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What is Historiography? Author(s): Carl Becker Reviewed work(s): Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 44, No.

1 (Oct., 1938), pp. 20-28 Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 23/10/2012 08:13
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FORTY years ago I was fascinatedby the study of history-the mechanics of research, of thatsortof research at all events(thereare other kinds) which has been definedas "taking litde bits out of a greatmany books which no one has ever read, and puttingthem together in one book whichno one everwill read". Later I became less interested in the studyof history than in history itself-thatis to say, in the suggestivemeanings which could be attributedto certain periodsor great events,such as that "the spiritof Rome is an acid which,applied to the sentiment of nationality, dissolvesit", or that "the Renaissancewas the double discovery of man and the world". Now thatI am old the mostintriguing turnsout to aspectof history be neither the studyof history nor history itself, in the above noted senses, but rather thestudy of thehistory of historical study. The name given to thisaspectof history is the unlovely one, as Mr. Barnes says, of Historiography.' for What precisely is historiography? It may be, and untilrecently themostparthas been,little morethanthenotation of historical works sincethetimeof theGreeks,withsome indication of thepurposesand pointsof view of the authors, the sourcesused by them,and the accuracyand readability of the works themselves. The chiefobject of such enterprises in historiography is to assess, in termsof modern standards,the value of historicalworks for us. At this level historiography gives us manuals of information about histories and historians,providesus, so to speak, with a neat balance sheet of the "contributions" which each historianhas made to the sum total of verified historicalknowledge now on hand. Such manuals have a high practical value. To the candidateforthe Ph. D. theyare indeed indispensable, since theyprovidehim at second hand with the most up-to-date information. From them he learnswhat were the defects without and limitations of his predecessors, even the mostillustrious, the troubleof reading theirworks-as, for example,that Macaulay, was blinded by Whig prejudice,or that althougha brilliantwriter, Tacitus'sestimate of Tiberiushas been superseded by laterresearches,
1 A History of Historical Writing. By Harry Elmer Barnes. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1937. Pp. x, 434. $3.50.)


What is Historiography?


or thatThucydides's trenchant account of the Peloponnesian War suffers from theauthor's unfamiliarity with thedoctrine ofthe economic interpretation ofhistory. Knowing thelimitations ofourmost famous predecessors gives us all confidence in thevalueofourownresearches: we maynot be brilliant, but we can be sound.We have thegreat advantage of living in moreenlightened times: our monographs may never rank withThe DeclineandFall as literary classics, butthey will be basedupon sources of information not available to Gibbon, and madeimpeccable bya scientific method notyetdiscovered in his day. Mr. HarryElmerBarnes's History of Historical Writing is far more thanthis-more thanan annotated catalogue ofhistorical works. Yet in somesenseit is thistoo,a little toomuchso, moreso perhaps hispurpose than calledfor or thanhe intended. Thereareparts of the book whichleftme withlittle but an enviousadmiration forthe author's erudition, hiseasy familiarity with thecontents ofinnumerable of which I had never books heard.My first impression, indeed, upon finishing thebookwas thatI couldhappily find within itscovers the nameofevery no real historian since thetime ofMenetho. Of course scholar I wouldgetanysuchimpression. Not beinga learned person, am easily astounded by anyone who knowvs thetitles of a thousand andonebooks.Butstill, I havelooked at bibliographies-for example, the Bibliographie de l'histoire de Paris pendant1a Re' olutionby

Tourneux,in five large volumes; and recallingthis impressive work I realizethateven thebare titles of all thebookson theFrenchRevolutionalone could not be contained in Mr. Barnes'ssmall volume.What a listof all thehistorical writings sincethetimeof Menethowould run to I know not,nor wish to know-a dreadful thought! And so, not to slanderMr. Barnes,I hastento say that theremust be innumerable writers whom he does not mention, and even, I like to think,many whom he has neverheardof. He has after all selected onlya few,relatively speaking;and he has selectedthem,if at timeswith insufficient restraint, fora definite purpose. Mr. Barnes stateshis purposeas follows:-"to characterize the intellectualbackgroundof each major period of human advance in western civilization, shiowhow the historical literature of each period has been relatedto its parentculture, pointout the dominanttraits of the historical writingin each era, indicate the advance, if any, in historical science,anidthenmake clear the individualcontributions of the major historical writers of the age". At this level historiography should be something more than an estimiate of the contributions of


