Top Ten Best Books on the Philosophy or Methods of History

What are the best books in the philosophy or methods of history? Well, I’m trying to read basically all of them. Seriously, and there are a lot, so sometimes I only read a few pages and determine that a book is worthless. Or, I can tell from the table of contents and a cursory look at later chapters that there is nothing new under the sun.

Writings on the philosophy of history, the methods of history, approaches to history, and historiography, often overlap, and indeed, the very definitions of things like “the philosophy of history” or “historiography” have changed over time.  By the philosophy of history, I generally mean the analytic philosophy of history and its progeny, a field that began in the 1930s and 1940s with works by Maurice Mandelbaum, continues with treatises on epistemology and causation and other topics by W.H. Walsh and W.B. Gallie and others. It was largely played out by the 1980s, when the “linguistic turn” and the influence of postmodern philosophy of history came to dominate. Methods, in my mind, is what happens when historians are finished with or ignore philosophy.  Writings on historical methods are not directly concerned with questions of how we can know things, but with how historians actually do go about their work in reality. Historiography, often called “history of history” is a further level of abstraction about how historians’ views have changed over time.

It is my impression that most American historians know very few works in this field. It seems that they have all read Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream in graduate school, that they may have encountered E.H. Carr’s What is History?, and that the name R.G. Collingwood might ring a bell. Terms like “idealism”, “positivism” and “historicism” are not easily defined, and historians don’t want to trouble with it. And again, it is only my impression, but it seems that historians working in England are more familiar with philosophy and methods of history, and that these subject have been longer linked in the conception of the field. Indeed, the relevant job category at is “historical and philosophical studies.”

Finally, as I noted in the introduction to my book, Creative Historical Thinking, history methods books tend to be (ironically) very redundant and unoriginal. So, instead of spending time reading the bulk (or is it “heft”?) of the field (which I am endeavoring to do), let me recommend that you focus on only the best ones.  This won’t be a list of the best known or most common books in the field. I promise I have read those but don’t always see their appeal. I only include original books, and not compilations, even when those compilations can be good (Meyerhoff, Gardiner, exempli gratia). As much as I hate the overuse of the word “curated” to refer to anything outside a museum, consider this a curated list.

 10).  G.P. Gooch, History & Historians in the Nineteenth Century (Longmans, Green and Company, 1913).

Generations of historians in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s read Gooch and must have known that he was a master.  This was an era when a few bright lights of American history had begun to shine in academia, but also an era of infancy in the professionalization of the field. American historians were well aware that they had little of the technicality, the philosophical background, or the depth of vision of the German historians whom they admired but seldom read or understood. Gooch provided the service of translating (at least in his head) most of the history of German historical thought from the previous century, and with it the insights of the French and English historians, presenting it all to an American audience as an impressively – nay, impossibly – thorough description of where the discipline had come from. Gooch’s descriptions of Ranke and Niebuhr, I suspect, were influential in keeping high the standards of historical research in the United States.  John Higham’s History: The Development of Historical Studies in the United States (Prentice Hall, 1965) was a natural follow-up and worthy heir to Gooch.

9). Wilfred McClay, A Student’s Guide to History (ISI Books, 200)

This book was a pleasant surprise. It is short –only 93 pages – and only the first half deals with historical methods directly. It is clear and well-written, which is a rarity among books on historical methods, and it genuinely has its own voice and purpose.  McClay thinks history has an important civic role. I’m more pessimistic about the ability of students to learn history (or anything, for that matter), but this book and some of McClay’s presentations on youtube have won me over to to the view that we should at least try to teach history for civic purpose). McClay thinks history should be taught as a personal subject, but he warns that there are limits to the personalization of history. History, in his view, should break us out of our personal lives and connect us to society. History unites us with those around us, and with those who came before us. Historical consciousness frees us from pure present-mindedness. It can also help us escape parochialism of thought. We should know history so that we know where ideas came from, and so that we can deconstruct social institution. This book is radiating with concern for being a humane, thoughtful, and caring historian.

8). Raymond Martin, The Past Within Us: An Empirical Approach to Philosophy of History (Princeton, 1989).

I hesitate to recommend this book for two reasons. The first is that it is quite difficult to understand fully. The second is that if you do understand it, you will probably suffer from knowing that you will never be as intelligent at Raymond Martin. As I mentioned above, the analytic philosophy of history was in a sense “played out” by the 1980s. Most of its concerns had been argued back and forth from nearly all conceivable angles. Some progress had been made, and where it hadn’t trenches had been dug. Martin’s book represents the culmination of the analytic philosophy of history. It is like a man reached out his arms, pulled in all that had been written on the subject in fifty years, and then summarized it precisely, like an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is more than summary, however, since it includes many nuanced observations on the history of the history of the philosophy of history (yes, something that abstract!).  I like the style of his writing too:

“It may seem to those familiar with the voluminous literature on historical explanation that philosophers have already described the strategies historians employ to defend their explanations. They have not.”

After noting the insufficiency of positivist explanations, he continues:

“[H]istorians almost always defend their explanations in a comparative way, that is, by attempting to show that their explanations are better than the competition. They are rarely able to show, and seldom claim to show, that their explanations are sufficient. Hence, philosophical accounts of what it takes to show that an explanation is sufficient as usually far removed from actual explanatory controversy in historical studies. As a natural consequence, historians often reject such accounts as unrecognizable from the viewpoint of historical practice.” (30)

What might appear as an attack on positivism, however, later becomes a partial defense. While Martin does not defend the “covering law” model of historical explanation, he believes the central claim of positivism is true. Historical counterexamples, he argues, seldom show sufficient causes for their explanation, but they are used to show that other explanations have insufficient explanatory power.

