Repository logo

Knowing and Understanding the Past in Mid-Eighteenth-Century British Historiographical Thought



Change log


Levinson, Ephraim 


My thesis asks how eighteenth-century philosophers, historians, dramatists, and literary critics engaged with two major themes of historiographical thought.

Chapters 1 and 2 address an epistemological question: how does one come to believe that what one reads in a history is true? Chapter 1 reviews an array of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers’ comments on reading and writing history. Most of the relevant scholarship focuses on David Hume, arguing that he proposed a vivid writing-style is needed to secure belief, and therefore that history threatened to be indistinguishable from well-written fiction. I suggest instead that for Hume and Adam Smith a reader’s belief does not lie in the text of a history at all; rather, it is founded on their trust that a history is what it claims to be. But can historical fact only be believed when it has the generic backing of history? Chapter 2 looks first at the claims made in the 1760s by Robert Wood and Hugh Blair for the epic poems of Homer and Ossian to be read as veracious historical narratives. It then suggests that a dramatic adaptation of Ossian – John Home’s 'The Fatal Discovery' (1769) – makes a case for theatre as a mode of historiography by appropriating the scenographic changes made by David Garrick during the 1760s. While Wood and Blair developed inventive arguments to show that rhetorical qualities within the texts could guarantee their historicity, ultimately they appealed to the social context within which they supposed the epics were composed in order to suggest that they were – and could now be – understood as historiography.

Chapter 3 introduces the second theme, which concerns the charge of universalism levelled against Enlightenment historiography. In the corpus of the Scottish Enlightenment minister and historian William Robertson, I track a dialectic of universality and diversity which enables him to understand difference while maintaining a sense of the uniformity of human nature – particularly the human mind – against polygenist and degenerationist theories emerging in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe. Through his historiography, I argue, he formulated a pluralist moral and political philosophy which bears comparison with the more-discussed theories of his contemporaries, like Smith. Nonetheless, Robertson finally affirmed the superiority of Christianity as a way of life. Like Scottish Enlightenment historiography, literary historicism has been accused of universalism and rationalism, and in Chapter 4 I assess the validity of these charges by studying Richard Hurd and Thomas Percy. I contrast Hurd’s and Percy’s lesser-known work on global literature, identifying an exclusionary universalism in Hurd and a more Robertsonian approach in Percy. I then turn to their treatments of past English literature, paying special attention to the complex negotiations of likeness and difference, continuity and change, that figure in their works on their ‘native’ tradition.

Throughout this thesis, I demonstrate the ethical, political, and social ramifications of historiographical thought. I conclude by suggesting that the writings I discuss might be considered ‘sociable historiography’.





Abbott, Ruth


David Hume, Epistemology, Historiography, Hugh Blair, James Macpherson, John Home, Literary Historicism, Ossian, Pluralism, Richard Hurd, Robert Wood, Scenography, Scottish Enlightenment, Sociability, Thomas Percy, Universalism, William Robertson


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholarship in the Humanities; English Faculty Completion Award