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The Desirability of Treating History as a Science of Origins

  • J. S. Stuart-Glennie

1. It may give clearness to what I have to say with respect to History if I begin with some remarks on what seems to me a less desirable view of History, and of the method of treating it, than that which, I venture to think, should more distinctively, perhaps, than hitherto guide the proceedings of the Royal Historical Society. The less desirable view of History, as I think, is that of the literary man; the more desirable view of History is that of the man of science. And I shall introduce what I have to say with respect to the scientific view of History by some remarks on the literary view of it as set forth by Mr. Carlyle and Mr. Froude, and recently defended with much brilliancy by Mr. Augustine Birrell. Deprecating even the attempt to view History as a series of phenomena of which the laws, and hence the purport, may be discovered, Mr. Carlyle counsels us to ‘aim only at some picture of the things acted, which picture itself will at best be a poor approximation, and leave the inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged secret;’ and to be content if but ‘here and there an intelligible precept, available in practice, be gathered.’ And so Mr. Carlyle's most distinguished disciple, Mr. Froude, declares that the History of Man ‘seems to him like a child's box of letters with which we can spell any word we please;’ and therefore, with equal truth or falsehood, either progress or the reverse, or anything else whatever.

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page 229 note 1 On History,’ Fraser's Magazine, vol. ii. No. x., 1830.

page 230 note 1 Short Studies on Great Subjects, vol. i. p. 1, and compare p. 13.

page 230 note 2 Contemporary Review, June 1885, pp. 772–75.

page 230 note 3 Ibid. 779.

page 231 note 1 Short Studies, vol. ii. p. 484.

page 236 note 1 Paroles de Philosophic Positive.

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Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
  • ISSN: 0080-4401
  • EISSN: 1474-0648
  • URL: /core/journals/transactions-of-the-royal-historical-society
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