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Frontiers of History: Historical Inquiry in the Twentieth Century

Frontiers of History: Historical Inquiry in the Twentieth Century

by Donald R. Kelley

This book, the third volume of Donald Kelley’s monumental survey of Western historiography, covers the twentieth century, especially Europe. As in the first two volumes, the author discusses historical methods and ideas of all sorts to provide a detailed map of historical learning. Here he carries the survey forward to our own times, confronting directly the


This book, the third volume of Donald Kelley’s monumental survey of Western historiography, covers the twentieth century, especially Europe. As in the first two volumes, the author discusses historical methods and ideas of all sorts to provide a detailed map of historical learning. Here he carries the survey forward to our own times, confronting directly the challenges of postmodernism and historical narrative. Kelley offers highly original discussions of historians of the last half century (including friends and mentors), the “linguistic turn,” the “end of history,” the philosophy of history, and various new methods of histories.
The book focuses first on the state of the art of history in France, Germany, Britain, and the United States on the eve of World War I. Kelley then traces every important historiographical issue and development historians have encountered in the twentieth century. With the completion of this trilogy, Kelley presents the only comprehensive modern survey of historical writing. He provides an unparalleled portrait of the rich variety of historical method along with an insider’s view of the challenges of capturing history on the written page.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Modern History

"Extremely learned and wide-ranging discussion of a great number of historians divides. . . . It would be unjust to end with anything but praise for the tremendous achievement of this book, which manages to reveal so much about the major trends and developments of history writing during the twentieth century."—Stefan Berger, Journal of Modern History

— Stefan Berger

Joseph Levine
"Frontiers of History is a remarkable feat. It is the crowning achievement of a scholar who has devoted his whole career to the subject and produced a true magnum opus."—Joseph Levine, Syracuse University

Journal of Modern History - Stefan Berger
"Extremely learned and wide-ranging discussion of a great number of historians divides. . . . It would be unjust to end with anything but praise for the tremendous achievement of this book, which manages to reveal so much about the major trends and developments of history writing during the twentieth century."—Stefan Berger, Journal of Modern History

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Frontiers of History


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12062-2

Chapter One

Before the Great War

The scope of history has gradually widened until it has come to include every aspect of the life of humanity. -G. P. Gooch (1913)

The Condition of History

The year 1910 was marked by the appearance of Halley's comet, the deaths of Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and William James, James Joyce's departure from Dublin for "civilization," the organizing of the Psychoanalytical Association, growing nihilism and a remarkable incidence of suicide, the birth of the concept of the "death instinct" later adopted by Freud, George Simmel's reflections on "the metaphysics of death," a continuing flood of expressionist, futurist, and surrealist art, cultural "dissonance" across the arts, music, and some of the sciences, and the fictional setting for the German invasion of Europe described by William Le Queux's The Invasion of 1910 (1906). It was also the year when, as Virginia Woolf wrote facetiously in 1924, "human character changed." As Henry Adams wrote to Barrett Wendell in 1910, "It is a scientific demonstration that Socialism, Collectivism,Humanitarianism, Universalism, Philanthropism, and every other ism, has come, and is the end." As Charles Olson wrote, "Draw it thus: ()1910(" and also, "the present is prologue, not the past." Or maybe it was just the way that some humans looked at the world, for that acute observer Arnold Bennett could find nothing more important to write than "this year I have written 355,900 words"-more, probably, than most historians could boast.

Despite the prevailing faith in progress in the early twentieth century, humanity was intellectually and culturally oriented in the opposite direction. As Rilke asked,

Who has twisted us around like this, so that no matter what we do, we are in the posture of someone going away?

So it was with historians, who were struggling with a huge burden of accumulated Western scholarship before being plunged into a series of political, social, and moral catastrophes. At the same time historical inquiry grew up in a world shaped by cultural forces which we have learned to call modernism, which wanted, among others things, to change the backward-looking position of thought and writing. It is fairly easy, if laborious, to trace the scholarly heritage of historiography, harder, if more arbitrary, to judge the impact of wars and revolutions; but there have been no sustained attempts to relate historical thought and writing to the modernist environment of the early twentieth century. The condition of "modernity" has a long history, going back indeed to the time of its opposite, "antiquity"; but the modernism of the past century was a product of nineteenth-century discontents and provocations by middle-class values, including the notion of the free and autonomous subject, historical continuity, universally valid scientific method, and an open horizon of unending progress. For tradition modernism substituted what Wyndham Lewis called the "demon of progress in art," and so it was also in literature. In the human sciences modernism questioned and subverted Enlightenment ideas of reason, history, philosophy, and mastery of nature and society-and in this way perhaps the meaning of history itself.

