History and/as Science: Rereading Paul Lacombe

Abstract Forgotten during several years and rediscovered by historians of the Annales in the 1930s, Paul Lacombe’s De l’histoire considérée comme science (1894) is now quoted in such books as Antoine Prost’s Douze leçons sur l’histoire and the Sage Handbook of Historical Theory. Lacombe’s work is important from an historical standpoint. Against the focus on single events that prevailed in the late nineteenth century, Lacombe defined scientific history as the identifications of regularities for the purpose of articulating laws. Against the empirical approach practiced during that same period, he also stressed the importance of the hypothesis – of the assumptions that made the selection of the facts possible. Finally, connected to several militant women of the time, Lacombe, sought to do what we would now call “gender history,” that is, to study the distribution of gender roles during specific periods. While anticipating several developments in the theory of history, Lacombe was yet a man of his time. He thus did not foresee that his (and his contemporaries’) contrast between observation-based and document-based science would later be challenged, some philosophers now arguing that chemists and physicists are not more able than historians to “observe” the phenomena that they describe.