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Leopold von Ranke: Excerpts from Selected Works (1824-1881)

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II. Notes on history and philosophy, excerpt from Ranke's World History (1881-88)

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IT HAS OFTEN BEEN NOTED that there is a certain contradiction between immature philosophy and history. Some thinkers have decided on a priori grounds what must be. Without observing that others, more doubting, will disagree with their ideas, they set forth to rediscover them in the history of the world. Out of the infinite array of facts, they select those which they wish to believe. This has been called the philosophy of history! One of the ideas which is continually repeated in the philosophies of history is the irrefutable proposition that mankind is involved in an uninterrupted progress, a steady development of its own perfection. Fichte, one of the first philosophers of this type, assumed that there are five epochs of what he called a world plan: the rule of reason through instinct, the rule of reason through law, the liberation from the authority of reason, the science of reason, and the art of reason. Or, put otherwise: innocence, original sinfulness, complete sinfulness, initial justification, and completed justification. These stages can also appear in the life of an individual. If this or similar schemes were somehow true, then universal history would have to follow a progression, and the human race would travel in its appointed course from one age to another. History would be completely concerned with the development of such concepts, with their manifestations and representations in the world. But this is largely not so. For one thing, philosophers themselves are extraordinarily at odds about the type and selection of these dominating ideas. Moreover, they consider only a few of the peoples in the world's history, regarding the activity of the rest as nothing, merely superfluous. Nor can they disguise the fact that from the beginning of the world to the present day the peoples of the world have experienced the most varied circumstances.

There are two ways to become acquainted with human affairs: through the knowledge of the particular, and through the knowledge of the abstract. There is no other method. Even revelation consists of the two: abstract principles and history. But these two sources of knowledge must be distinguished. Those historians who disregard this err, as do those who see history as only a vast aggregation of facts which must be arranged according to a utilitarian principle to make them comprehensible. Thus they append one particular fact to another, connected only by a general moral. I believe, instead, that the science of history is called upon to find its perfection within itself, and that it is capable of doing so. By proceeding from the research and consideration of the individual facts in themselves to a general view of events, history is able to raise itself to a knowledge of the objectively present relationships.

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