Practice and science

Ken B., this may make clearer what I have been saying about the relationship of the historical investigation and practical concerns.

Imagine that I am motivated to study computer science in order to get a high-paying job, or in order to impress the smart girl in my computer science class. While one of these factors may motivate my study, it should be clear that neither my plan to get a high-paying job or my dream of dating the girl are any part of computer science itself. And if I actually want to get the job or date the girl by this means, at some point I had better stop paying attention to the job market or the girl and start paying attention to computer science.

So it is with history: of course, an historian may be motivated to study some episode in the past because of some present concern. But if that historian actually wants to understand what occurred in the past, at some point, he must set his concern with the present matter aside, and focus upon the past.


  1. Right. I certainly agree with all that and think Keshav does too. But where we started on this winding road was the use of counter-factuals in history. Now the use of counter-factuals in "practical history" is clear. I want to stand up to Putin, so I cite Munich to you. We are not doing history, we are using it. (I also agree that the usual account of Munich has been schematized to makes it's use in debates like this easier.)
    But what Keshav and I are saying is that even in doing history counter-factual reasoning is involved. You have to, at a minimum, decide what to record.
    You wrote:
    "But a full historical account of the situation fully explains it."
    Well I think we all agree that full is an asymptotic limit; some accounts can get closer than others.
    The point we are making is about what constitutes a putatively "full" account. Elmo's book leaves out Munich, and all the diplomatic cabbles of 1939 but includes full details of cotton candy sales in Newark in August 1938. Donald Cameron Watt's How War Came ignores cotton candy entirely. I think Watt has a "fuller" account than Elmo, and that Watt used counter-factual thinking to choose what to investigate and include. Watt's account is fuller not because it is longer or includes the movements of more molecules over a longer span but because it includes more that is relevant to the actual decisions and actions. And that judgment of relevance relies upon counter-factual reasoning by Watt and others.

  2. To further expand on one point.
    I agree that when people cite history they are often citing a modified version of history, the modification being made to make the story fit the terms of a present debate. When an isolationist discusses the origins of WWI he talks about "entagling alliances" and ignores, for example, the motives and actions of Berchtold. He is not doing history, indeed he is making a hash of history. That he is making a hash of it is actually not that important to the use he is making of the history, since to serve as a useful counter-factual it need not be what really happened but just what plausibly could have happened. He is not doing history, he is doing something quite different. That I agree with.