How did Leopold von Ranke Approach the Writing of History?

“Ranke’s work is a good example of the fact that rhetoric and aesthetics can be mediated with rationality, which defines the academic or scientific character of historical studies…” – Jӧrn Rüsen

The modern discipline of history, along with the universally shared principles and fundamental values that come with writing past accounts, can be highly credited to a list of prominent academics. Of these academics, however, perhaps the most significant contributor to the professionalisation of History, was the German scholar Leopold von Ranke. Originally, professor Ranke’s approach to the writing of history, advanced major ideas and methods of writing about the past, into a field which otherwise, lacked the appreciation of historical evidence, and the ‘scientifically’ academic sophistication many researchers value it as to upholding today. I will be further exploring the approaches and methods of research, to which Ranke developed, how such approaches were introduced to historical studies throughout his professional years and the influences these methods had in shaping the discipline of history. Furthermore, I will be analysing and further developing the studies made by contributing historians, including Professor Marvin H. Eyler, Edward Armstrong and Hayden White.

To understand the subject of how Leopold von Ranke approached History, it is perhaps important to first explain the question, and, in particular, my meaning of ‘approach’ when dealing with this specific topic. In this sense, I stress on identifying the attitudes and focus of theories to which Ranke developed when writing histories. Moreover, in relation to practicality, this essay will also be assessing Ranke’s methods of research, towards his historical studies, and the impact this had in transforming the subject to a scientifically respected discipline.

In regard to historiography, there are arguably three key elements, that can be analysed, when investigating Leopold von Ranke’s approach to history. One could maintain that these are: objectivity, archival research and the referencing of one’s own work from other historical sources. Of these three factors, the historian Professor Marvin H. Eyler, would maintain that the most important approach Ranke significantly shaped in the field of writing histories, was writing in the aims of achieving objectivity[1]. The act of being objective, in its simplest description, can be defined as the deliberate attempt of excluding the influences of an individual’s ideas and personal beliefs, in the means of delivering factual information.[2]  Such a definition, in accordance to Ranke’s practices, was a value to which the historian believed all scholars and writers of history should approach when making written accounts of the past.[3] Indeed, Ranke both justified and demonstrated, in detail, his theories behind objectivity in his publication, ‘The Theory and Practice of History’.[4] In his writing, the scholar defines the task of a historian as to be that of solely merging together the factual pieces of the past; for the single purpose of narrating an event in its entire truth. There was to be nothing more important than this rule.[5]

Respectfully, if one focuses on Ranke’s emphasis on the historian’s role of merely presenting what truly happened in the past, it becomes clearer that the scholar’s exclamation of the valuing of objectivity, was, in theory, the total rejection of the presence of subjectivity, when approaching history. It could be observed therefore, that Ranke believed the act of writing histories with the intention of being impartial, was the sophisticated academic value to which historical writers heavily neglected, during his time. History, as Ranke suggested, must be deprived of subjectivity.[6]

The conflict between subjectivity and objectivity, when writing about the past, is a topic Professor Marvin H. Eyler discusses in his essay ‘Objectivity and Selectivity in Historical Inquiry’[7]. The historian distinguishes these approaches of writing, by regarding them as parties.[8] That is, those who respect themselves as writing in the aim of being impartial, Eyler calls ‘Objectivists’.[9] On the contrary, the sympathisers of the latter approach are, according to the professor, considered ‘Subjectivists’.[10] After distinguishing these two historiographical approaches, Eyler then develops Ranke’s theory, by offering the practical methods to which Ranke provided as criterions in achieving objectivity. It is written how the scholar used precise methods, including collecting, documenting and organising historical documents which focused on a specific historical event, in the hopes of easily writing and recreating the past accounts, according to these findings.[11] A highly agreeable judgment mentioned by Eyler, is a reference to a conclusion made by Professor Morton White. White simplifies the differences between the subjective and objective approaches to history, in that while objectivity concerns the stages of uncovering historical facts; subjectivity focuses on explanations of differing historiographical understandings.[12] I would develop this conclusion, and add that it was perhaps this idea of implementing one’s own explanation, in an attempt to justify a historical interpretation of an event, that Ranke believed damaged and limited the ‘scientific’ value History potentially had as a discipline. After all, according to Ranke’s approach to writing the past, history is, in the literal sense, a linear collection of past events. Hence a historian’s role is to merely, as he put it, “penetrate them to the bottom of their existence and to portray them with complete objectivity.”[13]

