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History and Theory 42 (October 2003), 305-331 Wesleyan University 2003 ISSN: 0018-2656





The object of this essay is to discuss two problems and to present solutions to them, which
do not quite agree with what is generally said of them. The first problem concerns the his-
tory of methods for reaching firm historical knowledge. In three methodological manuals
for historians, written by J. G. Droysen, E. Bernheim, and C.-V. Langlois and C.
Seignobos and first published in the late nineteenth century, the task of the historian was
said to be how to obtain firm knowledge about history. The question is how this message
should be understood. The second problem concerns the differences between the three
manuals. If their common goal is firm historical knowledge, are there any major differ-
ences of opinion? The answer given in this article is yes, and the ground is sought in their
theories of truth.


Methodology as a systematic treatment of methods may turn in two different

directions. One methodologist may seek the unifying elements in different meth-
ods accepted within a discipline and try to systematize observations on the meth-
ods used. Another methodologist may try to find rational arguments for methods
used and by these arguments connect methods with an epistemological idea or
philosophy. Both approaches to methodology may have a normative bent, but
none of them need to be normative. One is more taxonomic and the other more
philosophical, but the borderline between taxonomy and philosophy is difficult
to discern.
We will pursue here an analysis of the three methodological works by Droy-
sen, Bernheim, and Langlois and Seignobos in regard both to their taxonomy and
philosophy, but the main emphasis is laid on the epistemological foundations that
they develop for methodology.1 All three are interesting from this point of view,

1. J. G. Droysens Grundriss der Historik was published three times during his lifetime, in 1868,
1875, and 1882 (Leipzig: Veit & Co.). It has been used here in E. Rothackers re-edition of the third
edition published under the title Grundriss der Historik (Halle-Saale: Max Niemeyer, 1925). Later
Droysens lecture manuscripts on the subject were edited by R. Hbner under the title Historik:
Vorlesungen ber Enzyklopdie und Methodologie der Geschichte (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1937)
and by P. Leyh under the title Historik: Rekonstruktion der ersten vollstndigen Fassung der
Vorlesungen (1857), Grundriss der Historik in der ersten handschriftlichen (1857/1858) und in der
letzten gedruckten Fassung (1882) (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstadt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1977). Ernst
Bernheims Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (first ed. 1889) was subject to constant major and

and in this respect this article elucidates a piece of the history of philosophy.
However, the advances of philosophy of history since the turn of the twentieth
century do not make a comparison with the ideas from a hundred years ago unin-
teresting. In many respects these three methodologists advance ideas which are
still put forward in the debate. I come back to the question of what is outdated
and what is still valid reasoning in the conclusion of this article. As all three aim
to show the possibility of firm historical knowledge it seems important to treat
them together, even though research has taken a different interest in them. Thus
the examination of Droysen has been much more elaborate in recent decades
than has the analysis of Bernheim and Langlois-Seignobos. In spite of the new
light shed on Droysen by Rsens work, it is important to relate his taxonomic
methodology with its neo-Kantian overtones to Bernheims efforts to present a
solid Kantian philosophical basis through circumstantial argument and
Langloiss and Seignoboss critical approach to the Kantian heritage.


The generally professed idea from Antiquity onwards has been that history
should seek the truth about the past. That this was no easy task was generally rec-
ognized early on. Ancient historians and philosophers paid occasional attention
to the difficulties in reaching truth in history. Since Kant all theory of history
had to come to terms with the theories of knowledge advanced by him and his
followers. The idea that the perceptions of the senses belong to the perceiving
subject and are caused by something called the thing in itself lent itself read-
ily to historical application. Thus this idea gave rise to a lengthy struggle over the
possibility of attaining an ideal of objectivity and to clarify history as the real
past and not only as an object depending on the perceptions of the subject.
The investigating subject was assumed to set its mark on the result, and objec-
tivity came to be an ideal out of reach.
Other ideals and other conceptions appeared as to what historians ought to do
and what they could achieve. A positivist historian like H. T. Buckle tried to find
regularities in historical development, which could explain or help to explain the
development of civilization. His efforts won little applause among historians but
his books and ideas were widely debated and helped to form a general opinion
mainly negativeabout this type of historical investigation. Buckle was an
Englishman but his inspiration came from France, from Auguste Comte. Besides
Comte there were several Frenchmen who formed ideas (for example, Saint-
Simon and the utopians) more or less in the tradition of the moral sciences of the
late eighteenth century.
The idea that historians should try to reach objective historical knowledge has
been widespread and dominating for a long period during the twentieth century,

minor changes by the author. Here I have also used the editions from 1903 and 1908 (all editions pub-
lished by Duncker und Humblot in Leipzig). C.-V. Langlois and C. Seignobos, Introduction aux
tudes historiques (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1898) was republished by the same firm in 1899. All
translations in the following of passages from these books are by RT.
but it has never been beyond criticism and questioning. The most illuminating
study of the impact of the idea of objectivity is Peter Novicks book on objectiv-
ity in the American academic community of historians.2 What Novick shows
above all is that historians could not conceive of their profession without relat-
ing it to objectivity, either as a goal within reach or as an ideal that could not be
attained but which was always worth striving for.
Historians mostly were more modest than philosophers up to the late nine-
teenth century. In the nineteenth century they preferred to discuss methods rather
than theory. There were, however, quite a number of historians who had already
expressed views on the theory of history during the eighteenth century. Most of
them gave only occasional methodological rules. Some of them went further and
tried to systematize their experiences in reflections on the craft of being a histo-
rian. One cannot discern in these manuals a consistent philosophy of history or a
full-grown historical epistemology.3 They mostly give advice about what to do
with certain types of material or in certain research situations. Rankes work on
historiography (especially Guicciardini), which is his main work in historical
method, was in line with the critical examinations of the Icelandic sagas and
Nestors chronicle. Such analyses of the sources for old medieval history had
been made by a number of professors who were based at the University of
Gttingen and who were regarded as the origin of the German historical school
by Herbert Butterfield.4 Rankes work was not at all like manuals or introductions
to historiography. Therefore its fame is easier to understand because of Rankes
later prominent position in the academic community than from the content of the
book. For Ranke the main problems in his other works (and in the book to which
his critical examination was an appendix) were related to the state, the state sys-
tem, and the morality of the world order. His originality in these respects was
great and has given him well-deserved fame as the historian who brought
Historismus into a state of full development.5 It is more difficult to see him as a
methodologist, even if Georg Iggers in several historiographical works has lent
his established authority to the notion of Ranke as the founder of scientific his-

2. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical
Profession (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
3. Of those I know anything about I would especially mention those by Chladenius, Gatterer, and
Rhs, all of them German, but there may have been others developed by historians in other countries.
See Horst Walter Blanke, Historiographiegeschichte als Historik (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstadt:
Frommann-Holzboog, 1991). It seems that Blanke underestimates the originality in Rhss work. The
reason for this is that he uses Historismus as a yardstick. Rhss work was noted by Herbert
Butterfield, Man on His Past [1955] (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 7, but he
makes little out of it.
4. Butterfield, Man on His Past, 32-61.
5. This is Meineckes position. It has been challenged and it is important that Historismus did not
remain unchanged (see, for example, Otto Gerhard Oexle, Geschichtswissenschaft im Zeichen des
Historismus [Gttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1996]; Historismus am Ende des 20.
Jahrhunderts: Eine internationale Diskussion, ed. Gunter Scholtz (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997),
with an important contribution by G. Iggers). The discussion on Historismus in recent years has led
to many revisions in earlier stereotyped views. See, for example, Irmline Veit-Brause, Die Histor-
ismus-Debatte, Neue politische Literatur 1 (1998), 36-66; The Turnings of Historicism, in Power,
Conscience, and Opposition, ed. A. Bonnell et al. (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 405-430; and
Historicism Revisited, Storia della Storiografia 29 (1996), 99-125.

tory (in the continental European sense). He implies that this has to do with
methodology, though it is substantiated rather by his reflections on history.6
In several respects a new turn in the development of historical professionalism
grew out of the developing Historismus. It was important that new methodolog-
ical manuals were published and widely accepted in the European community of
historians. J. G. Droysen had published his Grundriss der Historik in 1868
(revised ed. in 1875 and 1882), but in its methodological part it was more a skele-
ton of notes for lectures than a handbook, and these notes were combined with a
few essays on the principles of Historismus. His Grundriss was therefore super-
seded as a manual by Ernst Bernheims Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (first
edition in 1889) and Charles-Victor Langloiss and Charles Seignoboss
Introduction aux tudes historiques (1898). These books were in the first place
methodological (from the 1903 edition Bernheim explicitly included more phi-
losophy of history), though with an ambition to relate methodology to epistemo-
logical principles, and they had a very wide circulation.
There were some others (though not many) who wrote books of the same
genre. The interest in methodology is a testimony to the new direction that his-
torical studies had taken in universities. Gradually the notion became common
that it was necessary to provide students with some reading that could give them
an insight in the methods of history. Some books were written in the first half of
the century, for example, the little volume by Rhs (note 3), and introductions by
J. G. von Fessmaier, J. E. Fabri, and C. J. Kraus, all published in the first decade
of the nineteenth century and F. Rehms Lehrbuch from 1830. Even learned
introductory books to historical studies lacked convincing arguments on method-
ology and contained in the first place a systematic presentation of historical
material and where it could be found. Such works were classified in German as
Quellenkunde, a genre where W. Wattenbach, Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen
im Mittelalter bis zur Mitte des dreizehnten Jahrhunderts (first ed. 1858) and his
Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter (1871) belonged, as did many of the publications
in relation to the French and German projects for the publication of medieval
writings on history. Emerging books on the history of historiography in respect
to certain objects of studysuch as books by O. Lorenz,7 F. X. Wegele,8 and L.
Wachler,9 and one essay by Lord Acton on historical studies and another on
German schools of history, in which he presented continental historians and their
methods and conceptions10 also gave few substantial rules and still fewer

