The following (long) excerpts are from Isaiah Berlin’s article “History and Theory: The Concept of Scientific History”, published in History and Theory 1 (1):1 (1960). Republished in Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays. NY: Viking Press, 1979. (online here).
HISTORY, according to Aristotle, is an account of what individual human beings have done and suffered. In a still wider sense, history is what historians do. Is history then a natural science, as, let us say, physics or biology or psychology are sciences? And if not, should it seek to be one? And if it fails to be one, what prevents it? Is this due to human error or impotence, or to the nature of the subject, or does the very problem rest on a confusion between the concept of history and that of natural science? These have been questions that have occupied the minds of both philosophers and philosophically minded historians at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when men became self-conscious about the purpose and logic of their intellectual activities. But two centuries before that, Descartes had already denied to history any claim to be a serious study. Those who accepted the validity of the Cartesian criterion of what constitutes rational method could (and did) ask how they could find the clear and simple elements of which historical judgements were composed, and into which they could be analysed: where were the definitions, the logical transformation rules, the rules of inference, the rigorously deduced conclusions? While the accumulation of this confused amalgam of memories and travellers’ tales, fables and chroniclers’ stories, moral reflections and gossip, might be a harmless pastime, it was beneath the dignity of serious men seeking what alone is worth seeking – the discovery of the truth in accordance with principles and rules which alone guarantee scientific validity.
Be that as it may, it is not difficult to see why there has been a strong desire to regard history as a natural science. History purports to deal with facts. The most successful method of identifying, discovering and inferring facts is that of the natural sciences. This is the only region of human experience, at any rate in modern times, in which progress has indubitably been made. It is natural to wish to apply methods successful and authoritative in one sphere to another, where there is far less agreement among specialists. The whole trend of modern empiricism has tended towards such a view. History is an account of what men have done and of what has happened to them.
What kind of science would history constitute? The traditional division of the sciences is into the inductive and the deductive. Unless one claimed acquaintance with a priori propositions or rules, derived not from observation but from knowledge, based on intuition or revelation, of the laws governing the behaviour of men and of their goals, or of the specific purposes of their creator – and few historians since the Middle Ages have openly professed to possess such knowledge – this science could not be wholly deductive. But is it then inductive? It is difficult or impossible to conduct large-scale experiments on human beings, and knowledge must therefore largely rest on observation. … In the twentieth century psychology has begun to assume the role that biology had played in the previous century, and its methods and discoveries with regard both to individuals and to groups have in their turn transformed our approach to history.
Before an answer to this question is attempted, two further sources of the belief that history can, at least in principle, be transformed into a natural science may be noted. The first is perhaps conveyed best by the metaphors that, at any rate since the nineteenth century, all educated men have tended to use. … We speak of the futility of defying the ‘forces of history’, or the absurdity of efforts to ‘put the clock back’ or to ‘restore the past’. We speak of the youth, the maturity, the decay of peoples or cultures, of the ebb and flow of social movements, of the rise and fall of nations. Such language serves to convey the idea of an inexorably fixed time order – the ‘river of time’ on which we float, and which we must willy-nilly accept; … It is a short step from this to conclude that whatever has a pattern exhibits regularities capable of being expressed in laws; and the systematic interconnection of laws is the content of a natural science.
The second source of this belief lies deeper still. Patterns of growth, or of the march of events, can plausibly be represented as a succession of causes and effects, capable of being systematised by natural science. But sometimes we speak as if something more fundamental than empirical connections (which idealist philosophers call ‘mechanical’ or ‘external’ or ‘mere brute conjunctions’) give their unity to the aspects, or the successive phases, of the existence of the human race on earth.
