What Does Philosophy of History Do?

In this post, I explain how to explore issues in the philosophy of history. Here, I focus on the issue of causal explanation in historiography, the study of the past. I reserve the term “history” to the events, processes, and conditions in the past. The main question of such inquiry is what historiography needs to tell about the events, processes, and conditions in the past in order to explain causally a historical outcome. In the philosophy of historiography, the accounts of explanation have focused on what kind of connection must hold between some Z (a set of events, processes, and conditions) and X in order for Z to explain X (an outcome). The thing to be explained is called explanandum (X in our case) and the thing that explains (Z and some additional information) is called explanans, and the point of investigation is to explicate the structure of explanans and its relation to explanandum in historiography.

This investigation has two main tasks. First, it needs to explicate the core notions of causality and/or explanation. A philosophical analysis of the notion of causal explanation needs to tell when Z and X have a causal and/or explanatory connection. Notice that the notions of causality and explanation may or may not be defined together. Often the notion of causal explanation is defined in terms of causal relevance, but sometimes the notion of causal relevance is considered as a derivative from what some consider as the more basic notion explanation. However, no matter how, exactly, we understand the relationship between the notions of causality and explanation, a philosophical account of explanation in historiography has to explicate what constitutes the core of the notion of causal explanation in historiography.

Secondly, and equally – if not more – importantly, the philosophical investigation needs to map issues and notions that are tightly connected to causal explanations in historiography, such as explanatory depth, historical contingency, and so on. A philosophical account of historiographical explanation needs to (i) make these notions understandable and clear, and (ii) be able to connect them to the core of the notion of causality/explanation. The function of analyzing the core notions is to provide the basis for further explications and clarifications of issues and notions that are related to causal explanation in historiography. While it is probably true that historians are able to arrive at and justify explanations without analyzing the conceptual structure of explanation (Tucker 2004, Ch. 5), the function of a philosophical account of historiographical explanation is not to allow historians to explain but to clarify explanatory claims when those claims are “confused, unclear, and ambiguous” and to suggest “how these limitations might be addressed” as Woodward (2003, 7) elegantly puts it.

This means that the philosophical investigation of historiographical explanation has two directions. On the one hand, it needs to provide an explication of the core notions that can clarify and make understandable the conceptual space surrounding causal explanation in historiography. On the other hand, it has to map the surrounding conceptual space in order to find those characters of historiographical explanation that the core notions have to be able to capture. The core notions need to be faithful to the issues and notions that surround causal explanation in historiography. We should work in both directions and our main task is to understand the relationship between the core notions and the surrounding conceptual space. The figure in the end illustrates the two-fold task.

The following issues constitute the conceptual space that an account of causal explanation needs to clarify:

1. It is obvious that there are many interrelated causes that explain an outcome, not just the cause. An account of explanation should be able to recognize this.

2. Still, not everything that had a causal influence is equally relevant. We need to make selections concerning what we include in an explanation. How the selection works needs to be addressed.

3. The selection forces us to ask what the relationship is between two different explanations. Are they competitors or merely different points of view? An account of explanation should acknowledge this phenomenon. In what sense can explanations compete?

4. What makes one explanation better than another explanation, if both explanations are true? This is the question of explanatory depth.

5. Sometimes historical outcomes seem somewhat contingent. We wish to make sense of this contingency. How can an explanation provide us understanding not merely about the outcome but also about the contingency of the outcome? Are explanatory facts also contingency-indicating facts?

6. The historiographical account of the events is usually provided in a narrative form. Does this have some explanatory relevance? Does the fact that the events and conditions leading to an outcome are often presented in a narrative somehow contribute to our understanding?

7. There seem to be regular connections between different items in an explanation. What is the role of such law-like regularities (generalizations) in historical explanation?

8. When it comes to explanations, you get what you pay for. It is important to distinguish different explanation-seeking questions. Why did Eddington [rather someone else] observe the deflection [rather than not observe anything OR observe different amount of deflection] in 1919 [rather than sometime else]? Different items in the brackets force different contrasts and usually different answers to the seemingly same question.

9. The point in (8) is connected to the grain of explanation: the more detailed formulation we give to the explanandum, the more fine-grained our explanation will be. How to capture the effect of the grain of explanation in explanatory reasoning?

10. Why are we interested in explaining some event and not others? There is much to explain in the past. Why this event?

11. Does the motivation behind the question affect how it should be answered?

Take a brief illustration:

In Woodward’s interventionist account of explanation, “the underlying or unifying idea in the notion of causal explanation is the idea that an explanation must answer what-if-things-had-been-different questions, or exhibit information about a pattern of dependency” (2003, 201). To put it simply, explanations answer questions of the form “Why X rather than Y?” by pointing out factors Z and W such that “had W rather than Z been the case, Y rather than X would have been the case.” Explanations provide information about counterfactual dependencies between explanans and explanandum and are contrastive in nature. An explanation “must enable us to see what sort of difference it would have made for the explanandum if the factors cited in the explanans had been different in various possible ways” (2003, 11). The interventionist account is, therefore, a difference-making account.

I have relied on this account when I have built a counterfactual account of historical explanation (see HERE). There are many issues that can be clarified with the account. For example, we can separate contingency from explanation: All explanation tell how thing could have been different, but they do not automatically tell how plausible it was that things went differently. I would have been a great boxer, had my genetics been different; however, that I am not a great boxer is not a contingency because the scenario where my genetics were different (in the right way) is far-fetched. The account also enables to compare the explanatory depth of two explanations in terms of their ability to answer what-if-things-had-been-different questions. This ability to explicate a core notion and use it in clarifying the conceptual space surrounding causal explanation speaks for the counterfactual account.

However, the counterfactual account, which has many virtues, does not require that explanations come in a narrative form, as a description of sequences of events. Yet, narratives play a decisive role in defining many central issues and phenomena in historical explanation, especially methodological ones. This means that it is implausible to claim that the narrative form is completely superfluous in historiographical explanation. The question is how able the counterfactual account is to recognize the centrality of narratives in historiography. As I have claimed, the sole purpose of having an account of explanation is to be able to clarify and systematize important issues and phenomena that are related to explanations in any given field. Narratives in historiography is one such issue and therefore the counterfactual account has to be able to recognize its importance. “[H]istory, and its explanatory narrative mode of argument” cannot remain “an outcast in the broader kinship of the sciences” (see Morgan 2017, 84). The counterfactual account has to tell (i) how narratives provide explanatory information, and (ii) what constrains the narrative form sets for the counterfactual account. No matter how strong and appealing an account of explanation is, it has to remain faithful to the nature of the inquiry to which it is applied to.

We have thus seen (i) what an account of explanation needs to do, and (ii) and how to evaluate the accounts in terms of their ability to do this. “This” something is the clarification of conceptual space in the domain of interest.

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