The Battle for the History of France Chapter 1, Fortune Favors the Bold, part II

By Dean Alexander                                                                                

A war of scholarship, part II


The political, societal, and personal circumstances behind the formation of the world’s most influential historical journal

Seignobos and the Durkheimians

In 1888, during his inaugural lecture at the University of Bordeaux, Emile Durkheim laid out his objectives for sociology, as well as his major objections to the traditional methodologies of history (Friedman 2005). Not only did Durkheim dismiss the historical methodologists for their inability to apply the scientific method, but Durkheim additionally questioned their qualifications to do so. “I have always found that there is a kind of contradiction in making history a science and not requiring any scientific training of future historians,” said Durkheim, then rhetorically, he adds: “Is it enough to meditate on the masterpieces of literature to learn the spirit and practice of the scientific method?”

Moving further into the vein of science, he addressed the historians rebuttal the idea that general laws cannot be established to explain societies and societal actions. Here he talks about what is capable of being studied, before turning to the types of studies performed by the biologist. (For brevity, I have edited filler sentences.)

…any special order of natural phenomena, subject to regular laws, may be the object of a methodical study, that is, of a positive science. But historians say, we have studied societies, and we have not discovered any law. History is only a series of accidents which, no doubt, relate to each other, according to the laws of causality, but without ever being repeated. Essentially local and individual, they pass so as not to return, and are therefore refractory to any generalization, that is, to any scientific study, since there is no science of the particular.

The best way to respond to this objection and to prove that societies, which are subject to laws like anything else, [we] would surely be [able] to find these laws. But without waiting until then, a very legitimate induction allows us to affirm that they exist. If there is one point without a doubt today, it is that all the beings of nature, from the mineral to the man, belong to the positive science; that is to say that everything happens there following necessary laws. This proposition is no longer conjectural; it is a truth that experience has demonstrated, for the laws are found, or at least we discover them, little by little. Successively, physics and chemistry, then biology and finally psychology, were formed. It may even be said that of all the laws best established experimentally – for there is not a single exception, and has been verified an infinite number of times – is the one which proclaims that all natural phenomena evolve according to laws. If then, societies are in nature, they must also obey this general law which results from science and dominates it at the same time.

This proposal is no longer conjectural; it is a truth that experience has demonstrated, for the laws are found, or at least we discover them little by little. The historian is not a generalizer; its very special function is not to find laws, but to render to each [period of] time, to each people, its own individuality, and its peculiar physiognomy. He [each] remains and must remain, in the particular. But finally, as peculiar as the phenomena he studies, he does not content himself with describing them, he links them to each other, he seeks the causes and the conditions. For that, he makes inductions and hypotheses. How could he not be exposed too often making a mistake, if he proceeds empirically if he gropes at random if he is not guided by any notion of the nature of societies, of their functions, and of the relations of these functions? In this mass of facts whose make-up constitutes the life of great societies, how will there a choice? 

Having just been named the first sociology chair of any university in the world, Durkheim came out swinging, which might signify just how precarious a position Durkheim felt sociology was in, academically poised as it was, against the intellectually powerful and academically entrenched historians of the methodological school.

However, sociologists had advantages in applying the scientific method that the historians did not, and in word and print, Durkheim used this to his advantage. Just as the scientific method dealt only in causation, writes Yash Nandan, “sociology [would] follow suit”(Nandan 2008). From scientifically grounded research and observation, classifications could be made and hypothesis drawn, allowing for peer review and verification. Here, the methodological historians could not follow. The inability of historians to perform experimentation glaringly exposed the misnomer that scientific historical methodology was in any way scientific.

The debate surrounding prediction

Durkheim sought to establish a macro view of society, compressing both time and homogenizing people, steering a wide berth from the issue of individual free will, or “micro-subjectivity,” that lay outside of the kinds of general laws which Durkheim sought to construct.  Durkheim’s aim, writes Nandan, “was to convert facts into law, reduce the complex into simple, the particular to the universal” (Nandan 2008).

