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Week of May 24, 2020
E. H. Carr and the Objective Imperative
I. Induction and Generalization
Though postmodernism and cultural relativism have helped to turn the tide, scientific qualities remain the aspirational ideal of most academic disciplines. So long as history remains within the social sciences, refusing steadfastly the impulse toward politics, representation, and narrative, researchers will continue to face similar epistemic demands. In general, these include the use of a systematic methodology in conducting inquiries, consistency of evaluation and interpretation, and a willingness to reject theory in the face of empirical contradiction. Philosophers of history dispute the applicability of each criterion for history as a discipline, but individual studies and broader research programs may still attempt a level of coherence. Peter Turchin has taken repeated criticism in these pages; nevertheless, his work in cliodynamics represents a nascent form of the latter. Efforts to hold history to some form of scientific standard have long (always?) engendered criticism from around the academy, usually of a similar kind—human accidents and free will foil predictive power. Shove not human complexity into the straitjacket of physics. Imperfect outcomes, however, need not infringe upon idealized research methods. Abandoning a pretense to objectively verifiable results (as science itself has during the last half-century) remains entirely compatible with best-practice methods, whether in astrophysics or anthropology.
Historian E. H. Carr wrestled with the epistemic foundations of his discipline throughout his long career. His 1962 What is History? proposes an attractive solution to the problems of randomness and particularity with which historical narratives are apparently plagued, simultaneously refuting the unique character of science and elevating the interpretative project:
As we have seen, scientists are no longer so eager as they used to be to talk about the laws of nature. The so-called laws of sciences which affect our ordinary life are in fact statements of tendency, statements of what will happen other things being equal or in laboratory conditions. They do not claim to predict what will happen in concrete cases. The law of gravity does not prove that that particular apple will fall to the ground: somebody may catch it in a basket.
Science, like history, must make certain ceteris paribus assumptions in order to test a theory. Indeed, these assumptions are usually so restrictive that the observer cannot be certain whether the test has been applied to the experimental framework or to the initial conditions. Per the Duhem-Quine thesis, one cannot be sure what part of a given complex of theory, parameters, or data is under scrutiny. Underdetermination, meanwhile, permits history-like subjectivity (“elegance” or “plausibility”) scope. The ideal scientific theory simply asserts with greater confidence that, given a specified initial world with determined interferences, a predicted outcome will obtain. Even crude forms of the problem of induction prevent any more than the justified adoption of certainty; history, without laboratory access, must simply operate with fewer pretexts. Physical sciences may be better at prediction than historical ones, but no hard demarcation criterion can be established on that spectrum. Most popular assaults on “historical scientism,” as with the above-linked Aeon piece, stumble upon this point. The stress on predictive power, moreover, is an artifact of realism, whose flaws have been enumerated since Kuhn. Theories may be falsified nonetheless, and the frequency and accuracy with which this occurs cannot be used to create a meaningful epistemic distinction. It is as untrue that nuclear fusion always precedes agriculture in technological development as it is that combustion releases phlogiston. Some theories are entirely and clearly wrong; the chief considerations are merely the size of the intermediate area of contested interpretations and the nature of the evidence that can be applied.
Carr thus adopts a weak form of positivism. The historian can, will, and probably must generalize in order to present his interpretation of events. Generalizations are not laws, and are always contingent on the non-occurrence of unanticipated disturbances, but are nonetheless derived from and modified by what empirical evidence can be obtained. Evidence, as Carr sets out in Chapter 1, is never “raw data” (even compared to the most suspect in the physical realm), yet it can still suffice for this task. Moreover, the generalization need only be useful for policy-makers seeking to learn specific kinds of lesson—rough ideas rather than object certainties are more than enough.
Today science is more inclined to remember that induction can logically lead only to probabilities or to reasonable belief, and is more anxious to treat its pronouncements as general rules or guides, the validity of which can be tested only in specific action... The clue to the question of prediction in history lies in this distinction between the general and the specific, between the universal and the unique. The historian, as we have seen, is bound to generalize… But he cannot predict specific events, because the specific is unique and because the element of accident enters into it.
Carr explicitly acknowledges that the materials interpreted by the physical and social scientist may entirely differ, though—as many others have suggested—the gap is fairly narrow in places. Subjectivity, behavioral complexity, and the prevalence of accidents still do not preclude the attempt to incorporate rigor into their analysis.
