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Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Piece of Detailed Research

You may think, after reading the last few posts, that I derived my understanding of history from Butterfield. But I had actually not laid a finger on any of his writings about history until yesterday morning. So it has been kind of fascinating, in the context of our discussion, to find Butterfield, both a great historian and a great thinker about history, to be saying almost exactly what I have been, if more clearly stated.

In any case, one more quote from the man:
We, after a survey of the Reformation, may seek to deduce from general principles what must have been the reasons for its occurrence; but there is all the difference in the world between this kind of philosophising and a close and concrete examination of how Martin Luther’s great decision came to be made. This accounts for the air of unreality which hangs around much of our general history when it has been compiled with too great impatience of historical research. The result of historical study is precisely the demonstration of the fallacy of our arm-chair logic – the proof of the poverty of all this kind of speculation when compared with the surprise of what actually did take place. And the historian’s passion for manuscripts and sources is not the desire to confirm facts and dates or to correct occasional points of error in the historical story, but the desire to bring himself into genuine relationship with the actual, with all the particularities of chance and chance – the desire to see at first hand how an important decision comes to be made. So the last word of the historian is not some fine firm general statement; it is a piece of detailed research. It is a study of the complexity that underlies any generalization that we can make.
OK, so we can now offer a resolution of the puzzle that started this discussion many posts back: why does it often seem, to intelligent people such as Popper, Taleb, and Ryan Murphy, that history is a flimsy tissue of speculation, of very low reliability? Well, once we see there are two sorts of works going under the name of history, we can easily understand this:

1) There is the real work that professional historians do, the work that gets them tenure and that they discuss at their conferences. This work is highly detailed, highly specialized, and highly reliable. It appears in outlets like The International Journal of Tudor Studies or Ancient Naval Warfare Quarterly. And Popper, Taleb and Murphy are no more likely to have ever read any of it than they are to have read a paper on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

2) Then there is popular, "general" history. At its best, this sort of work is produced by someone intimately familiar with the category 1 literature on a subject, and provides a useful, readable and entertaining summary of it. At its worst -- say, Jared Diamond -- it is produced by someone who has barely looked at works of type 1. When works of type 2 offer "broader more causal explanations" for events they are little more than opinion pieces, or thinly disguised propaganda for the author's hobby horse -- think Victor Davis Hanson using Greek history to argue the case for aggresive American militarism.

So, having read only works of type 2, Popper, Taleb, and Murphy naturally find history to be a sort of proto-social-science with very low standards of evidence. This is an accurate characterization of works of type 2. But this is like deciding that quantum physics is not a rigorous discipline because one finds Deepak Chopra kind of flighty.

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