Ideal Types and the Historical Method

A number of significant social theorists, including Max Weber, Ludwig von Mises, and Alfred Schutz, have contended that the proper method of historical analysis employs ideal types to comprehend the past.

For example, Schutz, one of the foremost exponents and developers of the theory of ideal types, held that they are not merely the constructs of the social theorist, but also constitutive of the everyday social world. Except for the case of the "pure" Thou-orientation that occurs in face-to-face encounters, all of our relationships with and understandings of other people are mediated by the use of ideal types of varying degrees of anonymity. (The concept that one way of classifying ideal types is according to how anonymous they are can be made clear with a simple example: we might, in order of decreasing anonymity, regard some individual as an instance of the ideal type "Englishman," "early-twentieth-century Englishman," "early-twentieth-century Londoner," "early-twentieth-century, working class Londoner," and " early-twentieth-century London chimney sweep.") Since the historian, qua historian, is never in a Thou-relationship with the historical actors whose deeds he seeks to comprehend, Schutz's view implies that he must employ one or more ideal types in his undertaking. Roger Koppl contends that, for Schutz, what differentiates history from a more theoretical social science such as sociology is only the degree of anonymity of the ideal types it employs: "What we call either 'history' or 'applied economics' entails the use of relatively concrete ideal types. 'Theory' uses more anonymous types."

Mises offers a concise summation of the view under consideration: "Although unique and unrepeatable, historical events have one common feature: they are human action…. What counts for history is always the meaning of the men concerned: the meaning that they attach to the state of affairs they want to alter, the meaning they attach to their actions, and the meaning they attach to the effects produced by the actions."

Since the subject matter of history is composed of human meanings, Mises believes that historical research must employ some conceptual apparatus to abstract categories of meaning from the myriad of specific meanings that have composed the circumstances and actions of historical individuals. He says: "The aspect from which history arranges and assorts the infinite multiplicity of events is their meaning. The only principle which it applies for the systemization of its objects_--men, ideas, institutions, social entities, and artifacts_-- is meaning affinity. According to meaning affinity it arranges the elements into ideal types.

"Ideal types are specific notions employed in historical research and in the representation of its results." (Emphasis mine. All of the above quotes are from

But is the analysis of past events in terms of their conformity to various ideal types actually the most characteristic method of history? Michael Oakeshott, who, among his varied intellectual achievements, is regarded among the foremost philosophers of history of the twentieth century, examined that view and, in the end, rejected it. He did not dismiss the effort to understand the past with the aid of ideal types as incoherent or fruitless, but argued that it could not achieve a fully historical account of the situations it sought to explain. Furthermore, he suggested that a method for achieving such an account does exist.

While I find the argument Oakeshott offers against regarding ideal typification as the fundamental tool of historiography to be sufficient and convincing as it stands, I believe it is worthwhile giving it a second exposition for three reasons:

1) Oakeshott presents his case in a dense and, at least to those unversed in it, rather obscure prose style. As Paul Franco, author of a recent introduction to Oakeshott's thought, puts it, "Reading the late Oakeshott, like reading the late Henry James, can be a vertiginous experience." I suspect that a satisfactory understanding of some of his points requires of the reader a more than passing familiarity with most of his latter work. So it seems to me that an exegesis of his case, employing a less individualized vocabulary, could be of use to anyone who is interested in historical methodology but who is not prepared to undertake an extensive study of Oakeshott's thought.

2) While it is clear to me that Oakeshott is addressing ideal-type methodology in the passages I cite below, he neither explicitly says so, nor does he cite the theorists of history whose methodology he is critiquing. (The paucity of references throughout Oakeshott's works is a general problem plaguing any scholar attempting to locate their place in the broader intellectual currents of his time.) As a result, a search of the literature on ideal types is not likely to even turn up Oakeshott's analysis. I hope that an exposition of Oakeshott's argument that is more transparent as to what view is being examined will aid others doing research in the area.

3) Although, as I mentioned above, I consider Oakeshott's case to be adequate to his purpose, it is a rather terse consideration of ideal-type methodology, appearing in a book addressing many other facets of historical understanding. Therefore, an expanded version of it, particularly one that fleshes out the bare bones presented by Oakeshott with some concrete examples, may serve to make his argument more accessible.

