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American Historical Review
HISTORY AND DEMOCRACY
(ANY careful students of modern life assert that they discern
in society a widespread discontent with the results of historical study as pursued to-day. Assuming this feeling to be well founded, they attribute the supposed feebleness of contemporary historical writing to these causes : an unscientific method, the necessary complexity of the subject, and the incapacity of democracies to develop the imagination, either scientific or literary. The truth or untruth of this charge may well engage the attention, both of those who have devoted their lives to historical study and of those who scan the past either for a better understanding of present conditions or for guidance in the future. It may be impossible to refute it absolutely, for we shall be known as we are only after a lapse of time sufficient to secure historical perspective, but there are many weighty considerations which seem to make its validity very doubtful.
The real merit of the evolutionary philosophy which has captured the thought of our day lies in the fact that it has made possible a science of the humanities. Claiming to distinguish sharply between the knowable and the unknowable, the physical and the metaphysical, the natural and the supernatural, it set to work on the inductive method to examine knowable, physical, and natural phenomena by the senses, and to generalize about them by the reason. As is usually the case, it was the unexpected which happened. The so-called laws of nature demanded for their apprehension not merely a notion of uniformity, but a conception of unity so far-reaching that its limits have not yet been found, while at the same time the fundamental ideas of the physical philosopher, without which his theories are vain and his reason misleading, turn out to be metaphysical in the highest
degree, as, for example, the vortex theory in physics, the stereometric chemistry, the reversing dimension in mathematics, and most of the very recent foundation concepts of biology.
On the other hand, identical methods of investigation concerning man, both the race and the individual, began to display possibilities in the orderly arrangement of our knowledge concerning his motives and conduct of which we had hitherto not dreamed. The chance element in human affairs dependent upon the supposed fickleness of the personal will seemed to grow less and less important; and finally the antinomy between liberty and necessity, freedom of choice and the fixity of scientific fact, has ceased to engage the attention of moralists and historians to the exclusion of other important considerations. In the study of the race as a whole, and even of the individual, they have found a broad field within which to work unhampered by undue regard for metaphysics. Paradoxical as it appears, the sciences of man's nature have for a generation past been growing more and more physical, just in proportion as the other sciences have been growing metaphysical; until while the former do not as yet claim to be exact, and do not venture the test of prediction, they nevertheless assert that they are sciences real and practical.
While this is true in a very high degree of jurisprudence, of political science, and of sociology, it is especially true of history. The doctrine of the unity of history has not merely been rehabilitated, but it has been so emphasized that the consequences are simply revolutionary, scientific methods having by its means been introduced into a discipline hitherto venerated as the highest department of prose literature, to be sure, but esteemed by the great critics, and by mankind generally, as on the whole vague and imaginative, as being a picture of the writer's own mind rather than a presentation of facts in an external world, and of reliable deductions from them. Most of us have read with profound sympathy Kant's plaintive call, in view of “the circumstantiality of history as now written,” for a “philosophical head deeply versed in history,” to point out for posterity “what nations or governments may have performed or spoiled in a cosmopolitical view." The efforts made by such heads to prove and display the unity of history have resulted in just what he longed for, — short treatises on general history which fix with sufficient accuracy the real landmarks of all time, and exhibit them in their proper proportions as to the ascent of man “in a cosmopolitical view.” This has not been done very successfully in Kant's own country; for the general histories undertaken or completed in Germany are