6. See, for example G. Iggers, Introduction, in International Handbook of Historical Studies, ed.
G. Iggers and H. T. Parker (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), 1-14; G. Iggers, New
Directions in European Historiography, revised ed. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press,
1984), 18-21, 26. Iggers devotes very little attention to Bernheim or Langlois and Seignobos.
7. O. Lorenz, Die Geschichtswissenschaft in Hauptrichtungen und Ausgaben, vol. 1-2 (Berlin:
Hertz, 18861891).
8. Franz X. Wegele, Geschichte der deutschen Historiographie seit dem Auftreten des Humanismus
(Munich and Leipzig: R. Oldenbourg, 1885)
9. L. Wachler, Geschichte der historischen Forschung und Kunst seit der Wiederherstellung der
litterrischen Cultur in Europa (Gttingen: Rwer, 18121820).
10. J. E. E. D. Acton, A Lecture on the Study of History (London: Macmillan, 1896); German Schools
of History in Historical Essays and Studies (London: Macmillan 1907), 344-392. In the former booklet
Acton affirms that Rankes different historical works form the best introduction from which we can learn
the technical process by which within living memory the study of modern history has been renewed (52).
arguments for a historical methodology. Only a few of these books dealt with
methods for the study of different types of material and still fewer presented any
reasons why these methods should prevail. The best-known of the books that will
not be treated here is the one by the English historian E. A. Freeman, The
Methods of Historical Study, from 1886, which is a series of essays rather than a
systematic treatment of methodology.
Thus, something new came with Droysen, Bernheim, and Langlois and
Seignobos. They wanted to teach how to find firm knowledge about history. This
is their common aim, but Droysen gave priority to philosophical matters. The
others devoted themselves to the methodology rather than to the philosophy of
history, where relativistic notions of uncertainty prevailed. The three books
found different philosophical bases for their standpoints but all of them turned
their backs on the general relativism of knowledge. Their differences seem to
have mattered less than their methodological aims, which appealed to historians.
These aims were similar and it seems that many historians read their books as
interchangeable manuals for the study of history, without observing any disturb-
ing differences. Students could use the books by Bernheim or Langlois and
Seignobos directly, if they paid attention primarily to the rules that were the core
of the method. These rules could be understood through the texts of Bernheim
and Langlois and Seignobos, while Droysens book gave much less reasoned
advice in these respects. That is probably the main reason why Droysens book
became less well known as a methodological manual after the turn of the centu-
ry than the other two, in spite of the fact that there were small differences in the
rules that they taught. On the other hand Droysens book soon superseded the
others in reputation for wisdom and depth of thought.
The years around the turn of the twentieth century witnessed a change in the
general approach to historical professionalism. The earlier emphasis had been on
the theory of the state or the theory of state systems or the theory of the (indi-
vidual) nation. Now the methodological element became central. Without a prop-
er knowledge of how to evaluate sources a historian was not accepted as a pro-
fessional. Several factors helped to make methodology a central element in the
professionalism of historians.11 One was the rise of national historical associa-
tions. This was a process that took place all over Europe (and also beyond
Europe) in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Philosophical and political
issues divided all such associations and, thus, only methodology was really a
common basis. Another factor was the spread of scholarly historical journals in
which critical reviews of recent historical literature spurred methodological
interest.12 This was even more true of the international organization of historians,
later known as the Comit international des sciences historiques, which can be

11. On historical professionalism and its development, see R. Torstendahl, History, Profession-
alization of, in International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (London: Elsevier,
2001), 6864-6869, and R. Torstendahl, Assessing Professional Developments. Historiography in a
Comparative Perspective, in An Assessment of Twentieth-Century Historiography, ed. R. Torstendahl
(Stockholm: Vitterhetsakademien, 2000), 9-30.
12. For journals, see Margaret Stieg, The Origin and Development of Scholarly Historical Journals
(Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986). Cf also Historische Zeitschriften im internationalen
Vergleich, ed. Matthias Middell (Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsanstalt, 1999).

traced back to 1898. In the early programs of its international congresses from
1900 and 1903 methodology played an important role and the object of discus-
sion was how established methods could be corroborated with philosophical
arguments rather than which implications philosophy might have for methodol-
ogy. However, after the congress of 1908 the French historian Simiand com-
plained in a review article that methods had not been sufficiently emphasized in
the congress contributions.13
Interest in historical methodology ran high. Even though K. D. Erdmann,
especially, has noted this in works on the historiography of the period, those who
have written on the history of historiography have seldom drawn attention to the
content of this methodology.14 They treat philosophy of history rather than
epistemology, but even this quite insufficiently.


It is an overstatement to say that Johann Gustav Droysen particularly sought a

firm basis for historical knowledge. His aim was different. His Grundriss der
Historik was only partly a manual of methodology,15 but in the book a philo-
sophical setting was also of fundamental importance. As Droysen said in his
preface: The goal of this booklet is attained, if it serves to give an impetus to
further discussion of the problems dealt with. These problems concern the nature
and assignment as well as the method and faculty of our discipline (preface to
1867 edition, xii). For a book of a hundred pages this was a rather ambitious
goal. It seems that the book met the ambitions of its author. Erich Rothacker, who
edited a new edition in 1924, is full of praise. He saw the booklet, which he made
the introductory volume to a series of reprints, as a paradigm for the interplay
between philosophy and specialized disciplines that he wanted to illustrate (viii).
When Droysens little volume was reedited later, the aim was to show his origi-
nality of thought, but not to discuss his methodological standpoints. In order to
do this later editors were more interested in elucidating the real meaning of
Droysens short statements, most often by using his lecture manuscripts. As my
aim here is to discuss the function of the book as a manual, it is the originally
printed text rather than its background, prehistory, and intentions that matter.16
Rothacker gives three examples of the interplay he mentioned. Droysen was
more influenced by Hegel than was Ranke , and to this he added influences from
13. Karl Dietrich Erdmann, Die kumene der Historiker: Geschichte der internationalen Histori-
kerkongresse und des Comit International des Sciences Historiques (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 1987).
14. It is noteworthy that neither Fueter nor Barraclough in their admirable historiographical
overviews from different times have deemed it necessary to mention the manuals by Droysen,
Bernheim, or Langlois and Seignobos, though they discuss methodological reorientation in the disci-
pline. (E. Fueter, Geschichte der neueren Historiographie, in Handbuch der mittelalterlichen und
neueren Geschichte, Abt. 1 (Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg, 1911); G. Barraclough, History, in
Main Trends of Research in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (The Hague: Unesco, 1978.)
15. It was subject to small changes in Droysens lifetime through its three editions from 1868,
1875, and 1882. Used here is its 1925 edition. See note 1.
16. In the preface to the second edition of the Grundriss Droysen rejected, at least temporarily, the
proposal that people had made to him, that he should further develop the theme and make it into a true
handbook. (Droysen, Grundriss, 1875, 2.)
the philosophically-minded philologist August Boeckh. The combination led to
an idealistic heritage which was successfully transformed in the booklet. Further,
this idealistic heritage was defended through the book against the breakthrough
of naturalism. Finally, Rothacker argued that it is undeniable that Droysen with
his book was able to influence philosophy and one cannot deny his impact on the
leaders of the historical-philosophical movement: Dilthey, Rickert, and Simmel.
Rothacker gives examples of where Droysens text should have played a role for
Dilthey and Simmel (viii). A vast discussion has taken place in Germany after
World War II about the political implications of Droysens historical theory and
its relations to Kant, Hegel, and other predecessors. This discussion is based
more on Droysens lectures on the Historik than on the text in his Grundriss. The
most authoritative interpretation has been given by Jrn Rsen. Rsen revolu-
tionized the interpretation of Droysen by seeing his oeuvre as a whole instead of
regarding the Historik as an exception. As Rsen states in his book Begriffene
Geschichte, he regards it as impossible to derive an interpretation of Droysens
theory on the relation between the present with its political praxis and the past
with its determined action exclusively from Droysens self-reflection in the
Historik.17 There is no reason to dispute this statement, but it must be pointed out
that Rsen worked with the same type of problem as did earlier researchers on
Droysen, though his methodology and results were different. As a consequence
of his holistic interpretation, Rsen has devoted much less analytical space to the
Historik than to other works by Droysen. The underlying main thesis is that the
same theory of history that is explicated in the Historik is present in Droysens
works on ancient culture and Prussian politics. Rsens later book, Fr eine
erneuerte Historik, takes up a discussion with other German scholars on the
interpretation of the Historik, but it is completely devoted to philosophy of his-
tory in the sense of how the reflection on history can contribute to an under-
standing of humankind in society. This comprises developmental thought and
theory of action as well as epistemology, but both books only touch upon
methodological questions.18
If we go to the text of the Grundriss we find a very systematic outline of the
fundamental ideas. After an introduction, in which the main themes are present-
ed, Droysen discusses the formation of the historians text from three points of
view: the method, the systematic approach, and the topical (that is, recurrent
themes) approach. The concluding three chaptersunder a common heading of
Appendices!deal with philosophical aspects of historical texts. First
Droysen develops the rise of history to a Wissenschaft. The next theme is nature
and history, and the final chapter deals with art and method. In the 1924 edition

