The Ethical Presupposition of Historical Understanding

Investigating Marc Bloch’s Methodology

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  • 1 Department of Philosophy, Åbo Akademi University, Finland


Discussions on Marc Bloch usually focus on The Annales School, his comparative method, or his defence of a distinct historical science. In contrast, I emphasise his seldom-investigated ideas of what historical understanding should involve. I contend that Bloch distinguishes between three different ethical attitudes in studying people and ways of life from the past: scientific passivity; critical judgements; understanding. The task of the historian amounts to understanding other worlds in their own terms. This essay is an exploration of Bloch’s methodology and what historical understanding is needed to do justice to cultures that belong to the past, both conceptually and practically.


Discussions on Marc Bloch usually focus on The Annales School, his comparative method, or his defence of a distinct historical science. In contrast, I emphasise his seldom-investigated ideas of what historical understanding should involve. I contend that Bloch distinguishes between three different ethical attitudes in studying people and ways of life from the past: scientific passivity; critical judgements; understanding. The task of the historian amounts to understanding other worlds in their own terms. This essay is an exploration of Bloch’s methodology and what historical understanding is needed to do justice to cultures that belong to the past, both conceptually and practically.

The nature of our intelligence is such that it is stimulated far less by the will to know than by the will to understand.

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft


French medievalist Marc Bloch is remembered as one of the greatest historians of the 20th century. In 1929 he founded, together with his college and close friend Lucien Febvre the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale. The historical school or movement that emerged from this journal, the so-called Ecole des Annales,1 has been one of the most influential ever, and this for several reasons. Bloch and Febvre are highly acclaimed for their way of writing history, for their interdisciplinary approach, and for their methodological self-awareness. Bloch, for example, besides being an acknowledged historian of the Middle Ages due to his thoughtful historical practice, was also well known for having introduced the comparative method in the study of social-historical phenomena.2 In sociology, he is therefore seen as a central figure of what nowadays is called “historical sociology.”3

Bloch’s and Febvre’s aim as young and radical scholars was to criticise the predominant conception of history of their contemporaries by shifting focus from the history of political institutions to the history of material and social circumstances.4 Bloch formulated this explicitly in one of his last manuscripts, Apologie pour l’histoire, ou Métier d’historien (translated as The Historian’s Craft),5 which he wrote while fleeing from the Nazis in 1940s occupied France. In this unfinished manuscript, published posthumously as a book, he scrutinises – more practically than philosophically – the approaches to and problems of studying past human conditions and ways of life.6 He reflects on the usefulness and harmfulness of historical engagements as well as at the ethics of creating scientific historical descriptions and narratives.

Without explicitly referring to hermeneutics and neo-Kantian ideas of Verstehen Bloch argues that history is the study of people in time, mostly of people’s minds. Historical facts should therefore be understood as psychological facts.7 At the same time he is wary to stress that “there can be no psychology which confines itself to pure consciousness.”8 Thus, in line with Verstehen scholars such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel history for Bloch is not (scientific) psychology, which reduces the human world to the objective study of the human mind. History is rather an activity that tries to understand the human mind as it emerges from material and social circumstances.9 Understanding is therefore important for Bloch, but he is strongly opposed to any scientific or idealistic a-priori reductions in the study of the human world.10 Bearing this hermeneutic dimension in mind, it is not surprising that younger generations of The Annales School such as Jacques Le Goff 11 and Pierre Nora12 focused on the historical study of mentality (mentalité) and places of memory (lieux de mémoire).13

Studies on Bloch’s work usually discuss his comparative method or his defence of a distinct historical science,14 while his views on understanding are largely ignored. The present essay emphasises this seldom-investigated philosophical dimension of his thinking. Bloch, like the Verstehen scholars, proposes an ethical presupposition for historical understanding, which consists neither of scientific passivity nor of being critical of people of the past. What this means in practice comes to the fore in his Apologie pour l’histoire – a book now seen as one of the methodological classics in many historical disciplines.15 Bloch’s ethical presupposition is also clearly exemplified in his acclaimed 1924 doctoral dissertation, Les rois thaumaturges,16 translated into English as The Royal Touch.17 In my view, these works are guided by two philosophically important questions: What approach should the historian mainly adopt to achieve genuine historical understanding of the lives and circumstances of people from the past? What does such an approach involve in practice? As the essay will show the philosophical depth of these questions is sometimes underestimated or overlooked. The essay will therefore expound the different approaches towards the past expressed primarily in The Historian’s Craft both conceptually and through specific examples in order to clarify the nature of historical understanding at stake. These philosophical-anthropological ideas will then be related to the works of prominent Verstehen scholars, including Dilthey and Simmel. Overall, this essay offers an alternative interpretation of Bloch’s methodology that reconsiders what historical understanding should involve to do justice to people and cultures from the past.

