What’s Historiography?

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

F.E. Deist’s intent is to illustrate the rich multi-faceted nature of the study of history (historiography), and he seeks to challenge a naive monolithic concept that history is merely “a series of dates and… a series of events” (i.e. one dimensional) (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 2). Historiography is far from boring urges Deist, a point that this short paper will illustrate via a summation of numerous historical approaches to historiography, their conflicts, and subsequent developments.

Prior to the Middle Ages (+- 5th to 15th centuries AD) one can sketch a simplified outline of historiography’s development through the pre-critical, annalistic, and descriptive stages (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 33). Pre-critical historiography, says Deist, was not for an author to necessarily pen objective history (history as it happened) but rather to employ categories of legend, saga, and myth (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 6). Interestingly, the audiences of pre-critical historiography had their own “criteria” for determining the truth of their traditions (“age of the tradition,” “artistic skill,” “the authority of the narrator,” etc.) although, unlike historians and audiences in later historiographical stages, they tended to accept sources at face value (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 8).

Annalistic historiography, particularly employed by Ancient Near Eastern writers, was a product of bureaucratized political order (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 6). This history modern historians learn from artifacts such as tax returns and contracts with foreign powers, and writings that consisted of records detailing a specific king’s acts and exploits that illumined the reasons as to why a specific king succeeded another and/or had power (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 7). Contemporary critical historians, observes Deist, though noting the value of such source are cautious of them given their overtly prejudiced and exaggerated portrayals of events intended to praise and extol kings and their exploits (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 7).

The subsequent development of “descriptive historiography” emerged and emphasized narrative continuity (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 8). Here historians were more critical of their sources thus making attempts to weigh the data before accepting them as historically accurate. And unlike later post-enlightenment historiography, these historians still emphasized God and/or the gods as real actors of history though, over time, greater emphasis was laid upon human action. Thus historiography would progressively become more secularized (emphasizing human action) as opposed to appealing to divine causation (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 10).

This gave rise to disagreement between the romanticists and naturalists. Romanticists, like the naturalists, viewed the external world as independently existing beyond human knowledge, but rejected the deterministic sentiments intrinsic to naturalism (historical persons being mere products of culture without the freedom of human spirit and creative capacity) (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 14). Romanticists thus emphasized the uniqueness of the historical individual, collective people, and the period in question.

Historiographical development continued to develop through Marxist and positivistic philosophies. Marxist historiography was thoroughly political, and Karl Marx went as far as to postulate that historiography was ultimately not about discovering truth of the past as opposed to putting the proletariat in power, and thus posited a mechanism (“the force of revolution”) through which capitalism could be replaced by socialism (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 21). Positivism, which developed from the work of Auguste Comte, moreover, prioritized objectivity, as associated with the scientific method. The historian ought to put his prejudices aside when evaluating historical datum, and formulate a falsifiable theory (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 21). This objective approach sought a “true and real” representation of historical societies, people, and individuals.

Historiographical development enjoyed philosophical debate touching on historical reductionism, relativism, and objectivity (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 23-26). Critics of determinism (which reduced the human being to an unfree, predetermined “pawn” controlled by social forces), for instance, objected on the grounds that if human beings were controlled by social mechanisms then it would seem to undermine their freewill to choose and act freely. Such a view, the critic would also argue, undermines both love and justice (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 23), and historiography would soon break free from the shackles of determinism (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 29-30). Relativists, moreover, would argue against objectivity of historiography given that historians themselves possess social, economic, and religious biases which would likely skew their reconstructions of historical events (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 23).

However, though ideological disagreement ensued, many historians developed their own historical method analogous to the scientific method, namely the “hypothetico-deductive” method (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 26). Here historians examine their sources, forms hypotheses, and allow for correction, validation, or disproof. This attempt at an objective approach greatly reduced the chances that a historian’s hypotheses were coloured by his ideological biases (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 27). Thus, this hypothetico-deductive method would seem to challenge relativism as well as historical anti-realists in that it would suggest historians could reconstruct history in such a way that their reconstructions need not be dictated by their biases and personal views.

Although history and historiography will certainly not appeal to everyone, what it isn’t, is boring, and Deist’s engagement with the subject shows that it is intellectually engaging. Historiography is vibrant and includes several sophisticated past and present domains of knowledge, and philosophical dialogue. Historiography furthermore allows us access to the values, beliefs, and customs of entire past civilizations, hence Deist’s conclusion that “historiography involves a good deal more than writing a mere chronicle of events” (Deist & Le Roux, 1987: 33).


Deist, F.E., & le Roux, J. 1987. Revolution and Reinterpretation: Chapters from the History of Israel. Tafelberg Publishers: Cape Town.


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