Different kinds of Whig history are wrong (or right) for different kinds of reasons
Which planks of the Whig platform are rotten, and why?
There has been some noise in the blogosphere lately about "Whiggism," a term of abuse often used by historians of science against popular, old-fashioned or journalistic histories of science. Commentators agree that the term is confusingly vague, and that it is important to untangle its different meanings in order to say which forms of Whiggism are harmful and which just appear so. But I've not seen a systematic effort to distinguish the various forms and to say which ones are objectionable and why. This post separates eight strands of Whig history, with this result: not only are there different forms of Whiggism, some objectionable and some not, but those that are objectionable are objectionable for different reasons. It is important to separate the good reasons from the debatable ones, so that we can focus our debates on the latter and not waste time and righteousness on the former.
1. The fixed-evidence fallacy. This fallacy is committed by many works of history that assess the reasonableness of past beliefs according to how closely those beliefs resemble our own.
My problem with this history is not that it assesses past scientists, nor that it assesses past scientists by present-day standards. It is that it is a bad way of assessing past scientists by our standards. It is bad because the evidence for most theories has changed through the past, and the reasonableness of those theories has changed accordingly.
This is a mundane point that does not require any Kuhn-like shifts in norms or standards or research-programs. After reading the weather forecast last night it was reasonable for me to believe that it would not rain today. Now, watching the looming storm clouds, that belief is no longer reasonable. What has changed is not my norms or standards but the state of the evidence.
I mean "evidence" to include abstract arguments as well as empirical data. I also include evidence for criteria for judging theories, not just evidence for theories. Why, for example, is it bad history to heavily criticise Thomas Hobbes for his lack of confidence in contrived experiments as a way of choosing between theories? Part of the answer, I would say, is because Hobbes had much less evidence for the effectiveness of contrived experiments than we do today.
2. Dogmatic side-taking. This is when the historian lets his judgement of one aspect of a scientist colour his judgement of all other aspects of the same scientist. If the initial judgement is a positive one, the historian refuses to hear anything bad about the scientist; and if the initial judgement is a negative one, he refuses to hear anything good about the scientist.
This is part of what people mean when they criticise "saints v demons" history or "black hat v white hat" history. It is alleged, for example, that the reason some people refuse to accept that Newton did alchemy is that those people have already decided Newton was a flawless scientist on the basis of such praise-worthy things as his theory of gravitation.
Dogmatic side-taking is clearly a bad habit: that a person did a number of great things does not mean that everything they did was great. Like the fixed-evidence fallacy, dogmatic side-taking is harmful because it breeds falsehoods about the past.
3. Manichean history. This is when the historian only assesses past scientists as very good or very bad. All other shades of praise or blame are ignored. This is presumably also part of what people mean by "saints v demons" history, but it is distinct from dogmatic side-taking. One can take sides without restricting oneself to extreme judgements. And one can make extreme judgements without being dogmatic -- after all, there are always cases that in actual fact do lie near the extremes.
I put Manichean history in the same camp as the two previous errors, and call it a cognitive error that can lead to falsehoods. But the following forms of Whiggism are not so obviously objectionable, or at least are objectionable for different sorts of reasons.
4. Linear narratives. Whiggism is often associated with "narratives of progress," and one alleged problem with the latter is that they ignore the mistakes, dead-ends and difficulties that arose on the way to the present state of things. This criticism seems reasonable because although it is plausible that (say) predictive power in biology has increased over time, it is not plausible that this always happened in the most efficient way possible.
On the other hand, it would be wrong for historians to always put the accent on mistakes, dead-ends and difficulties. Some projects go more or less to plan; some problems are more quickly solved than expected; not everything is an accidental by-product of unavoidable errors.
To put it another way, there is no a priori problem with linear narratives. If we criticise them we need to present historical evidence that things did not happen in a linear manner. This puts linear narrative in a different category to the historiographical sins so far discussed. The fixed-evidence fallacy is always an error; linear narratives are not always so. The former is a piece of bad reasoning; the latter is an unsafe assumption that might nevertheless be true in a given case.
5. Normative judgements. Another alleged problem with "narratives of progress" is that a) progress implies judgement and b) judgement is ahistorical. I agree with a), but I have reservations about b).
I grant that it is ahistorical simply to express a moral judgement such as "slavery is bad" or an epistemic judgement such as "predictive power in a theory is good." But there is nothing ahistorical about asking whether slavery has declined in Europe over the last two centuries or whether predictive power has increased in biology in the same period. These questions are as empirical or "naturalistic" as any others you will find in historical writing. Normative judgements may be derived from them, such as that "recent trends in predictive power in biology are a good thing." But in themselves they are as descriptive as you'll get.
What about works that blend description and judgement—say, a book that gives a naturalistic description of the last few centuries of increasing predictive power in biology, but does so with a celebratory tone? What's wrong with that?
One problem might be that the celebratory tone comes with a prejudiced view of the subject matter. The worry is that the historian who celebrates the predictive power of biological theories is bound to exaggerate the predictive advance that occurred, perhaps ignoring instances of failed predictions or downplaying theories that were accepted for reasons other than their predictive power.
But I don't think this is the real problem with moral or epistemic judgement in history-writing. Historians should not be barred from studying topics that engage their ideals or values—otherwise history could never serve to change those ideals or values. Instead historians should be encouraged to be as objective as possible when dealing with such topics, objective in the sense of looking for data that conflicts with their pre-conceived views, and of generally paying attention to the evidence whatever it says.
The real problem, insofar as it is a problem, is that making normative claims in a work of history is a kind of disciplinary category-mistake. It's like beginning a scientific article with a limerick. There's nothing wrong with limericks, and placing one at the beginning of an article need not affect the quality of the article as science. It's simply out of place.
