Conjectural history  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Conjectural history is a type of historiography isolated in the 1790s by Dugald Stewart, who termed it "theoretical or conjectural history", as prevalent in the historians and early social scientists of the Scottish Enlightenment. As Stewart saw it, such history makes space for speculation about causes of events, by postulating natural causes that could have had such an effect. His concept was to be identified closely with the French terminology histoire raisonnée, and the usage of "natural history" by David Hume in his work The Natural History of Religion. It was related to "philosophical history", a broader-based kind of historical theorising, but concentrated on the early history of man in a type of rational reconstruction that had little contact with evidence.

Such conjectural history was the antithesis of the narrative history being written at the time by Edward Gibbon and William Robertson. Stewart defended it as more universal in its application to humankind, even at the cost of detailed documentation. It was not concerned with the political narrative and public life, but saw itself as an investigative "moral science". General philosophical history was somewhat closer to narrative history than conjectural history could be, with its reliance in part on tenuous arguments on the nature of feudalism and early ethnographical reports from European travellers. For Stewart the Dissertation on the Origin of Languages by Adam Smith was an important example. To justify the procedures of conjectural history, there needed to be an assumption of the uniformity of human nature, or as Stewart put it, the "capacities of the human mind".

Conjectural history has been identified as "the core of a theory" of progress within Scottish philosophical history of the period. Pocock writes that Scottish conjectural history was "of considerable importance to Gibbon and the creation of philosophical historiography". By the 1780s there were European historians of culture who worked in a different way, preferring an inductive method to the pure deductions of conjectural history. In the later development of anthropology and archaeology, opposition to the whole "conjectural history" tradition led to the development of culture history.




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