17. J. Rsen, Begriffene Geschichte: Genesis und Begrndung der Geschichtstheorie J. G.

Droysens (Paderborn: Schningh, 1969), 15. Hayden White has succinctly presented the development
of a new appreciation of Droysens work. (Droysens Historik: Historical Writing as a Bourgeois
Science, in his The Content of the Form [Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1987], 83-103).
18. J. Rsen, Fr eine erneuerte Historik: Studien zur Theorie der Geschichtswissenschaft
(Stuttgart-Bad Cannstadt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1976). This book is written as a discussion of philo-
sophical matters, not as an analysis within the history of historiography.

Rothacker has added a chapter on theology of history from another work by

Droysen; its content certainly fits with the preceding chapters.
The very systematic outline is striking and the text follows the same pattern in
the first half of the book. It bears traces of being what the author contends it is,
namely his manuscript for lectures to his students. One can easily imagine that he
may have filled out what seems now to be very categorical short statements with
an oral discussion. Later editions have tried to supplement this discussion by pub-
lishing a reconstruction of Droysens lectures and Droysens early handwritten
manuscript.19 But even with such reading between the lines presented in the book,
it has a very taxonomic character. It should be borne in mind that it was produced
in the period when taxonomic thinking was still highly valued and when the
causal revolution in scientific reasoning that came with Darwin had just begun.
Methodology consists of three main parts: heuristics, criticism, and interpreta-
tion. The heuristic method shows the materials, which are of three sorts: ber-
reste, Quellen, and Denkmler (approximate translation: remains from historical
developments in a wide sense, texts from the past, and monuments). As for the
berreste there are four sorts plus what goes over into Denkmler. Quellen can
be divided into three categories: subjective, pragmatic, and secondary. Criticism
also is subdivided into four fundamental types, the third of these with four sub-
types, with the aim of observing three types of relation between text and author.
And so on. This is characteristic of the whole part of the book that concerns
methodology in the limited sense (and which is also called methodology by
Droysen), comprising eleven pages in all (13-24). The following section, called
Systematik, is equally taxonomic in its form, the main aim being to classify his-
torical works as to their type of content, their form, their agents (state, people,
church, art, and so on), and their purposes. In the first two of these Droysen fre-
quently uses subcategories (25-36). The Topik, finally, which discusses the forms
of historical presentations, is divided into four main parts, taking up the investi-
gating, narrative, didactic, and discussing forms of historical writings. In that part
no subdivisions are found.
I dont intend to imply that Droysens systematic approach is empty, for this is
not the case. Yet he is certainly working in the same tradition as the great
botanists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, such as Linneaus, who
thought that bringing a taxonomic order to a limited universe was in itself a form
for understanding it. However, again it should be noted that Droysen may have
thought of this ordering of all procedures in the work of the historian as a help
primarily to keep a line of thought in his oral presentation. Recent research has
attempted to reconstruct the complete version of the lectures held in 1857.20
Droysen himself chose to publish the short, systematic version of the notes and
then he must have had something more in mind. They may serve as a well-
ordered toolbox for the historian.
It is, however, more than this (and I am still commenting on only the first half of
the booklet). Droysen says in his summary of the three-page chapter on criticism:
19. The edition by Peter Leyh 1977 presents three versions, a reconstruction of the first lectures
(1857), the first manuscript by Droysen (18571858), and the last printed edition (1882).
20. J. G. Droysen, Historik, ed. Peter Leyh (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstadt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1977).
The result of criticism is not the real historical fact but the material is prepared to make
possible a relatively firm and correct conception. The conscientiousness [Gewissen-
haftigkeit], which does not want to go beyond the results of criticism is mistaken, when it
leaves to imagination to go ahead with processing these results instead of finding rules
also for this further work that could make sure its correctness.21

In the German it is even more evident than in English translation that his pri-
mary methodological aim is that (relatively) firm knowledge is to be established
through a system of rules. This is not confined to source criticism in a limited
sense but has relevance for the whole process of the historians work. But, as
Droysen explains in his chapter on interpretation, the fundamental reality in his-
tory is decided by moral forces (sittliche Mchte), which lead and motivate the
animated spirits (die entflammten Geister) as thoughts of the time, people, indi-
vidual humans. This thought or complex of thoughts, which is shown by the
interpretation in a set of events, is for us the truth of this set of events, he con-
cludes. The set of events is a reality that creates a complex of thoughts (a moral
perception and reaction), which in its turn is the form in which this reality
appears to us. In this perception (of a moral situation) we understand what has
happened and from it we understand this thought (23-24). Thus, the system of
rules leads to a specific insight in an idealistic worldview where the moral forces
are central.22 For Droysen these moral forces were the fundamental objects of the
historians work and they could be evidenced by the historical system of rules.
In this way Droysen transformed historical methodology into a very wide and
forceful instrument. It became a key to the understanding of the world and of
human behavior. Many othersfor example the moral philosophers of eigh-
teenth-century France and writers like Voltairehad used history to elucidate
moral norms. Droysen goes the other way round. He says that there exists (or
should exist) a firm knowledge about history, established through a consistent
system of rules, which also makes it possible to draw firm conclusions about
morality in the sense of the moral driving forces of the actors in history. History,
in his philosophy, becomes a means to approach the fundamentals of human rela-
tions in a systematic and firm knowledge system.
From the first part of Droysens bookthe methodological lecturesone may
get the impression that he was an early defender of scientific ideals in history that
became current around the turn of the century. This is, however, misleading. It is
a reasonable assumption that Droysen himself saw the danger of being misun-
derstood from his lecture notes. Therefore he tried to guard against this in the
second and third chapters, on nature and history and on art and method.

21. Das Ergebnis der Kritik ist nicht die eigentliche historische Tatsache, sondern, dass das
Material bereit gemacht ist, eine verhltnismassig sichere und korrekte Auffassung zu ermglichen.
Die Gewissenhaftigkeit, die ber die Resultate der Kritik nicht hinausgehen will, irrt darin, dass sie
der Phantasie berlsst, mit ihnen weiter zu arbeiten, statt auch fr die weitere Arbeit Regeln zu find-
en, die ihre Korrrektheit sichern. Droysen, Historik 1925, 19.
22. Ethics deals with moral forces. Ethik und Historik sind gleichsam Koordinaten. Denn die
Geschichte gibt die Genesis des Postulats der praktischen Vernunft, das der reinen Vernunft unfind-
bar blieb (Droysen, Historik 1925, 35). As did many others in the nineteenth century Droysen used
arguments close to Kants but superimposed his moral philosophy over his theoretical philosophy.

