Explanation

The last of the three major concerns of ‘scientific’ historiography, alongside objectivity and description, was the development of a theory of explana- tion.[1] John Stuart Mill, exemplary in this respect, denied that there was any methodological distinction in the explanatory schemas between the natural sciences and those that, like history, study the mind and its manifestations in action.[2] Though due to their intricacy the latter are less exact, both aim at the prediction of future events and subsume particular events under general laws.

But the uniformities of co-existence obtaining among phenomena which are effects of causes must (as we have so often observed) be corollaries from the laws of causation by which these phenomena are really determined. [...] The fundamental problem, therefore, of the social science, is to find the laws according to which any state of society produces the states which succeed it and take its place. This opens the great and vexed question of the progressiveness of man and society; an idea involved in every just conception of social phenomena as the subject of a science.[3]

As H.T. Buckle, author of the monumental History of Civilization in England, whom Nietzsche considered a key representative of scientific historiography,[4] once wrote, “I have long been convinced that the progress of every people is regulated by principles - or, as they are called, Laws - as regular as those which govern the physical world.”[5] For Buckle, history consisted in the attempt to explain historical events by deduction under regular laws, not simply a chronicle of one fact after another. The status of those laws, however, was not easily characterized. Before him, Herder ‘felt himself into’ (einfUhlen) the laws that move historical peoples and cultures by means of the empathy generated from the historian’s reflections upon his own psychological development. Hegel saw the progressive unfolding of absolute Geist as the law ruling the unfolding of successive historical epochs. And Marx presented the past and future development of human society in terms of the laws of the evolution of class and economic structures. Apart from these theorists, practicing disciples of Auguste Comte’s 1844 Discours sur I’Espritpositif [6] [7] sought not to discover such grandiose laws as much as to assume and apply the laws generated by fields whose proper concern it was to discover them. Sociology, economics, and empirical psychology were viewed as having provided laws by which historians could explain the behaviors of historical agents and predict, at least to some degree, how other agents would behave given sufficiently similar conditions. “I shall bring factual proof,” Comte wrote in conviction of the methodological identity of the sciences, “that there are just as definite laws for the development of the human race as there are for the fall of a

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stone.”

In this respect, historical explanation mimics the scientific insofar as it attempts to deduce and predict the occurrence of particular events from general laws.[8] And such confidence persisted beyond the nineteenth century. In the words of J. B. Bury, “though she may supply material for literary art or philosophical speculation, [history] is a science, no less and no more.”[9] From E. H. Carr we hear: “the study of history is a study of causes.”[10] Aviezer Tucker has recently advocated the coupling of historiography and scientific methodology insofar as both rely upon abductive inferences to the most probable explanations in terms of Bayesian probability theory.[11] Yet the most eloquent and influential expression of the scientific character of historical explanation was given by C. G. Hempel: “The explanation of the occurrence of an event of some specific kind E at a certain place and time consists, as it is usually expressed, in indicating the causes or determining facts of E.”[12]

This plainly seems to be the way Nietzsche thinks about the explanatory theory assumed by scientific history. The scientific manifestations of the “historical sense” are found in accounts “which insist on strict psychological causality”[13] - which insist that there must be some psychological law under which any particular agent was acting such that we can explain his or her action. Of this scientific ideal of historical explanation Nietzsche has the materials to form two serious critiques. The first concerns his view of the singularity of historical events.

No one who judges, ‘in this case everyone would have to act like this’ has yet taken five steps toward self-knowledge: For he would then know that there neither are nor can be identical actions - that every act that ever occurred was done in an altogether unique and unrepeatable way [unwiederbringliche Art], and so will it be with every future act - that these prescriptions of action [. ..] relate only to their rough exterior - that these prescriptions may reach an appearance of sameness, but only just an appearance.[14]

If Nietzsche holds that events in nature, including the sorts of activities that historians write about, are utterly particular, then attempts to articulate a law of the sort ‘if conditions X and Y are present, then result Z will follow’ are doomed to identify as ‘X’ or ‘Y’ conditions and ‘Z’ effects what is in reality ever nonidentical. Such a hypothetical identifies merely similar conditions as being able to bring about a result that is itself merely similar to previous results that were themselves never identical to begin with. “The skeptic can always confute the existence of laws. He can say, there are no identical causes [gleichen Ursachen], therefore no identical effects [gleichen Wirkungen]. That is right.”[15] If similar events are identified only by way of poetical rather than referential thinking - by synecdoche or metonymy, as he intimates there — then the historian cannot possibly hope to identify universal laws of change from which to deduce the particular actions of real historical agents.