Carl Becker

historians to present knowledge. It should be in somesensea phase of intellectual thatphaseof it whichrecords whatmenhave history, at different times knownand believed aboutthe past,the use they have made,in theservice of their interests and aspirations, of their knowledge andbeliefs, and theunderlying presuppositions which have made their knowledge seemto them relevant and their beliefs seem to them true. The historiographer who wishes to succeed at thislevel shouldacquire muchprecise knowledge, butaboveall he should cula capacity tivate forimaginative understanding. If he wishes to fail, he should cultivate a capacity forbeingirritated and bytheignorance foolishness of his predecessors. How wellhasMr.Barnes hispurpose? succeeded in accomplishing On the whole,well enough.Mr. Barneshas, to be sure,a certain rare capacity for being irritated. It is a defect ofhisquality. He is that phenomenon, a learned crusader. He is passionately interested in the application of scientific knowledge to the taskof creating the good society. He is profoundly convinced thathistory, rightly understood, throws much needed light on thecauses oftheplight in which we find ourselves at thepresent moment; convinced, therefore, that historians, if onlythey wouldfully emancipate themselves from antiquarianism andbring their knowledge tobearuponpresent socialproblems, could contribute more thanthey do to thesolution of those problems. I suspectthat whatreally irritates Mr.Barnes is after all notthehistorians butrather thefactthat so fewpeoplemakeanyeffort to appropriate theknowledge available, so many people prefer theSaturday Evening Postto themostup-to-date popular works on thesocialsciences; and thisirritation is in partconveniently relieved from timeto timeby disparaging andopprobrious remarks about"theorthodox historian"a species supposed to have flourished unashamed before the timeof James Harvey Robinson and notyetwholly extinct. Sincetheorthodox historian rolein thepresent plays a minor book, a wordneedsto be said abouthim. I am notsurethatI haveever metthefellow in theflesh.By definition to be a timid, he appears refined a little professor, apprehensive aboutholding his job, who is interested in political, military, and diplomatic is unaware of events, theimportance ofeconomic, and cultural and social, influences, greatly as causal factors the role of individuals in the historic exaggerates Whatpuzzlesme a little process. on thisshowing is that Mr. Barnes accounted timidand neverknownto be himself, although rarely oflosing restrained hisjob,canbeotherwise bythefear orthodox when

What is Historiography?


theoccasion callsforit. In hisbook,TheGenesis oftheWorld War, I seemto remember, he dealtexclusively with political and diplomatic events andended bynaming four individuals whose nefarious activities werelargely responsible forbringing on thewar. Whatpuzzlesme stillmoreis thefactthat, although from Mr. Barnes's general discus-

sion of the "new history" I should expectvirtually all historians prior to the twentieth century to be orthodox, I findin his pages singularly few historians who adhere strictly to the orthodoxline. On the contrary, in thechapters on "Social and CulturalHistory"and "Kulturgeschichte", I findevidenceleadingme to supposethatthenew history is at least as old as Voltaire,and thata greatmany of the most distinguishedhistorians of thelast two centuries have by no meansconfined theirinterests to politicalhistory or notablyexaggeratedthe role of individualsas causal factors. It was Freeman who said that"history is past politics", and in his day interest in politicaland constitutional history was, it is true,very strong.But Mr. Barnes mighthave foundan explanation, verysatisfactory to the new historians I should have thought, of that fact. It was a time when the major problemsof societywere political and constitutional, a timewhen revolutions were primarily concerned with the formof government and the construction of the rightkind of constitution forguaranteeing thepolitical privileges and imprescriptible naturalrights of individuals;and what,then,were thesepoliticalhistorians doingif they werenotbringing history "to bearon thepresent", if they werenot "exploiting thepast in theinterest of advance",which, accordingto JamesHarvey Robinson,is what the new historian does and all historians should do? Can it be thateven Freemanwas, in his own day, a newer historian? But Freeman was still alive when the economicinterpretation began to make headway,and today I would findit difficult to name a historian of abilitywho could, accordingto Mr. Barnes'sdefinition, be rightly classedwiththe strictly orthodox.I am grateful to Mr. Barnesfornotclassingme withtheorthodox, partly because I dislikethe termon principle, whatever it means,chiefly because I do not like to be outrageously conspicuous.But stillI do not mind being thought a littleeccentric, and so I will riskthe following when the devotionof my colleaguesto social history observation: becomes such thata Historyof AmericanLife can be written with only a perfunctory mentionof politics, it is well to remember thatpolitics has afterall had somethingto do, as much at least as sport,with making Americanlife what it is.


