Ideal Types and the Historical Method

Collingwood and British Idealism Studies 13 (1):53-68 (2007)
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A number of social theorists have contended that the essence of historical analysis is the employment of ideal types to comprehend past goings-on. But, while acknowledging that the study of history through ideal types can yield genuine insight, we may still ask if it represents the full emancipation of historical understanding from other modes of conceiving the past. This paper follows Michael Oakeshott's work on the philosophy of history in arguing that explaining the historical past by means of ideal types, even though offering a coherent and fruitful enterprise, nevertheless falls short of fully embodying the characteristics that differentiate historical understanding. This dispute involves fundamental issues regarding the nature of the social sciences. Furthermore, I suggest that it is of more than purely theoretical interest, in that social theorists who have accepted the Weberian view of historical inquiry will tend to be unaware of the defects inherent in all attempts to capture the nature of past events in a net of generalizations, and thus may be lead to ignore the inherent partiality of the understanding of historical happenings provided by ideal typification.



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Gene Callahan
State University of New York (SUNY)

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