A Heaviness of Historical Methodologies: Synthesis and Deconstruction
An Analytical Essay Concerning Some of the Most Pivotal Historians, for Good or Ill, of the Past Few Centuries
The field of academic history has included some truly groundbreaking figures who have forwarded methodologies which have defined and expanded the scope of what it is to do history over the past few centuries. The participants of this dialectic are numerous and varied. With this in mind, it will be the aim of this article to focus on a handful of some of the most paradigm-shifting contributors to the discipline of history. This is far from an exhaustive list. Instead, the goal of this work is to focus on a small number of key players in the evolution of the field. Part of this process will be to evaluate their individual approaches, recognize where they may overlap, shed light on how they differ, and offer an analysis on their overall efficacy. An almost endless combination of historians could have been chosen, but for reasons that will hopefully become clear in due course, the selection of J.G. Herder, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and E.P. Thompson will be compared, contrasted, and—to some extent—synthesized.
The earliest historian among this group is J.G. Herder, who produced scholarship during the second half of the eighteenth century. Herder’s contribution to the academic world went far beyond methodologies of history to include philosophy, theology, and literary criticism. As for his contribution to history, however, he put forward a thesis regarding the inherent biases of nationalist and western points of view which were revolutionary and ahead of their time. Herder fought against the myopic view which cast differing visions of history, especially those informed by geographic region or divergent philosophies, to be ordered into a hierarchical stack. He resisted notions that one part of the world had a monopoly on truth and values. He refused to accept that “‘our own ideal’ of virtue and happiness, is thus the sole judge of [other regions’] customs, to pass judgment upon them by our standards alone, to condemn them… Is not the good dispersed over all the earth?” Perhaps more crucial to this analysis, however, is Herder’s explanation of the way previous historians had built narratives through the combination of acceptance and rejection of significant facts. Herder pointed to this sleight of hand employed by other historians when he rejected their enlightenment-influenced notion of historical progress. This kind of narrative didn’t work for Herder, because of the selective referencing that was necessary to utilize and illustrate such a view. “In order for [historians] to [support a history of progress], facts were enhanced or invented; counterfacts were shrunk or concealed; entire aspects were covered, the meaning of words was assumed, enlightenment for happiness, some more refined ideas for virtue—and thus the generally progressing improvement of the world was turned into tales believed by no one, least of all the general students of history and of the human heart.” This idea would be embraced and extrapolated further by historians in the twentieth century, most notably by Michel Foucault.
Michel Foucault’s arguments regarding historical methodology ring very similar to Herder when it comes to the wanton rejection of inconvenient details in order to facilitate broad and culturally useful narratives. As explained by historian Peter Burke, “Foucault regarded systems of classification, ‘epistemes,’ or ‘regimes of truth’… as expressions of a given culture… [He believed in a need to] dig deeper in order to reach intellectual structures [‘networks,’ ‘grids’]. The point of the ‘grid,’ like that of the intellectual ‘filter,’ was to suggest that structures admit some information while excluding the rest.” To Foucault, the proper role of the historian is to subvert and destroy these grids. He advocated doing so in a way which was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, through what Nietzsche termed genealogy. Foucault advocated for a form of historical genealogy which was essentially materialist. It sought to take in all possible forms of physical/material evidence and rejected all forms of metaphysical or transcendental notions regarding the history of humanity. This is more profound than it may at first appear, as it cast Foucault as a firebrand, setting out to challenge the centuries-old position of human history. The philosophy of natural law had dominated the philosophy of history and law since at least the enlightenment era. Foucault’s rejection of this metaphysically-based framework of human history provided for exactly the kind of deconstruction of the cultural grid he advocated for. More than this, Foucault’s rejection of natural law meant a rejection of natural law’s most principle tenet: liberty.
