Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



The first selection was written by Carl L. Becker (1873-1945), for many years professor of history at Cornell University (1917-1941), and one of the most highly respected members of his profession. One of his particular interests was the Enlightenment, about which he wrote a famous book: The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932). But while he clung to his fascination with the Enlightenment, Becker was in revolt against the "scientific history" which it had largely fostered. The ideal of scientific history, he thought, was noble enough, but unattainable and useless. Influenced by pragmatism, Becker asked the question: Can there by anything like objectively written history? Is the raw material from which it is to be derived a string of "pure" facts that the historian himself so deeply involved in his own cultural milieu that he reads into the past his own presuppositions (whether he wants to or not) and to a considerable extent finds what he wants there, both facts and interpretations? [excerpt]

Additional Resources

An excerpt from Becker's book, Progress and Power, has been removed due to copyright restrictions. A different edition is available here.


This is a part of Section XXIV: Historical Meaning. The Contemporary Civilization page lists all additional sections of Ideas and Institutions of Western Man, as well as the Table of Contents for both volumes.

More About Contemporary Civilization:

From 1947 through 1969, all first-year Gettysburg College students took a two-semester course called Contemporary Civilization. The course was developed at President Henry W.A. Hanson’s request with the goal of “introducing the student to the backgrounds of contemporary social problems through the major concepts, ideals, hopes and motivations of western culture since the Middle Ages.”

Gettysburg College professors from the history, philosophy, and religion departments developed a textbook for the course. The first edition, published in 1955, was called An Introduction to Contemporary Civilization and Its Problems. A second edition, retitled Ideas and Institutions of Western Man, was published in 1958 and 1960. It is this second edition that we include here. The copy we digitized is from the Gary T. Hawbaker ’66 Collection and the marginalia are his.