Document Type

Article

Abstract

In this essay, I wish to explore a similar dialectic of historical positivism and skepticism in eighteenth-century Britain. Over the course of the century, but particularly in the second half, new and more scientific standards of historical investigation developed, with practitioners expressing a greater confidence about their ability to know the past. During these years, a series of monumental achievements in historiography appeared: David Hume’s History of England (1754–62), Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), and William Robertson’s History of Scotland (1759), to name just three of the most celebrated. As part of this increased interest in the past and increased optimism about the ability to understand earlier historical periods, a range of new types of writing about the past proliferated, such as antiquarian studies, social and cultural history, literary history, universal history, and conjectural history. While the study of history was developing much more rigorous standards of investigation and historical works were among the bestselling titles of the century, a strain of historical skepticism was gaining force, often finding expression in the writings of the very same people who were doing the confident historical investigation. This philosophical skepticism is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the writings of major historians such as Hume and Robertson. The works of these philosophical historians were steeped in skepticism about both individual historical details and the possibility of achieving any kind of historical certainty.

Disciplines

European History | History | Intellectual History | Literature in English, British Isles