The History of Experience: a history like anything else?

The History of Experience: a history like anything else?1

Last week, I attended the conference “History of Experience: Methodologies and Practices” at the University of Tampere, Finland, organized by the “Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the

The History of Experience: a history like anything else?1

Last week, I attended the conference “History of Experience: Methodologies and Practices” at the University of Tampere, Finland, organized by the “Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences” (HEX), based at Tampere University. At the conference, I gave a presentation with the same title as this post has (see here for the slides).

In the presentation, I focused on potential ontological and epistemological specificities that might set the historiography of experience2 apart from other forms of historiography, social or natural in kind. I arrived at the conclusion that this field shares in a basic ontological and epistemological core with the rest of historiography. Here I want to take a broader –and at the outset, more descriptive–attitude and report on the differences between the historiography of experience and other forms of historiography as they appeared, and sometimes were highlighted, in the various presentations at the conference. The larger questions behind this are:

1) What is it that sets a historiographical research programme or field such as the historiography of experience apart from other forms of historiography?

2) What is the logic of “speciation” in historiography through which new approaches and fields emerge (with logic and speciation being broadly understood here)?

The difference between a (Lakatosian) research programme and a field I roughly conceive to be that between a complex (but ideational) entity with a theoretical and philosophical core and periphery and its sociological expression in the form of disciplines, degree programmes, conferences, journals, professional organizations, etc. Obviously, there might well be research programmes that do not succeed in constituting a field, as we have examples of fields that consist of more than one research programme.

It is my impression that the history of experience counts as such a new research programme, at least in its self-understanding, and that it might even be in the process of creating its own field. Throughout the 200 or so years professional, scientific historiography has been in existence, many different research programmes and fields have been spawned, with some of them having faded again. Other recently begotten historiographies that come to mind are: Big History, queer history, indigenous history, biographies of (scientific) objects, Anthropocene history, animal history. The list is not meant to be exhaustive.

New research programmes often formulate wide claims of intent and aspiration, anxious as they are to establish and differentiate themselves in the existing disciplinary grid. This seems to be true of the historiography of experience as well, as exemplified by the opening words to the conference by Pertti Haapala, the director of HEX. He stressed the purported novelty and innovativeness of the historiography of experience, and claimed that it goes against the grain of established historiographic orthodoxy. He particularly stressed the field’s function as “self-critique and renewal of historiography”. On the homepage of HEX we can further read:

“All history is a story of human experiences and, according to a widely used phrase, ‘we should learn from the experiences of previous generations’. This is especially relevant considering that the past is the only evidence we have when planning for the future. But what can we know about the past experiences, and how do we transfer them into accurate knowledge and historically informed decisions? HEX looks for answers to these fundamental questions by rethinking historical experiences, historical explanations and historical knowledge, and their place in the current world. The conceptual and methodological innovation of HEX is the renewal of how experience is defined and used as a key part of historical analysis. The approach may be called analytical history of experiences.”3

This is a clear declaration of intent and outline of a new approach, and it also reads a bit like a funding application (which it probably also is or has been). It defines the purview of the field, which is exceptionally broad (“all history is a story of human experiences”), claims wider societal relevance for it, and promises to give new answers to age-old central questions in historiography and its philosophy, concerning “historical experiences, historical explanations and historical knowledge”. It also offers, as it were, “conceptual and methodological innovation“ to accomplish its wide-ranging proclaimed goals.

There is some grandiosity in these claims and some grandstanding to their form, which I suppose is all part of the game of establishing and entrenching a new research programme and field. At least, we have some self-proclaimed criteria here, which should enable us to gauge the research programme after an appropriate amount of time has passed. From a philosophical point of view, there would already now be quite something to say about this. I do not believe, for instance, that the past is the only evidence we have for planning for the future. This stands alongside my strong reservations against the sweeping statement “All history is a story of human experiences”.4

Beyond intent and aspiration, one, if not the, central way of defining and differentiating a new research programme or field is via its subject matter, which is usually said to have been neglected thus far. The experiences of past people have been such a markedly neglected topic if we believe the practitioners of the field. At its basest, I heard experience being defined as “what it feels like” (or what it felt like) to be somewhere or something by more than a few of the speakers at the conference. Different forms of experience being discussed were: experience in politics, collective experience, religious experience, experience in legal settings, experience of sound and smell, experience of intimacy, experience of memory. Some of these experiences were also seen to belong to specific subfields of the new approach such as the history of the senses (history of sound and smell) or the history of emotions (history of intimacy).