I do not wish to suggest that the inferences of the social scientist or of the historian can match those of the physical scientist in precision, or that their inferiority in this respect is due merely to the greater backwardness of the social sciences. The human being is on any view the most complex natural entity known to us, and the study of his behaviour may well involve difficulties different in kind from those confronting the physical scientist. All I wish to establish is that their aims and methods are not fundamentally dissimilar.
Falsification may be difficult and proof impossible, but the historian nevertheless is (or should be) bound to present findings in a form that facilitates both tasks. This, for example, is the role of modeling in economics—to provide an approximate yet concrete language for discussing a hypothesis. As Jared Rubin remarks, perhaps overzealously, in a recent book review, “[t]he key distinction between narrative and analytic narrative is that the latter lays out the supporting evidence (in this case, historical evidence) within an analytical framework. Such a framework provides falsifiable predictions, and the analytic narrative provides evidence in support of these predictions.” Laying out concretely the set of specifications involved in an interpretation eases evaluation, and prevents the sort of contortion that Popper decried as obviously unscientific. The model need not be true, but merely suggestive in a manner that reveals and inspires fruitful extensions. Again: unverified results do not preclude a hierarchy of methods.
History to Carr thus acquires a distinct sociological aspect, for only in the relationships of individuals within and between societies can sufficiently robust generalizations be crafted. Looking primarily at the “universal” entails operating chiefly upon a macroscopic (as opposed to a psychological) level, discussing the temporal operations of economies and institutions rather than smaller bodies that permit flux. Nevertheless, this solution to the scientific problem is both pragmatic and convincing. Positivism may be naive, if not defunct, but operating from the same premises (abstracting cautiously from observation) while accepting the inherent limitations remains a plausible approach. Carr’s system breaks down largely in terms of classification. His methods may be laudable, but few criteria exist for categorizing a specific type of phenomenon—when is a “revolt” a “revolution”?—or evaluating the historical facts themselves. Subjectivity is inextricable from this stage, dooming any would-be theory to anti-Popperian malleability. One view of industrialization might redefine terms in the face of contrary evidence and escape unscathed. The adoption of quantitative measures (real wages, say) cannot wholly mitigate the problem; “welfare” might be forced to account for environmental conditions and social oppression. Historical and social objects (or “facts,” in Durkheim’s formulation) cannot be converted into convenient unit masses.
Carr’s most difficult task is safeguarding generalization against the distortions of random events, whose arbitrary arrival threatens any system. The case of “Cleopatra’s nose,” in which Antony’s infatuation lost him Actium, highlights a series of “casual causes” that each threw off a deeper historical sequence at a stroke—with as consequential an effect as a rebellion or a technological shift. Churchill’s attribution of a quarter-million deaths to “a monkey’s bite” on King Alexander of Greece in 1920 is the most egregious example; Lenin’s early death probably the most significant. No link can be drawn from some grand social force to these events. Indeed, one may plausibly claim that each came from “outside history.” Yes, Cleopatra adhered to a socially-determined classical standard of beauty; Alexander fell prey to elite curiosity-buying; and Lenin to poor healthcare. Each, moreover, led a system prone to accident—a regime run by a small cabal based on human ties. But can such a polity or condititon be waved away with reference to a kind of historical noise, or general instability? Is there a continuous current of random events and triggers of stochastically varying severity to which civilizations are either resilient or vulnerable? It seems like the programming of a video game.
Carr struggles mightily with this question, which his foes—notably Isaiah Berlin—tried to leverage against the possibility of determinism. True, he admits, the events do not comply with some great chain of teleological destiny. It does not follow, however, that the historical actor has completely free will. An out-of-character, irregular remark would naturally arouse questions as to the psychological cause, rather than the observation that the individual in question is (like Sartre) perfervidly exercising the right to spontaneity. An act contrary to the apparently rational or regular merely leads one to seek a change in conditions sufficient to trigger it. Such an approach invites accusations of Marxism, Carr admits, but people necessarily believe that “human actions have causes which are in principle ascertainable.” The historian’s primary task is divining these forces, however minute, and categorizing them by relevance to the development under study. “These so-called accidents in history,” he wrote, “represent a sequence of cause and effect interrupting — and so to speak, clashing with — the sequence which the historian is primarily concerned to investigate.” Randomness is an orthogonal issue to determinism, and cannot be used either to absolve an actor of responsibility nor grant that individual license. Antony could no more stifle his admiration for Cleopatra than a single steppe peasant block collectivization. This is a satisfying riposte, but avoids the thorny metaphysical questions of degrees of determination and free action.
