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Copyright (c) 1997 American Bar Foundation
Law and Social Inquiry

REVIEW ESSAY: History as Explanation: Annals of American Political Economy

Winter, 1997

22 Law & Soc. Inquiry 231


Rudolph J. R. Peritz


We read or write history in search of something from the past - be it insight, authority, or escape. For judges and other policy makers, especially those in the common law tradition, history is the most powerful source of political legitimacy. For conservative ideologues and other sentimentalists, the past reflects the best hope for the future. Academic and professional historians, more modest in their demands, seek only explanation. Yet, explanation has proved to be a contentious notion, a subject of longstanding debate among those who write about history. This essay is about current attitudes toward historical forms of explanation.

Debate about history as an explanatory narrative has raised two perennial questions: the first about the theoretical justifications for particular historical practices; the second about the use value of the historical accounts produced. For the past 25 years, such debate has flourished in America. In the 1970s, the dominant "consensus" historians' approach was abjured by their pedagogical offspring who viewed history, particularly American political and intellectual history, more in terms of conflict than consensus. At about the same time, the question of originalism erupted in constitutional law scholarship. During those years, Hayden White's Metahistory (1973) emerged as an influential example of analyzing historical explanation as a discursive field with metes and bounds, as a range of practices whose legitimacy is always at issue. In the 1980s, debate raged about the writing of literary, cultural, and intellectual histories and their relationships to an emerging sociology of knowledge identified with Michel ...
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