While the qualia-like definition of “what it felt like” is not the definition of experience employed in most (analytic) epistemology, it is one that makes sense and which seems to be able to delimit the purview of the field well. There are no real reasons I can see as to why the experiences of past humans could not be of interest to historians. Experiences might also be of import in other historiographic disciplines, as other disciplines, some natural-scientific in kind, might take an interest in them too (in the case of experiences, neuroscience or psychology for example). This is due to the fundamentally processual and emergent character of human sociality (Bhaskar 2009). With these caveats in mind though, we can say that the historiography of experience has a proper subject matter, though not exclusively of its own.

Another way to differentiate the historiography of experience might be through the theoretical frameworks and theories it employs. Historiography is well known for borrowing most of its substantial theories and theoretical frameworks from philosophy and the social sciences– typically with a delay of a decade or longer –so that the fad over this or that novelty can begin all over again (Plenge 2019). Specific theories or theoretical frameworks mentioned at the conference included: narratological approaches, narrative analysis, autoethnography, and several classics in sociological theory from Anthony Giddens and Niklas Luhmann to Berger/Luckmann. Reinhart Koselleck and especially Joan W. Scott and Arlette Farge were referred to more often as general theoretical influences and role models for research in the historiography of experience. Along with these theoretical references also came a certain theory language, in which terms such as lived, embodied, messy, and entangled were widely employed.

Again, with the possible exception of autoethnography none of these theories and frameworks are limited to the historiography of experience even though there might be some preferences and elective affinities between it and some of these theories and between some of the theories themselves. Genealogically, the historiography of experience is an offshoot of cultural history, which in itself was strongly influenced by poststructuralism and postmodernism (Boddice 2019a; Kleinberg/Scott/Wilder 2018), and only very recently did it become an overarching approach. It is therefore should not surprise us that many of its theoretical positions carry the marks of those frameworks.5

From a philosophical point of view, these theoretical and philosophical borrowings and their main claims and underpinnings have to be scrutinized one by one for their internal consistency and coherence, and their potential usefulness or harmfulness (or neither) for the disciplinary practice of the historiography has to be determined.

Next, there are methods that might be specific to the historiography of experience. Oddly, to my mind, this front exhibited the least explicit novelty among the conference’s presentations, even on a rhetorical level. Most methods, when discussed at all, were the usual qualitative ones, sometimes with vague anthropological inflections to them. Some attention was also paid to the potential and limitations of Big Data and quantitative methods in general. In this respect, the historiography of experience does not really seem to be all that different from any other forms of historiography, once again. Just as historians are theoretical “omnivores”, as it were, they are also “methodological omnivores” (Currie 2018). They use whatever theory or method is useful to them, depending on their explanatory and other epistemic interests.

Finally, some speakers at the conference have stressed the close relation between the historiography of experience and the idea of (political) emancipation (see also Boddice 2019b: 19). There were many experiences that have been disapproved or even disallowed by the powers that be in history, as several presentations showed, and there are presumably still such experiences in our present. Negatively evaluated experiences that were exceptional, at least from the point of view of the present, were of particular interest for many speakers at the conference. Especially in pre- and early-modern times, only such exceptional experiences of the common people have been recorded at all (if they have been recorded), in the medium of often-biased court records.6

The bottom line here is that knowledge of the past can aid us in understanding the present and visualizing and creating desired futures – “history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes”, Mark Twain is said to have quipped – but this goes for the historiography of experience as for basically any other form of historiography.

Coming back to the question of the title of this text, then, the answer is: it depends! Or rather, upon examining the subject matter, the theoretical approaches and frameworks applied in the historiography of experience, its methods, and emancipatory potential, the answer is a somewhat hedged Yes! While the historiography of experience has a specific subject matter, preferred theoretical approaches and favoured methods, none of these are exclusive to it and thereby set the field fundamentally apart from any other forms of historiography, which might also deal with experiences or employ the same theories or methods in any concrete inquiry into the past. There is, in other words, no substantive difference between the historiography of experience and other historiographical endeavours on any of those levels.