So, let us examine his argument in some detail. He launches his consideration of whether ideal typification is the primary method of history by acknowledging that it is an historical method: "A past composed of carefully anatomized situations of various magnitudes, durations and constitutions, themselves composed of mutually and conceptually related occurrences, is certainly a past which has been endowed with a certain level of historical intelligibility…. [It] cannot be denied the character of an historical enquiry."

The term "ideal type" does not appear in the passage just quoted -- indeed, as I mentioned above, Oakeshott never uses it anywhere in the argument under consideration here. (In fact, a general difficulty in comparing his work to that of others is his predilection for developing his own vocabulary for expressing his ideas.) Therefore, it may seem unclear if he is even referring to ideal types. However, he goes on to mention some examples of the approach he is contemplating that should, I hope, demonstrate that he is doing just that: "An historian… who spells out the character of Elizabethan Puritanism or of a doctrine identified as 'civic humanism,' who unfolds 'the structure of English politics on the accession of George III,' or who (like Fernand Braudel) specifies the 'energy resources' of Europe in the late eighteenth century…"

After conceding that this view of the past is an historical one -- unlike, for example, the legendary past or the past mined as a source of stories with which to guide practical conduct -- Oakeshott declares that, nevertheless, it fails to yield an understanding of the past that is completely historical in character: "But although it has been called the most sophisticated understanding of the past, it is, I think, an unstable level of historical understanding. It recognizes (or half-recognizes) what it cannot itself accommodate, and it cannot defend itself against being superseded by what is a genuine competitor, critical of it in its own terms, and thus capable of superseding it."

Oakeshott holds "an historical past may be regarded as a passage of historical change." But contemplating past events as instances of an ideal type necessarily marginalizes the consideration of change. Because an ideal type is an abstraction constructed from what the theorist sees as common patterns exhibited in a number of different historical situations, it focuses the theorist's attention on an unchanging constellation of properties present in each of them, and directs it away from the unique and contingent events that led to each exemplar, and also away from the particular and ever-shifting characteristics by which each instance of the type differs from the idealization. The historian engaged in ideal type analysis "purports to be anatomizing a bygone present situational identity in terms of its constituent occurrences. No doubt he recognizes himself to be concerned with a passage of time which contains genuine change; but his enquiry, centred upon the articulation of a situational identity, cannot properly accommodate this recognition."

Furthermore, the very nature of an ideal type as a static constellation of intelligibly related patterns of social life renders it ill-suited for discovering the specific historical events that explain the appearance of each unique instance of the type at a particular time and in a particular place: "And further, an engagement to anatomize an historical situation, in specifying its duration, recognizes it as an emergence and admits its evanescence; but the enquiry is not concerned to abate the mystery of its appearance upon the scene, to investigate the mediation of its appearance or to trace the vicissitudes of its evanescence. It is concerned only with correctly inferring an intelligible structure composed of notionally contemporaneous mutually related constituent occurrences."

Oakeshott sums up his critique as follows: "These, then, are what I take to be the historical defects of an enquiry concerned to infer from record a past composed of situational identities: transitory passages of human engagement represented as patterned situations composed of mutually related occurrences which come and go but are here halted and made to gyrate in a notional interval between coming and going."

He goes on to suggest the solution to the difficulties he has pointed out: "And the remedy for the shortcomings of this level of historical understanding is not, I think, in doubt. It lies in an enquiry designed to assemble a past, not of anatomized situational identities composed of mutually related occurrences, but of historical events and conjunctions of historical events."

Ideal-type analysis yields, by its very nature, an understanding of an event in terms of its similarity to other events. It may very well succeed in rendering the past more intelligible. But, for Oakeshott, it fails to produce a fully historical past. That can only arise from a contemplation of the past as a passage of differences whose continuity makes a subsequent event explicable. In his view, it is the unique task of history to comprehend the past not in terms of whatever regularities it may exhibit, what typical situations may be abstracted from it, or any general precepts it is held to illustrate, but as a assemblage of events each of which is unique and unrepeatable. Such a view does not disparage other approaches to understanding the past; it only proposes that they "do not mix with and cannot take the place of an historical understanding concerned with what was actually the case, there and then, in terms of situations composed entirely of mutually related occurrences inferred from the record."


  1. Anonymous12:02 PM

    Thanks, this was helpful :-). I was required to do an "ideal typification of a problem" for a class. Your great presentation of what is wrong with it made it so much easier to do!

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