philosophy 16:691-696.

1919b The Approach to the Study of Man. Journal of Philosophy 16:151-156.

1922 Clio. University of California Chronicle 24:347-360.

1925 Theory of History. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

1926a The Humanistic Study of Change in Time. Journal of Philosophy 23:309-315.

1926b Turgot’s Approach to the Study of Man. University of California Chronicle 28:129-142.

(1927-1929) 1930 Two Essays on History. Berkeley, Calif.: Privately printed. → Contains “The Responsibility of the Historian,” read at the 42d annual meeting of the American Historical Association, 1927; and “Spengler,” reprinted from the Saturday Review of Literature, Volume 5, 1929, pages 597-599.

1929 Notes on Timeless Sociology. Sociai Forces 7:362-365.

1939 Rome and China: A Study of Correlations in Historical Events. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1940 A Problem in the History of Ideas. Journal of the History of Ideas 1:494-503.

1941a War and Civilization in the Future. American Journal of Sociology 46:582-590.

1941b World History. Scientia (Bologna) 69:30-35.

1942 Causation in Historical Events. Journal of the History of Ideas 3:3-11.

1947 The Argument of Hesiod’s Works and Days. Journal of the History of Ideas 8:45-77.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Teggart, Frederick J.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Teggart, Frederick J.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (August 18, 2017).

"Teggart, Frederick J.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from

Frederick J. Teggart

Frederick J. Teggart

Frederick J. Teggart (1870-1946) was a comparative historian, librarian, sociologist, and educator who was responsible for initiating sociology at the University of California. He was a pioneer in advocating the fruitful interchange between history and sociology. He was one of the early modern analysts of social change, as well as a proponent of careful theoretical analysis in the study of both ancient and modern societies.

Frederick J. Teggart was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1870, one of eleven children. First educated at Methodist College in Belfast and Trinity College in Dublin, he and his family came to the United States in 1889. Thereafter he enrolled in the then new Stanford University, where one of his classmates was Herbert Hoover. He received an A.B. degree in English in 1894. There followed a prolonged but not rewarding career as a librarian, first at Stanford and then as head librarian of a prestigious private library in San Francisco. By 1905, after several years of study and professional publishing, he became a lecturer in the extension division of Stanford, and in 1911 he was made an associate professor of history and curator of the famous Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

After considerable academic wrangling and controversy at the University of California, he was appointed to a new department of social institutions (really sociology) in 1919, becoming a full professor in 1925. During the next decade or so his major course for undergraduates was a magisterial survey called "Progress and Civilization." Though he did not attain the doctoral degree because of fierce academic politics at Stanford, he finally was properly recognized by an honorary LL.D. degree from the University of California in 1940.

Teggart was an early, articulate critic of both over-specialized chronicling of "historical" events and grandiose philosophical abstractions in the social sciences. He vigorously championed an intellectual and practical alliance of history and sociology, with a supplementary emphasis on significant comparisons and the necessity for "world" (inter-societal) history and analysis. In all this, he constantly underscored the need to study important, deep-seated social and cultural changes, not as manifestations of evolution or progress, but as evidence of both achievement and social difficulties.

These ideas were lucidly developed in three works prepared between 1916 and 1925—Prolegomena to History, Processes of History, and Theory of History. The essential message of his intellectual career was that major changes could be reliably explained by locating crucial human events or processes that could be interpreted as "intrusions" on established practices and institutions. These events were conceived as "breaks" in continuity, as "transitions" between antecedent and subsequent developments, reflecting an essentially unpredictable (but nevertheless understandable) unfolding of human experience throughout recorded history. But the primary mark of such "intrusions" was, for Teggart, the evidence of mass migrations due to a variety of demographic, economic, and political factors.

In a very special but controversial study, Teggart tried to explain the barbarian invasions (migrations in the Roman Empire, 58 B.C. to 107 A.D.) as cumulative responses to raids and wars in Eastern Europe and the western regions of the Chinese Empire. In studying later centuries, Teggart gave more prominence to population pressures and the accessibility afforded by intersecting travel and trade routes. However, the consequences of migrations became a major focus for Teggart. He concluded that migrations ultimately unsettled pre-existing organizations, as well as idea systems and values, since migrants carried their cultures with their bodies and belongings. While this collision creates conflicts and uncertainties, the net result was often a release from routine ways and opportunities for greater individuality and a mentality of freedom that results in new ideas and alternatives.

Teggart boldly attacked institutional sterility and complacent intellectual paralysis by pointing to previously ignored orders of facts, by criticizing undue disciplinary specialization, and by confronting the problems of conflict as normal components (not as inevitable causes or either as desirable) of the complex human record. While he was not fully appreciated by his California colleagues, he was an acknowledged influence on the thinking of such scholars as Robert Park and Arnold Toynbee.

Further Reading

Teggart's major works were Prolegomena to History (1916), Processes of History (1918), Theory of History (1925), and Rome and China (1939). In addition, there is a revealing reminiscence of Teggart in Robert A. Nisbet, Teachers and Scholars (1992).

Additional Sources

Dangberg, Grace, A guide to the life and works of Frederick J. Teggart, Reno, Nev.: Grace Dangberg Foundation, 1983. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Frederick J. Teggart." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 18 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Frederick J. Teggart." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (August 18, 2017).

"Frederick J. Teggart." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from