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This article is also available for rental through DeepDyve. View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. Advance article alerts. Its implications for the practice of history are clear. In this process the beliefs and values of historians are irrelevant; their sole concern is with the facts and the generalizations to which they logically lead. Full-blown professions of positivist faith are still made occasionally, 4 but nowadays a watered-down version is preferred.

Latter-day positivists maintain that the study of history cannot generate its own laws; rather, the essence of historical explanation lies in the correct application of generalizations derived from other disciplines supposedly based on scientific method, such as economics, sociology and psychology. The second position, which corresponds to the school of philosophy known as idealism , rejects the fundamental assumption of positivism.

According to this view, human events must be carefully distinguished from natural events because the identity between the enquirer and his or her subject matter opens the way to a fuller understanding than anything that the natural scientist can aspire to. Once the enquirer strays into this realm the inductive method is of limited use. The reality of past events must instead be apprehended by an imaginative identification with the people of the past, which depends on intuition and empathy — qualities that have no place in the classical view of scientific method.

Furthermore, historians are concerned with the individual, unique event. The generalizations of the social sciences are not applicable to the study of the past, nor does history yield any generalizations or laws of its own. But the implications of the unresolved clash between positivism and idealism go much further than the distinction between traditional political history and the more recent fields of economic and social history.

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They help to explain why there is so much disagreement among historians about the nature of virtually every aspect of their work from primary source evaluation through to the finished work of interpretation. Much of the professional self-esteem of the new breed of academic historians in the nineteenth century was based on the rigorous techniques that they had perfected for the location and criticism of primary sources.

The canons they established have governed the practice of historians ever since, so that the whole edifice of modern historical knowledge is founded on the painstaking evaluation of original documents. First, the primary sources available to the historian are an incomplete record, not only because so much has perished by accident or design but in a more fundamental sense because a great deal that happened left no material trace whatever.

This is particularly true of mental processes, both conscious and unconscious. No historical character, however prominent and articulate, has ever set down more than a tiny proportion of his or her thoughts and assumptions; and often some of the most influential beliefs are those that are taken for granted and therefore are not discussed in the documents. Second, the sources are tainted by the less than pure intentions of their authors and — more insidiously — by their confinement within the assumptions of men and women in that time and place.

In some Marxist circles this contention has led to an absolute scepticism about the possibility of knowledge of the past, and history has been put on the intellectual scrap-heap. There is an element of truth in both these criticisms, but those who push them to extremes betray an ignorance of how historians actually work. What a researcher can learn from a set of documents is not confined to its explicit meaning; that meaning is first of all scrutinized for bias and then used as the basis for inference.

Moreover, much of the importance attached to primary sources derives not from the intentions of the writer but from information that was incidental to his or her purpose and yet may provide a flash of insight into an otherwise inaccessible aspect of the past. The historian, in short, is not confined by the categories of thought in which the documents were composed. But there is a third and more formidable difficulty in the notion that historians simply follow where the documents lead, and this turns on the profusion of the available sources.

These sources may, it is true, represent a very incomplete record; yet for all but very remote periods and places they survive in completely unmanageable quantities.

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This is a problem that has been confronted only during the present century. Nineteenth-century historians, especially those of a positivist turn of mind such as Lord Acton, believed that finality in historical writing would be attained when primary research had brought to light a complete assemblage of the facts; many of these facts might seem obscure and trivial, but they would all tell in the end. Historians read between the lines, or they work out what really happened from several contradictory indications, or they may do no more than establish that the writer was probably telling the truth.

But in none of these cases can the historian observe the facts in the way that a physicist can. Historians generally have little time for this kind of critique. Formal proof may be beyond their reach; what matters is the validity of the inferences. In practice historians spend a good deal of time disputing and refining the inferences that can be legitimately drawn from the sources, and the facts of history can be said to rest on inferences whose validity is widely accepted by expert opinion.

Who, they ask with some justice, could reasonably ask for more? Historians are much more troubled by the implications of the apparently limitless number of facts about the past that can be verified in this way. But historians do not proceed on this assumption — not even the specialist in some limited aspect of a well-defined period. There is in practice no limit to the number of facts that have a bearing on such a problem, and the historian who resolved to be guided solely by the facts would never reach any conclusion.

The facts are not given, they are selected. Despite appearances, they are never left to speak for themselves. However detailed a historical narrative may be, and however committed its author to the re-creation of the past, it never springs from the sources ready-made; many events are omitted as trivial, and those that do find a place in the narrative tend to be seen through the eyes of one particular participant or a small group.

