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Theory Versus Philosophy In History: A Manifesto In Favor Of Philosophy

January 12, 2007

In a post yesterday, I asserted the following: “The extreme subjectivist crowd [in history] tends to use the term ‘theory’ instead of philosophy, such that one feels like history is excluded from the traditional rules of thinking that regulate the liberal arts.” Of course I’m opening myself up to a number of questions with this statement: Who are the “extreme subjectivist crowd?” How is the term ‘theory’ used? What are the “rules of thinking” I believe are being avoided? How can the ‘arts of the free’ be regulated in any sense? I feel obligated to explain myself further today.

My assertions about the usage of the term ‘theory’ and its relation to subjectivity are based on both personal experience and conversations with fellow graduate students and professors. In what was known as “History 400” in graduate school, I studied “20th Century Approaches to History.” This is the one required course of all incoming history graduate students. Two staples of that class were Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream (1988) and Appleby, et al’s Telling the Truth About History (1995). In my course we also extensively studied gender and feminist theory. On the two books, however, both connected the ‘theoretical turn’ in history with literary postmodernism and extreme subjectivity. It seemed, after reading both, that the only point of history was telling stories; there were no moral, philosophical, or objective underpinnings to the endeavor. If you received some kind of joy from storytelling, then history was for you.

At times the course made me feel that the only thing keeping one in the field was determination, courage, and the belief within that there were transcendent reasons for studying the usefulness of the past. Otherwise, all of the minds important to historical thinking in the late twentieth century – Foucault, Derrida, Hayden White, Lacan, various feminist theorists (Cixous, etc.), and Novick himself – had determined the veritable uselessness of history as an endeavor. Instead, all historians did was reify their current power structures or engage in solipsistic reasoning. All one could do to reinforce the importance of history was come up with a new, subjective theory to justify your study. Philosophy didn’t apply, perhaps, because it dealt with objective realities, not the production of fables or storytelling. In a strange sort of way, it was as if historical theory had been ‘created’ out of respect for philosophy: thinking about the subjective field of history wasn’t as important, so it was sort of relegated to theory. Of course I’m only musing with this point. The theorists themselves likely didn’t believe they were less important than traditional philosophers.

But I believe that traditional philosophical thinking still applies. Otherwise, how do historians hold one another accountable for problems other than plagiarism? If an historian improperly attributes the cause of an event to something that happened only chronologically before, why not use tradition and call that error the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (literally, ‘if after then before’)?

Most historians, however, have not been trained even minimally in logic. Why is this? For one, logic seems to have fallen out of favor even in among professional philosophers. As I was writing yesterday’s post, I went to find a link for fallacies under Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see the link to the right). After much surfing I finally located a discussion of fallacies under the category of “informal logic.” After reading the entry, one gained the sense that all thinking was valid, just not formally recognized by professional philosophers. Based on this it would seem that philosophers have also fallen under the sway of the extreme subjectivist crowd.

By way of personal anecdote, as an undergraduate I benefited a great deal from studying logic and fallacies. It was in a philosophy of logic class, especially in thinking about symbolic logic, that I began to understand the connection between the sciences and the humanities: there were rules to thinking that could be learned, and they worked. Those rules had practical usefulness. In the course we practiced finding fallacies, such as the ‘straw man’ and ‘red herring’ varieties, in newspapers. Through an understanding of fallacies I gained a sense of control when thinking about politics and public opinion. Since then, I have thought about and used logic continuously – if imperfectly. It’s probably not a stretch to say that studying logic was one of the top two or three things I learned as an undergraduate.

My valuation of logic’s importance didn’t change in graduate school. In fact, I discovered that I held to the subject more tightly in the face of the proponents of extreme subjectivity. It’s not that I don’t believe that history contains an important subjective component. I believe, for instance, that the field is strongly dependent on subjective storytelling: there’s no doubt about that. Also, as historians we ask questions that are relevant to our age, and therefore the histories written in 2007 matter the most to the present generation. Some historians get lucky and ask – and answer – questions such that they matter as much to future generations as to us today. But that’s more of a functional accident of today’s needs.