Bloch’s Presuppositions about the Study of Past Ways of Life

In The Historian’s Craft Bloch discusses the social sciences of his time and tries to show, in contrast to several prejudiced conceptions of history, what the historian’s practice really consists of. He acknowledges his debt to his teachers Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobois while remaining critical of their alleged too narrow conception of history. Similarly, Bloch shows how indebted he is to Émile Durkheim and the French School of Sociology while at the same time remaining very critical of them.18 The School of Sociology, Bloch claims, turns everything into a sociological object of study making history become a scientifically insignificant domain.19 At the same time, he is equally highly critical of a group of contemporary historians who he calls historiens historisants.20 In Bloch’s eyes, those historians treat history as an aesthetic play confined to academic circles. They do not treat past phenomena and events as the reality of the lives of people from the past. Moreover, the historiens historisants’ ideal of a purely “historical” point of view that is completely detached from the present is contradictory. For Bloch, this amounts to finding “the essence of history in the very denial of its possibilities.”21 Hence, as with any epistemological essay on the character of history, The Historian’s Craft begins by singling out the conditions for history to be possible at all.

In Bloch’s view, history can hardly be a science of the past in the sense that its object of study is the past itself, or that its object is in the past. Rather, history is to be understood as our present relation to past people’s activities and ways of life. On this issue Bloch quotes his friend Henri Pirenne who, during a trip to Stockholm, told him: “If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life.”22 Of course humans lives change over time, but we are nonetheless connected to each other across generations. Hence, for Bloch, understanding and affirming our relation to human beings in time is what history is all about. Contrary to some “prejudiced” ideas of history such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of history as an “antiquarian” satisfaction with everything old,23 history should not be understood as disconnected from the present life at all. Its object, as the object of all study of human life, is human life itself. The gap between past and present – in modern terms sometimes referred to as the “historian’s paradox”24 – is therefore not the most important issue if we want to understand temporally distant people at all. Indeed, what kind of separation is this and what should we make of it? Bloch is implicitly critical to any idea of a paradox of this sort. He argues that

… misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. But a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past, if he is totally ignorant of the present.25

With this idea in mind, Bloch claims that Leopold von Ranke’s conception of history whose role was to show “how it really was” (wie es eigentlich gewesen) is ambiguous – history being understood as a study of the past for its own sake. This conception leads to the views that the past is separated from us,26 and that history is about passive impartiality towards the past.27 Bloch’s endeavour, however, is fundamentally contrary to both ideas, as he stresses himself.

Thus Bloch’s first presupposition is that the past is connected to the present. More importantly, he infers that the distinction past/present is not relevant to historical understanding. In fact, the connectedness between past and present brings him close to the critique of the discipline of history developed by Durkheim’s School of Sociology. Françoise Simiand’s critique of historiens historisants as investigators of historical entities disconnected from (past) social phenomena and from our (present) world is a case in point.28 Bloch refers to Simiand on several occasions, for instance when he claims that we investigate the past through the tracks left by people from the past; we therefore do not investigate past phenomena themselves.29 This idea is arguably akin to positive social sciences, but Bloch, however, does not go as far as to say that the traces of the past are the only reality we investigate. Rather, he seems to mean that we investigate people from the past and their worlds through the traces they leave behind or through what remains from their worlds. As a result, we only have second hand access to those worlds.

Bloch is nonetheless also very critical of the School of Sociology. He argues that “they [the sociologists] were willing to abandon as outside a true science of man.”30 In other words, the sociologists were ready to sacrifice human reality in its complexity for a scientific ideal of law-bound positive social sciences. In Bloch’s view, this reductive mode of study is not what social sciences should be about.31 But despite such ambivalent feelings Bloch never refers to the representatives of the Verstehen tradition (with the exception of Georg Simmel) who opposed Durkheim and Simiand. Still, Bloch shares much in common with the Verstehen social sciences, which transpires in his second presupposition about the study of the past.

