History and Theory 59 (1):22-41 (2020)

Katherina Kinzel
Utrecht University
In this paper I revisit nineteenth-century debates over historical objectivity and the political functions of historiography. I focus on two central contributors to these debates: Leopold von Ranke and Johann Gustav Droysen. In their takes on objectivity and subjectivity, impartiality and political engagement I reveal diametrically opposed solutions to shared concerns: how can historians reveal history to be meaningful without taking recourse to speculative philosophy? And how can they produce a knowledge that is relevant to the present when the project of “exemplary” history has been abandoned? I put a special focus on the relativist themes in Ranke’s and Droysen’s answers to these questions. Ranke’s demand for impartiality leads him to think of all historical epochs as equally valid, while Droysen’s emphasis on the historian’s subjectivity relativizes historical truth. In order to explain why Ranke and Droysen nevertheless remained unfazed by the problem of historical relativism, I analyze their normative conceptions of the historian’s disciplinary ethos. I show that Ranke and Droysen think of objective impartiality and subjective partiality not only in methodological terms, but also in terms of justice and ethic duty. This normative element secures the professional study of history an ethical-political relevance for the present.
Keywords Leopold von Ranke  Johann Gustav Droysen  Historical method  Historicism  Relativism  Universal history
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DOI 10.1111/hith.12144
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