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History, Idea of


"History" began, with Herodotus (5th century b.c.e.), as a form of empirical inquiry and has had an adventurous semantic career since its early Greek coinage. It has come to refer not only to procedures of investigation but also to speculations about the past. From the very beginning there was confusion between history as what happened in the past and history as memory and description of human events and, on a further level, conjectures about their larger meaning. The definition of history ranged from the study of particulars to philosophical reflection, and the idea of history had a corresponding range of reference both in theory and in practice. For Herodotus, history was intended not only to cast light on the customs of the "barbarians" but also to explain the causes of the wars with the Persians.

For the Romans history was designed, as with Livy (59 b.c.e.17 c.e.), not only to celebrate national traditions but also, as with Cicero (10643 b.c.e.), to furnish moral lessons for careful readers; and in both models the political-nationalist and the moral-exemplarist modes of historical writing entered into alliance with rhetoric and its apparatus of persuasion and inspiration as manifested in "art of history" (ars historica ). At its best, history was, in the words of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (fl. c. 20 b.c.e.), "philosophy teaching by example." These motives were all preserved in the conception of history of Christian authors, with the addition of an overarching providential design inherited from Judaism, which itself arose in the context of Near Easternand for Western authors "barbarian"religions. Not that the idea of history in some sense was limited to the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions, but the writings of other cultures remained outside the Western sphere until the early modern period.

The key to the conceptualization of history is the effort to essentialize the past, first in a Herodotean or Thucydidean narrative, and then in more rational, conjectural, philosophical, and religious ways. The "past" became (in Arnold Toynbee's phrase) an "intelligible field of study," and anthropomorphism as well as religious beliefs and ethnic prejudices came into play in the interpretation of the results of historical inquiry. In the West this meant above all the biblical framework and history as the "grand design of god," which posited human experience in time as a pilgrimage under the laws of providence. From St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (17291781) history was seen as the "education of the human race," whether on the way to a final judgment or to an earthly destiny represented as progress, destiny, or a cyclical trajectory. To be ignorant of history, in the often-cited words of Cicero, was always to remain a child. This line of thought was pursued within the framework of a "world history," which transcended the parochial biblical story, which was extended by "conjectural" methods in the eighteenth century, which, in the work especially of Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), eventuated in the genre of the "philosophy of history," which was given a more secular and "scientific" twist by Auguste Comte (17981857) and Karl Marx (18181883) and their followers, and which today is preserved in attempts at global history.

Controversies and Models

Ancient notions of history were revived in the Renaissance and not only adapted to modern conditions but also subjected to critical scrutiny, focusing on the question of whether history was an art or a "science," a question debated by historians down to the past century, notably in the famous exchange between George Macaulay Trevelyan (18761962) and John Bagnell Bury (18611927). In the sixteenth century history was in effect promoted from the level of art to that of science, especially in the work of Jean Bodin (15301596) and his followers on the "method" of history, although his primary aim was to place historical knowledge in the service of the sciences of law and society. Yet history retained its relations with philosophy, especially as a fulfillment of the ancient Greek motto of self-knowledge. "Know thyself," quoted Bodin's disciple Pierre Droit de Gaillard in another "method" of history. "Now this knowledge depends upon history, sacred as well as profane, universal as well as particular." Such was one of the essential elements of historical study down to the famous work on the "idea of history" by Robin George Collingwood (18891943). Another contemporaneous French scholar, Henri de la Popelinière, likewise carried on Bodin's project by writing not only a history of history but also a discussion of the "idea of perfect history" (l'idée de l'histoire accomplie; historia perfecta ), which followed Bodin's ideas but preserved the autonomy of the discipline of history.

Another central theme of the theory of history begins with Aristotle's (384322 b.c.e.) famous and debate-inspiring contrast between poetry and history, which maintains that the latter stands in relation to philosophy as the particular to the general, and indeed this distinction was maintained not only by early modern scholars but also in the contrast made in the later nineteenth century by Wilhelm Windelband (18481915) and Heinrich Rickert (18631936) between sciences that were "idiographic," treating particulars, and those that were "nomothetic," seeking general laws. German "historicism" as defined by Friedrich Meinecke (18621954) was a view that likewise set history apart from philosophy through the principle of "individuality" (as well as development). Among the manifestations of individuality and vulgar empiricism were the isolation of particular "facts" and "events," which came under fire from more sophisticated views of historical knowledge.

