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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > VII THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF POSITIVISM
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The philosophies of history offended the historical consciousness in three points, as to which it has every right to be jealous: the integrity of historical events, the unity of the narration with the document, and the immanence of development. And the opposition to the 'philosophy of history,' and to the historiography of romanticism in general, broke out precisely at these three points, and was often violent. This opposition had at bottom a common motive, as has been shown clearly by the frequent sympathy and fraternizing among those who represent it, though dissensions as to details are common among them. It is, however, best to consider it in its triplicity for reasons of clearness, and to describe it as that of the historians, the philologists, and the philosophers.

To the historians, by whom we mean those who had a special disposition for the investigation of particular facts rather than theories, and a greater acquaintance with and practice of historical than speculative literature, is due the saying that history should be history and not philosophy. Not that they ventured to deny philosophy, for on the contrary they protested their reverence for it and even for religion and theology, and condescended to make an occasional rapid and cautious excursion into those waters; but they generally desired to steer their way through the placid gulfs of historical truth, avoiding the tempestuous oceans of the other discipline: philosophy was relegated to the horizon of their works. Nor did they[Pg 290] even contest, at least in principle, the right of existence of those grandiose constructions of 'universal history,' but they recommended and preferred national or otherwise monographical histories, which can be sufficiently studied in their particulars, substituting for universal histories collections of histories of states and of peoples. And since romanticism had introduced into those universal histories and into the national histories themselves its various practical tendencies (which the philosophy of history had then turned into dogmas), the historians placed abstention from national and party tendencies upon their programme, although they reserved the right of making felt their patriotic and political aspirations, but, as they said, without for that reason altering the narrative of the facts, which were supposed to move along independently of their opinions, or chime in with them spontaneously in the course of their natural development. And since passion and the philosophic judgment had been confused and mutually contaminated in romanticism, the abstention was extended also to the judgment as to the quality of the facts narrated; the reality and not the value of the fact being held to be the province of the historian, appeal being made to what theorists and philosophers had thought about it, where a more profound consideration of the problem was demanded. History should not be either German or French, Catholic or Protestant, but it should also not pretend to apply a more ample conception to the solution of these or similar antitheses, as the philosophers of history had tried to do, but rather should neutralize them all in a wise scepticism or agnosticism, and attenuate them in a form of exposition conducted in the tone of a presidential summing-up, where careful attention is paid to the opinions of opposed parties and courtesy is observed toward all. There was[Pg 291] diplomacy in this, and it is not astonishing that many diplomatists or disciples of diplomacy should collaborate in this form of history, and that the greatest of all the historians of this school, Leopold Ranke, in whom are to be found all the traits that we have described, should have had a special predilection for diplomatic sources. He always, indeed, combated philosophy, especially the Hegelian philosophy, and greatly contributed to discredit it with the historians, but he did this decorously, carefully avoiding the use of any word that might sound too rough or too strong, professing the firm conviction that the hand of God shows itself in history, a hand that we cannot grasp with ours, but which touches our face and informs us of its action. He completed his long and very fruitful labours in the form of monographs, avoiding universal constructions. When, at the end of his life, he set to work to compose a Weltgeschichte, he carefully separated it from the universe, declaring that it would have been "lost in phantasms and philosophemes" had he abandoned the safe ground of national histories and sought for any other sort of universality than that of nations, which "acting upon one another, appear one after the other and constitute a living whole." In his first book he protested with fine irony that he was not able to accept the grave charge of judging the past or of instructing the present as to the future, which had been assigned to history, but he felt himself capable only of showing "how things really had happened" (wie es eigentlich gewesen) this was his object in all his work, and he held fast to it, thus culling laurels unobtainable by others, attaining even to the writing of the history of the popes of the period of the Counter-Reformation, although he was a Lutheran and remained so all his life. This history was received with favour in all Catholic[Pg 292] countries. His greatest achievement was to write of French history in a manner that did not displease the French. A writer of the greatest elegance, he was able to steer between the rocks, without even letting appear his own religious or philosophical convictions, and without ever finding himself under the obligation of forming a definite resolution, and in any case never pressing too hard upon the conceptions themselves to which he had recourse, such as 'historical ideas,' the perpetual struggle between Church and State, and the conception of the State. Ranke was the ideal and the master to many historians within, and to some without, his own country. But even without his direct influence, the type of history that he represented germinated everywhere, a little earlier or later according to position and to the calming down of the great political passions and philosophical fervour in the different countries. This took place, for instance, in France earlier than in Italy, where the idealistic philosophy and the national movement made their strength felt in historiography after 1848, and even up to 1860. But the type of history which I should almost be disposed to baptize with the name of 'diplomatic,' taking seriously the designation that I had at first employed jocosely, still meets with success among the moderately disposed, who are lovers of culture, but do not wish to become infected with party passions or to rack their brains with philosophical speculations: but, as may be imagined, it is not always treated with the intelligence, the balance, and the finesse of a Leopold Ranke.

