In this post I want to pull a thread that has been running through several of our discussions on the blog this week, from Kurt’s tour de force demonstration of the uses of theory, to Andrew’s parsing of politics in Kloppenberg’s explanatory schemes, to Tim’s argument on behalf of the much-maligned footnote.
What I want to talk about – or, to be more precise, what I hope you all will talk about, and help me come to terms with – is the promising yet problematic role of hypothesis in historical argument.
As a point of departure, I will take Julie Reuben’s discussion of the shift in scientific epistemology from the strict empiricism of the early nineteenth century (honored more in the breach than the observance?) to the anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism of the early twentieth century. The transitional thinker in this epistemic shift, standing somewhere between Francis Bacon and William James, is John Stuart Mill.
In The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality, Reuben explains how Mill’s positivist philosophy of science, articulated most completely in his System of Logic (1843), “offered a more sophisticated version of inductivism than the Baconian ideal.” Reuben writes, “Like Baconians, Mill maintained that all scientific knowledge was based on empirical induction and that the ultimate aim of science was the discovery of natural laws. But Mill rejected the simplistic notion of passive observation in favor of a more complex model of the process of scientific discovery and justification. Mill’s conception of the scientific method allowed a role for the use of hypotheses and deductive logic, but he maintained strict standards for the verification of hypotheses, requiring that predictions deduced from the hypotheses agree with empirical observations and that no other hypotheses explain the same facts” (38).
Now, in talking about the discipline of history as currently conceived and practiced, I think we can safely set aside the notion that historians are looking for – or looking with – historical “laws” in order to make sense of the past or render it useful for making sense of the present. Ours is not a nomothetic epistemology. But what is the role of hypothesis in our inquiries and our arguments? Are we “Millian” in how we go about our research, or in how we construct our arguments?
I don’t think we’re supposed to be – at least not at the beginning of the research stage. Historical argument begins with “historical inquiry,” a term that at its simplest might mean something like “asking a question about the past and interpreting documentary evidence to arrive at a satisfying answer” – that is, an answer that makes sense, that offers the best plausible explanation for the problem at hand. (So I’m already drifting here towards Peirce and James.)
But the problem with asking a question about the past is that there’s a whole lotta past to look at. “The archive” is endless – at least it might seem so for someone working on the cultural and intellectual history of the U.S. in the twentieth century. However long we spend looking at primary sources related to the question we’re trying to answer, there comes a point when we have to stop viewing or annotating each document as a particular and unique piece of evidence, all parts of which must be examined with excruciating care, and begin visualizing how these various documents suggest – or fit into – some larger pattern. That “larger pattern” – an organizing framework, our explanatory scheme that might be some combination of “found” and “fashioned” from the sources we’re looking at – can then function as a hypothesis. We can then look again at the evidence available to us to see whether and how it fits into or supports that frame, that hypothesis. Part of seeing whether and how the evidence fits is making sure that we are not ignoring or downplaying other evidence that might require a significant modification of our working hypothesis.
The peril here, of course, is confirmation bias – perhaps not so much a problem of looking only at the sources that can support one’s hypothesis, but of looking at the sources primarily in the light of whether or not they shed light on one’s hypothesis, even if that hypothesis still persists in the form of a question. To some extent (to a great extent?) one has to become more narrowly focused in the reading of archival sources, because constructing a historical argument out of the vast amount of available archival material requires being highly selective about what evidence to use in support of one’s claims.
Perhaps this is a Jamesian peril. Tracing out the contours of William James’s anti-essentialism, Reuben writes, “Any given thing has infinite qualities, but we do not perceive of it in its totality; instead, we select particular aspects of it that interest us. What we consider the ‘essence of a thing,’ James believed, is determined by its dominant function. We define things by our interest in them and their use for us, ignoring unrelated qualities. Anti-essentialism, then, implied that simple, unbiased observation of facts was impossible. Rejecting essentialism, James concluded that the notion of unbiased, common-sense observation was untenable” (45).
What concerns me in this passage is this: “We define things by our interest in them and their use for us, ignoring unrelated qualities.” It seems at least possible that, if we are not careful, we might fall into the habit of construing what is “useful” very narrowly indeed, as “that which advances the narrative I wish to tell.” To guard against this possibility, we submit our work to the scrutiny of our fellows. The historical profession functions as a community of competent inquirers who render collective judgment about not only our conclusions but the integrity of the process by which we arrive at them.* But to what extent does that process involve reframing deductive reasoning in inductive terms? How do we guard against that approach? How can we? Why does it seem to me that we should?
That last question is not one you all can answer for me. I think the origin of this question may have less to do with my views of my fellow historians as historians than with my views of my fellow historians — particularly those with whom and for whom it is my pleasure and privilege to write and converse at this blog — as decent human beings. In any case, this is my Millian / Jamesian problem du jour. I would be glad to hear others’ thoughts on how not to let our hypotheses get in the way of truly seeing, or at least seeking, the truth of the past – or of seeking, and thus perhaps seeing, the truth of each other.
*On the historical profession as the community of the competent, see Thomas Haskell, “Justifying Academic Freedom in the Era of Power/Knowledge,” in Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998).