I’ll be teaching a special methodology class in Lent term on — what else? — causation and explanation in history. Any reading recommendations from those more well-read than I in these matters — and I can tell from some of the comments that there are a number of you — will be welcome.

(am thinking about how strange it is to be on the other side of the fence, in a position where, suddenly, I’ll be teaching rather than being taught — and realizing that teachers just might be as fragile & uncertain as their students. There are even a couple of my to-be students who are my age or a little older).

rainy day

on the subject of fragility, things in Burma seem to have dissipated in fear — though, as the Guardian hopefully adds, “for now“.  As profoundly pessimistic & miserable as I am about the whole matter, and given the at least short-term success of the crackdown (independent reports suggest that there are many more casualties than the junta is letting on), on reflection I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll have to wait another 20 years for the next maelstrom. And perhaps this is as good a reason as any to think (rather — hope, wish) that things are really changing in that hapless and beautiful country after all.

13 responses to “fragility

  • burhan


    been reading your blog for some time. anyway, about causation, i recommend these four classic papers in anglo-american analytic philosophy. i read them for a metaphysics class that once i took as an undergrad:

    *j.l. mackie, “causation and conditions,”

    *donald davidson, “causal relations,”

    *david lewis, “causation,”

    *and, michael tooley, “the nature of causation”



    p.s. best way to teach when you do not know the material: ask the students to give presentations about each reading

  • Tim

    The best paper on path-dependence in social sciences that I know of is

    1) Paul Pierson’s “Not Just What But When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes.”

    2) John Stuart Mill’s “Of the Four Methods of Experimental Inquiry,” from A System of Logic is short, straightforward, and generally a good place to start, in terms of a “scientific” sense of causation that’s applicable to history.

    3) Arthur Stinchcombe’s Constructing Social Theories is also very good. There are some good critiques of Stinchcombe’s approach by Jon Elster, Theda Skocpol, and others.

  • eb

    Thomas Haskell has a collection of essays in this area, some of which were book reviews, called Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History. It’s been a while since I read it, but I believe a couple of the essays are directly on the topic of causation, and the rest look at causation and explanation as part of discussions of particular topics in intellectual and American history.

  • Kevin

    All of these suggestions are first rate, but it seems to me that you should have readings that actually try to address explanation/causation in history. I highly recommend William Dray’s slim volume _Philosophy of History_ (Prentice Hall); Raymond Martin’s _The Past Within Us: An Empirical Approach to Philosophy of History_ (Princeton Univ. Press, 1989) and _Telling the Truth About History_ by Joyce Appleby, et. al.

    Donald Davidson and David Lewis have quite a bit to say about causation, but IMO they don’t bring the discussion down to a level that is relevant for a historian.

  • Gavin Robinson

    You might have seen this before, but Tim Burke posted about explaining complex events. I’d say that pretty much everything that historians want to explain would count as complex. This sort of thing relates to what I was saying about defining abstract concepts like “war” or “revolution”. These things don’t really exist but they’re made up of lots of smaller actions/events/objects/people that do exist. Taking a reductionist view that explaining a few of those small things can allow us to generalise about all of them won’t get us anywhere, but assuming that a revolution is a thing in itself that has its own causes won’t get us anywhere either.

    btw I’m not sure whether giving you such a difficult class to teach so early in your career is a sign that they love you or hate you.😉

  • burhan

    “Donald Davidson and David Lewis have quite a bit to say about causation, but IMO they don’t bring the discussion down to a level that is relevant for a historian.”

    My knowledge of the methodology of history is very slight, but I think you’re right.

    *Analytic* philosophy is *dead* anyway.

    Btw, Rachel, speaking about ‘explaining complex events’, and since you’re interested in Walter Benjamin, you might as well look into what other ‘continental’ philosophers say about the violence, alterity and unexplainability of the event.

    Most of these can be seen as simply reactions to Hegel, and also to Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis. Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Zizek all have something interesting to say about the idea of the event.

  • rAchel

    thanks so much to everyone for the supremely helpful reading list. it’s at times like these when I am so immensely grateful for the internet! — & how much diverse smartness it’s put me in touch with.

    @burhan: I’ve just started looking into david lewis; being woefully untrained in said analytic philosophy, I am having to enlist external sources of help in deciphering the runic symbols of logic jargon. but the first section of his essay on causation, which I read last night, is extremely promising & even funny in places🙂

    @gavin: a class on causation with history undergraduates? I foresee two hours of arctic silence. definitely hate, not love🙂

  • burhan


    glad you find the mackie text interesting.

    i found a few nice pages that summarize some of the ideas by continental philosophers about the explain-ability or unexplain-ability of the event. it beats having to read the books themselves:

    – Derrida’s idea that the event is not say-able:

    – Zizek’s idea that the event causes itself retroactively:

    – Deleuze and Badiou:

  • Tim

    It might be worth sorting these suggestions (or maybe even the course syllabus!) into “causal” and “post-causal” (or noncausal) explanations in history. At any rate, you need to have some picture of what causation in general and causation in history might look like before you begin to approach the idea that it might not be possible to recognize anything like causality in history at all.

    The essay I would pitch in the “noncausal” explanation category, and which has been especially important for literature scholars’ forays into history (and vice versa by way of cultural history) is Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” Geertz is an anthropologist by training, of course, but he’s eminently readable, smart, and influential.

  • CM

    Hi there. Enjoy reading your blog.

    To follow up on eb’s suggestion, you might take a look at Thomas Bender, ed., _The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem of Historical Interpretation_, which anthologizes a famous exchange between Thomas Haskell, David Brion Davis, and John Ashworth over the causes of abolitionism. It might be a good way to tackle questions about causality and explanation in the context of a single, yet significant, historical debate.

    Although I haven’t read it myself, I’m also told that Dror Wahrman’s _The Making of the Modern Self_ contains a methodological chapter on cultural history, which tries to grapple with the particularly difficult question of to what extent cultural historians can explain something by amassing pieces of evidence about cultural practices.

  • rAchel

    wow, you’re all really oozing out of the woodwork here. maybe I should ask for reading recommendations more often :~) thank you!

  • Belle

    Probably the last to add, but I note that you’re doing it all as reading on causality. Have you considered overcoming the silence by presenting it in a different way? Stage an event, then have the students figure out causality. Once they see that sequence is important, the discourse will make more sense.

  • pulvis et umbra sumus « a historian’s craft

    […] the time between my first starting to think about historical causation and my being asked to teach a class on it is almost entirely nourished by my interaction with Professor Peter Lipton — who died, […]

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