Logics of History is a fascinating and insightful book on historical thinking by an innovative historian. William Sewell has made important contributions to French social history. This book marks a return to a field of inquiry that is very much needed: careful, analytical attention to some of the problematic constructs and frameworks that underlie the ways that scholars conceptualize historical change. There is no convenient label for the genre of the book, though each of these has an element of truth: philosophy of history, historiography, social science methodology, meta-history. But the author's goal is an important one: to shed new light on the concepts, ontological assumptions, and theories through which thinkers attempt to understand the human past in a rigorous way. How can historians and social scientists learn from each other in this enterprise?
It is relevant that Sewell's academic appointments have included departments of history, political science, and sociology. The author is well situated to reflect insightfully on the many ways in which the social sciences have interacted with the interpretation of history in the past three decades. In his own historical research, Sewell consistently attempts to make use of fruitful and illuminating parts of social theory to make sense of the historical circumstances to which he addresses himself. In treating the more abstract issues of historical reasoning and ontology, his analysis moves back and forth between detailed examples of historical analysis in the social sciences and original analytical treatment of these topics.
The intended audience of the book is a multidisciplinary one. The issues Sewell raises will resonate strongly with historically minded social scientists—scholars who are concerned with analyzing social processes in a variety of settings over an extended period of time. Working historians will find that his treatment of these meta-issues in historiography has great bearing on their own intellectual labors. And scholars interested in the intellectual development of the disciplines of the social sciences in the United States will find in the book a valuable set of observations about how historical sociology, historical social science, and social science history have interacted and developed since the 1960s.
Why do historians and social scientists need such a book? Because the logic and constructs of thinking historically are still only incompletely understood. We will do a better job of understanding and probing the past, if we are more self-conscious about the assumptions and frameworks that we bring to our work. What is a historical "period"? How are large historical constructs to be defined (revolutions, Tudor state, Marseillaise working class)? What is the nature of a historical cause?
Many historians have judged that the social sciences should somehow be relevant to their work of explaining historical outcomes. But what is involved in making use of social science theories in historical research and explanation? It has been evident for several decades that social processes are diverse, contingent, [End Page 181] and heterogeneous. So the impulse towards finding general laws of social transformation has been discouraged. But what is to take the place of a generalizing, universalizing approach within a "social science" study of social transformation? The best answer available at present is, an extensive borrowing from a wide range of the human sciences. What can anthropologists tell historians about the challenge of reconstructing the mentalities of people in the past? What can the geographers of place tell us about the logic of trading and transport networks? What can researchers on collective action tell us about some of the factors that may have accelerated or inhibited popular protest in particular historical settings?
The book begins with a reading of the intellectual development of social history as a discipline since the 1960s: the currents of Marxism, anthropology, and feminism, and the themes of underclass...