4th November 2009
As the name of this blog “How it really was” suggests, I start from the assumption that the aim of the historian is not to judge the past, but to discover and reveal what really happened, following the German historian Leopold von Ranke, who famously said:
“Man hat der Historie das Amt, die Vergangenheit zu richten, die Mitwelt zum Nutzen zukünftiger Jahre zu belehren, beigemessen: so hoher Ämter unterwindet sich gegenwärtiger Versuch nicht: er will blos zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen”
which I translate as:
The role, commonly attributed to History, is to judge the Past, to instruct the Present, for the benefit of the Future: such a high (noble) role is not claimed for this essay: it aims simply to show how it really was
I am therefore very suspicious of any theoretical approach to history, especially those which attempt to judge the past, (who are we to criticise what other people may or may not have done, in circumstances and times we can barely understand), preferring to stay firmly grounded on what we know, drawing on the evidence of what people said, wrote, or were reported to have done. It seems to me that all too often the historian’s interpretation tells us more about their own personal views and the commonly held prejudices of their time, than anything new about what actually happened.
But this empirical approach to history means I very quickly come across the issue of whether the people and events I describe and find interesting are typical of what other people thought and did at the time, or whether they are just unrepresentative, isolated instances.
The problem we face as historians is how to make sense of the mass of facts and circumstances we discover and how to communicate this to our listeners or readers.
One way of addressing this issue is through some form of statistical analysis. It seems to me, though, that the problem with this approach is that we have to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator and generalise to the point where too much data is lost. The most influential and interesting people and events were often those that were exceptional in some way.
Some time ago, another research student at the Institute for Historical Research (at the University of London) introduced me to Max Weber’s concept of the “Ideal Type” and this seemed attractive, as a way of generalising from specific examples without losing their individuality. I had already classified the various people I intend to study for my thesis, on the British in occupied Germany after the war, as “senior army officers”, “diplomats and administrators”, “educators”, “young men” and “returning exiles.” Perhaps I should construct an “Ideal Type” for each of these groups?
I had never read anything by Max Weber before and was very sceptical as to what he could offer a historian. After all, he is best known as one of the founders of modern sociology (a theoretical discipline I have done my best to avoid, as it seemed too full of complex jargon, abstruse logic, and highly questionable assumptions).
But after reading what Max Weber himself wrote about the “Ideal Type”, (rather than what other people have written about it), it seemed to make a lot of sense.
So here is my understanding of Max Weber’s concept of the “Ideal Type” and how it could be used by historians.
1) It is not possible to describe historical events without using concepts of some sort. If historians are not explicit about the concepts they use, the result is that they either do this implicitly, using some kind of logical or verbal construction, (and so possibly mislead their readers), or else they stay lost in a world of undefined “feelings”.
2) To be useful as an aid to historical description, concepts must have certain characteristics and be used in particular ways.
- They should be based on, or constructed from, a selection of historical events and form a logically consistent thought picture (Gedankenbild). In other words, they must be firmly grounded on the evidence and be internally consistent, without obvious logical contradictions.
- Though based on real events, they should remain purely theoretical constructs and not represent anything that can be found, in its entirety, in the real world.
- They should be used as the means to the end, not as the end in itself.
3) Weber called a concept which meets these criteria an “Ideal Type”:
- logical constructions, not what actually happened
- an aid to description, not in themselves a description of historical reality
- not hypotheses to be proved or disproved
- not schemas to be used for the purposes of classification
- “ideal” only in the logical sense and not implying in any way that an “Ideal Type” forms the “essential core” (das Wesen) of historical reality, or can predict the future course of history, or act as a model or recommendation for future action
4) Different historians will construct different "Ideal Types" as our understanding of historical events changes over time.
5) To be useful, concepts used as "Ideal Types" should be precise and specific, not vague or general. It doesn’t matter if this means some historical events do not always fit with the "Ideal Type" as the historian has defined it, because our understanding of what happened works by highlighting differences between the concepts we hold in our minds and historical reality, as well as similarities.
In summary, Max Weber seems to be saying that history is a dialogue between the present and the past (very similar in many ways to the English historian EH Carr in his book What is History). The present is represented by the concepts – the “Ideal Types” - created by historians and held in the minds of listeners and readers. The past is represented by the historical evidence, as discovered and revealed in the historians’ sources.
Max Weber, “Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntis” in Johannes Winckelmann (ed) Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (Tübingen, 1988)