I’ve been woefully absent from the virtual world, mostly due to the highly absorbing presence of a certain boy. Just thought-stubs for now, and perhaps fleshed out in coming weeks:

1. What kind of knowledge is conferred upon us when we think about counterfactual history?

What purpose does it serve to speculate, for example, that if Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t been shot, WW1 wouldn’t have happened? Initial thoughts — Maybe it’s prescriptive or predictive; it helps us identify causes or factors that were particularly determinative in a given series of events & allows us to draw parallels with present events, in the hope that perhaps, a la Santayana, we’ll learn from, rather than repeat, history. Maybe it helps us to refine our historical conjectures; by making the claim “if x didn’t happen, then y wouldn’t have happened”, we can debate at a more specific and precise level than if our claim was merely “p, q and r are causes of y”. Maybe it makes us more aware of contingency in history — how it is that things go one way rather than another — and maybe from doing this we learn a little about what it actually means to explain some given event …

2. What does it actually mean to explain some given (historical) event?

Explanation seems in some way linked with causation; that is to say, to explain something is to identify its cause/causes. This idea is more intricate than it looks & I’ll have more to say about it at a later date. But current thoughts: in much the same way that a mother scolding a child for stealing a cookie before dinner might respond less wrathfully if the child explains that he did it because he has not eaten for two days, historical explanation at least seems potentially capable of conferring moral justification. (Counterfactual history might help here: we say, if the child hadn’t been hungry, he wouldn’t have stolen the cookie, and in this case that might be true). Ultimately the historian is concerned with explaining why one thing happened and not another. In the above example we probably find it easy to see that if we’re to write historically, we should avoid saying e.g. that the child would have stolen the cookie anyway because he is a wicked little wastrel, or that the mother ought to forgive him because he hadn’t eaten for two days. But is it really so easy in historical explanations of higher-order complexity, involving multitudinous actors, causes, circumstances, ideas, motives, and contingencies?

3. How do we explain, not justify?

Bernard Williams, an ethical philosopher, espoused a “relativism of distance” — He suggested that ethical judgment is permissible in circumstances of “real confrontation”, where we encounter a choice between two or more divergent courses of action that we really might have to make (broadly speaking, present day-to-day actions), but not in circumstances of “notional confrontation”, where we may know or entertain moral choices that aren’t actually possible for us (broadly speaking, in history). He also distinguishes between “thick” and “thin” moral terms. Thin moral terms are words that don’t really say much about the thing they describe, but judge its moral value anyway: words like “good”, “evil”, “ought to”. Thick moral terms are terms that actually have descriptive content as well as connoting moral value. Calling someone “heroic” is saying something about the way they, for instance, run into battle, as well as conveying a sense that they are doing a worthy and good thing. Calling someone “pig-headed” as opposed to “stubborn” is giving the same descriptive content, but attaching different levels of moral chastisement. Someone who is pig-headed seems somehow more reprehensible than someone who is stubborn. If we’re to write history, and we can’t seem to avoid using words that confer some kind of moral judgment, then we might as well use the ones that actually describe at the same time, and hopefully we’ll manage to say something useful.

as usual, scattered thoughts, but yours (however scattered, too) are welcome. Apologies again for extended absence 🙂


9 responses to “thought-stubs

  • Gavin Robinson

    1. The knowledge that all history is fiction? (I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with that, but it’s something to think about.)

    2. I’ve probably said this before, but I’m quite pessimistic about whether history can really explain why anything happened – just trying to describe what happened is difficult enough. Right now I’m getting stuck into the debate on the causes of the English/British Civil War/Revolution/Whatever and becoming increasingly aware that the arbitrariness of taxonomies is a big problem here. The causes you identify depend quite heavily on how you define the problem. With abstract things like “war” and “revolution” there’s no self-evidently correct definition. It seems like Marxists and revisionists are talking past each other because they’re not really looking at the same things or using the same terminology.

    3. I’m still clinging to the idea that historians shouldn’t make moral judgements about the past, which sort of works as long as I have Godwin’s law to protect me from people who bring up the Holocaust.

    There’s a very fine line (or maybe no line at all) between exposing other people’s subjective value judgements and making subjective value judgements of your own. For example, Gary Sheffield has a strong case against people who see the First World War as nothing but futile tragedy and incompetence, but he almost inevitably ends up justifying the war and the generals.

    I’m not convinced that “heroic” is much more descriptive than “good” or “evil”. They can all mean lots of different things. Is it the relative anthropcentrism (ie saying a person is like an animal) of “pig-headed” that makes it seem worse?

