The Quarrel About Historical Explanation

The discussion of the philosophical question of historical explanation
is in reality a disagreement concerning the nature of the philosophic method.
There are primarily two sides taken in this argument, those who agree
with Carl Hempel and those that do not.
According to Hempel a historical event is only sufficiently explained
when it logically fits a set of confirmed pre-existing conditions along with
some universal laws.
Certainly all things cannot easily be assigned to rules and laws.
Political coups, assassinations and revolutions are too complex for such a rigid
explanation. And who is to say what perquisites there are for situations.
Certainly there is no one who can predict every instance of a given event, there
are just too many variables.
Hempel then notes that Historians are seldom able to stick to his
procedure and at best can only make an explanation sketch. Hempel seems to be
saying then, that the majority of explanations surrounding historical events are
inadequate and incomplete.
There are three main divisions of anti-Hempelians. There are those that
agree with Hempel to the point that there are rules and general laws that can be
followed, but a historian\'s explanation is adequate if all he can provide is a
sketch. The second group states that the general laws are not necessary and as
long as the explanation provides an understandable narrative, it is complete.
The final group believes that only one condition is necessary, and if more
information is needed, one only needs to elaborate on that one condition.
The Hempelians and the anti-Hempelians both have common ground. They
are both engaged in the philosophy of history, but this is where the agreement
stops for even the groups starting points are different.
Hempelians give their explanations to answer the question of why
something happened. Their objective is to replace curiosity with understanding.
For this to happen both the laws and general rules given must logically agree.
In other words you must be able to deduce the answer after given the laws and
It would not be enough for a Hempelian to hear that conditions led up to
an event. He must know himself that these conditions are causes, and he\'ll know
this only if the conditions are widely known or confirmed causes of said event.
These conditions must not only be confirmed but true or the explanation would
merely be an exercise in futility.
An anti-Hempelian\'s problem with all of this is summarized in that
historians do not use such methods to do their explaining, even if they did an
explanation may not result, and finally historians are doing a very fine job
without Hempel\'s help.
Anti-Hempelians have three principles in their objections. 1. A
philosopher should stick to the facts that he knows and not assign laws and
rules that he\'s not sure of the existence of. 2. A philosopher cannot be
creative and come up with his own theories because he has to stick to the simple
matter of filling in the blanks. 3. Each person that asks for an explanation
wants to know something different. Each has their own knowledge and interest
and it takes different complete answers to satisfy them.
In the end, the Hempelian method is too big of a task. The number of
explanations surrounding certain events are too many for the method to be simple
and useful. Furthermore, this type of classification and identification is more
the work of a scientist, not a philosopher. And what is to happen when there
don\'t seem to be rules and laws predicting an event, is a Hempelian to then make
them up? It would seem then, that the Hempelians are in danger of losing sight
of their objective.

Category: Philosophy