Accidents, rather, reflect primarily on the historian’s ability to concoct sociological generalizations. The ungoverned, unforeseeable “clash” of patterns threatens to disrupt the predictive power of any temporal theory, voiding any claim to “fitting” the data and annulling all epistemic claims. Whether or not bizarre actions have causes, the underlying explanations are frequently so irrelevant, trivial, or tangential that only a particular narrative—intimately related to illness and monkey bites—will suffice for an event. Carr sidesteps the issue by alluding to his previous discussion of induction. If history is a “selective system” including only facts of significance for the writer’s “pattern of rational explanation and interpretation,” accidents may be discounted as the sorts of annoying particulars that distract from the universal. Lenin’s death was as consequential for the study of industrialization as a stray gust of wind in a laboratory for the study of mechanics. What is the “rational”? A deep process, Carr replies, that consistently influences the range of observed surface phenomena—and which, moreover, permits generalization.
[I]f you tell the student of history that the struggles in the Soviet Union in the 1920s were due to discussions about the rate of industrialisation, or about the best means of inducing the peasants to grow grain to feed the towns, or even to the personal ambitions of rival leaders, he will feel that these are rational and historically significant explanations, in the sense that they could also be applied to other historical situations, and that they are 'real' causes of what happened in the sense that the accident of Lenin's premature death was not.
On the issue of why applicability to the general should be the criterion Carr remains silent. His insistence that such a linear explanation as “the stupidity of Nicholas II” is “unsophisticated” is not convincing; a situation might easily be concocted in which character was decisive, and would thus demand reconciliation with the wider body of narratives. Accidents and individuals, moreover, may exercise influence by degree. A recent paper in NBER has tried to quantify that issue through the lens of economic value. If an interpretative heuristic for significance reigns supreme, objectivity and epistemic value might simultaneously collapse.
Here Carr’s argument, so pragmatically sustained, finally breaks down. Objectivity clearly means something different to him than it would to a natural scientist, and is only partially related to the ability to discuss veracity. The following passage has an almost mystical character, diverging rapidly from the practical tone of the preceding pages:
When we call a historian objective, we mean I think two things. First of all, we mean that he has a capacity to rise above the limited vision of his own situation in society and in history - a capacity which, as I suggested in an earlier lecture, is partly dependent on his capacity to recognise the extent of his involvement in that situation, to recognise, that is to say, the impossibility of total objectivity. Secondly, we mean that he has the capacity to project his vision into the future in such a way as to give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation.
The “capacity to project,” it transpires, is none other than an understanding of the direction of one’s historical paradigm—to be self-conscious of one’s historical school, whether Whig or Christian. Objectivity also implies the realist belief that historiography itself improves, progressively adding layers (ideology, society, economy) to the interpretation of each period. Each style, more advanced than the preceding, implies a more comprehensive understanding of the events and causal forces in question.
This pre-Kuhnian dogmatism makes for a profoundly disappointing conclusion. One expects a qualified method for comparing the validity of historical theories, not the admission of a teleological belief in the increasing sophistication and scope of inquiry itself. Such a naive view, founded chiefly upon faith, was precisely what Kuhn set out to correct. The economic historian’s subscription to a quantitative, regression-based paradigm cannot protect the field from a resurgent preference for narrative or documentary work. Nor will it provide him with any particular reason for resistance beyond a personal view of the “proper” nature of historical facts. History is not only capable of fusion and stagnation, but also of complete reversion—debates repeatedly shift orthodoxies back and forth, often merely as a result of the numbers and sales of living practitioners.
Carr ends in defeat, though the introduction offers some evidence that he had intended to provide some major alterations in a subsequent edition. His notes bear testimony to closer engagement with the history and philosophy of science, which evolved unrecognizably in the decades after the publication of What is History? His death, however, ensured that the book would remain frustratingly incomplete—a series of alluring suggestions undermined by vagueness and irresolution. As a first step toward realizing the potential of a scientifically-conducted history, however, Carr’s effort is at the very least necessary reading.
