Philosophy and Theory of History


This class is intended both for qualified third- and fourth-year undergraduates and for graduate students. In addition, it has often been attended by visiting scholars (graduate students and faculty) from other countries, and this presence has often added much to the course.


The class offers an introduction to the currently vibrant field of theory of history. The emphasis will be less on surveying this field than on drawing resources from it to help us think about current problems in the apprehension of “history.” Many philosophers, social scientists, and historians have contributed to this field. A few names: Arthur C. Danto, Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit, Berber Bevernage, Dominick LaCapra, Reinhart Koselleck, Paul Ricoeur, R. G. Collingwood, Benedetto Croce, Maurice Halbwachs, Heinrich Rickert, Wilhelm Windelband, G. W. F. Hegel. Except for Hegel these are not “household names,” but each has something to offer.


If you are an undergraduate, it is desirable that you should already have had a minimum of two history classes, ideally from two different instructors. Theory of history will be somewhat opaque unless you have some experience with its object, “history.” Central to the class is the writing of a term paper of somewhat larger dimensions than is possible in most undergraduate classes. The range of possible topics is wide. If you are thinking about the class, you should contact me ahead of time (after Nov. 17), and we can discuss possibilities.


If you are a graduate student: Over the years I have learned from the presence of graduate students from anthropology, sociology, philosophy, politics, religious studies, East Asian studies, art history, and law, as well as from history. A preliminary conversation with me (after Nov. 17) would be helpful.


The work you do in this class should contribute to your work within your program.  It is important to craft a paper topic that promises to cast light on—or directly stimulate—writing aimed toward your production of a required program paper, MA thesis, or PhD dissertation.


Course Requirements in Brief: 1. Do the assigned reading before class. 2. On occasion, write up a brief [500-word] mini-paper and/or write up a discussion summary (“Protokoll”) (I anticipate a maximum of five such exercises from each student over the course of the semester). 3.Contribute to discussion, sometimes by “introducing” part of the week’s reading. 4. Write a 20–25 double-spaced pages paper on a topic mutually agreed upon by student and instructor.


Likely Class Books (asterisked items are absolutely definite; all items will be on reserve, and some have alternative availabilities):


*Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984 [1983]). *Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980) NOTE: There are some really bad translations of this work in existence. Preuss’s translation is reasonably good, although nothing can substitute for Nietzsche’s cunningly ambiguous German. *Berber Bevernage, History, Memory, and State-Sponsored Violence: Time and Justice (New York: Routledge, 2013 [2012]). *Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). (I am quite attentive to issues of price.)


Possible books: Hayden White, The Practical Past; Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland; Alon Confino, Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding, and Jouni-Matte Kuukkanen, Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography (dramatically expensive).


We shall also read a selection of crucial articles (e.g., Danto 1962, White, 1980, etc.).


Syllabus: In a small class such as this, which draws a diversity of students as well as some visiting scholars from abroad, it is difficult to set up an absolutely definitive syllabus in advance. In past teachings of this course the second half of the semester has often been re-invented in response to people’s specific interests and expertise. Also, I characteristically devote the last few sessions to discussion of student presentations of summaries of their draft papers. Further, I expect to be giving the Robert D. Cross Memorial Lecture on Wednesday April 5, most likely starting at 3:30 p.m., and this will substitute for my class of that day (the lecture can be recorded for people with conflicting commitments).


I expect to upload a week-by-week syllabus to my site by December 10. The syllabus will try to accommodate some alternative possibilities, a bit like the “pick a path” books that some of you may have encountered in childhood.


FIRST CLASS SESSION: We meet on the first day of classes, Wed., January 18, 2017. If at all possible, read this short item beforehand: Marcin Moskalewicz et al., “The old Nietzschean Question Raised Again: How much past do we need for having a healthy life?,” Rethinking History 18:4 (2014), 556-568, DOI: 10.1080/13642529.2014.893666, and write up and submit to me a few hours before class a well-considered 300 words responding to MM’s piece.


SECOND and possibly THIRD CLASS SESSIONS (Jan. 25, Feb. 1): We shall address Natalie Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre and the debate about the book that ensued between Davis and Robert Finlay in the Am Hist Rev, in the light of some theoretical literature that we shall also read.

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


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
Department Contacts