Philosophy and Theory of History


Purpose of Class: (a) To explore some theoretical and methodological issues relevant to historical and social scientific investigation; (b) To give students the opportunity to write a paper of ca. 20-25 double-spaced pages that has something to do with issues of history in the modern world (or in the ancient or medieval worlds, as long as current theoretical issues [e.g., relating to memory, to narrative in its relation to historical argument, to academic authority, to making claims under conditions of bad evidence, and so on] are raised).

Personnel: This class is open to qualified undergraduate students as well as to graduate students. In the fall 2014 version it had a total official enrollment of eleven, of whom nine were third- or fourth-year undergraduates and two were graduate students.  In addition, the class was attended by a visiting graduate student in anthropology from Brazil and three visiting professors, one from a university in Hong Kong and two from universities in mainland China.

I continue to welcome qualified third- and fourth-year undergraduates. Do you have the need or desire to write a term paper, or part of a senior thesis, on a topic that has some relation to history or to theory of history? The course might be a possibility for you, then.

A “qualified undergraduate” is, first of all, an actual third- or fourth-year student as of fall 2015. You must have a declared major in the humanities or social sciences (not necessarily in history). In addition, you should have taken at least one empirically-oriented course at the 2000 level or, preferably, above in history or in any humanities or social science discipline, and you should also have taken at least one serious course at the 2000 level or, preferably, above that focuses on theory (such courses can be found in philosophy, sociology, politics, history, anthropology, religious studies, and English—not all will be suitable, but courses taught by a number of my colleagues in other departments certainly are suitable).

I welcome graduate students not only from history but also from other departments and from the law school. I anticipate that there will also be two or three visitors in the class, most likely visiting scholars from China.

What the Class Covers:  In part, the purpose of the course is to give students an overview of the longstanding tradition of “philosophy of history” (ca. 1860—1960s) and of the more recent genre of “theory of history” (late 1960s/70s—present). We shall cover the philosophy of history tradition rather quickly, with more time devoted to recent works. Not all of the latter works will be oriented specifically to historical theory.

The recent works are important for the treatment they give of such topics as the relations between history and memory, the problems of historical trauma and of justice, the role of narrative in historical writing and in social research more generally, and modes of objectivity. The earlier works are important for their laying of the groundwork for the scientific discipline of history (which was also, it turned out, a political discipline).

In fall 2014, we unexpectedly read some very recent works that turned out to be relevant to class interests, notably Peter van der Veer, The Modern Spirit of Asia, and Rolf Torstendahl, The Rise and Propagation of Historical Professionalism.

Course Requirements: The basic requirements are two:

(1) To participate actively in the class (doing the reading, contributing to discussion, occasionally writing up the course “protocol” or a short report, and so on);

(2) to write a fairly substantial paper, of 20-25 double-spaced pages length, that has something to do, as noted above, with issues of history in the modern world (or in the ancient or medieval worlds, as long as current theoretical issues [e.g., relating to memory or to objectivity] are raised).

Undergraduates should think about how the paper might carry forward your own aims by allowing you to explore an issue relevant to your major or to law school, grad school, and so on. With the permission of the instructor, work done in this class could potentially become part of a a distinguished majors thesis or other major-related paper.

The key is to define a topic, or some part of a topic, that will be sufficiently circumscribed that you can easily do it in a semester (a semester necessarily laden, of course, with many other things that need to be done).  Such a paper might be a research paper focused on some specific instance or issue that raises theoretical problems, an intelligent survey of one small part of the literature relevant to theory and history, a theoretically-informed account of a particular historical issue or event, and so on. There is to be substantial discussion with the instructor about the paper topic.

Graduate Students: Graduate students (including law students) should craft a paper topic that will lead them forward in own programs. I should note that n the past, law students in the joint MA/JD program have taken this class as one of their history courses.

Every year that I teach this course I introduce some of my own current research-and-writing concerns into the mix of things considered in this class.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


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