Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Part 3. Historiography as Progressive Science

In the previous posts, I have discussed Lakatosian and counterfactual considerations about the use of frameworks in historiography. I have argued that frameworks generate possible futures and therefore historiography is committed to sets of possible futures, whether historians like it or not. In this post, I argue that choices of explanatory frameworks reflect values and ultimately commit to visions of progress.

We already mentioned above that Lakatos made a distinction between internal and external history. Internal history reconstructs the past in accordance with a framework and external history explains cases where the past does not accord to the framework. External history is defined by the internal one as it solves the problems that the internal history generates. The uncharitable interpretation of this idea has been that external history is ad hoc history that is used to save the rationality of science in Lakatos’s philosophy. The uncharitable interpretation does seem somewhat justified if we consider only the actual sequences of events. For example, if falsicationism says that theory is rejected when an experiment contradicts its prediction but we do not find such rejection in an actual historical case, what is the point of arguing that science accords to falsicationism except when some external factors distort it? Whether or not we adopt falsificationsim does not seem to make any difference to how we perceive the actual case: problematic experiment or not, the theory was accepted anyway. However, this line of thought seriously underestimates the complexity of our intellectual tasks and goals. There are two interrelated reasons for this. First, we know that an outcome often depends on the interplay between many factors. Smoking has a harmful effect on fitness even if its bad effects are somewhat cancelled by its ability to decrease body weight. We do not dismiss the harmful effect of smoking because it is real, and the effect would become visible if we adopted a fixed diet. We are not interested merely in actual sequences of events. Secondly, we usually seek understanding that goes beyond some particular case. We wish to see beneath the details of a particular case. Here, it is interesting to note that E. H. Carr presented similar thoughts as Lakatos in his discussion about the distinction between “true” and “accidental” causes:

“[F]rom the multiplicity of sequences of cause and effect [a historian] extracts those, and only those, which are historically significant; and the standard of historical significance is his ability to fit them into his pattern of rational explanation and interpretation. Other sequences of cause and effect have to be rejected as accidental, not because the relation between cause and effect is different, but because the sequence itself is irrelevant.” (p. 105.)

It is important to not that “the irrelevance” of a sequence does not mean that the accidental causes do not make a difference on the outcome. Carr discusses an example where Robinson goes to buy cigarettes but is killed by a drunk driver. According to Carr, the drunk driver is the true cause and Robinson’s desire to smoke is an accidental cause. Clearly, it is true that Robinson’s desire made a difference to the outcome. Therefore, this irrelevance for Carr is different from causal irrelevance. Carr writes:

“There, too, we distinguish between rational and accidental causes. The former, since they are potentially applicable to other countries, other periods, and other conditions, lead to fruitful generalizations, and lessons can be learned from them; they serve the end of broadening and deepening our understanding.” (p. 107)

We should be careful here. This claim should not be interpreted as saying that “rational causes” are the ones that produce the same phenomena in different contexts. If this was the case, accidental causes would not affect the outcomes of historical processes which they clearly do, according to Carr: “The shape of Cleopatra’s nose, Bajazet’s attack of gout, the monkey-bite that killed King Alexander, the death of Lenin – these were accidents which modified the course of history” (p. 103). Moreover, Carr writes that “events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results.” Rational causes, then, work in many situations but do not produce the outcomes alone. This corresponds to our discussion concerning the frameworks as backbones for explanatory scenarios: they do not tell, without further causal knowledge, what would have happened but still serve an essential role of producing explanatory patterns of counterfactual dependencies.

