Friday, August 26, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: Certainty in History

[Nota Bene: What follows is the fifth and final part of a series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

Certainty in History

The field of history seems to be undergoing a serious challenge to its validity, primarily from those who wonder whether knowledge is real or relative, objective or subjective. In In Pursuit of History, John Tosh frames the questions well. "How secure is our knowledge of the past? What authority should be attached to attempts of historical explanation? Can historians be objective?" In his attempt to elaborate, Tosh puts forth Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (author of his own book on Historical Method, The Practice of History) and Theodore Zeldin as representatives of two positions on the matter.

According to Tosh, Elton believed that humility in the face of evidence and training in technical research have enlarged the stock of historical knowledge. History is a cumulative, if sometimes contentious, discipline. Conversely, Tosh writes that Zeldin believes that all a historian can offer is a personal vision of the past and that everyone has a right to their own perspective. Tosh then explains that most academic historians agree with Elton, but every viewpoint between the two extremes has adherents. Finally, says Tosh, despite their seemingly confident bluster, many historians are confused about what they're doing. Maybe what follows will help.

What is the nature of historical belief?

There are a few characteristics that contribute to a theory of true historical belief.

Knowledge - There are many types of knowledge. First, there is general human knowledge, which is a combination of sense perception and mental processes, such as thought and analysis.

1) Knowledge Restricted - In its restricted sense, knowledge is only what one experiences directly or what one reasons, this does not include what one believes (and "belief" is not to be confused with religious Faith).

2) Knowledge Comprehensive - In this sense, knowledge includes all facts and truths apprehended by the human mind from experience, reasoning or belief (as previously defined). For an example of this last, we know that George Washington existed because we read it or were told so by many people who we trust. We didn't see him ourselves, but we know he existed because those who we deem "believable" told us he did.

3) Historical Knowledge based on Belief - As exhibited in the example of George Washington, this is a mental assent to a truth or fact on the word or authority of another. There are some very important factors to this. First, there must be two parties to process the information: the witness to the event and the believer (one communicates to the other). Second, the actual communication of knowledge--the testimony--must occur. Third, the testifier to the event must have authority. Authority in this sense means a complex of reasons or motives that makes the witness worthy of belief and induces others to accept his testimony as true. This all assumes that the witness is credible and that the fact that a testimony is being rendered has been established. So how can we be sure we can "believe"?
  • Credibility of the Witnessis guaranteed by three elements. First, the actual possession by the witness of the knowledge to be communicated (Knowledge). Second, the intention and desire of the witness to communicate the knowledge as he possesses it (Veracity). Third, the witnesses' accuracy in communicating the knowledge (Accuracy).
  • The Fact of Testimony means the determination whether a witness testified to a specific fact based on specific knowledge or interpolation. A couple examples: Caesar knew about the warriors of Gaul as he had first hand knowledge, but does this mean he knew the various aspects of the whole tribe? Another would be: Joe believes God spoke to him. Did God speak to him? See the difference?
  • Belief is a necessity of life. An enormous proportion of knowledge is gained from belief, not first hand experience or reasoning. Even the most educated person must take thousands of things on the authority of others. Science is the servant of authority and the belief in that authority. Scientists regularly accept the findings of colleagues. They don't attempt to reinvent the wheel on their way to designing a new car. Mankind cannot constantlyre-prove things or nothing would get done! As St. Augustine said, "It can be shown that human society would fall apart if they took nothing for granted except what they experienced first hand."
How do we Believe?There is belief on the word of another, though this has become increasingly difficult in the current age of irony and cynicism. There is belief based on evidence produced, such as in a legal case or in footnotes. Belief occurs if trustworthiness is established. A critical attitude can establish trust and can acknowledge a hisortian as a worthy guide while at the same time reserving the right to question facts or assertions. Here, credentials are important in establishing trustworthiness, though some would argue just the opposite! Belief is doctrinal when assent is given to a truth or doctrine, such as in religion or even government or politics. Belief is historical when assent is given to a fact. The difference can be confusing to some. Belief can be human or divine whether the witness is human or God.

Until the Nineteenth Century, belief based on a divine witness, or Revelation, was paramount. The two are psychologically alike, but Supernatural belief (Faith) and Human Faith are different. Faith is supernatural, often called divine Grace. Human faith is a different sort. Martin D'Arcy, in his The Nature of Belief said we "start life on the shoulders of the past." William Montague (The Ways of Knowing; or the Methods of Philosophy) believed that one had to trust others in matters that one was unable to investigate and assume that the testimony of others was the same as one's own if there is no suspicion. Franklin Giddings (The Scientific Study of Human Society) stated that even if something was "scientific," it still must be proved true. Hereford B. George (Historical Evidence) said there is no such thing as historical knowledge in the strictist definition because it is based on the word of others. Finally, the words of St. Anselm may help to resolve the problem. "I believe in order that I may understand." In essence, in the study and practice of history, Evidence and Authority are identical.

What is the nature of historical certainty?

The purpose of methodology is to arrive at a way to determine or establish historical certainty, which is the firm assent of the mind to a historical datum without reasonable fear of it being false. There are three types of historical certainty.

