Paul Oskar Kristeller

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
8 min readMay 23


Paul Oskar Kristeller (22 May 1905–07 June 1999)

Today is the 118th anniversary of the birth of Paul Oskar Kristeller (22 May 1905–07 June 1999), who was born in Berlin on this date in 1905.

Kristeller is known as a scholar of the renaissance and the author of several books on renaissance thought. I had had occasion to quote Kristeller in a post about renaissance philosopher Franciscus Patricius. Here is Kristeller on the historiography of renaissance humanists:

“The humanist works on history have a number of peculiarities, both good and bad. They are often written in a highly rhetorical Latin, and they show the influence of classical historiography in the use of fictitious speeches. Since they were usually commissioned by the very state or city whose history was to be written, there is an element of eulogy and of regional or dynastic bias, something which I understand is not entirely absent from the national histories of modern times. On the other hand, the humanists usually did not place much credence in miracles and avoided theological speculations, and they tend to account for historical events on a strictly rational basis. Moreover, they often had access to the archives and original documents illustrating the subject matter of their history, and employed more exacting standards of documentation and historical criticism than had been the custom during the preceding centuries. Valla’s treatise on the Donation of Constantine is a famous example of historical criticism in the fifteenth century; in the sixteenth, we might single out humanists such as Sigonius, who must be considered in their erudition and critical acumen as the direct forerunners of the great historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

Kristeller also edited Siegfried Kracauer’s History: The Last Things before the Last. Kristeller noted in regard to Kracauer’s book that, “I profoundly agree with the spirit out of which all of his work was written,” so at least some of what he says about Kracauer applies to his own conception of history. In his Foreword to Kracauer’s book Kristeller wrote:

“On several important issues, Kracauer hesitates to give a definitive solution, but rather formulates a problem and thus lays the ground for further thought. The discrepancy between general and special history, or as he calls it, macro and micro history, represents a serious dilemma. Kracauer seems to think that the results of special research are so complicated and so resistant to generalization that most of them must be ignored by the general historian. I tend to be slightly more hopeful, and to believe that the results of special research, after some lapse of time, will penetrate the general histories, and that the diversity of contradictory details can be handled in terms of comparative and qualified statements.”


“Another basic dilemma that Kracauer forcefully presents but does not resolve is that between chronological time and ‘shaped’ time, or between the general sequence of all events occurring at a given period, and the specific sequences peculiar to one particular area or tradition. Again I should be inclined to be more optimistic, and try to lay the stress on the pluralism of cultural history, while maintaining the concept of universal cultural history at least as a regulative idea in the Kantian sense.”

Thus Kristeller presents himself as being more sympathetic to the possibility of a philosophically informed history eventually coming into being. Elsewhere in this Foreword Kristeller notes that Kracauer was less interested in philosophers discussing history than in the actual practices of historians, so we shouldn’t be surprised as Kracauer’s philosophical skepticism, which Kristeller does not fully share, though he implies that his point of depature in philosophy of history is similar to that of Kracauer’s.

In a 1943 paper co-authored with Lincoln Reis, Some Remarks on the Method of History, Kristeller wades into the venerable question of historical methodology, seeming to some down on the side of Dilthey, Windelband, Rickert, and Isaiah Berlin, inter alia, that history has a method all its own, and this is a method of particularity, not one of general laws:

“…the special contribution of the historian is the reconstruction and interpretation of specific events. It results from the combination of elements united by the historian and made accessible to the reader. Every element of that combination must be supported by the proper evidence, and thus the whole combination must be verifiable. It is a picture rather than a causal generalization. Though it includes causal relations, it is itself not a causal relation. For this reason, narrative rather than generalization is the only possible mode of presentation of the historical event.”

However, Kristeller goes a little bit further than most philosophers of history who contend that the historical method is not that of the natural sciences. He places this unique historical method and its narrative products in a larger context that includes rather than rejects natural science and philosophy of history:

“We have said that universal laws or rules have no place in the actual work of the historian, which consists in fact-finding and interpretation, but that they do have their place before and after this work, and outside history. They belong to a different field which we may prefer to call sociology or rather the philosophy of history. Hence the philosophy of history will make use of the work of the historian, and to a certain extent it will provide him with the guiding ideas for his work. It is this latter fact which explains why the historian himself very often is also a philosopher of history, and rightly so. This accounts for the point we have discussed above, that is, that some people have taken the philosophical statements of great historians as authoritative statements about the actual method of historical investigation. The main requirement for such a philosophy of history is that it should be critical, not dogmatic, to use the Kantian terms. What it says about general laws of history should be tentative and flexible, since the precise manner in which these rules should be applied is a matter of debate, and it should be subjected to the test of further historical research. Otherwise it is as harmful to historical research as general metaphysical preconceptions are and have been to the progress of the natural sciences.”

