Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: History and Social Science Methodology - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1980, vol. 3, No. 3
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III.: History and Social Science Methodology - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1980, vol. 3, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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History and Social Science Methodology
Sound methodology, appropriate to studying man in all of his complexity and individuality, is necessary if history, sociology, and related disciplines are to portray human nature accurately and live up to the ideal of being true social sciences. In the summaries that follow, we will encounter the debated methodological issues of historism, structuralism in history, the mutual interplay of interpretive theory and historical fact in historiography, the modes of discourse involved in “philosophic history,” hermeneutic or interpretive theory, and phenomenology in the social sciences. The reader may find related issues of methodology dealt with in the July/September 1978 issue of Literature of Liberty, pp. 32–44.
The Decline of Historism
“Historism: Its Rise and Decline.” Clio 8(Fall 1977): 25–39.
Historism (or historicism), whose origins are commonly traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, has been credited with the formation of modern “historical consciousness.” According to this view, the cultural environment in which we live and move makes historists of us all—whether we are aware of it or not. In view of this reputed influence, Prof. Gruner endeavors to isolate those elements which comprise the historist point of view and attempts to ascertain what it has in fact contributed to modern historical perception.
Gruner begins by dismissing two common characterizations of historism as “process thinking” and “a historically oriented world view.” These descriptions are far too sweeping and highlight traits which are not at all unique to historism. Gruner points instead to the concept of individuality as the element most essential to the historist movement.
Historism arose as a reaction to an Enlightenment historiography in which past events and historical periods were viewed almost exclusively as stepping stones to the Age of Reason. The eighteenth century was thus enthroned as the goal and climax of all previous history. Historism, by contrast, considered the phenomena of history as “individual totalities” which cannot be explained by the sum of their parts nor by factors outside themselves. It was not, therefore, by chance that Meinecke chose Goethe's dictum Individuum est ineffabile as the motto of his work on the origins of historism. Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance, a classic historist treatment of an individual period of history, provides a majestic and insightful account of the Renaissance without considering how it had developed out of other periods or how it fitted into the larger context of Western civilization.
In historism process is not eliminated from consideration but, from this perspective, it arises organically out of the category of individuality. Thus, individuality is no longer subservient to a developmental flow.
By emphasizing the irreductible nature of the individuum, historism gave rise to a relativist spirit in historical scholarship. For example, under its influence, historians reacted strongly against the notion of an essential human nature which endures through time and circumstance. The maxim “Man has no nature but only history” summarizes the historists' resolve to prejudge nothing and to deal with each datum in its own terms. This design admits of only partial achievement, however, since every evaluation involves an inevitable (though perhaps tacit) comparison with other “individualities”. Historists dealt with this undeniable tension in their position by a resolute commitment to an openness to experience.
Considering modern historiography, Prof. Gruner finds that the influence of historism has almost vanished. Contemporary historians do not attribute much importance to the notion of individuality. They are rather intent on establishing theories of development—a task in which independent individual totalities have little place.
In the final analysis, the interest of modern historians is a practical one. They esteem knowledge, including historical knowledge, first and foremost as a means to improve the human state—not as an end in itself. In this, Gruner finds that they are much more in tune with the general tenor of modern thinking than the followers of historism. In contrast to Meinecke, therefore, Gruner regards historism as a passing episode in the evolution of historiography rather than as the great shaper of modern consciousness.
Foucault's Structuralist History
“Foucault, Structuralism, and the Ends of History.” Journal of Modern History 51(September 1979): 451–503.
Our century has witnessed a widespread rebellion against historical consciousness and, as a result, history can no longer lay claim to the central intellectual position to which it aspired in the nineteenth century. With the passing of the ideas of progress and of organic or dialectical development, a spirit of discontinuity has inclined intelligent men and women to “more relevant” disciplines.
Ironically, the French historian Michel Foucault figures among the most active leaders in the movement to demolish the historical tradition. Foucault has frequently been tagged a “structuralist” by those seeking a convenient encapsulization of his thought. Nonetheless, the protean nature of work from the Histoire de la folie (1961) to the Histoire de la sexualité (still in progress) effectively blocks any attempt at easy labelling.