The singularity of every person and event that has ever come to pass, if taken earnestly, prohibits the scientific historian’s hope in ascribing laws of sociology, psychology, economics, and the like as a mechanism to satisfactorily explain the event in question. “Just as we understand characters only imprecisely, so do we also understand facts: we speak of identical characters gleichen Charakteren], identical facts gleichen Facten]: neither exists."82 And again, “Overlooking the individual and real Individuellen und Wirklichen] provides us the concept; by contrast nature knows no forms or concepts, and so knows no species, but only an X which is for us inaccessible and indefinable."[16] [17] Historians who ignore the singularity problem, Nietzsche thinks, are merely sloppy.

What inconsistency is there after all between the activities of man and the course of events? I am particularly struck by the fact that historians ...] cease to instruct as soon as they begin to generalize, betraying in their obscurity the sense of their weakness. In other disciplines, generalizations are the crucial factor since they contain the laws. But if such assertions as that cited are meant to be valid laws, then we could reply that the historian’s work is wasted. For whatever truth is left in such statements, after subtracting that mysterious and irreducible residue we mentioned earlier, is obvious and even trivial since it is self-evident to anyone with the slightest range of experience.[18]

The second critique of the possibility of scientific historical explanation concerns the causal connection between intentions and actions. The history of human actions is held to be different from chronicles of wholly naturalistic mechanisms precisely insofar as the former are presumed to be the function of thought processes and the latter are not. A historian whose work Nietzsche knew well, Gustav Droysen, considered the explanation of human motivation the most important task history could engage.[19] Following him were the Baden neo-Kantians Windelband and Rickert, who posited the famous division between the Naturwissenschaften and Kulturwissenschaften in part for this very reason. From a different perspective but in the same spirit, R. G. Collingwood wrote, “For history, the object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought expressed in it.”[20] For most historians those thoughts are both regular and explicable. “The idea that people do things for a reason ...,” the historian Geoffrey Roberts writes, “that it is possible to construct an evidence-based account of why past actors acted as they did is, for most of us, plain common sense.”[21] Combining this new requirement of a motivational psychology with our previous definition of scientific history, we might now say that explanations of historical events must draw upon whatever laws or trends may reasonably be assumed to govern the ‘inner’ or ‘motivational’ side of human activity.[22]

Nietzsche’s view of the connection between willing and acting is notoriously recondite, and possibly inconsistent.[23] At a minimum, he tends to suggest that a conscious, deliberative will is not necessary for an agent to act in all sorts of usual ways. “We could think, feel, will, and remember, and we could also ‘act’ in every sense of that word, and yet none of all this would have to ‘enter our consciousness’ [in’s Bewusstsein zu treten’].”[24] When one tries to pin Nietzsche down on the details, however, two positions emerge. On a less radical view, Nietzsche holds that motivational acts of willing bring about actions, but that these motivations are unconscious and generally opaque. He writes, “Unconscious inferences actuate my thinking: it is a passing over from image to image, the last-achieved image serves as an impulse and motive [Reiz undMotiv].”[25] And later: “Willing seems to me, above all, something complicated.”[26] The very fact that consciousness can be said to ‘falsify’ our representations of the world - a thesis we will treat in the next section - means that consciousness plays some sort of active role and is not, thus, merely another name for a brain function.[27] Under a more radical view, however, he seems to hold that actions manifest themselves without prior influence of willed motivations. What we typically attribute to a causal interaction between some conscious deliberation and an act of will is nothing more than an epiphenomenal association.[28]

The will moves nothing, and thus it does not explain anything any more - it merely accompanies processes [Vorgange], but it doesn’t have to be present.... Not to mention the ‘I’! That has become a fairy-tale, a fiction, a play on words: it has stopped thinking, feeling, and willing altogether! ... What follows from this? There just aren’t any mental causes [Es giebt gar keine geistigen Ursachen]![29]

