U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Philosophy of History and Historiography

This fall semester, I am teaching “Philosophy of History and Historiography,” the course our graduate students are required to take, preferably in their first semester. I love teaching this course, as I genuinely enjoy helping students decipher theory and historiography, two of my abiding scholarly interests.

Below is the list of required texts, imperfectly categorized:


Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition

E. P. Thompson, The Making Of The English Working Class


Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents 

Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History


Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Hayden White, Content Of The Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation


Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference


Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and The Politics Of History

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity


Terry Eagleton, After Theory

I have a request for you, dear reader. In addition to these books, I would like to generate a selected bibliography for each of these categories, and more. I would also like to assign a few supplemental articles about the philosophy of history and historiography more generally. And I plan to have the students watch a few films. As such, I am very interested in your suggestions. Books, articles, films? Thanks!

35 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew: Great list! I do think there needs to be a category for the Right (conservative thinkers). Possibly label it the ‘Right-Moralist’ category. You might include Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) and possibly The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (Paul Gottfried). If you wanted to add a kind of religious post-secular side you could also include Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion (Coffey, Gregory et al) and Confessing History (Fea et al).

    A couple of films, among many, that come to mind that deal with historical thinking are Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Memento.

    • Thanks, SB. I agree I need a conservative category and it’s an oversight that I didn’t include one. It’s too late to add any required books, though I will suggest these to the students. In the meantime, since I can spend a week on conservatism if I include a set of articles, if you have any suggestions there I would appreciate it.

      • For the “conservatism” week, I’d definitely suggest Lessig’s early article “Originalism as Translation.”

  2. Foucault’s “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” and Walter Benjamin’s “On the Philosophy of History” would be good supplements to your units on postmodernism and Marxism, respectively. Neither is extremely accessible, but they’re short enough to dig into and difficult to forget if you’ve put some time into them.

  3. Ruben Flores wrote the following at Facebook: “I’d put Kerwin Klein “Frontiers of Historical Imagination” in the Postmodernism category; Said in postcolonial; Caroline Merchant “Ecological Revolutions “under gender (is about gendering environmental history). Is there any room for Cliff Geertz and the turn in the social sciences and history toward ethnography and semiotics? He seems indispensable to me.”

  4. As an MA student, I got a lot out of reading Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Gaddis’ “Landscape of History,” and Trouillot’s “Silencing the Past.”

  5. I suppose the postcolonial category could include the history and criticism of “genocide” and “three generations of human rights.” A helpful post for graduate studies.

  6. Andrew:
    “In addition to these books, I would like to generate a selected bibliography for each of these categories, and more.”

    By “and more” I assume you mean other categories than those listed, just for students’ general information. Here I might suggest the Annales School (e.g., F. Braudel [maybe his essay from the late ’50s on the longue durée] or Lucien Febvre, A New Kind of History and Other Essays).

    Also, although it could be shoehorned into the Marxism category, world-systems theory might deserve separate mention (with I. Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction being one entry point).

    On a completely different tack, I like Pieter Geyl’s Debates with Historians, though I think it’s probably not something that would ‘speak’ to grad students today.

    • Louis: Yes, indeed, by “and more” I meant more categories, since, as all of these responses make perfectly clear, the categories I am using to divide the readings for this course are hardly conclusive. For example, one category would simply be “philosophy of history,” which is not dealt ith explicitly by the above texts. Others would of course include Annales. So thanks for this response.

  7. Fascinating post – I love historiography! Glad to see E.P. Thompson make the list, I would recommend his essay “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” as perhaps a slightly more pedagogically useful text than “The Making of the English Working Class” – at least it’s shorter and packed full of fundamental ideas to his history from below. For a laugh you should also read his “Poverty of Theory” if you want to read a near-virtriolic takedown of Althusserian theory, which he lovingly describes as “Geschichtenscheissenschlopff” (I won’t translate, but it’s not kind).

