Can Philosophy of Science Inquire into History?


Černín, D.: Can Philosophy of Science Inquire into History? In: Ostium, roč. 11, 2015, č. 3.


Can Philosophy of Science Inquire into History?

Autonomy of history and historiography may rest on a claim that their method is substantially different from methods of other historical sciences and science itself. History, therefore, becomes subject of specific kind of research. But that does not mean that we cannot use terms of philosophy of science to describe actual practice of historians. The aim of philosophy of historiography, according to its proponents, should be explanation of how historians of different kinds reach their conclusions. In doing so we may discover that line which separates history from science is rather blurry. This paper is trying to argue that anti-realist model of inquiry from philosophy of science may be the best way to explain methods of history and their development, although it may pose some new difficulties.

Keywords: history, historiography, anti-realism, philosophy of science, explanation, evidence, epistemology

 

Main question of this article should be stated like this: Do methods of history and historiography belong to methods of natural sciences or to methods of humanities? This question has been discussed since nineteenth century. In 1893 Bendetto Croce asked similar question in his lecture. Is history science or art? I am not going to answer either of these questions in this paper. History and historiography is actual and progressive discipline and philosophers often try to describe its practice or to gain some knowledge from its findings. But how should we approach this task? Main focus will be on works of British and American philosophers.

 

Philosophy and History

Even present philosophy maintains strong connection with history. Philosophers can of course research their own history and highlight important thoughts or people. Their area of interest is usually defined and determined by tradition or school they belong to. We can study texts of important philosophers and we can study history of problems or intellectual history[1] with broader scope without being restricted by the list of canonical thinkers who were invited among the great philosophers. Then there is rather neglected (in analytical tradition) philosophy of history in its substantive form[2] which coexist mainly with other philosophical traditions like Marxism or phenomenology. This discipline discredited itself during twentieth century and its methods were criticized countless of times.[3] Practical disciplines (like politics or ethics) have used historical facts as an example or an evidence for their claims since the time of ancient philosophy. We can see similar level of confidence in our knowledge of history in Plutarch[4] as well as in Truth and Truthfulness by Bernard Williams[5] for example.

All three ways of using history in philosophical work mentioned above have different goals.[6] Historians of philosophy are interested in past thoughts and their influence alone. Philosophers of history are studying history partly in order to back up or to sustain specific theory, their point of view is strongly governed by it. Philosophers of ethics or politics are simply referring to history just to illustrate their own position and opinions. It seems that the philosophy has much stronger connection to its past than other sciences. Historians of physics do not usually compare theories of long deceased nature philosophers to contemporary theories of physics but we can see this quite often in philosophy. Does this say something important about the nature of philosophy? Not necessarily.

Among many different philosophical attitudes to history I would like to talk about the one which I consider to be essential to further discussions. When any philosopher works with history, he or she has no privileged access to the past itself. They are always using some output produced by the work of historians or historiographers. American philosopher Leon J. Goldstein made a distinction between superstructure of history and its infrastructure.[7] Superstructure is represented by countless textbooks which are meant for layman reader. Infrastructure is a complex network of evidence, theories and methods which are used by historians in producing historical knowledge. If philosopher bases his or her historical knowledge on a mere textbook without any critical reflection, he or she will be dependent on a specific historiographical tradition which produced the textbook and the historical knowledge in question. It is clear that a philosopher should be conscious of this danger and should be able to work critically with historical theories. Philosopher usually presupposes some historical facts like events or persons.[8] But what are these facts? How should we approach practice of historians? Can we consider the results of their work to be conclusive enough for us to base more complex theories on them?

During the twentieth century there was an extensive debate on this topic. I would like to depict one distinction in regard to this question: Do methods of history and historiography belong to methods of natural sciences or to methods of humanities? We can also say that this distinction overlaps with that of explanation and understanding. The most prominent defender of the former was Carl Gustav Hempel. The latter was being held by proponents of hermeneutics.

