4. Key critical questions
CONTRIBUTORS TO THE SPECULATIVE philosophy of history may have excited readers by the broad sweep of history they cover, by the boldness of assertion or by the penetrative insights they present but few who consider them find them fully satisfactory. Over the last 100 or so years grand theory, such as speculative philosophies of history, has received less attention than the critical philosophy of History and it is to the questions asked most frequently in this area of study to which I turn now.
Is History a Science?
In medieval time ‘science’ referred to any branch of knowledge and what is popularly now called Science was distinguished from other areas of study by the name ‘natural philosophy’. It is now held by many that among the branches of knowledge, Science, its content and the methods by which it is studied, has the highest esteem. In so far as another branch of knowledge, such as Psychology or History, is to a greater extent scientific so it, too, is received with more confidence and higher esteem.
Science receives so much respect because of the usefulness of Science for the improvement of the standard of life through technology. There are, however, misconceptions about Science: the essence of science is not to explain but to describe what is the case. This is not to say that, in everyday speech, we do not talk of scientific explanation. What is meant by explanation is a complete description of the influences on a phenomenon and all the reasons for a change in its state. A full description is possible because in everyday Science (exclusive of quantum physics) the ‘horizon’ of influence (beyond which we do not need to search) is limited and unchanging. The world of, say, physics or chemistry, has no history but a repetitions regularity and one description of a circumstance will be the same as any other description of the same circumstance. Hydrogen and oxygen mixed in a particular proportion will always constitute water and the properties of copper are the same today as it was in Ancient Greece. It is from this regularity that so-called scientific ‘laws’ are proposed. These ‘laws’ are not like the laws of a state’s legal system but only the summation of observances which prove to be, time after time, always the same. The central philosophic problem in Science is that it is not in essence deductive (whereby a particular case is taken from the general) but inductive: a general claim, or ‘law of science’, is asserted from particular instances, and the ‘law’ is accepted only until observation shows it is inaccurate or incomplete. It must be said that popular Science, Science as understood by people and students up to the end of school, is simpler Newtonian Science. Modern theoretical Science, such as theoretical physics, since the work of Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) and the recognition of force fields and quantum physics, in which greater weight is given to the probationary status of theories and the more subjective nature of models, whether represented by mathematics or diagrams, to describe the form and forces in physics does not belong within the popular, simpler, idea of science. The probationary nature of Science gained more widespead recognition after the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and the popularisation of the notion of paradigm.
With this widely held misconception in mind, the similarities and differences of History and Science are clearer. Both are concerned with observation of the evidence and a description of what is, or in the case of History, what was, the circumstance or event and both are concerned to find the connection between one circumstance or event and another. Whereas the scientist, studying the natural world which demonstrates constants and regularities, can infer a future connection between circumstances, and propose a ‘law’ and go on to verify it against further observations, historians who study particulars without these regularities can only describe things as they were. History, in addition, has a denser connectiveness than science. John Passmore, in an essay in which he uses seven criteria to compare the work of the scientist and the historian, concludes: ‘If we mean by ‘‘science’’ the attempt to find out what really happens, then History is a science. It demands the same kind of dedication,the same ruthlessness, the same passion for exactness, as physics. That is all I have been trying to show. If, however, we mean by science the search for general theories, then History is not science.’
What the historian cannot do, unlike the scientist, is to create an experiment which exactly repeats past circumstances. It has to be added, also, that History, unlike Science, does not enable prediction except of the most general and trite kind. Further, unlike Science, History has an ‘inward facet’ (see later) apart from the outward world of events. It can be concluded that in the methods of study, both holding the primacy of evidence, Science and History are as one. Although History lacks the regularities of simpler, Newtonian, Science the differences between the disciplines of science and History is less great when comparison is made with frontier-research theoretical Science.
What is explanation in History?
Note. The inappropriateness of the use of ‘explanation’ has been mentioned. It is employed here only because its use is so widespread and it is used in the quoted passages. Its substitution here with the more accurate ‘description’ could confuse readers.
Of all the questions considered in the critical philosophy of History none has attracted so much attention as explanation. Explanation can be taken to mean a full description of the reasons for events. Three kinds of answers have been given to this question.
