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Relocating Inwardness: Historical Distance and the Transition from Enlightenment to Romantic Historiography

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Nineteenth-century historians and critics attacked the works of their Enlightenment predecessors as dry, abstract, and overly rational, yet eighteenth-century authors also placed considerable stress on the need for emotional involvement in the reading of history. Using the idea of historical distance, this essay shows that two forms of distance operated in the historical works of this period. On cognitive grounds, Enlightenment historians were committed to a theory of explanation that demanded considerable abstraction. In affective terms, however, the moral psychology of Hume, Smith, and Kames emphasized that history's potential for moral instruction depends on the writer's ability to reduce emotional distance. Actuality rather than exemplarity became the watchword of historical narration as readers were invited to appreciate history in ways that were strongly influenced by the contemporary culture of sensibility.

Special Topic: Imagining History
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2003

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