The chapter on history as Wissenschaft is, in fact, a review of Buckles work

on the history of civilization in England, from 18581861. Approximately one
half of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of Buckles inductivist method and
its shortcomings. The rest is a sharp critique of Buckles ideas, where Droysen
refutes Buckles denial of free will, his idea of laws that govern life, and his way
of conceiving the role of intellectual and moral powers in life. It can be con-
cluded, however, that even though Droysen does not accept Buckles epistemo-
logical and methodological ideas, he is far more negative toward Buckles prac-
tical philosophy and its consequences with regard to the conception of progress.
The nuances of Droysens conception of historical knowledge are further elab-
orated in his essay on history and art. In artistic works the technical and the artis-
tic (das Musische) go hand in hand. It is possible to forget about the deficiencies
of the means of art through the artistic idea. What is created through art is a
totality, a world of its own. It is different in scientific and scholarly thought
(Wissenschaften). Especially for the empirical Wissenschaften it is imperative to
ascertain the limits of their knowledge, to check mistakes that arise from their
methods, and so on. It is perhaps most to the credit of the critical school in his-
tory that it has established that the examination of the sources is fundamental.
This means that the past is not immediately but only indirectly accessible and
that we cannot bring forth the past objectively but can produce only an idea, a
picture, and a reflection from the sources. This is all that is possible to know
about the past, which means that History does not exist openly (usserlich) and
realistically but only in a mediated and investigated form (81-82).
In this essay Droysen was also much more cautious in respect to historical
objectivity than he was in the methodological lectures. In the essay, as in the lec-
tures, he started out with historical remains, but here he stressed that they were
only remains from the past for the historical approach; otherwise they were parts
of the contemporary scene. But they provide a starting point for historical
research, even though it is easy to cross the line between what are remains in the
real sense and what are just individual views from the past. Alluding to his essay
on Buckle, Droysen again states that he wants to refute the idea that only the
methods of the natural sciences make a discipline scientific. The moral world is
different. We can easily form subjective convictions about these matters, but it is
important to find methods to check these subjective impressions in an objective
manner. Only this can be the meaning of the often mentioned historical objec-
tivity, says Droysen. We have to find methods, he adds. It seems that he
means that the interpretation of artwhich is the topic he continues withfor
him may be the solution of the inquiry for methods, or at least part of the solu-
tion. For he concludes the essay with the statement that all such methods have a
focal point. It is the task of the Historik (that is, the fundamentals of historical
research that Droysen wanted to expose) to summarize their ideas and make a
system and a theory out of them, not the theory of historical development, but the
theory of historical research and knowledge.

A new and audacious approach in Droysens book on historical methodology was

the idea that the historian would be able to reach firm knowledge about history
with the help and application of a consistent methodological system of rules. It
seems, however, that the audacity of the idea frightened even its originator, so he
made modifications. One was the insertion of an uncertainty in regard to the
firmness of this knowledge in some contexts in his methodology, but only in
some. Another modification was in his discussion of the problem of certainty in
his essays, which were attached to the methodology, and stressed uncertainty
rather than firmness.
For Droysen there was no doubt that history implied knowledge of a real past
and that this reality was also the ultimate criterion of the truth of the historical
account. However, the historical reality that was important for historians to clar-
ifyor, possibly, the only historical realityconcerned the moral universe of
acting persons. From what he says one may conclude that human actions as
movements in time and space did not constitute the reality he was talking about
but rather the moral universe (sittliche Welt) of actions in relation to moral rules
and (moral) consequences. In these reflections one may find a return to both Kant
and Rankeor an early development of a neo-Kantian and a neo-Rankean
With his clear distinction between a theory of historical development and a
(meta)theory of historical research and knowledge Droysen represents something
new in the development of historical methodology and theory just after the mid-
dle of the nineteenth century. It is important that his emphasis was on methodol-
ogy. Soon after the publication of Droysens book several New Kantians
advanced ideas similar to his in which they approached history from a purely
philosophical standpoint. Contrary to them, he stressed the need for rules aimed
at serving the practical needs of historians. The purpose of the methodological
system of rules was to establish firm historical knowledge, as Droysen stated in
his methodological lectures. When he elaborated the conditions for historical
knowledge, however, he arrived at a dilemma as to the possibility of firm knowl-
edge. He would not accept an inductive ideal for historical knowledge copied
from the practices of the natural sciences. Then he chose to rely on the Kantian
model of subjectobject relations and to make the Kantian understanding of a
moral world with moral forces the center of historical research. Objective
knowledge of the moral forces was an unattainable goal, according to Droysen,
but it is notable that he never gave up the idea that methodological refinement
would serve the purpose of improvement of the basis of historical knowledge.
The search for a firm knowledge of history remained alive in his thinking, and
he sought for it even in the direction of art.


Ernst Bernheims Lehrbuch der historischen Methode from 1889 was obviously
intended to be a very comprehensive overview of what a student (or professor)
might need to know about the writing of history. The 1894 edition comprised 624
pages. In 1903 he explicitly stated that the philosophy of history was included in
the scope of the book. This change incorporated philosophy of history in different

chapters, which meant that the book grew and epistemological aspects of the his-
torical method became prominent. These and other changes seem to have been
aimed at increasing the completeness in the perspectives already evident in the
first edition. The fifth and sixth editions, from 1908, were most widely circulated;
by then the book comprised 840 pages. These are the ones I will cite. Later edi-
tions seem not to have expanded the book further.
Bernheim was a highly respected professor and a specialist on early medieval
political thought. This means that his specialty was at the very center of the dis-
cipline, for it should be borne in mind that history was still regarded as consist-
ing of three main periods of approximately equal weight, Antiquity, the Middle
Ages, and Modern History. The last of these periods started around 1500. The
methods of medieval studies were those most frequently taught at the increas-
ingly common seminars on history at the universities in Europe. Occasional
examples from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were balanced by discus-
sions about the use of Roman authors for the first centuries of our era. Classical
studies had started their separation from history and historians were not profes-
sionally interested in trying to evaluate archaeological evidence. Such material is
not discussed in Bernheims book.
It must be said at once that Bernheims Lehrbuch has a wide view of its topic.
The 1908 editions, which constitute the main basis of the present analysis, con-
tain six main chapters. The first takes up the concept of scholarly history
(Geschichtswissenschaft) and its essential characteristics (Wesen). The second
chapter develops methodology and the third information on sources or heuristics.
The fourth chapter is devoted to criticism, which includes the analysis of
sources. The fifth chapter bears the heading conceptions (Auffassung), which
means that the inferences from different sources in their combination are treated
there. The sixth chapter is the shortest one and develops the historical account.
In fact Bernheims division of the subject matter of his study tallies well with
If Droysen presented methodology in all too short sentences, which seem to
require comments and explications, Bernheims exposition is comprehensive and
circumstantial. He devotes seventy pages to the general discussion of methodol-
ogy and 230 pages to the detailed presentation of criticism in all its varieties.
These two chapters attract our main attention here.
Bernheim discards the idea that a special methodology of history is unneces-
sary because of its close relation to common sense. This argument would mean
that everyone had to start from scratch, which would open the field to the self-
taught. Nor is it valid to criticize methodology in history for consisting of invari-
ant rules that cannot be used in always-shifting individual cases. Bernheim com-
pares history with medicine, where individual variations in illnesses do not
exclude systematic methods for diagnosis and treatment (179-184). In spite of
such comparisons a specific historical method exists. The first main task of the
historical method, beside the collation of the material, is to establish related
events as facts (die Tatschlichkeit der berlieferten Begebenheiten
festzustellen), as Bernheim emphasizes in a sentence that is difficult to render
appropriately in English. That is, he continues, to make certain that they real-
ly have happened. To do this we have to rely on the historians own observations
of the remains of the events, in the first place, and then on the observations of
witnesses whose credibility has been checked. Here he refers to the long chapter
on criticism. But it is important that he continues with the second main task of
methodology, namely knowledge about the connection between facts, that is,
what he calls Auffassung, which I translate here as conceptions (185). One of
the main chapters of the book deals exclusively with this part of methodology.
Thus, it is a misunderstanding or even a quite false statement to accuse
Bernheim (or traditional methodology of history) of not having observed that
the connection between individual events or facts is quite another thing, ask-
ing for quite another method, than the establishment of these events or
facts.23 Bernheim stresses that individual facts always have to be causally con-
nected to a whole of a development. This constant relation between the indi-
vidual event or fact with the whole and the general is what most specifically
characterizes the historical method, according to Bernheim (188).
One of the three parts of the chapter on methodology in general is devoted to
a subject called Establishing (die Begrndung) method against skepticism. (The
certainty of history). In this chapter Bernheim recognizes two difficulties that
may give rise to doubt as to the possibility of reaching firm results in history. One
of these difficulties lies in the matter of history and it is thus of an objective char-
acter; the other lies in mankinds faculties of knowledge and is subjective. This
is not enough, however. Against the contention that history cannot bring forward
firm certainty because its knowledge is neither logically nor experimentally evi-
denced, Bernheim objects that truths can be certain without being evidenced.
There is a certainty, which stems from immediate experience and observation,
and historical knowledge depends on this type of knowledge. This certainty is
quite as good as any other form of certainty (189-190).
Interestingly, nothing indicates that Bernheim had the idea that each individ-
ual observation in experimental sciences depends on the same type of certainty
that he ascribes to history. He seems to think that immediate observational cer-
tainty is something that is exclusive to history.
Bernheim registers two sorts of doubts that may be raised in regard to the
subjective possibility of firm historical knowledge. The first concerns the pos-
sibility of gaining real empathy with regard to the emotions and thoughts of other
people. He refutes this possible objection with traits that he ascribes to humani-
ty in general. Logic does not change and therefore thoughts must be analyzable,
nor do psychic processes change even if their manifestations change. The
processes of perception and conception are not the same but are analogous
among all humankind, according to Bernheim, and this is the presumption from
which history must work. The second type of doubt regarding the subjective pos-
23. In her important book, regrettably only in Danish, Historie: En videnskabshistorisk under-
sgelse, (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 1999), 42 , Inga Floto states that Seignobos came back
from Germany in the late 1880s and complained that he had found there only erudition and criticism
of the sources but not what he called scholarly synthesis. This should be noted especially because
of the criticism directed against Seignobos by L. Febvre for an exclusive interest in events. See below,
note 31.