I don’t think that many historians are likely to take kindly to philosophers of history providing them with “guiding ideas” for his work, but at the same time Kristeller holds that the historian is, at the same time, a philosopher of history. So one and the same person might put on the hat of an historian and write history, and then swap his historian’s hat for the hat of a philosopher of history, and in this way provide his own guidance, and integrate his strictly historical work into a large epistemic framework.

The same year, Morton White responded directly to Reis and Kristeller in “A Note on the Method of History,” and he, too, goes a little beyond the familiar dialectic and keeps moving the ball forward:

“In general, I think, it is rare to find disciplines distinguished from each other solely on the basis of the number of logical concepts they employ. In this case, so far as I am able to see, Reis and Kristeller would have us rigidly separate two disciplines simply because one of them employs the logical operation of generalization or quantification, whereas the other does not. On the whole, I think, the history of the empirical sciences teaches us that this divorce is a rare one. Moreover, the history of methodology teaches us that it is a dangerous one. For these reasons, I think that Reis and Kristeller are wrong in their analysis of the nature of historical statements, and not only that — historians who practice as if Reis and Kristeller were right would do well to change their procedures.”

Both Kristeller and White are trying to get at the big picture, but each of them sees a slightly different big picture, hence there is a distinct role for history in each of their big pictures. As recently as 2018, Kristeller was quoted by Fons Dewulf:

“Philosophers who claim to explore the status of historical knowledge have written about general laws of history and about causal explanation. These topics may concern the philosopher of history and also the sociologist or anthropologist, but they are speculative and derivative, and at best marginal for the practicing historian or philologist.”

This is from a 1985 paper by Kristeller. We see that Kristeller’s views did not substantively change from 1943 to 1985, as he is still making the same point, but here is has been shorn from Kristeller’s larger point about the reunification of knowledge in a larger framework. Dewulf concludes his paper with this:

“The disappearance of the Windelbandian problem left open what kind of philosophical questions one could ask about the historical sciences. Here, Hempel’s paper saw its most visible contribution. It suggested the centrality of a philosophical concept that had not yet received much analytic attention, namely ‘explanation.’ In Hempel’s and Oppenheim’s 1948 paper, ‘Studies in the Logic of Explanation,’ explanation became a central concept for understanding scientific activity in general, and thus a prime object of analysis for the philosophy of science as a discipline. This in turn was refracted into an analytic philosophy of history that in the 1950s and 1960s focused its debate around ‘historical explanation.’ Thus, when Dray looks back at four decades of analytic philosophy of history and lauds Hempel’s 1942 paper, he testifies to these shifts that radically changed the methodological and conceptual norms for a philosophy of history. And when Kristeller laments the path of the philosophy of history in the twentieth century, he also attests to these shifts, but evaluates them differently, since it is his methodological and conceptual voice that became lost in the disciplinary norms of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of history after the Second World War.”

The Windelbandian problem, as far as I can ascertain, is a neo-Kantian understanding of logic as transcendental logic, i.e., determining the conditions of the possibility of knowledge (in this case, historical knowledge), and it was the disappearance of this point of view that led Anglo-American philosophers of history, following Hempel, to think of logic exclusively as an extentialist modern formal logic, which is about determining the conditions of valid inference. Certainly, Kristeller and White have (at least slightly) different conceptions of scientific rationality. Dewulf formulates this in terms of the logic employed in historical explanation; above I characterized it in terms of a different conception of how history fits into the bigger picture of human knowledge.

Further Resources


Reis, L., & Kristeller, P. O. (1943). Some Remarks on the Method of History. The Journal of Philosophy, 40(9), 225. doi:10.2307/2018253

White, M. G. (1943). A Note on the Method of History. The Journal of Philosophy, 40(12), 317. doi:10.2307/2018221

Dewulf, F. (2018). Revisiting Hempel’s 1942 Contribution to the Philosophy of History. Journal of the History of Ideas, 79(3), 385–406. doi:10.1353/jhi.2018.0023



Nick Nielsen