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Cultural History

Twentieth–century Developments

The writing of cultural history expanded further in the twentieth century as textbooks and popular works presented the results of generations of research and interpretation. Notable examples were the one hundred volumes of Henri Berr's series Evolution of Humanity (begun in 1920); Egon Friedell's A Cultural History of the Modern Age (1931), which, dedicated to Bernard Shaw and glorying in its journalistic style, carried the story from the Renaissance to psychoanalysis and the "collapse of reality"; Preserved Smith's History of Modern Culture (1934), which, in the spirit of Robinson's new history, surveyed early modern sciences, humanities, social control, and "spirit of the times"; and European Civilization: Its Origin and Development, edited by Edward Eyre (7 vols., 1934–1939), which included also global frontiers beyond the West. In such works the whole world, private and public, real and imagined, natural and social, becomes a field of anthropological inquiry, interpretation, and speculation.

From the beginning the defining feature of cultural history, shared with anthropology, has been an inclination to holism—the effort to grasp "the history of everything," in Berr's famous phrase, or as Harry Elmer Barnes wrote of the new history, "the recording of everything which has happened in the past"—but of course "in the light of twentieth–century knowledge and methods." Yet cultural history was turned to analysis as well as synthesis, and so in 1940 in the United States, for example, there appeared a volume, The Cultural Approach to History ("edited for the American Historical Association"), which explored a wide range of techniques of cultural analysis, means of analyzing social groups, nationality, institutions, and ideas as sources of cultural history.

In this generation little has changed save the rhetorical claims in the "new cultural history," so–called since the publication of the volume by the same name by Lynn Hunt in 1989, supplemented also by the "new historicism," which has made its own contributions to cultural history, and by the study of mentalities and cultural practices carried on from the Annales school by Roger Chartier. In general, recent cultural history has come to embrace a wide and miscellaneous range of topics, such as crime, madness, childhood, old age, gesture, humor, smells, space, and other items (appearing on the world wide web) from addiction to unbelief. In terms of theory this self–proclaimed "new cultural history" has arisen out of the wreckage of scientific and Marxist history, which sought the concealed mechanisms of social change beneath the surface of collective behavior. This is true in the sense not only that many new cultural historians such as Natalie Davis and Lynn Hunt have emerged from the materialist assumptions of socioeconomic historical practice and/or Marxist theory, but also that cultural history has always contained a powerful critique of such methods.

In general, cultural history rejects economic and political reductionism, gives up the noble dream of objectivity, recognizes the role of imagination in historical reconstruction, and, no longer aspiring to rigorous explanation, turns instead to what has been called "interpretive social science." As represented by Clifford Geertz and Charles Taylor, interpretive social science places understanding (Verstehen) above explanation and so hermeneutics above causal analysis as the principal access to a knowledge of the human condition, past and present. Explanation requires some sort of reduction of experience, or evidence, to crucial factors at the expense of excluding other experience, or evidence, which not only lends color or, as Geertz says, thickness to description but also qualifies simplistic and naturalistic notions of causation.

The new cultural history may entail a sort of relativism distasteful to historians of the older schools, but the positive aspect is a more critical awareness of the meaning of the historian's craft. Not only the objects of history but the works of historians are themselves subject to the conditions of their cultural environment, and so (in contemporary parlance) "culturally constructed." Yet the premise of the new cultural history that, as Hunt writes, "the representations of the social world themselves are the constituents of social reality," is an insight not unfamiliar to earlier cultural historians; for as Huizinga reminded us, "The historical discipline is a cultural process." And like culture it is still changing and renewing itself, though not always with much appreciation for its own history.



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Donald R. Kelley

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCultural History - Culture And Language, Material And Spiritual Culture, Twentieth–century Developments, Bibliography