The theory of history and the “fourth revolution”

Fabrizio Prevedello, Up and down with feather light gaze (108), 2014, iron, welding burn marks, 457 x 375 x 131 cm. Foto by Dario Lasagni. 

For a long time, the theory of history has had a bad reputation. Among practising historians engaged in the analysis of a specific issue, the conviction has long prevailed that through systematic recourse to a set of sources it was possible to narrate a past event in full and, in so doing, to present readers with an implicit or explicit analysis of an aspect of human life from the past. This strongly empirical and therefore anti-theoretical view resulted in considerable efforts throughout the twentieth century to understand the genesis of relevant realities of human life. It must be acknowledged that it also led to blatant distortions, whether intentional or unintentional, based on the ideological manipulation of sources. Against this backdrop it is clear that empiricism alone is not sufficient to enable historical practice to adequately answer the questions initially posed. Sources have a “right of veto” over historical practice, which is what differentiates historical narrative from fictional narrative, but to think that historical narrative is a mimetic reproduction, a simulacrum, of past events and processes is scarcely credible. There is no doubt that the plethora of reflections, comments, and criticisms that can be ascribed to the post-modern and post-colonial realms contained a vein of Pyrrhonism. However, this intellectual constellation has positively reintroduced the idea of the theory of history into the conversation. It has revived the principle that history is a praxis of knowledge that has to be critical about the way it describes its objects of study and the way it analyses and describes the processes and events it is interested in. There is a consensus now that data “does not speak for itself”.

This need to be attentive to one’s own progression in historiography is at the core of the theory (or theories) of history required in historiographic practice: reflexivity on how one conducts analysis and narrative activity is a prerequisite for maintaining credibility.

While it is clear that sources are the foundation of historical work, it is also evident that the increase in sources over the last century has been remarkable and has enabled a growth in readership and opportunities for historians.

Sources have increased exponentially with the “fourth revolution”1, which has changed the potential for communicating and preserving information. However, it is not simply a matter of having additional sources, which require new and non-traditional verification mechanisms and modes of interpretation, such as iconography and economic quantities which have long been incorporated into historiography. It is a question of integrating into the history of the past the dimensions that only the cutting-edge scientific developments made possible by the “fourth revolution” have introduced into our view of reality around us and into our past. The theories of history must critically examine how these new sources – genetics, climate history, and cognitive science, to name but a few – can be integrated into historical practice. The “fourth revolution” in historiography cannot be limited to a critically verified procedure of adding new dimensions to the vision of the past, even if in much greater quantity and quality in recent years. The “fourth revolution” is bringing the dematerialisation of sources and their infinite multiplication to every historical practice, as there are no longer any physical limits to the medium to contain their proliferation. A material theory of the history of recent years has to keep in mind the dematerialisation of the sources as a core transformation in the praxis of history.

Already today, the creation of virtual libraries of enormous proportions and statistical databases of all kinds has made a greater amount of information, of recorded events, available. The “fourth revolution” has blurred the boundaries of good sources, relevant to the study at hand, and revived the issue of the falsification of sources and accountability in the production of documents. It has multiplied the possibilities of narratives and made their circulation easy.

From the point of view of reflection on the “history of history”, it seems that the circle of transformation that began in the modern age with Humanism and the Renaissance is now complete. The fundamentally rhetoric narrative-argumentative approach to the past was challenged by anti-narrative erudition, based on the materiality of sources, on inscriptions and epigraphy, on archaeology, numismatics, palaeography, diplomatics, and the objects of the past preserved in the Wunderkammern. Modern history was born from the encounter/clash between the philosophy of history and erudition, in the ever unstable balance between conflicting tendencies. Now the infosphere produced by the “fourth revolution” has also made its way into historiography. Not everyone has realised this. Many use old fashioned Kulturpessimismus to frame a transformation that has begun but whose developments we can only glimpse and guess at. 

This transformation must also be taken into account on a theoretical level. It is not merely a question of the information overflow that digitisation of archives of all kinds creates in the study of the past: organisation results in reduction. Historiography still needs to structure this data in a way that makes sense of what is analysed and narrated. A collection of years and events does not correspond to an acceptable historical text, nor is it conceivable that artificial intelligence could replace the selective, argumentative, and narrative capacity of a historian even if it had the capacity to select an enormous quantity of evidence from the past.

