Early modern concepts of history and practices of historical writing

A reading-group organized by Veronica Lazăr and Grigore Vida

The reading-group aims to investigate some major theoretical writings about history – history understood as both object and discourse, reality and methods of apprehending it – from the end of the 16th century to the end of the Enlightenment, especially in France and England, but also in Scotland, Germany and Holland.

The texts are proposed in a roughly chronological order, not so much out of an academic convention, as an abstract or even teleological listing of doctrines, but rather because the reading-group is conceived as an exploration of the way in which theoretical writings and their historical, social, institutional and political contexts illuminate each other. Besides an internal reading of the texts, we will study the mutual engagement of the theories of history and the sciences, literary genres, jurisprudence etc. during the two centuries preceding the French Revolution. Also, we will focus on the formation of the various historical epistemologies, critical methods, ontologies and representations of historical temporality, as well as on their close connection with the immediate and pragmatic functions of historical writings, or with state policies and social and economic dynamics in the premodern state.

We will investigate how up until the birth of speculative theories about history (which anticipate the future philosophies of history), i.e. sometime in the middle of the 18th century, history is generally written in order to answer some specific practical needs; its function might be, for instance, to demonstrate a dynastic or ecclesiastic continuity, the building of a state, to legitimize some political practices or, on the contrary, to demythologize some sets of legitimacies etc. – historiography being consequently moulded according to these needs. This is the cause, especially in France, of the fundamental epistemic fragmentation of the historical field, echoing the fragmentation of the conflicting jurisdictions and authorities specific to the French Old Regime, and also echoing the parallel existence of different, independent types of historical writing that do not share premises or methods and do not verify one another, because they do not belong to a common field of knowledge.

Speculative histories, a genre that initially had theological affinities and even theological sources, emerge in periods of transition and transformations of society and economy; they are contemporary with a few new intellectual genres and disciplines, like economy, social theory and various sciences of the state.

The differences between the various genres of historical writing – theologies of history, universal histories, theories of progress, critical philology, natural histories of societies etc. – will be analyzed internally, by inquiring into their specific philosophical assumptions, as well as by inscribing them in an external logic that has a defining impact on their content.

The reading group will take place every two weeks, for two hours. It is intended as a venue for philosophers, historians of ideas, literary scholars and historians.


Tuesday, 31 January 2017, 14.00-16.00

Starting with 17 February, the seminar will tale place every other Friday, at 18.30:

– 17 February, 3, 17 March, 14, 28 April, 12, 26 May, 9 June

Contact: veronica.lazar (at) yahoo.com


  1. History of philosophical historiography (1/2 weeks):
  • Thomas Stanley, The History of Philosophy (3 vol., 1655-1661)
  • Jakob Brucker, Historia critica philosophiæ (5 vol., 11742–1744, 21766–1767)

Secondary literature:

  • Francesco Bottin, Luciano Malusa, Giuseppe Micheli, Giovanni Santinello, Ilario Tolomino, Models of the History of Philosophy. Volume I: From Its Origins in the Renaissance to the ‘Historia Philosophica’ (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993)
  • Gregorio Piaia & Giovanni Santinello (eds.), Models of the History of Philosophy. Volume II: From the Cartesian Age to Brucker (New York: Springer, 2011)
  • Gregorio Piaia & Giovanni Santinello (eds.), Models of the History of Philosophy. Volume III: The Second Enlightenment and the Kantian Age (New York: Springer, 2015)
  1. Biblical hermeneutics and the methods of critical history (1/2 weeks):
  • Jean Bodin, Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitione, 1566 (French translation by Pierre Mesnard: La Méthode pour étudier l’Histoire, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1941)
  • Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, edited by Jonathan Israel, translated by Michael Silverstone & Jonathan Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  • Richard Simon, Histoire critique du Vieux Testament, 1678 (facsimile reprint Genève: Slatkine, 1971)
  • Jean Mabillon, Méthode pour apprendre l’histoire (1684) in Œuvres choisies, édition établie par Odon Hurel (Paris: R. Laffont, 2007)

Secondary literature:

