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.
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 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. Commented Apr 5, 2012 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
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 22:22
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    You would probably enjoy this article: jstor.org/stable/10.1086/587536
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 22:24
  • The original poster of the question I responded that prompted this query stated, as if it were a matter of established fact, the science of history. I think that is wrong, but he would disagree. Too each his own, but I'm willing to hang my hat on the fact that context is everything in history and you can't (at this moment) objectively agree upon what is right and wrong.
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 22:28

3 Answers 3


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
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 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. Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 21:55
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    The essence of the Marxist theory of history, surely, is to see history in terms of a class struggle. Before industrialisation Marx saw society as divided between aristocrats and peasants. In the post-industrial world the earlier classes transmogrify into capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat. Irrespective of any belief or otherwise in a Marxist economic theory, (which I do not support), I have found his history theory a very convenient way of understanding what has taken place in western history over the last 250 years.
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 14:21

I have the impression that the term theoretical history sometimes serves as a synonym for studying alternative paths of history in the past (i.e. alternative history) or in the future (i.e. futurology).

Consider e.g. this amateur historian: His YouTube video World War Three: thoughts on the coming hegemonic war investigates a possible future sequence of events, and he calls himself "a student of theoretical history" (in one of the comments) also with reference to this contribution.

  • This is a misuse of the phrase, or, at the very least, an un-academic use. Commented May 6, 2017 at 16:06

Theoretical History and Historiography are essentially, the same fields. Both attempt to understand History as a causal and meaningful process and not simply to interpret History as a series of explainable events.

The field of Theoretical History has its roots in the Modern era-(though perhaps one could date the origins of Theoretical History or Historiography to an earlier time). Philosophers, such as George Hegel and Karl Marx were interested in understanding the cyclical-(or Dialectical) nature of Historical time and reality.

For both Hegel and Marx, History, had a deeper, more esoteric meaning that was (apparently) evident in the process of reconciled opposites. An event would appear or unfold, though such an event had an inherent opposite-(almost like an alter ego), that was inseparable. This opposite or "antithesis", (despite its inseparability), would also exist as an independent event. However, as time progressed, both of these opposing events would join together, thereby creating, yet, another independent event and thus, the historical process continues.

Over the last half century, the post-modern theory has both transitioned from and greatly transformed contemporary western historiography and the philosophy of history. The post-modern approach is unconcerned with cyclical, exotic processes, but rather, more concerned with the radical "deconstruction" of knowledge and absolute truths-(Even Hegelian and Marxian Dialectics, are not exempt from the post-modernist's deconstructionist agenda). Post-Modern has and continues to approach knowledge and truth from a relativistic perspective.

If, for example, Culture A believes something to be true and Culture B believes something to be true, then under the logic of post-modernism, both the belief systems of Cultures A and B are equally and unquestionably true. Ordinarily and from a common sense perspective, such a narrative-(including, a historical narrative) would appear to be absurd and contradictory. Yet, for nearly 50 years, the radical philosophy of post-modernism-(including contemporary historiography), has become, "the opiate"-(to borrow an old famous phrase) of the academic intelligentsia and currently shows no signs of decline or disappearance.

There are other types of theoretical history and historiography, however, the ones mentioned, are some of the more well known and well regarded in the academy-(and related institutions).

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