Theories of history must take into account a transformation of human beings over time. The shift in the perception of the past indicates change, not the disappearance of historical identity. Contrary to the claims of historians involved in twentieth-century historical practice, there is a huge demand for historical narratives. The past is moving in unexpected directions, linking historians, audiences, and contemporary experiences in different ways. It is not a question of abandoning reflection on theory, but on the contrary of always being in “self-reflexive mode”, which evaluates opportunities for emancipation from traditions and evolution within the historical discipline. This theoretical effort must be applied above all to two areas in which interest in the past is to be found. The first is the contamination between the new sciences, from neurology to genetics, whose contribution to the interpretation and narration of the past has already manifested itself but has yet to be defined. In the framework of a renewed world history or “big history”, cross-fertilisation with the natural sciences is crucial but must be mediated by the interaction with the specific categories of historiography. The second area is dissemination through the gamification of history: the digital specificity of the reenactment of the past requires a theoretical reflection. While the playstation console may never replace reading Herodotus or visiting a museum, it is already part of the contemporary experience of Gen Z interested in “seeing” and reconstructing the past.

Translated by Vanessa Di Stefano

Edoardo Tortarolo has been a Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy, since 1993. He was a Humboldt fellow in 1989 and 1990, he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, in 2006, and he was the Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer in Italian History at Northwestern University in 2010. His research interests cover eighteenth to twentieth century intellectual history and the history of historical writing. He co-edited the third volume of the Oxford History of Historical Writing (2012). 

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Cite this blog post
Edoardo Tortarolo (2021, September 28). The theory of history and the “fourth revolution”. Geschichtstheorie am Werk. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

  1. Luciano Floridi, The Fourth Revolution. How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. []

Edoardo Tortarolo

Edoardo Tortarolo is a Professor of early modern history at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy, since 1993. He is a permanent fellow of the Academy of the Sciences in Turin and a member of the Italian Committee on Historical Studies. A Humboldt fellow in 1989 and 1990, in 2006 he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and in 2010 the Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer in Italian History at Northwestern University. His research interests cover the 18th- and 19th-century intellectual history and the history of historical writing. He has co-edited the third volume of the Oxford History of Historical Writing (2012). His latest book is The invention of the free press, Springer 2016.

1 Response

  1. Questo breve, ma denso contributo tocca questioni fondamentali a cui vorrei aggiungere un paio di riflessioni.
    Una riguarda l’osservazione che il pensiero e le critiche iscrivibili alle aree del post-moderno e post-coloniale fossero percorse da una vena di pirronismo. Non solo condivido questa analisi, ma ritengo che questa affermazione valga anche per la riflessione che, nel corso di tutta la prima età moderna, si è posta il problema di integrare l’alterità culturale e geografica nel relativo orizzonte storico. Lo scetticismo, così come il pirronismo storico, che attraversano tutta la modernità europea sono reazioni alla ripetuta esperienza dell’alterità che mette in questione le narrazioni fondanti (le Sacre Scritture), l’orizzonte storico-temporale (attraverso le cronologie cinesi), la Provvidenza come istanza ordinatrice della storia e della narrazione storica (messa a dura prova dalla diversità culturale e religiosa dei gruppi umani), giusto a titolo di esempio. Le riflessioni teoriche sulla storia messe in moto da queste scosse sismiche sono state fondamentali anche per lo sviluppo del metodo storico moderno. E le stesse scosse che, passando per Michel de Certeau, hanno indotto la critica post-coloniale, mettono ora in dubbio non solo le narrazioni, ma il metodo stesso. Se quindi la riflessione teorica emerge sempre in situazioni di dubbio e in seguito alle esperienze della propria relatività (e posizionalità), allora essa è probabilmente sempre stata e deve essere parte costitutiva e imprescindibile della pratica di scrittura della storia. La proposta di “essere sempre nel self-reflexive mode” risponde quindi bene all’idea del nostro blog dove il termine “teoria” indica l’attività della riflessione teorica più che un insieme di principi o teoremi astratti da applicare all’empiria.
    La seconda riflessione riguarda le forme di ibridazione disciplinari e l’estensione delle scale temporali (e spaziali) della storia. Tutto ciò ha (e deve avere) conseguenze non solo sulla pratica della ricerca e della scrittura storia. Essa pone a mio giudizio la questione se la teoria della storia possa essere ancora solo appannaggio della storia intesa come disciplina (Geschichtswissenschaft) e della filosofia oppure essere condotta da tutte le discipline che producono “storie” e rielaborano il passato. Credo che questo sforzo teorico debba essere “ecumenico”. A questo, sto lavorando…

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