Bloch’s second presupposition is his refutation of scepticism. In his own words,

A good half of all we see is seen through the eyes of others … [In that sense] all knowledge of mankind, to whatever time it applies, will always derive a large part of its evidence from others. In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past.32

For Bloch, historical scepticism has in many ways brought discredit to the study of the past. Such a scepticism cannot be taken seriously anymore than a radical scepticism towards all human knowledge – something any serious scholar would want to avoid.33

The analogy with “see through the eyes of others” suggests that knowledge is not a scientific invention, but a fundamental feature of our lives. To read something, to pose a question, or to believe someone who tells us about his/her experience, is just the kind of basic trust we have in each other. Distrusting one another is not part of our default mindset. Therefore, as the quote goes, the question of evidence only comes second for Bloch and is not necessarily a question of first-person observation, or of verification or falsification of what is real. Evidence is only invoked when we want to prove something, for example when we compare witnesses or try to formulate answers.34 If we contest the evidential character of a telling, this already implies that we take the reality of what is told – and the one who tells it – for granted. This is somehow stunningly similar to what Simmel says: another person’s thought “has its reality in the mind of another person” – not vice versa.35 This should be understood as a refutation of subjectivism and scepticism,36 for neither the reality of another person nor the reality of what another person says to me is to be found within myself. If this is the hermeneutic argument Bloch puts forward, this means two important things at once: any ideas of history as investigation of evidence based on first-person observation and of sceptical attitudes towards the past as inaccessible because of the absence of any first-person observation (i.e., the absence of the past itself or living people from the past) are misguided. Not relying on anything other than first-person observation is problematic, for such a scepticism would have to be applied to the present world as well. But since large parts of the knowledge we acquire in our lives is second-hand and derived from our interactions with other people, the sceptic view for Bloch would not be adopted by anyone. Consequently, scepticism cannot be either a principal condition in any serious study of human life.

The sceptic view, however, is derived from the idea that history is a mere evidential reconstruction of past events “as it was.”37 For Bloch, this view cannot be further from the truth. As we have seen, historical studies seek to understand past people’s worlds; in other words, to get a grasp of how the people under investigation lived and what they thought. Therefore, we neither investigate historical events in an impersonal natural-scientific manner, nor natural events as if they were history. Geological processes, he claims, are not interesting for a historian in as far as they do not affect human life. In any case, it is not so much the geological process itself, but rather its impact on human life that were are interested in as historians.38 In the case of Pompeji, for example, we need to reconstruct very little of the actual eruption “as it was” in order to open up a historical understanding of the people who lived there; to understand the fears and hopes people experienced while living near this specific volcano and to what extent their society was destroyed by the eruption.

Bloch’s second principle postulates that the historian’s aim is to understand human life, not to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible. Of course, any understanding involves a certain degree of reconstruction. But it is not the past itself that we reconstruct when doing history. Rather, we seek to understand other ways of life through what people have left behind and available accounts. The fundamental point is that we must take these traces seriously as the reality of past people’s lives, which again is a hermeneutic rather than positivistic stance. In Bloch’s words,

For how are we to understand a faith which we do not share except through the accounts of others? Such ... is the case with all phenomena of consciousness in so far as they are alien to us.39

These words reflect his anti-sceptic view that the possibility of understanding one another must not be refuted. Philosophically, the question Bloch poses here is clearly not restricted to the study of past people alone. It suggests that we must start by relying on accounts of other people to be able to grasp what is and what is not meaningful to them at all. There is simply no other way for any study of the human world to make sense.

Bloch’s presuppositions are very similar to the principal ideas of Verstehen. Human sciences should aim at understanding the “ethical world” or the “values” of another world.40 This also means that we take the reality of other people for granted in our attempts to understand these people’s world-views or actions. Max Weber, for example, thought that to “understand” means to grasp the values of another person, not to assert the normative correctness of a value or the like. Taking “understanding” as a matter of normative correctness can only fail.41 This, however, does not mean that values are irrelevant: the object of study in the human sciences remains a matter of value and meaningfulness contrary to the natural sciences.42 This was also Bloch’s point when he referred to geological processes.43 This said, “understanding” in the idiographic human sciences does involve grasping values in one particular way:44 it is a non-normative form of judgement of other people’s values. This means that “to understand” always implies that people are involved in one way or another. As Eduard Spranger puts it, “[w]e only understand people. An impersonal occurrence cannot be understood.”45 This is obviously not to say that impersonal occurrences are incomprehensible to us. Rather, we can only understand objects and practices that mean something for someone. Spranger would argue that to claim we understand why for instance an apple falls on the ground when it drops – and this regardless of the human element – is a sign that we do not properly grasp what understanding really involves. We claim that we understand but, in actual fact, such is not the case.

Scientific Passivity/Critical Judgement/Understanding

Our previous account of aspects of the French School of Sociology and German Verstehen philosophies should throw light on the nature of Bloch’s methodology. Most importantly, Bloch does not clearly distinguish between practical and conceptual historical investigations. Both dimensions are involved, which entails that our attitude toward the past transpires through our empirical and conceptual sensitivities. In The Historian’s Craft, he distinguishes between three different attitudes – or ethical involvements with – people from the past: 1) scientific passivity; 2) critical judgement; 3) empathic judgement. Bloch advocates the third kind of judgement, which we will now analyse in detail.