Durkheim had faith that sociological research would eventually be able to establish a series of “general laws” that dictate all of humankind’s societal interaction. Once established, these general laws would allow the historian, the economist, the psychiatrist, the medical practitioner, all to have scientifically-proven, sociological tools to better explain and predict their fields of study. Durkheim writes that just as the economist’s discovery of the social laws which govern the phenomenon of supply and demand, the historian and the political scientist would have “civil laws” to explain the actions “which the princes make, or which the assemblies vote” (Durkheim 1888). These are all decisions, believed Durkheim, which are determined by social realities which rulers “can neither create nor change” (Durkheim ibid.). The pursuance of general social laws was a constant theme during Durkheim’s lifetime, as it appears again, many years later, in an open letter that he published in l’Année Sociologique to Henri Berr in 1913.

We have acknowledged that historical personages have been factors in history. But besides the fact that we believe their influence has been greatly exaggerated, we have shown that they themselves have their reasons [for their actions] and these are, in part, social ones”…”the individual himself is a product of necessary causes; he has his own laws and there is no reason why science should not be made out of them.

Here Seignobos differed from Durkheim, having diverged from Kantian positivist thought, in that he did not believe that laws universally governed all actions and reactions (Noiriel 1990). In countering Durkheim’s argument, the historian repeatedly pressed home that the random actions man, his individualism, and his free will, make the establishment of such such laws an impossibility.  Durkheim rebuffed this criticism during that inaugural lecture: “neither the physicist nor the biologist has changed their method for this” (Durkheim 1888). Meaning, just as in the scientist studies the frog, he does not concern himself with precisely when, or in which direction, the frog jumps. As such, Durkheim felt, the sociologist and the historian should not be distracted by the incidental actions (free will) inherent in the man he studies.

Minor exchanges such as this would continue until 1898, a year which was pivotal on so many fronts. Foremost, it was a year of confrontation that divided the country, culminating with a major judicial decision to release Alfred Dreyfus from prison after a lengthy and emotional trial, not because the court his obvious innocence of the treason he was charged with, but because of “extenuating circumstances” in regards to revelations that the prosecution had relied fraudulent, manufactured, evidence intended to frame him. In response to that judicial determination came the first edition of the right-wing, ultra-nationalist, antisemitic newspaper, l’Action Française, which would bring Charles Maurras to fame. As it happened, it was also was first the year which Durkheim would publish his academic journal, l’Année Sociologique and the year in which Charles Seignobos and Charles-Victor Langlois would publish their short, but important book, L’Introduction aux études historiques.

In its opening statement, l’Introduction summarizes the relevance of archival texts to history. “Documents,” Langlois and Seignobos wrote, “are the traces which have been left by the thoughts and actions of men of former times “(Langlois, Seignobos, 1898.) What marks Seignobos and Langlois different from Bloch and Febvre, is as much as being historian, these men viewed themselves as teachers of the art, or science, if you will, of the writing of history, and L’Introduction was intended to be a blueprint by which the future historians would conduct historical research. Through it Seignobos and Langlois detailed the techniques of “analysis, synthesis, the d’exploitation (challenge to) and d’exposition (exposition of) documents.” (Castellesi 2014).

Yet among the instruction which define the techniques of scientific history, L’Introduction seems also as if to speak directly to Durkheim and his followers. The following section was written as if it was a rebuttal to the years of challenges that had been issued to the community of the methodological historians. They wrote:

 The evolution of a usage [a social fact] or of an institution (language, religion, church, state) is only a metaphor; a usage is an abstractionabstractions do not evolve; it is only existences which evolve, in the strict sense of the word. When a change takes place in a usage, this means that the men who practice it have changed. Now, men are not built in water-tight compartments (religious, juridical, economic) within which phenomena can occur in isolation; an event which modifies the condition of a man changes his habits in a great variety of respects.

In order to construct general history, it is necessary to look for all the facts which, because they have produced changes, can explain either the state of a society or one of its evolutions. We must search for them among all classes of facts displacements of population, artistic, scientific, religious, technical innovations, changes in the personnel of government, revolutions, wars, discoveries of countries. That which is important is that the fact should have a decisive influence. We must, therefore, resist the natural temptation to divide facts into great and small. (L’Introduction 1898)

Where the above quote, serves to counter Durkheim’s challenges to their methodology, the men, do add an unobtrusive footnote at the end of the book, which might be viewed as a small, albeit hidden, olive branch to the sociologists and perhaps leaving the door open to some possible future inter-academic co-operation.

