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History Writing in the Enlightenment: Purpose and Practices

This lecture/seminar explains why our Warwick module on historiography begins the Enlightenment (rather than with classical and Renaissance history writing, for example). It explores 18th-century history writing in more detail, using British, French, and German examples. The empirical study of the past, Enlightened historians believed, offered important moral lessons, useful for the successful re-organisation of a new society that was guided by Enlightened ideals of human reason and rationality. Historians were therefore keen to show how human civilisations had progressively developed from so-called ‘primitive’ forms of human sociability (allegedly run by superstition and unreason) to the sophisticated Enlightened 'ways of life'. History writing was to actively contribute to the ‘happiness’ of each nation and humankind around the globe. But did this new history of humankind really include all humans? What about women and non-European societies, for example?

 

While all Enlightenment historians shared the enthusiasm for and belief in human reason, they differed in the ways they conceptualised historical change and how history writing was to be practiced. Importantly, not all shared the belief that non-European cultures were 'less advanced' and therefore in desperate need of European 'help' to reach Enlightened standards. German historians, for example, opposed French and English conceptions and came up with an own way of understanding historical change and practice (e.g. historicism).

History writing, we shall see, is not a neutral or objective enterprise but always reflects the norms and values of the society in which it is written. Therefore, to study historiography also means to be aware of the historian's political, economic and socio-cultural context.

READINGS BELOW CAN ALSO BE FOUND AT READING LISTS UNDER HI323

Texts/Documents/Arguments/Sources

Montesquieu, Excerpt from The Spirit of the Laws (1748); p. 405-415 (esp. 405-406).

David Hume, 'Of the Study of History' (1741)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1754), pp. 9-10 (stop at 'The First Part' section)

Ferguson, Adam, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767); read ‘On the General Characteristics of Human Nature', pp.1-14 and think about the general organisation of the book.

Kames, Sketches of the History of Man (1774). Volume, II: ‘The Progress of Female Sex’, pp. 168-169; 212-213

 

And for somewhat of a counter-trend, read:

Johann Gottried Herder, Another Philosophy of History of Mankind and Selected Political Writings, translated with introduction and notes by Ionnis D. Evrigenus and Daniel Pellerin, (Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2004), pp. 28 -33 (start with “A learned society of our day…'). This text departs in important ways from the others above and the viewpoint would inspire the German Historicists of the nineteenth century (the topic we will treat next week). Note how Herder believes that past societies should be assessed on their own terms, not on ours. He stresses the differences and particularities of societies, rather than measuring them according to some universal measure of progress. Herder is interested in how societies organically develop from their uniqueness.

 

Core Seminar Readings

For general information read overview: CWHT, ch. 6; ch. 7: read only the section 'Historicism Before 1800'.

Sebastini, Silvia, ‘Race, Progress and Women in the Late Scottish Enlightenment', in Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (eds), Women, Gender and Enlightenment (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, 2005), pp. 75-96 (electronic library resources)

Arnaldo Momigliano, 'Gibbon's Contribution to Historical Method', Historia: Zeitscrhift für Alte Geschichte (1954), 450-63.

 

Seminar Questions

  • What were the central features of the ‘new’ history writing that emerged during the 18th century? What was so 'new' about it?
  • Why was the past so important to historians of the 18th century?
  • Was Enlightenment historiography cosmopolitan or eurocentric?
  • What was distinctive about Scottish history writing in the 18th century?
  • ‘Modern history writing was invented in the Enlightenment’. Discuss.

 

Significant Quotations

‘A man acquainted with history may, in some respects, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.’ -- David Hume, 'Of the Study of History'.

 

'I have laid down the first principles, and have found that the particular cases follow naturally from them; that the histories of all nations are only consequences of them; and that every particular law is connected with another law, or depends on some other of a more general extent… I have not drawn my prinicples from my prejudices, but from the nature of things.' -- Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

 

‘Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. The investigations we may enter into, intreating this subject, must not be considered as historical truths, but only as mere conditional and hypothetical reasonings, rather calculated to explain the nature of things, than to ascertain their actual origin.' Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1754), p. 9.

