By Dr Michael Stanford
new perspective Vol. 3, No. 2
‘I can explain all the poems that ever were invented,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’ Is something of the sort possible for historians? Can they explain all the events that ever happened? Still more, can they explain all the future ones that have not yet been thought of? It sounds a tall order. Yet many a dedicated Marxist has claimed to have the key to history - a key (dialectical materialism) that will explain past, present and future alike. Is there really such a magic key to history? Or do historians use more than one way of explaining?
Explanation and the needs of the enquirer
The duty of historians does not stop at accounts of events; they must also account for those events. But when we ask for an explanation, what sort of thing do we want? The word means ‘to make plain; (literally) to unfold or make flat’. An explanation should be ‘rooted’ at both ends: in psychology and in reality. The first requirement is that the explanation should make something plain to the person inquiring. A young child asking why the sky is blue or why water freezes cannot be satisfied with an answer couched in scientific polysyllables that she does not understand. To be effective, an explanation must be within the comprehension of the inquirer. That is the psychological ‘root’. On the other hand, a proper explanation must rest on truth - that is, it must refer to the nature of reality. An explanation in terms of, say, fairies, magic spells or astrology may satisfy a childish inquirer; yet it is not an explanation, but only a fiction. This is the reality ‘root’. A good explanation is directed to the particular need of the inquirer and answers only that. ‘Why did you rob the bank?’ asked the priest. The robber replied, ‘Because that’s where the money is.’ Not, for the priest’s purposes, a good explanation.
Types of Explanation
As suggested above, there is more than one way of explaining. Here we shall look at the Common Sense, the Scientific, the Social Scientific and the Historical modes. (There are others, but we can ignore them.)
The first kind of explanation, the Common Sense, works like this: ‘Why did the car skid? Because there was ice on the road.’ Or, ‘Why did you put the rat poison on a high shelf? To keep it out of the children’s reach.’ In these cases both inquirer and explainer are dealing with a familiar situation. In the first case there is no need to explain the mechanics of cars, the properties of water, the English climate, etc. Nor in the second case is it necessary to explain the noxious properties of rat poison, the low stature of small children, the concern for their welfare, etc. All these might be part of a full explanation, but in every-day matters we go straight to the relevant point.
The Scientific type is more properly named the nomological-deductive type. This means that the explanation is deduced from law-like statements (from the Greek nomos = a law). For example, there is the law, or universal hypothesis, that whenever the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon there is an eclipse of the Moon. Thus any particular eclipse may be explained as an instance of that general law. Similarly, the emergence of this chicken from this egg may be explained by the fact that all chickens come out of eggs. There is a rider to this type of explanation. The general rule that provides the explanation is strengthened if it can be shown to be consistent with a more fundamental law. Eclipses may be explained by more fundamental laws about light always travelling in straight lines and being reflected from surfaces; the chicken and egg by more fundamental laws about the pre-natal environment for all higher animals from fish to mammals.
When we come to the Social Sciences there opens up a fresh issue in explanation - that of intention. If we look back to our first type (the Common Sense) we shall note two different ways of accounting for the events. The skid was explained by natural phenomena - the freezing of water, the lack of friction on ice, and so on. The placing of the rat poison, however, was explained in terms of human intentions - that the children should not be harmed. Now in the social (or, as the French call them, the human) sciences, there has been a long and unsettled argument: how far should they adhere to the methods of the natural sciences? As has often been pointed out, when we wish to understand human behaviour we do not have to rely solely upon external observation (as do the sciences of nature); we have an insight into the subject matter (human behaviour) that is denied to the entomologist or the crystallographer. We have to learn about beetles and crystals by observing them, but we know before we start what it is to be human. This insight is particularly valuable when we come to explaining human actions: we can often perfectly understand the intentions of the agents. These two methods of explanation were first clearly distinguished by the German historian and philosopher Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-84). The scientific type he called Erklärung (explanation) and the human type Verstehen (understanding). The problem for the social sciences is whether they should exclude insight and intention from their methods and so develop along the lines of the natural sciences, or whether they should acknowledge our understanding of purposeful human actions and build these into their hypotheses and explanations. Of all the social sciences, economics comes closest to the natural sciences; yet even economists cannot altogether ignore the vagaries of human intentions.