The second source of this belief lies deeper still. Patterns of growth, or of the march of events, can plausibly be represented as a succession of causes and effects, capable of being systematised by natural science. …
It is this kind of awareness (the historical sense) that is said to enable us to perceive that a certain type of legal structure is ‘intimately connected’ with, or is part of the same complex as, an economic activity, a moral outlook, a style of writing or of dancing or of worship; it is by means of this gift (whatever may be its nature) that we recognise various manifestations of the human spirit as ‘belonging to’ this or that culture or nation or historical period, although these manifestations may be as different from one another as the way in which men form letters on paper from their system of land tenure. Without this faculty we should attach no sense to such social-historical notions as ‘the typical’, or ‘the normal’, or ‘the discordant’, or ‘the anachronistic’, and consequently we should be unable
to conceive the history of an institution as an intelligible pattern, or to attribute a work of art to its time and civilisation and milieu, or indeed to understand or explain how one phase of a civilisation ‘generates’ or ‘determines’ another. This sense of what remains identical or unitary in differences and in change (of which idealist philosophers have made altogether too much) is also a dominant factor in giving us our sense of unalterable trends, of the ‘one-directional’ flow of history. From this it is easy to pass to the far more questionable belief that whatever is unalterable is so only because it obeys laws, and that whatever obeys laws can always be systematised into a science.
These are among the many factors that have made men crave for a natural science of history. All seemed ready, particularly in the nineteenth century, for the formulation of this new, powerful, and illuminating discipline, which would do away with the chaotic accumulation of facts, conjectures, and rules of thumb that had been treated with such disdain by Descartes and his scientifically-minded successors. The stage was set, but virtually nothing materialised. No general laws were formulated – nor even moderately reliable maxims – from which historians could deduce (together with knowledge of the initial conditions) either what would happen next, or what had happened in the past.
One of the criteria of a natural science is rightly regarded as being its capacity for prediction; or, in the case of a historical study, retrodiction – filling in gaps in the past for which no direct testimony exists with the aid of extrapolation performed according to relevant rules or laws. A method of this conjectural sort is employed in archaeology or palaeontology where vast gaps in knowledge exist and there is no better – more dependable – avenue to actual truth in the absence of concrete factual evidence. …
The ‘pure’ sciences of social statics or social dynamics, of which Herbert Spencer perhaps a little too optimistically proclaimed the existence, would then be related to the ‘applied’ science of history, somewhat as physics is to mechanics, or at least as anatomy applies to the diagnosis of specific cases by a physician. If it existed, such a science would have revolutionised the old empirical, hand-woven history by mechanising it, as astronomy abolished the rules of thumb accumulated by Babylonian star-gazers, or as Newtonian physics transformed older cosmologies. No such science exists. Before we ask why this is so, it would perhaps be profitable to consider some of the more obvious ways in which history, as it has been written until our day, differs from a natural science conceived in this fashion.
Let me begin by noting one conspicuous difference between history and the natural sciences. Whereas in a developed natural science we consider it more rational to put our confidence in general propositions or laws than in specific phenomena (indeed this is part of the definition of rationality), this rule does not seem to operate successfully in history. Let me give the simplest possible kind of example. One of the commonsense generalisations that we regard as most firmly established is that the normal inhabitants of this planet can see the sun rise every morning. Suppose a man were to say that on a given morning he had not, despite repeated attempts, seen the sun rise; and that since one negative instance is, by the rules of our ordinary logic, sufficient to kill a general proposition, he regarded his carefully carried out observation as fatal not merely to the hitherto accepted generalisation about the succession of night and day, but to the entire system of celestial mechanics, and indeed of physics, which purports to reveal the causes of this phenomenon. This startling claim would not normally be regarded as a conclusion to be unhesitatingly accepted. …
Yet if per contra a historian were to attempt to cast doubt on – or explain away – some piece of individual observation of a type not otherwise suspect, say, that Napoleon had been seen in a three-cornered hat at a given moment during the battle of Austerlitz; and if the historian did so solely because he put his faith, for whatever reason, in a theory or law according to which French generals or heads of state never wore three-cornered hats during battles, his method, one can safely assert, would not meet with universal or immediate recognition from his profession. Any procedure designed to discredit the testimony of normally reliable witnesses or documents as, let us say, lies or forgeries, or as being defective at the very point at which the report about Napoleon’s hat occurred, would be liable to be regarded as itself suspect, as an attempt to alter the facts to fit a theory. I have chosen a crude and trivial instance; it would not be difficult to think of more sophisticated examples, where a historian lays himself open to the charge of trying to press the facts into the service of a particular theory. Such historians are accused of being prisoners of their theories; they are accused of being fanatical or cranky or doctrinaire, of misrepresenting or misreading reality to fit in with their obsessions, and the like. Addiction to theory – being doctrinaire – is a term of abuse when applied to historians; it is not an insult if applied to a natural scientist.
