Notoriously history has two principal meanings: the past itself and the historian's presentation of the results of his inquiry into it. When the latter meaning is examined, it is evident that, for all of his stance of common sense and matter-of-factness, the historian encounters his profession's form of the problem of knowledge. How and why does he select his sources? What is the validity or truth of his account? What is the relationship between fact and generalization? Does his avowed or unconscious motivation affect the historian's search, selection and presentation? Does his form of presentation affect his use of facts and his judgment?
Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), modern founding father of critical history and patron saint of devourers of archives, raised these questions and responded to them. His masterly histories of Reformation Germany, Prussia, England, France and the papacy were esteemed as the fruit and vindication of his method. In England and the United States, however, the method was identified with a few slogans and injunctions: history is primarily a study of politics and foreign policy; return to or search out the sources; evaluate them and prize, above all, the sources that present the testimony of participants and eyewitnesses; strive simply to tell things as they actually happened. So to reduce Ranke's position is intellectual primitivism, a primitivism that persisted because attempts to discuss the problem of historical knowledge were ignored or derided as futile.