History and the social sciences are in a reciprocal dependence, they progress in parallel by a continuous exchange of services. The social sciences provide the knowledge of the present, necessary to the history to represent the facts and reason on the documents: the story gives on the evolution of the information necessary to understand the present” (l’Introduction 1898).

This olive branch, if it was ever considered as one, was may have been too late, as in the premier volume of L’Année Sociologique, Durkheim continued his campaign for sociology. He writes in his preface that his new journal can serve to “bring closer to sociology certain special sciences that hold themselves aloof, to our mutual determent. It is especially history that we have in mind when speaking in that vein. Even today, historians who take interest in the investigations of sociologists, it is rare [that] they feel that such matters concern them… “And yet, history can be a science only insofar as it explains, and it can only explain when making comparisons” (Durkheim 1898).

Against the Durkheimian temporal reorganization of academia, Charles Seignobos would rise to defend historical methodology with the response, La méthode historique appliquée aux sciences sociales, Paris, 1901  (The historical method applied to the social sciences) rebuffed the “nomothetic ambition” of Durkheim’s envisioned academic hierarchy. Historian James Millhorn writes that Seignobos was “extremely skeptical of the notion of a unified social science” (Millhorn 1999) and he certainly took exception to the hegemony, that Durkheim was suggesting, of sociology over history.

…just as there is a science of chemistry which studies chemical facts by a chemical method, a science of biology which studies biological facts – or (to take as an example a descriptive science) a science of zoology which describes the animal world. History would be a science of observation. It even seems possible to delimit the category of facts studied by history; they are always past facts and human facts. Past facts relating to animals or plants are no longer in the category of history; the word natural history represents a completely abandoned conception.  

But as soon as we try to virtually delimit the terrain of history, as soon as we try to draw the boundaries between the historical science of  human facts of the past and the current science of human facts of the present, we realize that this limit cannot be established, because in reality there are no facts that are historical by their nature, as there are physiological or biological facts. –La méthode historique, 1901


Evidently, these high-profile exchanges with Seignobos served to significantly raise Durkheim’s reputation among Seignobos’ fellow scholars at the Sorbonne, for he would campaign for, and be offered a chair there in 1902. However, despite his growing fame as a sociologist, a chair of sociology had not yet been established at the Sorbonne, but instead he was satisfied with his election as chargé de cours, a lecturer (Riley 2011)  until attaining a the chair of education in 1906 -such was the prestige of becoming the faculty of that institution. It would not until 1913 that Durkheim would succeed in transitioning his own academic to the chair of Education and Sociology (Ravel 1978, Wikipedia).

In 1906, the youngest of the Durkheimians, François Simiand, an editor of Durkheim’s journal Année Sociologique, would jump into the fray, presenting his paper, Causalité en Histoire to the La Société française de philosophie. In it, Simiand dismissively refers to the work produced by the methodologists as l’histoire événementielle (event history, or surface, or superficial history), a moniker whose impact was so great that it is still used in modern examples of histories written of the Annales scholars.

The paper Simiand presented to La Société can be difficult to translate, as there are so many asides and qualifications (which read as if Simiand is unsure of himself) which lead to an abundance of run-on sentences and backward sentence constructions. Then, if these challenges to understanding him were not enough, Simian peppers us unnecessary wordy flourishes and word choices which appear to be somewhat imprecise. These cautions aside, Simiand’s attacks were, however, clear and vivid, centering upon how the concept of causality is incorrectly implemented by the historian. He wrote:

I propose here to sketch a theory of causality in history, of history as impersonal, as independent as possible from any special metaphysical thesis. It is difficult not to be struck, at the same time, by the enormous mass of historical work that is provided today and the inadequate character of the results which really come out of it. It’s not that philosophies of history, the general theses on the explanation of the phenomena history, on the role of the individual, on historical determinism, on the factors of human evolution, etc. But what is lacking is a body of specific rules of procedure that are followed in the daily practice of the development work. (Simiand 1906)  Click here to read more of this excerpt