Liberty, to Foucault, is simply another fiction produced by the metaphysical grid of natural law and thus is to be rejected for something more material and tangible. Once again, borrowing from Nietzsche, Foucault asserts that “genealogical analysis shows that the concept of liberty is an ‘invention of the ruling classes’ and not fundamental to man’s nature or at the root of his attachment to being and truth.” Foucault’s reference to class is evident of another influence, as is his contention that examination of the material world is the means of comprehending history. It is not merely the collection of material evidence that Foucault advocates, however, but also the value of proximity. For Foucault, the material gets us closer to actual understanding, and analysis of that which is closest to us all the more so. “Effective history… shortens its vision to those things nearest to it—the body, the nervous system, nutrition, digestion, and energies; it unearths periods of decadence, and if it chances upon lofty epochs, it is with suspicion—not vindictive but joyous—of finding a barbarous and shameful confusion. It has no fear of looking down… [and rejects] the groveling manner [of metaphysicians].” Thus, Foucault’s rejection of any and all metaphysical explanation is informed by his desire to destroy what he calls regimes of truth; grids. It’s appropriate here to observe, to some considerable extent, a relationship, then, between Foucault’s approach and that of the most influential historian of the previous century, Karl Marx.
The rejection of metaphysical notions and placing the importance of historical analysis upon the examination of the physical world is Karl Marx’s crowning contribution to historical scholarship (along with examining history through class struggle). Foucault was far from alone in incorporating a somewhat Marxist approach to history. Marx’s impact has been so immense, in fact, that any historian who applies a materialist/economic lens to history owes a debt to Marx. Indeed, even non-Marxist and anti-Marxist historians—such as Gordon S. Wood and other members of the New Whig School of American historians nevertheless are indebted to Marx when they employ an economic analysis, even if done in passing or indeed even to refute an economically deterministic argument.
One may recognize the seeds of argument later elucidated by Foucault when Marx asserts that the “question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” This does not sound too far from Foucault’s similar assertions a century later. For Marx, as well as for Foucault, reality is a matter of the material world and how power manifests itself by those who have it upon those who do not.
Marx, more than anyone before him and arguably more than anyone since, was able to illustrate the way economic realities and material conditions facilitate power dynamics and indeed even inform the very ways human beings negotiate and navigate their surroundings. Human action and human production create the material reality of one’s existence. He makes this point when he argues that this “mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are.” The way that material conditions, including the mode of production, has informed the realities of labor (specifically), has been covered by numerous Marx-inspired historians. One in particular, however, that is worthy of discussion, is E.P. Thompson.
E.P. Thompson brought a fresh and innovative Marxist analysis to history in the 1960s and 1970s. His work analyzing the food riots of eighteenth century Europe humanized the rioters and offered them both a level of agency which had not been previously examined as well as offered a thesis that such riots were political acts and, thought in this way, were more rational than had been previously framed. “It is the restraint, rather than the disorder [of the rioters] which is remarkable; and there can be no doubt that the actions were approved by an overwhelming popular consensus. There is a deeply-felt conviction that prices ought, in times of dearth, to be regulated, and that the profiteer put himself outside of society.” This restraint may well be what Thompson is pointing to when he speaks of the English crowd’s moral economy.
Another example of Thompson’s contribution is his analysis of the apprehension of time and its evolution—or perhaps manipulation—over the centuries. It is here that Marx’s claim (through Thompson) that the mode of production acts as an expression of life reasserts itself. Thompson’s profound article, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” from 1967 illustrates production as expression, through time. “Enclosure and the growing labor-surplus at the end of the eighteenth century tightened the screw for those who were in regular employment and the poor law, or submission to a more exacting labor discipline” sounds like the kind of Marxist analysis of the enclosure era many are aware of. However, it is when Thompson teases out that he is “concerned simultaneously with time-sense in its technological conditioning, and with time-measurement as a means of labour exploitation” that his analysis jumps out of the typical left-historian narrative and offers something quite new. It resonates with Marx’s materialist view of history but it also is similar to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics that he would offer in his 1976 work, The History of Sexuality: the sense that the emerging modern state utilized various techniques of subjugation of bodies and control of the population, or as Foucault put it “to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order." By showing how the emerging factory model of labor changed the very notion of time for working people living through industrialization, Thompson then demonstrates that resistance to this was expressed not by a changing of the model but a tacit acceptance of it. “The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-time committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time-and-a-half. They had accepted the categories of their employers and learned to fight back within them. They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only too well.” This too connects to Foucault’s thesis which comes a decade later and implies that labor had, over time, traded in the old grid of time—defined by pre-factory conditions—for a new regime of truth, defined by modern time-sensemaking. By fighting inside the new paradigm, they implicitly acquiesced to this new intellectual structure.