In summary form, one can but outline the areas of subtle discussion of Foucault raised by Megill. Megill begins by attempting to situate Foucault within the context of the structuralist movement— along with such prominent structuralist thinkers as Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Piaget. He distinguishes between a “structuralism of the sign,” with its insights into the nature of language, and a “structuralism of structure,” concerned with the organization and interrelation of bodies of knowledge. Foucault shares points of contact with both types of structuralism, but also transcends these categories.
Foucault rejects the traditional historian's attempts to recreate past events “as they actually occurred.” Instead, Foucault seems increasingly to favor a position in which the portrayal of the past is consciously used as a force to mold the present. This constructionist approach to history may, in part, be traced to the decisive influence of Nietzsche upon Foucault's thought. Nietzsche flatly rejected the nineteenth century cult of history with its tendency to freeze the past and, thus, also the present within rigid and lifeless Apollonian categories. The mythic, ecstatic spirit of Dionysus had been denied its rightful role in recalling the past, thus imposing the shackling “little circles” of Apollonian thought on Western history.
Prof. Megill goes on to discuss the balance of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in Foucault's work. While many Apollonian images appear in the historian's writing (vision, light, the gaze, stasis, etc.) Megill asserts that Foucault's multifaceted oeuvre reflects an essentially Dionysian spirit. The historian's fascination with the subject of madness and its leavening influence in culture is but one reflection of this preponderant mentality.
Pocock's Structuralist History & Law
“Pocock and Machiavelli: Structuralist Explanations in History.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 17(July 1979):309–318.
Professor Geerken analyzes and criticizes the methodology of J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment. The word “moment” denotes a concern with structures of thought across time rather than developing or evolving through time. Unconcerned with intellectual or political history in the conventional sense, Pocock focuses on a concept that he thinks reappears throughout history. This concept deals with the problem of a republic remaining politically and morally stable within a steady flow of events which appeared to destroy all secular systems. In Machiavelli's era, this “moment” was related to Christianity's conception of time as essentially uncontrolled contingency which swept all non-universal phenomena away, particularly the republic. Whereas monarchies were seen as universal, outside of time, and thus as imitating the order of nature under God, republics were seen as subject to fate, fortune, and ultimately self-destruction.
Pocock defines the solution which humanists (who wished to revive the republican ideal) advanced was to relate particulars to universals by reintroducing Aristotelian political philosophy: specifically, the concepts of the polis, the classical citizen (zoon politikon), and the idea of inherent equality of rights. The idea of the polis was that it was a universal with regard to values but particular with regard to its spatial and temporal location. The polis was a universal in participation rather than in contemplation, which implied the idea of equality of rights inherent at birth and equal participation in governing and holding of office. Similarly, the idea of law underwent a shift in the republicans' hands: law possessed the universal aspects of rationality, deducibility, and generality combined with the particulars of custom and circumstances. All law had a universal essence and the key question to ask was: how well did the particular law fit the circumstances in this particular nation?
Geerken finds Pocock's structuralist explanation unconvincing. Roman law (the tradition which dominated continental legal thought and practice) did not begin with the individual or with inherent rights as a basic unit, but with a group or corporation which conferred rights and maintained liberty under law. The Roman idea was that liberty could exist under both an aristocracy and a republic, as long as freedom under law prevented arbitrary despotism. Because Pocock oversimplifies the relation of particularity (contingency) and universality, which Roman thinkers reintroduced, he cannot correctly interpret Machiavelli. Pocock considers Machiavelli ambiguous because he saw time (fortuna) as both constructive and destructive and similarly saw virtu as both a force within oneself for combatting fortuna and as a force which could create uncontrolled contingency through innovation. Pocock also reads The Prince as a “Hobbesian” work in which a new leader innovates in a world lacking any structure of law. In fact, says Geerken, Machiavelli saw the state as an organic body which in order to keep all the parts in order must vary its techniques. At times virtu requires force and coercion to deal with the bestial men (hence, The Prince); at other times the subtler coercion of law is all that is needed. This is a Roman viewpoint which regards law as an instrument; here Hobbesian categories are simply inapplicable. Thus virtu can sometimes help to tame fortuna, but since law is only an instrument, it can sometimes fail and push fortuna along; hence the destructive side of virtu.