During the early stages of Professor Ranke’s career, perhaps his most significant initial work was ‘History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations’. In his publication, Ranke strategically used the method of archival research as a way of supporting his work, and using such sources as solid historical evidence.[14] It could be inferred that, Ranke’s eagerness for ‘scientific’ and practical approaches to history, suggested his ideas of there being an undeviating bond between impartiality, and solid evidence. Theoretically, to appropriately and academically eliminate biases when writing past accounts, a historian must present genuine evidence of their findings, for the purpose of justifying their narratives. Methods of doing so, as Ranke demonstrated, involved the analysis of archival sources and referring to such findings in publications. A key consequence of this approach, to which Ranke aimed to accomplish, was the increase sense of validity within one’s work.[15] That is, providing there was enough historical evidence, one could prove the extent to which their writings were factual. This is because, logically, the use of genuine historical evidence, would indeed strengthen the reliability of one’s work. Consequently, Leopold von Ranke’s work in shaping History into a scholarly discipline, is often focused highly on his value for the use of historical evidence, and more importantly, referencing such findings in his work. However, as the historian Edward Armstrong suggested, such a method, although very much supported by Ranke, is one that has perhaps been exaggerated to have been the most imperative act for the scholar.[16] On the contrary, Armstrong argues that Ranke’s unique approach to writing history was structured with archival researching being, as he states, “the last rather than the first stage”[17]. The historian further elaborates by providing an alternative reason for Ranke’s developed interests in archival research. Instead of initially analysing primary and secondary sources from archives, for the purpose of narrating an event around such findings, Armstrong maintained that Ranke collected evidential material, after writing narratives. This was because, the scholar sought to study archives, in the aims of validating and confirming his pre-written narratives.[18] In developing Armstrong’s understanding, one could suggest that the issue of the lack of knowledge in a historical topic, was one to which Ranke perhaps did not recognise, regarding the roles and skills of an historian. The method of collecting archival evidence for the purpose of simply validating a prepared narrative, illustrates the confidence the scholar may have had in writing about past accounts. It could be inferred therefore, that the meaning of even referencing findings, for Leopold von Ranke, was merely to present or gain academic credibility amongst other scholars studying Ranke’s publications. Indeed, Armstrong makes note of this complaint being made amongst Ranke’s criticisers.[19] Such an observation is relevant, I would argue, when assessing the shift historiography has experienced throughout time. More importantly however, this view is helpful in reviewing the possible adjustments of the purposes to a specific approach to history. In this case, this would concern Ranke’s original reasons behind archival research and referencing compared to the modern understanding of its methods. Armstrong’s argument is ultimately helpful in suggesting how the origins of the ‘Ranke’ approach to history, has been altered overtime. Evidently, such changes include the initial research of archived evidence, prior to academically narrating an event.

Understandably, Ranke’s approach to history, particularly regarding his theories concerning objectivity, has been met with academic criticism. The historian, Hayden White provides an alternative view to subjectivity, in support of its approach to history. In his article ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’, White provides a generally realistic argument against Ranke’s objectivity theory, in that, the presence of subjectivity, when writing histories, is inevitable.[20] In addition to this, the historian further argues that, in many ways, it is actually necessary.[21] The ‘narrative mode’ as White describes it, is a natural behaviour shared amongst all humans[22]. In White’s defence, social factors, including language, societal norms and culture all effect historiography. In actual fact, one might vigorously argue that the discipline of History itself, is a social construction. Hence the action of eliminating these subjective factors, White argues, is virtually impossible[23]. Likewise, Kjetil Fallan et al, present the criticisms made by Dominick LaCapra, in their article, ‘It’s Personal: Subjectivity in Design History’.[24] The historians illustrate how LaCapra maintains the view that, attempting to approach writing history with the purpose of wholly narrating objectively, cannot once be achieved.[25] Nonetheless, the historian Jörn Rüsen, praises the contributions Ranke had in professionalising history, irrespective of how possible, attaining complete objectivity can be when writing about historical events. In his article ‘Rhetoric and Aesthetics of History: Leopold von Ranke’, Rüsen discusses the important role Ranke played in the ‘scientified’ approach to historiography[26]. Rüsen states how the scholar’s methods of writing and researching “is a good example of the fact that rhetoric and aesthetics can be mediated with rationality, which defines the academic or scientific character of historical studies.”[27] The historian’s judgement of Ranke’s work is highly agreeable. To elaborate, Rüsen suggestively makes note of the failure of those critical of Ranke’s theories of approaching history, in recognising the overall impact and long term influences the scholar had in shaping the modern, sophisticated and scientific discipline which exists today. Indeed, one could argue that Ranke was a significant figure in determining the fate of History. The once solely narrative subject’s path to a professionalised discipline, was majorly directed and partially initiated by the origins of a ‘Ranke’ style historiography. And such a style, as previously suggested, continued to be reshaped, and improved throughout the discipline’s development.

