U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Seeking the Truth with Each Other

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).

12 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. As someone whose day job mostly sits far down the nomothetic end of inquiry, I really like this piece. It echoes some of the issues raised in Michael Polanyi’s two nicely provocative papers of 1941 and 1969 on (the growth of) thought and science in society – which for me are still some of the pithiest discussions out there on communal scientific responsibility, and the search for truth.
    The cluster of themes you’ve threaded together is especially helpful for those of us engaged in the pursuit of rigorous interdisciplinarity. It actually shows the deep commonalities. Even though we work ‘with laws’ in science, that does not obviate the need for careful reflection on how (and why) the hypothesis is framed, nor for peer scrutiny and review that extends beyond our immediate peers. Science is – or should be! – about questioning the things we view as laws, at least as much as applying them. It can be hard to maintain those aspects of intellectual discipline and integrity given the political and pragmatic push for usefulness as the (sole) boundary-marker of inquiry.

    • Sarah: Off-topic question—Given your “nomothetic” work (bench work?), how did you end up at this post?! I’m always intrigued by how new participants end up at the blog. Otherwise I couldn’t agree more with your “should be!” in relation to asking questions about the laws that direct one’s work, no matter how “settled.” – TL

  2. L.D.,
    An eloquent (as usual) piece. The questions it raises are pertinent not just for historians, but for those non-historians — sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, etc. — who engage in and/or produce historical or historically-oriented scholarship (and actually the questions are relevant even beyond that compass, as the preceding comment suggests).

    If one looks at Andrew Hartman’s list of ‘groundbreaking historians’ that he posted here a while back from his syllabus for a course, several of them (I haven’t gone back and counted how many) are not historians by disciplinary training (their degrees say “sociology,” for example, not “history”) and do not teach in history depts. I think it’s worth keeping this in mind, esp. in view of your references here to “fellow historians,” the “historical profession…as community of competent inquirers” etc. (I’m sure all disciplines police their disciplinary boundaries to some extent, but I guess I’m esp. sensitive to this here b.c I’m a non-historian interested in history. Or maybe it’s partly a function/result of some regret about my own choices.)

    I’ll let others address the substantive issues re hypotheses, methods, epistemology, and so on. But for an explicit invocation of Mill by one of the non-historians who was on Andrew’s list of ‘groundbreaking historians,’ see the opening pp. of T. Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions.

  3. Since we generally use a logic of confirmation, I think we rely on serendipitous discovery of error. That isn’t to mean that historians (and especially intellectual or cultural historians) don’t gaze at their navels, but rather that we don’t have a systematic way of either elucidating assumptions very well or identifying where we’re wrong.

    I think there are (at least) two fruitful directions to go in for an internal attempt to fight confirmation bias. One is a much lighter version of counterfactuals than we usually discuss: how would basic narrative assumptions have to change if *minor* changes were introduced in the archival and other records? Swap a few events, have a few minor players change sides, change the outcome a tiny bit (not the usual SF “the South wins the Civil War” variety): does your discontinuity thesis still hold? How much do you have to change it? If your argument is so finely tuned that it falls apart with a minor change in the record, maybe it won’t stand up to more research in another decade or two.

    A second path would be variations in the argument, not the extant record. Do subtle changes in your argument change much? I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the past month, after Michael Katz’s death in August. His argument in Irony of Early School Reform about the 1860 vote to close the Beverly, MA, high school was its basis in social-class dynamics. Two decades later, Maris Vinovskis argued that the vote was rooted in town geography, with those closer to the center of town in favor of the high school and farmers (and workers) on the periphery voting to close it. In an exchange in History of Ed Quarterly after Maris’s book come out, the main point of dispute revolved around the association between social class position and town geography: of COURSE professionals lived in the center of town and their families were more likely to use the high school. The fundamental fact was that early high schools were moderately elite and a controversial use of local taxes. In reality, Michael’s and Maris’s positions were not that different except in the reading of social class politics, and it is that relatively subtle turn in argument that we can use to understand our arguments (and confirmation biases) a bit better.

