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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Let Us Grant Avram His Point

He set me the task, in the comments of another post, of correcting all of the Amazon reviews that say "Fukuyama has written a [good / bad] work of history."

Good point. My aim was not to enter upon interminable terminological debates. So let me re-phrase: There are two different types of studies: History1 and History2. History1 is a very disciplined, precise "science" (in the sense of a German wissenschaft) and achieves results as reliable as do physics and chemistry -- that is to say, always open to revision upon new evidence, but broadly accepted by all of the experts in the field as being the best answer available at present. Here is an example: Herodotus reported that the size of the Persian invasion force attacking Greece was 2.5 million men. If the naive view of history were correct, here we would have a simple "fact" of history, and historians would then go about interpreting it. But that is not what History1 practitioners do. Instead, they treat the words of Herodotus not as a fact, but as evidence. "Hmm, Herodotus thought there were that many Persians... why?" Looking at such testimony, as well as archaeological evidence, populations estimates, etc. etc., historians of type 1 have concluded that Herodotus's figure is greatly exaggerated: the real number is more like 200,000. This is a finding that is agreed upon by Marxist historians, feminist historians, libertarian historians, and so on, so long as they are all competent "technical historians" (Butterfield's term). Someone may say, "Well, of course, they agree on the facts, but not their interpretation," but that ignores my point that this "fact" is not a given with which one starts historical research: it is the conclusion of an historical study. And that is the sense in which I stake my claim that history is as precise as any other well-developed wissenschaft -- skilled practitioners can reach consensus on facts such as this.

Now, let me grant that there is something else typically called "history," which consists in grand speculation about the broad patterns that may or may not be exhibited in the findings of History1. I will permit everyone to continue to call it "history" -- you may thank me later. But I will designate it as History2. History2 is what Fukuyama does. History2 is what Marx (usually) did. History2 is what Jared Diamond does. History2 is what Pinker does. And History2, I will grant, is extremely speculative, and the conclusions of its practitioners generally achieve a very low degree of consensus.

So let us call them both history. But do not confuse the vague results achieved by History2with the remarkable achievements in determining what really happened in the past achieved by History1.

4 comments:

  1. The casual way I think of the distinction now would be that Diamond et al are writing books about history, not books of history.

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  2. My man John D wins the "Thank God at least one person gets it" award!

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  3. "History1 practitioners . . . . treat the words of Herodotus not as a fact, but as evidence. . . . Looking at such testimony, as well as archaeological evidence, populations estimates, etc. etc., historians of type 1 have concluded . . . ."

    You do not mean to suggest that all historical inquiry of that kind yields a clear answer, do you?

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  4. Of course not, PSH. Just like not all chemical or physical research yields a clear answer.

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