    If space/time allows I would maybe include a week on the Annales, readings could include some of the introduction to Marc Bloch’s “The Historian’s Craft” and Braudel’s essay on “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée.” Also, on Micro-History, you could use Carlo Ginzburg’s “The Cheese and the Worms” and J. Brewer’s essay “Microhistories and the Histories of Everday Life.” For gender I might include Walkowitz’s “City of Dreadful Delight”. For general introductory texts – maybe as a primer for the module, everyone who does historiography has to read E.H. Carr’s “What is History” – at least I had to, twice! You could also include Richard Evans’ “In Defence of History” for a riposte to the postmodern “barbarians at the gates” or Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob’s “Telling the Truth About History” as a slightly more nuanced rebuttals. Finally, although this isn’t a “method” or even necessarily a “theory” of history, I’d be tempted to include a week on “Periodization” or the problems of periodising history. For that I would set Fredric Jameson’s outstanding essay “Periodizing the 60s” and perhaps Ann Douglas’ “Periodizing the American Century”.

    • Excellent, excellent suggestions. I definitely will include all of these in a list of supplemental readings. Especially E.H. Carr, which I’ve read several times and still find it a useful primer. And of course, as part of such a list I will include Peter Novick, “That Noble Dream,” still to my mind the best history of the American historical profession.

  8. Hi Andrew–
    Maybe you can talk a little about what your goals are for the class, since your reading list is both very ambitious, but also made up of _very_ different kinds of readings. A work of historiographical importance like Thompson’s _Making of the English Working Class_ is so different in kind from, say, Freud’s _Civilization and its Discontents_ (which is hard to see how it might speak to the practice of historians directly). I guess I see three kinds of texts here: works of history/historiography (Thompson, White, Scott, Chakrabarty) written by historians; classic texts of modern thought (Marx, Freud, Fanon); works of that broad domain that gets called contemporary “theory” (Foucault, Butler, Eagleton). How do you see the relationship between these three kinds of texts, and what are you trying to accomplish? Am I right in seeing you as interested primarily in how contemporary schools of theory can inform historical practice? If that’s the case, might you not want to deal with applications? William Sewell seems like a good place to look.

    One thing I noticed is the absence of philosophy of history itself (as opposed to theory). That is, no Collingwood, none of the Hempel-Dray debate over “covering law” arguments , no Mink, no Allan Megill, no Keith Jenkins, etc. This kind of philosophy, it seems to me, has a somewhat under-recognized status in today’s historiographical world. I do think you might think about adding Kerwin Klein’s _From HIstory to Theory_ that we had a roundtable about on the blog last year, since it kind of addresses this turn away from philosophy of history and toward theory.

    When I taught our MA history program’s historiography course, I actually had the students read both Herodotus and Thucydides as well as an overview of the development of history as a form of writing in the West, before addressing more recent historiographical debates and developments. One book I found very helpful was Ellen Fitzpatrick’s _History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past 1880-1980_.

    • Dan: Great contribution to the discussion, as usual. What do I want to achieve with this course? Mostly, I want to open eyes to different ways of thinking, many of which have informed historians, or historical thought more generally. In doing this, I am focusing on breadth of readings, rather than being systematic, which would require that I limit the breadth. This is the reason why there are such different types of texts on the list, as you astutely point out–modern classics like Marx alongside historiographical classics like Thompson. More recent historiographical interventions like Scott alongside more recent theoretical contributions like Butler. My only goal with the readings is that they be interesting and serve as an entry to discussing the things that matter most to historians.

      I do agree, as you and others (namely Varad, below) have pointed out, that not having any explicit philosophy of history (like Collingwood) is problematic. I’m thinking of ways to build this into the course early on, with select essays and what not. Although I have to be careful because the reading list is already quite extensive for an MA course. In any case, thank you.

    • I love that book (and anything written by Hobsbawm). In fact I assigned it to undergraduate students once, which did not go over so well. But perhaps graduate students would be better suited for it.

  9. For either Marxism or a separate “global history” category, I’d suggest Florencia Mallon’s masterpiece of dependency, world systems, social, and family history, _The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands_.

    I would also suggest military history, economic history, and history of science should be included. Military: Isabel Hull, _Absolute Destruction_. Science: Shapin and Schaeffer’s _Leviathan and the Air Pump_, or anything by Lorraine Daston. Economic: too many to choose from ,but maybe Douglass North is a good point of entry.

    And I would second the recommendation for Christopher Nolan’s film “Memento.” I’ve used it in a historiography class to great effect.