1) Moral - Moral certainty is made up of the known uniformity or regularity of some moral law along with a converging series of probabilities and a certainty excluding all reasonable doubt. Examples would be: 1) the unconditional love a parent has for his child, 2) people are eager to know the truth, 3) people usually don't lie when no advantage is to be gained.

2) Physical - Physical certainty includes the known uniform operation of a physical law and that law's role in critical assessment of evidence. An example would be the time consumed on a journey.

3) Metaphysical - This means absolute principles with no exceptions. The principle of contradiction states that a thing can't exist and not exist at the same time. The principle of sufficient reason states that nothing exists without sufficient reason. Then there is causation where it is stated that something causes something else to guess. As can be seen, Metaphysical Certainty lays solididly in the domain of Philosophy.

For the purpose of History, Moral Certainty is enough--"Beyond all reasonable doubt." It probably happened and it probably happened this way. Yet, what about the role of "scientific" Probability in History? Can a historical entity be mathematically established? Take a theoritical historical "fact." Could its "truth" be established by some sort of mathematical function, such as dividing all of those who support a given fact by all those who don't by the total number of opinions to give a percentage of certainty? Obviously, this is rife with problems. There are degrees of moral certainty and of the veracity of witnesses. The flaw in such a mathematical construct is that all opinions or testimonies are given equal weight. Factors of probability have to be weighed, not counted. Outweigh does not mean the same thing as outnumber. In History, it is truly Quality that trumps Quantity (though they aren't mutually exclusive!).

What is the possibility of historical certainty

This is a major question for historians. Can we really be morally certain about any of the supposed facts of history? This question is too simple. There are really three questions that need to be asked, and all must be answered affirmatively to answer the first. First, is the human mind capable of knowing historical truth? Is such truth even knowable? Is such truth ever presented on grounds adequate to guarantee it's certainty?

The Mind's capacity for truth is a given. It is proven in any sound philosophical epistemology. To deny that the mind knows truth is to commit intellectual suicide. All attempts to erect some form of skepticism as a system of knowledge have failed. The mind is able to know scientific truth and it follows that it must be capable of knowing historical truth.

Idealists and Skeptics are the biggest critics of history as an objective entity. The Idealists, such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel and Bennedetto Croce, undermine the foundations of extra-mental reality and limit the human being. Allen Johnson, in his The Historian and Historical Evidence, said the "quest for truth is hopeless. It's limited by human intelligence." This is a Kantian view which takes the outside world to be a hypothetical structure.

Gilbert Garraghan, in his "Crocean View of History" from The Modern Schoolman, attacked Croce for applying philosophical idealism to history. History as record is relative because it comes from human beings. Just because we don't know all of the facts absolutely doesn't mean we don't know anything. History as record is actually part relative and part absolute. It is fixed in time and space (absolute) and relative. Skeptics too often exaggerate the difficulty of reaching truth. Modern critical investigation has actually caused many to question the validity of history as a whole, as seen by Henry Ford's famous " History is bunk" statement. The French methodologists Langlois and Seignobos stated that "general facts can be established and proved easier; contemporary history has more particular facts." This is true, but can be taken farther.

Experience and Testimonyare the grounds for historical certainty. To deny one's own experience would be to deny one's own senses, but it can be qualified: sometimes perception isn't reality, after all. Testimony must meet many requirements, such as consistency, corroboration, freedom from bias and veracity. Human testimony--oral or written, direct or indirect--under given conditions is a dependable source of certain knowledge. This is common sense! Edward A. Freeman, in his The Methods of History, said that historians can never attain certainty equal to science, but evidence we get every day in our lives is the same or similar to that which we use to write history.

In conclusion, there is such a thing as historical certainty. To quote John C. Almack, "The historian who selects all the sources, who subjects them to criticism after the approved tenets, who checks the testimony of one witness against the testimony of others, who records all the facts of his subject faithfully, who reports his facts accurately, and who makes reasonable generalization on the basis of his facts..." achieves historical certainty. Finally, as Richard J. Evans said in his In Defense of History, "History is neither an exemplar of realism, nor a victim to relativism. It occupies a middle ground in which scholarly procedures are upheld in order to keep the avenues of enquiry as close to the 'real' and as far removed from the 'relative' as possible."


Anonymous said...

Because I am a historian and therefore a professional pedant, I have a quibble about your use of the Henry T Ford quote. I have written about it here.

But quibbles aside, I think this is a really good and useful series of posts. Many thanks for your hard work putting it together!

Marc said...

[NB: This comment was also left over at Sharon's blog in response to her response.]

Thanks for expanding on Ford's comments. Perhaps a better phrasing would have been: "Modern critical investigation has actually caused many to question the validity of history as a whole, which could be characterized by Henry Ford’s famous 'History is bunk' statement"? This is a more careful rendering of the attitude, perhaps, though it still leaves the wrong impression about Ford, as you have shown. Nonetheless, the real value of the series (I humbly submit) is that I hope it can provide a jumping off point for others, just as it did with you. You knew something about Ford's quote was off, and you've shown it. Thanks!