The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard

By Cushing Strout | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Background to Revolution

CARL BECKER AND CHARLES BEARD started a controversy over the purpose of historical writing and the limits of the historian's objectivity that still agitates American historians and philosophers. Some of their most vigorous critics have even charged that the views of Becker and Beard have thoroughly dominated contemporary American historians and historical theorists. Allowing for the tendency of alarmists to exaggerate the power of whatever they brand menacing, one can see, at least in the present, a striving for a new sophistication about history, provoked by the questions insistently raised by Becker and Beard. In 1946 the Committee on Theory and Practice in Historical Study, set up by the Social Science Research Council under the chairmanship of Merle Curti, produced a report which reflected the heuristic influence of Becker and Beard.1 Their role has been to challenge custom and promote inquiry, rather than to provide an adequate philosophy upon which the historical profession could agree. It is the function of pioneers to blaze a trail, not to establish a settlement. New ideas, like other historical forces, have no immaculate conception. In the struggle for life they emerge entangled in the present, encrusted with the past, and striving dimly for the future.

Becker and Beard worked under peculiarly American disadvantages. In Europe there has been a modern tradition of philosopher

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1
"Theory and Practice in Historical Study", Report of the Committee on Historiography, Social Science Research Council, Bulletin 54 ( 1946). Beard wrote pp. 3-14, 105-8.

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