Hobbes, Natural Law, and Historiography
“Political Theory and Historiography: A Reply to Professor Skinner on Hobbes.” The Historical Journal 22, 4(December 1979):931–940.
Warrender addresses Professor Quentin Skinner's criticism of those theoretical interpretations of Hobbes (such as Warrender's) which allegedly ignore the historical climate of ideas and thus distort interpretations. Warrender has claimed that Hobbes was essentially a natural law thinker. If Skinner believes this is a historically absurd interpretation, what historical standard is he interested in? If the standard is the history of natural law, then Warrender's judgment is justified: Hobbes believes law involves principles which apply to all persons, that these laws are knowable by reason, and that they are superior to laws of individual states.
If the standard is Hobbes's political and cultural milieu, then several questions arise. First, whom do we select as Hobbes's contemporaries? Skinner has cited some half dozen theorists who claimed Hobbes as one of their own, as evidence against Warrender's view. But against this, we must set Hobbes's repeated references to the law of nature, Hobbes's more sophisticated interpreters (e.g. Puferdorf), the fact that no one even suggested that Hobbes abandoned natural law until the late nineteenth century, and the fact that even the de facto theorists were not clearly opposed to natural law since they did not believe that political obligation could be validated by civil law alone.
Another question asks from what standpoint we should understand “historical absurdity.” If history is an account of what happened, then we cannot ignore the fact that Hobbes wrote frequently about natural law nor can we dismiss Hobbes's references to God and the Bible as mere window dressing to conceal his intentions. If we are to take the historical evidence seriously, we must account for all of the elements in Hobbes's thought—both the power analysis, the functional interpretation of sovereignty with its de facto implications, as well as the elements listed above.
But if we are to take all of these elements into account, we need not simply a historical but also a theoretical account of how they all fit together. The fact is that Hobbes frequently makes extreme and drastic statements (e. g. “Covenants without swords are but words.”) which sound absolutist, but are qualified in many ways (e. g. the individuals' right to self-defense, to run away in battle, not to accuse himself, etc.). These qualifications may only make a slight ripple in the history of political ideas, but they are vital if we are to understand Hobbes.
Voltaire's Philosophical History
“Towards a Typology of Historical Discourse: The Case of Voltaire.” MLN 93(1978): 938–962.
A study of Voltaire's historical method demonstrates how his writing dispels the general myth of history as a passive, mimetic discipline which focuses solely on the recreation of past events. Using Voltaire's works as a model, Prof. O'Meara has isolated what she considers the three main components of written history: narration, commentary, and persuasion. Further research should demonstrate that these three modes of discourse exist in all historical writing—but in different forms and different proportions.
Like all histories, Voltaire's works incorporate objective narration which attempts to recreate events as they have actually occurred in the past. However, Voltaire stresses that, in his brand of histoire philosophique, narration demands careful selection and organization of material. Voltaire despised the “fables” of ancient historians who recount uncritically the most unlikely exploits and miracles. As his standard of selection, Voltaire chooses la Nature, who, if we study her closely, provides us with grounds for eliminating exaggerated and even unseemly events. As reasonable as this may sound, a closer examination reveals that Voltaire's concept of nature is strongly laced with bourgeois values and philosophe rationalism. As a result, by the standard of “nature”, Voltaire sees fit to reject as unreasonable any account of incest in royal families.
Voltaire regarded history as a pedagogical tool whose primary usefulness lay in its power to mold the future. With his emphasis on the future rather than the past, he exerts considerable effort at persuading his readers to accept his views. He makes no overt attempt, however, to proselytize his audience. Instead, he relies on more or less subliminal techniques for implanting “reasonable” opinions.
