Henry Thomas Buckle

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Henry Thomas Buckle (24 November 1821–29 May 1862)

Today is the bicentennial of the birthday of Henry Thomas Buckle (24 November 1821–29 May 1862), who was born on this date in 1821.

Happy Birthday Henry!

While largely forgotten today, Buckle is sometimes called the Father of Scientific History. Wilhelm Dilthey wrote of Buckle:

“He asserts that among historians ‘a strange idea prevails, that their business is merely to narrate events, which they may occasionally enliven by such moral and political reflections as seem likely to be useful.’ He wants to transform history into an exact science, like natural history; he wants to demonstrate what is law-governed in historical events and thereby put himself in the position of predicting them. He expresses the conviction that the law of necessity, that is, a cause-and-effect relation, prevails universally in the realms of historical as well as of natural events; that we must conceive of each individual action as the inevitable effect of certain causes that for their part are in turn effects of other events; that consequently we must totally exclude chance as well as providence, or direct divine intervention from the sphere of history. The entire work rests on this basic idea: Only in relation to it do the work’s individual parts, which are joined together in rather motley arrangement, obtain any coherence and value. The reader’s judgment regarding the work will depend on the attitude he adopts toward this basic idea. I express my own judgment on the matter succinctly by saying that I consider this basic idea as correct in the abstract, but that because of the distinctiveness of the content of historical writing it can be useful only to a limited degree. Moreover, in his attempt to derive comprehensive conclusions from it Buckle is completely off the mark.” (Collected Works, Vol. IV, Hermeneutics and the Study of History, p. 262)

It is interesting here that Dilthey does not simply reject Buckle’s approach (as many would, and many have); rather, he finds its utility limited and Buckle’s conclusions wrongheaded. But the project itself he does not reject, implying that if the limitations were addressed and conclusions were revised, Buckle’s approach to history might be valuable.

The quote from Buckle in Dilthey is in the third paragraph of the first chapter. Just a little further along in the same chapter, Buckle provides a nice overview and summary of his conception of history:

“In regard to nature, events apparently the most irregular and capricious have been explained, and have been shown to be in accordance with certain fixed and universal laws. This has been done because men of ability, and, above all, men of patient, untiring thought, have studied natural events with the view of discovering their regularity: and if human events were subjected to a similar treatment, we have every right to expect similar results. For it is clear that they who affirm that the facts of history are incapable of being generalized, take for granted the very question at issue. Indeed they do more than this. They not only assume what they cannot prove, but they assume what in the present state of knowledge is highly improbable. Whoever is at all acquainted with what has been done during the last two centuries, must be aware that every generation demonstrates some events to be regular and predictable, which the preceding generation had declared to be irregular and unpredictable: so that the marked tendency of advancing civilization is to strengthen our belief in the universality of order, of method, and of law. This being the case, it follows that if any facts, or class of facts, have not yet been reduced to order, we, so far from pronouncing them to be irreducible, should rather be guided by our experience of the past, and should admit the probability that what we now call inexplicable will at some future time be explained. This expectation of discovering regularity in the midst of confusion is so familiar to scientific men, that among the most eminent of them it becomes an article of faith; and if the same expectation is not generally found among historians, it must be ascribed partly to their being of inferior ability to the investigators of nature, and partly to the greater complexity of those social phenomena with which their studies are concerned.”

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