Whether Nietzsche is an epiphenomenalist or else holds the causal-but- inscrutable view of motivation, the normative common denominator between both views, sufficient for our purpose, is that historiographical explanations of events should not proceed by means of a too-easy attribution of the presumed motivations of its relevant agents. Historians like Droysen or Collingwood who maintain that the intellectual or ‘thought’ side of deliberative action contains the necessary condition for explaining events by deduction under law presume both that there is a ‘thought’ side to every meaningful human action and that those thoughts can be deciphered by rudimentary psychological laws. If Nietzsche holds the epiphenomen- alist position, then motivational explanations are both superfluous and misleading. The less radical ‘inscrutability’ position, however, does no less damage. For if the transparency of the particular is necessary to order it under the appropriate general law - that this action really was done out of this particular psychological motivation ‘p’ and that actions done out of ‘p’ result in consequences ‘q’ - then the failure to reliably ascribe the motivation for the activities to their historical agents renders scientific historical explanations of those events similarly unreliable. Since scientific explanations of historical events require that the agent’s actions have a discernible ‘inner’ or ‘thought-side’ component, even Nietzsche’s less radical position on the opacity of mental states poses a serious threat to the viability of that same sort of explanation. Historical explanations of events thus resolve into “opinions about supposed actions and their supposed motives, which in turn give rise to further opinions and actions.”[30]

While some philosophers of history critique such ‘motivational explanations’ by showing how at least many choices are not genuinely free - a mass migration as the result of a volcano eruption, for example97 - Nietzsche’s much stronger position holds that no character-constituting choices can be demonstratively identified as the result of a freely determining rational will.

Nobody is responsible for existing at all, or for the state or circumstances or environment they are in. The fatality of human existence cannot be extricated from the fatality of everything that was and will be. People are not the products of some special design, will, or purpose . .. We have invented the concept of ‘purpose’: there are no purposes in reality ... A person is necessary, a person is a piece of fate, a person belongs to the whole, a person only is in the context of the whole.98

Yet it would be a mistake to think the scientific historian is defeated by these two objections. Few, if any, professional historians today would concede that their explanations assume an identity of past events such that some manner of universal law could be adduced. They admit a general similarity between emperors or political revolutions, and do so implicitly by using those general terms; but they hardly fall into any ‘seduction of grammar.’ Moreover, few historians would assert ex cathedra that the motivation they identify behind a particular action is the only one possible. Granted that historians sometimes engage in armchair psychological diagnoses, theirs are hardly worse off than the explanations found in the writings of sociologists or economists.99 The way out, for most philosophers of history since Popper, is simply to admit that laws of history may not exist - and if they do, we may be too obtuse to apprehend them. But trends certainly do exist and can be confirmed by rudimentary observation. It is a matter of probability - as Hume or Bayes might say - and not of proof that historical agents act in ways roughly similar to the ways we do today. Thus, whether or not there are any universal psychological laws ofmotivation that could in principle explain how human beings act under a given set circumstances, statistics can tell us enough about how humans in fact do tend to act to allow historiography itself to be considered a scientific field.

Just here, where a commonsense historian would fall back upon weaker notions of generalities and trends, is where Nietzsche’s critique of scientific historiography is most condemnatory. For if explanation is to compel assent logically by means of deducing particulars from universals, and if we substitute trends as an impoverished version of laws because of either the singularity or opacity problems, then why should we hope that trends compel assent as well? Under Hempel’s model, we have only successfully explained event ‘q’ by having identified the ‘p’ that stood as its sufficient condition, whether ‘p’ be a set of purely material considerations or else a presumptive ‘thought-side’ motivation. However, if ‘p’ could only occur once then we no longer have ‘p’ exactly, just a number of variables which, while they bear a family resemblance to ‘p,’ are really not ‘p.’ The absolute singularity of events in history, including the unique emotions that may motivate unique historical agents, precludes the possibility of appealing to the same logical compulsion presumed in the explanations of positive science.

If Nietzsche is correct, then our acceptance of a historical explanation is not and cannot be compelled by a logical deduction between the law and the explanandum. But it is at the same time entirely obvious that we in fact do accept certain historical explanations and reject others. The question becomes: why are we convinced by certain historical explanations but remain unconvinced by others? This question, and the ones remaining from the previous sections, is what Nietzsche’s own affirmative contribution to historiography attempts to answer.

