Kuhn and Lamprecht

T. S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had a profound and enduring impact on the social history of knowledge. It has provided an analytical template not only for the history of the natural sciences but also for the history of many other forms of systematic knowledge, including history itself. However, this very versatility has been an object of criticism. A central point of contention has been the central concept of a “paradigm,” which Kuhn understood to be (among other things) a “relatively inflexible box” of accepted scientific rules and procedures for defining and resolving research “puzzles,” whose solutions can be predicted and replicated.[1] The question then becomes whether paradigms pertain uniquely to knowledge in the natural-science fields, in which the precise and regular operation of principles can be demonstrated experimentally. If so, the concept of paradigm becomes inappropriate as a guide to the history of humanistic disciplines (like history), in which issues of meaning and human value are central and knowledge is anchored in hermeneutic strategies of inquiry. The validity of paradigms is governed accordingly by the contrasting characteristics of the “two cultures” of knowledge.[2]

The object of these reflections is not to contest this proposition. It is instead to emphasize that the distinction between the natural and what became known as the “human sciences” has a history of its own (and how could it not?). The distinction is, one is tempted to say, itself a paradigm. In Germany, to cite a leading case, its acceptance was a long and complex process, whose social and institutional history would reward more attention than it has received. It played out largely during the construction of academic fields of specialized knowledge in German universities of the nineteenth century. The chief intellectual impediment to this process was the German tradition of natural philosophy, whose representatives repudiated precisely the fragmentation of knowledge that seemed to accompany the dramatic development of the natural sciences. Dedicated to a comprehensive, unified field of knowledge that embraced both the material and ideal, natural philosophy was well represented in the university faculties even into the twentieth century—not only in the philosophical seminars but also in economics, geography, theology, classics, history, and the natural sciences themselves. The new discipline of psychology in fact took shape within philosophy departments as an aspiring natural science of the mind, which would demonstrate experimentally the lawful mechanical operations of the human spirit.

German historians occupied a special place in this story. Their great methodological dispute during the nineteenth century’s last decade threw the discipline into bitter turmoil. The resolution of this conflict rooted out the tradition of natural philosophy in the profession, but it also isolated the academic study of history from other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, and political science, which were seeking to adapt methods from the natural sciences to analyze collective human behavior in the past.

At issue was the definition of historical knowledge. The professionalization of history, the foundation of history as an academic discipline, was wed to a definition worked out by Leopold Ranke. The great historian argued that the study of the past was by definition devoted to the singularity, diversity, and unique historicity of every actor, collective group, and era. History thus resisted analysis in the light of any transcendent, conceptual, or normative system whatsoever, be it grounded in nature, reason, revelation, or providence. Acquiring historical knowledge required historians to immerse themselves in the sources indigenous to the era under study, to employ a hermeneutic of sympathetic understanding (Verstehen) in order to reexperience the mental world of historical figures and thereby glimpse the great ideas that ultimately leant meaning and value to history. Finally, Ranke and his disciples believed that the highest of these great ideas were political and that states represented the ultimate objects of historical knowledge.

The philosophical (and theological) assumptions on which this vision rested are not relevant here. Ranke’s practical achievement was to define for historians an order of knowledge that was distinguished in fundamental respects from the objectives of other academic disciplines then taking shape. It differed from philosophy in its deprecation of speculation, deduction, and system; from the natural sciences in its repudiation of materialism and insistence on particularity; and from other humanistic disciplines in its devotion to the state.

This last postulate in particular provided compelling guidance to academic historians during the eventful decades of mid-century, which culminated in German unification. It proved less compelling during the succeeding decades, as high industrialization and the attendant domestic strains raised questions about a range of historical phenomena, including economic growth and social conflict, that pushed at the bounds of political history as German historians had conceptualized it. Efforts to study these broader fields of history informed other disciplines instead, especially economics, where the scholarship of the “younger school” of historical economics began to raise concerns among academic historians about disciplinary boundaries.

