Universal Histories between Erudition and Enlightenment

AHA Session 332
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4D (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
Ann E. Moyer, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

This panel seeks to examine the transformations in historical practices during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was a period in which historians became keenly self-aware of the epistemological problems that they faced in attempting to study both the ancient and the more recent past. Skeptical critics questioned the purposes and methods of historical practices, cast doubt on the reliability of the most respected authorities, and questioned the possibility of obtaining true and certain knowledge of the past. The critical scholarship of Renaissance humanists and polemical disputes of the Reformation injected new explosive issues, including questions about Church history and hagiography. The debates of the early Enlightenment combined these previous concerns with a systematic philosophical and theological critique of received traditions.

An added level of uncertainty emerged from the increased attention to non-Western civilizations. Comparisons revealed apparent conflicts and inconsistencies in chronologies, leading scholars to attempt both to construct universal histories that would make sense of these discrepancies and to reconcile the parallel development of different cultures. It is also a period during which scholars began to pay increasing attention to periodization and to articulate a vision of distinct eras or epochs in the history of human development, making comparisons among the different civilizations.

These epistemological challenges led scholars to develop new and innovative ways to explore the past, to formulate new critical methods for evaluating sources, and to emphasize the moral responsibilities of the historian. This panel will thus examine how the methodological approaches to the study of the past were affected by both an increased attention to ancient history and by attempts to compose universal histories. These cases will reveal how early modern historians approached the difficulty of composing histories about periods and areas for which they had a paucity of sources.

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