What occurs in historical thinking seems much more like the operation of common sense, where we weave together various prima facie logically independent concepts and general propositions, and bring them to bear on a given situation as best we can.
Attempts to provide history with laws have taken two main directions: all-embracing schemata, and division into specialised disciplines. The first has given us the systems of historiosophers, culminating in the vast edifices of Hegel, Spengler, Toynbee and the like, which turn out to be either too general, vague, and occasionally tautological to cast new light on anything in particular, or, when the specific findings of the formulas are tested by exact scholars in the relevant fields, to yield implausible results. The second path leads to monographs about selected aspects of human activity – for example, the history of technology, or of a given science or art or craft or social activity. These do indeed, at their best, satisfy some of the criteria of natural scientists, but only at the expense of leaving out the greater part of what is known of the lives of the human beings whose histories are in this way recorded.
Any attempt to ‘integrate’ these isolated strands, treated by the special disciplines, into something approaching (as near as we can make it so) a ‘total’ description of human experience – of what, in Aristotle’s words, ‘Alcibiades did and suffered’ – comes up against an insurmountable obstacle: that the facts to be fitted into the scientific grid and subsumed under the adopted laws or model (even if public criteria for selecting what is important, relevant, etc. from what is trivial, peripheral, etc. can be found and employed) are too many, too minute, too fleeting, too blurred at the edges. They criss-cross and penetrate each other at many levels simultaneously, and the attempt to prise them apart, as it were, and pin them down, and classify them, and fit them into their specific compartments turns out to be impracticable.
The fact that this is so seems to me of cardinal importance and to carry a crucial implication. For one of the central differences between such genuine attempts to apply scientific method to human affairs as are embodied in, say, economics or social psychology, and the analogous attempt to apply it in history proper, is this: scientific procedure is directed in the first place to the construction of an ideal model, with which the portion of the real world to be analysed must, as it were, be matched, so that it can be described and analysed in terms of its deviation from the model. But to construct a useful model will only be feasible when it is possible to abstract a sufficient number of sufficiently stable similarities from the things, facts, events, of which the real world – the flow of experience – is composed. Only where such recurrences in the real world are frequent enough, and similar enough to be classifiable as so many deviations from the selfsame model, will the idealised model that is compounded of them – the electron, the gene, the economic man – do its job of making it possible for us to extrapolate from the known to
the unknown. It follows from this that the greater the number of similarities1 that we are able to collect (and the more dissimilarities we are able to ignore) – that is to say the more successfully we abstract the simpler our model will be, the narrower will be the range of characteristics to which it will apply, and the more precisely it will apply to it; and, conversely, the greater the variety of objects to which we want our model to apply, the less we shall be able to exclude, and consequently the more complex the model will become, and the less precisely it will fit the rich diversity of objects which it is meant to summarise, and so the less of a model, of a master key, it will necessarily be.
If this is true, then there is a good deal in the Comtean classification of the sciences: mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, are indeed rungs in a descending order of comprehensiveness and precision, and in an ascending order of concreteness and detail. General history – the richest of all human studies – shows this very plainly. If I am purely an economic historian, I can probably establish certain generalisations about the behaviour of some commodity – say wool – in some portion of the Middle Ages, for which enough documentary evidence exists to enable me to establish correlations between the production, sale, distribution of wool etc., and certain other related social
and economic facts and events. But I am able to do this only by averting my gaze from questions – sometimes very important and fascinating ones – about other characteristics of the wool producers or wool merchants; at least I do not attempt to establish measurable correlations between the sources and movements of the bales of wool and the religious, and moral, and aesthetic attitudes of wool growers or wool users, and their political ideals, and their conduct as husbands or citizens and churchmen, all at once. For the model which attempted to deal with all these aspects of life would (as things are) lose in predictive power and the precision of its results, even if the story gained in comprehensiveness, richness, depth and interest. For this reason, I find it useful to employ technical terms (always symptomatic of the fact that a model is at work) in an artificially delimited field – namely that of economic history.