Carl Becker

irritations and disgusts. ofMr.Barnes's toomuch ButI am making only a minor defect. only latein thebookandareat most Theyobtrude Mr.Barnes hasdonewellwhathe setout Takingthebookas a whole, background ofeachmajor theintellectual todo. He has"characterized to at leastwellenough or freshness, no special insight period", ifwith traits of historical "the dominant enablethe readerto understand whyhistorical forexample, writing" in each period-tounderstand, writing from historical differed Agesnecessarily writing in theMiddle on theirhistories fashioned why the Humanists in classical times, turned of theReformation disputes whythereligious Romanmodels, Particand so following. to thestudy of church theologians history, between of therelation is his notation ularly good in thisconnection interest in thehistory and thegrowing ofnewcountries thediscovery in theearly of theconditions and his indication of socialinstitutions in the philosophy an interest century whichstimulated nineteenth ofhistory. background" of the"intellectual thecharacterization Nevertheless, in writing" of historical traits of the"dominant and theexplanation to the partadequate although forthemost background, terms of that it perfunctory; is brief and it mustbesaidsomewhat author's purpose, of the book greater part of the book. The the substance doesnotmake to the is to say, is devoted Mr.Barnes farmore-that towhatinterests if and to "theadvance, writers" of themajorhistorical "contributions and hisTo estimate thevalueof histories in historical science". any, is standards and technique torians thepoint of viewof modern from all what after all theprincipal objectof thebook,and thisis after are menwriters Mr. Barnesdoesbest. Perhaps too manyhistorical ofnames. so that intoa catalogue at times thebookdegenerates tioned, "W. R. Shepherd, H. E. Bolton,W. S. Robertson, J. F. Rippy, E. C. Barker Bernard Moses,C. W. Hackett. . . H. I. Priestley, fartoo much and others"-there in thelaterchapters, is, particularly thenames andwhen ofthis knows toomuch, sort ofthing. Mr.Barnes to retire behind he allowshis judgment in memory beginto swarm whenhistorians, in those times thecloud.He is better earlier, happier notbeingso numerous, do notventure to gangup on him. He then wrote sufficient andwhat they with were finds spacetotellus whothey Learned to us. intelligible and their writings them detailto make as I erudition put downby Mr. Barnes's scholars, notbeingso easily and somemistaken or questionable errors here and there was,willfind Mr.Barnes'si is adequate, knowledge Butso faras I know, itjdgments.

What is Histor-iography?