Reviewing Simiand’s reading, the American historian, Percy Hughes cut to the gist of Simiand’s argument for an American academic readership, “Last May, M. Simiand advanced the thesis that so far as historians seek at all to explain events”…[ to be congruent with the scientific method] “they must start from the position that the same causes must always produce the same effects” (P. Hughes 1906). It was with the use of this major tenant of the scientific method that Simiand cleverly linked Historian’s two most crucial, and separate, arguments against one another: First that their set of procedures observed steps of scientific methodology in its observation and verification, and second, that defining moments of history was dictated by the individual decisions of leaders (the cause) who put in motion unique events (the effects). Simiand had simply pointed out that the scientific method dictates that “true cause cannot produce different effects” and with it, Simiand unpins what becomes a collapsing house of logic. Down goes the methodologist’s “scientific” observation and verification of events to reveal the causes of how and why unique events unfolded. Simian declared that the historian’s mistake was that they confuse causation with condition.

But there was more. Simiand’ flourishes of language, makes the translation difficult, but after removing some of the more superfluous words and stopping a run-on sentence with a question mark, this was Simiand’s mike-drop moment (though in true Simiand fashion, he would continue on).

In my opinion, it is only after having studied, criticized, elaborated the material of the history, according to the precepts indicated, so as to eliminate the illusions and appearances of explanation, to formulate with exactness and rigor the results finally obtained, which we can examine again, with some chance to advance, what are the various causes encountered, what is their ordinary hierarchy[?] If we must recognize the measure of an absolute individual spontaneity, what we can explain and what we do not explain, or not yet. I go further. If I have not taken the liberty of delineating specimens peculiar to distinguished historical research… it is because, apart from the technique of historical investigations [which Seignobos and Langlois have adequately explained] – I believe that these special precepts do not exist; it is because of that, I believe, [ history] without doubt as an auxiliary discipline and grouping of materials, but as a [complete] autonomous science … history has no reason to be and is destined to disappear: it does not have a methodology of the explanation of its own.

* * *

By the time war would break out in August of 1914, the Durkheimians would have achieved the founding of four French Universities would have chairs of sociology. Yet, many of these scholars were young and would be called by their nation to fight the Germans. Many Durkheimians did not return, including Durkheim’s son, André, who was killed on the Bulgarian front in 1916 (Jones). André’s death left Durkheim grieving, and according to a fellow l’Année Sociologique contributor, Georges Davy, Durkheim fell into a “ferocious silence… “forbidding his friends to mention the source of his grief: ‘do not’, he said to Davy ‘ speak to me again about my son until I tell you that it has become possible'” (Davy 1960, via Lukes 1985). Durkheim would die of a stroke only a few months later, leaving what remained of the sociological community rudderless.  After the war, the Durkheimian cement gradually crumbled, as well as its places of expression. (Dhermy-Mairal 2014)

Some, such as the Maurice Halbwachs, a member of the next generation of thinkers (including Bloch and Febvre) that would famously emerge from the University de Strasbourg teaching staff; after Durkheim’s death, would find rejuvenation in re-investigating Durkheim’s works. Halbwacks would write to his wife in 1917,  “I have the impression that before I was reading everything superficially and incompletely,” he wrote to her on December 3, 1917. “My admiration for our master is growing. It has a truly incredible depth and richness.” The following year, perhaps with the perspective of time, “We must judge Durkheim’s ideas on their results.” (Halbwachs via Hirsh 2012).