The common thread between Herder, Marx, Foucault, and Thompson appears to be a rejection of the employment of selective evidence and convenient/self-laudatory narratives. All of these historians concern themselves with countering previously drawn generalities. Thompson challenges the caricaturizing of eighteenth-century food rioters in Europe (and indeed the modern concept of time itself), Marx and Foucault reject a metaphysical framework, and Herder pushes back against a myopic and progressive view of history. In Herder’s case, he in some ways represents a common principle of historians today when he warns against the bad habit of failing to look beyond one’s immediate cultural, economic, and philosophical horizons. These four historians, in their own way and in their own time, made the act of doing history new again.
This is not to say that there aren’t significant differences between them as well, however. After all, it isn’t as though Marx and Herder rejected any and all grand narratives the way that Foucault did. Marx’s assertion that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” is itself the kind of grid or regime of truth Foucault tended to reject, even if he did empathize with Marx’s view regarding the manifestation and application of power by the ruling class and/or the state. Furthermore, though Herder was a critic of the notion of historical progress, so popular in his own time, this did not mean that he rejected the idea of progress outright. Herder was criticizing, more than anything, judging outside groups through self-comparison. He believed that if progress was to happen, it would be due to a contingency of human action. Herder was not necessarily rejecting any and all historical narratives but wanted to include a more global outlook and saw all parts of the world as having something to offer to this arc of historical progress, if one could call it progress objectively. This too, of course, is a kind of grid/filter/structure that Foucault rejects. That said, it is more inclusive than the prevailing method of Herder’s own time.
The value of the various methods derived by these historians is not a matter of right and wrong or correct versus incorrect as much as it is a matter of degrees. As stated earlier, Marx and those he influenced (including Thompson) brought to the analysis of history something so fundamental—an economic interpretation—that it is impossible to overstate its impact. Nevertheless, it is not without its problems. Casting all matters of history into the realm of class struggle can undermine and discount the ideological motivations of people. Indeed, Marx rejects ideology. Marx’s assertion that ideas, i.e. philosophies, viewpoints, religious convictions, consciousness, etc., are the result of material conditions and not the cause of them is compelling. However, economic determinism is thus suspect of any and all human motivations, drawing humankind down to that of any other animal. In this interpretation, human beings are nothing more than the sum of their material surroundings. It then becomes less surprising how such a view can lead to a certain cynicism or even nihilism. It is a powerful method, but one that is bereft of abstract human notions such as potential and individual rights. Rights are a metaphysical concept and are thus (to Marx as well as to Foucault) a fiction. For this reason, a Marxist lens is valuable—and arguably necessary—much of the time but applying a materialist view to each and every motivation of every person in history seems like a man with a hammer seeing every matter as a nail. The economic interpretation of history is something that should be utilized wherever it makes sense to, but to reduce every human act as motivated by, or the result of, material conditions is to go a step too far.
