VISION AS REVISION: RANKE AND THE BEGINNING OF MODERN HISTORY

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ABSTRACT

It is widely agreed that a new conception of history was developed in the early nineteenth century: the past came to be seen in a new light, as did the way of studying the past. This article discusses the nature of this collective revision, focusing on one of its first and most important manifestations: Ranke's 1824 Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker. It argues that, in Ranke's case, the driving force of the revision was religious, and that, subsequently, an understanding of the nature of Ranke's religious attitude is vital to any interpretation of his historical revision. Being aesthetic-experiential rather than conceptual or “positive,” this religious element is reflected throughout Ranke's enterprise, in source criticism and in historical representation no less than in the conception of cause and effect in the historical process. These three levels or aspects of the historical enterprise correspond to the experience of the past, and are connected by the essence of the experience: visual perception. The highly individual character of the enterprise, its foundation in sentiments and experiences of little persuasive force that only with difficulty can be brought into language at all, explains the paradoxical nature of the Rankean heritage. On the one hand, Ranke had a great and lasting impact; on the other hand, his approach was never re-utilized as a whole, only in its constituent parts—which, when not in the relationship Ranke had envisioned, took on a new and different character. This also suggests the difference between Ranke's revision and a new paradigm: whereas the latter is an exemplary solution providing binding regulations, the former is unrepeatable.

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