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Knowledge Beyond Numbers
At a time when our civilization is trying to organize itself on scientific principles of mathematical probabilities, statistical modeling, and the like, is traditional narrative history of any real use? Yes, says a distinguished practitioner of the discipline; it can always help us. It might even save us.
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
But beyond a point there are some restrictions laid upon these exercises of pure reason. He cannot, as in the study of physical nature, look for a series of events that progress in obedience to the rules of logic. He cannot verify his findings in the test of recurring episodes. He cannot base a prediction on the observation and description of a known and repeating process. He must seek for illumination through the construction of a particular occasion. And though he may collect a good deal of stable information on which to base his reconstruction, he can never be sure enough of the interaction of his bits of evidence to have confidence that he has fulfilled Leopold von Ranke’s great injunction to tell it like it really was.
So how does the historian proceed in the face of such difficulties to build his first approximations? It is a temptation to reply with clarifying circumlocution. In certain fields there are just not enough numbers to permit incontrovertible programming. But since the findings in these fields were taken by our ancestors as indispensable for the proper conduct of their affairs, they accepted the insight of the Muses when computation faltered. Thus historians—like poets and painters—do what Muses do. Since this may seem like the evasive persiflage expected of my calling, a word of further explanation is provided.
If hard evidence was lacking on some crucial subject, our ancestors sought the insights of the Muses. Thus historians— like poets and painters—do what Muses do.
A distinguished philosopher of the old school (before there were many mathematical models) once said to me that he read history all the time but never read the accurate historians. On crossexamination it developed that he meant those who scrupulously presented the facts they had and let it go at that. He wanted the company of those who were prepared to give energy to the account by using the informed imagination and common sense to organize the structure of an event and interpret its meaning.
The result might not have the magisterial ring of a mathematical formula. But when you are working with unstable forces, what Charles Beard once called the interaction of “fate, contingency, and character” (i.e., “history”), it’s the best way to advance the understanding. And this best should serve well enough. The power that lies in the reconstructed past is that it can take into account the amazing aggregate of a given experience—the large forces, the general tendencies, the singular variations, and the qualifying infinite details that are the stuff of the human condition. And as I have said, I believe the safe and satisfying organization of the future depends upon the outside possibility that the design and use of the available machinery can be made to conform to the nature of that stuff, which may get lost amid the numbers, models, statistical probabilities, and abstract propositions of too much quantitative thinking.
There are many ways in which the illuminations of history can be made to serve in this imperative endeavor. I will mention only two. One has to do with new subject matter. Up to about now, in the writing of the history of Western civilization it has often been possible to get by with passing references to the steam engine, the spinning jenny, and the McCormick reaper. This was in accord with the realities; for almost all of recorded time the energy to make things came from men, animals, wind, and falling water. It was also in accord with certain attitudes formed in those earlier days and continued in the genteel tradition. Machines that did work had small place in the transactions of education, culture, and refinement.
But now that the genteel tradition has lost most of its bite and the texture of life has become a patchwork of machines and technical systems, the subject of technology has become a central interest for the society and so, it follows, for the historian. The record of the last two centuries is filled with evidence of our changing relationship to the machinery we have built and with continuing demonstrations not only of remarkable achievements but of disturbing examples that we have never got it all quite right. From the study of the earliest effort to find the appropriate match-up between the man or woman and the power loom to our latest efforts to find a better controlling context for all our instrumentation than the simple sanctions of Progress or the simplistic sanction of “growth,” there is much to be learned to our advantage as we search for better forms of organization.
My second observation has to do with some of the oldest subject matter of history, the smallest unit in the composition of any particular occasion, the single person. As Aristotle said, this person is a political animal and thus finds much of his point and fulfillment as a member of society; but he is not to be taken as some ant or bee programmed for a specific contribution to the life of a hill or a hive. He is an independent variable whose interaction with his environment can make a difference in what his evolving community will become.