Clio’s Modern Paradox Unraveled

FWO Fellow at Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium



This theoretical chapter explains the theoretical issues in historiography behind Clio’s Modern Paradox. I have defined three core problems that explain history’s vulnerability in court on an epistemological level. An introduction into these issues helps us understand why historians and most expert witnesses tend to cling to their alleged objectivity and why historians would do well to leave it behind.

Papa, explique-moi donc à quoi sert l’histoire.

Dad, can you tell me what the purpose of history is?

Marc Bloch

As I remarked in the introduction, the past is more alive than ever in today’s society. Public historians Rosenzweig and Thelen noted the following remark in their study dedicated to the popular uses of history in American daily life: “there is clearly an enormous and growing public interest in history, manifest in museum attendance, historically oriented tourism, participation in festivals, and even the media-driven excesses of nostalgia and commemoration of recent historical periods.”1 Rosenzweig and Thelen give the past a central role in daily routine: “Americans … make the past part of their everyday routines and turn to it as a way of grappling with profound questions about how to live.”2 Noted French historian Pierre Nora has drawn attention in his work Les lieux de mémoire to the popularity of historical landscapes which have historical significance for French national history and identity.3 Just as Nora, British historian Raphael Samuel also defines these historical landscapes as important sources of unofficial knowledge, popular memory, and identity.4 From a more theoretical perspective, historians François Hartog and Reinhart Koselleck, have argued that the temporal orientation of our society is situated towards the past, while Berber Bevernage emphasizes the presentness of the past and the continued influence of mass atrocities in the present.5 At the inaugural conference of the International Network for Theory of History (INTH) in Ghent in July 2013, François Hartog gave a lecture in which he argued that identity, memory, and heritage were drawing the past into the present. Moreover, he stated that “[m]emory in public space has pushed out history” and “the past is no longer passing away.”6

Ironically, the historical discipline, despite the popularity of the past, does not receive much praise from the general public as a field of knowledge, nor from their academic colleagues. This is what I call Clio’s Modern Paradox. How has this paradox come into existence? For centuries the social elite; politicians, lawyers, soldiers, priests, ambassadors and so forth, had been historians as well. Historical writing was a well-regarded and respectable activity for the higher classes. This was before the professionalization of history. As a professionalized field in the nineteenth century, history was a matter of national importance. Historians constructed historical master narratives which formed the basis of unity and identity in national states. A history professor in nineteenth-century Germany was a respected member of the national elite.7 An American history professor in 1890 made five times the salary of an unskilled labourer; by 1940 that ratio had dropped to less than two to one.8 Simultaneously with their salaries, historians saw their social influence diminish as well. Despite that the past was steadily playing a larger role in society, historians lost social influence.9 How did this downfall of Clio come to pass?

First of all there is a need for self-criticism. I argue that certain developments in theoretical history of recent decades are equally responsible for Clio’s fall from grace as the outside pressures laid upon the discipline to be scientific or useful. The internal reasons for the decline of social influence of the historical profession are threefold. The first reason has been the fervent striving of historians to make history into a science. Ethan Kleinberg, the executive editor of the academic journal History and Theory, declared in a lecture he gave at the 2013 inaugural conference of the International Network for Theory and History in Ghent that this quest to be scientific by historians was “the holy grail of history.”10 Secondly, theoretical history has failed to rebut and defend itself against postmodern relativism. In some cases theoretical history’s attention and energy is being engulfed by marginal trends which have no relevance in the real world. The third has been the failure of theoretical history to provide the theoretical conceptualization on which a study of history is built. Theoretical historians have not strived to define basic theoretical concepts of the study of history in a systematic and consensual manner. These three internal reasons, making history into a science, theoretical radicalization, and lack of theoretical conceptualization have influenced the historical profession in a reciprocal manner.11 These developments have culminated in a historical profession under epistemological attack in court, hard-pressed and troubled to defend its position as a valuable and autonomous field of knowledge. The following chapter discusses these problematic developments.