  • Travis L. Frampton, Spinoza and the Rise of the Historical Criticism of the Bible (New York: T.&T. Clark, 2006)
  • Sylvain Zac, Spinoza et l’interprétation de l’Écriture (Paris: P.U.F., 1965)
  • D. Woodbridge, “Richard Simon, le père de la critique biblique” in Jean-

Robert Armogathe (ed.), Le grand Siècle et la Bible (Paris: Beauchesne, 1989)

  • Richard Popkin, “Spinoza and Bible Scholarship” in Don Garett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 383-407
  • Yitzhak Melamed & Michael Rosenthal (eds.), Spinoza’s “Theological-Political Treatise”: A Critical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)
  • Susan James, Spinoza on Philosophy, Religion, and Politics: The Theologico-Political Treatise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • Blandine Barret-Kriegel, Les historiens et la monarchie: Jean Mabillon (Paris: P.U.F., 1988)
  1. Historical Pyrrhonism and the rebuilding of faith in history  (1/2 weeks):
  • Descartes, Discours de la Méthode (1637)
  • Gassendi Exercitationes paradoxicæ adversus Aristoteleos, 1624 (French translation by Bernard Rochot: Dissertations en forme de paradoxes contre les aristotéliciens, Paris: Vrin, 1959)
  • La Mothe Le Vayer, Du peu de certitude qu’il y a dans l’Histoire (1668) in Traités sur l’histoire, 1638-1677: La Mothe Le Vayer, Le Moyne, Saint-Réal, Rapin, sous la direction de Gérard Ferreyrolles (Paris: H. Champion, 2013)
  • Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique (11697, 21702)
  • Diderot, Pyrrhonienne ou Sceptique (secte) (1765), article from the Encyclopédie

Secondary literature:

  • Carlo Borghero, La certezza e la storia. Cartesianesimo, pirronismo e conoscenza storica (Milano: Franco Angeli, 1983)
  • Blandine Barret-Kriegel, Les historiens et la monarchie, II: La défaite de l’érudition (Paris: P.U.F., 1988)
  1. Isaac Newton historian
  • The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended. To which is Prefix’d a Short Chronicle from the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, by Sir Isaac Newton. London: Printed for J. Tonson, J. Osborn and T. Longman, MDCCXXVIII [1728]

Secondary literature:

  • Jed Z. Buchwald & Mordechai Feingold, Newton and the Origin of Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013)
  • Frank Manuel, Isaac Newton Historian (Cambridge/MA: Harvard University Press, 1963)
  • James E. Force & Richard Popkin (eds.), The Books of Nature and Scripture. Recent Essays on Natural Philosophy, Theology, and Biblical Criticism in the Netherlands of Spinoza’s Time and the British Isles of Newton’s Time (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994)
  1. Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes or the uses and abuses of history (1 week)
  • Fontenelle
  • Bayle
  • Perrault

Secondary literature:

  • Chantal Grell, Le dix-huitieme siecle et l’Antiquite en France (Oxford: Voltaire Foudation, 1995)
  • La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, précédé d’un essai de Marc Fumaroli, suivi d’une postface de Jean Robert Armogathe, édition établie et annotée pare Anne-Marie Lecoq (Paris: Gallimard, 2001)
  1. From historical theology to universal history (2 weeks):
  • B. Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle, 1681 (ed. Jacques Truchet, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966)
  • Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, 1745 (Oxford: Voltaire foundation, 2016)
  • Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789)

Secondary literature:

  • Karen O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  1. The critique of historical metaphysics (1 week)
  • Voltaire, La philosophie de l’histoire, par le feu Abée Bazin (1765)
  • Hume
  1. History at work: the dispute about the constitution and origin of French monarchy (1 week)
  • Boulainvilliers
  • Dubos
  • Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois(1748)
  1. Natural history of human kind and theories of progress (2 weeks):
  • -J. Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755)
  • Hume
  • Smith
  • Ferguson
  • Condorcet
  1. When economy makes history (1/2 weeks):
  • -J. Rousseau, Discours sur l’économie politique
  • Adam Smith
  • John Millar