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

By Cushing Strout | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Everyman His Own Historian

CARL BECKER'S humane and skeptical intelligence was genuinely Socratic in its inability to be satisfied with the common and crude abstractions most people accepted for self-evident truths. He went to a dictionary, he said, to find out what unfamiliar words meant, but when he had to use words "with which everyone is perfectly familiar," he decided "the wise thing to do is to take a week off and think about them,"1 As early as 1910 he began to exercise his talent for gentle, ironic deflation on the self-evident truths of the scientific historians with their "laws of history," their "cold, hard facts," and their "objective detachment." Displaying a sophistication and subtlety all too rare among historians, he exposed the superficial thinking that had created these abstractions. He did such a devastating job that it is hard to believe that anyone with an intellectual conscience can ever revive them again in their old meaning without wincing, even though he may rightly feel that Becker's own theory is far from adequate as a philosophy of history.

Becker's search for a philosophical approach to history was not a quest, in the spirit of Henry Adams, for some formula to sum up the whole sweep of historical events.2 It was, instead, an attempt to

____________________
1
What Are Historical Facts? Western Political Quarterly, 8 ( 1955), 328. This article is a reprinting of Becker's address to the American Historical Association at Rochester in 1926.
2
For Becker's explanation of Adams' personal need to seek a science of history see the two essays on Adams in Everyman His Own Historian: Essays on History and Politics ( New York, Appleton Century Crofts, 1935), pp. 143-68.

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