Friedrich Paulsen, dead two years in 1910, was a good representative of the old school, teaching the history of philosophy at the University of Berlin in the generational cohort of Ranke, Mommsen, Droysen, et al.; and he expressed his fears of the views of their younger rivals. One of his last essays was on the legal status of women in the past and in the future, and this assignment made him "realize once again how far I had gradually moved from the outlook of our 'modern' writers." Was it the result of old age, he wondered? "Or am I right in thinking that they have lost all contact with the world of reality and are building their airy utopias in cloudland?" He felt uncomfortable traveling with "exotic figures," such as the Hungarian Jew of "a truly terrifying apparition" whom he had to dine with during a train trip to Munich. The experience made him understand the contemporary "anti-Semitic mood of resentment" and conclude that if he were Austrian, he would prefer Roman rule to that of the Jews. He overcame his hatred of the automobile, but he was losing his strength, and looking back on a life rich in accomplishment Paulsen, "with a thankful heart," died less than three weeks after giving his last lecture.

One younger witness to the anxieties of modernism was Franz Kafka, who in 1910 was all of twenty-eight years old, though in his diary he pretended to be in his forties as he reflected on his cultural condition. "I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects," he wrote. He should have preferred, he continued, to have lived not in the middle of a city but rather in a place of ruins in the mountains or beside a lake, where he could have avoided the evil influence of all the people he had known. It is perhaps not inappropriate to extend Kafka's hyper-urban, self-conscious, self-enhancing, and self-deprecating insight to the condition of Europe of that time. European society, too, had fallen victim to bad influences, its members addicted to reviewing and analyzing their predicament by thinking and writing about it. Moreover, as Kafka's diary was the only place where he could "hold on," so the tradition of European historiography was the only place that people of that time could connect themselves to their past. The difference was that, in the spirit of his own brand of modernism, Kafka hoped to repudiate or transcend the past, while historians struggled to understand connections and continuities, recognizing that they could not escape from their "education," their "old culture"-though neither could they anticipate the soon-to-come nightmarish consequences which Kafka fore-sensed and wove memorably into his fiction.

"One must be absolutely modern," wrote Arthur Rimbaud in 1871. "Modernism" is the word which emerged to cover all sorts of anxiety, perversity, subversion, and ingenuity that arose in the generation of the turn of the twentieth century. For Hugo von Hofmannsthal the "modern" was either the analysis of life or a flight from it, but in either case new perspectives were opened on what Burckhardt called "the culture of old Europe." A product of the cities, modernism reached beyond the world of everyday "reality," middle-class life, and a complacent European society devoted to the unreflective pursuit of wealth and global expansion. Breaking with this tradition, modernism sought new horizons across which to extend what Friedrich Karl has called the "sovereignty of the artist" into the future, especially through various movements, manifestos, and magazines which activated the intellectual avant-garde of the new century.

Central to these movements was the human-observing, interpreting, and creating-subject, which had been overshadowed by science and "scientism," from which champions of the arts wanted to be liberated. In 1910 in his Revue de Synthèse Henri Berr used his review of the last volumes of Lamprecht's German history to underline the central importance of "le subjectivisme moderne" and the impressionism (Reizsamkeit) which accompanied it. "It is true," wrote Charles Seignobos in that same issue of the review, "that the historical method has invaded everything."

In this way of looking at things the modernist is Wallace Stevens's "man with the blue guitar," who unsettles his hearers with his performance: They said, "You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are." The man replied, "Things as they are Are changed upon the blue guitar."

Difficult it is to render life in such an indirect way,

to play man number one ..., to nail his thought against the door ... to bang it from a savage blue,

and impossible it is to

bring a world quite round.

Yet such is the mission of the artist:

So that's life, then: things as they are? It picks its way on the blue guitar. A million people on one string? And all their manner in the thing, And all their manner, right and wrong, And all their manner, weak and strong?

This vision is that of Ranke, to present things as they really are, but within the restriction of Kant, who denies accessibility of "the thing in itself" and privileges the intervening human medium.

This attitude toward interpretation made its way into historical writing, too, as authors came to realize that their own apparatus and performance had to intervene between the objects of their study and its rendition into intelligible and meaningful form. Hermeneutics implied a sort of relativity that required the observer and interpreter to take part in the field of exploration which, as Wilhelm Dilthey wrote, is life experience in time or, in the phrase of Gadamer, the "experience of tradition." So the historian enjoys an equivalent of "the sovereignty of the artist," meaning not the pose of the omniscient observer, as in the Victorian novel, but rather the self-aware search for meaning from an authorial point of view. The condition is that of Nietzsche's " 'Interpretation,' the introduction of meaning-not 'explanation.' ... There are no facts, everything is in flux, incomprehensible, elusive; what is relatively most enduring is-our opinions." The inference is that not only art but historiography is also, in its modernist guises, a variety of the Nietzschean "will to power."

