Schemes of Historical Method in the Late 19th Century: Cross-References between Langlois and Seignobos, Bernheim, and Droysen

In Luiz Estevam de Oliveira Fernandes, Luísa Rauter Pereira & Sérgio da Mata (eds.), Contributions to Theory and Comparative History of Historiography German and Brazilian Perspectives. Peter Lang. pp. 105-125 (2015)
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At the end of the 19th century, most professional historians – wherever they existed – deemed history to be a form of knowledge ruled by a method that bears no resemblance with those most commonly traceable in the natural sciences. The bulk of the historian’s task was then frequently regarded as being the application of procedures frequently referred to as ‘historical method’. In the context of such an emerging interest on historical methods and methodology, at least three textbooks stand out: Johann Gustav Droysen’s Grundriss der Historik (Outline of the Theory of History), Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (Handbook of Historical Method), and Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos’s Introduction aux études historiques (Introduction to the Study of History). These books were quite influential in Germany, France, and elsewhere, and they very much helped promote a general idea of historical method that would become relatively consensual among historians of many nationalities by the early 20th century. Such a relative agreement on historical method sponsored both the communication and the development of a sense of disciplinary identity among historians trained within different and sometimes conflicting national traditions. It was then partially extended, partially challenged, and surely made more complex when, from the 1920s on, social and economic historians became a good part of the historiographical establishment in many countries. The three books by Droysen, Bernheim, and Langlois and Seignobos were already pieced together by Rolf Torstendahl, who studied them as a group of texts that, despite their differences, contributed to shape the developments outlined above. However, Torstendahl’s primary aim was to show how Droysen, Bernheim, and Seignobos all resorted to ‘method’ as a way to circumvent skepticism against the possibility of historical knowledge, rather than investigate the internal interrelationships between the three texts. In this chapter I follow precisely this latter, not yet taken, road, focusing on crucial cross-references between the Grundriss, the Lehrbuch, and the Introduction. I intend to show that, at a general level, the schemes of historical method found in these texts are largely convergent, and that this convergence is due to Bernheim’s reading of Droysen and to Langlois and Seignobos’s reading of Bernheim. I will attempt to do it through a regressive approach that starts with an analysis of the Introduction. Aspects of the editorial history and circulation of the three texts will also be briefly addressed, as a way to illustrate their special importance within the framework of early 20th century historical theory. Because my argument calls for a focus on the most general lines of Droysen’s, Bernheim’s, and Langlois and Seignobos’s schemes of historical method, I will, for the sake of consistency, refrain from analysing in-depth the complex epistemological and ontological arguments in which those schemes are nested.

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Arthur Alfaix Assis
Universidade de Brasília


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