The proposition that sciences deal with the type, not the individual, was accepted and indeed insisted upon by those philosophical historians, particularly in France, who desired to assimilate their activities to those of scientists. When Renan, or Taine, or Monod preached the necessity of scientific history, they did not merely mean (as I suspect that, for example, Bury did) that historians should seek to be precise, or exercise rigour in observation or reasoning, or apply the findings of the natural sciences to the explanation of human action or experience wherever possible, or that they should grind no axe but that of objective truth, and state it without qualification whatever the moral or social or political consequences. They claimed much more. Taine states this point of view clearly, when he declares that historians work with samples: …
No doubt it is true that our only key to understanding a culture or an age is the detailed study of the lives of representative individuals or families or groups. We cannot examine all the acts and thoughts of all (or even a large number) of the human beings alive during the age in question (or any other age): we generalise from samples. We integrate the results of such generalisations into what Taine calls the total ‘web’. In ‘reconstructing’ the ‘vanished threads’, we make use of chemistry, astronomy, geology, palaeontology, epigraphy, psychology, every scientific method known to us. But the objective of all this is to understand the relation of parts to wholes, not, as Taine believed, of instance to general law. … The recognition of what is characteristic and representative, of what is a ‘good’ sample suitable for being generalised, and, above all, of how the generalisations fit in with each other – that is the exercise of judgement, a form of thinking dependent on wide experience, memory, imagination, on the sense of ‘reality’, of what goes with what, which may need constant control by, but is not at all identical with, the capacity for logical reasoning and the construction of laws and scientific models – the capacity for perceiving the relations of particular case to law, instance to general rule, theorems to axioms, not of parts to wholes or fragments to completed patterns.
Let me put this in yet another way. Every student of historiography knows that many of the major achievements of modern historians come from their practice of certain rules, which the more reflective among them sometimes express in advice to practitioners of this craft. Historical students are told not to pay too much attention to personal factors or heroic and unusual figures in human history. They are told to attend to the lives of ordinary men, or to economic considerations or social factors or irrational impulses or traditional, collective and unconscious springs of action; or not to forget such impersonal, inconspicuous, dull, slowly or imperceptibly altering factors of change as erosion of the soil, or systems of irrigation and drainage, which may be more influential than spectacular victories, or catastrophic events, or acts of genius; they are told not to allow themselves to be carried away by the desire to be entertaining or paradoxical, or over-rationalistic, or to point a moral or demonstrate a theory; and much else of this kind. What justifies such maxims? They do not follow automatically from the rules of the deductive or inductive disciplines; they are not even rules of specialised techniques (like, say, the a fortiori principle in rhetoric, or that of difficilior lectio in textual criticism). What logical or technical rules can be laid down for determining precisely what, in a given situation, is due to rational or purposive, and what to ‘senseless’ or irrational, factors, how much to personal action, how much to impersonal forces? If anyone supposes that such rules can be drawn up, let him attempt to do so.
The immediate purpose of narrative historians (as has often been repeated), whatever else it may be besides this, is to paint a portrait of a situation or a process, which, like all portraits, seeks to capture the unique pattern and peculiar characteristics of its particular subject; not to be an X-ray which eliminates all but what a great many subjects have in common. This is, by now, a truism, but its bearing on the possibility of transforming history into a natural science has not always been clearly perceived. Two great thinkers understood this, and grappled with the problem: Leibniz and Hegel. Both made heroic efforts to bridge the gulf by such doctrines as those of ‘individual essences’ and ‘concrete universals’ – a desperate dialectical attempt to fuse together individuality and universality.
One way of appreciating this contrast is by contrasting two uses of the humble word ‘because’. Max Weber, whose discussion of this problem is extraordinarily illuminating, asked himself under what conditions I accept an explanation of a given individual action or attitude as adequate, and whether these conditions are the same as those that are required in the natural sciences – that is to say, he tried to analyse what is meant by rational explanation in these contrasted fields. … If someone tells us ‘x forgave y because he loved him’ or ‘x killed y because he hated him’, we accept these propositions easily, because they, and the propositions into which they can be generalised, fit in with our experience, because we claim to know what men are like, not, as a rule, by careful observation of them as psychological specimens (as Taine recommends), or as members of some strange tribe whose behaviour is obscure to us and can only be inferred from (preferably controlled) observation, but because we claim to know (not always justifiably) what – in essentials – a human being is, in particular a human being who belongs to a civilisation not too unlike our own, and consequently one who thinks, wills, feels, acts in a manner which (rightly or wrongly) we assume to be intelligible to us because it sufficiently resembles our own or those of other human beings whose lives are intertwined with our own. This sort of ‘because’ is the ‘because’ neither of induction nor of deduction, but the ‘because’ of understanding – Verstehen – of recognition of a given piece of behaviour as being part and parcel of a pattern of activity which we can follow, which we can remember or imagine, and which we describe in terms of the general laws which cannot possibly all be rendered explicit (still less organised into a system), but without which the texture of normal human life – social or personal – is not conceivable.
The world of natural science is the world of the external observer noting as carefully and dispassionately as he can the compresence or succession (or lack of it), or the extent of correlation, of empirical characteristics. In formulating a scientific hypothesis I must, at least in theory, start from the initial assumption that, for all I know, anything might occur next door to, or before or after, or simultaneously with, anything else; nature is full of surprises; I must take as little as possible for granted; it is the business of natural science to establish general laws recording what most often or invariably does occur. But in human affairs, in the interplay of men with one another, of their feelings, thoughts, choices, ideas about the world or each other or themselves, it would be absurd (and if pushed to extremes, impossible) to start in this manner. I do not start from an ignorance which leaves all doors – or as many of them as possible – open, for here I am not primarily an external observer, but myself an actor; I understand other human beings, and what it is to have motives, feelings, or follow rules, because I am human myself, and because to be active – that is, to want, intend, make plans, speculate, do, react to others self-consciously, be aware of my situation vis-à-vis other conscious beings and the non-human environment – is eo ipso to be engaged in a constant fitting of fragments of reality into the single all-embracing pattern that I assume to hold for others besides myself, and which I call reality. When, in fact, I am successful in this – when the fragments seem to me to fit – we call this an explanation; when in fact they do fit, I am called rational; if they fit badly, if my sense of harmony is largely a delusion, I am called irrational, fanciful, distraught, silly; if they do not fit at all, I am called mad. So much for differences in method. But there is also a profound difference of aim between scientific and historical studies. What they seek for is not the same. … Yet the truth about history – perhaps the most important truth of all – is that general history is precisely this amalgam, a rich brew composed of apparently disparate ingredients, that we do in fact think of these different causes as factors in a single unitary sequence – the history of the French nation or French society during a particular segment of time – and that although there may be great profit to be gained from detaching this or that element of a single process for analysis in a specialised laboratory, yet to treat them as if they were genuinely separate, insulated streams which do not compose a single river, is a far wilder departure from what we think history to be than the indiscriminate compounding of them into one string of causes …
We wish, ideally at least, to be presented, if not with a total experience – which is a logical as well as practical impossibility – at least with something full enough and concrete enough to meet our conception of public life (itself an abstraction, but not a deductive schema, not an artificially constructed model), seen from as many points of view and at as many levels as possible, including as many components, factors, aspects, as the widest and deepest knowledge, the greatest analytical power, insight, imagination, can present. If we are told that this cannot be achieved by a natural science – that is, by the application of models to reality, because models can only function if their subject-matter is relatively ‘thin’, consisting as it does of deliberately isolated strands of experience, and not ‘thick’, that is, not with the texture constituted by the interwoven strands – then history, if it is set on dealing with the compound and not some meticulously selected ingredient of it, as it must be, will, in this sense, not be a science after all. A scientific cast of mind is seldom found together with historical curiosity or historical talent. We can make use of the techniques of the natural sciences to establish dates, order events in time and space, exclude untenable hypotheses and suggest new explanatory factors (as sociology, psychology, economics, medicine have so notably done), but the function of all these techniques, indispensable as they are today, can be no more than ancillary, for they are determined by their specific models, and are consequently ‘thin’, whereas what the great historians sought to describe and analyse and explain is necessarily ‘thick’; that is the essence of history, its purpose, its pride, and its reason for existence.