    • And I second Dan Wickberg’s suggestion, too. All my recommendations are kind of theory-in-practice, with substantial introductions that assert the virtues of particular theoretical approaches, and then employ them to great effect. If you’re looking for more straightforwardly theoretical readings, these won’t do.

      • These will make for excellent supplementary reading suggestions, so thank you. The students will have opportunities to go in their own direction, and to read theoretically-informed histories (not just straight theory). So thank you.

  10. I think Hans-Georg Gadamer’s lectures “The problem of Historical Consciousness” would be a good reading for the course. From Foucault’s work, you can choose also “Society Must Be Defended” lectures.
    From quite different angle, there is Egon Friedell’s “A Cultural History of the Modern Age” – I’ve read just a half of the first volume, but it was very interesting (interwar period German) writing both about history in general and about the middle age/modern age transformation.

  11. Great list! Don’t have much to add, but I second the essays in Hobsbawm’s ON HISTORY (I like the ones on history of societies, history and economics, and Marxism the best). The *VISIONS OF HISTORY* interview anthology (with Gutmann, Thompson, many others), put out by RHR in the 1980s, is also a nice conversational way to ease into dense historiographic debates.

    Last, I like Ian Shapiro’s essay collection, the Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences. A nice way to launch a discussion on the virtues but also dangers of strong theoretical research programs.

    Never thought of how to use a movie to teach this, but two that come to mind are Errol Morris’s THIN BLUE LINE (great for thinking about the nature of evidence; I watch it every year). And I think Terrence Malick’s recent TREE OF LIFE is a real historian’s film: two stories in one, a micro-history (domestic travails of a mid-century Texas family) and a gigantic macro-history (birth of the universe to the present).

    • Thanks, Merlin. I haven’t seen the RHR issue you speak about, so I’ll check it out.

      And nice movie suggestions.

  12. Wonderful list, Andrew!

    Additions would be to the Marxism list: Sylvia Federici’s *Caliban and the Witch* to give students a sense of feminist marxism, and DuBois’ *Black Reconstruction*, both of which show how marxist analytics can be stretched and applied. And to the Postcolonialism list, like David K. mentioned, I’d include Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s *Silencing the Past* for the importance of Haiti in world history.

    The interviews collected in *Visions of History* could also provoke some good conversations as well.

    • DuBois, “Black Reconstruction,” is one of the greatest history books ever written. In fact you reminded me that I’ve been wanting to re-read it.

  13. Just to add that this is a wonderful list. I’m glad you have Chakrabarty on the list coupled with Fanon. Overall I think it’s a strong list.

    Perhaps, in terms of films, etc., you could show your students a snippet of the 1971 debate between Foucault and Chomsky? It’s been a while since I watched it, but I think it would be fascinating to watch these two in action, if only to consider how Foucault himself defended his ideas.

    Here’s the full version, although youtube is also filled with several shorter excerpts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wfNl2L0Gf8

    • Great idea on the Foucault-Chomsky debate. When I first watched it in 1998 I was on Team Chomsky. Then I watched it again in 2003, in the middle of graduate school, and I switched sides to join Team Foucault. I honestly wonder where my allegiance would be now. And more importantly, how my students would react. In any case I am definitely going to show this. Thanks, Robert!

      • No problem! And I’m also in agreement with David Stein–any chance to teach “Black Reconstruction” is a good one. Showing students the “practical” nature of using theory is always a great idea.

  14. I’ll start by recommending something from left field, David Hume’s essay “Of the Study of History.”

    I’ll second Dan Wickberg’s puzzlement that there’s no actual philosophy of history here. Hence, that’s where my recommendations will fall.

    I’d start with Collingwood, Butterfield (old-fashioned, I know, but I’m partial to him), and Koselleck, especially his essays in Futures Past and Practice of Conceptual History on the nature of modernity.

    You have White, but I think it’s not a bad idea to approach the question of narrative from other perspectives. I can’t vouch for it, but The History and Narrative Reader looks like it has a really good set of essays and excerpts on various aspects of the relationship of history and narrative.