and his estimates, if mostly conventional, are on thewhole, perhaps forthatreason, essentially sound. No doubtit is besidethepointto deplore the fact that "Thucydides neglected themagnificent opportunity toportray theglories ofAthenian civilization". No doubt lessthan justiceis doneto FlaciusIllyricus and hiscollaborators bystressing their "gullibility" andnotsufficiently emphasizing thefact that insubstituting tradition forformal logicas a testof religious doctrine and practice an they were giving immense impetus to thedevelopment ofhistorical studies. Butthese aresmall points. On thewholeMr.Barnes hasmade an important addition to the literature of historiography. He has written, notan "epoch-making" book, nota profoundly original book (fewbooks canbe rightly so described), buta sound anduseful bookfor those nottoofamiliar with the history ofhistorical writing, themost informative and stimulating book,I shouldthink, now available in English. An author shouldbe conceded his intention and judgedby the success he attains in realizing it. For thisreason I do notsayof Mr. Barnes, as he saysof Thucydides, thathe has missed a magnificent opportunity. Nevertheless, the opportunity, or -whether magnificent not,is there forthosewho wishto embrace it. It wouldbe worth while,I shouldthink, to regard historiography moresimply, more resolutely, as a phaseof intellectual history; to forget entirely about thecontributions of historians to present knowledge and to concentrate wholly upontheir rolein thecultural pattern of their own time. Fromthispoint of viewthehistoriographer wouldbe primarily conwithwhatProfessor cerned Shotwell happily callsmankind's gradual of Time"or,morebroadly, "discovery withthegradual expansion of thetimeand spaceframe of reference in somefashion condiwvhich tions therangeand quality of humanthought. Whenwe think of anything, we think to other of it in relation located in spaceand occurring things in time, is to say,in a time that and sipace a timeand spaceframe world, of reference. The developof intelligence, ment in theindividual and therace, is in somesensea matter of pushing backthelimits of thetimeand spaceworldand itwith filling things that really exist andevents that actually happened. of thenew-born The time and spacewvorld forexample, child, is conIin which fined to theroom he liesand to thepresent moment: everyis seenas a close-up, that he observes unrelated to anything thing else. The earliest menwerelike new-born children, of knowing nothing in which theregion anycountry or verv beyond they lived, nothing,


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they about anypastevents in which little and that little mostly wrong, as close-ups, in short perspechad nottaken part. Theytoosaw things placesor pasttimes. objects in distant tive, unrelated to anyverifiable civilized The ancient waysa highly people, Sumerians werein many livedin a bythefact that they buttheir socialthinking was hampered spaceworldthehuman very narrow timeand spaceworld:in their of the Two racecouldbe destroyed thevalley by a floodsweeping event was theGreat Flood, Rivers; in their time world theoutstanding before period, empty ofcontent savefor which stretched an unknown theeight during kings believed to havereigned 24I,ooo years.From of theSumerians racehas slowly thetime to ourowndaythehuman and painfully extended thetimeand spaceworldin whichit could of reference in whichit couldthink. live,thetimeand spaceframe and spaceframe ofreference, The spaciousness andcontent ofthetime far havedetermined therange and direcmore than sheer brain power, tionof intelligence presuppositions thatso largely and theunderlying relations to the universe and to shapetheideasof menabouttheir eachother. history and not as a Regarded strictly as a phaseof intellectual knowledge, historiography would balance sheet of verifiable historical expansion of thistimeand space haveas itsmaintheme thegradual
wvorld (particularly the time world perhaps,although the two are whichacquired whether trueor false, inseparably theitems, connected), enabledmen (and not historians only) knowledgeand accepted beliefs to findwithinit,and the influence of thispattern of trueor imagined events; of human thoughtand conduct. So upon the development than of history rather regarded, historiography would becomea history a history of historians, understood (the a history of history subjectively "fableagreed upon", the "pack of tricks played on the dead") rather than a history of historical truth of the gradual emergence objectively in considered.The historiographer would of course be interested but he would would be a main sourceof information; histories-they to them-would not, indeed,be interested not confinehis researches as such but only as one of the literary formsin which in histories ideas about the past findexpression.Nor would he be more current interested in truethanin falseideas aboutthepast: his aim would be to know what ideas, trueor false,were at any time acceptedand what them. He would pressuretheyexertedupon those who entertained not thendismisstheEpic of Gilgameshor Homer's Iliad as irrelevant of myths or be content to say forhistory because theyare a collection of Livy thathe is;a good storytellerbut a bad historian.Not being

JJ7hat is Historiography?


