to syllabus

Historiography and Historical Methods

Week VI discussion questions


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

Chapters 18-21

Chapter 18

Explain Compte's "possitivist" theory of history--what did he see as history's main subject?  as the main force behind historical change?  as the 3 stages of historical development?  And how was his understanding of history linked to his view of the future?

Did contemporary historians think much of Compte's theories?  Explain.

What did the English positivist historian Buckle see as the main forces shaping history?  Explain.

How did the "historical science" of early French positivist historians like Taine differ from contemporary German "historical scientists"?  What did Taine want history to explain?

After the German military victory over France (in 1870-71), French historians became much more open to "German" methods.  Was Durkheim a supporter of the "German" historical approach?  What did Durkheim see as the purpose of history?  And did most French historians agree?

Meanwhile, back in Germany....  Ranke's historical methods were coming under attack by Droysen and others; what was Droysen's main criticism of Ranke?  of Buckle?

Why did Lamprecht's German History cause so much controversy in the 1890s?  What did he see as history's main focus and as the the main forces of historical change?

B says that Lamprecht and Droysen represented a more general crisis in German historiography in the late 1800s--what had become of the idealistic belief in transcendent absolutes?  And what did this mean for the Rankean approach to history?  Did post-Rankeans as a result have a clear philosophy f history?

Do you see a link between the problem facing German historians in the late 1800s (reconciling change and continuity) and the problem that had faced late medieval Christian historians (reconciling the sacred and the profane)?  Explain.

Accroding to the German historians Dilthey and Winelband, could history be explained in the same way that science explained nature?  What did Dilthey say historians must do to understand the past? 

So, how was Dilthey criticizing positivism?  How did he understand the study of history, and did he think that anything in history was un-changing?  According to B, what were the consequences?  (What does B mean by relativism?)

After Dilthey, Windelband tried to "solve" the problem of relativism by making the study of "values" fixed, unchanging center of historical inquiry.  Did Max Weber agree?  Explain.

Did Weber think that historians could really explain the past?  What did he think historians actually studied?  (What is the difference between and "ideal type" and the "actual past"?) 

So, for Weber, what could history actually tell us?

Explain the main point that B is making at the top of p. 284 about Weber's impact on German historiography.

Did English historians go through the same sort of intellectual crisis in the late 1800s as had German historians?  What public role did history still play in England?  How does B explain this?

Did "German-style" history have much influence on the USA in the late 1800s?  Explain. 

What public role did history continue to play in the USA in the late 1800s?

What does B mean by the "great divorce" among US historians at the turn of the century?

In the late 1800s, did American historians have a very clear sense of what the "science" in "historical science" meant?  Explain.

According to B, why didn't historians in the USA have the same sorts of debates over philosophy and methods as historians in Germany or France?


Chapter 19

According to B, where, when, and why did intellectuals begin to historicize economics (to treat the economy as something that changes over time)?

I want to preface these questions by making clear that I think that B's analysis of Marx is overly simplistic (Marx was not nearly as "deterministic" as portrayed by B)....

How does B explain Marx's view of history?  What did Marx see as the main subject of history? 

According to B, what did Marx mean by "modes of production," and how were these related to the stages of historical development?

According to B, how did Marx understand the causes of historical change?  How was class conflict, for instance, related to historical change?

How was Marx's view of the past related to his vision of the future?  (eg., the "end of history"?)

According to B, since Marx's death what has been the major tension within Marxism (i.e., between academic Marxism and Marxism as political activism)?

How did Marxism affect non-Marxist economic history in Europe in the late 1800s?

Were American economic historians in the late 1800s influenced by Marx?  Explain.

What was the main thesis of Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States?


Chapter 20

When historians in the early 1800s used the phrase "the people," what did they mean?

In the later 1800s, after political democratization had become more widespread, were all intellectuals (including historians) enthusiastic about the process?  For instance, what did Burckhardt think of democratization?  And how was that linked to his preference to cultural history?

What "technical problems" limited historians who did want to write about "ordinary people" circa 1900?

What does B mean when he writes on p. 306 that "social history remained institutional history" at the turn of the century?

On p. 307, B compares institutional history circa 1900 to that in the 1500s-1600s; what is his point here?

According to B, what was at the heart of German historians' debates over feudalism circa 1870-1900?

"    "    "    ", what was at the heart of English historians' debates over the influence of Anglo-Saxon, Roman, and Norman institutions?

As you all know, by 1900 the USA was in the midst of great waves of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration; did US historians' still conceive of the "nation" as a "seamless whole" in this period?  Explain.

How did historians link institutional history to the idea of nationhood?  And how were their views related to "German" theories?

Did Turner and the New Historians agree with this "German thesis"?

What was the "Imperial School" of US history?

Background--How does B define the aims of the Progressive movement in the USA?

Explain Turner's view of history, and in particular his "frontier thesis."  According to Turner, how did the frontier shape democracy?

Explain Turner's theory of "sectionalism."

Turner was an important figure in the transformation of US historiography; does B consider him on of the Progressive historians?  Explain.

How did Progressive intellectuals understand progress?  And how does B relate their more critical analysis of American society and traditions to their social class origins?

How did those New Historians who would become Progressives understand the public function of history?

B says that the "scientific" approach of the New Historians/Progressives had implications both for the periods of history that would be studied in the US and for the way in which historians would "do" social history.  What are his main points about these implications?


chapter 21

According to B, why was re-conceptualizing "world history" a necessary "new task" facing historiography in the late 1800s?  Why was the Christian perspective no longer an adequate "glue" for holding together world history?  And why wasn't it possible for positivism (e.g., Comte's approach) to fill the gap left by the collapse of Christian universalism?

How did Acton define universal history in 1898, and did all intellectuals agree with his view that history was the universal story of progress?  Explain.