sibility of reaching firm historical knowledge refers to the possibility that human
beings perceive differently even if they call things with the same names. This
possibility is also refuted by means of general assumptions of similarity in psy-
chic processes (190-197). Naturally, these assumptions of Bernheims have been
the target of criticism from later theorists.24 No other argument is brought for-
ward by Bernheim than the necessity of accepting these assumptions in order to
make firm historical knowledge possible. He seems never to have seriously con-
sidered any other possibility in spite of the obvious circularity of his reasoning.
He took for granted that the possibility of reaching firm historical knowledge is
plausible because of certain general assumptions about human psychic process-
es, and these assumptions are reasonable because they are required for the pos-
sibility of reaching firm historical knowledge.
Does there exist, then, an objective possibility of firm historical knowledge?
This is Bernheims next question and it refers to the historical material and the
methods to be used. Bernheim states that the material is full of gaps, that rela-
tions are tendentious and misleading, and that remains [berreste] certainly
offer immediate evidence but that they can be misleading as regards facticity
(Tatschlichkeit) as they are often mixed with tendentious relations. Mistakes in
regard to dates in the material, specifications that are unintelligible, and so on,
are undeniable. This is, Bernheim concedes, pertinent and undeniable, but it
should not lead to a dispirited skepticism, for such circumstances only show the
need for methods and control. Methods, as Bernheim has developed them in his
chapter on criticism, offer the means and ways to reach the factual events with-
out mistakes in spite of misleading information.
After this he states: Certainly we cannot attain an unconditional security in
many single cases; even our methodical conclusions and statements on the cred-
ibility of the sources depend, as we will develop later, on general experiential
knowledge (Erfahrungsstzen), which in individual cases through individual
deviation may in exceptional cases be broken by chance. And he continues:
But also when we finally understand that we cannot in all circumstances reach
unconditional security will we not be enticed by generalized skepticism, which
Volney and W. Vischer have expressed as that there is no firm knowledge at all
in history. Or we must, for the same reason, say the same of other sciences
[Wissenschaften]. In history there is obviously, according to Bernheim, a com-
prehensive set of data that cannot be doubted. And he adds: In view of this firm
basic data-set we can calmly see and concede that in history, as in all sciences
[Wissenschaften], we must not seldom be satisfied with probabilities and in many
cases also with possibilities (197-200).
After this concession to the existence of a not quite firm knowledge in histo-
ry Bernheim tries to define probability and possibility in history. The facts
(!) that are supported by arguments that are more weighty than those which con-
tradict them are probable, while those facts (!) that are not supported by
direct or indirect evidence are just possible (201).

24. Explicitly by P. Renvall, Den moderna historieforskningens principer (Stockholm: Natur och
Kultur, 1965) (transl. from Finnish), 75.
Time after time Bernheim assures the reader that the impossibility of reaching
firm knowledge in history does not refer to the whole body of historical knowl-
edge but only parts of it. The existence of probabilities and possibilities in histo-
ry gives no reason for a general skepticism in regard to the firm nature of histor-
ical knowledge. In the first place historians develop real knowledge and then, in
addition, some probable and possible knowledge. This is Bernheims credo.
For our purposes it is important to note that Bernheim sees no contradiction
between the general aim of providing firm historical knowledge through a gen-
erally recognized methodology and the concessions he makes towards the impos-
sibility of reaching security about certain things and the necessity of going into
probabilities. For him history consists of a body of historical knowledge that can-
not be doubted and a fringe of not quite certainly established facts and an even
more dimly certified area of possibilities. Therefore he concludes his section on
the objective possibility of firm historical knowledge with the statement that
skepticism is thus refuted from whatever direction it comes. This is due to the
insight that conscious methodical procedures must be the firm basis for our sci-
ence [Wissenschaft].
From these preliminary deliberations on methodology in general Bernheim
quite naturally presents the task of criticism as the establishment of the factuali-
ty of data, or to decide the degree of probability of their being accepted as facts.
Narrative sources have to be examined by external and internal criticism. As
they are regarded as witnesses, the critical principles are essentially of a psycho-
logical nature. In this respect the content of narratives and the combination of
data is important, and therefore it is impossible to distinguish between interpre-
tation and criticism. It is quite right to say that history has only reached the sta-
tus of science (Wissenschaft) through methodical criticism, as only then a firm
certainty about the basic facts has become possible, or a firm dismissal of the
untrue and false (324-326).
The following two hundred pages are devoted to examples of source criticism,
first what is called inferior or external criticism (330-464) then superior or inter-
nal criticism (464-549). In regard to external criticism Bernheim shows his eru-
dition, for almost all principles are discussed with examples, some of them well
known in the history of historiography but others of a more esoteric nature. The
discussion is kept on a very practical level: how one can argue for or against the
authenticity of a document, and how a series of manuscripts can be ordered into
a tree of dependence or chronology. Almost all of the examples are taken from
Bernheims own specialty, the European Middle Ages. A warning against hyper-
criticism is also thrown in, referring to arguments that on invalid grounds dis-
miss authentic documents as inauthentic.
If the discussion of external criticism is recognizable from many other man-
uals in the methodology of history, both earlier and later but primarily later, one
must say that few have argued so in detail and with so many examples for these
principles. Few, if any, manuals have taken another point of view in this respect,
though the selection of examples and the historical settings used for the illustra-
tion may be different.

In this respect the section on internal criticism is different. Bernheim dis-

cerns two main aspects, the character of the sources and the individuality of the
author. The first consists mainly of a typology of different sorts of material, while
the second goes into the credibility and the moral character of the author (465-
506 and 506-514). The latter part is of particular interest. Bernheim starts out
with questions as to the credibility of the narrative and discusses questions of
original sources and similar problems (close to external criticism), but pass-
es on to authors and their character in order to decide the credibility of their text.
It seems that the text, in this connection, has less importance for the critical atti-
tude to the source than its author. Ultimately it is not the text that is credible or
not, but the person who has conceived the text.
Obviously, this is true if the question is the one that Bernheim poses, namely
about credibility. He does not usually pose questions about truth and falsity and
it is rare for him to use the words true and false. As they refer to statements
and texts this is quite in accordance with Bernheims general methodological
approach. Bernheim takes firm knowledge to be related to trustworthy observa-
tions, testimonies that cannot be doubted, and credibility of authors, rather than
to false and true statements.

Ernst Bernheims comprehensive book on the methodology of history was obvi-

ously an effort to put together and systematize all knowledge on historical
methodology that was available around the turn of the century. It is clear from
the references in the text that Bernheim closely followed all the literature on
methodology that came out between the editions of his own book, and also tried
to keep abreast with the current discussion on major themes of history in regard
to their methodological impact. In this sense this is a great book. It is even more
impressive because the author has conceived it from a consistent point of view
on historical knowledge, making all the typologies and examples a coherent
For Bernheim historical knowledge was directly related to history. History
was not only what historical science was about, but all confirmation had to do
with the object of knowledge, that is, the past itself. Note that he did not dif-
ferentiate between reference and meaning, as many modern philosophers do,26
but his discussion of historical methodology seems to presuppose an identifica-
tion of confirmation processes and meaning. The reference in abstracto is then
also a reference in concreto. In fact, the central point in all Bernheims reason-
ing is the question of confirmation.
Regarding firm knowledge, however, there is a certain ambiguity in
Bernheims text. Time after time he assures the reader that the aim of history (as
science) is to establish firm knowledge. It is through its methods leading to
firm knowledge that history is a science (Wissenschaft), but then it must be
observed that Bernheim explicitly states that historys firm knowledge is not a
certainty of the same kind as in the natural sciences. As we have seen, when he

26. Donald Davidson, Interpretation: Hard in Theory, Easy in Practice, in Meaning and
Interpretation, ed. D. Prawitz (Stockholm: Vitterhesakademien, 2002), 71-86; Willard V. Quine, The
Roots of Reference (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1974).
discusses, in principle, the possibility of establishing firm knowledge he distin-
guishes between firm knowledge, probabilities, and possibilities. All three
degrees of certainty relate to facts. What cannot be ascertained to be knowl-
edge must be discussed as probable. Despite his aim to establish firm knowledge,
Bernheim gives roomit would seem to be ample roomfor probabilities and
possibilities in the historians practice.
Sources are only a means for obtaining firm knowledge, which is about histo-
ry itself. Bernheim is a historical realist, and his historical epistemology is direct-
ed towards history as an object. On the other hand he is a practicing historian,
and his discussion is never so detailed as when he discusses the examination of
the sources, how this is to proceed, and which consequences can be drawn from
the examination of one document in respect to others. Bernheims idea that his-
tory is about the object of history (his historical objectivism) is manifested in
different ways, for instance in his discussion on many occasions of the gaps in
the material. Behind this argument we discern the idea that there is (or was) a
real history, which is complete (without gaps) and is the point of reference.
However, it is noteworthy that Bernheim does not develop the theme of the
incompleteness of the historians knowledge in the way that has been done by
many other theorists. It has of course been used as a weapon against the possi-
bility of reaching the Truth about history (as we can know only a small part of
each event or development). Bernheim does not go into this argument in positive
or negative terms, in spite of the fact that he refers to the impossibility of bridg-
ing the gaps in the material about the past.
Another point of great interest is the way he treats narrative documents. There
he is interested primarily in the author. The author is also a part of the past and
may be treated as a historical object to be known by the historian. From such
knowledge about the author inferences are drawn regarding the text written by
the author in question. If the author is trustworthy, and the witnesses cited are
honest, the text is trustworthy.
Bernheim comes close to a suspicion that firm knowledge of history in this
sense is not to be had, is an illusion. But he refutes the idea on several occasions
in his book. He states repeatedly that there is a firm knowledge of historybut
the statement seems to be more a conjurers prayer than a real conviction.