Carr’s distinction between rational and accidental causes can be pushed even further. The distinction between rational (internal) and accidental (external) history is not a distinction that is meaningful within a single historical case. The internal history is based on generalizable and potentially deep explanatory understanding. Because frameworks involve assumptions of how the world works and because they enable us to answer a wide range of what-if-things-had-been-different questions, they provide both generalizable and deep understanding. The source of this is the ability to answer what-if-things-had-been questions. The ability to answer such what-if questions determines the explanatory depth (Woodward & Hitchcock, Virmajoki) and thus framework-driven explanations are prima facie deeper than other explanations. For example, consider we ask why gravitational deflection was observed. A falsificationist would provide an explanation in terms of theoretical novelties and the centrality of the test, possibly adding information about the idiosyncratic data-handling by Eddington. This explanation provides information about what would have happened, had there not been a theoretical novelty or had the observation not been considered as a crucial test. Moreover, falsificationism can also assess the relevance of Eddington’s data-handling against this background: had someone else been involved, the data might have been interpreted as indicating that the deflection does not correspond to the prediction by the theory. Compare this to an (external) explanation that cites only Eddington’s data-handling. This explanation tells what would have happened, had someone else been involved, but it does not tell what would have happened, had the theoretical novelty or the centrality of the test been interpreted differently before. What would have happened, had there not been interest in Einstein’s theory? What would have happened, had the procedure for observation been judged as too unreliable to have any significance? The external explanation does not answer us. The example also reveals the connection between explanatory depth (the ability to answer what-if questions) and generalizability. If we have a deep explanation, we know what would have happened in many different conditions. If we know what would have happened, had the procedure been judged too unreliable in the Eddington case, we also know what should happen, according to the falsificationist framework, in an actual case where some procedure to test a theory is judged as unreliable; the procedure would not be used because it would not provide a crucial test for the theory. In this way, framework-driven internal explanations are deep and generalizable and serve a wide range of intellectual functions and goals.

One problem remains. Even if a framework enables us to answer a set of what-if questions and is, therefore, appliable to a range of circumstances, there usually are other frameworks that answer different sets of what-if questions and are applicable to different range of circumstances. The difficulty is that often two such frameworks both explain the same historical case. For example, in the Eddington case, a framework from philosophy of science could answer what-if questions that concern theoretical background, experimental procedures, inferences, and so on, while a sociological framework could answer what-if questions concerning trust, ideological differences, and power struggles. There is no guarantee for an intellectual solution to such explanatory competition along the lines suggested in the previous paragraph, as both frameworks provide deep and generalizable understanding. Here we come to practical considerations and practical goals. The choice of a framework must obviously reflect what we wish to know and why. Given that frameworks answer what-if questions, we have to decide what kinds of what-if questions are important.

An obvious criterion for the choice of a framework is the domain we are interested in. If we are interested in science, we should adopt a framework that enables us to answer what-if questions that typically arise in connection to science. If the focus is on science, we need to focus on theories, tests, inferences, and so on, not on the sociological stuff. However, there is a problem with this suggestion. Why should we focus on science in the first place? Given that historical events are embedded in a heterogenous nexus of many types of causes, what justifies the highlighting of the scientific aspects of the situation? For example, Eddington’s case is both a scientific and a sociological one, depending on which aspect we focus on. This problem cannot be addressed if we focus only on the history itself. If two frameworks with different domains of applicability both explain a historical situation equally well, the history itself does not tell, by definition, which one is to be preferred. Our willingness to answer a set of what-if questions must stem from our preferences. I claim that our preferences stem from our conceptions of progress in a domain. For example, we wish to answer what-if questions concerning factors such as theories, tests, inferences, and so on in the domain of science because we value science and because we think that desirable futures of science (i.e. progress) is to be understood in terms of those factors.

Carr notoriously argued that

“[An objective historian] has the capacity to project his [sic] vision into the future in such a way as to give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation. [–] Historiography is a progressive science, in the sense that it seeks to provide constantly expanding and deepening insights into a course of events which is itself progressive.” (p. 123-124.)

While the notion of progressive course of events does not resonate with us, the idea that historiographical progress is connected to our ideas of desirable futures can be made sensible. This connection answers how the choice between two competing frameworks is made on the basis of our values.

