Henry Thomas Buckle

views updated Jun 11 2018

Henry Thomas Buckle

The English historian Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862) was a major figure in the positivist movement in historical scholarship. He applied the methods of natural science to history in an effort to discover scientific laws governing the historical process.

Henry Thomas Buckle was born in Lee, Kent, on Nov. 24, 1821. Owing to his delicate health, he did not attend school but educated himself through extensive reading and traveling. Before the age of 20 he had become one of the foremost chess players in England. After his father's death in 1840, he traveled on the Continent, and during this period he resolved to turn his energies to the preparation of a great historical work. He first decided to write a history of the Middle Ages, but by 1851 he had expanded his original plan and had begun work on a history of civilization. He published the first volume of the History of Civilization in England in 1857 and the second volume in 1861.

Buckle felt that there was a need to demonstrate that historical development occurs in accordance with universal laws, and perhaps more than any other historian of the 19th century he popularized the belief that scientific laws of history could be formulated. Thus the aim of his work was to discover by inductive inquiry the causal uniformities governing society and its development. Buckle's historiographical method was influenced by John Stuart Mill's empiricism and by Auguste Comte's belief that society should be studied through the application of scientific procedures.

In his History of Civilization in England Buckle argued that in order to develop a scientific study of history, it is necessary to take into account not only how man modified the natural world but also how the natural world modified man. In particular, he believed that physical factors (climate and food, among others) are the most important force in determining how a civilization will develop. Thus for Buckle the differences among the world's civilizations are due in large part to the unique physical circumstances in which each culture evolved. He held that the high level to which European civilization had developed was due to a combination of environmental factors that had encouraged full use of man's intellectual capabilities. The key to human progress was, therefore, the development of knowledge.

Buckle's work enjoyed an immediate success, but his failure to assimilate Charles Darwin's and Herbert Spencer's evolutionary theories resulted in a rapid decline in his fame. While traveling in the Middle East in 1862, he contracted a fever and died in Damascus.

Further Reading

The best book on Buckle is Giles St. Aubyn, A Victorian Eminence: The Life and Works of Henry Thomas Buckle (1958), an account of his life and thought against the background of Victorian England. An older but reliable work is Alfred Henry Huth, The Life and Writings of Henry Thomas Buckle (1880). □