Frederick J. Teggart

Frederick J. Teggart (1870-1946) was a comparative historian, librarian, sociologist, and educator who was responsible for initiating sociology at the University of California. He was a pioneer in advocating the fruitful interchange between history and sociology. He was one of the early modern analysts of social change, as well as a proponent of careful theoretical analysis in the study of both ancient and modern societies.

Frederick J. Teggart was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1870, one of eleven children. First educated at Methodist College in Belfast and Trinity College in Dublin, he and his family came to the United States in 1889. Thereafter he enrolled in the then new Stanford University, where one of his classmates was Herbert Hoover. He received an A.B. degree in English in 1894. There followed a prolonged but not rewarding career as a librarian, first at Stanford and then as head librarian of a prestigious private library in San Francisco. By 1905, after several years of study and professional publishing, he became a lecturer in the extension division of Stanford, and in 1911 he was made an associate professor of history and curator of the famous Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

After considerable academic wrangling and controversy at the University of California, he was appointed to a new department of social institutions (really sociology) in 1919, becoming a full professor in 1925. During the next decade or so his major course for undergraduates was a magisterial survey called "Progress and Civilization." Though he did not attain the doctoral degree because of fierce academic politics at Stanford, he finally was properly recognized by an honorary LL.D. degree from the University of California in 1940.

Teggart was an early, articulate critic of both over-specialized chronicling of "historical" events and grandiose philosophical abstractions in the social sciences. He vigorously championed an intellectual and practical alliance of history and sociology, with a supplementary emphasis on significant comparisons and the necessity for "world" (inter-societal) history and analysis. In all this, he constantly underscored the need to study important, deep-seated social and cultural changes, not as manifestations of evolution or progress, but as evidence of both achievement and social difficulties.

These ideas were lucidly developed in three works prepared between 1916 and 1925—Prolegomena to History, Processes of History, and Theory of History. The essential message of his intellectual career was that major changes could be reliably explained by locating crucial human events or processes that could be interpreted as "intrusions" on established practices and institutions. These events were conceived as "breaks" in continuity, as "transitions" between antecedent and subsequent developments, reflecting an essentially unpredictable (but nevertheless understandable) unfolding of human experience throughout recorded history. But the primary mark of such "intrusions" was, for Teggart, the evidence of mass migrations due to a variety of demographic, economic, and political factors.

In a very special but controversial study, Teggart tried to explain the barbarian invasions (migrations in the Roman Empire, 58 B.C. to 107 A.D.) as cumulative responses to raids and wars in Eastern Europe and the western regions of the Chinese Empire. In studying later centuries, Teggart gave more prominence to population pressures and the accessibility afforded by intersecting travel and trade routes. However, the consequences of migrations became a major focus for Teggart. He concluded that migrations ultimately unsettled pre-existing organizations, as well as idea systems and values, since migrants carried their cultures with their bodies and belongings. While this collision creates conflicts and uncertainties, the net result was often a release from routine ways and opportunities for greater individuality and a mentality of freedom that results in new ideas and alternatives.

Teggart boldly attacked institutional sterility and complacent intellectual paralysis by pointing to previously ignored orders of facts, by criticizing undue disciplinary specialization, and by confronting the problems of conflict as normal components (not as inevitable causes or either as desirable) of the complex human record. While he was not fully appreciated by his California colleagues, he was an acknowledged influence on the thinking of such scholars as Robert Park and Arnold Toynbee.


Further Reading on Frederick J. Teggart

Teggart's major works were Prolegomena to History (1916), Processes of History (1918), Theory of History (1925), and Rome and China (1939). In addition, there is a revealing reminiscence of Teggart in Robert A. Nisbet, Teachers and Scholars (1992).

Additional Biography Sources

Dangberg, Grace, A guide to the life and works of Frederick J. Teggart, Reno, Nev.: Grace Dangberg Foundation, 1983.