And Neither Does "Cause," Used in the Scientific Sense, Have a Place in History Proper

Ryan, this one is for you:

"But further, there is another kind of cause which must be rejected in historical explanation because to recognize it involves the destruction of history. A cause in scientific experience is, briefly, the minimum conditions required to account for any example of an observed result. But this, clearly, is a form of explanation foreign to historical experience; and it is possible in science only because the world of scientific experience is a world, not of events but of instances. Were he to adopt it, the historian would be obliged to eliminate all causes save one, of existing effects; and this would resolve history into an infinite regress of abstractions in search of an absolute beginning, or limit its reference to whatever lay immediately behind the given event. And moreover, the historian would find himself obliged to consider (by a kind of ideal experiment) what might have happened as well as what the evidence obliges him to believe did happen; that is, he would find himself becalmed outside the current of historical thought. History must reject not only those causes which are too comprehensive, but also those which are too limited. For example, history has no use for abstractions such as climate, geographical conditions or national character as the sole causes of events. When Lessing ascribes the eminence of Greek art to the climate and the government of Greece, he has quitted altogether the region of historical thought. Or again, to say of an event that it is due solely to ‘economic causes is not bad history; it is not history at all. This is not a question of evidence, not a question to be decided by the historian as such, it is a way of thinking excluded by the presuppositions of his thought. A cause in history must belong to and be consonant with the character of the world of history." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes


  1. I was trying to imagine what caused Oakeshott to write that, and then stopped.

  2. I am reminded of something former-baseball-writer-now-political-blogger Nate Silver once said: (Paraphrasing) It is certainly true that what a baseball player ate for breakfast will have an effect on his performance later that night.

    But how big this effect is, or whether one can point to a bourbon, coffee, and red bull breakfast to explain a given four strikeout performance, is outside the realm of human understanding. What we can do in baseball is see the partial effects of a power hitting lineup or a strikeout throwing pitching staff and determine how many wins can be explained by them. Then there is an error term. But historical narratives of (for instance) the 2011 Boston Red Sox or 2007 New York Mets are journalistic nonsense. Is there stuff that is not captured in statistics? Absolutely. Is the world ordered in such a way that we can weigh various bits of historical evidence and determine the "best" narrative of why events transpired as they transpired? Absolutely not.

    I'm not sure if I've adequately responded to the quotation. I'm not well-read at all in Oakeshott, so I may be missing the point. Perhaps Oakeshott may not believe this, but my reading of Hayek is that scientific methods breakdown because history is too complicated, you do not retreat to some robust historical methodology, because none exists. You instead retreat to agnosticism on the subject.

  3. Well, Ryan, you are simply displaying your ignorance of what history is and how robust its methods are. Once again, I will note that I *could* teach you this, but not if you continue to simply plug your ears and sing "There's no such thing as history!"

  4. Of course there's such a thing as history- it's a matter of whether what we call history right now is in any way true. You're given me a quote and made fun of my sources, but you've give me no reason not to believe Karl Popper's interpretation of history in The Poverty of Historicism.

  5. Ah, well, that changes everything, Ryan. Even though you have never done a lick of historical work or trained with any historians, you can back your opinion up by citing someone who never did a lick of historical work or trained with any historians.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Central Planning Works!

Fair's fair!

More college diversity and tolerance