First, we need to notice that all historiography is essentially presentist. Hasok Chang has pointed out that “Presentism in historiography is inevitable in a basic sense: the historian is quite simply stuck in the present, and it does not make sense to attempt to escape the present” (2021, 98). This point about the relationship between the historiography and the present state of the world is formulated eloquently also by Naomi Oreskes: “What matters to us about the past has everything to do with who we are, where we live, and what we think is important – to us, here and now, in the present. Our motivations are inescapably presentist.” (2013, 603.) What we wish to understand about the past is based on our values and preferences. To be clear, the claim is not merely that historiography focuses only on what is currently valued in historiography. This would be trivial. The claim is that historiography reflects wider values and preferences people currently have. However, historiography also needs to go beyond the immediate concerns of the surrounding society. Beneath the surface, these immediate concerns are shaped by deeper values and preferences. This is something that historians have pointed over and over again.[1] Historiography needs to reflect these deeper values in order to make sense of the wider patterns in which the immediate concerns are embedded. For example, we wish to understand science and its development, not because we have some acute science-policy issues, but because the acute issues stem from the deeper values we associate with science. In this case, historiography of science attempts to provide a deeper perspective on a domain (i.e. science) that we associate values with.

Secondly, desirable futures are possible futures that are in accordance with our values. Again, desirable futures should not be understood as futures that we would prefer right now but as futures that correspond to our deeper values and preferences. Many of our immediate needs and goals are ephemeral. To understand the desirable futures, we have to take into account the changes in needs and goals and focus on the underlying values and preferences in order to understand how futures with different needs and goals can be axiologically sound. For example, connecting research funding the satisfaction with some current needs might backfire when we have some different needs in the future.

These two observations mean both that historiography and the search for desirable futures are dependent on understanding the deeper values beneath the surface phenomena. What domains we focus on and which what-if questions we ask depend on our values and preferences. This already suggests that relevant historiography is committed to a set of values that generates a set of desirable futures. However, there is an even deeper connection here along the Carrian lines. When we value some domain, we have an associated idea of how the domain works and what its function is. The way it works and produces certain outcomes is the reason we find the domain valuable. Given this, progress can be understood simply in terms of continuing adequate working of the domain. As long as we find the domain and its outcomes valuable, we make progress. When a historiographical explanation is based on a specific framework, it reflects our interest in the domain of the framework. The framework tells us how the domain in general works. Because the domain is valuable due to the way it works and because the framework suggests how the domain works, the framework also suggests why the domain is valuable. Moreover, because the adequate working and outcomes determine the progress of the domain, the domain makes progress as long as it works in accordance with the framework. Therefore, the framework tells when the domain is progressive. Adopting an explanatory framework, therefore, commits us to a vision of progress. It tells what types of futures are desirable with respect to the domain. The deeper and more relevant our historiographical explanations become, the more powerful are the frameworks behind them. Powerful frameworks provide powerful visions of progress. Historiography is indeed a progressive science, as Carr suggested, when it provides insights into a progressive course of events. One cannot make historiography deeper and more relevant without generating more and more powerful vision of progress. However, the progress is not “out there”. Rather, it is dependent on our values and contingent on how specific domains actually develop. It is progress because we consider it as progress.

We arrive at 3-dimensional PYMOWYN: In order to provide relevant and interesting explanations, historiography must reflect on our current values. These same values determine the set of desirable futures. Therefore, historiographical explanations generate sets of desirable futures. Moreover, a historiographical explanation is structured around a framework that suggests the general workings of a domain. Given that we value the way the domain works and given that progress is made when the adequate workings of the domain continues, the historiographical explanation generates a vision of a progressive future. Historiographical progress is connected to progressive visions: the deeper and more relevant an historiographical explanation is, the more powerful its vision for progress is.

[1] For example, Shapin and Schaffer write in their now classical work that “We shall suggest that solutions to the problem of knowledge are embedded within practical solutions to the problem of social order, and that different practical solutions to the problem of social order encapsulate contrasting practical solutions to the problem of knowledge. That is what the Hobbes-Boyle controversies were about.” (1985, 15 [emphasis in original]).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *