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Posted on October 11th, 2012, by

“Empiricism is both theory of knowledge, an epistemology, and a method of enquiry.” [1]. There are few historians who disagree from the application of empiricism as a research procedure, and most plainly purpose the analytical instruments and protocols matured over past 150 years. But as a theory of learning empiricism has come under assault, most lately by postmodernism. Since the beginning of the century philosophers have tried to overcome the epistemological difficulties of empiricism, and historians have been content to let them do so.

Empiricist historians frequently prefer to portray their work as a “craft”, with all the connotations of practical learning and deftness, and to underline the weight of methodology over the theory. Yet all historical writing is built upon a theory of learning, and we cannot and should not leave these grounds completely to others. Let us start with the origins of empiricism, which is, without question, the most influential school of historical reflection over the course of this century. The empirical approach to historical research has its origins in the “scientific revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [2] Essential to the natural philosophy of the era, beginning with Francis Bacon, was the opinion that learning should be obtained from observation of the material world. This, is of course, defied the control exercised by the Church and its clergymen over the generation and dissemination of scholarship. The new conception of scientific enquiry were brought forward by the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and employed for the study of human society. Many of university disciplines with which we are now known, history, sociology and anthropology, appeared during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. Intrinsic to this new, university-led professionalism for historical study came an emphasis upon methodical archival investigation into material papers.

2 The empiricists

Leopold von Ranke was effective in establishing professional criterions for historical training at the University of Berlin between 1824 and 1871. Rejecting a lot of the sources used by historians ”“ specifically individual memoirs, or accounts written after the incident ”“ Ranke debated that historians should only employ primary or original sources, those which were created at the time of the incident under consideration. These should be subjugated to the closest examination, and only then “by gathering, criticizing and verifying all the available sources, could (historians) put themselves in a position to reconstruct the past accurately”. [3] In its most extreme form, scientific history conducted to positive philosophy. The nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte, with whom the term positive philosophy initiated in the 1830s, tried to display that history could be comprehended like the natural world, in terms of common laws. Comte hunted to move from the circumstantial research of all phenomena to the formulation of wide laws which governed historical development. These thoughts intensely affected many of the leading thinkers of the nineteenth century, including Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. In a well-known phrase, Ranke also debated that historians should keep themselves from judging the past, and simply write what practically occurred, “wie es eigentlich gewesen”. [4] Richard Evans, a British historian of Germany, has suggested that this phrase has been “widely misunderstood”, and that Ranke sought to “understand the inner being of the past.” [5] He meant that each historical cycle should be comprehended on its own terms. In other words it should not be judged by the historian’s own standards. However, Ranke realized human history as the working out of God’s will, and in consequence Georg lggers drew a conclusion that “the impartial approach to the past”¦ for Ranke revealed the existing order as God had willed it”¦ One cannot understand the new science of history as it was understood by Ranke without taking into account the political and religious context in which it emerged”. [6] That context was the nineteenth-century unrest arising from nationalism and the increase of European states. A prolific historian, Ranke wrote over sixty volumes of chronological story focusing upon the political and diplomatic history of Europe. Ranke’s authority was prevalent; his pupils were assigned in the new universities being set up throughout Europe and North America.

3 The truth of an historical account rests upon its correspondence to the facts.

The posterior exhortation by a French historian at the first International Congress of Historian in 1900 shows the preoccupation with actual evidence which had become the centre of historical practice: “We want nothing more to do with the approximations of hypotheses, useless systems, and theories as brilliant as they are deceptive, superfluous moralities. Facts, facts, facts ”“ which carry within themselves their lesson and their philosophy. The truth, all the truth, nothing but the truth.” [7] The centre tenets of scientific, empirical history as it stood at the beginning of the century might be classified as follows:

the scrupulous investigation and learning of historical evidence, verified by references;

impartial examination, vacant of a priori beliefs and prejudices;

and inductive procedure of inference, from the detailed to the general.

