Monday, November 30, 2015

Carl Becker and Progressive History

"To establish the facts is always in order, and is indeed the first duty of the historian; but to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will ‘speak for themselves’ is an illusion."

Carl Becker (1873–1945) was an American intellectual historian and a member of the Progressive School in American historical thought. Along with his mentorFredrick Jackson Turner and close ally Charles Beard, Becker challenged the methods of the Scientific School, established in an earlier generation by Henry Adams, Herbert Baxter Adams, and William A. Dunning. Becker’s principle works were his presidential address to the American Historian Association, “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931), and The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932—a fascinating discussion of the Enlightenment that we cannot, for reasons of space, discuss here, but that may be the subject of a future article.)

The basic question in this dispute was whether the historian’s principle obligation lay to the past, or to the present. We have already seen, with Herbert Butterfield, the argument for giving priority to the past, and it must be said (not to worry) that this has always been, and remains, the majority opinion among historians, professional or otherwise. There is, however, a case to be made for giving priority to the present. We have already seen Nietzsche’s views on this, and similar opinions seem to resurface about once every other generation. They have always found a sympathetic hearing among a minority, sometimes more substantial than others, of practicing historians. Carl Becker made his case in an American context, and under very different circumstances, when an atmosphere of crisis and mass discontent had destabilized the confident assumptions of an earlier era, and paved the way for far-reaching criticism.


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

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