The ambition of altogether rejecting the admission of thought into history, which has been lacking to the diplomatic historians (because they were without the necessary innocence for such an ambition), was, on the[Pg 293] other hand, possessed by the philologists, a most innocent group. They were all the more disposed to abound in this sense, since their opinion of themselves, which had formerly been most modest, had been so notably increased, owing to the high degree of perfection attained by research into chronicles and documents and by the recent foundation (which indeed had not been a creation ex nihilo) of the critical or historical method, which was employed in a fine and close examination into the origin of sources and the reduction of these, and in the internal criticism of texts. This pride of the philologists prevailed, the method reaching its highest development in a country like Germany, where haughty pedantry flourishes better than elsewhere, and where, as a result of that most admirable thing, scientific seriousness, 'scientificism' is much idolized. This word was also ambitiously adopted for everything that concerns the surroundings and the instruments of true and proper science, such as is the case with the collection and criticism of narratives and documents. The old school of learned men, French and Italian, who did not effect less progress in 'method' than was attained during the nineteenth century in Germany, did not dream that they were thus producing 'science,' much less did they dream of vying with philosophy and theology, or that they could drive them from their positions and take their places with the documentary method. But in Germany every mean little copier of a text, or collector of variants, or examiner of the relations of texts and conjecturer as to the genuine text, raised himself to the level of a scientific man and critic, and not only dared to look upon himself as the equal of such men as Schelling, Hegel, Herder, or Schlegel, but did so with disdain and contempt, calling them 'anti-methodical.' This pseudo-scientific[Pg 294] haughtiness diffused itself from Germany over the other European countries, and has now reached America, though in other countries than Germany it met more frequently with irreverent spirits, who laughed at it. Then for the first time there manifested itself that mode of historiography which I have termed 'philological' or 'erudite' history. That is to say, the more or less judicious compilations of sources which used to be called Antiquitates, Annales, Penus, Thesauri, presented themselves disguised as histories, which alone were dignified and scientific. The faith of these historians was reposed in a narrative of which every word could be supported by a text, and there was nothing else whatever in their work, save what was contained in the texts, torn from their contexts and repeated without being thought by the philologist narrator. Their object was that their histories should reach the rank of comprehensive compilations, starting from those relating to particular times, regions, and events, and finally attaining to the arrangement of the whole of historical knowledge in great encyclop?dias, out of which articles are to be supplied, systematic or definitional, put together by groups of specialists, directed by a specialist, for classical, romantic, Germanic, Indo-European, and Semitic philology. With a view to alleviating the aridity of their labours, the philologists sometimes allowed themselves a little ornament in the shape of emotional affections and ideal view-points. With this purpose, they had recourse to memories of their student days, to the philosophical catchwords which had been the fashion at the time, and to the ordinary sentiments of the day toward politics, art, and morality. But they did all this with great moderation, that they might not lose their reputation for scientific gravity, and that they might not fail in[Pg 295] respect toward scientific philological history, which disdains the vain ornaments in which philosophers, dilettantes, and charlatans delight. They ended by tolerating historians of the type above described, but as a lesser evil, and as a general rule inclined to pardon the sins arising out of their commerce with 'ideas' in favour of the 'new documents' which they had discovered or employed, and which they could always dig out of their books as a useful residue, while purifying them from 'subjective' admixtures—that is to say, from the elaboration of them which had been attempted. Philosophy was known to them only as 'philosophy of history,' but even thus rather by reason of its terrible ill-fame than from direct acquaintance. They remembered and were ever ready to repeat five or six anecdotes concerning errors in names and dates into which celebrated philosophers had actually fallen, easily forgetful of the innumerable errors into which they fell themselves (being more liable as more exposed to danger); they almost persuaded themselves that philosophy had been invented to alter the names and confuse the dates which, had been confided to their amorous care, that it was the abyss opened by the fiend to lead to the perdition of serious 'documentary history.'

