Evidence and Meaning: A Theory of Historical Studies

By Sneed, John | International Social Science Review, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Evidence and Meaning: A Theory of Historical Studies


Sneed, John, International Social Science Review


Rusen, Jorn. Evidence and Meaning: A Theory of Historical Studies. Translated by Diane Kerns and Katie Digan. New York: Berghahn, 2017. xiii + 250 pages. Hardcover, $120.00.

Jorn Rusen is Professor Emeritus of General History and Historical Culture at Witten/Herdecke University. He has taught at universities in Germany and has served as the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Essen. His works have been translated into a number of different languages and are read by historians and students all over the world. The current work is an update of Rusen's earlier (1986) three volume series on the basics of historical theory. The volume arose from a series of lectures given in 2007 at the Catholic University in the city of Eichstatt.

Rusen uses the current volume to expand on, and explain in detail, his theory of historical studies, which he calls metahistory. He finds the seminal idea for the theory of metahistory in the writings of Johann Droysen (1808-1884) and considers his own work as an extension and continuation of Droysen's studies. Metahistory, Rusen explains, is a theory of historical studies existing in three elements: history, scholarship, and theory (p.7). It is a paradigm about what historical studies are, and from this, everything that touches the study of history is affected. Metahistory is deeply concerned with the craft of historical studies. However, it reaches beyond the discipline of history and encompasses the work of other disciplines. Rusen asserts that since history is the study of the human story, everything within it is part of history. Consequently, an adequate examination of history, or of an historical event, must be examined through the lenses of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and so on. Reaching beyond the singular discipline of history is what makes this theory "meta." Ultimately, metahistory is a paradigm through which to approach historical studies.

Rusen's work offers a great deal to both students and experienced historians. Within the pages of Evidence and Meaning, Rusen is, at the same moment, teacher and historical theorist. At times, he encourages his reader to think deeply about what historical research is. At others, he invites established historians to drink deeply from the wells of historical research and writing. Rusen's metahistory is grounded in more traditional methods of historical research due to his concerns that modern trends in historical thought too easily dismiss past historical research as being inherently ideological or driven by culture. …

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