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History: Art or Science?

July 8, 2006

Back in graduate school, sometime just after the Stone Age, one of the interesting questions of the day was whether history was an art or science. I always thought it was posed in a rather silly way. Generally to ask the question, one must have a limited knowledge of both art and science. There is way too much art in science, and of course quite a bit of science in art. It falls into David Hackett Fischer’s “fallacy of false dichotomous questions.” The problem is in thinking these are the only two options, and that they are mutually exclusive. Of course, in truth the question is not intended for serious discussion: it is a political discussion. Historians want to associate themselves with science, while maintaining artistic license.  (Originally published on untimelymeditations.zenosox.com on 5/19/06 12:07pm)

History cannot be a science simply because we cannot repeat any of the “experiments” of historical action. We do posit theories similar to scientists, but time and action have already passed when we do this. While it may be popular to say that history repeats itself, this isn’t correct. There are patterns in history that are very similar over time, but this is not to say they are the same. Conditions and actors are completely different. The human mind actively attempts to deal with reality as patterns; this is both a positive and negative reality of our attempt to know. Dilthey preferred the term “understanding [verstehen]” rather than knowledge, but even there the limits are clear. Our understanding is limited by our tendency toward pattern recognition. To begin to be scientific, historians would need to be as active in disproving their theories as much as proving them. The key to great science is this active pursuit of disproof. I see no such desire in historians.

History as an art is a friendlier place to live, but still a bit of a fib. Art is of course very inclusive. Abstract artists produce just the same art as the so called realists. Rare is the historian that does not abhor any notion that “fiction” has any place in history. This is less a criticism of the efforts of novelists to write history as an attempt to hide just how much of history is indeed fiction. Nowhere is it more accurate to say the truths (of history) are simply lies we agree to recite to each other. The argument ought to be over clarity and transparency of our understanding, not its form.

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