3.1 Theoretical Historical Developments

As mentioned above, I concentrate on three reasons for Clio’s Modern Paradox: (1) the quest to make history into a science, (2) the postmodern radicalization of parts of theoretical history and (3) the lack of systematic theoretical conceptualization. In order to better understand how history as a field is valued by the legal profession, it is worthwhile to discuss the role of these three elements in the development of the historical profession as we know it today.12 I analyse these key developments in theoretical history in a chronological manner. I begin my overview where most surveys of theoretical history start, namely with Ranke and German nineteenth-century historical writing. At the start of the First World War, our survey leaves Germany for France, and I discuss some of the innovations brought to the historical profession by the French Annales Schools. I consider the influence of the linguistic turn and the wave of post-modernism which has dominated theoretical history since the 1970s. Thereafter, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, I turn to public history, a predominantly American matter. Finally, I come to a conclusion on Clio’s Modern Paradox and its relevance to litigation-driven history.

3.1.1 The Ghost of von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke surely is one of the most cited historians of the last two centuries. His often repeated adage, that historians shall write history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” [as it actually happened], “is equally known as it is worn out.”13 Intriguingly, Ranke is often misquoted as having written: “wie es eigentlich gewesen [ist]”(as it actually [has] happened). This small but relevant difference reveals an interesting element in the dominant interpretation of Ranke’s dictum. The traditional principles derived from Ranke are that historical documents open up to historians. Through rigorous use of critical-philological techniques historians are able to reveal the true past. According to this view, the ideal historian can show the past “as things have actually happened.” This impartial and fact-finding historian does not construct history but merely presents it as he discovered it in primary historical documents. This ideal type became a guiding star for generations of historians.

Yet, Ranke’s omission of the final word “ist” suggests that Ranke did not mean that historians should interpret texts without adding any meaning to the facts. Instead, historians Iggers, Novick, and Evans argue that Ranke intended to urge historians to interpret the past and show its essential [eigentlich] meaning.14 So it was not only Ranke’s intention to search strictly for the facts, but also to find its inner meaning, to interpret historical facts.15 Adding “ist” instructs historians to find historical facts as they have happened. Without “ist”, historians interpret historical facts for the sake of their meaning, what they are. Adding “ist” also alters the meaning given to the word “eigentlich”. With the addition of “ist”, “eigentlich” means factual, without “ist”, “eigentlich” signifies essential or inner. The interpretation of Ranke proposed by Evans, Novick, and Iggers instructs historians to interpret rather than being the objective medium through which historical facts reach us.

Furthermore, Ranke wrote the comment in a book on the history of the Latin and Teutonic peoples, not an essay of some sort on theoretical history.16 Adding to the previous arguments that he has no major work on theoretical history,17 leads Iggers, Novick, and Evans to argue that all in all Ranke was more of a romantic and idealist historian than a nineteenth-century positivist, as he is commonly conceived.18 Considering these combined arguments, I am inclined to concur with Evans, Novick, and Iggers, and interpret Ranke’s dictum accordingly. Ironically, there is a distinct possibility, to me, that Ranke wrote down his comment without a lot of theoretical foresight at all.

Whatever may be the truth of it, there is one thing certain about Ranke’s adage. Its legacy has made an indelible mark on the historical profession that still weighs heavily on the discipline today. Heavily because Ranke’s intellectual inheritance was determined, as it happens in most cases, by his followers. Overall historians in the nineteenth century adhered to the first interpretation of Ranke’s dictum that allowed historians to claim that they worked with objective knowledge. Yes, there was discussion whether history was nomothetic or idiosyncratic, but each side in this debate believed that historians were able to objectively mine for facts in historical documents. Why did historians in a rare moment of uniformity choose to believe that what Ranke meant to say was that historians should be objective scientists, as if historians were chemists in the laboratory of history?19

3.1.2 The Professionalization of History & Science as the New Intellectual Gold Standard

During the nineteenth century, the field of history underwent a series of developments which are categorized as the professionalization of history. The historical discipline firmly established itself in universities, publishing its own journals, and building its own theoretical framework to sustain and legitimize a historical episteme. Notwithstanding the epistemic fact that historical facts were not similar to the objectives of the natural sciences, the historical profession sought to jump on the bandwagon of the success attained by the sciences. For history to be identified as a science there was one key element to be claimed: objectivity.

