on history & science, roughly

I’ve been a bit MIA lately (both from here and from there). apologies & bear out with me over summer — things are looking hectic travel-wise.

An essay I’m reading by Isaiah Berlin (‘The Concept of Scientific History’) reserves generality & theory as the more appropriate & dependable domain of science than history —

Whereas in a developed natural science we consider it more rational to put our confidence in general propositions or laws than in specific phenomena, this rule does not seem to operate successfully in history…

Whereas in history we tend, more often than not, to attach greater credence to the existence of particular facts than to general hypotheses…in a natural science the opposite seems more often to be the case: there it is (in cases of conflict) more often rational to rely upon a properly supported general theory — say that of gravitation — than on particular observations [presumably, a single child tugging on his mother’s coat & saying that he saw his teacher floating down the street].

This difference alone, whatever its root, must cast prima facie doubt upon any attempt to draw too close an analogy between the methods of history and those of natural science.

Of course, too, attempts to generate historical laws are dismissed these days as deterministic claptrap — there is no formula into which we might plug historical events & extract predictions, nor is there some kind of machine we could construct which could be fed with documents and sources, order them, then deduce and spit out the right conclusions. Nor would this even be desirable, I think. In that respect, if little else, history is nothing like a science.

But I wonder wherefore the distinction between history & science that the two are so often compared, contrasted and conflated. Nineteenth-century historian of England, Henry Buckle, had been ardently optimistic about the possibility of a “science of history” and proposed that such a science had not been perfected yet because historians were mentally inferior to their mathematical & scientific counterparts. Because of the magnificent progress Enlightenment sciences made in the eighteenth century (according to Buckle) maths, physics and chemistry had attracted all the cleverest people, leaving the intellectual dross to be historians. If Galileo or Newton had set their formidable minds to dealing with the disordered mass of truth and falsehood that comprised history, he said, a science of history would be nigh. Poor, disillusioned positivists.

On one hand history does deal (or purport to deal) with facts, and Enlightenment euphoria generated a good deal of optimism in the natural sciences for identifying, discovering and inferring facts — it’s arguably the one realm of human experience in which progress has indubitably been made. That is to say, we definitely know things now that we didn’t know before — though this is not to make any claims about what we still don’t know. But on the other hand history is also ultimately about people, and consequently about thoughts, intuitions, decisions, emotions; about morality, misery, success, tyranny, greed, reverence, pity. If these are facts, they are necessarily treated differently from, say, the fact that two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen make water. A historian’s task thus seeps inevitably over into the realm of empathy. There is no need in science to decide who is better at empathizing with the fact of H2O. And if there is such a need in history to empathize with facts (and I think there is), the question of who is “better at it” is absurd, or at best misguided. Therein lie the difficulties — and joys, I think — of history.

but I also conjecture that generality & theories (abstraction and hypotheses, perhaps) are what distinguish a history from, say, a chronicle. A chronicle is an ordered gathering of facts, a narrative of particulars. History, on the other hand, wants to identify significance, analyze causation, make general propositions about peoples, times and places. Chronicles describe; history describes to explain. Broadly speaking, chronicles are particular in content, and content with particulars; history employs particulars towards a general end and is rarely permanently content with either …

So history is and isn’t like a science. That observation reveals, I think, the fundamentally misguided nature of the comparison.


2 responses to “on history & science, roughly

  • Brett

    If Galileo or Newton had set their formidable minds to dealing with the disordered mass of truth and falsehood that comprised history, he said, a science of history would be nigh.

    Ah, but Newton did devote himself to sorting out history, or at least chronology, which didn’t noticeably lead to a science of history. Which tends to support your conclusion:

    A chronicle is an ordered gathering of facts, a narrative of particulars. History, on the other hand, wants to identify significance, analyze causation, make general propositions about peoples, times and places.

    🙂

  • Dan

    There is one other problem with Berlin’s assessment: he is unfair to, or unaware of, the diversity of scientific activity. Displaying the bias of many mid-twentieth century intellectuals, Berlin equates natural science with the sort of work generally done by physicists, certain types of chemists, and mathematicians.

    If historians wanted to look to the natural sciences for some model, or better, some sort of intellectual kinship, the place to go would be the field sciences and the naturalist tradition. To this day scientists produce good science—the kind that we rely on to make claims about global warming, for instance, and also declines in biodiversity—that is locally situated, contingent on many complex factors, and specific geographically and temporally. History and natural history, while by no means the same thing, are close enough to show the lie in Berlin’s argument.

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