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Author Becomes Subject: Droysen as Topic of Historical Volume

Scholarship has come full circle for Johann Gustav Droysen — a historian lauded for his much-cited volume on Alexander the Great — as the author-historian is now the subject of study. Author Arthur Alfaix Assis delves into the historical theories of Droysen in What is History For? Johann Gustav Droysen and the Functions of Historiography, to be published later this month. Assis precedes the publication by sharing the root of his interest in the scholar, why he believes Droysen is important, and what Assis might have done if he did not follow the path of academia.




Berghahn Books: What drew you to the study of Johann Gustav Droysen?


Arthur Alfaix Assis: I like to think that part of it has to do with the great impression left on me by the very first text I read as an undergraduate: Max Weber’s ‘Science as a Vocation’. I was a freshman at a provincial university in central Brazil, and was very eager to get in touch with serious historical and philosophical literature. But after a single week of lectures came a three-month-long strike, and the only reading assignment left was Weber’s text.


I remember reading it repeatedly and very intensively. Since then, I’ve been attracted to the study of 19th and early 20th century German authors who combined insights accruing from history and philosophy in their attempts to establish the theoretical foundations of the modern human sciences. Droysen is for sure a central figure in this tradition, and is frequently mentioned as one of its founding fathers, even though he was scarcely read, especially outside Germany. Because of all that I thought that studying his works carefully could be worth the effort.


BB: What do you see as Droysen’s single-most important contribution to the field of historiography?


AAA: For me it’s the notion that historians, consciously or not, work according to a logic of questions and answers. For Droysen, research equals exploring materials from the past (like texts, objects, monuments, buildings, etc.) in order to develop an interpretation that serves as an answer to a question. Of course, this is nowadays methodological common-sense, as the image of researchers solving puzzles features prominently not only in the discourse of philosophers of history but also in that of philosophers of science. But at Droysen’s time, this commonsensical image wasn’t settled yet, and I believe his influence on authors such as Dilthey, Simmel, and Meinecke was crucial for consolidating it. Besides, Droysen suggests that the questions historians attempt to solve with the aid of past materials emerge out of their interactions with cultural problems that are manifest in their own present. Here Droysen’s historical theory runs close to the old tradition of pragmatic justifications of history writing that basically hold that history is a useful form of knowledge that can be applied to both political and moral life. How Droysen simultaneously continued and helped reinvent that pragmatic sense of history is, by the way, the main question I try to solve in the book.


BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?


AAA: I started the research with the feeling that studying Droysen’s texts was a good key for understanding more contemporary debates related to the nature and functions of history and other human sciences. This intuition turned out to be correct – at least to me. But, of course, a lot of things change as you move forward with an investigation like mine, which deals with the concepts and ideas formulated by a single individual. I experienced, for instance, an increasing difficulty in trying to make a coherent picture of Droysen as an intellectual. At crucial moments his theoretical arguments strongly clash with ideas he formulated while effectively writing political history or thinking on practical problems faced by Prussia or Germany.



BB: What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


AAA: Though I was able to relate Droysen’s theory of historical knowledge to his political historiography and even to his nationalistic political stance, I wasn’t able to sufficiently explain how his general conceptions of history and politics are embedded in a religious worldview. Nineteenth century German ‘religion of history’, to quote Wolfgang Hardtwig, was almost completely overlooked by historians of historiography and of hermeneutics, including myself. This is certainly a tendency that is worth reversing.


BB: If you weren’t a professor of history, what would you have done instead?


AAA: This is a difficult question… Let’s say I’d be a civil engineer, because I have a strange compulsion to stop and watch construction sites everywhere I go. But I don’t think this would make me happier than I actually am in professional life, even though it would have made me most certainly richer…




Arthur Alfaix Assis is Assistant Professor of the Theory and Methodology of History at the University of Brasília.


Volume 17 of Making Sense of History