Historical writing of all kinds is determined as much by what it leaves out as by what it puts in. That is why it makes sense to distinguish with E. Carr between the facts of the past and the facts of history. If historical facts are selected, it is important to identify the criteria employed in selecting them. Are there commonly shared principles, or is it a matter of personal whim? Namier expressed this idea metaphorically:. The function of the historian is akin to that of the painter and not of the photographic camera; to discover and set forth, to single out and stress that which is of the nature of the thing, and not to reproduce indiscriminately all that meets the eye.

It makes for less confusion if it is admitted outright that the standards of significance applied by the historian are defined by the nature of the historical problem that he or she is seeking to solve. Postan put it:. There is an element of rhetorical exaggeration about this view. Historical knowledge abounds in facts such as the Great Fire of London or the execution of Charles I whose status is for all practical purposes unassailable, and critics such as Elton have seized on this point to discredit the distinction between the facts of the past and the facts of history, which they feel introduces a dangerous element of subjectivity.

Clearly, then, much depends on the kind of questions that the historian has in mind at the outset of research. As was discussed in Chapter 5, there is something to be said for selecting a rich and previously untapped vein of source material and being guided by whatever questions it throws up see pp.

The difficulty with this method is that nobody actually approaches the sources with a completely open mind — the grounding in the standard secondary literature which precedes any research will see to that. Even if no specific questions have been formulated, the researcher will study the sources with certain assumptions that are only too likely to be an unthinking reflection of current orthodoxy, and the result will be merely a clarification of detail or a modification of emphasis within the prevailing framework of interpretation.

Significant advances in historical understanding are more likely to be achieved when a historian puts forward a clearly formulated hypothesis that can be tested against the evidence. The answers may not correspond to the hypothesis, which must then be discarded or modified, but merely to ask new questions has the important effect of alerting historians to unfamiliar aspects of familiar problems and to unsuspected data in well-worked sources.


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Consider, for example, the origins of the English Civil War. Nineteenth-century historians approached this as a problem of competing political and religious ideologies, and they selected accordingly from the great mass of surviving information about early seventeenth-century England. From the s onwards an increasing number of scholars sought to test a Marxist approach to the conflict, and as a result new material which related to the economic fortunes of the gentry, the aristocracy and the urban bourgeoisie became critically important.

Marc Bloch, whose own work proceeded on the basis of hypotheses, put the issue clearly:. Every historical research supposes that the inquiry has a direction at the very first step. In the beginning, there must be the guiding spirit. Mere passive observation, even supposing such a thing were possible, has never contributed anything productive to any science. Significantly, scientists today would themselves mostly agree.

Inductive thought and passive observation have ceased to be regarded as the hallmarks of scientific method. Rather, all observation whether of the natural or the human world is selective and therefore presupposes a hypothesis or theory, however incoherent it may be. Our understanding advances through the formulation of new hypotheses that go beyond the evidence currently available and must be tested against further observation, which will either refute or corroborate the hypothesis.

And because hypotheses go beyond the evidence, they necessarily involve a flash of insight or an imaginative leap, often the bolder the better. Scientific method, then, is a dialogue between hypothesis and attempted refutation, or between creative and critical thought.


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  • British scientist and philosopher. Popper rejected induction as a basis for science and argued that the proper role of scientific observation was to refute existing theories rather than to try to confirm them. But although history and the natural sciences may converge in some of their fundamental methodological assumptions, important differences remain.

    First, far greater play is allowed to the imagination in history. Historians are not, after all, only concerned to explain the past; they also seek to reconstruct or re-create it — to show how life was experienced as well as how it may be understood — and this requires an imaginative engagement with the mentality and atmosphere of the past. As Joseph C. Miller puts it:. History turns data into evidence not by pursuing the technical attributes of data but by substituting a distinctively intuitive, humanistic, holistic strategy for the experimental method of science. In maintaining that all history is the history of thought, Collingwood unduly confined the scope of the subject.

    But it is certainly true that the evaluation of documentary sources depends on a reconstruction of the thought behind them; before anything else can be achieved, the historian must first try to enter the mental world of those who created the sources. And whereas scientists can often create their own data by experiment, historians are time and again confronted by gaps in the evidence which they can make good only by developing a sensitivity as to what might have happened, derived from an imagined picture that has taken shape in the course of becoming immersed in the surviving documentation.

    In all these ways imagination is vital to the historian. It not only generates fruitful hypotheses; it is also deployed in the reconstruction of past events and situations by which those hypotheses are tested. The second and even more critical distinction to be made between history and the natural sciences is that the standing of explanations put forward by historians is very much inferior to that of scientific explanation.