Implicit within these investigation principles is a particular theory of learning. First of all, the past subsist independently of the personal’s mind, and is both noticeable and verifiable. Secondly, through adherence to the investigation principles above, the historian is able to delineate the past really and accurately. In other words, “the truth of an historical account rests upon its correspondence to the facts.” [8]

These principles describe the search for objective truth. These centre tenets of empirical history remained deeply influential among the historical profession throughout the twentieth century. Thoughts on the practice of history written many years ago by two professors of history at Cambridge University both focus upon these principles. The first, J. B. Bury, proclaimed in his inaugural address in 1902 that “history is a science, no less and no more”. For Bury, the writing of history was a science because of its “minute method of analyzing”¦ sources” and “scrupulously exact conformity to facts”. Believing that “science cannot be safely controlled or guided by subjective interest”, he say that it was the role of universities to exercise students in objective analysis, setting aside the influence of their own time and place.

“There was indeed”, Bury commented, “no historian since the beginning of things who did not profess that his sole aim was to present to his readers untainted and unpainted truth”. [9] Sixty-five years G. R. Elton stood up for defence of the scientific procedure in history, and his book, “The Practice of History”, remained permanently in print in Britain for thirty years. Bury and Elton supposed that the accurate historical way was the key to revealing the truth about the past. Both men paralleled the creation of historical learning to building with bricks and mortar. Each published piece of examination delineated a brick and the work of the historian was consequently similar to that of a skilled craftsman. The similarity is revealing, for neither Bury nor Elton expected, or wished, the labourer to have learning of the bigger building. Bury visualized historians as labourers painstakingly adding bricks to a grand building, the design of which was unknown to them. [10] Elton defended the work of the student “journeyman” who might never raise his eyes beyond the detail of his own minute area of study. [11] Both men place a great deal of significance upon the proper historical way for the evaluation and use of historical evidence.

With indisputable, factual information located at the core of historical enquiry, the procedure of establishing the precision and accordance of the evidence became paramount, and this directs us to the first principle of empirical history. The exact evaluation and identification of primary source material is one of Ranke’s most important legacies.

4 The tenets of empirical history.

In a well-known textbook on the study of history Arthur Marwick enumerates seven standards which should be applied to historical papers.

“The first four steps involve the basic verification of authenticity”. [12] One of the most famous false papers in history, the Donation of Constantine, intended to display that the Emperor Constantine gave his crown and empire to Pope Sylvester after the latter treated him of leprosy. The paper was showed as a forgery seven hundred years later by Renaissance writer Lorenzo Valla. [13] But forgeries are not limited to the medieval world; relatively recent revelation that the “Hitler Diaries” were fraudulent suggests that authentication of sources remains an essential part of the historian’s work. [14]

Marwick’s three final standards refer more to explanation than verification. The ambitious historian is recommended to ask, for instance, “what person, or group of persons, created the source and how exactly was the document understood by contemporaries?” [15] Taking this process an important step further, one of the foremost historians in the sphere of intellectual history, Quentin Skinner, changed the study of main political texts. First he asserted that the works of political thinkers be comprehended within the “more general social and intellectual matrix out of which their works arose”. [16] While social context could help clarify a text, nevertheless, this alone was not enough. The intellectual historian also needed to suppose the purposes of the author, and how those purposes were to be reached. In other words, Skinner argued that texts should be understood as acts of rhetorical communication. [17]

The restrictions of the traditional standard for documentary evaluation become obvious, nevertheless, when historians enlarge their focus beyond that of the educated elite. First of all, the documents or artifacts that remain intact into the present are always imperfect and partial. Inferences have to be grounded on the extant records and these may image a very narrow direction of experiences or perspectives. Most documentary material is composed and conserved by the elite of a society, and to reconstruct the lives and perspectives of those further down the hierarchy the historian must discover other sources and techniques beyond the confined line proposed by Marwick.

Ethnohistorians, in particular those working in the sphere of culture contact, often work with evidence showing only the perspectives of the colonizer. They have found from the discipline of anthropology how to read such evidence against the grain, and for its symbolistic meaning in order to reveal conquered peoples.

Secondly, even though much evidence is demolished, it remains practically unrealizable for any modern historian to read all existing archival source material bearing upon their examination, for the time-scale (and endurance) is beyond any one person. When the amount of surviving papers transcends human capacity Elton advised the exhaustive study of one set of “master” documents to guide the historian in his or her subsequent selective use of the remaining archives. [18] These censure regarding selection may be appropriate to source material consisting of a reasonably exhaustive documentary archive obtaining from a known source, for instance government records, conserved in only one or two depositories. They are, nevertheless, clearly insufficient when the examination subject needs the historian to discover the evidence in a wide line of sources, diffused all over the place, the amount and appropriateness of which may not be known in advance.

