Murphy is puzzled

If I say we do not need theory to interpret history, how can it be that I also contend that Lincoln's diaries are not a simple statement of the"facts," but require interpretation? Interpretation based on what, if not a theory?

Well, first of all, let us note that the term "theory" is overloaded. In one sense, we can use theory for something such as, "Well, I have a theory that Lincoln actually wanted to be martyred, which is why he went to the theater." Certainly historians must have "theories" like this, although I would prefer "hypothesis" here: they need to think about history, after all!

What I mean by saying historians do not need "theory" (and what I believe Mises meant when he claimed they did) is that they do not need what Aristotle would call theoria: abstract, general systems of timeless laws. For instance, Arnold Toynbee, in his A Study of History, develops a theory of how a civilization in decline will generate internal and external proleteriats, who will establish a new religion, which then becomes the basis of the new civlization that will rise on the ashes of the old.

Look, we needn't fuss over terminology: whatever you wish to refer to as "theory," there is clearly a vast difference between the theory1 about Lincoln described in the second paragraph and Toynbee's theory2. It is the second sort of thing that I claim the historian does not need.

How, then does the historian interpret Lincoln's diaries, if not on the basis of a theory2? He does so based on the other evidence available to him: Sherman's diary, and Lee's diary, and newspaper accounts, and bullets recovered from battlefields, and hospital records, and excavations of farmhouses, and coinage, and letters home from soldiers, etc. etc.

17 comments:

  1. But how do you *what* to consider as evidence, if not without a prior theory of what it is that defines evidence? Why wouldn't you look at the diaries of Napoleon or Keynes to interpret Lincoln's diaries? Why wouldn't you look at the position of the Mercury with respect to Uranus to determine why Lincoln went to the theatre that fateful night? Why wouldn't you try to reduce the fact that Lincoln went to the theatre into a mathematical formulation?

    How do you determine relevance without a prior theory of what is relevant??

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    1. "How do you determine relevance without a prior theory of what is relevant??"

      Unknown, how would you possibly form a theory of "relevance" without first understanding it in concrete cases??

      Common sense? Like, we might look at things closer to Lincoln in space and time first?

      If you want to call that a "theory," OK, but that is pretty obviously theory-1 and not theory-2.

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    2. "Unknown, how would you possibly form a theory of "relevance" without first understanding it in concrete cases??"

      Ah, this is why Mises, in the preface of Ultimate Foundations, said that "The special epistemological problems of the different fields of knowledge are accessible only to those who have a perfect acquaintance with the respective field."

      In other words, you don't use 'common sense' (which, after all, is not that common), you trying 'doing' a science, and then after a while, you theorize about what is the most fruitful path to endeavour in order to produce the most sound science.

      For millennia, people thought the answer to most earthly problems were to be found in the stars. It was only after other methods were tried and hypothesized, that theories began to develop. After the advent of theories, better and more consistent solutions could be achieved.

      In conclusion, I... I'm not quite sure what I'm arguing for any more.

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  2. Good thing for your argument we only have Thucydides's book on the war, not his other book on his theory of history. But does anyone seriously doubt he must have slaved away on that -- the important theory part -- much longer and harder than the ephemeral, secondary narrative stuff? Surely.

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    1. "not his other book on his theory of history."

      Given he was basically the second person in history to write history, don't you think these views might be a bit... dated?

      "But does anyone seriously doubt he must have slaved away on that -- the important theory part..."

      Did you know Newton slaved away on alchemy far, far more than he ever worked on physics. Therefore, we should conclude that... what, alchemy is way more important than physics among the sciences?

      In any case, Ken, I most emphatically did NOT say "No one should theorize about history." I was saying "Theorizing about history is different from, and not necessary for doing history."

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    2. Umm, Gene, I am agreeing with you. My suggestion about Thuc's other book was mocking the idea.

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    3. You are too subtle for me by half, Ken.

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  3. Thank God. The classicist in me almost had a stroke in response to Ken's jape.

    It's kind of true that even classifying phenomena as historical requires some theoretical fare, however inchoate, but it's a chicken-egg problem: there's always a theory that precedes a fact (as anything other than raw sensory datum), and there's always a fact that precedes a theory. The datum and its interpretation together are the proper original unit, and cleanly separating facts and concepts is a modification. Elevating theory over fact in any absolute way is thus as naive as thinking that facts tell their own theory-free story.

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    1. I don't think this is right, Dan: there is no such thing as a "raw sensory datum," and the end of a piece of historical reasoning is not a theory about some facts, but the facts themselves. See my latest post (as of May 6 at 9:51pm).

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  4. *I* got your joke, Ken B. Your smug dismissal of Mises annoyed, but I at least recognized your silly sarcasm for what it was.

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    1. This demonstrates the importance of theory in interpreting historical blog posts.

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    2. Silly perhaps but evidently not silly enough!

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    3. Oooooo PS Huff, that is elegant!

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  5. Well, as you seem to say it depends on what you want to interpret. I agree for things like why Lincoln went into that theater you don’t need “theory2” as you have defined it.

    On the other hand if you look at prices in Germany in the year 1922, and tried to explain the phenomenon of their rapid increase, than how could you ever do that without “theory2” ?


    Yet also in Lincoln’s case what you kind of term “common sense” could be argued to be “theory2” as well. You could argue that it is understood by nearly everyone intuitively because it is “social behavior theory” learned when growing up and therefore seems to be just “common sense”. Yet that is matter of definition of course. I have read Theory and History but at the moment I cannot remember if Mises made that distinction you are making here. Well I guess he did else you would not post this, right? I know I have to reread it anyway then I will definitely focus on that point.

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    1. This is a lot of nonsense sklien. How could we ever have even identified the roots of inflation unless we've understood it first in particular instances? How could we've been taught "social behavior theory" unless we already understood the social behavior of our parents? Cart before the horse, my friend.

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    2. How do I put the cart before the horse? If you compare the movement of prices in Germany over time then the period in 1922 will obviously stick out. You don’t need any theory to recognize this except the knowledge of how our numerical system works the data is presented in. Though to understand why the price movements were so different (what is what the historian wants to be able to explain) than in other times you need some theory. What is wrong with this?

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