to syllabus

Historiography and Historical Methods

Week VII discussion questions


Ernst Breisach, Historiography:  Ancient, Medieval and Modern, 2nd edition (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Chapters 22-25

chapter 22

Why does B treat the onset of WWI as a turning point in modern historiography? 

B says that by 1914, historians saw two possible paths to "scientific" history:  the use of natural science as a model for historical studies; and the development of an independent "social science" based upon the idea that knowledge about human society is fundamentally different (and poses different methodological tasks) than the natural science.  Did both views see history as having the same purpose/goal?  Explain.

B says that during the 20th century (after WWI), a combination of factors shattered intellectuals' certainty that science was connected to progress, and that historians who believed in the "natural sciences" model of historiography began to doubt that history could reveal "truth"; what forces were involved in this shattering of faith in science?

B says that in the late 20th century historians who believed in the "social sciences" model of historiography also faced a fundamental problem that threw into question the idea that history could reveal "truth"--how does he explain that problem?

So, by the end of the 20th century, was there a single, clear, generally agreed  upon (unifying) theory of "scientific" history?

Does B think that by the end of the twentieth century economic history was able to provide a single, clear, generally agreed upon (unifying) approach to history?  Explain.

Does B think that by the end of the twentieth century social history was able to provide a single, clear, generally agreed upon (unifying) approach to history?  Explain.

Does B think that by the end of the twentieth century world history was able to provide a single, clear, generally agreed upon (unifying) approach to history?  Explain.


chapter 23

What does B mean by "assimilationists" and "autonomists" in his discussion of the search for a "scientific" history?

What does B see as the main goal of the "New Positivist" historians and philosophers of the 1920s-1940s?  For example, what did Popper and Hemple say that historians must do for history to be "scientific"?  Was this a workable solution?  And did this mean the end of positivistic history?  Explain.

According to B, what was the main goal of the "autonomist" historians and social scientists in the post-WWI period?  Was it easy to cast aside positivism without falling into the "trap" of relativism?  Explain.

Why do YOU think this (the need to establish truths that were not "relative") was such an important issue for intellectuals in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s?

How did Benedetto Croce deal with the problem of relativism?  Did he think that historians can be absolutely objective?  Explain.  Why, according to B, did Croce's approach make all history "contemporary" history?  And what was Croce's view of the purpose of history?

According to B, were American historians particularly worried about "scientific truth" or "relativism" in the 1920s and 1930s?  Explain. 

How did the Progressive Historians define "objectivity"?  And why does B call this subsection "a joyous relativism"?

Why were Becker and Beard more concerned than most American historians in the 1920s-1930s about the problems of objectivity and truth?

Becker eventually became skeptical about the ability of history to get at "truth"--how did he explain why history was useful even if it can't "depict the actual past"?

Did Beard think that historians could be absolutely objective or impartial?  Explain.  What did he think this implied for historians?  And what "act of faith" did Beard take as his own approach to history?

According to B, "Narrativism" was one post-WWII response to the problem of whether history can tell the truth, be objective, or be a science; what is "narrativism"?  For instance, what did the historian Collingwood think historians really do?  How did Oakeshott describe the "proper" method of doing history?  And how did Gallie explain the use of narrative in history?

B differentiates between the "narrativists" of the 1960s and those of the 1970s-present (the "post-modernists"), like Hayden White.  Does Hayden White think that historical narratives reflect (or describe) objective truths?  Explain.

B points out that one of the key insights of post-modernism is that "language shapes cognition"; what does this mean, and why is it significant to the study of history?  Think about this (a lot)!  What do you think?

B briefly explains the approach of "deconstructionists" like Derrida (and also Foucault); in what way does the deconstructionist perspective cast doubt on our ability to understand the "true," "original" meaning of any historical documents?  What does that mean for the purpose of history? (What did Foucault seem to think about the purpose/function of history?)

chapter 24

How does B explain the origins of the modern quantitative approach to history?

In what areas of historical study were quantitative methods first applied and why?  How, for instance, have French Annales-school historians, American economic  historians, and political historians, and social historians used quantitative methods?

According to B, what are historians now debating in regard to the use of quantitative methods?  And does B think that quantification can for once and for all solve the question of how to make history "scientific"?  Explain.

Before the advent of modern psychological theories (pre-Freud), historians had already discussed the role of psychological factors in history; what were the concepts of "collective psyche" and "national character" as understood by historians in the 1750s-1900?

What was Dilthey's idea of the "Weltanschuung" (circa 1880s)?

When did Freudian psychology begin to have a big influence on historiography and why?

How does B explain the main elements of the Freudian approach? 

What are some examples of the application of Freudian concepts to history?

In the late 1950s, Erikson modified Freud's approach to psychological analysis; what was Erikson's "modification" of Freud, and how did he apply it to the study of history?

Does B seem to have much confidence in the "science" of psychohistory?  Explain--what problems does he see in this approach, and what does he think it has contributed to historiography?

chapter 25

What does B identify as the main "tensions in Marxist philosophy of history"?  Explain!

According to B, why is it "ironic" that a Marxist political regime took power in Russia in 1917?  Explain.

According to B, what was the main factor that influenced the direction of Soviet Marxist historiography in the Stalin era?  Was it concern for the fine points of Marx's theories?  Explain.  Why does B describe Stalinist history as more "nationalist" than Marxist?

After WWII, Stalinist Orthodoxy was imposed on historians in Eastern Europe; in the mean time, according to B, Marxists in the "West" faced a "dilemma":  what was this dilemma?  How does B fit this dilemma into the context of one of the main themes in this book (the tension between belief in human free will and the search for laws of historical development)?

The "Frankfurt School" (also called the "Critical School") of Austrian and German scholars has tried to balance aspects of Marx's theories with commitment to individualism and democracy; what has been their main idea about how to "use" Marxist theory?

Has the Critical School argued that modern history has been the story of progress and ever-greater equality?  Explain.  Are they apologists for Soviet-style authoritarianism?  Explain...

Marxism has had a great influence on historians in England and the USA; in his sub-sub-section on Anglo-Saxon historians, how does B explain the approach that Hobsbawm, Hill, and Thompson have taken to Marxism?

What is B's final verdict on Marxist historical theory?

The rest of this chapter focuses on non-Marxist economic historical approaches.  One of B's points is that economists in the "West" in the 20th century have not paid much attention to what historians (even economic economic historians) have had to say.  Why is that?

One economic approach to history that had a great deal of influence in the USA in the early 1900s was that taken by Charles and Mary Beard (who were influenced by the ideas of Veblen); what are some examples of the Beards' economic interpretations of US history?

B discussed several dramatic changes in the way that French historians since 1900 have interpreted the economic causes of the French Revolution; Explain how these arguments have changed (e.g., the views of Jaures, Lefebvre, Labrousse).  According to B, do French historians now argue that economic factors were the main determining cause of the French Revolution?  Explain.

So, is B's point that only Marxist approaches to economic history have come under criticism in the late 20th century?  Explain!

What is "Cliometrics" (the New Ecomoic History) and how do "Cliometricians" go about studying history?

What are B's main criticisms of Cliometrics?

Is B trying to say that all efforts to explain history using economic analysis have failed?  What is his point? (Think about the chapter title!)