Ton J.J. Nijhuis

Winner Dissertation Prize 1996

Structure and contingency. Across the borders of the social science explanatory ideal in German historiography

Supervisor: Prof. dr M.C. Brands, Prof. dr A. Labrie
Nomination: University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Arts

Report by the selection committee

This study is concerned with the field of theoretical history. Building on an analysis of social-science-based German historiography, Dr Nijhuis develops his own original views on the nature of historical science and the method of historical explanation. As opposed to the school which stresses the correspondences between the social sciences and history, the author provides arguments which show the different epistemological points of departure and the differing interests served by the knowledge associated with each field. He then unfolds the theory relating to the own explanatory model of historical science, in which the category of ‘meaning’ plays a central role. This ‘meaning’ category does not, however, remain – as is usually the case – a somewhat vague, metaphysical concept, but is elaborated into a ‘contingency model’ of historical explanation. The field of this study is highly specialized but at the same time it is important to all those concerned with the historical sciences. Fundamental questions of historical science are penetratingly dealt with in an exceptionally enlightening manner, with constant reference to the major debated which have preoccupied historians past and present. Although the questions raised are abstract, they have many practical implications for concrete research. Dr Nijhuis has managed to avoid the off-putting jargon usually used in such discussions. The book not only manifests broad erudition but also combines penetrating argumentation with an excellent facility of expression, as a consequence of which the study is accessible to a wider public.