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This question is highlighting something I have been meaning to ask, but haven't known how to go about it: What is the contemporary knowledge of the theoretical history?

I'm particularly interested in learning more about what the author of that post referred (@Gangnus) to as "theoretical history". I'm very unfamiliar with larger research methods in the field of history and would like to learn more.

P.S. - Someone capable of answering this question may also wish to provide an explanation on the as-of-yet nondescript "theoretical-history" tag as I get the feeling many (if not most) visitors to this forum are in my camp of being completely unaware of this topic.

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If I understand you, this question basically boils down to: "Somebody please fill out the wiki summary for the theoretical-history tag" –  T.E.D. Apr 5 '12 at 21:04
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@T.E.D. :P lol, to a substantial degree, yes. Although, I would also like someone (such as the author of the aforementioned post, HINT) to perhaps give a basic overview of what this is and what are good sources to learn more about it. –  BrotherJack Apr 5 '12 at 21:10
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From the comments in the question you linked to the author mentions "historians" that have proposed treating history as a science with various theories to undertake that approach. This to me is extremely problematic, and my answer to the question that spawned this question touches on that. Simply put, there are too many inputs that people can't agree on in terms of relevance etc, that make such an approach to history fallacious. I articulated some of these points in one of your questions earlier, about the intersection of computer science and history. –  ihtkwot Apr 5 '12 at 22:22
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You would probably enjoy this article: jstor.org/stable/10.1086/587536 –  ihtkwot Apr 5 '12 at 22:24
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Sorry to pee in your Wheaties here. I think there probably is the germ of an honest question in here somewhere. And this site does need more questions... –  T.E.D. Apr 6 '12 at 13:06
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1 Answer

Theory of history is so closely related to "historiography" or the practice of writing and criticising history that we may as well consider them to be basically coaligned. Therefore you will want to read EH Carr's "What is History?" and a textbook aimed at honours / post-graduate coursework students on historiography.

Ranke started modern history with the observation, "But it is not for the past as a part of the present, but for the past as the past, that man is properly concerned" (Diaries, 1814)—the purpose of history is not the whiggish informing of the present on the basis of the attitudes and mores of moderns, but to understand the past in the terms of the past itself.

All modern history reacts to this theoretical assertion. Some, such as Marxist history believes that the purpose of history is to serve the needs for self-empowerment (primarily) of the proletariat and its achievement of the beginning of history in human freedom. But they still use Ranke's methodological tools and avoid inserting modernity into the past.

Similarly Ranke pushed for archival research, or research direct from the sources of the past. He also pushed for the vigorous critique of writings about the past.


We can probably get a little bit into Hegel and Lukacs on the nature of history as a teleology, but to be honest, these theories of history are philosophical in nature, and not historical in nature. Your answer should properly be answered in relation to historians by examining the theories of history of historians themselves. For example, Marxists commonly put the changes in the mode of production and the balance of class forces (and the transformations of classes themselves) at the centre of history because Marxist historians privilege an understanding of society as a system of production and reproduction of cultural and material reality.

In comparisons, Liberal historians view the contingency of man's consciousness as central to history as they tend to view political institutions or market agents as determinate.

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"understand the past in the terms of the past itself" this is part of what I am preparing for with post-grad work. Rather than look at the past with a lens from the present, and asking why mores from today are not present, you need to look at the past with the attitudes of the time. We may not always agree with what happened before us, but we should understand WHY they did what they did. –  MichaelF Aug 30 '12 at 18:20
    
Except when you start developing your research programme. My research looks at a fundamentally different period to answer questions about positive class struggle in this period. I'm authorised to do this because my historical work sits within a context of a social science research programme that seeks instrumentalisable outcomes. But when conducting the historical research itself, I agree with Ranke, that I can't project contemporary categories into the past circumstances. On the other hand I need to be aware that the categories in question are themselves historic and could've existed. –  Samuel Russell Aug 30 '12 at 21:55
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