Is History a Science?

Amina Marzouk Chouchene


Science enjoyed considerable prestige during the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, historians began to think about the relationship between history and science. This was a source of heated debate. The central question was, “is history a science?” Two schools of thought, positivism, and idealism emerged and sought to address whether human events and activities should be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. This paper explores the characteristics of these two schools of thought. Positivists vaunted the applicability of scientific methods to the study of history. The chief exponents of this view, Auguste Comte, Thomas Buckle, and J.B Bury advocated that human events are the same as natural phenomena. Historians need to deploy scientific methods and techniques in order to understand the processes that govern them. Idealists, on the other hand, stressed that history is an autonomous and distinctive field of inquiry. The chief exponent of the idealist position was R.G Collingwood. He maintained that all history is the history of thought. The historian’s chief task is the reenactment in his or her own mind the thoughts and intentions of individuals in the past. This implies an overreliance on imagination, intuition, and empathy. Historical knowledge is therefore subjective.


science, history, positivism, idealism, the nineteenth century

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