Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 12, No 1 (2016)

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Historicising Historical Theory’s History of Cultural Historiography

Alison Melissa Moore


Historical theory, as a mode of theoretical criticism, engages in both descriptive and prescriptive readings of historiographic practices, with a view to interpreting and evaluating their meaning as epistemological moves. But it also, often implicitly, situates these practices within its own historical narrative, replete with its own telos of rupture, revolution, and the loss of innocence. As such, historical theory has elaborated its own history of cultural historiography. But these elaborations too have a history. This paper considers a number of theory-driven accounts of cultural historiography, which situate it within a specific historical narrative about its origins. That narrative consists in vision of radical rupture, distinguishing the ‘new cultural history' both from prevailing modes of historical ontology and epistemology up until the end of the twentieth century, and most importantly, distinguishing it from earlier variants of cultural historiography as it was practiced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This paper describes the narrative of rupture that has imbued theoretical views of cultural historiography and examines the history of their elaboration; Secondly, it proposes that this narrative may itself be inappropriate, and suggests an alternative narrative about why earlier forms of cultural historiography have not commonly been seen as continuous with its current expressions. It argues that several genealogical tentacles connected older forms of cultural historiography to the newer variants, and that these connections cannot be assimilated within the telos of epistemological rupture that is typically invoked to describe the "linguistic turn". Finally, a set of geo-political and institutional contexts are elaborated to explain the sensation of rupture reported by many cultural historians as, alternatively, the product of a series of nationalist hostilities and disciplinary exclusions from the late nineteenth century until after World War Two. Cultural historiography's apparent ‘newness' can better be understood as a late-twentieth-century myth generated by both historical theorists and by cultural historians themselves, which has served to instantiate a new scholarly identity for historians as theory-sophisticates in the ambiance of post-structuralist university humanities cultures of the western world.

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