Theoretically, the historiography of experience is a hodgepodge of the elements just scrutinized (and potentially others) as I think is any other research programme in historiography. To appropriate a term widely employed in the historiography of experience, approaches and research programmes in historiography are inherently messy, and the historiography of experience is no different here. They are bundles of interlocked beliefs, philosophical, theoretical and empirical in nature, about their proper subject matter, pertinent theories and useful methodologies, and they usually entail a rhetoric of differentiation and aspiration and expectations about the research practice and its results. As such, research programmes of this kind are best assessed by their fruitfulness for engendering and underwriting successful research practice. (This is not a purely epistemic matter, though. The uptake of a new research programme at least has much to do with general social dynamics and interests.)

This does not preclude, philosophically speaking, that the historiography of experience shares in a set of ontological and epistemological presuppositions that are common to all historical sciences, as I have tried to show in my presentation at the conference (on the shared ontological presuppositions, see also Gangl forthcoming; for the epistemological core, Kosso 2011).7 Actually, the historiography of experience not being different in any substantial degree from other forms of historiography can be seen to bolster the case for such a common core further. It also does not preclude us from further scrutinizing the field’s philosophical and theoretical underpinnings, some of which I believe to be faulty. Nor does it stop us from critically examining the claims of novelty and renewal touted by the field, along with the rhetoric those claims are wrapped in.

There is a lot to do for the philosophy of history and historiography in critically accompanying the process of historiographical speciation and analyzing the central claims of new approaches such as the historiography of experience. In principle, I see no reason why this disciplinary speciation should not go on. All history might not be the history of experience but everything has a history even if we are not interested in the history of everything. But that almost everything, under the right circumstances, could become the subject of historiography, I find to be rather good news.

Georg Gangl


Bhaskar, R. 2009. Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. London: Routledge.

Boddice, R. 2019a. “What is the History of Experience?”. (09.03.2020)

Boddice, R. 2019b. A History of Feelings. London: Reaktion Books.

Currie, A. 2018. Rock, Bones, and Ruin. An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gangl, G. 2018. “Revolts, Revivals and New Paths. Recent proposals for the development of the philosophy of history”. (09.03.2020)

Gangl. G. forthcoming. “Narrative Explanations. The Case for Causality” Journal of the Philosophy of History. (Preprint pdf: [09.03.2020])

Kleinberg E./Scott J. W./Wilder G. 2018. “Theses on Theory and History”. (09.03.2020)

Kosso, P. 2011. A Summary of Scientific Method. Dordrecht et al.: Springer.

Pihlainen, K. 2017. The Work of History. Constructivism and the Politics of the Past. Abingdon: Routledge.

Plenge, D. 2019. Geschichtswissenschaften, Sozialontologie, und Sozialtheorie. Eine philosophische Klärungsskizze. Berlin: J.B. Metzler.

Tucker, A. 2011. “Introduction” A. Tucker (ed.) A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 1-7. (09.03.2020)

1 I would like to thank Daniel Plenge, Roger Norum and Ilkka Lähteenmäki for comments on a previous version of this text.

2 For the sake of clarity and nomenclature, I will talk about the historiography of experience or any other thing if I refer to our efforts to produce knowledge of the past of that thing (thing being generically understood here). The actual history of the thing, as the ontological flipside of that definition, is its development in the past itself. This differentiation has been proposed by Aviezer Tucker (Tucker 2011) and has become something of a standard in the philosophy of history of historiography. I might disregard it, though, when I just mention a field or approach and call it the way it is known by its practitioners or the wider public (as is the case in the title of this text).

4 I have criticized the assertion “All history is a story of human experiences” in my presentation at the conference. See slide 10 of the PowerPoint presentation linked above.

5 I have looked more closely at the philosophical credentials of poststructuralism and postmodernism as they appear in historiography and the theory of history in another post on this blog: (09.03.2020). I currently also have an essay on Kalle Pihlainen’s book “The Work of History. Constructivism and the Politics of the Past” (Pihlainen 2017) under review. The essay deals in detail with the legacy of Hayden White and the pronouncements of poststructuralism and postmodernism in the philosophy and theory of history. Write me an email if you would like to read this paper (firstname.lastname[at]

6 Interestingly, epistemological reflections on the kinds of evidence available for scrutinizing historical experiences were somewhat absent from the conference. It stands to reason to think that there are forms of evidence, such as some kinds of ego-documents, that are primarily, but not exclusively, used in the historiography of experience and that come with their own epistemic issues. This is a fertile field for both historians and philosophers to further reflect on.

7 Roughly, I believe this ”philosophical core” at its barest to consist of a mechanismic (social) ontology, narrative explanations, and a form of coherentist epistemology.