The third band of those opposed to the philosophy of history was composed of philosophers or of historian—philosophers, but of those who rejected the name and selected another less open to suspicion, or tempered it with some adjective, or accepted it indeed, but with opportune explanations: they styled themselves positivists, naturalists, sociologists, empiricists, criticists, or something of that sort. Their purpose was to do something different from what the philosophers of history had done, and since these had worked with the conception[Pg 296] of the end, they all of them swore that they would work with the conception of the cause; they would search out the cause of every fact, thus generalizing more and more widely the causes or the cause of the entire course of history: those others had attempted a dynamic of history; they would work at a mechanic of history, a social physics. A special science arose, opposed to the philosophy of history, in which that naturalistic and positivistic tendency became exalted in its own eyes: sociology. Sociology classified facts of human origin and determined the laws of mutual dependence which regulated them, furnishing the narratives of historians with the principles of explanation, by means of these laws. Historians, on the other hand, diligently collected facts and offered them to sociology, that it might press the juice out of them—that is to say, that it might classify and deduce the laws that governed them. History and sociology, then, stood to one another in the same relation as physiology and zoology, physics and mineralogy, or in another relation of the same sort; they differed from the physical and natural sciences only by their greater complexity. The introduction of mathematical calculation seemed to be the condition of progress for history as for all the sciences, physical and natural. A new 'science' came forward to support this notion, in the shape of that humble servant of practical administration and inspired creation of bureaucracy known as statistics. And since the whole of science was being modelled upon the idea of a factory of condensation, so were 'syntheses' invoked and outlined for history—that is to say, historical frameworks, in which the laws and facts chat dominate single histories should be resumed, as though in a sort of table or atlas, which should show at a glance causes and the facts which arose from them.[Pg 297] Need we recall the names and supporters of this school—Comte, Buckle, Taine, and so on, until we come to those recent historians who follow them, such as Lamprecht and Breysig? Need we recall the most consequent and the most paradoxical programmes or the school, as, for instance, Buckle's introduction to his history of civilization or Bourdeau's book on the Histoire des historiens? These and similar positivistic doctrines are present to the memory, either because they are nearest to us chronologically, or because the echo of the noise they made in the world has not yet ceased, and we see everywhere traces of their influence. Everywhere we see it, and above all in the prejudice which they have solidly established (and which we must patiently corrode and dissolve), that history, true history, is to be constructed by means of the naturalistic method, and that causal induction should be employed. Then there are the manifold naturalistic conceptions with which they have imbued modern thought: race, heredity, degeneration, imitation, influence, climate, historical factors, and so forth. And here, too, as in the case of the philosophies of history, since it suffices us to select only the essential in each fact, we shall not dwell upon the various particular forms of it—that is to say, upon the various modes in which historical causes were enunciated and enumerated, and upon the various claims that one or other of them was supreme: now the race, now the climate, now economy, now technique, and so forth. Here, too, the study of the particular forms would be of use to anyone who wished to develop in particular the dialectic and to trace the internal dissolution of that school, to demonstrate in its particular modes its intrinsic tendency to surpass itself, though it failed to do so by that path.

[Pg 298]

We have already mentioned that the three classes of opponents of the 'philosophies of history' and the three methods by which they proposed to supplant it—diplomatic, philological, and positivistic history—showed that they disagreed among themselves. Confirmation of this may now be found in the contempt of the diplomatic historians for mere erudition and in their diffidence for the constructions of positivism, the erudite, for their part, being fearful of perversions of names and dates and shaking their heads at diplomatic histories and the careless style of the men of the world who composed them. Finally, the positivists looked upon the latter as people who did not go to the bottom of things, to their general or natural causes, and reproved the erudite with their incapacity for rising to the level of laws and to the establishment of facts in accordance with these laws, sociological, physiological, or pathological. But there is further confirmation of what has been noted in respect to the common conception that animated them all and of their substantial affinity, because when the erudite wished to cloak themselves in a philosophy of some sort, they very readily strutted about draped in some shreds of positivistic thought or phraseology. They also participated in the reserve and in the agnosticism of the positivists and the ............
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