Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A note on philosophy & methodology in history

It's quite late while youngest daughter is having a party so it's not quiet. All this means that concentration is a tad difficult, so tonight I just want to pull a few things together about my thinking on history.

In a post on my personal blog, UNE's HINQ101 The Historian, I mentioned that I was providing a degree of support on this University of New England course via the UNE's Moodle system. I have found it interesting because it gives me a degree of contact with current history students.

One of the questions posed was what makes history good or bad. I mention this because I have written a fair bit across the blogs on historiography, and think that it might be helpful if I tried to pull some of this material together.

Historical traditions change.

In my undergraduate course at UNE I did one full year unit in philosophy plus a second full year course in my honours year on the philosophy of history. As the name said, this course focused on philosophy rather than methodology, although the second was there. There was a much higher methodology component, however, in a second full year honours course, that on Australian prehistory.

When I went back to UNE as a full time postgrad a bit over a decade later, I found that the focus on the philosophy of history, even the use of that phrase, had gone. E H Carr was now the guru. The problem I had with Carr is that quite a bit of his analysis was actually at a lower level than that we had looked at in the philosophy of history course. I guess the approach was broader in some ways, yet I felt a sense of loss.

I was also disappointed in the fragmentation that had taken place in the discipline. I went to all the Departmental seminars because of interest. I found that people had become more interested in an increasing range of narrow topics, less interested in what other people were doing.

Don't get me wrong. Much of the new work was valuable because it addressed new issues, new topics, that had been ignored. I was meant to be completing a PhD, but kept getting sidetracked into new topics: the family, gender roles, the history of childhood. History is about the human experience, and the new work provided insights that had been lacking.

I first wanted to write a history of Northern New South Wales, the broader New England I talk about, in my honours year. I put this aside for many years. When I came back to the project I found that the new work that had been done radically changed the history that I had planned to write. It had become deeper, more encompassing, more people focused, more difficult to actually do.

All this is good. But yet the problem that I first noticed on my return to UNE remained.

History is a craft: it doesn't matter what topic you are writing on, both the philosophical underpinnings and the methodological challenges remain the same. In 1981 I was disappointed in the way that so few addressed or were interested in core methodological issues. The discussions that I had experienced as an undergraduate had gone. If you went to a seminar on 15th century Florence you did so because you were interested in 15th century Florence. The idea that the challenges in research and writing on 15th century Florence were linked to and might inform writing on witchcraft or the Gallipoli campaign seemed alien to many.

Now thirty years later I am again in a UNE environment. Thirty years! Where has the time gone?

I support the idea of the UNE course I am involved with. I also support the desire of some of my UNE colleagues through things such as the Heritage Futures Research Centre to build interdisciplinary approaches. This is something that I have been involved with in a professional sense in my role as a strategic consultant for many years. And yet, the same problem niggles at me: where is the structure, where are the analytical tools, where is the underlying philosophy?

In a comment in a discussion forum on HINQ101 The Historian on what makes good history I wrote:

Harking back to the philosophy of history course that I did all those years ago with Ted Tapp, I would argue that refutability is a necessary condition for good history. This follows from Popper and links to the philosophy of science.  

Refutability first requires clarity of argument: the reader must be able to understand to challenge or extend. It then requires proper documentation so that the reader can check sources. History that does not meet these tests my be well written, but is not good history. Some of the history I have read is really theology!

Of itself, refutability may be necessary but it is not a sufficient condition for good history. Arguments may be clear and properly referenced, but may be shallow and insufficiently evidenced. Good history must be capable of meeting challenges.

In terms of my own approach to history, I make a distinction between interests and values and methodology. Interest and values helps determine questions. However, evidence has to be collected and evaluated in an objective way. Does it actually support the argument?

Now if you look at what I wrote here, I start with refutability. In simple terms, you cannot prove anything through history, the ideas of thesis notwithstanding. You can only put up a hypothesis, an explanation, supported be evidence.

One of the issues addressed by Ted in our philosophy of history cause was that of causation. Ted believed in causation, the idea that a caused b. However, if you look at the philosophy of science, you see that the idea of causation as an absolute, even of correlation as an absolute, is unproveable.The most that you can hope to achieve is to put forward conclusions based on evidence that may be disproved by later evidence. Everything must be testable.

History is no different. Good history must be refutable through later evidence.

As part of our course with Ted we addressed the issue of the history universalists such as Toynbee. These put forward universal explanations for things such as the decline of civilisations based on historical data. Such history might be very influential, valuable in creating new ideas and ways of thinking, but it was inevitably flawed because it denied refutability. It asserted an impossible absolute.

The next point I made linked to method. Regardless of the questions asked, history as a craft uses a variety of techniques to collect and analyse evidence. These include a mix of practical and conceptual tools. Too often, historical research focuses on the mechanical. This is important, but not sufficient. Let me try to illustrate.

The mechanical tools relate to the way we gather and record evidence. This must be done in a certain way. The conceptual tools relate to the way we interpret evidence.

I have often spoken about the past as a far country. By this I mean simply that the past, even the immediate past, is a different world. There is a barrier we must break through as we seek to understand. In doing so, we must be aware all the time that those we are studying did not interpret the world in the way we do.

Such a simple point, yet one with profound implications.

Among other things, it means that we have to be aware not just of the past ,but of the way that our own perceptions affect our understanding of the past. The writing of history is a dialogue between someone embedded in their present and evidence and thought imbedded in a past present.

The worst mistakes that I have made as a sometimes historian lie in my failure to recognise that distinction. My best historical writing is that bringing some element of the distinction alive.    

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