The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/History, Logic of

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The Encyclopedia Americana
History, Logic of
Edition of 1920. See also Philosophy of history on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

HISTORY, Logic of. The relation of history to the problems of the philosopher has been mostly confined to those questions which are treated in the philosophy of history. The object of this discipline is to interpret the meaning of mankind's historical development and to comprehend the process of humanity in the setting of a metaphysical system. It is only in recent times that philosophy has recognized clearly the importance of an entirely different relation. If the philosopher studies in the science of logic the ways of thought and the special methods by which the different special sciences are able to reach the truth it must be logical and thus, ultimately, a philosophical task to examine the methods of historical investigation. The special schemes of the historian's technique belong to historical science proper. But as soon as the attitude which the historian has to take toward the world is in question, we stand before a logical problem which is most nearly connected with the general problem of the meaning of truth. A rich literature devoted to this circle of problems has grown up in late years, partly through the activity of philosophers and psychologists, partly from the interests of historians and economists themselves.

Of course, it is possible to take the skeptical attitude and to deny the existence of a particular problem here. We can say that all science has the same kind of task, and that the logical problems are thus not other for history than for the natural sciences. Yet this attitude may lead to two different standpoints. The first is the most popular one. From that it would appear that history is not a real science at all. It collects a mass of material just as the zoologist collects his specimens; but that kind of treatment which makes zoology a real science, the study of the common characteristics and of the underlying laws, is not in question for the historical material. Instead, of this an art enters into play, the art of historical presentation. The works of the great historian are thus in first line works of art parallel to the great epic narratives, with only the difference that the epic poems follow the lines of imagination while the historian reconstructs the facts as they may have happened. Scientifically history would thus stand on the lowest level, as a mere collection of facts without that real scientific treatment which makes the value of the other sciences. The best which can be hoped, then, is that it may be brought to a kind of scientific height by introducing as much as possible the results of other sciences such as physics, biology, anthropology, geo-physics, etc., into the explanation of historical happenings. The influence of climate, of race disposition, of technical inventions, and so forth, then become predominant in the scholarly treatment of historical events. It may be said that this low opinion of the pure scientific character of history has been prevalent throughout the whole history of science.

But those who consider the natural sciences as the only type of real scientific work may be led, and have been led frequently in recent times to still another standpoint. They may say that history has the greatest possibility of being a full-fledged science. The only step it has to take is that from the merely descriptive to the law-seeking attitude. The real task of the historian, they say, would be to find the common features which belong to the growth of every nation and to the political and social, artistic and scientific, economic and religious movement of the different periods and of the different communities. As long as isolated processes are described, history indeed remains on a pre-scientific level, but as soon as we recognize characteristic types of development, we reach general laws like those of the biologist or the chemist. The interest concentrates itself then on the psychological factors which molded the fate of the nations, and especially the life of the masses becomes a true historical agency. That which is unique then becomes insignificant and accidental as compared with the great typical processes which repeat themselves under similar conditions in the most different countries. A kind of natural science of historical nations thus becomes the logical goal.

Those modern movements, however, which have forced the problems of the logic of history to public attention object to both these standpoints because they refuse to admit the first presupposition. They deny that the natural sciences are the only type of a real science. They claim, rather, that this is a prejudice which has been suggested to the world by the overwhelming influence of the Aristotelian logic on the one side, and the impressive triumphs of natural science on the other. They hold that there exists two types of scientific thought in principle commensurable, and that the historical way of thinking is in its importance and in its logical right perfectly co-ordinate with naturalistic thought. Yet here again a variety of standpoints have been taken.

The simplest presentation of this doubleness of logical method is offered by those who hold that the whole separation is to be deduced from the doubleness of the logical attitude. They say that we can take with reference to everything in the universe either the attitude of interest in the general law or the attitude of interest in the particular thing. The one interest can never be substituted for the other. In the one case the particular object is for us only a sample illustration for a general relation. We seek the law which expresses that relation and inhibits therefore the interest in the special chance case which is before us. That is the attitude of the naturalist. On the other hand we may give our whole attention to the particular object before us in its uniqueness, and there is no doubt that our practical interests of life force on us just this attitude. Our earth may be astronomically not more important than any other planet, but our practical interest belongs to this planet alone. Our friends may be to the biologist not more instructive than any other group of organisms, but for our friendship those particular men have their unique position and cannot be replaced by other chance copies. To develop systematically this interest in the particular is the function of the historian, and anything which has its particular existence is possible historical material. Yet it is evident that no science can have the task of describing every particular pebble on the beach. There must be a principle of selection, and this is given in the reference to our values. The men who have relation to that which is valuable in the world, to the development of state and law, of art and science and religion, are to be selected for the historian's account. And this ultimate reference to values binds the particular objects together, while it is evident that the law of natural science brings the facts under a point of view under which they have no special value at all, but are indifferent objects of theoretical observation. The antithesis is thus complete. The naturalist seeks the general, the historian seeks the particular. The naturalist refers everything to the law, the historian everything to the value. Both groups of interest create logically independent systems of knowledge. Their difference is thus in no way a difference of material, as there is nothing in the world which cannot be considered from both points of view. The sun which the astronomer studies in relation to the astronomical laws as a chance case of a general relation which holds for myriads of suns may be at the same time the object of interest for those who ask about the development of this one particular sun which gives us light. And on the other hand, even the Napoleon of the historian may be brought under the laws of biology from the standpoint of the naturalist.

Others who welcome this sharp separation feel doubtful whether it is really the logical attitude which determines the difference and not the content. They claim that it is not true that natural science has to deal with laws only. Natural science may very well give its attention to particular objects too, and the development of our sun or our earth or our mankind is not history but natural science. The true difference, they say, lies rather in the doubleness of the objectifying and the subjectifying attitude.

The sun and earth are for us all objects, but men and their work can be considered in a double way. We can consider our neighbors as objects, as phenomena which we describe and explain, but we can consider them also as subjects of will which we understand and interpret and appreciate, and this doubleness of attitude reaches over the whole of mankind. Wherever there is will, there the object can be taken as a subject and it is claimed that the work of the naturalist is the study of the world in so far as it is conceived as a system of objects, while the study of the historian is the world in so far as it is conceived as a system of will relations. Only subjects of will would thus be able to enter into history at all. And the task of the historian is to understand the systematic relations between the purposive actions. The naturalist starts from the objects of his perception and seeks their causes and their effects. The historian starts from those will demands which teach him as the political, legal, artistic, scientific, economic, religious demands of his social world, and he seeks to interpret them by connecting them with the purposes of the past. The naturalist explains, while the historian interprets intentions and links the will purposes into a connected unity.

Bibliography. — Bernheim, Ernst, ‘Lehrbuch der historischen Methode’ (Leipzig 1894); Freeman, E. A., ‘Methods of Historical Study’ (London 1886); Droysen, J. G., ‘Grundriss der Historik’ (Boston 1893); Windelband, ‘Naturwissenschaft und Geschichte’; Simmel, ‘Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie’; Rickert, ‘Grenzen der naturwissenschaftlichen Begriffsbildung’; Münsterberg, ‘Psychology and Life’; Lamprecht, ‘What is History?’; Morley, J., ‘Notes on Politics and History’ (New York 1914); Rhodes, J. F., ‘Historical Essays’ (New York 1909); Robinson, J. H., ‘The New History’ (ib. 1912).

Hugo Münsterberg,
Late Professor of Psychology, Harvard University.