macrohistory.com: commentary

home | opinion index


previous | next

Good History, Science or Art?

The late Christopher Hitchens addressed the problem in a November 2007 article in Vanity Fair.

In his brilliant book What Is History?, Professor E. H. Carr asked about ultimate causation. Take the case of a man who drinks a bit too much, gets behind the wheel of a car with defective brakes, drives it round a blind corner, and hits another man, who is crossing the road to buy cigarettes. Who is the one responsible? The man who had one drink too many, the lax inspector of brakes, the local authorities who didn't straighten out a dangerous bend, or the smoker who chose to dash across the road to satisfy his bad habit?

Good history is in detailed description – details tied together in to-the-point clarity, with discrimination that brings to the fore significant factual connections and minimizes mintutae. This done, the thoughtful reader can choose to put responsibility where he pleases.

The philosopher Morris Cohen described good history as "an imaginative reconstruction of the past which is scientific in its determinations and artistic in its formulation." (Quoted by Herbert J. Muller, Uses of the Past, p29.)

Good history requires work of a special kind. It is an investigation rather than letting one's imagination run free and the making of poetic utterances. If history were just art, a writer could spin his work unfettered by concern for what really happened outside his own imagination. He could communicate myth with abandon as did storytellers during the Stone Age and later, and as did those priest-scribes who made of the past whatever advanced the worship for their particular god. If Osama bin Laden were to write history he would do it as an art.

Historians have archaeology to draw from. They have primary documents that tell them what people were declaring. They cannot verify the way scientists can, but they can be empirical, which is a part of science. If I write that the Avesta describes Zoroaster as God's prophet, I am being empirical. If I write that Zoroaster was God's prophet, I am being religious. Or, if I write that Custer's wife said that he beat her and there is no recorded evidence of this, I am being fanciful.

The evidence on which history is based is not good enough that history can be called a science in the same sense that biology is a science. History has its limitations. It cannot answer the question why. Neither can science. Science describes gravity without asking why gravity. Scientific knowledge is the understanding of connections. The question why is attempt to fathom ultimate causation, and knowledge of an ultimate is not available through the methodology of science.

In studying the past and staying within the world of the empirical, some historians try to figure out why rather than merely describe connections. Why did the industrial revolution start in England rather than Japan, Switzerland, Sweden or Argentina? Were the English genetically superior to elites in the other countries? Was it just the availability of coal? What about the availability of coal in other countries? It is a question served by adding discovered circumstances but answered in degree only. Did rulers elsewhere here have a failure of imagination? Did God favor the British? Was it part of God's plan?

The question why might be fascinating, but a good historian is obliged to exercise some modesty.

Copyright © 2005-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.