Carl Becker Critical Essays

Introduction

Carl Becker 1873-1945

(Full name Carl Lotus Becker) American historian and philosopher.

Becker is known primarily for his ideas concerning the writing of history. He is included prominently among the New or Progressive historians, whose cause he helped further by arguing against the idea of a discernible, objective history. "The past," Becker wrote, "is a kind of screen upon which each generation projects its vision of the future." He maintained that each cultural period possesses a set of examined and unexamined generalizations that are an indication of the greatest aspirations and hopes as well as the weaknesses and fears of the age; this he dubbed the "climate of opinion." Since he considered this climate inescapable, he encouraged historians to recognize their cultural and temporal biases and limitations.

Biographical Information

Becker was born on a farm near Waterloo, Iowa. He was recognized as an exceptional student in high school and in 1892 entered Cornell College, a Methodist school at Mt. Vernon, Iowa. After one year he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied under Frederick Jackson Turner, historian of the American frontier, and where he earned a bachelor's degree and in 1907 a doctorate. During this time he spent one year at Columbia University on a graduate fellowship. Between 1899 and 1901 Becker taught at several colleges and universities, including the University of Kansas and the University of Minnesota. In 1917 he was invited to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he taught until his retirement in 1941. Becker died in 1945.

Major Works

The first of Becker's works to enjoy wide acclaim was The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922). Becker's next great success and his best known book was The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), in which he put forth the thesis that the philosophes of the Englightenment, with their mix of secular rationalism and religious faith, more closely resembled thinkers of the Middle Ages than they did those of modern times. In 1935 he published Everyman His Own Historian, his presidential address to the American Historical Association. This work, which amounts to a manifesto in favor of the relativist historical view, is considered seminal to this school of modern historians. Relativist historians reject the idea of an objective, wholly knowable past. Becker was also the author of a well-regarded and very successful high school textbook, Modern History: The Rise of a Democratic, Scientific, and Industrialized Civilization (1931).

Critical Reception

Becker is generally praised for his abilities as a prose stylist, while often arousing controversy over his approach to writing about history. Some critics contend that his interpretations often came at the expense of ignoring all the contributing factors to historical events. As Max Lerner has noted: "He leaves out of account the whole play of economic and political forces out of which ideas grow. He is so concerned with giving us the climate of opinion that he forgets about the soil of opinion." According to Richard Nelson, Becker's irony and keen sense of style led some fellow historians to dismisss him as "a clever stylist without serious content." Although he has been accused of inconsistency and of failing to reach a real definition of history, he has also been praised for continuing to grapple with the difficulties of his position of historical relativism throughout his life. As James L. Penick, Jr. has written, Becker avoided "the sop of self-deception; even when most resigned, he never ceased to speculate."