    It may be that scientific explanations are no more than provisional hypotheses, but they are for the most part hypotheses on which all people qualified to judge are in agreement; they may be superseded one day, but for the time being they represent the nearest possible approximation to the truth and are commonly recognized as such. In matters of historical explanation, on the other hand, a scholarly consensus scarcely exists. The known facts may not be in doubt, but how to interpret or explain them is a matter of endless debate, as my example of the English Civil War illustrated.

    The reason for this diversity of opinion lies in the complex texture of historical change. We saw in Chapter 6 how both individual and collective behaviour are influenced by an immense range of contrasting factors. What needs stressing here is that each historical situation is unique in the sense that the exact configuration of causal factors is unrepeatable. It might be argued, for instance, that the reasons why the European powers withdrew from most of their African colonies during the s and s were common to some thirty-odd different territories.

    But this would be valid only as a very broad-brush statement. The respective strength of the colonial power and the nationalist movement varied from one country to another according to its value to the metropolis, its experience of social change, the size of the resident European community, and so on. Perhaps this would not matter if certainty was attainable in explaining particular events. But this more modest objective eludes historians as well.

    The problem here is that the evidence is never sufficiently full and unambiguous to place a causal interpretation beyond doubt. This is true of even the best-documented events. In a case like the origins of the First World War, the sources provide ample evidence of the motives of the protagonists, the sequence of diplomatic moves, the state of public opinion, the upward spiral of the arms race, the relative economic strength of all the nations involved, and so on.

    But what the evidence alone cannot do is tell us the relative importance of all these varied factors, or present a comprehensive picture of how they interacted with each other. Some of the influences on human conduct, such as the natural environment or the neurotic and irrational, are apprehended subconsciously; others may be experienced directly but not disclosed in the sources.

    Questions of historical explanation cannot, therefore, be resolved solely by reference to the evidence. Historians are also guided by their intuitive sense of what was possible in a given historical context, by their reading of human nature, and by the claims of intellectual coherence. In each of these areas they are unlikely to concur. As a result, several different hypotheses can hold the field at any one time. Burckhardt frankly acknowledged the problem in the Preface to his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy :.

    In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead also to essentially different conclusions. The area of knowledge beyond dispute is both smaller and much less significant in history than it is in the natural sciences. Jakob Burckhardt, Swiss historian. This comparison between history and natural sciences is perhaps somewhat contrived, given that the assumptions most people make about the standing of scientific knowledge are an outdated residue of nineteenth-century positivism; scientific knowledge is in reality less certain and less objective than is commonly supposed.

    But what the comparison does bring out is the extent to which our knowledge of the past depends on choices freely exercised by the historian. The common-sense notion that the business of historians is simply to uncover the past and display what they have found will not stand up.

    At every stage both the direction and the destination of the enquiry are determined as much by the enquirer as by the data. Clearly, the rigid segregation of fact and value demanded by the positivists is unworkable in history. This does not mean, as sceptics might suppose, that it is therefore arbitrary or illusory.

    But it does follow that the assumptions and attitudes of historians themselves have to be carefully assessed before we can come to any conclusion about the real status of historical knowledge. Reasoning from experiment and experience, rather than from theoretical principles. Up to a point those standards can be seen as the property of the individual historian. The experience of research is a personal and often very private one, and no two historians will share the same imaginative response to their material.

    It is more illuminating to see historical interpretation as moulded by social rather than individual experience. And because social values change, it follows that historical interpretation is subject to constant revision. What one age finds worthy of note in the past may well be different from what previous ages found worthy. This principle can be illustrated many times over within the relatively short span of time since the emergence of the academic profession of history.

    For Ranke and his contemporaries the sovereign nation-states which dominated the Europe of their day seemed the climax of the historical process; the state was the principal agent of historical change, and human destiny was largely determined by the shifting balance of power between states. This world view was seriously eroded by the First World War: after , against the background of optimism engendered by the League of Nations , history teaching in Britain tended to stress rather the growth of internationalism over the centuries.

    The international organization set up at the end of the First World War to settle international disputes without recourse to war. It inspired enormous levels of optimism, especially in Britain, in its early years. More recently, the way in which historians study the world beyond Europe and the United States has been transformed in the light of the changes they have lived through. Fifty years ago the history of Africa was still treated as an aspect of the expansion of Europe, in which the indigenous peoples scarcely featured except as the object of white policies and attitudes.

