Do Theorists of History Have a Theory of History? Reflections on a Non-Discipline

This brief article is a discussion-starter on the question of the role and use of theories and philosophies of history. In the last few decades, theories of history typically intended to transform the practice of historical studies through a straightforward application of their insights. Contrary to this, I argue that they either bring about particular historiographical innovations in terms of methodology but leave the entirety of historical studies intact or change the way we think about the entirety of historical studies merely by describing and explaining it in fresh and novel ways, without the need (and possibility) of application. In the former case, theories appear as internal to historical studies. In the latter case, they appear as theories abouthistory, and such theories are no longer limited to study history understood as historical writing. In reflecting on the historical condition of the ever-changing world, they foster a more fruitful cooperative relationship with the discipline of history. Discussing the scope and use of such theories of history is inevitable today when a younger generation sets out to theorize history against the backdrop of the experiential horizon of their own times.