Hempel thought that the methods of history are the same as of other natural sciences. The goal of a historian is to find a link between two events in history and thus explain changes in the state of world. History is a kind of reverse causal prediction in probabilistic terms: “Historical explanation, too, aims at showing that the event in question was not “a matter of chance,” but was to be expected in view of certain antecedent or simultaneous conditions. The expectation referred to is not prophecy or divination, but rational scientific anticipation which rests on the assumption of general laws.”[9]

Today we can see that Hempel’s account of history was declined. He could not explain the actual practice of historians. Hermeneutics and its emphasis on understanding proved to be more successful. Difference between causal explanation and understanding was shown at length by many philosophers but to contrast Hempel’s view I choose to present work of Georg Henrik von Wright. He has tried to show that many historical theories do not conform to some covering law but they must be understood as an act of sentient being with free will and they express some inherent logical dependence of practical syllogism. “But it seems to me clearer to distinguish here between interpretation or understanding on the one hand and explanation on the other. The result of interpretation are answers to a question “What is this?” Only when we ask why there was a demonstration, or which were the “causes” of the revolution, are we in a narrower and stricter sense trying to explain what there is, the facts.[10]

Although hermeneutics was undoubtedly more successful and influential in its attempt to capture basis of historical knowledge, I wish to argue that it shares same vice as the positivistic account of history. Both lack actual contact with daily problems of historians and they do not appreciate how historical knowledge comes to be. The context in which historical theories are formulated is rather specific in respect to its epistemic status. Let us follow third line of thoughts about place of history and historiography. This line borrows something from both theories and considers history to be a very specific human activity with its own challenges.

 

Nature of History: From Realism to Scepticism

  1. G. Collingwood was overshadowed by his more famous colleagues from Cambridge and during his life he was better known for his work in archaeology of Roman Britain. Therefore, he had very specific insight into challenges encountered by historians, which is greatly shown in his posthumously published book “Idea of History”. I would not like to delve into the problems concerning his method of re-enactment, which is very unclear and obscure, but let us consider a few of his notes on task of historian.

History, then, is a science, but a science of a special kind. It is a science whose business is to study events not accessible to our observation, and to study these events inferentially, arguing to them from something else which is accessible to our observation, and which the historian calls ‘evidence’ for the events in which he is interested.[11]

Collingwood’s book was appreciated by Gadamer,[12] because it closely resembles hermeneutics. “All history is contemporary history.[13] Collingwood is aware that every history is written in present and that it is based on scarce evidence and that identification of the evidence is problematic. He became influential for the rest of 20th century and many contemporary philosophers refer to him. For example: already mentioned G. H. von Wright[14] or intellectual historian Quentin Skinner.[15] But I would like to highlight somehow peculiar character of L. J. Goldstein who was originally student of C. G. Hempel and then dedicated his work to defence of Collingwood’s thoughts. This unusual turn of interests marked Goldstein’s attitude to epistemology of historical knowledge. His analysis of practice of historians is very robust and slightly controversial. Apart from classical hermeneutics or positivists, Goldstein is deeply interested in context of how the historical knowledge comes to be known.

Goldstein in his Historical Knowing (1976) criticized meta-assumption, which is being held by many philosophers and theorists till today. One more recent definition of this assumption follows: “I begin by assuming that every history is a history of some entity that existed for a reasonably long period of time, that the narrator wishes to state what is true of it in a manner that distinguishes him from a teller of fictitious or false stories, and that his task is to give a connected account of the entity’s development in time.[16] White himself distinguishes between a history (an explanation) and a chronicle (a conjunction of statements) and he focuses his attention on the construction of narrative history and the competition between different accounts of the same subject. Construction of chronicle is not considered to be problematic. There are some real entities in the past, we can make some statements about them and then we can assign truth value to those statements. This understanding of history is quite common.[17]

But what really are those entities in the past? If we pursue this question long enough, we will encounter serious problems. There is no way how to observe vast number of those entities. Our inference of the “chronicle” and its fact is definitely not as trivial as it may seem. Usually both traditions distinguished above do not respect this problem. Historical characters and events are considered to be real entities and we can learn something about them by means of evidence. But do we have enough bases to postulate such entities? Or can we save history without statements about real people, places and actions? Do we deduce them by evidence? Such description is very simplistic in many cases. There is no clear logical link between pot-shreds of roman vase found in The South Moravia and roman garrison in 2nd century. Inferential process between those statements is more complex. There is too much room for various sceptical doubts. We cannot access immutable past. We do not have any privileged point of view. There is no way how to verify many statements about past but still we can see that historians have success in their line of work and we cannot deny that there is a progress in historiography. On the other hand, according to Goldstein, we must agree that realism in history leads to scepticism. Morton White could see similar problems at some point and therefore he awards some importance to subjectivism: “Therefore, a historian’s total judgment of what should be recorded in a history, and by implication in a chronicle, is a blend of two judgments: one of truth and one of memorability. Truth may be the stronger claimant and the more objective, but memorability is always a factor in spite of being subjective. The absence of an objective criterion of historical importance makes it very difficult to show that historical truths about a society’s economy or politics are more memorable than those about its philosophy.[18] This emphasis on subjectivity stems from realism about history. Goldstein would like to restrict subjectivism in history: “For it is simply not the case that only external reality can prevent our falling into the morass of subjectivism with its danger of scepticism. We are not here limited to the choice between a realism, which is in the end not to be had, and a relativism which takes a subjectivist form. We still have the alternative of taking seriously the discipline of history as it is practiced and what it has accomplished, attempting to understand how it works, how it enables its practitioners to avoid subjectivist scepticism and provides the criteria for historical truth.[19] For an alternative we should turn to anti-realism about history.