History, and other accounts of human life, are at times spoken of as being akin to art. What is usually meant is that writing about human life depends to a large extent on descriptive skill, style, lucidity, choice of examples, distribution of emphasis, vividness of characterisation, and the like. But there is a profounder sense in which the historian’s activity is an artistic one. Historical explanation is to a large degree arrangement of the discovered facts in patterns which satisfy us because they accord with life – the variety of human experience and activity – as we know it and can imagine it. That is the difference that distinguishes the humane studies – Geisteswissenschaften – from those of nature.
This kind of historical explanation is related to moral and aesthetic analysis, in so far as it presupposes conceiving of human beings not
merely as organisms in space, the regularities of whose behaviour can be described and locked in labour-saving formulas, but as active beings, pursuing ends, shaping their own and others’ lives, feeling, reflecting, imagining, creating, in constant interaction and intercommunication with other human beings; in short, engaged in all the forms of experience that we understand because we share in them, and do not view them purely as external observers. This is what is called the inside view: and it renders possible and indeed inescapable explanation whose primary function is not to predict or extrapolate, or even control, but fit the loose and fleeting objects of sense, imagination, intellect, into the central succession of patterns that we call normal, and which is the ultimate criterion of reality as against illusion, incoherence, fiction. History is merely the mental projection into the past of this activity of selection and adjustment, the search for coherence and unity, together with the attempt to refine it with all the self-consciousness of which we are capable, by bringing to its aid everything that we conceive to be useful – all the sciences, all the knowledge and skills, and all the theories that we have acquired, from whatever quarter. This, indeed, is why we speak of the importance of allowing for imponderables in forming historical judgement, or of the faculty of judgement that seems mysterious only to those who start from the preconception that their induction, deduction and sense perception are the only legitimate sources of, or at least certified methods justifying claims to, knowledge. Those who, without mystical undertones, insist on the importance of common sense, or knowledge of life, or width of experience, or breadth of sympathy or imagination, or natural wisdom, or ‘depth’ of insight – all normal and empirical attributes – are suspected of seeming to smuggle in some kind of illicit, metaphysical faculty only because the exercise of these gifts has relatively little value for those who deal with inanimate matter, for physicists or geologists. Capacity for understanding people’s characters, knowledge of ways in which they are likely to react to one another, ability to ‘enter into’ their motives, their principles, the movement of their thoughts and feelings (and this applies no less to the behaviour of masses or to the growth of cultures) – these are the talents that are indispensable to historians, but not (or not to such a degree) to natural scientists.
We conceive of historical succession as being akin to that of the growth of the individual personality; to suggest that a child thinks or wills or acts like an old man, or vice versa, is something that we reject on the basis of our own direct experience (I mean by this not introspection, but knowledge of life – something that springs from interaction with others and with the surrounding environment and constitutes the sense of reality). … Recognition of the fundamental categories of human experience differs from both the acquisition of empirical information and deductive reasoning; such categories are logically prior to either, and are least subject to change among the elements that constitute our knowledge. Yet they are not unalterable; and we can ask ourselves to what degree this or that change in them would affect our experience.
It is a corollary of this that one of the difficulties that beset historians and do not plague natural scientists is that of reconstructing what occurred in the past in terms not merely of our own concepts and categories, but also of how such events must have looked to those who participated in or were affected by them – psychological facts that in their turn themselves influenced events. It is difficult enough to develop an adequate consciousness of what we are and what we are at, and how we have arrived where we have done, without also being called upon to make clear to ourselves what such consciousness and self-consciousness must have been like for persons in situations different from our own; yet no less is expected of the true historian. … This kind of imaginative projection of ourselves into the past, the attempt to capture concepts and categories that differ from those of the investigator by means of concepts and categories that cannot but be his own, is a task that he can never be sure that he is even beginning to achieve, yet is not permitted to abjure. He seeks to apply scientific tests to his conclusions, but this will take him but a little way. For it is a commonplace by now that the frontiers between fact and interpretation are blurred and shifting, and that what is fact from one perspective is interpretation from another.
The contrast which I am trying to draw is not that between the two permanently opposed but complementary human demands: one for unity and homogeneity, the other for diversity and heterogeneity, which Kant has made so clear. The contrast I mean is one between different types of knowledge. … This is neither (to make use of Gilbert Ryle’s useful classification) the ‘knowing that’ which the sciences provide, nor the ‘knowing how’ which is the possession of a disposition or skill, nor the knowledge of direct perception, acquaintance, memory, but the type of knowledge that an administrator or politician must possess of the men with whom he deals. … In the end what guides them is a sense (which comes from study of the evidence) of what a given author could, and what he could not, have said; of what fits and what does not fit into the general pattern of his thought.
It might be that the deepest chasm which divides historical from scientific studies lies between the outlook of the external observer and of the actor. It is this that was brought out by the contrast between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ which Vico initiated, and after him the Germans, and is so suspect to modern positivists; between the questions ‘How?’ or ‘What?’ or ‘When?’ on one side, and the questions ‘Why?’, ‘Following what rule?’, ‘Towards what goal?’, ‘Springing from what motive?’ on the other. It lies in the difference between the category of mere togetherness or succession (the correlations to which all sciences can in the end be reduced), and that of coherence and interpretation; between factual knowledge and understanding.
A concentrated interest in particular events or persons or situations as such,2 and not as instances of a generalisation, is a prerequisite of that historical sense which, like a sense of occasion in agents intent on achieving some specific purpose, is sharpened by love or hate or danger; it is this that guides us in understanding, discovering and explaining. When historians assert particular propositions like ‘Lenin played a crucial role in making the Russian Revolution’, or ‘Without Churchill Britain would have been defeated in 1940’, the rational grounds for such assertions, whatever their degree of plausibility, are not identical with generalisations of the type ‘Such men, in such conditions, usually affect events in this fashion’ for which the evidence may be exceedingly feeble; for we do not test the propositions solely – or indeed generally – by their logical links with such general propositions (or explanation sketches), but rather in terms of their coherence with our picture of a specific situation. To analyse this type of knowledge into a finite collection of general and particular, categorical and hypothetical, propositions, is not practicable. Every judgement that we formulate, whether in historical thought or ordinary life, involves general ideas and propositions without which there can be no thought or language. At times some among these generalisations can be clearly stated, and combined into models; where this occurs, natural sciences arise. But the descriptive and explanatory language of historians, because they seek to record or analyse or account for specific or even unique phenomena as such1 – as often as not for their own sakes – cannot, for that reason, be reduced without residue to such general formulas, still less to models and their applications. Any attempt to do so will be halted at the outset by the discovery that the subject-matter involves a ‘thick’ texture of criss-crossing, constantly changing and melting conscious and unconscious beliefs and assumptions some of which it is impossible and all of which it is difficult to formulate, on which, nevertheless, our rational views and rational acts are founded, and, indeed, which they exhibit or articulate. This is the ‘web’ of which Taine speaks, and it is possible to go only some way (it is impossible to say in advance how far) towards isolating and describing its ingredients if our rationality is challenged.
1 All facts are, of course, unique, those dealt with by natural scientists no less than any others; but it is not their uniqueness that interests scientists.