7.) Peter Burke, Sociology and History (George Allen & Unwin, 1980)

A short, clear introduction to social history, sociology, and the relationship between history and sociology. For those who are skeptical of the value of sociology (like me) and who like to charge the social sciences with scientism (like I do), this is a valid defense of the tradition of social history. This is one of those books that deserves to be read multiple times. The book was expanded and republished with a new title “History and Social Theory” (Cornell Univ. Press, 1992). I own copies of both editions. Burke’s The French Historical Revolution should also be included in this list, so I’ll sneak it in here at book 7b.

6) Friedirch Beiser, The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford,  2011)

This book is shaped like a brick and reads like it was penned by some near-omniscient authority. With a respectful glance to the works of Georg Iggers, this tome is, by far, the best description of what historicism is. The problem is, however, historicism is such a contested term. Beiser narrows down its meaning to its core elements. In the 20th century, historicism took on a different, indeed opposite, meaning with Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism. This book is about a different kind of historicism.

5.) Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution (Yale University Press, 1957)

This book is really underappreciated. For a longer discussion of the book, see my peer-reviewed article Why Historians have Failed to Recognize Mises’s Theory and HistoryReview of Austrian Economics 30:2 (2017), 1-14. As I note in my article, this book arrived about 40 years late, and was written with the wrong tone to the wrong audience. It is a progeny and a criticism of the methods of late 19th German idealists, like Windelband, who decried that decried that “if action is caused, it’s not free.” Like Windelband, Mises believes that there are no laws that govern how personalities express themselves. And if there are “laws” then we must by necessity act according to them. If we don’t, they are not laws.  From Rickert, Windelband’s student, Mises extends the view that the natural sciences have a method separate from the “geisteswissenschaften” [social sciences]. But, most importantly, Mises takes subjective values theory from Carl Menger, and argues for the important of a priori logic in historical explanation. Like in his previous books, Human Action and Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises works from the axiom that humans act and builds his case deductively. Recognizing  that history is largely an empirical discipline, Mises also argues that historical explanation cannot derive from empirical observation alone, and that logic (particularly economic logic) explains much of our behavior.  History is, for Mises, the record of the free actions of individuals against their environment.  Mostly read the book for its trenchant critiques of Marxist history, historicism (of the Popperian variety), it also develops its own interpretation about the proper methods of history.

4).E.H. Carr, What is History?  (Vintage, 1960).

When it comes down to it, I probably disagree with most of what Carr says about the philosophy of history. When he criticizes Collingwood, I actually side with Collingwood. I don’t include Collingwood in this list, however, because he was never able to finish his magnus opus, and his Idea of History, published posthumously is too disorganized although insightful. Carr is great, however on methods. He is a fantastic writer, and the scenarios that he draws will stick with you. I remember reading this as an undergraduate, and it was difficult then. Today, I don’t find it so difficult, but I have now read it three times and each time I read it I learn something new. If for whatever reason Carr isn’t fit for you, try Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, which is similar in its readable nature and emphasis on methods over philosophy.

3). Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (Doubleday & Company, 1940).

For some unknown reason, this absolute classic is almost never mentioned in the footnotes of history methods books. Wilson, in unparalleled style, traces the style of historical writing from revolutionary France to revolutionary Russia, showing the power of the public appeal of history and the influence of historical consciousness.  History, no doubt, played a major role in the rise of revolutionary thought. Wilson’s descriptions of the French historian Michelet, alone at work in the French archives, are unforgettable. Those who have spent years in a single archive will relate to the picture of Michelet, a man who lived and breathed the history of his country, who had read seemingly everything, who – with this privilege position of posterity, knew more about the Revolution that those who had lived through it. From the French, the Russian writers gained more than a revolutionary spirit and a style that could appeal to the masses. They took social scientific concepts from Vico, Saint-Simon, and Taine, shaping them and applying them to give their own historical development a patina of the scientific and inevitable. To understand how the radical far-left wrote and thought about history, and to even sympathize with it, I cannot recommend a better book.

2).  Maurice Mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge (New York: Liveright, 1938),

with my short description here.  If this is old hat, and you are more inclined to learn about the state of the field of the philosophy of history today, check out Herman Paul’s Key Issues in Historical Theory.

1.) Robin Winks, The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence (Harper Torchbooks, 1969).

Enough of all this philosophizing and esotericism. Winks presents stories of how historians have wrestled with evidence in the real world. This volume includes chapters from great historians like C. Vann Woodward, R.G. Collingwood, and Allen Nevins. It reminds me of the style of an old collection of best Sci-Fi writing or a collection of the short stories of Stephen King. This is because the book is so readable, and the problems of historical research so real and relatable. Winks edited a philosophy and methods of history series with Yale in the 1960s, back when Yale was far and away the best publisher for this kind of stuff. Nowadays, it appears that only Routledge has any committed effort to publishing the philosophy of history.

Honorable mention: Evans, In Defense of History; Herman Paul, Key Issues in Historical Theory; Hans Neisser, On the Sociology of Knowledge; John Burrow, a History of Histories, Peter Geyl, The Use and Abuse of History.

Yes, I know…apparently I can’t restrict myself to just ten. Either that, or I’m not very good at counting.

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