Langlois and Seignobos are treated together here because of their manual
Introduction aux tudes historiques (1898). From other points of view they are
more or less different, but in their introduction to historical studies they wanted
to be a united pair of authors. In the preface they made a vague division of their
responsibilities for the first draft of the text, but they stressed that they had coop-
erated throughout the book and shared the responsibility for the final version.
Their comments in the preface on authorship has sometimes led to questions
about who was really the original author of parts of the book. In the introduction
to the first edition they gave a very vague indication (first half, second half) of

how each of them had drafted the text and they stressed that they shared respon-
sibility for the whole book.26 In the second edition they gave rather precise infor-
mation about the division of work between them and there they only point out
the first chapter of the second part and the fifth chapter of the third part plus the
conclusion as the outcome of united efforts. In spite of the clarification it is, how-
ever, clear that they wanted to bear shared responsibility for the text in its entire-
ty, and it must be stated that there is no break in the line of thought anywhere.
The oprations analytiques state two main rules which underline that state-
ments in the material are the basis for all their critical considerations, not types
of material or types of authors. These rules are: 1) the historian has to scrutinize
the credibility of each statement; 2) the critical scrutiny may not be done en
bloc, but a document has to be divided into its constituent parts to make possi-
ble a scrutiny of every single statement (134-135).
In the Preface of the Introduction the authors begin with stating that it has not
been their intention to write a summary of world history, nor have they wanted
to contribute to the abundant (!) literature on so-called philosophy of history.
Books of the latter type are written by people who most often are not historians
by profession but who have made history the subject of their contemplation.
Some look for similarities or laws; others think that they have discovered
the laws which have dominated the development of mankind and that they
have thus laid the foundations for history as a positive science (v-vi). The lat-
ter allusion was not directly aimed at Comte but at P. J. B. Buchez and his
Introduction la science de lhistoire from 1842. Such abstract constructions of
a vast scope tend to create distrust in the writing of history not only with the gen-
eral public but also with learned specialists, they say, and Fustel de Coulanges is
mentioned as an example of a historian who detested systems of such philoso-
phy of history.
Contrary to this kind of philosophy of history, Langlois and Seignobos want to
examine the conditions and procedures and show the character and the limits of
historical knowledge (vi). Thus they obviously did not include this epistemolo-
gy of history in what they term philosophy of history. This term seems to refer
in their text mainly to general ideas on historical development. Explicating what
they mean to elucidate in regard to historical knowledge, they specify how his-
torical knowledge is obtained, how such knowledge is possible, and what it
means to have knowledge about the past. After a series of questions explicating
what they intend to deal with, they repeat that they have no intention of present-
ing a summary of facts or any system of ideas on universal history but an essay
concerning the method of scholarly history [sciences historiques] (vi-vii).
In an ensuing survey of the existing literature on historical methods Langlois
and Seignobos mention with special appreciation the books by Droysen and
Bernheim. However, they also mention several other authors, and say that E. A.
Freeman, A. Tardif, and U. Chevalier do not say anything that is not elementary
and predictable (xi-xii). But they also keep their distance from Droysen and
26. La premire moiti du livre a t rdige par M. Langlois, la seconde par M. Seignobos; mais
les deux collaborateurs se sont constamment aids, concerts et surveills, Langlois and Seignobos,
Introduction, xviii.
Bernheim. The former is heavy, pedantic and confusing (xi) and the latter
treats amply the metaphysical problems, which we regard as being without any
interest and does not take up the critical and practical viewpoints, which we
hold especially interesting (xv).
Langlois and Seignobos thus have a clearly polemical tone in their presenta-
tion of how they view their own work in relation to the preceding literature on
the topic. When they discuss Bernheim they mention the comprehensive scope
of his work and they conclude that they have no ambition to write a Lehrbuch
der historischen Methode, but that their book is a concise sketch (xvi). (Their
book comprises 308 pages, of a smaller size than the pages in Bernheims book.)
What is called connaissances pralables, forming the first part of the
Introduction, is not any general epistemological theory, as might be thought, but
two chapters on how to find the material relevant for a historical investigation
(heuristics), and on auxiliary knowledge. The second part is introduced by eight
pages that deal with the general conditions for historical knowledge. Its first
sentence is: We have already said that history is made up of documents and that
these documents are traces of past events [faits passs]. And further: Events
can be empirically known in two ways, either directly by observation as they
happen, or indirectly by study of the traces they have left (43).27
Past traces are (mostly) documents; historical methodology is concerned with
the reasoning that may lead from the observation of documents to knowledge
about facts of the past. The analytical argument must be able to present all links,
all intervening causes, between the event and the text that can be observed in the
written document. This means that historians are in an awkward position. They
cannot, like chemists, observe directly what is taking place. It is as if chemists
knew about a series of observations only through the reports of their laboratory
assistants. Therefore the historian needs an especially critical mind (44-50).
In comparison with Droysen and Bernheim it is notable that Langlois and
Seignobos do not refer to any comprehensive history as such even in this gen-
eral presentation. Their questions are not about what happened and proceeding
from a series of events known to us; rather they start out from the documents and
what inferences they could lead to. The difference between the authors of the
three books is not the degree of empirical evidence that they ask for, for all of
them declare that empirical evidence is the only valid basis. It is rather what
scholarly work is thought to be about and what historical inquiry is intended to
show. For Droysen and Bernheim history as the past events themselves is
well enough known to be the foundation of historical inquiry. For Langlois and
Seignobos an inquiry must start out from the documents (a category in which
they lump together all sorts of texts from/on the past put into different categories
by Droysen and Bernheim).
Analytical operations, as they are called by Langlois and Seignobos, are divid-
ed into two main categories, external and internal criticism. In this respect they

27. I translate fait sometimes by event, sometimes by fact depending on the context, which
is sometimes not quite clear and it may therefore be debatable if the one or the other translation should
be used. I am aware that this plays a role in my argument, but there is no way to evade the difficulty
as fact is a misleading translation in many cases and data is too modern in this sense.

