Coherence and Incoherence in Historical Studies: From the Annales School to the New Cultural History

In the mid-twentieth century the prominent Annales school historians Lucien Febvre and Fernand Braudel advocated a unified, "total" history. Their efforts in this direction did not meet with success, and have been superseded by the efforts of some practitioners of "social" and "new cultural" history to impose one or another "paradigm" on historical research and writing. Such efforts are misguided. Typically, if they are not simply cynical grabs for academic power, they arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of what historical research ought to offer—not blithe certainty, but an understanding of complexity and contingency in human life.