Leopold von Ranke

The possibility of a science of history consists in the possibility of progress in historical understanding. This comes down to the possibility of judging, as between two accounts of a certain body of evidence, which is the more likely, and of correcting inferior readings of the evidence by more adequate ones. If, collectively and over time, we can distinguish better from worse interpretations, then we can move systematically from worse to better understanding of the past.

History aims to discover the truth about the past, and some guidelines for the person in search of that truth have been discovered. Some basic requirements (objectivity and honesty) and some generally helpful guidelines (the earliest sources are likely to be better; original documents are preferable to interpretations), many of them known already in antiquity, are associated in the West with the name of Leopold von Ranke. Some of Ranke's maxims are here combined as a quick introduction to the study of the past. They are followed by advice for the beginner, and notes on some of the difficulties in the process of recovering the past, in Ranke's words, "as it really was." What use the modern age may make of that recovered information is another matter altogether.


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