To bring together these strains of thought, storytelling and subjectivity do not matter so much that arguments, logic, and fallacies don’t apply. One can be a great historical arguer, having impeccable logic and eschewing all fallacies, but still be a bad historian. I wrote a few papers in graduate school that embodied this principle – and was roundly and appropriately criticized. I had read and understood David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, but had ignored the principles that make historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and David McCullough successful.

Likewise, and this is where I think a lot of the field is today, you can tell fantastic stories, with perfect word usage, impeccable grammar, and even on topics applicable to today, but still be a bad historian. This is where I differ from some of my colleagues. Just as being logical is not a sufficient condition for being a historian (If logical, then historian), being a good storyteller – at least to me – is not sufficient for being a historian (If good storyteller, then good historian). The real formula is this: If one is a good storyteller, logical and asks relevant, applicable questions, then one is a good historian.

What can be done to correct the situation? The first and perhaps easiest step is that admissions gatekeepers in history departments must look for candidates that value all of the humanities, not just those strong in history, English, and literature. Until the gatekeepers see the importance of philosophy and logic, the subject will continue to languish. A side benefit of valuing philosophy more will be that students in the field will pay closer attention to arguments. They will understand and value the notion of the thesis. Almost every history instructor I have ever known wants their students to write papers with clear, strong theses – even when those same instructors don’t clearly evaluate the strength or validity of the paper’s supporting argument.

The harder step is to get professors who teach graduate students, particularly in required methods courses, to reinforce the importance of logic and arguments in writing. I discovered Fischer’s book on my own, and have been able to discuss it with only a few colleagues since. Most professors I’ve encountered are reasonably good critics of style, and require a strong thesis, but they avoid giving good advice on the progression of an argument in the context of history.

Until these steps are taken in graduate programs, historians will continue to multiply, and the field will continue its positive march toward being inclusive, but the strength of the field will continue to be questionable. Until then, I will continue to advocate – as a kind of ‘Fischer Disciple’ – for the increased profile of philosophy and logic in history. – TL


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  1. Brian permalink

    You have an interesting point, arguing for the incorporation of logic into historical analysis and the broader discipline. However, I think that your critique of “theory” languishes a bit. You say that:

    “all of the minds important to historical thinking in the late twentieth century – Foucault, Derrida, Hayden White, Lacan, various feminist theorists (Cixous, etc.), and Novick himself – had determined the veritable uselessness of history as an endeavor.”

    I think this interpretation, and it is a common one which Novick and others broadly accept, may miss the point of what these continental philosophers were saying/doing. I think that the temptation to polarize historical debate into 2–or if we dare, 3 or more–“camps” may be oversimplifying the debate about what purpose doing history serves, and how it can maintain its validity in the face of a plural society which demands flexibility in interpretation.

    It is interesting that you have used logic as your 'way out' of this methodological dependence on theory. It is interesting, because many Americans have read the introduction of authors like Barthes, Foucault and Wittgenstein (the later one) into historiographical theory as an attempt to offer a way of escaping the certitude or 'objectivism'of falsification, positivism, logic and young-Hegelianism. The result has been a debate, largely shaped by Richard Rorty in America, that claims history and academia must find a way beyond philosophical questions of metaphysics. In this search for what I would call a post-metaphysical history American historians continue to see two options: First, the rejection of subjectivism or anti-foundationalism and the embracing of Carnapian or Popperian systems of “logic,” or the embracing of micro-cultural-narrative and the rejection of logic and meta-narrative (I think I nailed most of the buzzwords there).