come close to Bernheim. The external criticism in the Introduction deals with the
same kind of problems as in Bernheims Lehrbuch, a critical discussion of orig-
inal versions, analysis of how different documents are dependent on each other,
and a critical classification of materials. Devoting one chapter to a discussion of
the importance of this learned criticism, Langlois and Seignobos defend exten-
sive learned discussions of historical material, which may be developed into an
art of its own. The general public may think synthetic operations or the expo-
sition of historical development are more interesting. But insufficient critical
work will be denounced. The works of the most famous historians of the nine-
teenth century, deceased only yesterday, Augustin Thierry, Ranke, Fustel de
Coulanges, Taine, etc., are they not already completely torn to pieces [rongs]
and perforated [percs jour] by criticism? The deficiencies of their methods are
already seen, defined and condemned (115). Here Ranke and some of the most
celebrated French historians are thus severely criticized for insufficient scholar-
ship and professionalism in their writing of history.
Internal criticism is treated in three chapters, which can be regarded as most
important in the work. The headings of these chapters are criticism of interpre-
tation (hermeneutics), internal negative criticism of sincerity and exactitude,
and determination of individual facts.
The aim of internal criticism is to find out what in a document can be accept-
ed as true. In order to do this the production of the document must be analyzed.
The historian must try to find out what the author has been able to observe and
to scrutinize his or her use of phrases and words (117-119). It is necessary to
grasp the principle, which is evident but often forgotten, that the content of a doc-
ument only consists of the ideas of the person who has written it, and one must
accept as a rule to start with the understanding of the text in itself before one asks
what conclusions can be drawn from it for history (120). Analyzing a document
means to discern and isolate all ideas expressed by the author. In order to do this
the use of individual words must be observed, for their meaning varies by con-
text. By instinct one will treat the language as a fixed system of signs. This is
true of scientific language. But the ordinary language in which documents are
written is a floating language. Each word expresses a complex and badly defined
idea. It has multiple, relative, and varying senses . . . (121-122). These compli-
cations, which are developed further, have to be met by a method relying on four
basic principles: 1) one has to observe that the language is continually develop-
ing and changing and with it words and their meanings; 2) the use of a language
may differ from one region to another; 3) every author has a personal way of
writing and the special sense that he or she bestows on words must be studied;
and 4) the meaning of an expression changes with the context and therefore the
context must always be studied (122-123). These rules will constitute an exact
method for interpretation, if they are applied with rigor, and it will leave almost
no possibility to err but will cost an enormous investment of time (125).
After applying the rules it is always necessary to go back to the author for
there may be a meaning hidden in the text by means of allegories or other implic-
it messages. Searching for such hidden meanings or messages is essential in the
theory of hermeneutics, according to Langlois and Seignobos. They refer here to
August Boeckh and his Encyclopdie und Methodologie der philologischen
Wissenschaften, in its second edition from 1886 with the comment that Bernheim
has also referred to this book (127). They claim to explain the content in more
depth than Bernheim does. Finally it should be noted that Langlois and
Seignobos dont warn against hypercriticism (as Bernheim had done) but
against what they call hyperhermeneutics. This term they explain by the use
neo-Platonists make of Plato and the Swedenborgians of the Bible, that is, by
interpreting any text as a series of allegorical tales (128).
The second chapter on internal criticism is devoted to the problem of the inten-
tions of the author. Interpretation does not say anything about external facts
(130). When the historian is confronted with contradictory statements in differ-
ent documents he or she must make a choice and decide which is erroneous or
even a lie. An instinctive feeling of confidence is very hard to overcome and it
has prevented the development of a regular method in respect to this type of crit-
icism. Historians and even theoreticians of method (P. de Smedt, Tardif,
Droysen and even Bernheim are examples of this) have stayed with general
notions and vague formulations, in contrast to the preciseness of the external crit-
icism. They are content with finding out if authors were in general contemporary
with the facts, if they were eyewitnesses themselves, if they were straightforward
and well-informed, if they knew the truth and were willing to tell it or, summa-
rizing all of it in one formula, if they are trustworthy (131). This type of superfi-
cial criticism is better than absence of criticism, but it is not enough, according
to Langlois and Seignobos. As in all science the point of departure ought to be
methodical doubt. Everything that is not proved should remain provisionally
doubted (131). It is not easy to state the rules for methodical doubt, but two gen-
eral rules are advanced: 1) a scientific truth cannot be established by a witness.
Special reasons are needed to believe that a statement is true. The rule should
therefore be to examine every statement. 2) The criticism of a document cannot
be made of it as a whole. The rule should be to analyze a document in its con-
stituent parts in order to lay bare all its specific statements and examine each of
them separately. This means that an enormous number of operations is involved
in this critical examination (133-135). The following part of the chapter is an
effort to systematize the types of analysis that may be required to make the analy-
sis. Hypothetical cases are examined through two series of questions, first to
determine if the statement is straightforward and second to examine if there is
reason to disbelieve the preciseness of the statement (139-150). Langlois and
Seignobos proceed with second-hand statements, asserting that direct observa-
tions are lacking in many cases. There criticism has to try to identify the original
statement and determine whether it rests on proper observation, but it must also
examine all intermediaries and their possibilities to give a proper rendering of the
piece of information.
Oral tradition and legends must be regarded with suspicion and are difficult to
examine in their constituent parts. They form wholes but they must be subjected
to the same type of intense critical analysis as other documentary sources.

The most naive process of analysis consists of rejecting the details that seem impossible,
miraculous, contradictory or absurd in the narrative of the legend, and keep as historical
the rest that seems sensible. This is how the rationalist Protestants have treated biblical
narratives in the eighteenth century. It would mean the same to cut away the marvelous
from a fairy tale, to suppress Puss in Boots in order to make a historical person of the
Marquis of Carabas. (155)28

It is equally dangerous to compare different legends in order to extract a com-

mon historical basis. By treating legends as products of the imagination of a peo-
ple one may find the conceptions of a people but not the external facts that have
served as the legends origin. Therefore the rule must be to reject every state-
ment with its origin in a legend (155).
In the last chapter of the second part of the Introduction Langlois and
Seignobos discuss how individual facts can be ascertained. Critical analysis
amounts to the assertion of conceptions and statements in the documentary mate-
rial with some remarks on the probability of the preciseness of what is stated.
With different methods for conceptions and statements the historian might pro-
ceed and make inferences about individual historical facts and events (163).
Conceptions as psychological facts can be established through single documents,
but a single statement about an external fact is never sufficient to establish it.
Criticism can never establish a fact as it only provides probabilities. Thus a
statement is of no value when its author has not been able to get proper infor-
mation about the content of his statement. However, in all history but the histo-
ry of contemporary society it is often the case that documents provide just one
statement about an event. Historians often mention this event with the name of
the author but without conclusion. It is better not to affirm the event but just to
say that a certain author says this or that. This leads, however, often to the accept-
ance of facts on the authority of a specific author and to accept everything that is
not contradicted by another document. This is an absurd conclusion. To save
history from this shameful condition a revolution is needed in the ambition
[esprit] of historians (169).
When several statements agree it is still necessary to resist the natural tenden-
cy to believe that the fact is demonstrated, for a statement that only reproduces
another does not constitute a new observation. Only with independent statements
about independent observations can a conclusion be drawn (170-171). Again a
number of hypothetical cases are discussed to show that there are many possi-
bilities that agreeing documents do not constitute independent statements based
on independent observations (172-176). If documents disagree, historians may
discuss the improbability of one of the stated facts, but this is no scientific con-
cept (177-178).
Langlois and Seignobos finish the second part of the book by stating that his-
tory with its indirect observation never can match the direct methods of obser-
vational sciences. These can produce knowledge that modifies historical inter-
pretations (they mention stigmatization as an example), but history can never
serve the advancement of the natural sciences. The results of history (or psy-

28. Translation by RT.

chology or sociology) are quite well established and to contradict them one must
have very solid documents.
We have no reason to go deeply into the oprations synthtiques. Suffice it
to say that the reasoning there is equally based on what historians find in the writ-
ten material from the past as in the earlier parts, even though its theme is the
question of organizing individual facts into a body of science. Past reality we
cannot observe, and we know it only by its similarity to contemporary reality
(181, 193). Synthetic operations consist of several steps, the first of which is to
produce an image as close to what a direct observation of the past event might
have given as is possible (195-196). The authors do not say that a check with
past reality is possible or even needed to establish truth. Rather, they say that as
it is impossible to check with the past an image must be created (and further
checked in ensuing procedures) based on the documents as critically examined.
The only check in reality for the truth of the historians statements is thus the
documentary evidence, texts, and to this is added a creative moment of analogy
with the present.

Langlois and Seignobos have taken an approach to historical methodology dif-

ferent from Droysens or Bernheims. They are polemical and intellectually
aggressive. While Bernheim wants to show (in later editions) that they come
close to his own work and in fact say the same things, they themselves point out
the differences and where they think Bernheim fails.
Langlois and Seignobos are certain that historical research may give firm
knowledge, but they are not content with the methods used by many historians.
A refinement of methods is needed to lead to this result. These methods go into
the critical examination of the material at hand for the historian. For them this
material consists of documents (a term used to include both documents of a
legal character, chronicles, and [old] historical works); but all documents in their
turn present statements, which are what historical criticism is concerned with.
On the one hand they are interested only in statements (for the critical work
which is fundamental for questions of truth); on the other hand they are con-
cerned only with the documents as a point of reference for all arguments on what
history (as a research discipline) is about. They never discuss the possibility
(subjective or objective) of arriving at firm knowledge about history, a question
that is fundamental for Bernheim. So when Langlois and Seignobos are positive
about the possibility of historical research gaining firm knowledge, this is not the
same thing as when Bernheim examines the possibility that it may give such
knowledge and answers in positive terms. Langlois and Seignobos do not discuss
subjectivity and objectivity, and for them the question of a history in itself
the problem Droysen approachedis no problem at all. They have what may be
called a positivistic approach to knowledge, even though they discard the efforts
of avowed positivists to attain knowledge of laws of civilization and similar
abstractions through inductive investigations of humankind. Langlois and
Seignobos do the opposite, for they go into details in order to find firm ground.
But the ground is intended to lead to coherent images of historical development,
not only to statements about individual facts.

