G. Naturalism & Normativity > Herman Paul on "Distance and Self-Distanciation: Intellectual Virtue and Historical Method around 1900"

Paul's paper is recently published in History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 104-116. Access:

Abstract. What did “historical distance” mean to historians in the Rankean tradition? Although historical distance is often equated with temporal distance, an analysis of Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode reveals that for German historians around 1900 distance
did not primarily refer to a passage of time that would enable scholars to study remote pasts from retrospective points of view. If Bernheim’s manual presents historical distance as a prerequisite for historical interpretation, the metaphor rather conveys a need for self-distanciation. Self-distanciation is not a Romantic desire to “extinguish” oneself,
but a virtuous attempt to put one’s own ideas and intuitions about the working of the world between brackets in the study of people who might have understood the world in different terms. Although Bernheim did not explicitly talk about virtue, the article shows that his Lehrbuch nonetheless considers self-distanciation a matter of virtuous behavior, targeted
at an aim that may not be fully realizable, but ought to be pursued with all possible vigor. For Bernheim, then, distance requires epistemological virtue, which in turn calls for intellectual character, or what Bernheim’s generation considered scholarly selfhood (wissenschaftliche
Persönlichkeit). Not a mapping of time onto space, but a strenuous effort to
mold “scholarly characters,” truly able to recognize the otherness of the past, appears to be characteristic of Bernheim’s view of historical distance.

Keywords: historical distance, self-distanciation, objectivity, epistemic virtues, positivism, Ernst Bernheim, Leopold von Ranke
April 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell