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Darwin-L Message Log 2:156 (October 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<2:156>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Sat Oct 30 00:33:32 1993

Date: Sat, 30 Oct 1993 01:39:45 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Some notes on historical explanation
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Tom Cravens asks about explanation in the historical sciences, and Professor
Gale prompts me as well, so I guess I had better post a few notes.  Since
George is actually teaching this material, and I only dabble in it (wishing I
could take his course), I hope he'll supplement what I have to say as he sees
fit.  (Maybe he could just upload a lecture or two.) ;-)

As Tom noted, the whole topic of explanation is a huge can of worms, but it is
an interesting and delectible one.  I think there's lots of room for important
and innovative work here, because much of what has been written about
explanation in the historical sciences has used models of explanation that
were developed originally in the context of the non-historical experimental
and physical sciences.  One of the things I have tried to do in my own work is
explore some of the literature on explanation in history generally, and from
what I have seen there are a lot of ideas in that literature that could be
fruitfully applied to problems in the historical sciences.  While many people
in the historical sciences have some familiarity with the philosophy of
science, the philosophy of _history_ remains a very small and very much
under-studied field for reasons that largely escape me.  Anyone who wants to
consider philosophical issues in the historical sciences, though, really ought
to delve into the philosophy of history, because that's where the most
relevant work will be found, in my opinion.

What follows is just brief sketch-map of the territory to supplement what
George already posted; it may help people orient themselves with respect to
the topic and provide a few useful references.


One of most important early twentieth-century views of historical explanation
and understanding, usually associated with the work of Robin Collingwood
(1946), was the "reenactment" view: we understand the actions of Caesar when
we can reenact in our own minds the thoughts he had, and see how they led him
to take the actions that he took.  The development of a sense of sympathetic
understanding has always been considered important by historians, and
Collingwood's reenactment notion attempts to capture this.  But this is in
many respects the least interesting view of historical explanation and
understanding from the point of view of the historical sciences, because
"history" for Collingwood was only the history of human actions: the earth has
no "history" for him, because it is not a rational being whose mind we can
enter.  This is clearly a very narrow definition of "history", and Toulmin &
Goodfield responded to it quite effectively in the introduction to their book
_The Discovery of Time_ (1965).

During the mid-twentieth century most discussion of historical explanation
focussed on the so-called covering law model of explanation that George Gale
mentioned.  This model of explanation is usually associated with Carl Hempel,
who tried to extend it from its original home in the physical sciences into
history in a very influential paper published in 1942.  Much of this work is
considered old hat nowadays, but it was important because it drove a number of
people who didn't like Hempel's project to examine carefully just what
historical explanation and understanding were like, under the assumption they
were not just immature versions of physics as Hempel had seemed to imply.

Beginning in the 1950s, partly in reaction to Hempel, a number of people began
developing autonomous theories of historical explanation and understanding
under the general rubric of "analytical philosophy of history".  Some of the
principal actors involved were (and are) William Dray, Morton White, Arthur
Danto, Louis Mink, William Gallie, Patrick Gardner, W. H. Walsh, and Alan
Donagan; if you search a good library catalog under these names you will turn
up lots of titles.  Recent collections of the work of these people that I have
found particularly useful include Dray (1989) and Mink (1987).  With regard to
narrative representation (though not necessarily explanation) I have found,
and continue to find, Danto's _Narration and Knowledge_ (1985) very valuable.

The analytical philosophers of history tried to characterize a number of kinds
of explanations used in historical writing in addition to the covering-law
type discussed by Hempel.  These included narratives, continuous series
explanations, integrating explanations, how-possibly explanations, and others.
David Hull, a noted philosopher of evolutionary biology, wrote a very nice
paper (1975) on integrating explanations that deserves more attention than it
has had; and I've applied Dray's notion of "how-possibly" explanations to
evolutionary biology in one of my own papers (1988).

Some of the most recent work in these areas has been influenced by literary
theories of narrative.  People like Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur are
important in this context, though I have tended to find this work less
accessible to me as a scientist than the earlier work of Danto, Dray, and
their allies.

This is just the briefest of sketches; there is a good deal of recent
literature in these areas that I have not followed closely.  The journal
_History and Theory_ (the principal journal in philosophy of history)
regularly publishes papers on all aspects of historical explanation and
understanding, and is a good place to look to find out what's going on.

Literature cited above:

Collingwood, Robin G.  1946.  _The Idea of History_.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Danto, Arthur C.  1985.  _Narration and Knowledge_.  New York: Columbia
University Press.

Dray, William.  1989.  _On History and Philosophers of History_.  Leiden: E.
J. Brill.  (Excellent volume of selected papers.)

Hempel, Carl G.  1942.  The function of general laws in history.  _Journal of
Philosophy_, 39:35-48.  (Reprinted in Hempel's selected papers volume, the
title of which I don't recall.)

Hull, David L.  1975.  Central subjects and historical narratives.  _History
and Theory_, 14:253-274.  (Reprinted in Hull's selected papers volume _The
Metaphysics of Evolution_, 1989.)

Mink, Louis O.  1987.  _Historical Understanding_ (B. Fay, E. O. Golub, & R.
T. Vann, eds.).  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  (Excellent volume of
selected papers.)

O'Hara, Robert J.  1988.  Homage to Clio, or, toward an historical philosophy
for evolutionary biology.  _Systematic Zoology_, 37:142-155.

Toulmin, Stephen E., & June Goodfield.  1965.  _The Discovery of Time_.  New
York: Harper and Row.  (Reprinted by University of Chicago Press.  The single
best book on the historical sciences, in my opinion.)


Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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