  • [1] For a more thorough account of historiographical explanation, see Jensen (2008b), 401—410. Analternative account is Jahnig (1970), 223—236.
  • [2] Although little attention has been paid to Mill, he is one of the important sources for Nietzsche’scritique of Comtean positivism in the early 1880s.
  • [3] Mill ([1843] 1874), 631.
  • [4] Nietzsche owned David Asher’s translation of Buckle (1867). Nietzsche also construed Buckle’s visionof a scientific historiography along the same cultural lines as he did the scientific historians wediscussed in the previous chapter. “Buckle; the plebeianism of the modern spirit...” GM1, 4; KSA 5,262. But what interests us here are the epistemological facets ofscientific history. And in this respect,he names Buckle his ‘strongest antagonist.’ Nietzsche to Koselitz, May 20, 1887; KSB 8, 79.
  • [5] Semmel (1976), 373.
  • [6] Nietzsche’s reading of Comte is likely indirect, filtered probably through Mill (1869-1875), 89—141.Nietzsche did own Comte (1880), but made no textual annotations. See Brobjer (2008), 245. See alsoEmden (2008), 247 n. 45.
  • [7] Cited in Levy-Bruhl (1905), 270.
  • [8] I use ‘scientific historiography’ and ‘positivist historiography’ interchangeably throughout thischapter since both terms were used to designate philosophers of history from Buckle and Comte toHempel who endeavored to explain by means of deduction under law. Nadeem Hussain has rightlyattributed a more complex form of positivism to Nietzsche, focusing on the influence ofErnst Mach.See Hussain (2004), 344—355. While Hussain’s contribution is essential for Nietzsche’s understandingof positive natural science, the Machian version he outlines curiously does not much affectNietzsche’s attitude toward positivist historiography, which he refers to almost always negativelyand exclusive of Mach.
  • [9] Bury (1903), 42.
  • [10] E. H. Carr (1987), 87. Cf. also Mandelbaum (1971), iiff.
  • [11] Tucker (2004), 46—91; see also Newall (2009), 178.
  • [12] Hempel (1942), 36. Cf. Joynt and Rescher (1959), 383-387. 4 GT23; KSA 1, 145.
  • [13] 80 FW335; KSA 3, 562ff.
  • [14] 81 NFautumn 1867—spring 1868, 5[56]; KGW1 /4, 367. See also NFspring 1888, i5[ii8]; KSA 13, 479:“What is real, what is true, is neither a single thing nor reducible to a single thing.” See also, NF spring
  • [15] i884, 25 [309]; KSA ii, 9i: “[Laws] were there, not for explaining, but for hindering more exact actions.”Nietzsche’s emphasis is italicized.
  • [16] MaM II, WS11; KSA 2, 546. 2 WL 1; KSA 1, 880. 3 HL 6, KSA 1, 291ft
  • [17] 85 Cf. Droysen (1893). I owe the recognition of Droysen’s importance to an unpublished paper Jim
  • [18] Porter generously shared with me, entitled “Nietzsche’s Radical Philology." That paper will appear in
  • [19] a forthcoming collection I am co-editing with Helmut Heit, and will offer a much more thoroughexposition of Droysen’s influence.
  • [20] Due to the ‘inner’ component of human actions, which for him are freely determined, Collingwoodheld that history can never approach the scientific criteria of deductive laws. Collingwood (1946),282—302. Nietzsche would have agreed with the general contention that the construction of behavioral laws as explanatory mechanisms in history was impossible, but would have rejectedCollingwood’s ascription of self-determination and freedom to historical agents, as I make clear inChapter 7.
  • [21] Roberts (1996), 222.
  • [22] Nietzsche precedes Popper’s 1957) better-known critique of the possibility ofhistorical laws, and goesfurther in locating the force of historiographical explanation in psychology rather than logic.
  • [23] Among recent views that state a similar problematic, see Katsafanas (2005), 1—31; Welshon (1998), 39—48; Acampora (2006), 314—333; Pippin (2004), 47—63; and Golomb (1999), 1—19.
  • [24] FW354; KSA 3, 590. See also FW127; KSA 3, 482ff.
  • [25] NF summer 1872—beginning 1873, 19[107]; KSA 7, 454.
  • [26] JGB 19; KSA 5, 32. See also EH “klug,” 9; KSA 6, 294.
  • [27] See Abel (2001), 1—45; Katsafanas (2005), 23—25; and Constancio (2011), 1—8.
  • [28] The position ofDeleuze (1983), 39-40; and Leiter (2001), 291, and his more comprehensively argued(2002), 87-92.
  • [29] GD “Irrthumer,” 3; KSA 6, 91. See also A 14; KSA 6, i80f; NFend 1876-summer 1877, 23[49]; KSA8, 422.
  • [30] M, 307; KSA 3, 224ff. 97 Against Collingwood, see Dray (1993), 20-23.
 
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