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Eckhardt Fuchs, Henry Thomas Buckle: Geschichtschreibung und Positivismus in England und Deutschland, Leipzig, Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 1994, 400 pp.

Review by
© John R. Hinde
University of Victoria, Victoria B.C., Canada

John R.Hinde, "Review of Eckhardt Fuchs, Henry Thomas Buckle: Geschichtschreibung und Positivismus in England und Deutschland, Leipzig, Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 1994", Cromohs 2 (1997): 1-3 <URL: http://www.unifi.it/riviste/cromohs/2_97/hinde.html>.



 

1. In most accounts of the history of historiography historical positivism and historicism are viewed as methodologically and theoretically y divergent approaches to the study of the past. Historicism's greatest theorist, Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884), set the tone of the debate by arguing that positivism's adoption of the methods of the natural sciences negated the hermeneutic basis of historicism and consequently destroyed the 'uniqueness' or individuality d the human past. Not only positivism was an approach based on the principles of natural science incapable of revealing the 'spiritual' character of the human world, the driving force behind the historical process, but it was unable to transform historical study into an autonomous scientific discipline. Rather, its 'naturalistic' approach reduced history to the dubious status of a 'natural science'.
Droysen's critique of historical positivism was made in response to the challenge posed by the work of the nineteenth-century English historian Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862). Buckle is best remembered today for his two-volumes work History of Civilization in England (London, 1857-62), which sought to place historical studies on a firm scientific basis through the application of positivist methodology and theory. But just as positivism lost favour among the intellectual elite in the second half of the nineteenth century, so too did Buckle's reputation decline after his premature death, largely because he was no longer around to participate in the debate his provocative ideas had engendered. One consequence - besides Buckle's relative obscurity today - has been that his contribution to the development of modern historical writing has been consistently undervalued, if not completely neglected.

2. Dr Fuchs' work is an important attempt to rehabilitate Buckle and to reassess his place in nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual history. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which examines the development of Buckle's historical thought within the political, social and cultural context of Victorian Britain. Although an amateur 'man of letters' Buckle was a prominent figure in discussions about the nature of history. At a time when the study of history was not universally accepted as a scientific discipline, but was still considered by many to be a literary genre, Buckle's adaptation of Auguste Comte's «philosophie positive» to the study of history represented an innovative and controversial attempt to discover and to create a unified, universal, and progressive historical science.
The second part of this book analyzes how historians, like Droysen, tried to come to terms with the implications of Buckle's nomothetic «science of history». Here, Fuchs provides a provocative analysis of the similarities and differences between historicism and positivism, one that poses a significant challenge to orthodox views. Although he stresses that there were theoretical differences between historicism and positivism, namely the former's basis in hermeneutics («forschendes Verstehen»), Fuchs argues that the two approaches shared common origins, methodology and goals. Both evolved out of the general crisis of orientation and socio-cultural dislocation that followed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Both rejected metaphysical and philosophical systems and regarded history as an objective, unified process of development that was to be understood as a continuum of causally connected events. Both sought the 'derhetoricization' of history; style and presentation were to reflect standards of scientific not literary discourse, because history was concerned with presenting the truth, not fiction. Finally, both positivism and historicism were «presentist»; they explicitly connected the past with the present, as history was to serve contemporary political goals and societal developments.

3. The comparative aspect of this study of positivism and of historicism, and of English and German historiography, is one of the strengths of Fuchs' work, as German historians tend to focus on German historical writing and to view the development of modern science as an exclusively German phenomenon. This has often resulted in a skewed interpretation of nineteenth-century historiography. One significant implication of Fuchs' study is that historicism must not be seen as the paradigm of modern historical science, as Jörn Rüsen and his students have maintained. Both historicism and positivism were «scientific paradigms» and served as catalyst for the scientification and modernization of historiography. This view will perhaps not be accepted by all scholars. But whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, Fuchs has provided a major reassessment of Buckle and the development of modern historical writing, and this work should be read with care by all students of historiography .


 

 

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