Clio's Ignorant Armies, Or: Those Who Flunk History Are Doomed To Repeat It

Daniel Larison is astonished but I don’t think the word means what he thinks it means. To astonish means, fundamentally, to stun or stupefy, and Larison is anything but stupified. He can’t even really be surprised; that Beran piece struck me as quite run-of-the-mill, and nowhere more banal than in its deification of the great captain.

Rather than astonished, Larison is annoyed – annoyed to the point of high dudgeon – by the offense to history. But, again, it can’t be mere ignorance that has pricked him off so. It seems to me that the real offense is not a misunderstanding of the history of the Civil War and post-bellum period, but a misunderstanding of the proper uses of history as such.

The key thing to realize about history is that it is a backward-looking, not a forward-looking science. Sociology, economics, anthropology: these disciplines are social sciences that are in the business of building and testing theories, and theories are forward looking, because they are ways of predicting the future. History is not in the business of theories; it is in the business of explanations, which are inherently backward-looking. That does not make history unscientific; history is not a literary or political exercise but is, like other sciences, a search for empirical truth. But it is, as I say, not in the business of predicting the future, Harry Seldon notwithstanding.

What do I mean by the difference between an explanation and a theory? I refer readers to the first chapter of this excellent book for a better . . . explanation than I can provide in this space. But I will simplify by saying that explanation is an account of why something happened, while a theory is an account of why things happen. By its nature, the latter cannot cover all contingencies and, indeed, requires considerable reductionism that necessarily limits its accuracy (at least in the social sciences) if it is to have any power at all. By the same token, the former incorporates precisely those contingencies that cannot be accounted for by theory. Consider the following analogy: theory is like solving a mathematical problem, explanation like checking the solution. You may have a theory about the most efficient way to get through an unmapped maze, but even the most efficient algorithm will not get you through the maze without wrong turns. Once through, however, you can readily map back the most direct route, and explain why it is the most direct route, and why it is that the decisions you made along the way caused you to take as long as you did to get through the maze.

This makes it sound like theories are superior to explanations, but really they are complementary, and their relative practical utility is somewhat related to the complexity of the problem at hand. In dealing with actual human societies, explanation is probably more of a bedrock of understanding than theory is; certainly, the human mind is organized to operate in terms of explanations more than theories. If you are trying to decide how to get something out of the Pashtuns, an explanation of how the Pashtuns got to be the way they are is considerably more useful than a theory about how to get foreign peoples to do your bidding – even if that explanation gives you little insight into the question of whether or under what conditions other peoples around the world are likely to evolve into Pashtun-like groups over time (an insight that, if it were achievable, would turn your explanation into something more like a theory).

Returning to Larison’s pique, what is most striking about the Beran piece is not that it partakes of very bad history, but that it isn’t really engaged with history at all; it’s got an a priori theory of the way things work, and it simply grabs bits of misunderstood past as props for that theory – but then dresses this theory up as if it were history, as if it were an explanation of how and why things happened the way they did. It’s thereby stealing a cognitive base, as well as trampling on precincts sacred to any devotee of Clio.

As to the substance of the original piece, and Larison’s attack thereon, I am sorry to see Lincoln-worship repudiated in the terms Larison has chosen. Because I do not recognize Beran’s or Larison’s Lincoln as the man historical. Lincoln was, by his own estimation, anything but a revolutionary; moreover, for a man who led the Union in its bloodiest cause, he was strikingly sensitive to the contingent nature of the Union’s moral position. He did not indict the people of the South for their attachment to the peculiar institution; indeed, he was well aware that had the people of the North faced the same historical circumstances as those of the South, they would likely have made many of the same decisions. It takes a considerable moral intelligence to be able to say, on the one hand, that your civilization is founded on an evil institution and, on the other hand, that this does not reflect ill at all on you or your ancestors in particular, but only on the cruelty of history. I freely admit my partisanship towards the victorious Union cause, but I do not recognize that cause as described by Lincoln’s idolators.