In the early modern period, history, following the usage of "natural history," was defined especially as the knowledge of particulars (singulorum notitia, particularis cognitio ), but increasingly it was also connected with the dimension of time and chronology, which, with geography, was regarded as one of the "eyes" of history. Here the central question was the form taken by the temporal process: where did it begin, and where was it headed? Was it continuous, filled with crises or revolutionary breaks, or perhaps cyclical? How could historians move back into that "foreign country" that is the past? Was ordinary memory, supported by reason, sufficient for such explorations, or was imagination required as well? Or did history require assistance from neighboring disciplines in the human sciences? All these questions and more have given substance, shape, and direction to the idea of history in modern times.

Hermeneutical Principles

In the nineteenth century the competing paradigms for historical interpretation were the natural-science model and cultural history inclining toward art and aesthetics, the first represented especially by Leopold von Ranke (17951886) and Theodor Mommsen (18171903) and the second by Jules Michelet (17981874) and Jacob Burckhardt (18181897)and both represented in the famous exchange between Bury and Trevelyan. In general, historians have taken two paths to disciplinary science, one based on brute empiricism and reliance on primary sources and the other, under the influence of positivism, seeking general laws, as notoriously did Henry Thomas Buckle (18211862) and Hippolyte Taine (18281893). In this mode history was represented as a physical process that followed set patterns, a view that was reinforced by the analogy of Darwinian evolution. It was in this context, too, that the ideal of objectivityhistory sub specie aeternitatis was defended against the idea of history as a subjective literary art, to the extent indeed that the term "literary" became a pejorative term for scientific and professional historians following the quest of Ranke for history "as it actually happened."

Yet historians had long been aware that history had to be written from a particular "point of view" (Sehepunkt ), and this hermeneutical insight, first expressed by Johann Martin Chladenius (17101759), was taught by the classical historian, and Ranke's colleague, Johann Gustav Droysen (18081884), for whom history was indeed partial insight and not "objective knowledge." For Droysen history was, as it had been for Herodotus, a matter of endless inquiry"not," alluding to John the Baptist, "'the light and the truth' but a search therefor, a sermon thereupon, a consecration thereto." This was especially appropriate for art history, which was the model chosen by Jacob Burckhardt, for whom "History is actually the most unscientific of all the sciences" (1979, p. 21). Burckhardt rejected the "bogus objectivity" of Ranke for the subjectivity that arose in the Renaissance and Reformation. As he wrote about his own classic study of the civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, "To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a given civilization present a different picture, [so that] it is unavoidable that individual judgment and feeling should tell every moment both on the writer and on the reader" (1950, p. 1). The result was a principle of relativism that applied to the study of history itself, for "each age has a new and different way of looking at the more remote periods of the past" (1998, p. 7).

Many Ideas

One of the results of this is that to understand what the "idea of history" is, it is necessary to trace what it has been, and such indeed was the practice of Benedetto Croce (18661952) and his disciple Collingwood, for whom historical understanding had to be not a search for general or logical causes but a concern for individual motivesa kind of contemporary reenactment of past events in the fashion of Agatha Christie's sleuth, Hercule Poirot, and along the lines of modern hermeneutics. In any case Collingwood concludes his review of the "idea of history" (1946) by reducing it, in modern terms, to the Greek view that history was a unique form of inquiry into human behavior, proceeding through the interpretation of evidence, aiming at self-knowledge. One of the dangers of this view was the "Whig interpretation of history," denounced by Herbert Butterfield in 1931, but there seems no avoiding this sort of parochialism in a general sense.

In the twentieth century the idea of history took a number of forms, beginning with the old scientific ideal, encouraged by interdisciplinary studies and especially the methods and aims of the social sciences. One example of this was Marxist history, in which economic conditions and class struggle furnished the motor and revolution the goal of historical change, but in fact many political, social, and economic conditions have in their own ways preserved the search for the mechanisms of cause and effect underlying the historical process. This applies also to the adjacent field of the philosophy and theology of history, which has continued in the old Hegelian form, but which has diverged as well into the modern tradition of analytical philosophy, which is traceable back at least to F. H. Bradley's Presuppositions of Critical History (1874), but which became a major project in the third quarter of the twentieth century, when philosophers of history focused on published historical accounts and the examination of propositions and explanations with little or no attention to problems of research and heuristics but with great interest in the propositional analysis of stable terms and in assigning of causes and determining the "covering laws" to be extracted from the discourse of historians. Yet this abstractive focus on the "logic" of historical inquiry in the style of F. H. Bradley, Maurice Mandelbaum, William Dray, and Morton White seems to have run its course, or at least outlived its usefulness for historians.

