Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Leopold von Ranke and the Origins of the Modern Historical Profession

"Only say how it essentially was."
(wie es eigentlich gewesen)

The Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) probably did more than any other individual to establish history in its modern professional form. He was descended from a long line of Lutheran ministers, lived most of his life as a bachelor and (in the best Prussian tradition) a rigidly disciplined scholar, and tended to mistrust liberal reform as a French conspiracy against German institutions and values. Through nearly five decades of teaching, and particularly his seminars (a method he pioneered), he decisively influenced the first generation of professional historians, and through them (in a rather curious way—more on this later) the American historical profession as well.

Following Johann Herder, Ranke believed that each person, institution, and nation had to be understood as uniquely itself. One can hardly do without generalizations in describing them, but these should be understood as conventions, not actual things or “laws,” and should be kept to an absolute minimum. Similarly, systems of classification are always ad hoc, never real—only particular things were real. That which gives these living things their uniqueness is their idea, or as we might say, their internal logic/subjective experience, the realization of which is their natural objective. The idea is not reducible to its own internal components or to anything outside itself, and it is not bound by natural law; it is a vital, ineffable, irreducible spark, which must be apprehended through an act of imaginative sympathy aimed, not at explanation, but understanding (verstehen.)

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