Something similar can be said of Foucault. His rejection of regimes of truth and advocating for the method of genealogy makes a lot of sense. Certainly, biases, whether they are cultural, economic, ideological, etc., should be shed so any and all bits of information can be drawn in and analyzed dispassionately. It is difficult to argue against this position. That said, although Foucault’s rejection of structures is something to be admired, there are some problems with this as well. One factor is related to the practice of genealogy that Foucault advocates for. The taking in of all of these disparate pieces of data does not seem to give value to any source of evidence above another. In this sense, the information or knowledge of history becomes a wash, as no piece of evidence—provided that it is material in nature and not of the metaphysical variety that Foucault rejects—is of a higher value than any another. Also, if this information, which includes Foucault’s concept of discourses: the conversations about a given idea or issue over time; no one voice is of any importance above another either. In this way, all voices are of equal value and thus it seems—of no ultimate value. If no perspective is more valid than another and the ultimate aim is simply the apprehension of discourses, then the result is something cold and distant. Individual actors of history have no agency and indeed to see human beings as individuals is to miss Foucault’s thesis. The amorphous mass of humanity is something to be analyzed as a body itself. The sum of the parts becomes the focus and the constituent members are simply part of the greater form.
There is another problem with Foucault’s grid thesis, and it is not that it is necessarily untrue. It is certainly a worthwhile method for attempting to approach history with one’s personal preconceptions in check. The problem is whether Foucault violated his own method. For example, Foucault’s thesis that the modern state utilizes a form of biopolitics to exert its power literally over the bodies—and therefore the population—of its citizens/subjects is an intriguing one, and one that this writer agrees with, but this raises a question. Does Foucault’s concept of biopower not itself reinforce the biopower structure? Or does he think that pointing out the grid of biopolitics is a way to challenge and deconstruct it? If so, how is this not similar to E.P. Thompson’s argument that laborers who fought for shorter working hours were reinforcing the paradigm rather than changing it? Did Foucault seriously believe that discussing biopower was a way to undermine it? If so, why?
Ultimately, the methods of Herder, Marx, Foucault, and Thompson are all useful methods to a degree. Herder’s thesis to make one’s historical knowledge more universal by accepting a more diverse set of viewpoints is probably the most essential of the group, as it to some degree embodies aspects of all the relevant arguments these historians offered. Thompson employed methods which are to be applauded and they seem to run parallel with some of Foucault’s and were influenced, certainly, by Marx. Probably the most impressive aspects of Thompson’s work were in how he applied his methods, as much as the methods themselves. The systemization of time as a result of the industrial revolution, for example, is a fascinating topic. Marx brought to the field the important method of economic analysis and this—similar to Foucault’s grid thesis—is appreciated to the level that it makes sense to utilize, but it’s not appropriate for all things at all times. Essentially, the usefulness of the methods by all of these historians is knowing when to use them and to what degree they should be applied, and in this respect, they are all instruments to be added to the historian’s toolkit. Herder’s global perspective, Marx’s economic thesis, Foucault’s criticism of structures, and Thompson’s example of utilizing these approaches in tandem with each other, reveals that employing various historical methods together and having the instinct to know when to apply each—and to what degree—is what the act of doing history is all about.
Burke, Peter. What Is Cultural History? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” The Foucault Reader. Paul Rabinow (ed.). New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
---------- The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
Herder, J.G. “From This, Too, a Philosophy of History.” On World History: An Anthology. Hans Adler and Ernest A. Menze (eds.). New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. 35-43.
Marx, Karl. German Ideology, Preface & Section A (“Idealism and Materialism”) of Part I: “Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto; Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969 (original printing: 1848). Marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/.
Thompson, E.P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50 (February 1971): 76-113.
---------- “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.
 J.G. Herder, “From This, Too, a Philosophy of History,” On World History: An Anthology, Hans Adler and Ernest A. Menze (eds.), New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. 41.
 Ibid., 41.
 Peter Burke, What Is Cultural History? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008, 54.
 Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” The Foucault Reader. Paul Rabinow (ed.). New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, 78-79.
 Karl Marx, German Ideology, “Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm.
 Karl Marx, German Ideology, “Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm.
 E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (February 1971): 112.
 E.P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 78.
 Ibid., 80.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, New York: Vintage Books, 1978, 138.
 E.P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 86.
 J.G. Herder, “From This, Too, a Philosophy of History,” On World History: An Anthology, Hans Adler and Ernest A. Menze (eds.), New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. 40.
 Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969 (original printing: 1848). Marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/.