Daum Sep 4, Georg G. Iggers died on November 26, , in Williamsville, New York, shortly before his 91st birthday. He was known worldwide as a distinguished historian of historiography. Together with his wife and literary historian Wilma Abeles Iggers, he also engaged throughout his life in civil rights causes. In , Iggers moved on to Dillard University in New Orleans, where he eventually became a full professor. For several years, Georg chaired the education committee and the executive committee of the Little Rock chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
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Meanwhile ideas about history and historiography have again undergone a profound change. This volume should therefore not be seen as a continuation which, so to say, would bring my publication of up to date. Instead, it is mainly concerned with a select number of basic changes in the thinking and in the practice of historians today. Although there are many continuities with older forms of historical research and historical writing, a basic reorientation has taken place.
Increasingly in the last twenty years the assumptions upon which historical research and writing have been based since the emergence of history as a professional discipline in the nineteenth century have been questioned. Many of these assumptions go back to the beginnings of a continuous tradition of Western historiography in Classical antiquity. What was new in the nineteenth century was the professionalization of historical studies and their concentration at universities and research centers.
Central to the process of professionalization was the firm belief in the scientific status of history. The concept science was, to be sure, understood differently by historians than by natural scientists, who sought knowledge in the form of generalizations and abstract laws. For the historians history differed from nature because it dealt with meanings as they expressed themselves in the intentions of the men and women who made history and in the values and mores that gave societies cohesion.
History dealt with concrete persons and concrete cultures in time. But the historians shared the optimism of the professionalized sciences generally that methodologically controlled research makes objective knowledge possible. The historians overlooked the extent to which their research rested on assumptions about the course of history and the structure of society that predetermined the results of their research. The transformation of history into an institutionalized discipline must not, however, lead us to overlook the continuities with older forms of historical writing.
The historiography of the nineteenth century stood in a tradition that went back to the great historians of Classical Greek antiquity. They shared with Thucydides the distinction between myth and truth, and at the same time, despite their stress on the scientific and hence nonrhetorical character of historical writing, proceeded in the classical tradition of historical writing in presupposing that history is always written as a narrative.
The problem with historical narrative, however, as Hayden White and other recent theorists of history have pointed out, is that, while it proceeds from empirically validated facts or events, it necessarily requires imaginative steps to place them in a coherent story.
These assumptions of reality, intentionality, and temporal sequence determined the structure of historical writing from Herodotus and Thucydides to Ranke, and from Ranke well into the twentieth century.
Precisely these assumptions have gradually been questioned in recent historical thought. I believe we can distinguish two very different orientations in historical thought in the twentieth century. The first dealt with the transformation of the kind of narrative, event-oriented history characteristic of professional historiography in the nineteenth century into social science-oriented forms of historical research and writing in the twentieth century.
Fundamental assumptions of the traditional historiography were challenged, but the basic assumptions outlined above remained intact. The various kinds of social science-oriented history spanned the methodological and ideological spectrum from quantitative sociological and economic approaches and the structuralism of the Annales-School to Marxist class analysis.
In different ways all these approaches sought to model historical research more closely after the natural sciences. While traditional historiography had focused on the agency of individuals and on elements of intentionality that defied reduction to abstract generalization, the new forms of social science-oriented history emphasized social structures and processes of social change.
Nevertheless they shared two key notions with the older historiography. One was the affirmation that history dealt with a real subject matter to which the accounts formulated by historians must correspond. Admittedly this reality could not be grasped directly but, like all science, must be mediated by the concepts and mental constructs of historians who nonetheless still aimed at objective knowledge.
Both operated with a notion of unilinear time, with the conception that there was continuity and direction in history, that in fact there was such a thing as history in contrast to a multiplicity of histories. This conception of history took a different form in the older conventional historiography than in the later social science approaches.
Ranke had rejected the notion of a philosophy of history that presupposed a scheme of universal history, but nevertheless presupposed that history possessed an inner coherence and development, and assigned a privileged position to the history of the West.
