July 8, 2013

Historians don't get it

Comment on 'Dr. X'


As a historian and defender of the idiographic method you actually face this trouble:
“... the Dutch historian Peter Geyl ... wrote a brilliant book about Napoleon, amounting to the result that there are a dozen or so different interpretations - we may safely say, models - of Napoleon's character and career within academic history, all based upon “fact” (the Napoleonic period happens to be one of the best documented) and all flatly contradicting each other. Roughly speaking, they range from Napoleon as the brutal tyrant and egoistic enemy of human freedom to Napoleon the wise planer of a unified Europe; ... (von Bertalanffy, 1969, pp. 110-111)

As I put it in #62: “Verstehen [understanding] cannot lead to much more than to a gossip model of the world.”

At this point we can borrow something really helpful from the natural sciences.

The flying autumn leaf and the falling canon ball both belong to the physical realm. The physicists completely ignore the leaf. Why? You can watch as many leafs as you please but you will at best arrive at the “historical law” that all leafs sooner or latter fall to the ground. That's not wrong, of course. It is realistic, it is inductive, it has been tested and we all can agree upon it. Very complex, hmhm, we need further research. We know that Galileo found the law of the falling bodies by throwing canon balls from the tower of Pisa (he may actually have performed this as a pure thought experiment).

By focusing on the rather boring canon ball and ignoring the wonderful trajectory of the red leaf in the autumn sunshine Galileo came closer to reality than the realists who never forget to bemoan the poverty of quantities and to praise the richness of qualities. Ignorance/Modesty is a good research strategy. This does not entail that one denies the existence of flying autumn leafs, it entails only that one cannot expect to learn much from them.

Historians who claim that, on principle, one cannot find something like laws in the economy may be right. We cannot know in advance. What we know is that there are no behavioral laws like utility maximization. But this does not exclude other types that can be discovered. G. B. Shaw may have had historians at the back of his mind when he quipped: “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

von Bertalanffy, L. (1969). General Systems Theory. New York, NY: Braziller.