The Covering Law Theory. Carl Hempl, a philosopher of Science, in his covering law theory, claims History, as a branch of knowledge, is in essence the same as the empirical sciences such as physics or biology and that explanation is achieved, and only achieved, by subsuming what is to be explained under a general law. The laws most relevant are those of the social sciences, such as those of psychology, sociology and economics. However, it must be noted that in these branches of knowledge ‘laws’ have been established less successfully than in the natural sciences and, anyway, Hempl admits that historians, compared with scientists, explain with a looser ‘explanatory sketch’. Michael Stanford in The Companion to the Study of History, in a measured discussion of Hempl’s theory, gives this example:
Hempl’s form of explanation can contribute to explanations but it is insufficient by itself. Several criticisms can be made. Sometimes historians ask not why but how something happened or, even, how was it that something did not happen, and they seek to explain not only events but actions and ideas - where logical deduction from a law is inapplicable. An even greater objection to this form of explanation is the historian’s concern with the unique. Although circumstances, on different occasions, may be similar, because of people’s memory of earlier circumstances about which it must be assumed people have an awareness, a historical dimension is added to every event. Further, behind the covering law theory is the idea of necessity (which will be considered later) and predictability: indeed, Hempl claimed an explanation ‘is not complete unless it might as well have functioned as a prediction’. Historians, however, ask not ‘why must?’ type questions so much as ‘how possibly?’ questions. While covering law reasons often form part of explanation for History, because of the central place of Man these reasons are usually insufficient to provide a full explanation.
Rational-purposive explanation. This is an alternative form of explanation. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), the German philosopher, was an early proposer of this form. For Dilthey, writes Gordon Leff, ‘History was about intelligent individuals acting according to purposes and within a defined cultural framework of institutions, traditions, beliefs, laws and values, which characterise different societies and epochs and the individuals who lived in them. History was, therefore, concerned with what he called a mind-affected world, as the work of human agency, whose past, no less than its present, could only be understood by penetrating beyond the outer expressions, or objectifications as he called them, of human activities and values, whether of a society or an individual, to their inner meaning in the experience and intentions of their agents.’ Here the idea of the separateness of the outside of history, the events, and the inside, is made. A full understanding of history needs to encompass both. The ascription of meaning to expression through action was possible because of the common humanity of the historian and the people studied. This position is not dissimilar to that of R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) who wrote in his An Autobiography ‘You are thinking historically … when you say about anything, ‘‘I see what the person who made this (wrote this, used this, designed this, etc.) was thinking’’ … there is nothing else except thought that can be the object of historical knowledge’. But if we accept people can be impelled to act from feelings, fear, hate, ambition and so on, these are not open to rethinking and the way people thought in different cultures will require the historian to inform himself/herself widely before we can fairly share a common culture and study History from ‘the inside’.
The narrative form of explanation. This is the third approach and I take Michael Oakeshott, a political philosopher, to represent this form. He summarised his ideas by three essays which were published in On History (1983). They are not easy reading in which Oakeshott, in the delivery of a tight and thorough discussion, claims that the object of historians’ study is events: periodisation, such as ‘the Reformation’, ‘the Industrial Revolution’, ‘the Cold War’ and so on, are not part of the content of History but terms imposed on it by historians, as also are concepts, such as cause. His central contention can be summarised in his own words.
Oakeshott draws attention to the illegitimacy of all but events and proven connections between events in accounts of the past. This excludes theconcepts which historians bring into their writing to order, shape and bind events. Oakeshott, however, writes as a political philosopher and the type of History most suitable for this single-minded approach is the political past.
What is the place of causation in History?
The idea of causation plays a part in explanation. Cause is a word used by scientists. Because of the regularities in science, its ‘laws’, it can be said, for example, that the cause, in terms of chemistry and physics, of the explosion in the garden shed was the schoolboy’s (experimental) mix of chemicals commonly called sugar and weedkiller. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1958) alerts us to the way we can be misled by words. The same word can have alternative meanings when used under different ‘rules’. A chequer board always has the same squares but, dependent on the rules, it can be used for draughts or for chess. Cause, with its assumption of regularity and necessity, is a word suitable for use with science. The appropriate word for History with looser, less necessary, connections is reason.
When historians present the reasons why an event occurred, they may give different categories of reasons: reasons from nature (global warming, agricultural production, black death …) or technology (Sadam stunned by cruise missiles …), and reasons from the regularity of society, its laws and customs (sixteenth-century Spanish land law led to depopulation of the countryside) or Man’s wishes, will or intention (Bismarck decided on war against Denmark in 1864).
Historians distinguish between necessary and sufficient reasons. A necessary reason is one without which something cannot happen - fuel is necessary to make an internal combustion engine work - while a sufficient reason is one where a consequence always follows. Historians tend to look for sets of sufficient reasons. If there are two states with conflicting interests and a refusal to compromise, both strongly armed and capable of war, and both with a strong belief they can win, historians will claim the sufficient reasons for a war are present. When historians assemble a set of sufficient reasons the place of coincidence is significant. The coincidence of a weak government, enfeebled by war, and a revolutionary movement, provide two sets of reasons, which together, are sufficient reasons for change while each set alone is not.
What is accepted as a reason by historian or reader can depend upon their interest. R.G. Collingwood provided an example:
Historians do not only search for the reasons for events but also evaluate them and propose one or more have greater importance. By importance they claim either, that the particular reason was the immediate one for an event - take that last reason away and the event could not have happened - or, that it changed what can reasonably be expected might have occurred. Such a calculation is a matter of judgement by the historian, based on information and experience, and uses counterfactuals. As Michael Stanford, in The Companion to the Study of History, writes:
would have happened if …; in short, counterfactual assumptions. Thus counter-factual conditionals are quite indispensable for the historian, and yet they must remain mere supposition. They are no more than estimates of probability. … Without making judgements about the significance of events, without judging the nature of causal forces in history, of necessity and sufficiency, of the relative importance of this or that causal factor, the historian cannot work at all. Such judgements constitute the very essence of history.
Is history determined? What of free will?
Those who accept the methodological correctness of the covering law form of explanation can be expected to say history is determined and that causes can be found if only historians gain sufficient evidence. I have already questioned the usefulness of the use of the scientific term ‘cause’ by historians: I now go further to say the notion of determinism is unhelpful. This is not to deny that there are always reasons for events and for changes but history has a denser, more complicated, mesh of influences than science, not to mention the place of Man and of intention and will in history. A further complication is historical memory and the absence of science-like ‘laws’ of human behaviour. It is these which make the idea of determinism inappropriate. It is enough that historians establish what really happened and why it happened by the identification of the reasons.
If it is not useful to say history is determined, does Man have free will? Not necessarily. Philosophers who consider the question generate disagreement when they make wide generalisations. We do, however, live under personal restraints of various kinds. For example, however much I tried I could not become a 100 metre champion, but I could cut down the number of cups of coffee I drink. For a more satisfying assessment of free will a complicated categorisation of areas of action and strong or weak influences on the possibilities of action is required and such analysis would vary from person to person and be dependent on position in a span of time.
Truth and objectivity
Truth in History is not the same as truth in, for example, Science. In History truth is about the past and a particular part of the past, such as the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 or the Great Reform Act, 1832. Truth in History is a collection of true statements which are founded on evidence. The great majority of evidence in History is not direct evidence, that is not direct experience through our senses, but indirect evidence, such as diaries, memoirs, state papers, maps, which collectively are called documentary evidence, as well as relics, ruins, buildings, artefacts and so on. True statements will be consistent with the evidence. This is easily said but in practice matters are more difficult because evidence does not by itself constitute a historical account, but only information which can contribute to an account. Evidence has to be assessed, interpreted and its meaning established (see next chapter). In addition, the historian looks to the evidence to find out not only what happened but why it happened.
Truth in History is both a property of statements and a goal. Bit by bit evidence is assembled and scrutinised and the circumstances of the past presented in an account which not only corresponds with the evidence but also achieves coherence. Needless to say, much is absent in any collection of true statements about the past and it is easier to identify false statements than to make swift progress to a complete, and completely true, account.
If this appears to be difficult and uncertain you should remember that those who study the past are not isolated but members of a community of historians, and a historian’s work with evidence and an account of the past is subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of others who are well placed to question the correctness, that is the truthfulness, of what is written. Inthis scrutiny the disinterested objectivity of the historian is checked. It is the openness of the historian’s workings which provides a check to bias or prejudice.
It is in this way, in the answerability of historians, and the discourse (and sometimes controversy) among historians, that a greater fullness and certainty in knowledge, and steps toward the truth of the past, is achieved. Michael Stanford has written: ‘Historical knowledge does not consist of a set of exactly and unquestionably true statements. Rather it is a web of mutually limiting statements or beliefs, few if any of which are absolutely certain. Yet, taken together they form a consistent and very probable whole. It is like trying to arrive at a point by a number of intersecting loops. Although we sometimes stress the differences among historians, it is surprising how very much they agree.’