Leopold von Ranke

The study of history rests primarily on the correct use of source documents. This in turn requires a previous examination of the nature and authenticity of those documents. Once that work has been accomplished, by the investigator or by someone else, the work of historical interpretation can begin. And that work too has its proper methods, to which we devote this page. Is there a science of history? Or is it all just hot air, the venting of one or another predisposition?

The nature of a science is that it not only seeks to understand, but that it is continually open to advances in its own understanding. As between two accounts of something, it rests on correctly judging which is more likely to be correct. It requires replacing inferior readings of the evidence by more adequate ones. If, collectively and over time, we can distinguish better from worse interpretations, we can move from a worse to a better understanding of the past. That, if it exists, is the the science of history.

History aims to discover the truth about the past, and guidelines for those engaged in that search have been discovered. Some basic requirements (objectivity and honesty), and some generally helpful ideas (the earliest sources are likely to be better; original documents are preferable to interpretations), though already known in antiquity, are now associated with the name of Leopold von Ranke. Insofar as it can be done, this is how to recover the past, in Ranke's famous phrase, "as it really was."

As with literature, so with history: the more you know, the more you know.

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