Karl Lamprecht

The highly original and combative German historian Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915) stirred up a violent controversy over the nature, methods, and purposes of history.

Karl Lamprecht was born in Jessen in Saxony on Feb. 25, 1856, the son of a liberal Lutheran pastor. He studied at the universities of Göttingen, Leipzig, and Munich, taking his doctorate at Munich in 1879. After a year of private tutoring, he qualified as lecturer at Bonn; he was promoted to assistant professor in 1885. Lamprecht's first major work, German Economic Life in the Middle Ages (3 vols.), came out in 1886. In 1890 he accepted a full professorship at Marburg but removed the following year to Leipzig, where he remained until his death on May 10, 1915.

In 1891 appeared the first volume (of the eventual 21 volumes) of what was to be Lamprecht's lifework, the German History. Controversy broke out immediately, reaching its climax with volume 6 in 1897. History, he explained in later articles and books, has been a discipline that explores useless individual facts and concentrates too narrowly on politics. It should deal with the whole life of human society and, like the natural sciences, generalize and seek causal laws that will provide a few basic principles that will enable one to explain the whole human past.

Lamprecht thought that he had discovered such general principles in the sociopsychological realm. Once one has discovered the thought and behavior patterns of a people for a given period, one has the key by which to explain the whole society, its economic and social life, its art and thought, and its politics. Art, he thought, was particularly revealing about such thought and behavior patterns. Furthermore, such patterns of thinking and acting never completely disappear but live on into the next age, so that, as new ones come along, they tend to accumulate, leading to a progressive complexity and intensity of social life.

These theories of history hit the historical profession at a very sensitive time, when nature, methods, and purposes of history were being painfully examined. Men such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber were seeking to give history a rationale distinct from, but equally as reputable as, that of natural science. Others were seeking ways to treat history in all its aspects, even to find a universal history. What was lacking was a way to deal with these things within a single discipline. They were being treated as separate subjects, often collaboratively, and without any integrating principle. To this extent, Lamprecht found a sympathetic hearing. But his own solution—the "psychogenetic"—met with universal rejection as being too vague and not amenable to rigorous, disciplined study. The literature of controversy grew enormously after 1900, but the controversy quickly became tiresome, even for those engaged in it. Lamprecht's influence, therefore, was slight, not to say negative, but he was a symptom and child of his age.

In 1909 he founded, with private funds, the Institute for Cultural and Universal History at Leipzig in order to train scholars to carry on his work. It produced many admirers but few followers.


Further Reading on Karl Lamprecht

The best treatment in English of Lamprecht is by Annie M. Popper in Bernadotte E. Schmitt, ed., Some Historians of Modern Europe (1942). See also G. P. Gooch, History and Historians of the Nineteenth Century (1913; rev. ed. 1961), and James Westfall Thompson, A History of Historical Writing (2 vols., 1942).

Additional Biography Sources

Chickering, Roger, Karl Lamprecht: a German academic life (1856-1915), Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993.