The desire for origin constitutes the most obvious form of normative judgment of the past. Bloch is very critical of this kind of historical attitude and makes the following statement as regards what he calls the “religious” concept of history:

For the pure Deist, it is enough to have the inner light to believe in God. But not to believe in the God of the Christians. For Christianity, as I have already pointed out, is essentially a historical religion: a religion, that is, whose prime dogmas are based on events. Read over your creed: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ ... who was crucified under Pontius Pilate ... and who rose from the dead on the third day.’ Here the beginning of the faith is also its foundations.

Now, this preoccupation with origins, justifiable in a certain type of religious analysis, has spread in a doubtlessly inevitable contagion into other fields of research where its legitimacy is far more debatable. Moreover, history oriented towards origins was put to the service of value judgements. What else did Taine intend, in tracing the ‘origins’ of the France of his day, but a denunciation of the political ill consequences of what he considered a false philosophy of man? And whether the subject was the Germanic invasion or the Norman conquest of England, the past was so assiduously used as an explanation of the present only in order that the present might be the better justified or condemned. So in many cases the demon of origins has been, perhaps, only the incarnation of that other satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgements.46

In this passage, Bloch distances himself from a way of using history to justify or condemn the present. Simultaneously, however, he gives clear guidelines as to how genuine history, in his view, should be conducted. We should not make value judgements, or at least not use the past as raw material for any specific justifying or condemning purposes in the present, he says. In the quote, Bloch criticises French historian Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine’s work, Les origines de la France contemporaine: L’ancien régime (1875)47 – a romantic conception of history that supports certain ideas of national or ethnic origins in the name of science. Bloch’s aforementioned passage can give the impression that he unquestionably refutes any judgement in the study of the past, which he sees as the “satanic enemy of true history.” A closer reading, however, shows that he only dismisses a certain kind of judgement. This is evident when he compares the historian and the judge. Bloch argues that there are two ways of being impartial: the scientist’s way and the judge’s way. Both are striving towards the objective truth of what happened. But in contrast to the scientist, the judge, at a certain point, always has to make a verdict. In this sense, the judge is impartial in a juridical sense but not in a scientific one. Judging whether or not someone has, for example, killed someone else is the kind of judgement both the scientist and the judge make. Condemning a killer for murder is, in contrast, a judgement made in accordance with the normative rules (whether juridical or moral) of a society to which the judge belongs. In other words, every legal case has to be closed with a judicial decision of some kind, either an acquittal or a conviction. These kinds of judgement, for Bloch, are not the historian’s responsibility, “for we can neither condemn nor absolve without accepting a table of values which no longer refers to any positive science.”48 The historian who makes these kinds of judgement criticizes the people under study; this is not history in any positive or scientific sense. Such critical judgements are indeed what Bloch calls the “satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgements.”49

Now, this example can be read either as a genuine analogy between the historian and the judge, or as evidence of two completely different kinds of judgement at play. In fact, Bloch wants to show the latter – something that is often misunderstood. Historian Richard T. Vann, for example, explicitly focuses on Bloch’s conceptual distinction between identifying and judging a killer. Vann argues against Bloch that murder is a crime in all known cultures:

For Bloch’s view to be convincing, he would have to produce an example of a culture that considered no homicides to be culpable and so had no conception of ‘murder.’ I very much doubt this can be done.50

In his example, however, Bloch shows that concepts and judgements go hand in hand. Vann therefore misses the point. The real question is not whether there are cultures in which murder is not culpable but, rather, whether killing should be understood as something similar to “murder”? In other words, is “murder” an appropriate qualification for the killing we investigate and try to understand? As Vann argues, there are probably no cultures in which murder is not culpable. This, however, does not mean that we share the same conception of murder. We simply cannot unquestionably make the same judgement since we do not know whether the qualification is appropriate. In a historically distant society a killing that appears to be a murder in our sense of the word might very well be an act of, honour, or justice, among others. The qualification of “murder” becomes therefore problematic. What Bloch does is to call for reflection on the kind of judgement we make and on how we describe what is at stake. Are we judging other people according to our standards? Is our judgemental conception of “murder” appropriate for such or such killing case? Any usage of the qualification of “murder” must be fully informed; we question whether such a qualification does justice to the lives of the people under scrutiny.

