Posted by: aboutalbion | May 28, 2012

What is History? (6)

In this post, I move on to mention some parts of Carr’s chapter on ‘History, Science, and Morality’.  Here, he involves himself in the category question, ‘Is history a science?’.  Carr examines five arguments that history is not a science, and finds each one unconvincing.

The first argument he considers is that history ‘deals with the unique and particular, and science with the general and universal’. (p56)

The second argument follows on from the first.  If history is about singular events, then no lessons can be learned from history.  Whereas if history is a science, then lessons can be learned from the generalizations associated with it.

The third argument is that because history is not a science, and because history cannot therefore give rise to generalizations, it follows that history cannot predict the future.

The fourth argument is that there is a special feature present in history that is absent from the sciences.  Namely, that the subject [the human historian] and the object [a sub-set of human behaviours in the past] ‘belong to the same category and interact reciprocally on each other’. (p64)

The fifth argument is that history is characterized by involvement with religion and morality and as such is not compatible with science.

Carr argues against these positions (that history is not a science), and concludes that history is a science because the historian and the scientist are united in using rigorous methods to propose explanatory hypotheses to answer the ever-present question, “Why?”.

For myself, I am not so sure.  I incline to the view that each literary artefact from the past is unique, and that each historical enquiry that it inspires will in turn be unique on account of the phenomenon of each historian proposing different explanatory hypotheses.  And in these explanatory hypotheses, there is a mixture of the unique and the general.

My view is informed by what transpires on a daily basis in the criminal courts of England and Wales when the accused pleads not guilty to a charge.  The prosecuting barrister presents a historical account, evidenced by witnesses, of the accused’s actions.  Then the defending barrister presents an alternative historical account of the accused actions, again evidenced by witnesses (and sometimes the accused her/himself).  After that, the judge sums up, and asks the jury to decide which historical narrative is more credible (using the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’).

My point is that in these rival historical narratives, there will be a mixture of the unique and the general.  And for this reason, I am unable to follow Carr and place history in the category of science.

[Carr, E H (2001) What is History? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.]


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