Title page of Karl Lamprecht, Deutsche Geschichte, vol. 1, via Hathi Trust, record 007709292

Karl Lamprecht pushed all these issues to the point of crisis.[3] He held an academic chair in history in Leipzig, but significant features of his training had bred his discomfort over the discipline’s specialization. Lamprecht had studied with a philosopher (Rudolf Hermann Lotze), taken his doctorate with an economist (Wilhelm Roscher), and become a devotee of his colleague in Leipzig, the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. All three scholars were determined to synthesize the assumptions of natural philosophy with the advances of natural science into a unified system of knowledge, which might in each case be described as an inductive metaphysics. In Lamprecht’s case, the same determination resulted in his working out an elaborate vision of history, which he promoted as “cultural history” (Kulturgeschichte). It aspired to capture what would be called today histoire totale—knowledge of every dimension of history—demographic, economic, social, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, and political. To this end, he devised a methodology that could, he believed, comprehend this vast historical panorama in its entirety, as it integrated all the material and ideal particulars of the past into a regular, rule-bound progression of developmental epochs. This vision included, let it be noted, the development of scientific knowledge itself.

The so-called Methodenstreit represented the historical profession’s response to Lamprecht’s attempt to realize these aspirations in the first five volumes of his Deutsche Geschichte. Support for Lamprecht came from several second-tier sectors of the profession, where concern was rife over the growing parochialism of academic history. This category comprised teachers in the German humanistic secondary schools (Gymnasien), where mandates from the state to treat social history made Lamprecht’s work a valuable pedagogical resource. Many historians who worked in archives and historical societies at the local and regional levels also had professional interests that extended beyond the history of the state, while to judge by the marketing success of Lamprecht’s volumes, his broad interests also appealed to the educated lay public, the “hobby historians,” who populated these historical societies, particularly in Catholic Germany. By contrast, Lamprecht confronted the furious opposition of the academic chairholders and their students. The constellation of opposition was the key to the controversy, which revolved in the end around the definition of historical knowledge. Lamprecht claimed that historical scholarship was wed to the same categories of inquiry as every other discipline, that advances in statistics and psychology had revealed the operations of causality and rule-bound development in all phases of human behavior. Historians’ claims to methodological distinctiveness were accordingly illusory, their devotion to the state as the object of historical knowledge hopelessly constrained.

Neither Lamprecht nor his opponents were well trained to debate questions of historical epistemology, so the controversy generated a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion, as well as fierce personal animosity. It turned finally less on the particulars of methodology than on issues of scholarly ethics, which provided the only common language of discourse. These issues bore directly on the validity of Lamprecht’s historical work. In a manner that Lamprecht could not effectively refute, his opponents were able to show that the empirical results generated by his theory of history were wrong. Lamprecht the scholar had more ambition and energy than intellectual discipline. As a consequence, both his theoretical speculations and his research were hurried, careless, and sloppy. Not only was his scholarship marred pervasively by elementary errors of fact and characterization but, even worse, as his critics soon discovered, his published work comprised long plagiarized passages from the standard historical accounts of other authors. The conclusion was inescapable. As one of these critics put it at the end of the struggle in 1898, Lamprecht could not have discredited his own theories more effectively than by “trying to put them into practice.”[4]

The outcome of the controversy cemented the same methodological oppositions between history and natural science that Lamprecht had sought to transcend. So, the question demands an answer: particularly since the challenge to “normal science” fell on its face, does it make any sense to regard the historians’ Methodenstreit as a paradigm conflict? A couple of thoughts are in order about why it might make sense. In the first place, although they lacked the term “paradigm conflict” to describe their mutual antagonisms, the historians who participated in the great dispute believed fervently that they were fighting over the very foundations of their discipline. When subsequent scholars deny that they were doing so, noting that Lamprecht had unwittingly concocted theories that were no less committed than Ranke’s to great ideas as the stuff of history, they slight the passions that fueled the enmities on both sides.[5] Besides, because an order of knowledge was ultimately at issue, one can argue that the historians were in fact battling over a paradigm—but one perhaps better situated more centrally in the history of knowledge, insofar as it involved categorical distinctions between the orders of knowledge represented by the humanistic disciplines and natural sciences.

Roger Chickering is Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University and holds a courtesy appointment at the University of Oregon.


  1. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th ed. (Chicago, IL, 2012), 24.  ↩
  2. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Oxford, 1959).  ↩
  3. Roger Chickering, Karl Lamprecht: A German Academic Life (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1993), appearing in German as Karl Lamprecht: Das Leben eines deutschen Historikers (Stuttgart, 2019).  ↩
  4. Hermann Oncken, Lamprechts Verteidigung: Eine Antwort auf zwei Streitschriften (Berlin, 1898), 47.  ↩
  5. Horst Walter Blanke, Historiographiegeschichte als Historik (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, 1991), 393–439.  ↩
Suggested citation: Roger Chickering, “Kuhn and Lamprecht,” History of Knowledge, September 14, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/09/14/kuhn-and-lamprecht/.