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Meta-Disciplines: Traditionalists, Revisionism, and Post-Revisionists Video

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  • 0:02 Meta-Disciplines
  • 1:05 Traditionalists
  • 2:51 Revisionists
  • 4:40 Post-Revisionists
  • 6:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the concepts of meta-disciplines and historiography, discovering the three main schools of thought often identified in the study of history itself.

Meta-Disciplines

'Meta' is the cool new buzz word in television and entertainment these days. It usually refers to characters in a story acknowledging they are characters in a story or directly addressing the audience. In the world of television writing, the trend is new and relatively controversial.

But in academia, and history in particular, historians broke that fourth wall long ago. Indeed, the study of historians and how historians think has long been a topic of debate in historical circles that has been nearly as important as the story of history itself. Understanding the motivations of the historians helps us more deeply understand a particular interpretation of historical events.

While dozens of various strains and schools of thought have been recognized and categorized in various historical fields, the three schools of historical thought detailed in the rest of this lesson will introduce you to the basics of meta-disciplines, or the study of how something is studied, and a field of study within history known as historiography, essentially the history of history.

Traditionalists

The first and earliest school of thought in history is typified as traditionalist. This encompasses a wide variety of historians over a wide variety of topics. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville is considered a traditionalist historian of the French Revolution, while Edward Gibbon is considered a traditionalist historian of the Roman Empire. Though their interpretations necessarily vary by topic, traditionalist historians generally focused more on the great events of history. They believed in the inevitability of history and viewed history as one long, inexorable march to the present day.

As each traditionalist historian viewed their current time period as the pinnacle of human development, they naturally denigrated the capabilities and knowledge of prior generations. Previous people who were less technologically advanced were viewed as inferior to present people but superior to those that came before. As a result, traditionalist history presented the reader with a logical chain of progression, from primitive humanity to the presumably advanced humanity of the present day. Failures of past empires or organizations were often chalked up to an inability to recognize problems that the historian often considered obvious.

With this 'grand narrative' of progressive human development in place, the factors and motivations for momentous events, such as the French Revolution or the fall of Rome, were often placed in deeply embedded social or political issues. Through recognizing longstanding problems, events in traditionalist narratives were often viewed as inevitable. According to de Tocqueville, for instance, the French Revolution occurred because of the inherent weaknesses and inefficiencies of the French monarchy during the entirety of the 18th century. The French Revolution was, in large part, a reaction against a century's worth of poor government.

Revisionists

Revisionist historians did to the traditionalist narrative what their name suggests: made substantial revisions. Revisionist historians almost always clashed with traditionalist historians and often claimed that traditionalist historians failed to properly analyze all of the evidence and documentation available to historians.

The most damning claim revisionists often made of traditionalist historians was that the traditionalist narrative was more important than the actual facts. The revisionists claimed that traditionalist historians first came up with an appealing story or interpretation that best fit into their overarching idea that history was constantly and progressively marching to today's modernity. Then, after the traditionalist historian had established an appealing narrative, they made the facts and events of the historical subject fit into the preferred mold.

It was not, revisionists said, that traditionalists ignored the historical facts and circumstances - indeed, their narratives were also based on some historical fact - but that they discarded or belittled evidence that contradicted their 'grand narrative.' Instead, revisionist historians often tried to take a more holistic approach to the study of history. They attempted to approach each event or trend in history as objectively as possible, taking into account all historical evidence before formulating a theory or an interpretation regarding the historical events.

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