Featured image:  By John Leech from The Comic History of Rome (c.1850).  The cartoon shows Disraeli (as Cicero) denouncing Gladstone (as Cataline) in the Roman Senate.

The Debates forum is for discussions relating to historiography and historical observations made by great thinkers across the ages.  Every so often a new debate will be introduced, and contributions are welcome.  Please be aware that any published comments will be strictly on-topic and must meaningfully advance the discussion.

“History isn’t what happened.  History is just what historians tell us.” 

(Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10½ Chapters: Various editions, 1989-1995)

Von Ranke

This would appear to invoke the historical philosophy of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886, pictured left in 1868).  In 1884, he published his first full-length work in which he stated in the Preface that history until then had been concerned only with judging the past and indicating lessons for the future, but he rejected this in favour of showing history “how it actually was” (wie es eigentlich gewesen).  In the simplest sense, Ranke’s mission was to discover and present only ‘the facts’ and nothing else – what we today would regard as pure narrative history.  He criticised contemporary historians for imposing ‘meaning’ upon historical events, and he rejected the concept of ‘historical models’ (a modern day example would be Marxist theory) that sought to explain the past as stepping stones towards an inevitable human destiny.  Von Ranke placed enormous emphasis on primary (or first-hand) accounts, particularly in documentary form, but even then his work lacked evidence from state papers because they were not in the public domain, thus his quest for “how it actually was” was flawed from the outset.  However, he would have recognised Barnes’ comment in two dimensions: (1) that the quest for ‘the truth’ is ultimately doomed; and (2) we are told what the historians want us to know and nothing else.

  • Is it possible to know ‘the truth’ in history?
  • Is there a place for interpretative history, or should everyone be presented with the ‘facts’ and be allowed to construct their own ‘meanings’?

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