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 🙂