Historians were caught in a general appraisal for the natural sciences and its proclaimed ability to render objective and reliable knowledge through natural laws sustained by empirically deduced facts. The traditional interpretation of Ranke’s dictum now became fully accepted. If historical facts could be deduced from texts “as they actually had happened”, historians were able to claim positivist objectivity. Mary Furner dubbed this choice which presented itself at the end of the nineteenth century as “the crisis of professionalization of American Social Sciences.” According to Furner, positivist objectivity was chosen and institutionalized as a safe choice.20 This choice was not self-evident.21 German theoretical historian Iggers writes that “central to the process of professionalization was the firm belief in the scientific status of history.”22 The scientific model of the natural sciences therefore played an important role in the professionalization of history. According to Iggers, knowledge is defined in terms and ideas borrowed from the natural sciences.23

A majority within the historical profession clearly had the ambition to make history into a science. According to the traditional interpretation of Ranke’s remark, facts were deductible from texts. So the historical discipline remained objective. Novick describes this choice: “[h]istorical professionalization was offered as a standardized technique, a means of operationalization and an appropriate mode of discourse at the grace of the authority of the sublime norm of objectivity.”24 The historical discipline remained a unique, idiosyncratic, and explanatory endeavour but stayed firmly convinced of its own ability to be objective.25

Thus, regardless of their independent objectives, the historical discipline was required to be scientific. The historical discipline tried to leave its connection with literature and art to join up with the successful natural sciences.26 I argue that the idea of the broader contemporary public is that the scientific model of the natural sciences can give abstract and therefore useful facts. Useful in the sense that they can help create a more efficient society [economically speaking]. Today, knowledge is most useful when it can be abstracted in general norms which can be tested and applied. All other disciplines of knowledge are valued in proportion to the amount of mathematics used in their field. The more numbers a study encompasses, the more “testable” a hypothesis is, the more scientific and therefore the more reliable a discipline seems to be. What we need to take from this is that knowledge, in contemporary terms, has been very narrowly defined as an image of empiricist and positivist ideas about knowledge. I believe this challenges historians to define their profession in a different manner; yet, in contrast, generations of historians have tried to make history into a science.27

3.1.3 The Three-Headed Annales & Postmodern Headaches

After the Second World War the French Annales, a field changing historical periodical, did not diminish the historian’s firm belief in positivist objectivity. The French Annales changed the historical profession in many other ways, by adding new subjects and fields. The first Annales introduced history from below, switching historiography’s focus from kings and politicians, wars and states, to working men and women, and to economic and social evolutions instead of political ones. These new subjects, especially when concerning periods after the French revolution, would often draw on extensive administrative documents. By using new tools as computers, historians in some fields became historical statisticians.28 Or how Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie announced it in 1967: “L’historien de demain sera programmeur ou ne sera plus” (The historian of tomorrow will be a computer programmer or will no longer exist).29 The second Annales, under Fernand Braudel, returned to covering law models, many of them with a Marxist inspiration. But it also knew great historical works in microhistory, l’histoire événementiel (history of events), and the history of mentalities. The greater discussion in the Annales focussed on the nomothetic or ideographic nature of the historical profession mirroring the Methodenstreit (method dispute) at the end of the nineteenth century in Germany. The Annales has challenged the historical discipline in its theory and practice, but it had not lacked confidence in the positivist idea of history.

Generations of historians had described the historical discipline as a positivist project. History was a field in the image of the natural sciences yet without universal laws. There were of course historians who had different views. Nietzsche, Droysen, and Huizinga, for example, delivered severe criticism on the positivist idea of historical objectivity. According to Dutch theoretical historian Chris Lorenz, they remained a small and rather insignificant movement within the historical discipline.30

Postmodernism revived lingering criticism in historiography. A variety of scholars, influenced by the greater developments in the postmodern intellectual sphere, trusted a key element of historical writing upon the theoretical agenda which, though central to the entire enterprise, had been left out of most grand schemes in historical theory: that of language and the historian’s relationship with it.

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