The Historian’s Purpose: History and Metahistory

Alan Bullock ruminates on the role of historians in Western society.

Since Hegel delivered his lectures on the Philosophy of History in Berlin, he has had many imitators. Not that Hegel was the first to make the attempt at reading the meaning of history, but since his time historical prophecy has established its own apostolic succession from Hegel himself and Marx to Spengler and Wells, Croce and Toynbee. These interpretations are various and contradictory, but they have this in common: they are all attempts to discover in history patterns, regularities and similarities on whose recurrence is built a philosophical explanation of human existence, or at the very least a panoramic view of the stages of its development. It is this sort of Weltanschauung—metahistory, to borrow a phrase of Mr. Isaiah Berlin’s—which is the fascination and justification of historical study to many people.

Equally obviously, it is not what most historians themselves mean by history. On the contrary, this is a kind of speculative activity which many professional historians eye with distrust and dislike. When G. N. Clark delivered his Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor at Cambridge, he said:

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