The Mistake Often Committed by Social Scientists

Social scientists usually think we can't possibly understand individual historical episodes unless we can place them in some general category and under some general law. But the exact opposite is true: there is no way we could place historical events in general categories and draw them together under some law unless we already understood them individually!

Not to pick on Mises, but in Theory and History he made this mistake in a very explicit manner: he claimed that, without theoretical categories, we could never understand historical events. This is logically absurd: what he is claiming is that there are agglomerations of historical events about which we understand nothing individually, but then we come and slap upon them a theoretical framework, and only then can we begin to do history. But without already having an understanding of these events as historical episodes, how would we possibly know what theoretical principles might apply to them or what agglomerations are sane and which insane?

Consider: I say to you, "Here is my group of events: Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the fall of Constantinople, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. OK, now let us draw up what theory connects them."

You will naturally tell me I am talking rubbish. Why? Because you first understood these events historically, as unique events. Only after having done so could you have any basis for rejecting my arbitrary grouping: otherwise, how in the world could you characterize it as arbitrary?

Social scientific understanding is always parasitic on historical understanding.

2 comments:

  1. I interpret Mises saying something else. Specifically, I don't think this is what Mises had in mind,

    "[W]hat he is claiming is that there are agglomerations of historical events about which we understand nothing individually, but then we come and slap upon them a theoretical framework, and only then can we begin to do history."

    For Mises, the development of categories is independent of historical analysis. The categories are a priori theoretical in nature. Then, we can understand individual historical episodes by looking at them and deciding which category they best fit into. This stems from the belief that we can't understand historical episodes without some theory that makes sense of the data.

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  2. You may be onto something. I'm not a scholar or anything, but when I read history I tend to trend toward those works that are very bland and data-based. I do like descriptive historical works, but I do prefer to have historical contexts in a very non-biased way such that I can form my own conclusions.

    I guess that I cannot argue that these conclusions will have some bias, because they are mostly derived from my own thoughts and experience. This is not to say that I do not take the author's commentary upon the information into account, and that the theoretical concepts-- if I were to take Mises's model of history-- would ultimately lead me to the same conclusion (esp, that it is my own judgement, knowledge, and experience that is telling the history).

    I will say this: Mises had far more intellectual rigor than most on the subject of history, so his thoughts on the subject certainly deserve contemplation. I think that his coupling of historical methodology in a very similar manner as he did economic methodology is key.

    I know that you're a methodological pluralist, but I think that your argument here only supports methodological individualism in the realm of economics (and I am pretty sure that you expected something along such lines in rebuttal). But then, I guess that this is often the trouble when discussing the social sciences. You've got to separate disciplines before you can decide upon a methodology. And which methodology shall I choose?

    I guess that I must make a choice, mustn't I?

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