Bloch brings in the distinction between kinds of judgement when he refers to “positive science” in the example he discusses. This calls for more clarification. Bloch’s stance contrasts sharply to Durkheim’s conception of positive social science, which consists in explaining a social phenomenon, its causes and its social function.51 Bloch does not seek to impartially recover whatever social function in a past society; nor is it to research scientifically in a “positive” sense. For him, Durkheim’s undertaking amounts to critical judgement. Of course, such a judgement is not based on juridical or moral norms, but it still depends on fixed social-scientific criteria, in other words the way scientists establish categories. What Bloch therefore suggests is to refrain from making critical judgements on the basis of any such norms, whatever these are. The task of historian lies elsewhere.

It is clear from Bloch’s discussion that all judgements are not judgements of the same kind. Moreover, in spite of appearance Bloch is not advocating a “passive” stance when it comes to understanding people and customs from the past. He favours a form of understanding that is, in actual fact, non-judgemental. As he puts it with reference to judges and historians,

The words of Pascal are more to the point than ever: ‘We all play God in judging: this is good or this is evil.’ Men forget that a value judgement has a raison d’être only as a preparation for an action and a meaning solely in relation to a system of consciously accepted moral references.52

Whether or not moral references are “consciously accepted” and value judgements made “solely” in relation to the former is of course open to discussion. One could argue that some moral judgements are made independently of “a system of consciously accepted moral references”;53 or that, in some cases, it can be difficult to distinguish between consciously accepted universal moral values and moral values instinctively taken from our own culture. Regardless, Bloch’s approach amounts to historical relativity,54 or even cultural relativity,55 which confines values within particular socio-historical contexts. Obviously, this excludes the question of universal judgements based on common moral values. Perhaps, for Bloch, this is simply not of interest to the historian who naturally thinks and works within a common humanity, which in a way already constitutes a universal moral value. Hence, a historian’s interest is to focus on the social norms and judgements that are bound to a specific social context. Values attached to a historically (or culturally) distant person are in the first place valid within his/her context and should be understood as such.56

Bloch’s aforementioned quote is in a sense what understanding is all about. Verstehen scholar Eduard Spranger asserts that “[t]o understand all does not mean to pardon all.”57 In a similar vein, Weber adds: “… nor does mere understanding of another’s viewpoint as such lead, in principle, to its approval.”58 Both scholars suggest the possibility of understanding another person’s values without condemning them. Normative judgements are therefore not necessary components of understanding. This clearly does not mean that we should agree with those we try to understand, or that we must “pardon” them. It means that we are making a completely different kind of judgement. Bloch emphasises this important distinction as follows:

When the passions of the past blend with the prejudices of the present, human reality is reduced to a picture in black and white. Montaigne has already warned us on this ahead: ‘Whenever judgement leans to one side we cannot help distorting and twisting the narrative in this direction.’ Moreover, to plumb the consciousness of another person, separated from us by the interval of generations, we must virtually lay aside our own ego, whereas, to say what we think, we need only remain ourselves. This is a less arduous endeavour. How much easier it is to write for or against Luther than to fathom his soul; to believe Pope Gregory vii about Emperor Henry iv, or Henry iv about Gregory vii, than to unravel the underlying causes of one of the greatest dramas of Western civilization!59

This dense passage does not suggest any passive stance. For Bloch it is surely easier to write for or against Luther than to “fathom his soul” or “to plumb the consciousness of another person,” namely to grasp who he/she was and how he/she lived. But if understanding cannot be a value judgement since it is bound to the life-world of the one who makes the judgement, it cannot be about the merely passive fathoming of Luther’s soul nor the kind of passivity that characterises any Durkheimian explanation of the social function of Lutheran theology. These are, at best, of secondary importance to understanding.

What Bloch means by “historical understanding” – what it means to fathom someone’s soul – is to grasp another person’s actions in accordance with his/her life-world, namely the circumstances in which such actions were meaningful to the people of the time. The point is therefore to understand in context rather than judge the validity of actions according to our own (often ready-made) standards. Again, understanding for Bloch is not a critical judgement; nor is it a passive judgement. Trying to understand past people on their own terms is what he advocates throughout The Historian’s Craft. In the end, he proposes an attitude that is neither ethically passive nor critical (or judgemental) but rather based on a distinct way of understanding other people:

When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies. Let us not say that the true historian is a stranger to emotion: he has that, at all events. ‘Understanding,’ in all honesty, is a word pregnant with difficulties, but also with hope. Moreover, it is a friendly word. Even in action, we are far too prone to judge. It is so easy to denounce. We are never sufficiently understanding.60

Needless to say, this conception is akin to “emphatic understanding” (Einfühlung) developed in Verstehen philosophy.61 Again, such a conception does not call for any form of “agreement”;62 nor does it mean that the historian seeks to be the object of understanding. Weber, for example, refers to emphatic understanding as feeling oneself into a thought that deviates from one’s own,63 when Simmel argues that historical understanding is established empathetically through a “psychology of everyday life.”64 As we have seen, for Bloch, the historian’s inexorable involvement in the reality under study does not necessarily entail critical judgement; nor does it entail detached passivity.

