Part of last year’s orientation on History and Historiography was a discussion of whether History was scientific. Opinions were inconclusive but it was agreed that it wasn’t an Art!
Today I came across this definition of a Scientific Theory, and this resolved the issue for me:
“A Scientific Theory is a unifying concept that explains a large body of data. It is a hypothesis that has withstood the test of time and the challenge of opposing views”.
The key issue with History when matched against this definition is that it is subject to individual interpretation on a limited set of facts derived from even slightly biased evidence. Scientific theory often has the luxury of controlled environments; clearly defined parameters; control by the observer without necessarily changing the environment; the ability to repeat the process ad infinitum; it uses a logical and methodological approach to a subject which is underpinned by constants and laws which frame the theory.
History deals with the past interactions of humans on and in their environment. The evidence cannot be recreated. The evidence is often written or oral, and therefore subject to the creators prejudices, education, interpretation and bias. While a mass of humans can display certain predictable patterns, individual humans can also be illogical and take actions with no discernible basis. In addition because each original piece of evidence is unique, as it is lost or permanently changed or incorrectly interpreted, the Historian loses an opportunity to gain insight into an event. Each time this happens it becomes harder to define that event as a fact, and from that fact interpret the cause behind the fact.
History has many theories; economic, social, Marxist, political, post modern etc. What is clear is that these are not unifying theories. What has also been made clear is that, unlike a scientific definition of theory, historical theories are more hypotheses. They are criticised and critique by their opponents. They are at best rough approximations because of the problems associated with evaluating primary and secondary sources. In addition, if historians cannot agree on the causation of a historical event, then what chance is there of the rest of the world benefiting from that knowledge?
In the modern world Historians need to decide how their “product” best serves the world. Hughes and Dockrill say in their “Palgrave Advances in Cold War History” that “Historians argue that a proper understanding and dispassionate analysis of the past is essential if one is to make sense of contemporary realities“. For me the second part of this quote is, in essence, the nutshell of the historian. How has today been affected by the decisions and actions we took yesterday. This is a real and valuable product which the entire world could benefit from. The challenge is the first half of the quote, achieving that understanding and dispassionate analysis in the face of the almost insurmountable odds brought on by the glory of human inconsistency and individuality. In the end this maybe the ultimate function of the historian, to make the enormity of human existence relate to the individual reading the words.