Theories of history (hist 698)

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Dr. Jeffrey Bell (

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A guiding theme of this graduate seminar is the relationship between narrative and history. It is a given that history often reads like a story. In fact, many claim that the best history teachers are the ones who present the material in the form of a story. Students will often remark that when a teacher presents history as an unfolding narrative and story, they make history come “alive.” Such an approach to history, however, is not without its critics. For one, presenting history as an unfolding story presupposes a continuity or even an intentionality that may never have been present when a particular incident occurred. Moreover, the historical record, at least in the form of documentation and evidence, does not always lend itself to the continuous presentation so crucial to many narrative styles. From this perspective, a good historian may indeed need to be a bad teacher (e.g., Ranke). Another presupposition intimately tied to historical narrative is the passage of time. What time-frame does a particular historical narrative involve, and are there different possible time-frames (Braudel will claim there are)? Related again to this theme is the notion of causality. Within a traditional narrative, events in the past, or intentions in the past, are understood to be the cause of later events; therefore, in reconstructing the past, a historian seeks to unearth the intentions and events which caused later events. Once finished, the historian then presents his/her findings in the manner of a story. But is this understanding of causality in historical explanation adequate? Does not the historian have to interpret, to some degree, the significance of events and hence their causal efficacy (e.g., do we prioritize economic factors, psychological factors, or some other event as the primary causal agent)? And to what extend do present circumstances dictate our interpretation of the past in our quest to find the cause of this present circumstance? In this case, then, the present paradoxically causes the past, or our interpretation of the significance of the past. We could go on, and in this seminar we will address these questions and many others.

Format. Each seminar will be divided into two parts. In the first, I will give a presentation of the themes and problems brought out by the reading for that day. I will also set these problems into their more general philosophical, historiographical context. The second half of each seminar will consist of a discussion of the reading(s). This discussion will either be led by one of the seminar participants who have selected something from the readings list (times will be determined at the beginning of the semester) or by myself. Towards the end of the semester, seminar participants will present the arguments and findings of their seminar papers.
Participants are expected to take an active part in seminar discussions. Each requirement is built into the Seminar schedule. Attendance and participation are mandatory. My Office hours are MTWTh 9-11, or by appointment. Telephone, ext. 3918.
Required Readings:
Michel Foucault – “Society Must be Defended”

Georg Iggers – Historiography in the Twentieth Century

Carlo Ginzburg – The Cheese and the Worms

Fernand Braudel – On History

online readings:
Jeffrey Bell, “Becoming Civil: History and the Discipline of Institutions”

Lorraine Daston, “Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe”

Carlo Ginzburg, “Clues: Roots of a Scientific Program”

J. Paul Hunter, “‘News and New Things’: Contemporaneity and the Early English Novel”

Paul Ricoeur, "History and Hermeneutics"

Quentin Skinner, “Hermeneutics and the Role of History”

Hayden White, "The Metaphysics of Narrativity: Time and Symbol in Ricoeur's Philosophy of History"

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