The Question Calls for a Particular Kind of Judgement

Bloch advocates understanding for the historian instead of (scientific) passivity or critical judgment. What does this means in practice? We shall now take a closer look at particular examples.

It should be first mentioned that Bloch differs slightly from some of the more philosophically minded Verstehen scholars, namely Wilhelm Dilthey and his student Eduard Spranger.65 For Bloch, understanding is not a theoretical or methodological foundation of the human sciences. Rather, it is first and foremost an empirical aim, which is more akin to Weber’s “sociology of understanding.” The novelty, however, is the pragmatic touch that Bloch adds to understanding.

Consider this example from the The Historian’s Craft. On one occasion, Bloch discusses the confiscation of land after the French Revolution, used by the rulers to gain peasants’ trust by liberating them from the landlords’ oppression. Here, Bloch makes it very clear what the relevance and irrelevance of a judgement looks like in practice. He asks: “Were they [the rulers] right or wrong?” He then gives a sceptical answer: “What do I care for a historian’s belated decision on this point?” A few sentences later, he writes ironically: “Today, we should laugh at a chemist who separated the bad gases, like chlorine, from the good ones like oxygen.”66

These lines could be simply read as making a distinction between value judgements and scientific passivity. In actual fact, Bloch alludes to a much deeper idea. Instead of saying that certain judgements are always irrelevant for the historian, he points to the kinds of judgement that may or may not be important or necessary for historical understanding in such or such a case. Is it really that important to know whether the rulers after the French Revolution were in the right when liberating the peasants? Is it important to distinguish between good and bad gases? Bloch shows that such judgements are usually unnecessary for the scientist seeking to understand. Whether or not the rulers were in the right is an unnecessary value judgement if understanding (i.e., identification) is the aim. The relevance of a question and the corresponding value judgement depends on what one is after. Same with the good/bad gases example: humans die when breathing in too much chlorine, while plants wither away when absorbing too much oxygen. The values of chlorine and oxygen depends on the terms to which they relate. But if we simply want to know the general characteristics of chlorine and oxygen in their own terms, value judgements are irrelevant.

This example suggests that we need to question the relevance of questions and judgements according to specific contexts, which cannot be decided beforehand. For instance, understanding the phenomenon of the French Revolution will reveal the irrelevance of the question Were the rulers right or wrong? Through his examples, Bloch implies that the kind of judgement a question calls for in a certain context will make us see what is relevant or not for understanding in that specific context.

The same issue surfaces, albeit differently, with his ironic reference to Luther: “How much easier it is to write for or against Luther than to fathom his soul.”67 Again, Bloch advocates to understand who Luther was and why he acted the way he did in the society where he lived. And here as well, the relevance of the judgement depends on the very question one asks. To fathom someone’s soul would be to ask questions such as: What does it mean for Luther to distance himself from the mundane richness of the church, selling indulgences, and delivering sermons in Latin? Why did he stress the need to return to the roots of Christianity at this moment in time and in this particular society? These questions are relevant to any understanding of Luther and the world he lived in. Whether Luther was right or wrong, or good or bad for Christianity, is irrelevant to the kind of judgement Bloch is aiming at, that is, historical understanding.

Concluding Remarks

To sum up, Bloch makes clear distinctions through his methodology between three kinds of ethical interpretative attitudes towards people and customs from the past: scientific passivity; critical judgement; understanding. He advocates “understanding” for the historian in two of his methodologically important works, The Royal Touch and The Historian’s Craft, which has been the focus of this essay for its conceptual scope.

Bloch shows that there are many different kinds of judgement regarding the past and the present. Not all judgements are necessary for historical understanding. The relevance of a judgement depends on the very question one asks. Who was Luther and why did he act the way he did? What did allegedly superstitious practices mean for the people of the kingdoms of England and France, such as the “royal touch” – a medieval practice whereby people thought that kings, by a simple touch, could cure scrofula (infections in the lymph nodes caused by mycobacterium tuberculosis)?68 To answer such questions, we must strive to enter the worlds of these people on their own terms. In Peter Winch’s terms, we must seek to grasp their standards of “rationality.”69 In practice, this means that we must fundamentally reconsider our own standards of measurement (rationality) in accordance with those we are trying to understand. For if understanding is the aim, it makes no sense to say that the “royal touch” filled an “appropriate” function in, for example, the France of Saint Louis, or that the practice amounts to superstition that had its time. In Bloch’s view, historical understanding lies elsewhere. Neither scientific passivity nor critical judgement takes into account what the “royal touch” meant to the people who lived their lives at the time. Should historical understanding be our aim, we need to systematically reflect on the conditions for such an understanding to be possible. Following Bloch and Verstehen philosophy, I have suggested that the nature of historical understanding must be, above all, ethical.


I would like to thank Hugo Strandberg, Olli Lagerspetz, Laura Hollsten, and Anton Froeyman for comments and suggestions on previous drafts of this paper. I am also grateful to the editors and reviewers of Culture and Dialogue for their suggestions.


Natan Elgabsi is a Ph.D candidate in Philosophy at Åbo Akademi University, Finland. He researches on themes concerning the relationship between epistemology and ethics in historical and genealogical sciences. Central to his concerns are questions of responsibility and their relevance to these sciences.


Joseph R. Strayer, “Introduction,” in The Historian’s Craft [1941-1943], trans. P. Putnam (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954), xi; Lucien Febvre, “A New Kind of History [1949],” in A New Kind of History and Other Essays, ed. P. Burke, trans. K. Folca (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1973), 27.


William H. Sewell, “Marc Bloch and the Logic of Comparative History,” History and Theory 6:2 (1967): 208; Alette O. Hill and Boyd H. Hill, “Marc Bloch and Comparative History” The American Historical Review 85:4 (1980): 828-829.


Sociologists with a historical perspective, for example Immanuel Wallerstein and Perry Anderson, are largely influenced by Bloch’s methodology. Daniel Chirot, “The Social and Historical Landscape of Marc Bloch,” in Visions and Methods in Historical Sociology, ed. T. Skocpol (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 22-23.


Febvre, “A New Kind of History,” 30-31.


Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l’histoire ou métier d’historien [1941-1943] (Sine loco 1949).


The book was compiled by Febvre and published in 1949. Lucien Febvre, “A Note on the Manuscripts of the Present Book,” in The Historian’s Craft [1941-1943], trans. P. Putnam (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954), xiii-xx.


Verstehen in the human sciences is usually taken to involve “psychological” elements. However, this does not mean “explanative psychology” in a natural-scientific manner. Wilhelm Dilthey, “Ideas for a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology [1894],” trans. R.A. Makkreel & D. Moore, in Wilhelm Dilthey Selected Works Vol. II: Understanding the Human World, ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel & Frithjof Rodi (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010), 129-142. For the Verstehen scholars, psychological “facts” or “objects,” tend to mean something very different than isolated “mind.” Heinrich Rickert, Science and History: A Critique of Positivist Epistemology [1926], trans. F.A. Hayek (Princeton: D. van Nostrand Comp., 1962), 12-15, 65, 100-103; Max Weber, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy [1904],” in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans. E.A. Shils & H.A. Finch (New York: The Free Press, 1949), 74-75.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 194.


See how close Bloch in fact is to this tradition. Georg Simmel, The Problems of the Philosophy of History: An Epistemological Essay [1905], trans. G. Oakes (New York: The Free Press, 1977), 39-40, 71, 76, 101-102.


Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft [1941-1943], trans. P. Putnam (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954), 11-13, 124, 194-195; Febvre, “A New Kind of History,” 31-32; André Burguière, “La notion de mentalité chez Marc Bloch et Lucien Febvre: Deux conceptions, deux filiations,” Revue de Synthése Paris 111 (1983): 333-348.


Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory [1981], trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 3.


Pierre Nora (ed.), Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past [1984-1992] (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996-1998).


Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting [2000], trans. K. Blamey & D. Pellauer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 90-91, 187-188, 197.


Mainly due to his essay on comparison. Marc Bloch, “Pour une histoire comparée des sociétés européennes,” Revue de synthèse historique 46 (1928): 15-50; Sewell, “Marc Bloch and the Logic of Comparative History,” 208; Hill and Hill, “Marc Bloch and Comparative History,” 828-829; Jürgen Kocka, “Comparison and Beyond,” History and Theory 42:1 (2003), 40.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft.


Marc Bloch, Les rois thaumaturges. Étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribute à la puissance royale, particulièrement en France et en Angleterre [1924] (Paris: Armand Colin, 1961).


Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch: Monarchy and Miracles in France and England [1924], trans. J.E. Anderson (New York: Dorset Press, 1989).


This name usually refers to scholars surrounding Durkheim’s journal L’année sociologique. For members, see cover and content to the first volume from 1896-1897.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 3-4, 14-15, 20.


Historiens historisants (historicising historians) is a very unclear concept. Françoise Simiand refers to Bloch’s teacher Charles Seignobois as one of these. Françoise Simiand, “Méthode historique et science sociale,” Revue synthèse historique 6:17 (1903), 148-149.


