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What is History For?

What is History For?: Johann Gustav Droysen and the Functions of Historiography

Arthur Alfaix Assis
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 242
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  • Book Info
    What is History For?
    Book Description:

    A scholar of Hellenistic and Prussian history, Droysen developed a historical theory that at the time was unprecedented in range and depth, and which remains to the present day a valuable key for understanding history as both an idea and a professional practice. Arthur Alfaix Assis interprets Droysen's theoretical project as an attempt to redefine the function of historiography within the context of a rising criticism of exemplar theories of history, and focuses on Droysen's claim that the goal underlying historical writing and reading should be the development of the subjective capacity to think historically. In addition, Assis examines the connections and disconnections between Droysen's theory of historical thinking, his practice of historical thought, and his political activism. Ultimately, Assis not only shows how Droysen helped reinvent the relationship between historical knowledge and human agency, but also traces some of the contradictions and limitations inherent to that project.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-249-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    In many cultures, the practice of historiography has often been attended by reflections on its general value and function. In the Western world since classical antiquity, some rhetoricians, philosophers and historians have attempted to explain why writing narratives referring to the past (and reading them) happens to be a worthwhile venture. Throughout the centuries a great variety of explanations emerged, most of them stressing that the issue goes far beyond the recognition that reading histories is sometimes a pleasant experience. In this regard, one explanatorytoposhad a very significant impact: Cicero’s (106–43 BC) metaphor comparing history to a...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Functions of Historiography until the Mid-nineteenth Century: A Short History of the Problem
    (pp. 20-62)

    Long before Droysen began to systematize his ideas on the nature, methods, specificity and relevance of the science of history, the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily in the first century BC included in the preface to hisHistorical Librarya kind of catalogue in which he listed all the uses of history that came to his mind. According to him,

    It is an excellent thing to be able to use the ignorant mistakes of others as warning examples for the correction of error, and, when we confront the varied vicissitudes of life, instead of having to investigate what is being...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Theoretical Design of a New Justification
    (pp. 63-102)

    Despite having rejected the exemplar theory of history, Droysen followed the path formerly described as neo-pragmatic and continued to consider historiography as a didactic enterprise. Ultimately, this means he believed history still had something to teach, even after it was dismissed from its position asmagistra vitae.However, in reconciling his critique of historiography’s exemplary function with his insistence that it should, nevertheless, keep performing a didactic task, he confronted a complicated theoretical problem: Droysen had to explain how historical knowledge could have a non-exemplary impact on human subjectivity and agency. This was, by the way, a problem some of...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Historical Thinking and the Genealogy of the Present
    (pp. 103-145)

    An important factor that led Droysen to theorize an alternative to the exemplar theory of history was, as already laid out, the dynamization of the sense of time and temporalization of human experience set in motion in the second half of the eighteenth century. Droysen elaborated his didactics of historical thinking precisely as a means to deal with a general historicization of lifeworld and world view. He associated historical thinking with a basic subjective competence that would help one to make sense of the world’s formative process, as well as to act and interact under conditions generated by it.


  8. CHAPTER 4 The Politics of Historical Thinking and the Limits of the New Function
    (pp. 146-179)

    As Droysen’s career advanced, neither historical theory nor ancient history occupied the bulk of his intellectual energies. At least in terms of research and historiographical activity, what mattered most to him from the 1840s onwards was the politically motivated history of a political entity: the Prussian state. Droysen had never been an apolitical historian, even when writing on ancient history. But as he undertook to write the most important texts of the last phase of his career, theLife of York von Wartenburg(1851–1852)¹ and theHistory of Prussian Politics(1855–1886), the boundaries between historiography and politics tended...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 180-189)

    The general thesis underpinning the preceding chapters is that a particular notion from Droysen’s historical theory summarizes his alternative to the exemplar theory of history: the notion of historical thinking. As I have attempted to show, many times in his theoretical texts Droysen suggested that historiography’s main task should be to stimulate the reader’s learning of historical thinking. My main argument was that the didactics implied in this formulation, despite its pragmatic orientation, substantially differs from an older form of didactics centred on historical examples. In Chapters 2, 3 and 4, which I will briefly recapitulate below, I have characterized...

  10. Appendix. Droysen and His Theory of History
    (pp. 190-210)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-226)
  12. Index
    (pp. 227-234)