  • rAchel

    on #2, I think it’s rather that Marxists & revisionists use the same terminology but mean different things by it. Taxonomy is a problem with answering historical questions. One of my first undergraduate essays concerned the question of whether the Enlightenment was a revolution — an immensely loaded question if one gets bogged down in attempting to stabilize the definitions of either noun (both of which, alas, are key).

    Though it’s good practice to state your definitions at the beginning & be very consciously transparent about how you’re using certain key terms (e.g., Enlightenment, revolution), I’ve noticed in the past that too much conscious effort to hew them out almost invites people to harp on them … it invites semantic quibbling, when what should happen is a debate over the argument, the meaningful claims that you’re making. Perhaps there’s something in using words just as they are most reasonably & likely to be understood? The Enlightenment, after all, was pretty revolutionary, and we can disagree or agree about its actual, meaningful characteristics, rather than drowning ourselves in etymology …

    “Was the Enlightenment a revolution” is a pretty bad question — but my point is, if we harp on semantic distinctions too much, I can easily see some enterprising academic weaving an entire revisionist history out of making the claim that the Enlightenment was *not* a revolution, by simply redefining “revolution” to mean something else entirely — which probably isn’t an actual, meaningful debate, if you see what I mean.

  • rAchel

    on #3, I think the point might be that we can’t easily avoid conferring moral judgment, because of inherent properties of words we use, and also given, apropos #1, that we might want to write interesting & readable prose. But perhaps “heroic” isn’t the best example. You’ll admit though that “firm”, “stubborn” and “pigheaded” all seem to descriptively point to a certain sort of individual, and that the difference between the three words is not a matter of what they’re describing but how they are judging it? If we’re writing a history of, say, the ex-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir’s domestic policy, which insisted on siphoning off tax-payer money to build enormous nationalist monuments at the expense of welfare, it seems to matter somehow whether we call him “firm” or “pig-headed”. Our choice of words here almost unavoidably confers moral judgment.

    Another example would be, I guess, “terrorist” and “freedom-fighter” — same descriptive content, very different moral evaluation — and one is, of course, almost exonerative.

  • dan

    There is a conversation going on at Leiter Reports on whether language is relevant to philosophical problems, which you might find enlightening.

  • Gavin Robinson

    The “terrorist” and “freedom-fighter” thing is a better example as both terms are pretty unequivocal in moral terms but are also understood to describe certain kinds of action in ways that “good” and “evil” don’t. “Heroic” is more problematic because although it’s a moral judgement (freedom fighters are heroic, terrorists aren’t), there are huge potential differences about what kind of action might or might not be considered heroic, depending on cultural traditions and practical circumstances. Rushing forwards can be heroic, but so can standing still (the squares at Waterloo) or even running away (the Dunkirk spirit).

    Yes, the hypothetical revisionist can argue that “if we define revolution as x then what we call the Enlightenment was not a revolution”. But someone else could just as easily argue that “if we define revolution as y then what we call the Enlightenment was a revolution”. They can both be right if their evidence meets the criteria they’ve set, but beyond that they’ll have to agree to differ. I think you’re right that if either side claims that their definition of “revolution” is better than the other’s then the debate will become pointless. There can be no empirical test for the existence of a revolution without an arbitrary definition, because “revolution” is an abstract concept which has no concrete existence in itself. That doesn’t necessarily mean that anything goes. A definition has to be useful for the project it’s being used for, but that means we have to be very clear about the aims of the project, and very careful of ideological assumptions. In the debate on the 1640s, Marxists have ideological reasons for wanting a revolution to have taken place, and revisionists have ideological reasons for not wanting a revolution to have taken place. The danger “in using words just as they are most reasonably & likely to be understood” is that appeals to common sense can be a smokescreen for unconscious ideology.

  • Gavin Robinson

    On second thoughts it was bit lazy to fall back on the ideology thing. Common sense can be a smokescreen for ideology, but I don’t think it always is.

    I should have pointed out that if you examine people’s reasonable understanding of words more closely you might find that they’re not as similar as you expect. For example, everyone thinks they know what the Second World War was and when it started, but when they start to discuss it big differences can appear. Just see this post, and especially the comment threads on the other posts that it links to.

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  • enigmafoundry

    Two thoughts:

    What purpose does it serve to speculate, for example, that if Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t been shot, WW1 wouldn’t have happened?

    Perhaps the war would have happened anyway–we really don’t know. But we can speculate, and this speculation can go in two directions: that is, we can look at a possible past that could have existed, or we can look a possible futures that didn’t happen, but were thought likely in their time.

    Example of this is here:

    2. As a follow up to that, a project is suggested: A History of the Future, which I have made a very modest start on…

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