Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9

HISTORY AND THE
GENERALIZING SCIENCES

IT is almost impossible to clarify the distinctive aspects of historical knowledge without making comparisons with knowledge claims in other empirical disciplines. Since the physical sciences play such an intellectually intimidating role in our present intellectual life, they often serve as a model for other disciplines. Even the social sciences have drawn upon them for form and methods. Thus to get a clear sense of what is unique about history, one has to note points of overlap and divergence from the generalizing sciences.

Long before humans developed any of their present sciences, they were already telling at least crude stories about the past. The devising of histories was thus a prescientific activity. But a storyteller must often make references to conventional conceptions of order and structure in nonhuman phenomena; otherwise, he can scarcely construct plausible narratives. In fact, historians have usually relied on accepted knowledge, in rare cases on the most recent and innovative understanding of the world. At times scientific knowledge has seemed threatening to the historian. General knowledge, when turned into fashionable ontologies, has seemed to deny a place for humanity, and has left no humanistic subject matter for the historian. Unfortunately, in overly defensive retaliation, historians have too often minimized the success of the generalizing sciences or have tried to elevate historical knowledge to an especially privileged position that it hardly deserves.

Contemporary conceptions of scientific inquiry scarcely predate the Renaissance. Only then were such scientists as Kepler and Galileo able successfully to tie nonteleological mathematical forms to experience. They used internally consistent, precise theories to relate formerly diverse phenomena. Descartes grasped the implications of such ordered and lawful relationships and gloried in a great, impersonal world machine. The fully lawful and determinate world of matter encompassed every phenomenon except mind, a noncorporeal and ghostly substance

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