Social science historians tended to believe that there at least the history of the modern age moved in a clear direction. Here too the history of the modern Western world had a privileged status.
The history of the world coincided with Westernization. These assumptions have been increasingly challenged in philosophic thought since the late nineteenth century. It is, however, only in the last quarter century that the doubts this challenge has produced have seriously affected the work of historians.
This reorientation of historical thought reflected fundamental changes in society and culture. In a sense the paradigm of professional historiography initiated by Ranke had already been out of tune with the social and political realities of the time when it became the standard for historical studies universally.
Ranke was very much a child of the age of restoration that followed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. His concept of the state rested on the political realities of pre Prussia, prior to the establishment of representative institutions and prior to industrialization with its social concomitants. Hence the emphasis on the primacy of politics relatively isolated from economic or social forces and the almost exclusive reliance on official documents of state. By the turn of the century, historians in France, Belgium, the United States, Scandinavia, and even Germany began to criticize the Rankean paradigm and to call for a history that accounted for social and economic factors.
It is this transformation that my book of twenty years ago portrayed. Only then did the conditions created by World War II become obvious, among them the end of the colonial empires and a greater awareness that non-Western peoples also had a history. For the first time there was an intense awareness of the negative sides of economic growth with its threat to a stable environment.
The full impact of the Holocaust sank into public awareness, not immediately at the end of the World War II, but only at a distance when a new generation acquired a critical stance. The destructive qualities of the civilizing process increasingly moved into the center of awareness. For the historian this transformation of consciousness had several consequences. In many ways the scope of historical writing has expanded enormously in the past thirty years.
The newer histories indeed challenged the traditional historiography, which had concentrated on political and social elites, and demanded the inclusion of those segments of the population that had long been neglected.
They also challenged the social science approaches, which had placed great impersonal structures at the center of history and in doing so had no more questioned the existing power relationships than had the older political history. If the social science-oriented history had sought to replace the study of politics with that of society, the new history turned to the study of culture understood as the conditions of everyday life and everyday experience. From this perspective, the Marxist emphasis on the central role of politics and economics as the locus of power and exploitation remained too impervious to the real interests and concerns of live human beings.
Rather than a decline in historical interest, the past three decades have seen a veritable explosion in historical writings as various segments of the population have sought to establish their identities apart from the larger, traditional, national wholes.
Were one to accept the premises of this critique, meaningful historical writing would be impossible. More precisely its narrative constructions aim at reconstructing a past that really was. This reference to a reality pre-existing the historical text and situated outside it, of which the text has the function of producing an intelligible account.
The concept of truth has become immeasurably more complex in the course of recent critical thought. As a trained professional he continues to work critically with the sources that make access to the past reality possible. The distinction between rationality and irrationality in historical investigation rests not on an abstract concept of truth or objectivity but on "the idea of history as an interpretive community, a practicing discipline with professional standards. Postmodernism reflects a society and culture in transformation in which old certainties regarding industrial growth, rising economic expectations, and traditional middle-class norms have been shaken.
The latter not only dealt with a different subject matter, that of leading personalities within the framework of great political institutions, but also assumed that the texts contained a clear meaning that could be reconstructed through philological analysis.
Ranke and his school still believed that history was a strict science, even if different in subject matter and methods from that of the explanatory sciences. For the new cultural history, the central institutions of state, church, and the world market had crumbled, and the meaning of the texts was no longer transparent but was marked by contradictions and ruptures.
The historians of the s and s learned from the anthropologists the significance of culture in the understanding of political and social behavior. What is needed in its stead is a broad historical approach that takes both cultural and institutional aspects into consideration. The postmodern critique of traditional science and traditional historiography has offered important correctives to historical thought and practice. Perhaps we can see in the history of historiography an ongoing dialogue that, while it never reaches finality, contributes to a broadening of perspective.
