Ex on the Beach. A Week in the Philosophy of Historiography

I have spent this week writing about philosophy of historiography, a topic I spent time with during my twenties. I wrote a text to the blog of Oulu Centre for Philosophical Studies of History where I discuss the relationship between historiography and science and the connections between philosophy of historiography and philosophy of science. I also made minor revisions on my article “On Local Explanation in Historiography of Science” and it will probably (hopefully) now be published. In this post I discuss the philosophy of historiography from the perspective of futures studies and futures of science.

I want to start from the rather trivial observation that all our knowledge concerns the past (the present being the limiting case) and therefore our knowledge of the future (to the extent that there exist such knowledge) must be based on our knowledge of the past. However, it does not follow that our knowledge of the future (or possible futures) is based on historiography (i.e. the study of the history, the past). Historiography is a specific field that studies the past. It incorporates certain interests, methods, concepts and inference-patterns.  A conclusion made in psychology is based on series of experiments that happened in the past but this does not make psychology a part of historiography. When we discuss the possibility of using historiographical tools and ways of thinking, the “historiographical toolbox”, in the study of the future, we discuss the use of specific ways of thinking in the discipline called historiography and not the use of all available evidence and methods.

Yet, historiographical toolbox seems prima facie useful in futures studies (as noted already in this post). Historiography studies the development of human societies and practices; people’s ways of thinking, feeling and their attitudes; human action and their contexts. Moreover, it has been noted that there are methodological dimensions in historiography that seem useful in scenario-building: For example,

(I) Counterfactual analysis of history could give clues how to build scenarios for the future,

(II) We “can learn from the past even while acknowledging that it does not repeat itself in the same way every time similar events occur” (Bradfield et al. 2016). At least, we can compare, contrast and debate possible future changes against causal framework of the past (ibid), and

(III). “[H]istory’s value to consideration of the future lies in its ability to tease out conflicting viewpoints, misunderstandings and biases” (ibid).

In order to understand the possible uses of historiography in futures studies, we need to understand the nature, prospects and problems of historiography. Philosophy of historiography is the field that studies these things. As strange it might seem, a key to the futures may lie in the philosophy of historiography, a discipline that has somewhat old-fashioned image (yet I can tell that the discipline is living through a renaissance right now).

One age-old philosophical question is whether historiography is a science. This question is a devil in disguise for many reasons. One of them is that the question produces a mirage of a short-cut into the use of historiography in the study of the future. If historiography is a science, then we can use it in the study of future in the same way as we can use sciences to estimate future conditions. The problem is that no answer can be given before we understand historiography in detail. In order to be able to tell whether historiography is a science, we need to understand deeply how historiography works and how it can be improved. And if we know this much, we can already analyze the possible uses of historiography in the study of the future. The question whether historiography is a science is redundant. Our ability to use historiography in the study of the future does not depend on the nominal question of its scientific status but on how it works and how it provides knowledge. We need to analyze these issues and forget the age-old question if we want to make progress in understanding the relationship between historiography and futures studies.

However, the relationship between science and historiography is important for other reasons. If we conjecture that historiography and science are similar (as I think we should) then we are able to use philosophy of science as our help in historiography of science. In other words, if historiography and science are similar, then existing philosophy of science can make the analysis of historiography easier. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.

In a (forthcoming) paper, I attempted exactly this. I took the so called interventionist account of causal explanation and applied it to historiography. It turned out that the interventionist way of thinking has some power to clarify historiographical issues. However, the interventionist account needs to be locally modified here and there in order to be applicable to historiography. This suggests that we can use historiographical explanations in future estimations in the same way as we use other explanatory knowledge, but we have to be careful not to overlook the differences (revealed by the need for modifications). For example, historiographical explanations are much harder to justify than explanations is other disciplines where experiments are possible or at least the amount of data is much greater than in historiography. This means that

Philosophy of science, when applied to philosophy of historiography, can give hints how historiography can be used in futures studies, i.e. how history can tell what the future will look like.

There is even one more twist to this. In another forthcoming paper (the one I revised this week) I use the same interventionist account to clarify the nature of local explanations in historiography of science. Local explanations in historiography of science are explanations that explain some development of science by citing the (unique) location where that development took place. The nature of local explanations is important issue for both philosophy of historiography and the study of the futures of science. If science really reflects the unique conditions where it was produced, it becomes rather difficult to find any general patterns in the development of science. If local explanation really play an important role in the history of science, then the prospects of estimating the possible futures of science shrink. In order to know whether local explanations are central to the history of science, I analyzed the historiography of science, i.e. I relied on philosophy of historiography.

I came to the conclusion that there are two ways of understanding local explanation. One reading is that local explanations point out that certain developments could not have happened anywhere but in specific kinds of environments. This form of localism is sometimes present in historiography of science but it is not a problem for out ability to find general patterns of development of science. The fact that an effect is produced by a configuration of causes does not pose any novel epistemic threats. The other reading is that local explanations cite unique factors that do not fall under general categories. This reading, by definition, is a threat for general patterns of scientific developments. However, this form of localism is impossible, given the existing knowledge and practices in historiography of science. Therefore, given the first reading, local explanations are an important category of explanations that may tell important things about science but do not form a direct threat for the possibility of estimating the futures of science.

In this way, we are able to analyze the prospects of estimating the futures of science by tools taken from philosophy of science and philosophy of historiography. It is interesting to note how intimately connected the seemingly distant fields of philosophy of historiography and the study of the futures (of science) in fact are.


Bradfield, Ronald & Derbyshire, James & Wright, George (2016). “The critical role of history in scenario thinking: Augmenting causal analysis within the intuitive logics scenario development methodology”. Futures 77. 56-66.

Virmajoki, Veli (forthcoming). ”What Should We Require from an Account of Explanation in Historiography”. Journal of the Philosophy of History.

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