So far we have seen Whiggisms that involve straight-forward fallacies, unsafe assumptions, and disciplinary confusions. The remaining three kinds of Whiggism are different again. In my view, they are the hard cases: there is much room for debate about whether or not they are really errors.
6. Comparisons to present-day beliefs. Suppose I study the resemblances between our own beliefs and past beliefs, but don't draw any inferences about the rationality or otherwise of the holders of past beliefs. I might conduct a survey of 18th century workers in optics, say, and for each worker record the extent to which their beliefs about optics resemble our own.
Would this be bad history? Certainly not in the same way that the fixed-evidence fallacy is bad history. It does not lead to untruth. There is nothing false about the claim that, say, Newton's explanation of coloured rings has something important in common with the present-day notion of "wave interference" whereas the explanation provided by the Frenchman Dortous de Mairan (an explanation based on refraction rather than interference) does not have that thing in common with the present-day notion. Admittedly this claim could lead to falsehoods if we're not careful, but there are few historical claims for which that warning does not apply.
7. Present-day criteria. A similar and much-maligned exercise is to apply criteria to past theories that are different from the criteria deployed by the people who held those theories.
Sometimes this practice would fail for lack of anything to talk about. Given that Hobbes didn't perform many experiments, there is not much to say about what sort of experimental evidence he gave for his beliefs.
But sometimes there can be a lot to talk about. What kind of empirical data (in our sense of that phrase) did Paracelsus provide for his "theory of correspondences" between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (the world outside man)? This question is anachronistic insofar as Paracelsus' notion of empirical data was probably quite different from our own. But answering it would not necessitate any unsound inferences or any false claims.
Is such a question guilty of a disciplinary category-mistake, like putting a limerick at the beginning of a scientific article? Does it make claims that, though true or otherwise valuable, are not historical claims?
It is not obvious that the question fails to be a historical one, at least not to me. For one thing, it need not be a normative question. To ask what empirical data Paracelsus had is not to say that empirical data is something valuable to have. Certainly it suggests that empirical data is something that it is valuable to ask questions about—but all historical questions are normative in that innocuous sense.
Moreover, the answers one came up with to such a question could tell us something about the past, since Paracelsus' books do contain statements that we might interpret as "empirical data" (again, in our sense of that phrase). At the very least, we can all agree that answering such a question would require reading Paracelsus' manuscripts—and if the evidence for a claim includes past texts, surely the claim must in some sense be about those past texts.
Perhaps the objection to such questions is that the answers to them are bound to be anachronistic. That is, the answers are bound to say things that Paracelsus could never have thought, in terms that were not available to him.
The problem with this objection is that it is too strong, applying to many claims that almost all historians would consider properly historical. If the principle is that historians should not write things that no-one in the past could have thought, then we would have to abandon (for example) any claim that refers to two or more people who did not know each-other. Equally, no historian would be allowed to say that person X was ignorant of some fact Y, even if Y had important consequences for X.
The same problem arises with the eighth and last kind of Whiggism I'm going to consider here, which is closely related to numbers six and seven.
8. Present-directed narratives. This is history that takes something from the present—a person, institution, idea, or whatever—and writes the history of that thing as the sequence of past events that resembled it or that made a causal contribution to it.
As for the use of present-day criteria, a common objection to this kind of history is that it says things about the past that past actors were not aware of. Copernicus could not have known that the world system in his De Revolutionibus (1543) would resemble, or make a causal contribution to, the world system that appeared well after his death in Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632).
Of course we should avoid being misled by superficial resemblances between the past and present, or by causal contributions that are only apparent. But this does not mean that no such resemblances or contributions exist, just that we should be careful when we look for them and describe them.
Another objection to present-directed history is that it says much more about the present than about the past. For the whole point of such history is to explain or understand something in the present. To which the reply is two-fold. Firstly, historians like to say that a good way to understand the present is through the past. They cannot consistently say this and make the objection just stated.
Secondly, the objection is always short-lived: wait a few years after the publication of a present-centred work, and the thing that the work explains or understands will be a thing of the past, and so the work will be past-centred rather than present-centred.
The main lesson of this list is that some forms of history are unfairly tarred with the Whiggish brush. The most important of these is I think the last, the one I've called present-directed narrative. One can write present-directed narrative without dogmatic side-taking, linear narratives, Manichean judgements, or the fixed-evidence fallacy.
A second lesson, and a less well-known one, is that not all objectionable forms of whiggism are objectionable for the same reasons. The above list includes examples of unsound reasoning that are obviously harmful, such as the fixed-evidence fallacy; it also includes a posteriori claims that may turn out to be false, such as the assumption that science changes in a linear manner. Then there are claims that, though true or otherwise valuable, are not historical claims, notably normative judgements. Finally there are narratives that say things that none of their subjects could have been aware of, but which nevertheless do not commit any of the other sins just listed.
My list of eight Whiggisms is incomplete. Some of the items could be sub-divided—for example, I expect that people have more than one idea in mind when they accuse someone of writing a "linear" narrative. Entirely new items could be added to the list, such as the various kinds of anachronism (conceptual, selective, institutional, etc.) that historians have written about in recent times. And there are some labels that do not appear on the list but are often associated with Whiggism, such as "teleology" and "positivism.” But this list is at least a start.
The list also raises a pressing question: is there a principled way of distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable forms of anachronism? If there is, it might help to solve the problem I raised in number seven above—that is, the problem that it is easy to reply to any charge of anachronism just by pointing out that at least some anachronism is necessary in history-writing. In the next post I consider one attempt that a recent historian has made to solve this demarcation problem.Expand post.
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