 

'In other classes of animals, the individual advances from infancy to age or maturity; and he attains, in the compass of a single life, to all the perfection his nature can reach: but, in the human kind, the species has a progress as well as the individual; they build in every subsequent age on foundations formerly laid; and, in a succession of years, tend to a perfection in the application of their faculties...' -- Adam Ferguson, History of Civil Society (1767).

‘I propose in the present sketch to trace the gradual progress of women, from their low state in savage tribes, to their elevated state in civilized nations.’ – Lord Henry Home Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, p. 168.

 

Further Reading

Abbattista, Guido, ‘The Historical Thought of the French Philosophes’, in Daniel Woolf (ed.), The Oxford History of Historical Writing, vol. 3: 1400-1800 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 406-427 (e-books, library resources)

Adler, Hans, ‘Johann Gottfried Herder's Concept of Humanity,’ Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 23 (1994): 55–74

Barnard, Frederick Mechner, Herder's Social and Political Thought. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press 1965.

Beise, Frederic C., Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790–1800 (Cambridge, Massachusetts:Harvard University Press, 1992), chapter on Herder.
-- ‘Humboldt, the Proteus The German Historicist Tradition’, in ibid, The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford, 2011), pp. 167-213, specifically: subchapter 6: 187-189; 7: 190-194; 10: 207-213. (very good)
-- ‘Introduction: The Concept and Context of Historicism,’ in ibid., The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford, 2011): pp. 1-26 (excellent overview over the complexity of the term and its history).

Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Herder and the Enlightenment.” In Aspects of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Earl R. Wasserman (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 47–104.

Braw, J. D., ‘Vision as Revision: Ranke and the Beginning of Modern History’, 
 History and Theory, 46:4 (2007), pp. 45–60

Iggers, Georg, The German Conception of History: the National Tradition from Herder to the Present, Middletown, 1983. Chapter II: pp. 29-43 (Herder); Chapter III: 44-62 (Humboldt)

Iggers, Georg, G., ‘Historicism: The History and the Meaning of the Term’, Journal of the History of Ideas 56 (1995): 129-151.

Passmore , Ross, The Perfectibility of Man, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
Reill, Peter Hanns, ‘Science and the Construction of the Cultural Sciences in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany: The Case of Wilhelm von Humboldt,’ History and Theory 33 (1994): 345-66.

Ross, D., ‘On the Misunderstanding of Ranke and the Origins of the Historical Profession in America,’ in Leopold von Ranke and the Shaping of the Historical Discipline, ed. G. G.Iggers and J. M. Powell (Syracuse, 1990), pp. 154-169. (digitised extract)

Zammito, John H., Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (Chicago, 2002).

Websites: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wilhelm-humboldt/

 

Further Readings (Enlightenment British/French)

Allan, D., ‘Scottish Historical Writing of the Enlightenment’, in Daniel Woolf (ed.), The Oxford History of Historical Writing, vol. 3: 1400-1800 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 497-517. (digitised abstract)

Beise, Frederic C., Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790–1800 (Cambridge, M. 1992), chapter on Herder.


-- ‘Humboldt, the Proteus The German Historicist Tradition’, in ibid, The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford, 2011), pp. 167-213, specifically: subchapter 6: 187-189; 7: 190-194; 10: 207-213. (very good)


-- ‘Introduction: The Concept and Context of Historicism,’ in ibid., The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford, 2011): pp. 1-26 (excellent overview over the complexity of the term and its history).

Bruce, B., ‘Enlightened Histories. Civilization, War and the Scottish Enlightenment’, European Legacy, 10:2 (2005): 177-192.

Cassirer, Ernst, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Koelln and Pettegrove (Princeton, 1932), particularly see chapter 1: The Mind of the Enlightenment, pp. 3-36.

Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946).

Cook, A., ‘The Gradual Emergence of History Writing as a Separate Genre’, Clio, 15:2 (1986): 171-89.

Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment (New York, 1966, 1973), 2 vols.

Hicks, P., ‘Catharine Macaulay's Civil War: Gender, History, and Republicanism in Georgian Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 41:2 (2002), 170-198

Hill, Lisa, The Passionate Society: The Social, Political and Moral Thought of Adam Ferguson (2006).

Höpfl, Harro, ‘From Savage to Scotsman: Conjectural History in the Scottish Enlightenment’, Journal of British Studies 17 (1978): 19-40.

Israel, Jonathan. A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton, 2009). He has several books on Enlightenment thought in Europe.

Kidd, C. Subverting Scotland’s Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity (Cambridge, 1993).

Mason, Hayden, ‘Optimism, Progress, and Philosophical History’, in Goldie, Mark and Robert Wokler (eds), The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought (Oxford, 2012), pp. 199-217. (digitised extract)

McKitterick, R., Quinault, R. (eds), Edward Gibbon and Empire (Cambridge, 1997).

O’Brien, K., ‘The History Market in Eighteenth-Century England’, Books and their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays, ed. I. Rivers (London, 2001), 105-34.

Ibid, ‘English Enlightenment Histories, 1750-c.1815’, in Daniel Woolf (eds), The Oxford History of Historical Writing, Vol. 3, 1400-1800 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 518-525. (digitised abstract)

Ibid, 'The Return of the Enlightenment', American Historical Review (Dec. 2010).

Ibid., ‘Catharine Macaulay’s Histories of England. A Female Perspective on the History of Liberty’, Women, Gender and Enlightenment, eds. B. Taylor and S. Knott Basingstoke, 2005), 523-37.

Ibid., ‘Robertson on the Triumph of Europe and Its Empires’, in ibid., Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 129-166.

Ibid., ‘Emulation and Revival: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, in ibid. Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 167-203.

Padgen, Anthony, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (Oxford, 2013) order

Perkins, P. ‘ “Too Classical for a Female Pen”? Late Eighteenth-Century Women Reading and Writing Classical History', Clio, 33:3 (2004), 241-64.

Phillips, M. S., Society and Sentiment. Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820 (Princeton NJ, 2000), pp. 3-78.

Pocock, J.G. A. Barbarism and Religion. Vol. I: The Enlightenment of Edward Gibbon 1737-1764 (Cambridge, 1999).

Ibid., Barbarism and Religion, vol. II: Narratives of Civil Government (Cambridge, 1999).

Porter, Roy, Edward Gibbon: Making History (London, 1988) (really good read!)

Reill, 'Science and the Science of History in the Spätaufklärung' in Hans Erich Bödecker et al. (eds), Aufklärung und Geschichte (Göttingen, 1986)

Sebastini, Silvia, ‘Race, Progress and Women in the Late Scottish Enlightenment, in Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (eds), Women, Gender and Enlightenment (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, 2005), pp. 53-69.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh, ‘The Historical Philosophy of the Enlightenment’, (1963), reprinted in R.H. Hanley and D. M. McMahon (eds.), The Enlightenment. Critical Concepts in Historical Studies, vol. 1 (London, 2010), pp. 24-37.

Venturi, Franco, ‘The European Enlightenment’ (1972), reprinted in The Enlightenment. Critical Concepts in Historical Studies, ed. By R.H. Hanley and D. M. McMahon, vol. 1 (London, 2010), pp. 129-156 – links intellectual developments with 18th-century socio-political events in Europe.

Womersley, D., Edward Gibbon: Bicentenary Essays (Oxford, 1997).

Zammito, John H., Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (Chicago, 2002).

Zimmerman, Everett, The Boundaries of Fiction: History and the Eighteenth-Century British Novel (Cornell, 1996), 1-10; 11-55.