After the passage about how legends, traditions, and tales must be shunned by
the historian, Langlois and Seignobos round off the second part of the manual
with an important statement. Single positive statements that something has
taken place can never be definitive. Critical examination aims at getting rid of illu-
sory information. The only firm results of critical examination are negative
results, they say (167).
One important question is not discussed properly by Langlois and Seignobos,
in spite of its importance for their argument, namely the ultimate criteria of truth.
It seems that they embraced the idea that a well-placed observer had a good
opportunity to formulate a true statement of what he or she had seen, if he or she
wrote it down immediately. This implies some sort of correspondence theory of
truth. Langlois and Seignobos are, however, very cautious not to say that any
statement of any first-hand observer is to be taken as true. Time after time they
refer vaguely to a wider historical context and to the present. Even though a cor-
respondence between observations and statements is a precondition for the pos-
sibility of truth, in the conception of Langlois and Seignobos they appealed on
different occasions to the coherence of a statement with other accepted state-
ments on the past and the present as a most important criterion for truth. This
would mean that only when a statement fit into a comprehensive view of the his-
tory of the period or region and fulfilled the criteria of the correspondence theo-
ry they accepted it. However they used neither correspondence nor coher-
ence as terms for their critical theory about historical truths.


There have been numerous misunderstandings of the positions of Droysen,

Bernheim, and Langlois and Seignobos. Droysen has been better understood in
recent decades, since Rsen made his ideas the object of a close analysis.
Nobody has tried to do the same with Bernheim or Langlois and Seignobos. This
is a pity, for they were certainly well acquainted with the philosophies of their
time and they presented consistent but different arguments for a specific episte-
mology of history.
Recently William McNeill has ridiculed the sort of method that especially
Bernheim or Langlois and Seignobos argued for, even if he does not say that his
teachers referred precisely to them. In his youth he was taught that the writing of
scientific history required source criticism and that the agreement of two inde-
pendent sources established a fact as definitively trueno more no less. He
adds that he thinks that no historian ever used such a method.29 If McNeill was
taught what he says, it was not exactly what either Bernheim or Langlois and
Seignobos say in their books. Bernheim wanted to establish facts and says little
of truths, while Langlois and Seignobos did not affirm any possibility of estab-
lishing facts as true, only statements.
It is important, however, that the method prescribing two independent sources
for the acceptance of somethingas a fact or the statement about itwas used
29. W. McNeill, Passing Strange: The Convergence of Evolutionary Science with Scientific
History, History and Theory 40 (2001), 5-6.
by many historians of the European Middle Ages long into the twentieth centu-
ry. With few written sourcessome diplomas and some chronicles, some of
them contemporary with the events, some considerably more recentit was a
useful and powerful method. Of course, it is less well adapted to worldwide com-
parisons of societies over long periods, which is mainly what McNeill has been
successfully doing.
Langlois and Seignobos have been rather ill-fated. While historians of histori-
ography have praised Droysen for his originality and his deep insights and com-
mended Bernheim for his ambition to cover the whole field of philosophy of his-
tory (though seldom for wit and a light pen), Langlois and Seignobos have been
brushed aside as superficial and positivistic. They have been regarded as lacking
a real sense of complexity in history. Deep analysis has been a term reserved
for discussions of the subjects struggle with the object in order to create histor-
ical knowledge.30 It is usual to pass by Langlois and Seignobos without men-
tioning them or merely saying that they have written a somewhat naive manual
on the writing of history. This is notably true of the authors within the Annales
circle (for example, P. Veyne31), who certainly depended on the severe judgments
of Lucien Febvre on Seignobos. Febvre devoted two short chapters in a collec-
tion of articles to a devastating criticism of two books by Seignobos, his History
of Russia and his History of the French People. He alludes to Seignoboss con-
ceptions of facts and scientific history but it is mainly Seignoboss preoccu-
pation with events that he criticized.32 One recent author, Michael Bentley, has
noted however that this disregard for Langlois and Seignobos is undeserved.33
Here the argument has been turned around. While both Droysen and Bernheim
(and many of their contemporary philosophical sources of inspiration) mixed
questions of truth with questions of reality, Langlois and Seignobos kept a strict
line between these questions. While their critics (notably Marrou) accuse them
of having dealt only with facts, they rarely use this term and never for what
they think historians should try to establish. Their standpoint meant that histori-
ans strive to formulate texts that consist of only true statements. These statements
are taken from their sources or formulated as the historians observations of the
sources. Statements are true or false. It should be the ambition of the historian to
include only true statements in his or her text and to get rid of statements that
could reasonably be suspected of being false. History as written by a historian is
a text consisting of historical statements where the historian has striven to
exclude statements that are false or that can be supposed, for rational reasons, to
be false.
Langlois and Seignobos were the first historical theorists who made a real
effort to regard history as textboth produced text by the historian and

30. For example, Henry I. Marrou, De la connaissance historique (Paris: Seuil, 1954), 46, 49, 56,
92, 122, 126; I. N. Danilevskii et al., Istochnikovedenie (Moscow: RGGU, 1998), 52-53.
31. P. Veyne, Comment on crit lhistoire (Paris: Seuil, 1971).
32. L. Febvre, Combats pour lhistoire (Paris: Armand Colin, 1953), 70-74, 87-98. In his analysis
of the Methodenstreit in Germany Iggers makes a comparison with France and seems to accept
Febvres standpoint without mentioning Langlois and Seignobos. (The Methodenstreit in
International Perspective, Storia della Storiografia 6 [1984], 21-30.)
33. M. Bentley, Modern Historiography: An introduction (London: Routledge, 1999), 104-106.

received texts in the material used by the historian. It is probable but not certain
that they assumed the existence of a real past at least as a meaning if not a
reference. They saw scholarly history as text production and they saw it as pro-
duced mainly from textual material. In spite of this fact they have received little
credit from recent history as text theorists. The reason seems to be that
Langlois and Seignobos were anti-relativistic, while current history as text phi-
losophy is most often extremely relativistic.34 However, the accusation that
Langlois and Seignobos had a naive belief in the possibility of the historian
reaching truth (or the truth) is not well-founded. In fact, they only contend-
ed that historians should try to present nothing but true statements, but they never
said that they believed that it was possible for the historian to avoid all false
statements. Far less did they contend that the historian would be able to present
all true statements on anything historical, though they did not discuss any
ambitions in that direction. It seems that they did not even contemplate the pos-
sibility that one might have such ambitions. It would have been contrary to their
view that the past not documents should be the starting point of historical
analysis. On the contrary they stressed the difficulty of keeping away from false
statements in spite of circumstantial and time-consuming critical precautions.
The turn of the twentieth century was enormously important for the historians
profession. This period witnessed not only different philosophical efforts to come
to grips with historical knowledge, where Windelband and Rickert on the one
hand and Dilthey on the other promoted their views about history, taking off from
a Kantian tradition. Their influence on theoretically minded historians should not
be underestimated, but they hardly formed the mainstream of the profession. The
realistic approach, represented by Ernst Bernheim and his very influential man-
ual on historical method, became a foundation for teaching in the departments of
history that began to be formed within universities and constituted a new step in
the formation of the profession of historians. As a manual only, the book by
Langlois and Seignobos matched Bernheims book, but it seems that few histo-
rians, even in the authors own times and certainly later, have followed their dif-
ferent approach. The methods advocated by Bernheim and Langlois and
Seignobos were in most respects identical, but the epistemological basis for these
methods was different. Langlois and Seignobos were interested in the historians
product as a text and its truth-value. This was decided through methods that indi-
cate that in their conception coherence between statements in the material was
one basis for truth. This coherence included a wide reference to different types
of material and a wide reference to other well-evidenced knowledge. In this man-
ner they referred to coherence beside, or even rather than, a correspondence
between statements and past reality (or between the content of statements
and past reality). While Bernheim was mainly uninterested in problems of

34. In his discussion of coherence and correspondence theories of truth Hayden White does not
indicate the possibility of a position like the one of Langlois and Seignobos (White, The Content of
the Form, 39-44). F. Ankersmit seems to take for granted that for history close to art is the only
alternative to a correspondence theory of truth, and he disregards Langlois and Seignobos (see esp.
Historical Representation in his History and Tropology [Berkeley: University of California Press,
1994], 97-124.)
truth and saw trustworthy witnesses as a means for reaching historical reality or
the real past, Langlois and Seignobos were interested only in true statements.
They seem to have leaned towards a coherence theory of truth, possibly includ-
ing some combination with correspondence for the statements that refer partly to
the present and a fundamental relation between statements and observations.
The new phase of historical professionalism from around the turn of the cen-
tury was based on a belief in the possibility of reaching firm knowledge. The cor-
nerstones for this professionalism were the new manuals arguing for a methodol-
ogy of history from a historical epistemology. This methodology was elaborated
in a very conscious way. It may have been vulgarized by teachers at universities
and in reading material for students, but in itself it was by no means naive, even
though it may be regarded as simple. However, it was complicated enough to con-
tain two main directions. The one advocated by Bernheim seems to have been
much more successful in winning the ears of the historians than the sophisticated
coherence-based text approach that was advanced by Langlois and Seignobos.

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