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The Different, but Necessary, Truths of History and Science

By Wilfred M. McClay

What is history? One answer might be: It is the science of incommensurable things and unrepeatable events. Which is to say that it is no science at all. We had best be clear about that from the outset. This melancholy truth may be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for those zealous modern sensibilities that crave precision more than they covet accuracy. But the fact of the matter is that human affairs, by their very nature, cannot be made to conform to the scientific method—not, that is, unless they are first divested of their humanness. The scientific method is an admirable thing, when used for certain purposes. You can simultaneously drop a corpse and a sack of potatoes off the Tower of Pisa, and together they will illustrate a precise law of science. But such an experiment will not tell you much about the human life that once animated that plummeting body—its consciousness, its achievements, its failures, its progeny, its loves and hates, its petty anxieties and large presentiments, its moments of grace and transcendence. Physics will not tell you who that person was, or about the world within which he lived. All those things will have been edited out, until only mass and acceleration remain.

By such a calculus our bodies may indeed become indistinguishable from sacks of potatoes. But thankfully that is not the calculus of history. The genuinely interesting historical questions are irreducibly complex, in ways that exactly mirror the irreducible complexity of the human condition. Any author who asserts otherwise should be read skeptically—and, life being short, quickly.

Take, for example, one of the most fascinating of these issues: the question of what constitutes greatness in a leader. The word "great" itself implies a comparative judgment. But how do we go about making such comparisons intelligently? There are no quantitative units into which we can translate, and no scales upon which we can weigh the leadership quotients of Pericles, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Attila, Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Stalin. We can and do compare such leaders—or others like them, such as the long succession of American presidents—and learn extremely valuable things in the process. But in doing so, can we detach these leaders from their contexts, and treat them as pure abstractions? Hardly. Otherwise we could not know whom they were leading, where they were going, and what they were up against. If made entirely without context, comparisons are meaningless. But if made entirely within context, comparisons are impossible.

So there is a certain quixotic absurdity built into the very task historians have taken on. History strives, like all serious human thought, for the clarity of abstraction. We would like to make its insights as pure as geometry, and its phrases as effortless as the song warbled by Yeats's golden bird of Byzantium. But its subject matter—the tangled lives of human beings, in their unique capacity to be both subject and object, cause and effect, active and passive, free and situated—forces us to rule out that goal in advance. Modern historians have sworn off forays into the ultimate. It's just not part of their job description. Instead, their generalizations are always generalizations of the middle range, carefully hedged about by qualifications and caveats.

This can, and does, degenerate into such an obsession with conscientious nuance that modern historians begin to sound like the J. Alfred Prufrocks of the intellectual world—self-henpecked, timid, and bloodless, never daring to eat a peach unless they are certain that they're doing it in proper context. Yet there is something admirable in their modesty. It is the genius of history to be always aware of limits and boundaries.

It is easy for armchair wits to compare Thomas Jefferson and Bill Clinton, or for pundits to rank the American presidents in serial order, or for journalists to pillage the past for anecdotes and easy generalizations about the electoral fortunes of vice presidents and third parties. But it is maddeningly difficult for those who really know their subject, and understand the ever-present contingency and unpredictability of history, to make such judgments, without becoming all knotted up in qualifiers and exceptions.

It is easy to treat the past as if it were an overflowing, open grab bag, and historians are right to admonish those who do so. But only partly right, because man does not live by pedantry and careful contextualization alone. If the study of history is important, then there can be no doubt that it is proper—and necessary—for us to seek out precedents in the past, and to do so energetically and earnestly. Those few precedents are the only clues we have about the likely outcomes for similar endeavors in the present and future.

History, then, is a laboratory of sorts. By the standards of science, it makes for a lousy laboratory. No doubt about that. But the problem is, it is all that we have. It is the only laboratory available to us for assaying the possibilities of our human nature in a manner consistent with that nature. Far from disdaining science, we can and should imitate many of the characteristic dispositions of science—the fastidious gathering and sifting of evidence, the effort to be dispassionate and evenhanded, the openness to alternative hypotheses and explanations, the caution in propounding sweeping generalizations. Although we will continue to draw upon history's traditional storytelling structure, we also can use sophisticated analytical models to discover patterns and regularities in individual and collective behavior. We even can call what we are doing "social science" rather than history, if we like.

But we cannot follow the path of science much further than that, if only for one stubborn reason: We cannot devise replicable experiments, and still claim to be studying human beings, rather than corpses. It is as simple as that. You cannot experiment upon human beings, at least not on the scale required to make history "scientific," and at the same time continue to respect their dignity as human beings. To do otherwise is like murdering to dissect. It is not science but history that tells us that this is so. It is not experimental science, but history, that tells us how dreams of a "worker's utopia" gave rise to one of the most corrupt tyrannies of human history, or how civilized, technically competent modern men fashioned the skin of their fellow men into lampshades. These are not experiments that need to be replicated. Instead, they need to be remembered, as pieces of evidence about what civilized men are still capable of doing, and the kinds of political regimes and moral reasonings that seem likely to unleash—or to inhibit—such moral horrors.

Thankfully, not all of history's lessons are so gruesome. The history of the United States, for example, provides one reason to hope for the continuing improvement of the human estate, and such sober hopefulness is, I believe, reinforced by an honest encounter with the dark side of that American past. Hope is not real and enduring unless it is based upon the truth, rather than the power of positive thinking. The dark side is always an important part of the truth, just as everything that is solid casts a shadow when placed in the light. Chief among the things history should teach us, especially those of us who live nestled in the comfortable bosom of a prosperous America, is what Henry James called "the imagination of disaster." The study of history can be sobering and shocking, and morally troubling. One does not have to believe in original sin to do it successfully, but it probably helps. By relentlessly placing on display the pervasive crookedness of humanity's timber, history brings us back to earth; equips us to resist the powerful lure of radical expectations, and reminds us of the grimmer possibilities of human nature—possibilities that, for most people living in most times, have not been the least bit imaginary. With such realizations firmly in hand, we are far better equipped to move forward in the right way.

So we work away in our makeshift laboratory, deducing what we can from the patient examination and comparison of singular examples, each deeply rooted in its singular place and moment. From the perspective of science, this is a crazy way to go about things. It is as if we were reduced to making deductions from the fragmentary journal of a mad scientist who constructed haphazard experiments at random, and never repeated any of them. But that oddness is unavoidable. It indicates how different is the approach to knowledge afforded by the disciplines we call the humanities, among whose number history should be included.

The humanities are notoriously hard to define. But at their core is a determination to understand human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them into something else. Such a determination grounds itself in the phenomenology of the world as we find it, including the thoughts, emotions, imaginings, and memories that have gone to make up our picture of reality. Science tells us that the earth rotates upon its axis while revolving around the sun. But in the domain of the humanities, the sun still also rises and sets, and still establishes in that diurnal rhythm one of the deepest and most universal symbols of all the things that rise and fall, or live and die. There are, in short, different kinds of truth, and we need all of them in order to live.

Wilfred M. McClay is professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where he holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in humanities. In 1995, for The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, he won the Merle Curti Award from the Orgainzation of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history published in the years 1993 and 1994. This article is excerpted with permission from A Student's Guide to U.S. History by Wilfred McClay (Wilmington, DE, ISI Books, 2000).