Do Historians Need Philosophy?

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent and Progressive Historians]

Rachel, over at A Historian’s Craft, blogged recently about some concerns surrounding the nature of language and the problem of reference.   She worries specifically about the ramifications for her ongoing research project of not being able to break down simple concepts into necessary and sufficient conditions:

I mean to say, I am wary about nouns & their ability to coherently refer to things. Example: when we call something a cup, we do not refer to the space inside the handle of the cup as part of the cup, nor even the shadow cast by the cup, even though there’s no real reason not to. The word ‘cup’ also reifies the concept of a cup: one might, for example, call a box a cup if it were small enough. The idea of a noun is pure convention, or convenience.

While I have absolutely no problem with asking such questions I wonder whether concerns about abstract philosophical topics such as objectivity, causality, and language should matter to the historian working historian.  Rachel raises an issue that has attracted the attention of philosophers and linguists going back to before the Greeks.  In the modern era this questions begins with Frege and winds its way through Quine and Kripke; the question now sits at the intersection of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience or what is called cognitive science.  Whether we can reduce our concepts to simple definitions that are self-contained or whether they are in fact conventions along the lines of what Wittgenstein argued will no doubt continue.  Such concerns about language and reality have seeped into classes in historiography over the past few decades; graduate students in history are now talking about metahistory and the latest in postmodern theory as if the ability to do history somehow hinges on being able to provide answers to these abstract issues.  Does our language "mirror" a historical past?  Can we even makes sense of a historical past?  What does it mean to know something about the past?  Such questions are incredibly seductive and are no doubt important.  Unfortunately, when historians do it they usually fail.  And they fail because in the end historians are rarely qualified to address the issues and are unable to show why answers to such questions ought to matter to working historians. 

Consider Joyce Appleby’s, Lynn Hunt’s and Margaret Jacob’s Telling the Truth About History (1995) which essentially called on historians to address the philosophical foundations of their discipline.  The authors are all notable historians in their own right, and there is something admirable in wanting to tackle the kind of relativism that has eaten away at the social sciences in recent years by arguing for the possibility of a meaningful notion of historical objectivity and explanation.  The book provides a solid overview of the rise of so-called scientific history and more recent challenges to the epistemology of historical studies.  The problem these authors face (and it is a problem that any historian wishing to tackle these issues must deal with) is that to understand the outlines of the intellectual landscape of objectivity and epistemology requires abandoning historical studies.  In looking for a philosophical underpinning for historical studies the authors argue for what is called "practical realism" which was introduced and defended by Hilary Putnam.  The authors are no doubt on strong philosophical ground, but they are hardly out of the woods given that Putnam’s theory is one among many.  Putnam’s realism does allow the authors to make philosophical sense of historical studies as stating claims about a past, but that is a far cry from justifying the theory. 

This is wonderful example of doing philosophy of history from the top-down or conceptually.  At no point do the authors inquire as to how Putnam’s theory actually connects to the learning of and critical evaluation of historical studies.  This top-down approach is not new.  The positivist philosophers of science between the 1920s and 1940s criticized historians for their employment of the concept of causation.  The positivists described historical narratives that included references to causation as "pseudo-explanations" since their understanding of the concept did not conform to the deductive-nomological or general law model.   Rachel mentioned R.G. Collingwood in one of her comments and he is no doubt worth reading, but not as someone who has his feet in the muddy world of the historian. Collingwood is best known for his claim that historical knowledge is the result of a mental process which involves rethinking the thoughts of the historical actor.  It is worth noting that Collingwood was responding to criticisims of history fro the positivist camp.  Interestingly, at no point does Collingwood or the positivists seriously inquire into how historians actually go about doing history.  I fear that much of what is coming out of Critical or Postmodern Theory and that is passing for serious philosophy of history has the same fundamental flaw.

