Pluralism in Historiography: A Case Study of Case Studies

  • Katherina KinzelEmail author
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 319)


In history the same historical episodes can be reconstructed from multiple perspectives, leading to different interpretations and evaluations of the same events, and sometimes even to different factual claims. In this paper, I analyze what I call “historiographical pluralism”—situations of conflict between different case studies of the same historical episodes. I address two interrelated questions: First, which features of historical reconstruction and representation give rise to such conflicts? Second, can we assess rival historical case studies and decide between them, thus restricting historiographical pluralism? As an answer to the first question, I highlight the selective and theory-laden character of historical representation and argue that the narrative dimension of historiography is central for the knowledge that a historical case study can convey. I then go on to analyze how—in practice—disagreement about historical facts emerges. I discuss four case studies paired around two historical episodes and show that conflicts arise from the selective, theory-laden, and narrative aspects of historical methodologies. The second question I answer by discussing different criteria for assessing historical accounts. I note a dilemma in the evaluation of historical reconstructions. On the one hand, there exist neutral and almost universally accepted evaluation criteria. But these criteria are weak and cannot always decide between conflicting accounts of the same episodes. On the other hand, there are stronger methodological criteria. Alas, they are often not neutral with respect to the substantial theoretical issues at stake in situations of conflict between different historical reconstructions. I conclude that because of this dilemma, we have to accept some degree of pluralism in historiography.


Historical Account Historical Reconstruction Methodological Strategy Complex Criterion Factual Claim 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



For suggestions and comments on earlier drafts of this paper I am grateful to Martin Kusch, Veli Mitova, Martha Rössler, Katharina Bernhard, and Martin Strauss. I also want to thank the participants of the workshop “The Philosophy of Historical Case Studies” in Bern for their engaging discussions and criticism. Research leading up to this paper was made possible by grants from the Austrian Science Foundation (FWF) (“Contingency, Inevitability and Relativism in the History and Philosophy of Science”, Project no.: P25069-G18) and the European Research Council (ERC) (“The Emergence of Relativism”, Grant agreement no. 339382).


  1. Ashplant, T., and A. Wilson. 1988. Present-centered history and the problem of historical knowledge. The Historical Journal 31(2): 253–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bakhtin, M. 1986. The Bildungsroman and its significance in the history of realism (Toward a historical typology of the novel). In Speech Genres and other Late Essays, ed. C. Emerson, and M. Holquist, 10–59. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  3. Barnes, B., D. Bloor, and J. Henry. 1996. Scientific knowledge. A sociological analysis. London: Athlone.Google Scholar
  4. Blumenthal, G. 2013. On Lavoisier’s achievement in chemistry. Centaurus 55(1): 20–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Butterfield, H. 1949. The origin of modern science 1300–1800. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  6. Carr, D. 2008. Narrative explanation and its malcontents. History and Theory 47(1): 19–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carroll, N. 2001. Interpretation, history and narrative. In Philosophical Essays, ed. Beyond Aesthetics, 133–156. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Chang, H. 2009. We have never been whiggish (about Phlogiston). Centaurus 51(4): 239–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chang, H. 2012. Is water \(H_2O\) ? evidence, realism and pluralism. Dordrechtht: Springer.Google Scholar
  10. Collins, H.M. 1981. What is TRASP: The radical programme as a methodological imperative. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11: 215–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Collins, H.M. 1985. Changing order: Replication and induction in scientific practice. Beverley Hills and London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  12. Collins, H.M. 1994. A strong confirmation of the experimenters’ regress. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 25(3): 493–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Crombie, A.C. 1953. Robert Grosseteste and the origins of experimental science, 1100–1700. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  14. Cunningham, A. 1988. Getting the game right: Some plain words on the identity and invention of science. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 19(3): 365–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cunningham, A., and P. Williams. 1993. De-centring the ‘Big Picture’: The origins of modern science and the modern origins of science. The British Journal for the History of Science 26(4): 407–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Daston, L., and P. Galison. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.Google Scholar
  17. Feldhay, R. 1994. Narrative constraints on historical writing. The case of the scientific revolution. Science in Context 7(1): 7–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Franklin, A. 1986. The neglect of experiment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Franklin, A. 1994. How to avoid experimenters’ regress. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 25: 463–491.Google Scholar
  20. Frye, N. 1957. The anatomy of criticism. Four essay. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Giere, R.N. 2004. How models are used to represent reality. Philosophy of Science 71(5): 742–752.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Holton, G. 1978. Subelectrons, presuppositions, and the Millikan-Ehrenhaft Dispute. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 9: 161–224.Google Scholar
  23. Jardine, N. 2000. Uses and abuses of anachronism in the history of sciences. History of Science 38(3): 251–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kellert, S.H., H.E. Longino, and C.K. Waters. 2006. Scientific pluralism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  25. Kinzel, K. 2012. Geschichte ohne Kausalität. Abgrenzungsstrategien gegen die Wissenschaftssoziologie in zeitgenössischen Ansätzen historischer Epistemologie. Berichte zur. Wissenschaftsgeschichte 35(2): 147–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kinzel, K. 2015. Narrative and evidence. How can case studies from the history of science support claims in the philosophy of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49: 48–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Koyré, A. 1957. From the closed world to the infinite universe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Kusch, M. 2015. Scientific pluralism and the chemical revolution. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49: 69–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ladyman, J. 2011. Structural realism versus standard scientific realism: The case of phlogiston and dephlogisticated air. Synthese 180(2): 87–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lindberg, D.C. 1990. Conceptions of the scientific revolution from Bacon to Butterfield: A preliminary sketch. In Reaprraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. D.C. Lindberg, and R.S. Westman, 1–27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. McEvoy, J. 2010. The historiography of the chemical revolution: Patterns of interpretation in the history of science. London: Pickering and Chatto.Google Scholar
  32. Musgrave, A. 1976. Why did oxygen supplant phlogiston? Research programmes in the chemical revolution. In Method and appraisal in the physical sciences. The critical background to modern science, 1800–1905, ed. C. Howson, 181–210. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Pomata, G. 1998. Close-Ups and long shots. Combining particular and general in writing the histories of women and men. In Geschlechtergeschichte und allgemeine Geschichte. Herausforderungen und Perspektiven, ed. H. Medick, and A.-C. Trepp, 99–124. Göttingen: Wallstein.Google Scholar
  34. Porter, R. 1986. The scientific revolution: A spoke in the wheel? In Revolution in history, ed. R. Porter, and M. Teich, 290–316. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Roth, P.A. 1988. Narrative explanations. The case of history. History and Theory 27(1): 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sapp, J. 1990. The nine lives of Gregor Mendel. In Experimental inquiries: Historical, philosophical and social studies of experimentation in science, ed. H. Le Grand, 137–166. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  37. Secord, J.A. 1993. Introduction to ‘The Big Picture’. The British Journal for the History of Science 26(4): 387–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Shapin, S. 1998. The scientific revolution. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  39. Tosh, N. (2003). Anachronism and retrospective explanation. In Defence of a present-centered history of science. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 34(3): 647–659.Google Scholar
  40. van Fraassen, B.C. 2008. Scientific representation. Paradoxes of perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. White, H. 1973. Metahistory. The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins Press.Google Scholar
  42. White, H. 1978. The historical text as a literary artifact. In The writing of history. literary form and historical understanding, ed. R.H. Canary, and H. Kozicki, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  43. White, H. 1980. The value of narrativity in the representation of reality. In The content of the form. Narrative discourse and historical representation, 1–25. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Yates, F.A. 1964. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieUniversität WienViennaAustria

Personalised recommendations