Ibid., 16.


Ibid., 22-29, 43-47. Quote from 43.


Nietzsche is, of course, criticising a certain tendency in historical work. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Use and Abuse of History [1874],” in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche: Vol. 2: Thoughts out of Season Part II, tans. A. Collins, ed. O. Levy (Edinburgh & London: T.N. Foulis, 1910), 23-27.


Peter C. Hoffer, The Historian’s Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time (New York: New York University Press, 2008).


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 43.


Critique of historical studies is usually built on this idea. Michel de Certeau, for instance, argues that: ‘Modern Western history essentially begins with differentiation between the present and the past.’ This can easily be taken to mean that the past itself is an object of study. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History [1975] (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 2. For Bloch, however, the view which de Certeau repeats here is confused. Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 22-29, 35-47.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 43-47, 138.


Simiand, “Méthode historique,” 135-138. Idiography, namely study of individuality, is usually claimed to be a focal point in human science. Wilhelm Windelband, Geschichte und Naturwissenschaft [1894] (Strassburg: J.H. Heitz, 1904), 9-12.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 54-55, 195; Simiand, “Méthode historique,” 151.


Ibid., 14.


Ibid., 14-15, 20.


Ibid., 49 and 50.


See also Johann Gustav Droysen, Grundriss der Historik (Leipzig: Verlag von Veit, 1882), 15-16.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 49-54.


Simmel, The Problem of the Philosophy of History, 75-80. Quote from 76.


Robin G. Collingwood, on the contrary, reads Simmel’s work as expressing some kind of subjectivism. To me this is a misinterpretation. Robin G. Collingwood, The Idea of History [1946] (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1962), 170-171.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 50-53. Compare: Simmel, The Problem of the Philosophy of History, 79-85.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 23-24.


Ibid., 52-53. Quote from 52.


Droysen, Grundriss der Historik, 23 and 68.


Max Weber, “The Meaning of “Ethical Neutrality” in Sociology and Economics [1917],” in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans. E.A. Shils & H.A. Finch (New York: The free Press, 1949), 32-33 and 41.


Rickert, Science and History, 19-20.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 23-24.


Windelband, Geschichte und Naturwissenschaft, 12-17.


My translation. Eduard Spranger, “Zur Theorie des Verstehens und zur Geisteswissenschaftlichen Psychologie [1918],” in Eduard Spranger: Gesammelte Schriften VI: Grundlagen der Geisteswissenschaften, ed. H.W. Bähr (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1980), 31.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 30-31.


Hippolyte-Adolphine Taine, Les origines de la France contemporaine: L’ancien régime [1875] (Paris: Bouquins, 1986).


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 31.


Ibid., 139.


Richard T. Vann, “Historians and Moral Evaluations,” History and Theory 43 (2004), 19-20. Quote from 20.


Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method [1895], trans. S.A. Solovay & J.H. Mueller (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1950), 95.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 139-140.


Here I think of philosophy in line with for instance: Peter Winch, “Who Is My Neighbour?,” in Trying to Make Sense (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 154-166.


Theologian Ernst Troeltsch discusses this kind of value-relativity in German philosophy of history. Ernst Troeltsch, “Historiography,” in Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics: Vol. VI, ed. J. Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), 722-723.


Franz Boas, for instance, does not talk about ‘cultural relativity’ as such but clearly refers to the same idea. Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York: MacMillan, 1938), 169-174. In Boas’ footsteps, ‘cultural relativism’ later became a common ethnological concept, especially in American anthropology. Melville J. Herskovits, “Some Further Comments on Cultural Relativism,” American Anthropologist 60:2 (1958), 266-273.


See Wilhelm Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences, ed. R.A. Makkreel & F. Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 85-89.


My translation. Spranger, “Zur Theorie des Verstehens,” 35.


Weber, “The Meaning of “Ethical Neutrality”, 14.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 140-141.


Ibid., 143.


Georg Henrik von Wirght, Explanation and Understanding (New York: Cornell University Press, 1971), 6.


Spranger and Dilthey talk about developing a form of sympathy in understanding, which indeed seems to be a more difficult concept than empathy. Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences, 140; Spranger, “Zur Theorie des Verstehens,” 35.


Weber, “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’,” 41.


Simmel, The Problems of the Philosophy of History, 74-76. Quote from 75.


Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences, 165-169.


Bloch, The Historian’s Craft. Quotes from 141 and 142.


Ibid., 141.


Bloch, The Royal Touch, 11.


Peter Winch, “Understanding a Primitive Society,” American Philosophical Quarterly 1:4 (1964), 316-318.

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