When Good Historians Go Bad

by Gene Callahan

I had posted about something that Thomas Sowell wrote on the history of economic thought over at my other blog, and received a comment to the effect that, “You can’t trust Sowell on history: he thinks that England conquered Scotland!” (Rather than the two nations having joined together in a union.)

This comment both illustrates an important misconception as well as highlights an important distinction. The misconception is that someone is a good historian if they know lots of “facts” about history, and rarely get anything wrong. This, of course, rests on the previously discussed misconception that historians are mere “butterfly collectors” of facts they find littered around, waiting to be scooped up. The historian creates the facts of history; no, I am not espousing some post-modernist doctrine that history is all an arbitrary narrative, because the historian creates those facts under the stern guidance of the existing evidence. Now, this may still seem like nonsense: “No,” you insist, “there simply is a fact about whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon, regardless of whatever evidence we have and whatever historians think.” But granting that point does not alter the circumstances of the historian at all: there very well may be such a “plain fact,” but there is just no way for us to go back and have a look-see. All we, 2000 years later, can do is to look at the evidence we have and state as best we can just what that evidence leads us to believe took place.

And that brings us to the distinction I mentioned above: Historians are likely to be extremely reliable in their capacities as historians. But they are only in that capacity when they are doing their original, historical research. They are no longer acting as an historian when they are, for instance, lecturing us on the lessons we ought to have learned from some episode in the past. Nor are they acting as an historian, but rather as a reader of history books, when they include offhand comments on some historical subject outside the scope of their research. And thus back to Dr. Sowell: I am currently reading his Marxism, an excellent work, but I came across a total howler when he writes that the “central premise of philosophic idealism… [is that] we can know our perceptions of a thing but not the thing itself.” That accurately describes Kant’s epistemology, I believe. But I can’t think of a single other major Idealist philosopher — not Berkeley, not Hegel, not Fichte, not Schelling, not Bradley, not Green, not Bosanquet, not Collingwood, not Oakeshott — who would endorse what Sowell deems the “central premise” of their philosophy. How could a good historian of thought like Sowell make such a blunder? Well, Idealist thought wasn’t what he was researching, which was Marxism. He picked up his notion of Idealist philosophy second-hand, perhaps from Marx and Engels, perhaps from some colleague down the hall, I don’t know. And when it comes to this sort of second-hand knowledge, the historian is no more an authority than is any other intelligent reader of history books.

12 thoughts on “When Good Historians Go Bad

  1. You know, I wasn’t even concerned with getting into that debate. It depends a bit on what you consider “conquer” to mean, I believe.

  2. Gene — did you go have a “look-see” to confirm that every city and country you’ve ever heard of actually exists?

    Michael Scriven and Larry Wright and others have some good work on the background understanding that everyone takes for granted in any sort of explanatory or narrative enterprise.

    It’s time to put Descartes and the ancient demand for demonstrative justification back into its well deserved grave.

  3. We use words to do different jobs.

    You are using “fact”and “facts” in multiple ways here, pretending you are using these words in a univocal sense.

    In other words, you are offering disguised puns.

    I don’t think that anyone is confused about the fact that historians use narrative shorthand — shorthand which hides a long story, subject to infinite revision in the detail.

  4. Your post and “The Lessons of History” piece drew me back to Hayek’s “The Facts of the Social Sciences.”

  5. I must say that I disagree with the argument in the “lessons from history” article. You argue that one cannot extract a law such as that dictators should be taken down early because

    “history is a world of detailed, specific events, the idea of ‘general laws’ of history is self-contradictory.”

    But wouldn’t this mean that one can’t learn from history that price controls tend to produce certain types of results? Or, considering that even what occurred yesterday or 5 minutes ago is an instance of history, wouldn’t it mean that we can’t learn from randomized controlled trials? After all, they are just instances in history of detailed specific events…

    I think its a false dichotomy – experience, controlled or uncontrolled, can teach us things when we carefully extract from the experience. This may be simpler in the hard sciences, when we can control the environment better – but it can also be useful in the social sciences, when we say “[nearly] every single known instance of a price ceiling has produced shortage.”

    And if we can learn from history that “price ceilings tend to produce shortage” then – at least theoretically, one could learn something like “dictators should be dealt with early on” or at least “if you don’t deal with a dictator early on, he might get stronger.”

    We should learn from our mistakes and our experiences. I think we especially need to do this in economics more (hence my book on lessons from the Soviet experience).

  6. “It’s time to put Descartes and the ancient demand for demonstrative justification back into its well deserved grave.”

    Greg, I have no clue what this has to do with my post.

  7. Liberty, I never said we can’t learn from experience, I said the study of history does not yield universal laws.

  8. “I never said we can’t learn from experience, I said the study of history does not yield universal laws.”

    Right, but the article implied that this means one cannot draw conclusions such as whether one should deal with dictators early in their career or later – and I think that perhaps it can yield such conclusions, just as it can yield conclusions relating to economic laws like price controls. This is part of learning from experience: sometimes experience (whether controlled or uncontrolled) can show patterns.

    I think sometimes the bias against “historicism” leads people to ignore the patterns that history provides. Personally, I think that economic history is far too widely ignored, even by Austrians, for this reason. You may agree with this. I only suggest, given your article’s focus, that perhaps political history may also be ignored more than is merited.

  9. [Sowell]…central premise of philosophic idealism… [is that] we can know our perceptions of a thing but not the thing itself.

    [online philosophical dictionary definition of “idealism”] Belief that only mental entities are real, so that physical things exist only in the sense that they are perceived.

    Sorry, how is Sowell’s statement a “howler?” Even if he is confusing epistemology with ontology, it still doesn’t seem like an unreasonable statement. If physical entities exist only in the sense that they are perceived, does it not follow that all we can know are our perceptions?

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