The participants in this discussion have rightly raised the point that history taken as a whole contains no immanent unity or coherence, that every conception of history is a construct constituted through language, that human beings as subjects have no integrated personality free of contradictions and ambivalences, and that every text can be read and interpreted in different ways because it expresses no unambiguous intentions.
Foucault and Derrida have with good justification pointed out the political implications of language and the hierarchical relations of power inherent in it. Every reality is not only communicated through speech and discourse but in a very fundamental way is also constituted by them.
For historical accounts, even if they use forms of narrative that are closely patterned on literary models, still claim to portray or reconstruct an actual past to a greater extent than is the case in fictional literature.
Important aspects of the postmodernist critique of historical reason remain in place. The faith in the grand narratives focused on the modernization of the Western world as the culmination of a coherent historical process is irredeemably lost. The immediacy of historical knowledge was denied; this, however, was nothing new but went back at least to Kant. The historian is always on the outlook for forgery and falsification and thus operates with a notion of truth, however complex and incomplete the road to it may be.
In Germany the sense of loss is attributable to the discrediting of national traditions; elsewhere, it stemmed from the belief that the modern world spelled the end of traditional values and forms of community. The number of history students declined drastically in the United States. But this trend was reversed in the s. History offerings at the universities became more diversified, particularly in the United States, to include gender and ethnic studies as well as the study of non-Western societies and cultures.
Historical journals, books, and TV presentations proliferated. The commemorations of the fiftieth anniversaries of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of World War were indicators of the intense concern with history. Thus the cataclysmic changes in Europe since appear to have strengthened rather than weakened interest in the past. What is meant is obviously not that time will hence stand still, but that there is no longer the possibility of a grand narrative that gives history coherence and meaning.
The idea that has been central to Judaeo-Christian faith since Biblical antiquity has been questioned, namely, that history has a transmundane purpose and direction. The Enlightenment secularized this faith and placed the eschaton of history into the process of human history itself.
It celebrated the civilization of the modern West as the high point and the approaching fulfillment of a desirable social order in which human freedom and culture would be guaranteed.
Most recently Francis Fukuyama has reiterated this optimistic belief. History continues to be a powerful means by which groups and persons define their identity.
In the place of one meaningful process there is now a pluralism of narratives touching on the existential life experiences of many different groups. While this book has argued for the legitimacy of microhistory, it has also shown how the latter has never been able to escape the framework of larger structures and transformations in which this history takes place.
As we saw, almost all microhistorians have had to confront processes of modernization through their impact on the small social groupings to which they dedicated themselves. The concept of modernization has lost its normative aspects, yet it continues to denote processes that are operative in the modern world. The historian is aware of the extent to which modernization is not a unitary process but expresses itself differently in differing social settings with different cultural traditions.
At best modernization becomes an ideal type by which concrete changes can be measured against concrete conditions. The End of History as a Scholarly Enterprise? Instead it has led to a diversification of approaches and often to an increase in scholarly sophistication. Certain things have become increasingly obvious. The assurance with which professional historians after Ranke had assumed that immersion in the sources would assure a perception of the past that corresponded to reality has long been modified.
Georg G. Iggers
The story begins with classical historicism, Ranke, and the professionalisation of historical studies. Before , however, he was not at all typical of German, and even less so of international, historiography. One of the major themes of twentieth century history has been the influence of the social sciences. Iggers devotes chapters to economic and social history in Germany Weber and historical sociology , American traditions of social history, the Annales in France, "historical social science" in post-war Germany, and Marxist historical science in the Soviet bloc and in Britain. Yet there was a firmly established tradition, extending from Bloch and Febvre to Le Goff, Duby, and to the present, that relied heavily on sources such as art, folklore, and customs and therefore encouraged more subtle, qualitative ways of thinking. It was one of a number of journals internationally that took a similar direction.
Georg G. Iggers (1926–2017)