    • Sherman: The moral of the Katz-Vinovskis debate points to the fact that we rely on *each other* (i.e. professional historians) to help us overcome our “interests,” perspectives, and biases. It’s not really serendipitous, but about having a larger community of critical readers. It’s the community that helps us see evidence differently—to create and modify our hypothesis, to select “telling”/representative evidence for stories, to create deductive sub-hypotheses. – TL

  4. LD: Great topics and questions. I can’t answer or address them all, but here are a few relevant tidbits.

    Let me start with a truism: The process of historical inquiry involves *many* historians. Nothing is more false than the notion of the god-like “great historian.” Given that, “we” get past confirmation bias, in part (what remains after I shed what I can consciously in my work), by comparing and contrasting historical accounts—whether by individuals or schools. That long conversation, built up one work at a time, comprises historical knowledge. You see the different combinations of sources and interpretation, and then you (at any given time on the long build up) try to summarize what you think are the most plausible stories.

    On the inductive v. deductive aspects of history, I see the process this way. One starts with Jamesian “interest” (both simple and complex), and then reads on a topic. After reading several books and articles (hopefully!), one develops a kind of working hypothesis on one’s interest in relation to the reading. Sometimes this hypothesis is something new, and other times it agrees with an existing argument in the historical literature. Then that person—if he/she decides to “become” a historian—goes further by exploring the base facts behind the books and articles she/he read by going to the archives and looking at primary documents. When they do that, if the person’s hypothesis “holds” they will narrate their theory. In the course of narrative further Mills-ian “sub hypotheses” are deduced from their reflections on new evidence in relation to the historian’s original hypothesis. [I’m with Mills that MOST all human knowledge is inductive at base—goes with my philosophical realism/anti-idealism.]

    Once the new narrative by the new historian is completed, it advances the long conversation by incorporating (and correcting) past biases, but also by forwarding the new “interested” hypothesis/argument.

    In sum, it’s the long game that gets at “truth,” while we must necessarily understand our contribution—even if done well and with conscious attempts to deflate biases—as a partial contribution. It’s humbling. – TL

  5. An excellent piece. I must confess I find myself troubled when the “community of the competent” uses its monopoly power not to further the acquisition of reliable knowledge but to enforce the profession’s orthodoxy. After reading this piece, I first thought about the Thomas Jefferson / Sally Hemings controversy. The profession did not distinguish itself well after the publishing of Lerone Bennett’s 1954 Ebony piece entitled, “Thomas Jefferson’s Negro Grandchildren.” The Late Merrill Peterson, Douglas Adair, and Dumas Malone all flexed their professional muscle restricting debate and marginalizing the other side. It wasn’t until Annette Gordan-Reed’s book was published and the later DNA tests were performed that the profession accepted the truth and stopped smearing the Hemings’ family saga.

    I also thought about Staughton Lynd being drummed out of profession, and the young Marxist historian David Abraham whose book on the Weimar Republic was brought down by some erroneous footnotes.

    In the face of increasing adjunctification, and a higher concentration of tenured individuals from fewer and fewer institutions, I worry about the profession’s continued self-governance. Still it’s better than what has happened with the University of Illinois Board of Trustees and the Steven Salaita case.

  6. Thanks to everyone for these comments — they’re wonderful. In fact, this comment thread is probably as good an example of any as how a “community of the competent” functions to forward and sharpen an inquiry, to help truth happen to an idea. (I’m not saying that truth has happened yet to my ideas in this blog post, such as they are. But I feel like the little bark is not adrift now, but is headed somewhere.)

    We are all on the way together, yes?

  7. If I remember right, James has an answer: “Day follows day and its contents are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. The truth is what we say about them.”

  8. Well, Jim, that’s an answer that’s also a problem — proof of its Pragmatism, I suppose. But it seems especially devilish of you to turn me back to James, when it’s James’s thinking in all of this that is making me so uneasy. By “all of this,” I mean that business of seeing — or choosing to see — only what is useful, that business of settling on “the truth” of the past as that which fits the narrative one finds it necessary/desirable to tell. It’s too much responsibility for any of us alone, and probably even for all of us together. But what else is to be done.

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