* * *


Next in this series… Chapter 1, part 3:

Post War: Seignobos and the Annalistes (click here)


Sources for Chapter 1: war of scholarship

The Durkheimian movement in France and in world sociology, Randall Collins, The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Philip Smith, Cambridge University Press2005

Scientific Durkheimianism and the Durkheimianism of Action[*]François Simiand and the International Labour Office (1920–1930)Marine Dhermy-Mairal, Institut National d’Études Démographiques (INED)

Durkheim’s life and context” something new about Durkheim?, Marcel Fournier, The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Philip Smith, Cambridge University Press2005

Contributions to L’Année SociologiqueEmile Durkheim, Simon and Schuster2008 

Une lecture de Langlois et Seignobos Laurent Mucchielli, Espaces Temps, les Cahiers, 1995

Marc Bloch, Sociology and Geography: Encountering Changing DisciplinesSusan W. Friedman, Cambridge University Press, 2004

Contributions to L’Année Sociologique, Emile Durkheim, edited by Nash Nandan, Simon and Schuster, 2008

Emile Durkheim, Kenneth Thompson, Psychology Press, 2002

Emile Durkheim, His Life and WorkA Historical and Critical StudySteven Lukes, Stanford University Press, 1985

Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 1edited by Kelly Boyd, (entry François Simiand) by James Millhorn, Taylor & Francis, 1999

Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, Volume 7, Xavier Léon, 1907

Introduction to the study of History, Charles V. Langlois and Charles Seignobos, 1898, translated by G.G. Berry, Henry Holt & Co. 1904

Teamwork across disciplines: Durkheimian sociology and the study of nationsJennifer Mergy, La sociologie durkheimienne: tradition et actualité2004

Maurice Halbwachs and Religious Sociology From Elementary Forms to The Social Frameworks of Memory, Thomas Hirsch, 2012,

Maurice Halbwachs: La Psychologie collective, Introduction, Thomas Hirsch, Numilog, 2015

Robert A. Nye 1982 via Marcel Fournier, The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim, Alexander, Smith Cambridge University Press 2005

Scientific Durkheimianism and the Durkheimianism of Action: François Simiand and the International Labour Office (1920–1930) Marine DhermyMairalInstitut National d’Études Démographiques (INED), 2014

Marc Bloch, Sociology and Geography: Encountering Changing DisciplinesSusan W. Friedman, Cambridge University Press2004

La méthode historique appliquée aux sciences sociales, Charles Seignobos, 1901 Lyon, ENS Éditions, coll. Bibliothèque idéale des sciences sociales, 2014

Charles Seignobos, The historical method applied to the social sciences Audrey Levray, Lyon, ENS Éditions, coll. Bibliothèque idéale des sciences sociales, 2014

Naissance du métier d’historien,  Genèses, Sciences sociales et histoire, Gérard Noiriel, 1990, Persé

Causalité en Histoire, M. Simiand 1906 Journal de Philosophie, Psychologie et Méthodes Scientifiques

The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Percy Hughes, Science Press, 1907

Marc Bloch: A Life in HistoryCarole Fink, Cambridge University Press1991

The Emergence of Modern Universities In France, 1863-1914George Weisz, Princeton University Press, 2014

Fortunes of History: Historical Inquiry from Herder to HuizingaDonald R. Kelley, Yale University Press, 2008

Ethos of a Scientific Historian Fustel de Coulanges, lecture 1862, translated by Fritz Stern,  The Varieties of HistoryFrom Voltaire to the Present, Fritz Stern, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011

The intellectual Foundations of the Nineteenth-Century “Scientific’ History: The German Model, Georg G. Iggers, undated, The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 4: 1800-1945, Stuart MacintyreDaniel R. WoolfAndrew FeldherrGrant Hardy, OUP OxfordOct 27, 2011

Birth of a National Icon: The Literary Avant-Gardeand the Origins of the Intellectual in FranceVenita Datta SUNY Press, 1999

The American Historical Reviewedited by John Franklin Jameson, Henry Eldridge Bourne, Robert Livingston Schuyler, American Historical Association, 1902

Bad FaithA Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France, Carmen Callil, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008

A l’Origines des Réformes de l’Education National; Gustave Monod, Pierre Guiral, Les directeurs de ministère en FranceXIXe-XXe siècles, Librairie Droz, 1976 

Une amitié motrice Lucien Febvre et Anatole de MonzieGilles Candar, Cahiers Jaurès , 2002

Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985Elisabeth Roudinesco, University of Chicago Press, 1990

About Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.
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