 

Anti-realism in History and Philosophy of Science

Do we explore real history in our research? We can say that we have no direct link to res gestae, except for evidence. Then we should examine our notion of historical evidence closer. How do we recognize historical evidence? We can imagine museums and archives filled with various artefacts but those things have been already identified as relevant for historical research. Criterion for identification regularly changes as central paradigm in historiography shifts. It is trivial to say that methods of historians mutate and there are many studies of this phenomena. Collingwood tried to show this,[20] Daniel Špelda followed changes in history of science[21] etc. This development partly correlates with new things and texts being accepted as an evidence.[22] Such view of historiography can easily explain revolutions in methodology of historians. We are not just finding new pieces of evidence but we also identify familiar objects as an evidence. Although nothing is the evidence per se and any evidence is evidence just in relation to some theory: “It is possible to argue that material preserved in archives, newspaper morgues, and the like is not historical evidence until historians learn how to deal with it in ways which make it capable to contributing to the solutions of their problems, that is, until historians are able to asks questions such that answers may be elicited from those thing that have survival.[23]

After we specify relevant evidence for our case, we may look for the best possible explanation of given set of evidence. We postulate number of events and actions which make such evidence possible and accessible to us. Hypothetical construction of some state of world to explain artefacts around us seems like true account of history. There is no need to deny past ontologically but we can deny statement that historians inquire into real past. Epistemic limits are too strong and they may be confusing if we ignore them. However, many difficult questions remain: How do we recognize the best possible explanation of given set of evidence? I do not find satisfying to say that only criterion is consensus and pragmatic value but it certainly seems so. I consider this to be the best account of practice of historians: “Historians tend to add underdetermined theoretical backgrounds to their shared theories and evidence to infer new hypotheses. Such theories increase their scope by decreasing their accuracy, creating vague large scope theories that form the intellectual basis for schools. Members of schools interpret ad hoc the vague theory they share to fit local narrow scopes of evidence.[24] By this definition we can explain nature of evidence, differences between various schools and traditions, status of theories and their commensurability. Aviezer Tucker suggests examining history and historiography with tools specific to philosophy of science. He calls this discipline philosophy of historiography and I believe that discipline like this is painfully needed in modern philosophy. It may help us banish possibly dangerous theories based on narrow view of history and protect us against ubiquitous abuses of historical theories. History and historiography may not be sciences in strict and exact sense, but they are still instruments by means of which we arrive at important knowledge about our world. In this respect we can definitely take advantage of tools provided to us by philosophy of science.

I tried to show some possible misconceptions which are quiet common among philosophers concerning history, historiography and work of historians. I argued that we should approach this discipline in a spirit of naturalized epistemology and focus on relation of evidence and theory. By this method we should be able to appreciate all peculiarities of history and ward off danger of abusing historical theories for political or other goals by limiting role of subjectivity and relativity.