Current Approaches

In many ways contemporary ideas of history have been re-shaped and redirected in the wake of the linguistic and cultural turns taken by historical investigation and interpretation in the past century. With the decline of Marxist ideology and the rise of an anthropological model, historians have shifted from social to cultural matters, from the search for underlying causes to the human condition over time. Cultural history rejects the reductionism of economic and political history, gives up the "noble dream" of objectivity, the privileging of particular causes, recognizes the fundamental role of imagination in historical reconstruction, and, no longer aspiring to rigorous explanation, turns instead to what Clifford Geertz and Charles Taylor have called "interpretive social science." For cultural historians, following the lead of anthropology, nothing human was alien to their inquiries, so that their aim indeed became, in the words of Fernand Braudel, "the history of everything." Life around the clock, around the globe, from cradle to grave, and including the secrets of private life and sexuality: these have been the horizons of what has been trumpeted as the "new cultural history"; and the postmodern rejection of "grand narratives" has reinforced this move toward microhistory, multiple points of view, and loss of historiographical focus.

Yet the contemporary idea of history has in other ways lowered its sights, especially by shifting from a natural science to a linguistic model and so from a concern with primary sources to literary criticism of secondary, published and usually classic, narratives of key texts and questions of historiography. In a sense this shift, most conspicuously exemplified in the work of Hayden White and his followers, represents a return to the ancient rhetorical tradition of historical writing (and reading). To read history out of a text or to read history as a text: in either case we are impelled to shift from history as past reality (res gestae ) to history as a phenomenon of literature (rerum gestae narratio ) from context to text. According to this shift of perspective, illustrated by the "New Historicism" of recent vintage, history is not a bygone process to be explained but a field of written accounts whose meaning can only be represented through the interpretation of traces, mainly linguistic traces. History is not rational but commemorative and imaginative; and there is no Archimedean point from which to view, still less to move, humanity in its passage. We may pose questions, but we cannot link cause and effect in any rigorous way. We may tell many stories, true as well as probable, about the past; but we cannot tell the story, the whole truth, the metanarrative, as scientific, philosophical, and theological historians used to do and, in some quarters, are still doing. This is the critical perspective from which the idea of history has encountered various deconstructionist, poststructuralist, and postmodernist views of the human sciences that have changed the way many historians write if not the way they think.

Such are some of the conditions of the modern idea, or ideas, of history. As Michael Oakeshott long ago and Croce longer ago argued, history is not a thing of the past; and as the authors of the old artes historicae also taught, writing and reading history is a thing of the present. So are the remnants and relics of the past on which historical interpretation is based and the "contexts" that historians try to reconstruct from their own standpoints. The result is to qualify some of the key elements of our received ideas of history. There can be no single account of an essentialized "past" but only multiple stories that select, arrange, and interpret surviving records, testimony, and artifacts from particular points of view; nor can there be "facts" outside of human interpretations of its remains and uncertain human memoryno objects outside a human subject. A philosopher has written that we cannot speak the truth because "words cannot mimic the way the world is." How much less can historians speak the truth of the way the world was and its languages were ? History cannot "speak" except through human ventriloquism, and (to invoke Jean-François Lyotard's post-modernist criticism) there can be no "metanarrative" that captures the "nature and destiny of man." Such metanarratives we have, of coursethey have founded all sorts of ideologies and utopiasbut as frameworks for the story of humanity they all sooner or later come to grief. The idea of history has in many ways become globalized. Yet it remains a humantime-and culture-boundcreation, whose technologically enhanced future is as uncertain as its past has been controversial and irregular; and its history will continue to be rewritten.

See also Cycles ; Hegelianism ; Historiography ; Marxism ; Periodization ; Prehistory, Rise of .


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Donald R. Kelley

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