UNCG HSS 208W — History & Theory of the Historical Sciences

The sciences in the twentieth century have usually been divided into physical sciences, life sciences, and social sciences, but this classification of the sciences is largely a twentieth-century invention. In the nineteenth century and earlier it was common to divide the sciences into those that took a structural-experimental approach to their subjects—the philosophical sciences—and those that took an historical approach—the historical sciences. In the seventeenth century the same scholars who were debating the true nature of fossils were also collecting data on the history of the English language and the burial practices of the ancient Romans. In the nineteenth century many linguists compared their reconstructions of ancient languages to the work of geologists, and Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species explained the divergence of varieties of biological species by comparing them to language dialects. In this course we will examine the historical sciences as a coherent whole, reviewing their shared histories and exploring their common methods. Students will not only gain a factual understanding of the history and practice of the historical sciences but will also be encouraged to challenge the intellectual framework of the twentieth century that has dis-integrated the historical sciences and dispersed them across the academic landscape.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, Center for Critical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 100 Foust Building. Office hours: Monday/Tuesday 3:30–5:00 p.m. and any other time by appointment or chance. You are always welcome to stop by my office to discuss anything relating to our course or to academics generally. If you’d like to know a bit about my interests and other activities you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net).

Required Texts

Assignments and Exams

The course grade will be made up of three elements: (1) two exams (40%); (2) three written assignments of about five pages each (45%); (3) a time-line depicting important persons and events discussed in class (15%).

The first exam will be given on Thursday, 24 February. The second will be given at the time scheduled by the Registrar for our final exam. Study sheets for both exams will be given out in advance.

The time-line must fit on three 8.5 × 11 sheets, and must extend from 600 BC to the present; beyond that you are free to develop it as you wish. The progress of your time lines will be examined occasionally throughout the course. The final copies will be due on the last day of class, Thursday, 28 April.

The written assignments will be submitted in draft form first; the drafts will be commented on and returned, and only the final version will be graded. Each of these essays should be about five pages long and all should be classical “disputations” written on the theses below; on the basis of our readings and class discussions students will either defend or attack each thesis according to the flip of a coin. The theses are:

  1. “Nature has no history; only human beings have history.” Draft due Thursday, 3 February; returned Tuesday, 8 February; final due Thursday, 10 February.

  2. “The history of life on earth is a history of progression.” Draft due Thursday, 17 March; returned Tuesday, 22 March; final due Thursday, 24 March.

  3. “We can never really prove anything about the past; all history is conjectural.” Draft due Thursday, 14 April; returned Tuesday, 19 April; final due Thursday, 26 April.


Regular attendance is required of all students. Beginning in the second week of class attendance will be taken at each meeting. Two unexcused absences over the course of the term are the maximum permitted without penalty; each unexcused absence beyond two will result in one point (out of 100) being deducted from your final grade. Written medical excuses for absence will always be accepted and will not count against you.

Sequence of Topics

The course will be divided roughly into three parts. During the first part we will work through the Toulmin and Goodfield book so that we will all have a common sketch of the history of the historical sciences. We will then consider in detail a set of case studies in the history of the historical sciences (a series of shorter papers) and discuss how historical events are represented in science using our geological time scale and a number of other historical representations. Finally we will turn to the methods of inference used in the historical sciences and ask how is it that natural historians are able to reconstruct events that no humans have ever witnessed. Particular reading assignments will be given out in class.

Second Exam Question

One of the questions on the second exam will be to reproduce from memory the following extract from Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam (1849). Writing in the midst of one of the most important periods in the historical sciences, Tennyson captures in this passage the profound despair that many people experienced as a result of “the discovery of time.”

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing: all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

Selected Older Works in the Historical Sciences

These works are primarily from the antiquarian period and may be found in the Special Collections department of the Jackson Library. Facsimiles and reprints of many other items of this kind may be found in the regular stacks, including works by Aubrey, Lhuyd, Ray, Linnaeus, Hutton, Buckland, Hooke, and others.