Let us turn now to the second and third tenets of empirical history, which are closely connected: that of impartial examination, vacant of a priori beliefs and prejudices, and the inductive way of inference. Elton argued that the historian should not impose his or her own questions upon the evidence; rather, the questions should arise spontaneously out of the material itself. [19] This is a helpful warning, as Quentin Skinner has indicated, to avoid “the premature consignment of unfamiliar evidence to familiar categories”. But Skinner explains, through the hypothetical analysis of a material object (in this case house), how “we are already caught up in the process of interpretation as soon as we begin to describe any aspect of our evidence in words”. [20] This too is the basis for Abrams’ opening comments on Elton’s study of Reformation Europe where the title of the work, without further elaboration, prefigures the field of enquiry. [21] Abrams goes on his criticism by researching what he calls the “Elton dilemma”, the problem of narrative as an explanatory historical device. Rejecting the notion that facts speak for themselves, Abrams argues that every narrative contains implicit analysis because the historian must decide how to arrange the evidence. The device of telling a story allows the historian to evade critical scrutiny of the theorizing underpinning its structure. [22] Furthermore, judgments concerning causation or motivation are often the product of the historian’s inferences, and are impossible to prove. [23]

Let us take the instance of the diminution fertility in Britain, the United States and Australasia between 1870 and 1920. Grounded on numerical analysis of the census data, historians admit that there was a serious diminution in the average number of live births per married woman during this period. In this case the overall trend occurs to be clear. But the causes for the fertility diminution are less so; there are at least half a dozen interpretations which range from the economic (fertility behavior determined by inter-generation wealth flows) to the social (the increased authority of women within the home). [24] While the fertility diminution was undoubtedly the consequence of a complex set of factors, historians continue to search for the principal causes. [25] In a world facing fast population grow; comprehending human motivation for fertility check in the past acquires special contemporary salience.

But consent among historians is very difficult to reach, and historical events are open to a variety of explanations. The same evidence can produce two quite diverse stories about the past, and problems appear when these are incompatible. For a striking instance of this in practice, see the comparison by environmental historian William Cronon of two histories of the long drought which struck the Great Plains of North America in the 1930s. [26] The first study portrays the drought as a natural disaster over which the people of the Dust Bowl won; the second displays the failure of human beings to comprehend the cyclical climate of this semi-arid environment guiding to ecological collapse. Cronon finally infers that “to try to escape the value judgments that accompany storytelling is to miss the point of history itself, for the stories we tell, like the questions we ask, are all finally about value”. [27] Are we then to acknowledge that all explanations are relative? Relativism is belief that absolute truth is unachievable, and that all statements about history are connected or relative to the position of those who make them.

5 What is history?

In the 1930s the American historical profession was convulsed by Charles A. Beard’s critique of objectivity. [28] Beard, the brilliant revisionist historian and author of An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, debated that historians could never be “neutral mirror” to the past:

“We do not acquire the colorless, neutral mind by declaring our intention to do so. Rather do we clarify the mind by admitting its cultural interests and patterns ”“ interests and patterns that will control, or intrude upon, the selection and organization of historical materials”¦

What do we think we are doing when we are writing history? What kinds of philosophies or interpretations are open to us? Which interpretations are actually chosen and practiced? And why? By what methods or processes can we hope to bring the multitudinous and bewildering facts of history into any coherent and meaningful whole? Through the discussion of such questions the noble dream of the search for truth may be brought nearer to realization, not extinguished.” [29] In Britain a similar relativist critique reached from the British historian E. H. Carr in What is history?, published in 1961. Carr shared Beard’s perspective that historians penned about the past in the context of modern interests and perspectives. For Carr, the historian was a fisherman, selecting which pond in which to fish, and what tackle to use. All history writing, he affirmed, was eventually the product of the historian:

“In the first place, the facts of history never come to us ”˜pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.” [30]

The sense of personal subjectivity in the writing of history has obtained strengthening in recent years from the authority of postmodernism.