    I’m big on time, too. Historians write about time, though we don’t always think about it that way. Now I don’t expect most historians to explain whether they’re eternalists or presentists, but I do think some consideration of it is useful. Lynn Hunt’s Making Time, Making History is one of the few books I’m aware of which deals with the subject. I haven’t read it, so take my recommendation as no more than hearsay.

    Then there’s all the stuff on memory and experience, e.g., Paul Ricoeur. And you can go totally through the looking glass with the philosophy, say Arthur Danto, and personal identity as a question for history (and you can get biography in here, too). That’s probably too recondite and philosophical for the history department.

    One thing you might consider – I’m not sure if it’s more a theory or more a practice question – is when does history begin. For example, is hominid evolution part of history? Is the Neolithic Revolution a proper subject for the historian? This gets at the thorny issue of the relationship of history to the past. There are a ton of books out there purporting to be histories of those distant epochs, but are they really? I’m not sure how you can answer this, other than to say it’s merely another way of posing the two questions your and your students will be trying to answer: What is history? and What is the past?

    • On time, I am partial to Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other… Another great, relatively easy read is Donald Lowe’s History of Bourgeois Perception. Its chapter on time is excellent.

      One could do worse than read some Vico, Schelling, William James, Bergson, Husserl in such a class, but it might be overwhelming to be asked to read that stuff (although James and Bergson are “easy reads,” comparatively speaking).

      In addition to Fabian, then, I might assign an essay or two from, say, Michael Dummett’s Truth and Other Enigmas–to give a sense of what smart analytic philosophy on time/temporal paradoxes looks like. I think students would find it really inspiring and generative. A really adventurous syllabus might add parts of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway to the “time” week, to give some sense of how the revolutions in physics have altered conceptions of time. Barad’s book is really really good on its own merits; it would pair well with Daston’s Objectivity for a history of science module.

    • Thanks, Varad. I was waiting for you to interject, especially since I know you would teach such a course much differently than me. I appreciate your suggestions.

  15. Listing the other suggestions I received on Facebook and Twitter, so we have an archive:

    –Hegel’s preface to “Phenomenology,” or selections from “Philosophy of History.”

    –something from Frank Anchersmit

    –William Sewell, “Social Theory and Social Transformation”



    –A Gillo Pontecorvo film: “Battle of Algiers” or “Burn (Quemada!)”

  16. Kurt, I thought about nominating Dummett, but I wasn’t sure how far into “philosophy philosophy” this should go.

    Clearly, Andrew, I’d teach this differently than you would. But there’s no “correct” or “proper” way to teach this, given how varied and numerous the philosophies and practices of historians have been over the centuries. After all, this seminar is trying to cover in one semester what ideally a student learns over the course of his or her studies, and even afterwards.

    I’m curious about how you’re planning to organize the seminar. Will you be doing it as you’ve listed the books above, by “school,” i.e., Marx week, postcolonial week, etc.? Or will you be doing it thematically and looking at an issue from different perspectives, i.e., here’s what the Marxists say about narrative, what the postmodernists say, etc.? Most syllabi I’ve seen over the years go for a combination approach.

    There are lots of great suggestions here. I agree with the recommendation for doing something about periodization. It still gives historians fits. The Annales probably should get a look in, though honestly I’m not sure I’d include it.

    Bonus points to Dan Wickberg for suggesting Herodotus and Thucydides.

    One thing I’m a bit surprised hasn’t been discussed so far is the subject which animates (and I mean that literally) this blog: intellectual history. I know it gets in de facto, but I’d give it de jure status and have “intellectual history week.” There is so much there I won’t bother recommending any titles. I just think that its presence ough to be more than adventitious.

  17. Apologies if someone has already said this, but might it also be useful to include some “cold war liberal” philosophy of history, like Berlin’s “Historical Inevitability” or Popper’s Poverty of Historicism?

    – Alex

  18. Paul Cohen’s “Discovering History In China” is an excellent introduction to the follies and foibles of 20th century non-western historiography.

    Ross Dunn’s collection, “The New World History: A Teacher’s Companion” is fantastic: practically single-handedly converted me from an Asianist forced to teach surveys into a World Historian.

    If you want to stick with US-focused stuff, Thomas Bender, “A Nation among nations: America’s Place in World History” is very readable.

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