The Foundation of Historical Knowledge
Analytical Philosophy of History
For twenty-five years, ever since Professor Carl Hempel wrote The Function of General Laws in History, analytical philosophers have been fiddling around with history: At first they proceeded boldly and then with growing nervousness, as if, despite a fairly brave front maintained for public purposes, they had become increasingly conscious that the subject presented unforeseen difficulties. What are these obstacles to analytical philosophy which the ordinary professional work of historians presents?
Orthodox analytical philosophy is committed rather heavily to the notion that there is one sound way to advance knowledge, to provide adequate explanation, to enhance understanding of the real world, and to add to truth, and that the model of that way can be found in the language scientists use in presenting the results of their investigations. The sciences that provide the model are physics and chemistry. For example, Hempel’s model of a historical event was the cracking of an automobile radiator; Morton White in his recent book The Foundations of Historical Knowledge, the lighting of a match. It is worth noting that Hempel selects as a historical event an incident that does not demand the presence of any human actor and that White chooses one that involves no human interaction.
In writing about the past as past, which seems to be what they do when they write history, historians appear to advance knowledge of the past, to provide reasonably satisfactory explanations of it, to add to the truth about it. A few analytical philosophers have come fairly close to denying that this is so, arguing that by their ordinary way of proceeding historians cannot or do not add to existing knowledge, truth, or understanding about the past. For good reasons, however, this view has not commended itself to many people, even to many analytical philosophers. After reading a book like Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada, even analytical philosophers find it awkward to claim that they know no more about the events it deals with than they did before.
Once the analytical philosophers concede that in writing about the past historians do augment our knowledge of it, that historical knowledge, like scientific knowledge in this respect, is incremental and cumulative, they face a dilemma. For historians do not always, or even very frequently, write of what they have discovered about the past in the same way that scientists write of what they have discovered about nature: The language in which they communicate their findings is often manifestly different from the language or languages scientists use. This suggests at least the possibility that to one major discipline which systematically investigates actuality and in which knowledge edge is incremental and cumulative, scientific language does not provide an adequate or even a relevant model for presenting the results of its investigation. If this were so, analytical philosophy would have to reexamine the very model on which it is itself erected, that is, the model that ascribes to the vocabulary and syntax, the rhetoric of the sciences privileged or sole access to …