From this perspective, the orthodox historical prejudice with facts about the past becomes superfluous, because there is no unbiased reality outside language. The historian is always forced by the restriction of his or her own mental world, from which the ideas and kinds of conception are constantly drawn. Postmodernists debate that while language form our reality, it does not necessarily reflect it. The main challenge to empiricism locates in the rejection of any correspondence between reality or experience, and the language used to portray it.

One difficulty with subjectivism is that it leaves the door open to the inadmissible face of moral relativism. Is one explanation of the past as good as any other? Should we not, for instance, challenge those historians who try to contradict the historical fact of the holocaust? An interpretation based upon such a travesty of the documentary and oral record indicates the moral deficiency of an unqualified subjectivist stance. [31] All this leaves empirical historians in a very unsatisfactory position, and as Dominick LaCapra has meant, “extreme documentary objectivism and relativistic subjectivism do not constitute genuine alternatives”. [32]

6 Popper’s method.

One method of addressing this unsatisfactory dichotomy between objectivism and subjectivism was evolved by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, whose writings span a big part of the century. Persecuted by the Nazis in the 1930s, Popper held his faith in science as a sensible tool in spite of demolition wrought by totalitarian regimes in Europe. Indeed, he acceded to Bertrand Russell’s statement that epistemological relativism held a close relationship with authoritarian and totalitarian beliefs:

“the belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of equal justice, of fundamental rights, and a free society ”“ can easily survive the recognition that judges are not omniscient and may make mistakes about facts and that, in practice, absolute justice is never fully realized in any particular legal case. But the belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of justice, and of freedom, can hardly survive the acceptance of an epistemology which teaches that there are no objective facts.” [33]

In Popper’s method, the historian starts with a hypothesis or ”˜conjecture’, which he or she must then hunt to contradict through investigation of the evidence. The idea of confutation is principal to Popper’s purpose of achieving objective learning. Such learning, he believed, could never be more than temporary, but “those among our theories which turn out to be highly resistant to criticism, and which appear to us at a certain moment of time to be better approximations to truth than other known theories, may be described”¦ as ”˜the science’ of that time.” [34] All theories should, in principle, be able to contradict; for this reason Popper dismissed psychoanalysts, which he realized as able to clarify “practically everything that happened”. [35]

In the 1960s Popper’s method for the rigorous testing of theories was challenged by the revelations of a physicist, Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn debated that the actual investigation practice of scientific community rarely correlated with Popper’s ideals regarding the rigorous testing of theories for falsification. Scientific investigation, Kuhn meant, was more likely to hunt to validate existing paradigms. Finally the contradictions between the paradigm and the investigation data become sufficiently intense to cause a paradigmatic revolution, a process which is as much determined by culture and language, as it is by scientific rationality. [36] Berkhofer might have this process in mind when he portrays the principles of objective empirical history as the “normal history paradigm” prior to the poststructural challenge of the last decade. [37]

While philosophers of science to go on to dispute the merits of Popper’s method of establishing objective knowledge, his approach does mean a more definite productive relationship between theory and evidence from which empirical historians can learn. Should the historians’ way of investigation commence with the conscious formulation of a hypothesis, based in theory? Should we use an investigation procedure which is more objective because it actively hunts evidence to contradict, as well as prove, a hypothesis while accepting that the final explanation will always be subject to revision?

Let us turn now to an instance of empirical history, taken from one of Geoffrey Elton’s most influential works, England under the Tudors, first published in 1955. Born in Germany in 1921, Elton studied at the University of Prague before finishing a doctoral thesis at Cambridge on Tudor government which “made his reputation” [38]. His corpus of work focuses chiefly upon administrative history, and he also became one of the prominent defenders of empiricism as a theory of learning. The excerpt from his work which follows contains many of the distinctive characteristics of empiricist history. To start with, investigate the table of contents. What does it mean about Elton’s approach to this cycle of English history, both in terms of focus and organization?

What historical factors happen to be missing from his account? The title means the study about England, but in this instance, is dynastic history equated with national history? It is interesting that Elton wrote his path-breaking study of the Tudor government in the 1950s, a time of unprecedented state expanse in Western Europe, the dispute over which may well have affected the focus of his work.

Elton was stubborn that his own explanation of the Tudor government “came to my mind not (as some of my critics would have it) because mine was a naturally authoritarian mind looking for virtue in rulers, but because the evidence called them forth”. [39] This is an appeal to the orthodox inductive method.

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