Modernism in a backward-looking historiography-Nietzsche's "antiquarian history"-was marked by the siren song of "novelty" being answered by a younger generation in the early years of the century. In the arts Hermann Hesse remarked that "one ought not to take the revolutionary antics of a portion of the younger generation too seriously, except in one respect: They have a deep need to find new ways of expressing worries and emotions that are indeed new." A variety of "new histories" were proclaimed if not always practiced in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and America (if not in England). Among many other scholars Karl Lamprecht, Kurt Breysig, Henri Berr, Benedetto Croce, José Ortega y Gasset, and James Harvey Robinson rode the crest of an international wave of novelty which they believed would raise the science and philosophy of history to new heights. Not that such "new histories," though they revived the old complaints about narrow political and military history, opened up many unfamiliar sources, since the old cultural history had already pioneered such efforts for over a century. Nor, remarkably, did they have much to do with the experimentalist and subversive "modernisms" flourishing in literature and the arts, where the generational divide was more pronounced, perhaps because the weight of professional authority could more easily be avoided or rejected. What novelty meant in historical studies was establishing cordial relations with other human sciences, including sociology, economics, anthropology, archeology, paleontology, and histories of philosophy, literature, science, art, and mathematics-relations which then yielded new specialties and syntheses.

The truth is that the larger questions about the turn being taken by the historical process in the early twentieth century were posed for the most part by scholars in other disciplines, especially philosophers, sociologists, economists, geographers, anthropologists, linguists, and even theologians, who were joined by a common, if not always admitted, commitment to "historicism," which emerged in the first quarter of the century as a central problem of European thought and of the self-definition of cultures. Historicism appeared as a problem first in economics and then in theology, especially as a threat to the universalist ideals of social science and Christian religion. Like "modernism" and "naturalism" and (later) "psychologism" and "sociologism," historicism was rejected by ecclesiastical authority, which feared the reduction of the transcendent to the merely human, and by the consensus of liberal economists like Carl Menger, who attacked the "errors of historicism" in 1883. Philosophers, too, had suspicions about the anti-theoretical intrusions of history into their domain, and in 1912 Rudolph Eucken was lamenting "enervating historicism."

The economic, theological, and philosophical aspects of the question converged in the work of Ernst Troeltsch, who as historian turned his attention to The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, who as theologian established Religionsgeschichte as a distinct field of study, and who as philosopher explored more general questions of Historismus. His articles were gathered into a volume titled Historicism and Its Problems (1922), which provoked criticism by Otto Hintze, Karl Mannheim, and others and which underlay the larger efforts both of Karl Heussi, who surveyed the whole arena of debate in his Crisis of Historicism (1932), and of Friedrich Meinecke, who projected the topic back to the seventeenth century in his Rise of Historicism (1936). Nor has the debate subsided even in this new "postmodern" millennium, as indicated by the international volume published in 1997 on "historicism at the end of the twentieth century"-not to mention the self-proclaimed "new historicism" of recent times.

Twentieth-century historians measured the progress of their craft not only by the quantity of new information but also by the growth of critical acumen and ideological propriety. They were more aware than their forebears of the bad habits that the genre of history had produced, especially careless subjective and partisan generalizing. One of the founders of modern sociology, Georg Simmel pointed to the historiographical convention of relying, usually unreflectively, on concepts such as the group mind or social psyche in their explanations. Ranke had tried to eliminate this procedure, but for Simmel it was humanly impossible for historians not to project their own mental states onto their materials. In his History of Rome Theodor Mommsen had written that "A cry of rage was heard throughout all of Italy," and "The factions breathed a sigh of relief," while in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt concluded that "Florence had always acknowledged its Guelphic sympathies for the French with a dreadful naivete." Now Burckhardt was the epitome of impressionistic historical writing, and the "scientific" side of Mommsen appeared in his constitutional and epigraphic researches which, rather than the early book for which he received the Nobel Prize, won him the adulation of colleagues and posterity. But Simmel wanted to open the study of history to speculative lines, including "laws of history," if only in the sense of "provisional synthesis." This was the aim especially of cultural historians like Lamprecht and Breysig, who, in the style of eighteenth-century "conjectural history," followed an interdisciplinary and "scientific" path in search of the various stages and laws of history.


Excerpted from Frontiers of History by DONALD R. KELLEY Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Donald R. Kelley is James Westfall Thompson Professor of History, Emeritus, Rutgers University, and was editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas from 1985 to 2005. He lives in New Brunswick, NJ.

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