When we come to the fourth type of explanation (the Historical), we shall see that it is not altogether distinctive, though it has problems of its own. Consideration of the importance of insight (or Verstehen) has led both historians and social scientists to develop action theory; that is, to make an analysis of what is involved in human actions. Five elements are usually distinguished: aim, assessment of situation, choice of means, drive (or motive) and context. Thus, at the moment, several European governments are making severe cuts in the social services. What is the explanation? Their aim is to be ready to join the European single currency in 1999; their assessment is that they need to reduce their public debt in order to meet the conditions for entry; the means chosen is the cuts in social expenditure; the drive is probably the desire of politicians to stay in office; and the context is the whole contemporary movement towards a more united Europe. Many occurrences, past and present, can be explained like this. The method is open equally to the social scientist and to the historian.
There is more to be said about historical modes of explanation, however. The first thing that will strike any historian reading this is that events often do not turn out as intended. Therefore an explanation in terms of intention may be quite inadequate. Since all the Great Powers who went to war in August 1914 intended that the war should be over by Christmas, how did it come about that it lasted nearly four years longer? Intentions will offer quite a good explanation of why that war broke out, but they fail in respect of its duration. The historian has to look elsewhere. Sometimes he can find satisfactory explanations in the natural sciences. The lethal nature of rapid machine-gun fire, the resistance to shot and shell provided by trenches, the tendency of shell-fire to turn a well-drained land into a morass - all these help to provide an explanation of the length of the war. But are they sufficient? Alone they do not provide even a good (psychologically satisfactory) explanation, still less a full one.
Explanation and Cause
It seems that historians have to look for causes in order to give a satisfactory explanation. The notion of cause is almost inextricable from the study of history though there have been one or two thinkers who deny its relevance. Michael Oakeshott, for example, insisted that ‘the only explanation of change relevant or possible in history is a complete account of change’. History is a narration which ‘explains itself’.1 Nevertheless, historians are normally much concerned with causes. Among these we can observe causes of the scientific kind - whether of the natural sciences like the examples given of trench warfare, or of a social science like economics, where a rise in the public lending rate is said to cause an influx of capital. We can also observe causes of the intentional kind - as when a government goes to war to conquer territory or to repel an enemy. Finally, and most baffling, are the chains of events which bring about results neither intended by the agents nor explicable by any general law either of the natural or of the social sciences. The Reign of Terror of 1793-4 was far from the intentions either of Louis XVI or of the Estates-General, nor could any law have predicted it. In such cases the historian is left to speculate about the one or the many combined causes that could have brought about such a result, and to wonder which of them did.
By a historical cause (or set of causes) the historian understands that event (or element of the situation) without which the effect would not have occurred. Unfortunately, since there are no laws of history (comparable, say, to the laws of chemistry), the historian cannot predict what would have happened without the alleged cause. He may suppose that without a particular cause the result would not have come about. (For example, without the meeting of the Estates-General there would have been no Reign of Terror; therefore, he concludes, that meeting was the, or a, cause of the Terror.) But this is counter-factual speculation - that is, speculation about what is contrary to the facts. How can he know the Terror would not have occurred without that meeting? The Terror might have come about in quite different ways - perhaps through a military coup d’état like that of 1799.
Fortunately, the historian is not entirely without guidance as to at least the more likely causes. She may get a clue from R.G. Collingwood. For him the question of the cause of an occurrence was equivalent to the question, ‘How can we bring about, or prevent, such an occurrence?’2 The answer is often found in an abnormal condition. For example, let us suppose an express train crashes at speed. An inquiry into the cause neglects such elements of the situation as the speed of the train or the structure of the carriages, in spite of the fact that they were undoubtedly among the causes of the fatalities - in the sense that without them the disaster would not have occurred. They are neglected because they were also present on normal occasions when no crash occurred. It was the bent rail that was blamed for the crash, for rails are normally straight. Similarly, a historian seeking the causes of the French Revolution should ask (among other things) what was abnormal about the reign of Louis XVI compared to those of all his predecessors who suffered no revolution. The method is far from infallible but it is certainly helpful.
Much historical explanation, therefore, where it is not guided by common-sense experience or by the hypotheses of the natural or social sciences, must remain a matter of speculation. There can be no proof from counterfactuals: they never occur. Thus, we cannot be certain about either the causes or the effects of what did not happen. (Would Hitler have conquered us had we lost the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940? We cannot say, because our losing that battle is contrary to the facts.) Historians have an undoubted duty to try to account for all they recount. On the other hand, we must never forget that it is frequently quite impossible for them to do so. That is why historical explanations can be psychologically satisfying - they appear to answer our questions, but all too often they are (unavoidably) deficient in logic.
This article is a mere outline sketch of some of the questions about historical explanation, but it may serve as an introduction to further thought about these problems.
1 Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (1933),
2 R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (1940),
Dr Stanford is the author of
A Companion to the Study of History, Basil Blackwell, 1996.