The profession of historian: what is it to be a historian?

The definition ofhistorian and his profession often provokes endless debates: who can claim to be a historian? What to do with history? What is the role of the historian in society? Does the historian have the right to emotion? Is history a science? The answers are complex but essential as history, often manipulated, retains an important place in society, and the historian is called upon to express his views, including on contemporary debates.

Make history

Historians for a long time are often criticized for not having asked questions about their discipline, for not having done epistemology. While others did it for them, such as Michel Foucault, it was not until the 1970s that historians really looked into it with a desire to develop their discipline. This is the case with the collective work Make history, edited by Pierre Nora and Jacques Le Goff, published in 1974. It is constructed in three volumes: new issues, new approaches, new fields of investigation. The 1970s were the epoch of economic and social history, serial and quantitative, a historical materialism of Marxist tendency under the influence of Ernest Labrousse, who tended to reject political and event history, linked to positivism.

Historians involved in Make history want to go beyond this practice of their discipline. Thus, François Furet is interested in the politico-ideological analysis of societies of the past, through the study of culture or education. Pierre Chaunu sets out to attack the mind, the emotional, for example by working on death. The relationship with sources is also changing and we no longer only use the written word and iconography but also other objects, for example through demography or archeology, which is booming, or even the climate with the work of Leroy-Ladurie.

The book concludes with the fact that history is a method of knowing the past, not knowledge itself. It must be the study of human societies, a present tense interpretation of the past.

Study and method

There are several ways of knowing the past: providing factual elements, but also making these facts speak, asking questions of the past (there is no history without questions), questioning the facts to learn from them that makes sense . It is in this spirit that the historian composes his sources: from the questions he asks, he will seek his sources, and not the other way around.

According to Fustel de Coulanges, "history is the study of human societies". Ferret goes in the same direction by emphasizing the importance of culture and education, with the idea of ​​a global approach against a factual, fragmented history, that of the "great men". History must be that of human organizations, the insertion of man into his time, "a science of men in their time" (L. Febvre).

History is therefore, finally, an interpretation in the present. There is no raw past, it is interpreted, the story organizes, completes the answers and makes the past that it needs. The relationship to the source is always central: the archive can do nothing without its interpreter, the historian. It is not for all that a “necrophilic science” (Febvre), its vocation is to reflect on the past, in a dialectic with it, from the present, and is therefore not totally hermetic to the determinism of its time. is done "out of life" (Febvre). Le Goff drives home the point: "Man does not remember the past, he is constantly reconstructing it".

Finally, we do not do history alone: ​​historiography, its errors and ruptures, holds a fundamental place. The historian also works from the studies of his predecessors or his contemporaries (the importance of bibliographies). We can even say that it is the historiographical break that drives history forward.

The profession of historian at a crossroads

The role of the historian lies at the border between scientific research and the social. To quote Le Goff again, the historian must "seek, teach and popularize".

The historian is first and foremost a researcher, a craftsman of archives, hence the importance of his method. He goes straight to the source, using ever more modern techniques, but he goes there with questions. Then, he writes (thesis, article, book,…) to stage his notes, to give them meaning, to try to answer his questions. The methods differ, but the historian’s perspective remains essential because there are risks of ideological bias, even of falsification (as in the Gouguenheim affair).

The historian then has a social role. Here the problem arises of his neutrality, seen as a virtue ("a good historian is of no time or of no country", according to Fénelon). Le Goff instead insisted on a historian having to transmit the civic role. Since the Dreyfus affair, and even more so today, he has a responsibility in relation to the community as an intellectual. However, neutrality does not mean the absence of judgment: the historian must understand a character in his time, his psychology (like Marc Bloch with Robespierre). There is debate as to whether this is always possible: for example, people like Elie Wiesel, Hannah Arendt or Primo Levi believe that one should not "understand" Hitler because history has an ethics and that it would be impossible. to understand the abominable. However, neutrality is not relativism: the historian is not obliged to refrain from judging and condemning, but after having updated the workings (of the Shoah for example). His responsibility is to produce a meaning, to update the charge and the discharge in view of the production of a judgment: by his knowledge, the historian cannot refrain from his duties. The social role of the historian is therefore to provide all the elements of questioning, to distinguish the registers by assuming the dialectical part of historian knowledge, to show the complexity of historical processes, to be vigilant against official history. while refusing to be an oracle word himself.


- J. Le Goff, P. Nora (dir), Faire de l'histoire, Folio histoire, 1986 (1time ed 1974), 3 volumes.

- M. Bloch, Apologie pourhistoire (or Profession of historian), A. Colin, 2009 (1time ed 1949).

- P. Veyne, How to write history, Points Histoire, 1996 (1time ed 1971).

- C. Delacroix, F. Dosse, P. Garcia, N. Offenstadt (dir), Historiographies. Concepts and debates, Folio history, 2010, 2 volumes.

This article is taken from a course given by Mr. François-Xavier Petit (Université Paris I Sorbonne), as part of the preparation for Capes.

Video: Job Market for Historians (January 2022).