Most historians are not interested in philosophical speculation and that’s probably a good thing.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think critically about our discipline.  In fact, it is absolutely essential that we do so.  However, we should do it with our feet on the ground.  We need to ask questions that connect directly to the process of writing good history.  What is so interesting is that while Rachel begins her post with an abstract question of how or whether our concepts describe objects in the world by the end she comes back down to Earth and asks a very reasonable questions about her ongoing research project:

[A]nyway, my thesis argument essentially takes the problem of the mui tsai as one of definition & redefinition — it was the colonial administration’s practice of bureaucratic categorization juxtaposed against the uncertain fluidity of the term mui tsai that made its abolition so intractable, and the whole process of abolition was one of legislative redefinition — this was a conclusion I arrived at through assiduous archival beavering. but I wonder how much it was a foregone conclusion given the inbuilt premises from which I operate. How much do my personal biases shape the way I look at the archive?

I wonder whether Rachel’s descriptive claim was a "foregone conclusion" based on her philosophical questions.  After all, it is possible to just as easily gravitate towards a theory of language that makes sense of the way in which concepts reflect or represent the world.  It’s her final question that is the real gem.  Rather than asking whether objectivity is possible at all Rachel asks a descriptive question of how bias in fact shapes interpretation.  To answer this question we need to examine actual historical studies. 

What I find so interesting about Rachel’s post is the way it straddles both the abstract and empirical terrain of philosophy of history.  My own personal preference, however, would be to start with the empirical question of bias and see where it goes. A related question to ask is whether we can make sense of the notion of progress in historical studies.  If we were to look closely at a long-standing historigraphical debate could we discern patterns of progress?  Do we understand certain subjects better over time?  What does it even mean in historical studies to understand better?  Answering such questions does not stand or fall with the latest in philosophical theory.  What it does require is a close examination of actual historical studies.  And who better to explore these important questions than historians themselves? 

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6 comments… add one
  • Brooks Simpson Jun 7, 2007 @ 16:01

    Historians have philosophies of how they go about what they do and how it’s all supposed to fit together, but rarely do they set for their theory of doing history in explicit ways. In turn, those of my colleagues who are theory-driven rarely apply that theory to the task at hand. The rare exceptions are worth reading.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2007 @ 6:14

    Thanks for the reference John. Additional suggestions can be found in the comments section over at Progressive historians where this post was cross-posted:;jsessionid=AE9B58B8344E501114F3C177421C920B?diaryId=1549

  • John Maass Jun 5, 2007 @ 23:06

    For those interested, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis has some interesting–and critical–perspectives on “The Philospohy of History” in which he politely counters post modernism.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2007 @ 16:32

    Bruce, — There may indeed be a connection between the rise of postmodern theory and the kinds of controversies that count as pseudo-history. Then again, ideas of relativism or the notion that all knowledge is a convention that can be found in Plato’s work.

    John, — I definitely didn’t do a survey on how much postmodernism is bein taught in history programs. I didn’t get any of it in the historiography class that I took. You are probably correct in assuming that it is more prevalent in English departments. _History and Theory_, which is the journal of the field used to reflect an overly conceptual approach to philosophy of history, but in recent years has begun to include more descriptive historical case studies that serves to ground the analysis.

  • John Maass Jun 5, 2007 @ 16:16

    Funny indeed.
    I have been to 2 grad schools (so far) and can state that post-modernism has had very little impact at either one. Granted this is a very small sample, and I will admit that my own experiences are limited. All I can say is that beyond maybe a lecture at most during an historiography class, post-modernism in the realm of history is not a major concern to the vast majority of scholars. Someone once told me (a professor I think) that as of 2003, the AHR had not published a single article that was overtly of a post-modern bent. And 2003 was well after the movement’s “excitement” had peaked. In short, I have found it to be part of the wackiness of English departments, and of little serious use for historians. Words mean things, and mean them in their context. A cup is a cup, and everyone knows that. Have we ever seen somebody having a hot box of coffee, anyway?

  • Bruce Miller Jun 5, 2007 @ 15:49

    When “postmodern” issues like this come up, I usually think of a statement that was attributed to the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin but may be apocraphal. Quoting from memory, it said that those who deny the reality of the external world have sunk to the level of psychotics and university professors.

    Whether the quote is genuine, it’s pretty funny. Actually, since I’m reconstructing the quote from memory, that may illustrate the “postmodern” position in itself!

    But it’s one thing to look at the structure of language and the physical functioning of cognitive perception. That makes sense and can be verified in the real world.

    What doesn’t make sense is to erase the boundaries between fact and opinion. And that’s what happens in pseudohistory like Holocaust denial and pseudoscience like creationism.

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