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, by Adam Tooze (2018)
Histories of the Great Recession were in print long before the dust had settled. Adam Tooze, however, makes a convincing case for having written the first since the event had truly ended. His comprehensive account, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, contends that the American drama of 2008 was only the beginning of a global saga driven as much by geopolitics and ideology as irrational exuberance and mismanagement. Crashed places the collapse of the dollar-based banking system in an irrevocably international setting, and numbers among the direct consequences most of the upheavals of the following decade, from the Ukraine crisis to the populist resurgence. Combining lucid economic analysis with broad social history, the book is probably the best available introduction to the period—and, potentially, to the financial world itself.
Tooze argues compellingly that the subprime lending bubble catalyzed the worst economic disaster since the Depression because of the tenuous character of bank funding, which demanded that institutions secure nightly sources of revenue to fund risky assets. When mortgages began to fail, the value of related securities plummeted—and the resulting panic paralyzed money markets worldwide. The world’s leading banks, built on the same short-term model, were all caught out at once, regardless of their exposure to the famous toxic securities. Capitalism is built on liquidity; suddenly there was none anywhere. Only the massive and controversial intervention of the Federal Reserve to provide emergency funding limited the extent of the catastrophe. While necessary, Tooze sees this as evidence of potentially unsustainable reliance on technocratic institutions for governing capitalist democracies.
In Europe, the nightmare continued. Crises among peripheral nations—the Baltics, Portugal, and Greece—challenged the resolve, authority, and principles of critical policymakers, revealing varied commitment to an “ever closer union.” Dysfunction and dogmatism delayed a decisive stimulus package, leaving millions in poverty and EU legitimacy in question. Brexit, revolution, and civil war would follow. Here lies Tooze’s singular contribution: demonstrating the inextricable links between the financialized world economy and the jarring social transformations of the last decade. His mastery of that system’s technical intricacies, from securitization to swap lines, makes Crashed a unique work—simultaneously a clear (if unabashedly Keynesian) critique of macroeconomic policy and a sweeping socio-political history of a world in depression. Tooze has not had the last word on the Global Financial Crisis, but his treatment may well ensure that he is remembered for having had the first.
The Case for Permanent Stimulus, by Paul Krugman
Krugman contends that 2% of GDP should constantly be spent on “public investment” to mitigate the negative periods of business cycles. He seeks justification in presently low interest rates, the advent of secular stagnation, and the evidence of post-crisis hysteresis. Provocative, punchy reading.
The Consequential Last Act of Leon Czolgolz, by Susan Berfield
An unexpectedly moving and eloquent account of the assassination of President McKinley. Worth perusing for no other reason that the discovery of an interesting website and the enjoyment of a talented prose stylist.
The Death of the Central Bank Myth, by Adam Tooze
Tooze produces a lucid appendix to Crashed, with updates to include the pandemic situation and the German court ruling. Particularly intriguing is his effort to link modern banking theory with the triumphalist narrative surrounding the defeat of the Great Inflation.
How to be Wrong, by Chris Dillow
Other than the general utility of such a guide, Dillow offers a compelling trifecta of chief causes for error—formation, Bayesian conservatism, and professional inclination. One suspects that the three overlap, but most instances fall into at least one of the categories.
Botch on the Rhine, by Max Hastings
Hastings pillories the classic Cornelius Ryan narrative surrounding the landings at Arnhem during Operation Market-Garden, contending that the legendary 1st Airborne Division (destroyed in a last stand) was a poor fighting unit outdone by the verve and elasticity of the novice German defenders. However strong the underlying Beevor book proves, however, A Bridge Too Far will remain the unchallenged classic on the subject. It was my favorite book until the age of twelve (at least).
How the war was won, by Branko Milanovic
An excellent overview of American foreign policy in states nursing national liberation movements during the Cold War, most notably in Indonesia. Nothing unexpected (noncommital economic reforms and right-wing dictatorship), but the summary’s range and concision are particularly useful. So too is the outline of the three-pronged strategy of military alliance, propaganda, and economic manipulation through international institutions and loan monopolies.