R e f e r e n c e s
BATES, D.: Rediscovering Collingwood’s Spiritual History (In and Out of Context). In: History and Theory, Vol. 35, No. 1, 1996, pp. 29-55.
COLLINGWOOD, R. G.: Idea of History. New York: Oxford University Press 1994.
GOLDSTEIN, L. J.: Historical Knowing. Austin and London: University of Texas Press 1976.
HEMPEL, C. G.: The Function of General Laws in History. In: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 39, No. 2, 1942, pp. 35-48.
MURPHEY, M. G.: Truth and History. New York: State University of New York Press 2008.
O’SULLIVAN, L.: Leon Goldstein and the Epistemology of Historical Knowing. In: History and Theory, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2006, pp. 204-228.
POPPER, K.: The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge Classics 2002.
SCHNEEWIND, J. B. – SKINNER, Q. – RORTY, R.: Philosophy in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1984.
SKINNER, Q.: Meaning an Understanding in the History of Ideas. In: History and Theory, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1969, pp. 3-53.
ŠPELDA, D.: Proměny historiografie vědy. Praha: Filosofia, Nakladatelství Filosofického ústavu AV ČR 2009.
TUCKER, A.: Our knowledge of the Past, Philosophy of Historiography. New York: Cambridge University Press 2004.
TUCKER, A.: The Future of the Philosophy of Historiography. In: History and Theory, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2001, pp. 37-56.
WHITE, M.: From a Philosophical Point of View, Selected Studies. New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2005.
WILLIAMS, B.: Truth & Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002.
WRIGHT, G. H.: Explanation and Understanding. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1971.


P o z n á m k y
[1] See SCHNEEWIND, J. B. – SKINNER, Q. – RORTY, R.: Philosophy in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1984.
[2] See TUCKER, A.: The Future of the Philosophy of Historiography. In: History and Theory, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2001, pp. 37-56.
[3] One of the important critics was K. Popper with his Poverty of Historicism. See POPPER, K.: The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge Classics 2002. More recent critics are Quentin Skinner (Meaning an Understanding in the History of Ideas. In: History and Theory, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1969, pp. 3-53) and Aviezer Tucker (The Future of the Philosophy of Historiography). Proponents of philosophy of history range from Marxist historians or various miners for perennial truths to various futurologists.
[4] Plutarch extensively uses examples from his Parallel Lives in his moral philosophy.
[5] See especially chapter 7; pp. 149-161 (WILLIAMS, B.: Truth & Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002).
[6] I am going to use this distinction vaguely because there are no clear borders between those disciplines. They are usually deeply intertwined but I would like to highlight some differences.
[7] See GOLDSTEIN, L. J.: Historical Knowing. Austin and London: University of Texas Press 1976, p. 141.
[8] This is meta-assumption in many philosophical works concerning history and it is typical for historical realism. Morton White holds this in many of his papers. R. G. Collingwood and J. L. Goldstein argued about this with many historians and philosophers like A. M. MacIver or M. C. McCullagh. See also O’SULLIVAN, L.: Leon Goldstein and the Epistemology of Historical Knowing. In: History and Theory, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2006, pp. 204-228 or MURPHEY, M. G.: Truth and History. New York: State University of New York Press 2008.
[9] HEMPEL, C. G.: The Function of General Laws in History. In: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 39, No. 2, 1942, p. 39.
[10] WRIGHT, G. H.: Explanation and Understanding. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1971, p. 134.
[11] COLLINGWOOD, R. G.: Idea of History. New York: Oxford University Press 1994, p. 251.
[12] See BATES, D.: Rediscovering Collingwood’s Spiritual History (In and Out of Context). In: History and Theory, Vol. 35, No. 1, 1996, pp. 29-55.
[13] COLLINGWOOD, R. G.: Idea of History, p. 202.
[14] Wright mentions Collingwood many times in his Explanation and Understanding in different contexts. Though he usually argues against him, he accept his concept of intentionality.
[15] Quentin Skinner accepts some Collingwood’s thoughts in his works. Even in his famous Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas 1969. See page 38.
[16] WHITE, M.: From a Philosophical Point of View, Selected Studies. New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2005, p. 40.
[17] For other defence of historical realism see MURPHEY, M. G.: Truth and History.
[18] WHITE, M.: From a Philosophical Point of View, p. 50.
[19] GOLDSTEIN, L. J.: Historical Knowing, p. 61.
[20] Especially first half of his Idea of History.
[21] ŠPELDA, D.: Proměny historiografie vědy. Praha: Filosofia, Nakladatelství Filosofického ústavu AV ČR 2009.
[22] Other factors may include the role of history at given time, technical equipment available etc.
[23] GOLDSTEIN, L. J.: Historical Knowing, p. 88.
[24] TUCKER, A.: Our knowledge of the Past, Philosophy of Historiography. New York: Cambridge University Press 2004, p. 261.


Mgr. David Černín
Katedra filozofie
Filozofická fakulta Ostravské univerzity v Ostravě
cernin.d@gmail.com