disorganized blather on causation

I’m out of town for a bit & in the midst of packing, so this is messy thinking-out-loud & will be the only post for a few days.

Further to earlier musings, I have been thinking a little about what it means to explain something. There seems to be a difference between causal explanations like (1) “smoking causes lung cancer” and (2) “that banana skin caused me to slip” — for instance, (1) is analyzed probabilistically while (2) is specific to circumstance. The trouble I then encounter is which category historical explanation falls into. Indeed, it seems we might be supposed to use explanations of type (2) to reach explanations of type (1). We might be interested in explanation (2), “Those peasants revolted because they were hungry”, because we want to (statistically?) ascertain explanation (1), “Hungry peasants cause revolutions”.

This sort of reasoning seems to be a process of establishing historical laws with both explanatory and predictive (if only probabilistically) powers. Do historical explanations always ultimately need to refer to some kind of type (1) explanation (“law”)? — are we always ultimately interested in the kinds of explanations that do lead to type (1)s? Does the type (2) explanation “Joe got lung cancer because he smokes 10 packs a day” really have any meaning without the implicit type (1) “smoking causes lung cancer”?

More when I get back — hopefully less disorganized blather. Thoughts are appreciated, as always.


5 responses to “disorganized blather on causation

  • Tim

    Rachel, I love your blog. (It’s Tim from Snarkmarket/Short Schrift.)

    I spent a lot of time thinking about this problem when I studied philosophy and political science. As I see it, there are at least three other possibilities to describe historical explanation other than causality in the traditional sense.

    1) Teleological explanations. Since history is brought about largely by human actors, you can substitute a teleological explanation — A does B in order to do/have C — for a causal one (A/B because of C). The explanation C in this case is a future state/event rather than a past one. Example — Germany invades Czechoslovakia, Poland, and then Russia because Hitler and his gov’t wanted to block Russian military and demographic growth. You’ve explained the event by giving a reason for an action, but that reason might be based on a mistaken apprehension of facts or their causal chain.

    2) Interpretive explanations. History is a lot like literature — not because it’s consumed by narratives, but because it’s capable of explanaining in detail the significance of events, rather than (just) their causal chain. So the Magna Carta is important because it’s the first attempt in English history to formally restrict the rights of the sovereign, and establishes a precedent for other similar attempts that follow. You haven’t given a causal explanation, but you’ve put the event in a context that makes it more understandable. Instead of going big, you can also go close — maybe in order to really understand the Magna Carta, we need an account of the relations among the different lords. Here history is concerned with making meaning.

    3) Path-dependent explanations. Path-dependence is the idea that causation in one instance does not imply causation in a similar instance. For certain events to occur, lots of conditions have to be met, and timing matters. What’s more, events can occur that are suboptimal, but get locked-in. You see this a lot in history of technology, but political scientists and historians increasingly take this tack as well. The QWERTY keyboard is a great example. It’s the not the best possible layout for a typewriter (and especially not for a computer), but it gets locked-in by all the users who would make it difficult to switch. So the expected outcome, if you were making a general rule, finds exceptions because the timing is different and a range of other conditions are met. In other words, you can have causality, in either the teleological or traditional sense, but you can relax the assumption that causation has to follow a universal law. In fact, that last observation works for all three.

  • Kyle

    How do you deal with the fact that all explanations of any kind are formulated in and conditioned by a (relatively) stable future in which the consequences of the events analyzed are (relatively) known, when the circumstances that surrounded and impacted those events were, at best, hypothetical?

    Where does human intent fit into historical analysis, especially when it is failed? And when intent isn’t known with any certainty, how does that uncertainty factor into our interpretation? What if we’re wrong? This is especially tricky, I suspect, for teleology.

  • Kyle

    (I didn’t want to say that the circumstances that surrounded the events were hypothetical; I wanted to say that its consequences were)

  • Gawain

    “those peasants revolted because they were hungry” is one kind of interpretation — but how true is it? take any rebellion and you will find that different individual revolutionaries participate for different reasons. revolutions are especially messy — so many different interests forming passing alliances. the results — the history — are often an accidental outcome of various random factors. the system is too complex to make predictions — and therefore possibly too complex to make explanations, as well?

  • rAchel

    (back from far-off lands!)

    thanks for all the penetrating comments. I fear my responses will be unworthy in their haste & coherence, as I am extraordinarily tired & travelled-out.

    @Tim: good to see you dropping in๐Ÿ™‚ I especially like the distinction of interpretive explanation. I think that’s what distinguishes historical explanation from, say, scientific explanation — viz., one does not “make meaning” for gravitational theory, where we are explaining what causes a ball to fall when we drop it. Relatedly, then, it must be that it’s not only methods of explanation that we have to examine, but also the subjects we are trying to explain. With respect to explanation, it seems gravitational theory is different from the Magna Carta — but how?
    On the other points I am in agreement for now, though I must think more about teleology …

    @Kyle: Explanation is, I think, always intimately bound up with time. It’s a cliche, but we follow behind an event at a distance & it’s likely to get clearer the further away we get from it. I may not have understood, as I walked out of a fateful pub in Munich, that what transpired there was the first step in Hitler’s rise to power. But I certainly knew it in 1939, when the “hypothetical consequences” eventually collapsed into actual consequences, as they are wont to do. And I think we can talk about something like that without recourse to teleology, or worrying about “human intent” (btw, am not entirely sure what you mean by that). I don’t think it’s something we have to “deal with” so much as that it’s part of the nature of explanation — that the shape & form of explanation are themselves historically shaped … if that is in fact what you are saying? or have I grossly misunderstood you?๐Ÿ™‚

    @Gawain: Alas, if only graduate historians could get away with PhD theses concluding, after 100,000 words, that such-and-such event was far too complex to explain after all! (even more unfortunately, many in fact do get away with it :)). We can’t shirk the basic attempt to explain, if we want anything useful out of history. The question is, I guess, how well we can do it.

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