    Today the perspective is very different. African history exists in its own right, embracing both the pre-colonial past and the African experience of — and response to — colonial rule, and stressing the continuities of African historical development, which had previously been completely obscured by the stress on the European occupation. Twice in the course of a single lifetime the standards of significance applied by historians to the African past have been substantially revised. However, to say that history is rewritten by each generation or decade is only part of the truth — and positively misleading if it suggests the replacement of one consensus by another.

    In the case of history written during the High Middle Ages or the Renaissance it might be appropriate to speak of a scholarly consensus, since historians and their audience were drawn from a very restricted sector of society, and at this distance in time the differences between historians seem much less significant than the values they held in common. But the attainment of universal literacy and the extension of education in Western society in the twentieth century mean that historical writing now reflects a much wider range of values and assumptions.

    The towering political personalities of the past such as Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon Bonaparte are interpreted in widely divergent ways by professional historians as well as lay people, partly according to their own political values. Thompson see them as exploitative. Historical interpretation is a matter of value judgements, moulded to a greater or lesser degree by moral and political attitudes. Paradoxically there is an element of present-mindedness about all historical enquiry. British historian.

    He pioneered the study of the history of the English family. His ground-breaking work of social history The World We Have Lost overturned many common assumptions about everyday life in early modern England. The conflict is clearest in the case of those writers who ransack the past for material to fuel a particular ideology, or who falsify it in support of a political programme, as Nazi historians did under the Third Reich and supporters of Holocaust denial do today.

    Such works are propaganda, not history, and it is usually clear to the professional — and sometimes the lay person — that evidence has been suppressed or manufactured. Among historians themselves present-mindedness commonly takes two forms. The first is an interest in the historical origins of the modern world, or some particularly salient feature of it — say the nuclear family household or parliamentary democracy.

    In itself this is a positive response to the claims of social relevance, and it has the merit of providing a clear principle of selection leading to an intelligible picture of the past. But it also carries risks of superficiality and distortion. Abstracting one strand of development to be traced back to its origins too often means an indifference to historical context; the further back the enquiry proceeds, the more likely will a stress on linear descent obscure the contemporary significance of the institution or convention in question.

    Thus the Whig historians of the nineteenth century completely misunderstood the structure of medieval English government because of their obsessive interest in the origins of Parliament. A comparable criticism has been levelled at recent work on the medieval and early modern history of family relations and sexuality. This is the history written out of political commitment to a social group that has previously been marginalized by the prevalent historiography. Thus the complicity of West African societies in the transatlantic slave trade may be omitted, or the sexual conservatism of much nineteenth-century feminism.

    The way is then open for a reactive historiography marked by a more explicit and hard-nosed defence of the established order than that which existed before. If the outcome of historical enquiry is so heavily conditioned by the preferences of the enquirer and can so easily be altered by the intervention of another enquirer, how can it merit any credibility as a serious contribution to knowledge?

    If fact and value areinextricably tied together, how can a distinction be drawn between sound and unsound history? Historical interpretation, these historians averred, should be considered true only in relation to the needs of the age in which it was written. Becker renounced the aspirations to definitive history that had characterized the profession since Ranke.

    It is a reconstruction of certain parts of the past from surviving evidence which in some way have had relevance for the present circumstances of the historian who reconstructed them. The implications of this position are disturbing. Over the past forty years the orthodox response to relativism has been to make what is essentially a restatement of historicism. Historians, the argument goes, must renounce any standards or priorities external to the age they are studying.

    Only then will they be true to their material and their vocation. But this claim to speak with the voice of the past will not bear inspection. Whose standards should be adopted — those of the rich or the poor, the colonized or the colonizers, Protestant or Catholic? In practice their writing is exposed to two dangers.

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    On the one hand they may find themselves confined by the priorities and assumptions of those who created the sources; on the other, the end-product is quite likely to be influenced — if only unconsciously — by their own values, which are difficult to make allowances for because they are undeclared.

    Sir Geoffrey Elton first made his name with a detailed study, based on his Ph. However, Elton was sometimes accused of seeing everything in Tudor England as if it related to bureaucratic administration. There is another serious difficulty encountered by the strictly historicist approach. We can never recapture the authentic flavour of a historical moment as it was experienced by people at the time because we, unlike them, know what happened next; and the significance which we accord to a particular incident is inescapably conditioned by that knowledge.

    Like it or not, the historian approaches the past with a superior vision conferred by hindsight. Some historians do their best to renounce this superior vision by confining their research to a few years or even months of history, for which they can give a blow-by-blow account with a minimum of selection or interpretation, but the total divestment of hindsight is not intellectually possible. Besides, should not hindsight be viewed as an asset to be exploited rather than a disability to be overcome?

