The Practice of History in the 19th Century

The Practice of History in the 19th Century

History in the Chairs: History’s Professionalization and Conversion into a Discipline

It has been said that the 19th century was the century of History (1). Certainly, seldom did History enjoy such high social recognition. Two arguments in favour of this, among the many possible, are the moral authority and even the political and cultural influence of F. Guizot, before 1848, and the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902 to the great German historian of the Roman Republic Theodor Mommsen.

From the point of view of praxis, it was in the 19th century that the figure of the professional historian, who received specific training (language study, source criticism methodology, palaeography and other auxiliary historical science) for his task, appeared, and who primarily dedicated his time to researching and teaching History. As an institutionalized discipline, History was born at that moment, supported –and to some degree supervised– by the state. The creation of university chairs, its inclusion in secondary school curricula, the setting-up of archives and public libraries, the edition of extensive documentary collections and the birth of the first specialised historical journals are all phenomena related with this development (2). All of them pointed in the same direction towards the setting-up of a discipline and the institutionalization and wider dissemination of historical knowledge, hand-in-hand with the spread of literacy (3).

The work of the historian ceased to be a minor, secondary task, often connected with the old age of cultured men and/or retired politicians. Young and enthusiastic spirits, men such as Jules Michelet, who is retrospectively projected in the splendid preface and afterword of 1869 to his great History of France, also now dedicated all their energy and illusions to it. Here is a short and revealing fragment: “Even more complicated, more distressing, was my historical approach, considered as the resurrection of life in its integrity, not in its appearances but in its underlying internal organisms. No sane man would have dreamed of it. Fortunately, I was not one of them”.

Studying the genealogy of the different nation states of the Western European world and celebrating the victorious expansion of this civilization –civilization itself– were the two great thematic commitments that underlie the greater part of institutionalized historiographical activity. In this science-based century, in which Europe attained its apogee, confidence in a discernible and positive evolution of History, derived from the ideology of the Enlightenment,  was rarely questioned; only, perhaps, in some untimely considerations running against the general flow of ideas.

On the other hand, in the 19th century, specialization in historical studies advanced rapidly, and the theory of History began to be expressed in works such as J. G. Droysen’s Historik (1887), and, at the end of the century, in Dilthey, who continued Vico’s work.

(1) “Notre siècle est le siècle de l’histoire”, stated G. Monod in 1876 in the first number of the Revue historique. Ch.-O. Carbonell gathers together this and other testimonies of a comparable nature in his excellent short book (1981) L’historiographie. Paris: PUF, p. 84.

(2) Some clarifications and data about this process can be found in, besides the previous work, Iggers, Georg G. (2005). Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. More monographically, some important historical journals of the century, such as the American Historical Review, the Revue historique and Rivista Storica Italiana, were studied in Middell, Matthias, dir. (1999). Historische Zeitschriften im internationalen Vergleich, Leipzing: Akademische Verlagsanstalt.

(3) See “Profesionalización del saber histórico y erudición institucional” in M. Puyol & J. Andrés-Gallego, dirs. (2004). Historia de la historiografía española. Madrid: Editorial Encuentro, pp. 140-143.


Emergence of new interpretations or visions of History as regards the evolution of Mankind

The 19th century was also crucial also for the evolution of the theory of History, since during it some new general interpretations or visions of History arose, in addition to the establishment of the liberal interpretation, outlined in its basic elements in the classic work of F. Guizot History of Civilization in Europe from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the French Revolution (1828-1830). I am thinking above all of Hegelian, Comtian and Marxist interpretations, which –as well as the liberal one-  prolonged and developed rationalism and enlightened optimism by different means.

The paradigmatic Hegelian interpretation, one of the four prototypes analyzed in the outstanding synthesis by J. Ferrater Mora (4), is an astonishingly grandiose idealistic and teleological vision, according to which History is first of all the progressive self-awareness of the universal spirit (the Weltgeist). This universal spirit of peoples and individuals uses them for its own purposes by means of ruses, as a sort of immanent Providence. Dialectic Hegelian interpretation, which was to enjoy enormous influence and was in some respects connected with Liberalism, inasmuch as History is a realization of values, lies at some distance from it because of its statist tendency. In the Hegelian interpretation of History, individual freedom was highly diluted before the State.

Hegel’s teleologism was shared by the interpretation of history that Comte, the father of Sociology and science-based Positivism (5), developed. Comte’s doctrine of the three stages in Mankind’s evolution (teleological, metaphysic and positive or scientific) is renowned. And both this and his social policy motto of order and progress were to have a notable influence on the cultural climate of his time, specially, but not only, in France under the Second Empire.

In fact, Comte’s influence on later historiographical practice can be considered ambiguous. On the one hand, historians were able to find in it a statement in favor of the importance of obtaining reliable data. In this respect, some labelled –or used to label– certain historians as “positivists”, for they remained very close to empirical “data”. (Some texts of Fustel of Coulanges about clinging to texts could be interpreted in this sense). On the other hand, nonetheless, Comte claimed protagonism and hegemony over History for Sociology. Only Sociology might aspire to discover the laws that governed the evolution of humankind – it was presupposed that the evolution that had hitherto been followed by the West was the route that other cultural areas would follow in the future. Therefore, in some respects, Comte favoured dialogue between History and Sociology, but really the submission of the former to the latter. 

Marx (1818-1883) can be placed in Hegel’s teleological and dialectic trail, and shared, together with the majority of his contemporaries, Comte’s science-based approach. However, Marx also fed off the revolutionary atmosphere, favoured by the hard situation of the proletariat in the initial stages of industrialization. Marx was to create a markedly materialistic interpretation of History, which at the same time was a major revolutionary project, based on the class struggle, not free of messianism or of utopianism (6). It is true that, as Kolakowski points out, there is not one statement on Marxism that fails to be controversial. I have just mentioned his much-debated and influential proposal because, even as a current or historiographical tendency Marxism (or better marxisms) has/have to be situated, because of its/their dissemination and influence, above all in the 20th century; in the historico-cultural context in which it appeared and it must be explained that Marx’s vision of History belongs to the 19th century.


(4) Ferrater Mora, José (1982). Cuatro visiones de la historia universal. San Agustín, Vico, Voltaire, Hegel. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.

(5) Comte, A. (1830-1852). Positivist philosophy course, 6 vols. From lesson 47 on Comte speaks about sociology and/or social physics and defines it in the work as “the positive study of all the fundamental laws characteristic of social phenomena”.

(6) Marx, Karl H. (1867). The Capital, vol. 1.


Dr. Fernando Sánchez-Marcos (2009)

(Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History at the Universitat de Barcelona. Founder and Director of

[Translation of the original Spanish text by Dr. Philip Banks].