One of Voltaire's most subtle persuasive techniques involves citing “recognized” authorities with heterodox views whom he then opposes by weak assertions of established doctrine. In addition, Voltaire makes ample use of impersonal expressions and modal verbs to lend an air of self-evident authority to what are often highly debatable assertions. Il est clair, il est prouve, il est certain, etc., as well as the modal verbs falloir and pouvoir, are most often used to undermine the doctrines or social position of the Church. With this rhetorical technique, Voltaire implies that any objection to his statements is unthinkable.
The ability to distinguish among various modes of discourse in historical texts and to establish the dominance of one or the other in individual works of history will ultimately provide a new tool for developing a typology of historical discourse.
Habermas's Critical Theory
Review Essay: “‘The Critical Theory of Jörgen Habermas.’ By Thomas McCarthy.” History and Theory 18(1979): 397–417.
The though of Jörgen Habermas has both impressed and confounded social theorists in the Anglo-American tradition, since his theories overlap disciplinary boundaries. A crucial feature of Habermas's work has been the search for rational standards of criticism. With insights from psychoanalysis and hermeneutics, Habermas has produced a continuously evolving theory of rational discourse. His description of the legitimacy crisis afflicting “late capitalism” represents a concrete application of this developing teory of communication.
Habermas, like Freud, believes that selfconscious awareness of the deep roots of our conduct and relationships can contribute to greater coherence and realism in behavior. Freud, however, denied that the individual can bring all ingredients of his unconscious to conscious understanding and control. Even if this were possible, society would lose the many beneficial effects of cultural and individual repressions. Habermas, on the other hand, has not identified any necessary limits to a peson's self-understanding. Indeed, he seemingly wishes to preserve the Kantian notion of the purposefully aware subject, even while drawing upon the insights of Freudian theory. By a selective reading of Freud's writings, Habermas comes to recognize that primary childhood repressions put some basic limits on the ideal of the fully self-aware self. Nonetheless, he does not see this concession as a refutation of the ideal of discourse. After all, Freud himself arrived at the concept of these limits through a process of rational analysis. In Habermas's view, Freud's insight merely shortens the reach of the ideal, while giving to art a significant role in evoking the unconscious aspects of our psychic life.
In addition to Freud, Habermas pays tribute to hermeneutic or interpretive theorists such as Hans Gadamer and Peter Winch. These thinkers scrutinize the concepts and aspirations of those entering into social relations, and, in so doing, they penetrate deeply into the meaning and structure of such relations. An understanding of this intersubjective element in social interaction adds a new depth to the old empiricist notion of legitimacy. Since institutional practices arise partially from shared beliefs, the loss of social participants belief in those values will weaken their performance and even blur their conceptual precision.
Knowing that social beliefs are subject to constant reevaluation, interpretive theorists have denied that the constraints of reason and evidence will ultimately enable us to reduce the number of defensible interpretations of a social order to one. Habermas objects to this view by articulating a theory of communication based on the concept of “ideal speech.” The theory treats as “true” those statements which would gain the assent of all persons under specified conditions of communication which include: symmetrically distributed chances to enter into dialogue, the opportunity for all dialogue participants to question unexamined propositions, and the suspension of all motives except the desire to reach a rational conclusion. Such conditions would eventually result in a “consensual truth” arrived at by the community rather than the solitary seeker.
The practical value of this collective search through dialogue may be seen in the current “crisis of capitalism” in Western society. According to Habermas, the covert disaffection with the society of production, evidenced by deteriorating worker motivation, drug use, high divorce rates, etc., speaks for the adoption of some form of socialism in the West. However, socialist theorists have not convincingly dealt with the problems of freedom and democracy in their system.
In the face of this dilemma, numerous strains of thought from systems theory to Marxist positivism have tended to deny the possibility of an enlightened, self-conscious populace which might collectively elaborate a vision of socialism in freedom. In such an intellectual context, Habermas's ideal speech situation, the center-piece of his system, offers a significant theoretical and practical opportunity for renewing a stangating and inauthentic society.