    It is precisely our position in time relative to the subject of our enquiry that enables us to make sense of the past — to identify conditioning factors of which the historical participants were unaware, and to see consequences for what they were rather than what they were intended to be. So far this evaluation of historical enquiry has implied a hierarchy of approaches in which positivist science stands as the ultimate yardstick of intellectual rigour.

    Scientific method is here viewed as the only means of gaining direct knowledge of reality, past or present. The procedures of historicism offer a scarcely tenable defence, and to the extent that they fall short of scientific method must be deemed inferior. This debate has been running for as long as history has been seriously studied, and it shows no sign of being resolved.

    However, in the past three decades the hand of the sceptics has been strengthened by a major intellectual shift within the humanities that has rejected historicism as the basis for history and all other text-based disciplines. This is Postmodernism. Its hallmark is the prioritization of language over experience, leading to outright scepticism as to the human capacity to observe and interpret the external world, and especially the human world.

    The implications of Postmodernism for the standing of historical work are potentially serious and must be addressed with some care. Modern theories of language stand in a tradition first laid out by Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the twentieth century. Saussure declared that, far from being a neutral and passive medium of expression, language is governed by its own internal structure. No two languages have an identical match between words and things; certain patterns of thought or observation that are possible in one language are beyond the resources of another.

    From this Saussure drew the conclusion that language is non-referential — that speech and writing should be understood as a linguistic structure governed by its own laws, not as a reflection of reality: language is not a window on the world but a structure that determines our perception of the world. This way of understanding language has the immediate effect of downgrading the status of the writer: if the structure of the language is so constraining, the meaning of a text will have as much to do with the formal properties of the language as with the intentions of the writer, and perhaps more.

    There can be no objective historical method standing outside the text, only an interpretative point of address fashioned from the linguistic resources available to the interpreter. The historian or literary critic does not speak from a privileged vantage point. Any language is a complex system of meanings — a multiple code in which words often signify different meanings to different audiences; indeed the power of language partly resides in the unintended layers of meaning it conveys.

    Deconstruction covers a bewildering mass of daring and dissonant readings. The creative approach to interpreting texts — playful, ironic and subversive by turns — is a hallmark of Postmodern scholarship. Also known as constructionists, the literary forebears of historical Postmodernists. Inspired by the French literary scholar Jacques Derrida, they stressed the importance of analysing not just the wording of a text but the hidden assumptions and social or moral values within its vocabulary, even questioning whether text actually denotes what its words theoretically mean.

    According to this perspective, the texts of the past should not be viewed in isolation, because no text has ever been composed in isolation. All writers employ a language that has already served purposes similar to their own, and their audience may interpret what they write with reference to yet other conventions of language use.

    At any given time the world of texts is composed of diverse forms of production, each with its own cultural rationale, conceptual categories and patterns of usage. He showed how new, more restrictive discourses of madness, punishment and sexuality became established in Western Europe between and , challenging the conventional interpretation of this period as one of social and intellectual progress.


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    French philosopher and social historian. Analysing discourse, like all the critical procedures associated with modern linguistics, is founded on relativism. Its champions dismiss the idea that language reflects reality as the representational fallacy. Language, they assert, is inherently unstable, variable in its meanings over time, and contested in its own time.

    If accepted at face value, that indeterminacy is fatal to traditional notions of historical enquiry. But underlying their scholarly practice is the belief that the sources can yield up some, at least, of the meaning they held for those who wrote and read them originally. That is anathema to the deconstructionist, for whom no amount of technical expertise can remove the subjectivity and indeterminacy inherent in the reading of texts.

    Deconstructionists offer us instead the pleasure of finding any meanings we like, provided we do not claim authority for any of them. No amount of scholarship can give us a privileged vantage point. All that is available to us is a free interaction between reader and text, in which there are no approved procedures and no court of appeal. Completely unacceptable. The term comes from the Roman Catholic Church, where it is used to denote ideas and beliefs that are entirely incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

    Because historians claim vastly more than this, every aspect of their practice is open to challenge by Postmodernism.

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    Once the validity of the historical method of interpreting texts is undermined, all the procedures erected on that foundation are called into question. In place of historical explanation, Postmodernist history can only offer intertextuality, which deals in discursive relations between texts, not causal relations between events; historical explanation is dismissed as no more than a chimera to comfort those who cannot face a world without meaning.

    If the author is dead, so too is the unified historical subject, whether conceived of as an individual or as a collectivity such as class or nation : according to the Postmodernist view, identity is constructed by language — fractured and unstable because it is the focus of competing discourses.

    Perhaps most important of all, deconstructing the individuals and groups who have been the traditional actors in history means that history no longer has a big story to tell.