   AUTHOR: Aubrey, John, 1626-1697.
    TITLE: The natural history and antiquities of the county of Surrey.
PUBLISHER: Printed for E. Curll, 1718-19.
 SUBJECTS: Surrey.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: DA670.S96 A8 -- v;1,c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Browne, Thomas, Sir, 1605-1682.
    TITLE: Pseudodoxia epidemica: or, Enquiries into very many received
           tenents, and commonly presumed truths.
PUBLISHER: Printed by A. Miller, for Edw. Dod and Nath. Ekins, 1650.
 SUBJECTS: Natural history--Pre-Linnean works.   Errors, Popular.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: PR3327 .A7 1650 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Browne, Thomas, Sir, 1605-1682.
    TITLE: Hydriotaphia, urne-buriall, or, a discourse of the sepulchrall
           urnes lately found in Norfolk. Together with The Garden of Cyrus...
PUBLISHER: Printed for Hen. Brome, 1658.
 SUBJECTS: Cyrus, King of Persia, d. 529 B.C.   Gardening--Early works to
           1800.   Urn burial.   Norfolk (England)--Antiquities.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: PR3327 .A65 1658 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Browne, Thomas, Sir, 1605-1682.
    TITLE: The works of the learned Sr Thomas Brown, Kt. Doctor of physick,
           late of Norwich. Containing I. Enquiries into vulgar and common error
PUBLISHER: Printed for Tho. Basset, Ric. Chiswell, Tho. Sawbridge, Charles
           Mearn, and Charles Brome, 1686.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: ff PR3327 .A1 1686 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de, 1707-1788.
    TITLE: Planches pour les uvres de Buffon.
PUBLISHER: L. C. E. Mauprivez fils, diteur, [1835?]
 SUBJECTS: Natural history--Pictorial works.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: QH45 .B7920 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Camden, William, 1551-1623.
    TITLE: Remaines of a greater worke, concerning Britaine, the
           inhabitants thereof, their languages, names, surnames, empreses...
PUBLISHER: Printed by G. E. for Simon Waterson, 1605.
 SUBJECTS: Anecdotes.   Names, Personal.   Great Britain--Description and
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: PN6252 .C354 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Catesby, Mark, 1683-1749.
    TITLE: The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands:
           containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects...
PUBLISHER: Printed at the expence of the author, 1731-43.
 SUBJECTS: Natural history--Pre-Linnean works.   Natural history--Southern
           States.   Natural history--Pictorial works.   Natural history...
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: f QH41 .C26 -- v;1,c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Cotton, Robert, Sir, 1571-1631.
    TITLE: Cottoni posthuma: divers choice pieces of that renowned
           antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, knight and baronet, preserved from...
PUBLISHER: Printed for R. Lowndes and M. Gilliflower, 1672.
 SUBJECTS: Catholic Church--England.   Prerogative, Royal--Great Britain.
           Wager of battle.   Ambassadors.   Great Britain--Politics...
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: DA370 .C65 1672 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Dugdale, William, Sir, 1605-1686.
    TITLE: The antiquities of Warwickshire illustrated; from records,
           leiger-books, manuscripts, charters, evidences, tombes, and armes...
PUBLISHER: Thomas Warren, 1656.
 SUBJECTS: Warwickshire (England)--Antiquities.   Warwickshire (England)
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: ff DA670.W3 D79 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Dugdale, William, Sir, 1605-1686.
    TITLE: Origines juridiciales, or Historical memorials of the English
           laws, courts of justice, forms of tryal, punishment in cases...
PUBLISHER: Printed by Tho. Newcomb, for Abel Roper, John Martin, and Henry
           Herringman, 1671.
 SUBJECTS: Law--Great Britain--History.   Judges--Great Britain.
           Courts--Great Britain.   Law--Bibliography.   Inns of court...
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: ff KD662 .D843 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Fitzroy, Robert, 1805-1865.
    TITLE: Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's ships
           Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836, describing...
PUBLISHER: H. Colburn, 1839.
 SUBJECTS: Adventure and Beagle Expedition (1825-1830)   Beagle Expedition
           (1831-1836)   Natural history--South America.   Indians of South...
   Special Collections
   3.    CALL NUMBER: F2936 .F56 -- v;3,c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Gerard, John, 1545-1612.
    TITLE: The herball, or Generall historie of plantes.
PUBLISHER: Printed by A. Islip, J. Norton & R. Whitakers, 1633.
 SUBJECTS: Botany--Pre-Linnean works.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: ff QK41 .G3 1633 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Pliny, the Elder.
    TITLE: The historie of the world: commonly called, the Natvrall historie.
PUBLISHER: Printed by A. Islip, 1634.
 SUBJECTS: Natural history--Pre-Linnean works.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: ff QH41 .P73 -- v;1,c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

   AUTHOR: Selden, John, 1584-1654.
    TITLE: The historie of tithes that is, the practice of payment of them.
           The positive laws made for them. The opinions touching the right...
 SUBJECTS: Tithes--History.   Tithes--Great Britain.
   Special Collections
   1.    CALL NUMBER: BV772 .S4 -- c.1 -- Book -- BldgUse/

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