It was, I think, L. B. Namier who once remarked about historical sense that there was no a priori short-cut to knowledge of the past; what actually happened can only be established by scrupulous empirical investigation, by research in its normal sense. What is meant by historical sense is the knowledge not of what happened, but of what did not happen. When a historian, in attempting to decide what occurred and why, rejects all the infinity of logically open possibilities, the vast majority of which are obviously absurd, and, like a detective, investigates only those possibilities which have at least some initial plausibility, it is this sense of what is plausible – what men, being men, could have done or been – that constitutes the sense of coherence with the patterns of life that I have tried to indicate. Such words as plausibility, likelihood, sense of reality, historical sense, denote typical qualitative categories which distinguish historical studies as opposed to the natural sciences that seek to operate on a quantitative basis. This distinction, which originated in Vico and Herder, and was developed by Hegel and (malgré soi) Marx, Dilthey and Weber, is of fundamental importance.
The gifts that historians need are different from those of the natural scientists. The latter must abstract, generalise, idealise, qualify, dissociate normally associated ideas (for nature is full of strange surprises, and as little as possible must be taken for granted), deduce, establish with certainty, reduce everything to the maximum degree of regularity, uniformity, and, so far as possible, to timeless repetitive patterns. Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood. The capacities needed are rather those of association than of dissociation, of perceiving the relation of parts to wholes, of particular sounds or colours to the many possible tunes or pictures into which they might enter, of the links that connect individuals viewed and savoured as individuals, and not primarily as instances of types or laws. It is this that Hegel tried to put under the head of the synthesising ‘Reason’ as opposed to the analytic ‘Understanding’; and to provide it with a logic of its own. It is the ‘logic’ that proved incapable of clear formulation or utility: it is this that cannot be incorporated in electronic brains. Such gifts relate as much to practice as to theory; perhaps to practice more directly. A man who lacks common intelligence can be a physicist of genius, but not even a mediocre historian.
Some of the characteristics indispensable to (although not, by themselves, sufficient to move) historians are more akin to those needed in active human intercourse, than in the study or the laboratory or the cloister. The capacity for associating the fruits of experience in a manner that enables its possessors to distinguish, without the benefit of rules, what is central, permanent, or universal from what is local, or peripheral, or transient – that is what gives concreteness and plausibility, the breath of life, to historical accounts. Skill in establishing hypotheses by means of observation or memory or inductive procedures, while ultimately indispensable to the discovery of all forms of truth about the world, is not the rarest of the qualities required by historians, nor is the desire to find recurrences and laws itself a symptom of historical talent.
If we ask ourselves which historians have commanded the most lasting admiration, we shall, I think, find that they are neither the most ingenious, nor the most precise, nor even the discoverers of new facts or unsuspected causal connections, but those who (like imaginative writers) present men or societies or situations in many dimensions, at many intersecting levels simultaneously, writers in whose accounts human lives, and their relations both to each other and to the external world, are what (at our most lucid and imaginative) we know that they can be. The gifts that scientists most need are not these: they must be ready to call everything into question, to construct bold hypotheses unrelated to customary empirical procedures, and drive their logical implications as far as they will go, free from control by common sense or too great a fear of departing from what is normal or possible in the world. Only in this way will new truths and relations between them be found – truths which, in psychology or anthropology as well as physics or mathematics, do not depend upon preserving contact with common human experience. In this sense, to say of history that it should approximate to the condition of a science is to ask it to contradict its essence.
It would be generally agreed that the reverse of a grasp of reality is the tendency to fantasy or Utopia. But perhaps there exist more ways than one to defy reality. May it not be that to be unscientific is to defy, for no good logical or empirical reason, established hypotheses and laws; while to be unhistorical is the opposite – to ignore or twist one’s view
of particular events, persons, predicaments, in the name of laws, theories, principles derived from other fields, logical, ethical, metaphysical, scientific, which the nature of the medium renders inapplicable? For what else is it that is done by those theorists who are called fanatical because their faith in a given pattern is not overcome by their sense of reality? For this reason the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be – even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour – seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.