In short, the"facts"thatwould concernthe historiographer, the "what actuallyhappened" that he would look for and find relevantto his purpose, would be, not the truth, of the but the existence and pressure ideas about thepast whichmen have entertained and acted upon. His objectwould be to reconstruct, and by imaginative insight and aesthetic understanding make live again, that patternof eventsoccurringin distantplaces and timespast which,in successive periods,men have been able to forma pictureof when contemplating themselves; and theiractivities in relationto the world in which theylive. Whether the eventscomposingthe patternare true or false,objectively considered, need not concernhim. Taken in this sense, historiography should no doubt begin with "pre-historic times"-an absurd term,as Mr. Barnes says, if wve are to regardhistory externally, as therecord of wvhat men have done,since it impliesthatby farthelongest span of humanhistory occurred before therewas any history.But not so absurd afterall if we are to think of history fromthe inside,as a possession of the mind,as the developing apprehension of the past and of distantplaces, since the earliest men could have had very littlehistory in that sense. Yet even the earliest men (the Cro-Magnons, forexample) must have been able to formsome picture, howeverlimitedin designand blurred in detail,of what had occurred and was occurring in the world.What thispicture was we can onlyguess,although someingenious and even illuminating guessescould no doubtbe brought to birth by the anthropologists. The historiographer could at all eventsbegin withthe oldestepic storiesthe BabylonianCreationEpic, Homer's Iliad, and the like. For the early Greeks the Iliad, as someone has said (Matthew Arnold perhaps?), was history, story, and scripture all in one. Such differentiating termsare of course misleading, since we may be fairly sure that the earlyGreeks made no such distinctions. The storyas told-the siege of Troy,the doingsof men and gods-was all real,history simply, the recordof what actually happened.And so of all people whose civilization developeddirectly out of primitive conditions. Not untilwritten recordshad been long in use could men become effectively consciousof the factthatthe eventas recorded differs from

pastbutwithwhatthey had in mindwhenthey aboutit,he thought wvould seizeuponthefact that Livywrote hishistory, that thefact the myths it relates werecurrent and widely as true. He would accepted realizethatwhilea myth maynotbe true, is true, thatit exists and thatpeoplebelieve it,is trueand maybe of thehighest importance.

primarily concerned with wvhat the Romans actuallyknew about the


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theevent as remembered. Then onlycouldthey properly distinguish between story andhistory-between theaccount ofevents imaginatively invented and theaccount of events that actually happened; then only could histories be thought of as a "branch But the of literature". differentiation ofhistory and literature doesnotat oncemakethegods indispensable. Inscrutable in their purposes, implacable in their judgments, rulers ofmenand things, thegodsarestill necessary: necessary forliterature becausethey are so intimately involved in the current affairs of men;necessary forhistory because thecreation of theworld hasto be accounted for, and men, eventheancient heroes and godlike kings, areincapable ofso great a task.History therefore longremains entangled withreligion, thegodsserving as causalagencies operating behind menand events. Butas thetime and spaceworld is expanded, and providing an evergreater variety of novelitems forcomparison appraisal, philosophy intrudes withwith itsabstractions; and thegods, drawing from theimmediate absolute affairs ofmentotheplacewhere beingdwells, fadeawayintopale replicas of their former selves-into theLaw of Nature, theTranscendent of Idea,thedynamic principle Dialectic, or whatever it maybe. Philosophy in turn becomes Natural Philosophy, then Natural Science, then Science: andscience, dispensing altogether withtheassistance of thegodsand their numerous philosophic progeny, presents forcontemplation thebarerecord of how as a matter of fact theouter worldbehaves, of whatas a matter of fact hasoccurred in pasttimes, leaving manalonein an indifferent universe without attempting to justify its waysto his deedsand aspirations. Thistheme, or something likeit,hasbeenplayed, withappropriate variations, morethanonce-by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the in modern Europeans times. Whatis therelation between thedevelopmentof an industrial-commercial society, the declineof traditional religious and political convictions, and thegrowth of skepticism and scientific knowledge? How can these related phenomena be correlated with thetime and spaceworld in which menlive,thetimeand space frame of reference in whichtheythink? What place has history, as thesenseof thepast,as theapprehension regarded of events, true or false, that or tobe occurring in distant arethought tohaveoccurred bothas cause and effect? placesand timespast,in thiscorrelation I venture Within therange ofthese questions aretobe found, tothink, forthehistoriographer to cultivate. fields manyfruitful

Cornell University.