To conclude, a final observation that will be made, concerns how much Leopold von Ranke’s methods of approaching the past, has infiltrated and manifested in the modern discipline of History. Irrespective of both supportive and opposing criticisms, it would perhaps be considered unjust, at least for the likes of Rüsen and supporting historians, for one to reject the notion of Ranke’s historiographical methods, holding any relevance or influence in virtually all historiographical divisions today. On the contrary, I would observe Ranke’s introductions of archival research and the values of referencing in particular, to be one of the most influential methods of approaching history. So much so, that contemporary thinkers of historiographical divisions continue to use these techniques, in the aims of countering opposing interpretations; while also providing academic evidence, for the purpose of validating their own understanding. Indeed, interestingly it is even the critical historians, like Hayden White, who, in theory, would inevitably find the need to present valid evidence of their academic research through the use of referencing.[28] Understandably, Leopold von Ranke attempted to demonstrate ways of strategically excluding personal biases in the aims of achieving objectivity and writing truthful accounts of the past. Subjectivity, according to the scholar, was a problematic issue, which conflicted against those who wished to write factual history, or in the similar words of Ranke, ‘how things really were.’[29] When approaching the past, the historian maintained, one’s own biases and theories of the topic of interest needed to be completely eliminated.[30] Such a task for this specific approach was one that was believed by Ranke, to be not only possible, but necessary.

Written by Tara Kofi-Adu.

Second year BA History Undergraduate, University of Essex.


[1] Marvin H. Eyler, Objectivity and Selectivity in Historical Inquiry, p.66

[2] Angus Stevenson (ed), Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford, 2010), p.1224.

[3] Leopold von Ranke, The Theories and Practice of History, ed. Georg G. Iggers, trans. Wilma A. Iggers (United Kingdom, 2010), p.14.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marvin H. Eyler, Objectivity and Selectivity in Historical Inquiry.

[8] Ibid. p.66

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Marvin H. Eyler, p.67

[13] Ranke, The Theories and Practice of History, p.14.

[14]) Ibid. pp. 36-523.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Leopold von Ranke, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, ed. Edward Armstrong, trans. G.R Dennis (London, 1915), p.14.

[17] Ibid. p.12.

[18] Leopold von Ranke, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, p.12

[19] Ibid. p.13.

[20] Hayden White, ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’, History and Theory, Vol. 23, (1984), pp.1.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Kjetil Fallan & Grace Lees-Maffei, ‘It’s Personal: Subjectivity in Design History’, Design and Culture, Vol. 7, (2015), p.4.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Rüsen, Jörn. “Rhetoric and Aesthetics of History: Leopold Von Ranke.” History and Theory 29, Vol. 29 (1990), p.190.

[27] Rüsen, Jörn, Rhetoric and Aesthetics of History: Leopold Von Ranke, p.190

[28] Hayden White, ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’, History and Theory, Vol. 23, (1984), pp.1-33.

[29] Andreas Boldt ‘Ranke: Objectivity and History’, Rethinking History Vol. 18, (2014), p.463.

[30] Andreas Boldt ‘Ranke: Objectivity and History’, p.463.



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