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Scientific history?

March 30th, 2010 · No Comments

This is an email commentary sent to History and Theory re: a question on ‘scientific history’ (cited at the end).
We have discussed this issue here many times, and the various essays at history-and-theory.com explore the ideas of Popper at length.
The issue of evolution, post-darwinian, in the context of Kant can resolve this confusion over causality and freedom in historical analysis.

From John Landon admin@history-and-evolution.com
Subject: Scientific History?

Your points are fundamental, and I think I was trying to proceed along these lines with my posts on the ‘causal mechanics of history’. Popper was my starting point along these lines. Popper (and also Isaiah Berlin with his essay on historical inevitability) critiqued the legacy of Marxism here, but his critique applies as well to the idea of scientific history.
I made a few suggestions here:
1. We can see that Popper is an update of Kant’s critique of Newton. With that in mind we can consider the extension to ‘causal mechanics’ called ‘(Kantian) transcendental idealism’ to bring the idea of freedom into the causal contexts of mechanics. The term ‘transcendental idealism’ causes fainting spells these days among scientists but its perspective (despite the atrocious style and confusion of Kantian texts) is ultra simple and harmonizes with science in an elegant fashion. I pursue this Popper connection directly at history-and-evolution.com.
2. Although Popper was critical of historicism (that complex word), he was ambivalent on the subject of Darwinian evolution. We might discover the endrun around historicist causal fictions applied to history by looking at historical theory in evolutionary terms. There is no absolute reason why evolutionary theories should be purely causal, since, in fact, true theories of evolution must evoke/explain the ‘evolution of freedom’, a very tricky notion, that can’t be purely causal.
3. I claim that all this can be seen in nature/history itself (cf. history-and-evolution.com), and that the resolution of historicist illusions is visible in the structure of macroevolutionary dynamics of a special kind detectable in history itself.

Thanks for raising the issue of Popper on historicism (along with I. Berlin and Noble), and this is par for the course on the history and theory list, and serves as a reminder that the ‘science of history’ is a gnarl that will defeat the illusions of scientific reductionists.

John Landon

In a message dated 3/30/2010 9:26:49 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, hist-thr@MAIL.H-NET.MSU.EDU writes:
From: Justin Clement Date: March 27, 2010 6:03:50 PM MDT
Subject: Scientific History?

I’m a little surprised by the discussions on this list, of late. One could almost turn back the clock to the late nineteenth century when scholars searched for universal laws that connected all subjects of study, including history and biology, or history and physics. Karl Popper’s book, The Poverty of Historicism, killed the idea of using history in any kind of real predictive way. Peter Novick’s book, That Noble Dream, really showed how the quest for objectivity and a scientific form of history has utterly failed, though people keep trying. To my mind, these discussions of theory seem to go beyond theoretical methodologies to the types of claims that Popper and Novick would argue against. Am I missing something?

Tags: Evolution · History · The Eonic Effect

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