    I think that this debate/divide, however, has truly missed the mark on why this list of philosophers really matters. While Americans seemed absolutely preoccupied with getting beyond metaphysics and achieving a usable philosophy of history, it would appear that much of the world is engaged in using history as part of a larger and cross/non-disciplinary question of how to liberate oneself or society from the power and problems of metaphysics. How do we engage in history in a way that questions orthodoxy without trapping ourselves into certain ideological assumptions, while still engaging in a positive project. In otherwords, rather than seeing their side as the one engaged in actually doing history, and the other as missing the point, there are historians that see the project of negation/deconstruction as part of a larger project of affirmation/construction. It would seem to me that we can do history, and should want to do it, without demanding an orthodoxy, be it from logicians or anti-foundationalists. Nevertheless, it is good to see historians grappling with these sort of questions and seeing them as imperative to their trade.


  2. Having endured the enterprise of grad school on the Masters level and now finding myself hungry for another round, I've always found that the worst professors are the ones who seek the gilded thesis statement which shines like the proverbial beacon in the night.

    Those who advocate research based on incisive questioning, although usually the heretics and banes of conservative departments, tend to run the more interesting graduate seminars.

    What I find of particular interest in your post, is your call for the gatekeepers of academia to include candidates who value all the humanities. Although I find your argument to be quite compelling, I think you would be hard pressed to find admissions committees that would agree. The Ph.D. process is ostensibly about specialization, thus I can imagine the reaction by yes-men for historical theory and cantankerous professors emeriti snubbing the notion of diluting the mixture with a measure of philosophy.

    It should be axiomatic that a logical progression of thoughts / argument is requisite for any successful study of history. Having spent this year working as Teaching Assistant marking second and third year research papers, I’ve found most have trouble with the basics of chronology let alone logic. Perhaps that is where the diversity of humanities should begin, on the undergraduate level. It may be difficult to train current professors trapped in the esoteric world of their own specializations to include logic in graduate seminars, but changing the nature of the history undergraduate degree to something more rounded does not seem an impossible goal.


  3. Dear Brian and Adam,

    Thank you both for your thoughtful posts. I have been distracted over the past few days with unexpected – but not unwelcome – traffic about the “U.S. Intellectual History: A Call to Action” post.

    I'm no expert on continental philosophy, but – an ominous opening statement – I believe you're right in making me think in that direction. I also hadn't thought about the notion that I'm making logic the (or 'a'?) 'way out,' but I'm certainly advocating for sustained argument, not just what Adam called “gilded thesis statements,” as THE way out. With argument comes logic: the latter is a necessary condition for the former.

    Too many seem to believe that since all history begins with one's necessarily subjective questioning, that all resultant activities are also 'subjective.' It's a kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc about philosophizing: if subjective start, then entirely subjective endeavor because answer will be subjectively dependent on the individual question. I had a thought yesterday that all historians could use a good dose of philosophical thinking about the 'interrogative.' We should all read books about the nature of questioning.

    But anyway, I'm not convinced that following the rules of logic and avoiding fallacies will trap us into ideological thinking, or result in invalid orthodoxies. Arguments are only as good as their premises, as well as the terms utilized.

    This leads me back to the notion of a 'thesis.' There's absolutely no denying that a strong thesis statement, or series of statements (doesn't it seem to be the case that too many editors want it in ONE sentence?), is crucial to good writing in general, and history in particular. But in my experience too many editors (professors, preceptors, etc.) don't follow through on the support as balanced with chronological narrative, but rather emphasize writing style. We need good, serviceable style, not necessarily 'literature': I mean, are Herodotus and Gibbon really the best 'literature', or are they just the best historical thinkers? I think the latter. In sum, to me style should always and everywhere be accompanied by logical arguments that avoid fallacies at all costs. Too few historians are trained to think about this – hence my call to admissions folks about the infusion of those with a philosophical/analytical inclination.

    Of course the challenge for the field is to find the right balance between logical argument and serviceable storytelling. Right now this combination is undervalued in favor of the latter.

    – Tim


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