History without narratives? A response to Alex Rosenberg

Recently, Martin Kusch gave an intriguing keynote lecture on the development of the sociology of knowledge. I was particularly interested in Steinthal’s role, whose name I recognised from my studies in linguistics and its history. But what was striking was that the lecture combined several levels of explanation. In addition to reconstructing philosophical arguments, Martin Kusch gave detailed insights into the institutional and political events that shaped the development. In other words, the lecture provided a nuanced combination of what is sometimes called historical and rational reconstruction. During the discussion I asked whether he thought that there was one particular level which decided the course of events. “Where do you think the real action took place, in politics or philosophy?” The answer was a succinct lesson in historical methodology: The quest for one decisive level of explanation is deceptive in itself. It suggests mono-causality. In fact, all the different factors have to be seen in conjunction. Real action takes place at every level. (By the way, I think this line of argument offers one of the best reasons why philosophy is inseparable from history.) A few days ago, I was reminded of this idea when reading an interview with Alex Rosenberg who thinks that certain levels of explanation should be discarded and argues for a history without narratives, because “narrative history is always, always wrong.”

According to Rosenberg, narratives are ways of making sense of events by referring to people’s beliefs and desires. “Had she not wanted x, she would not have done y. Erroneously, she believed that y would help her in getting x.” We engage in this sort of reasoning all the time. It presupposes a certain amount of folk psychology: ascribing beliefs and desires seems to require that these items really figure in a proper chain of events. But do they even exist, one might ask. – Now we also help ourselves to such explanations in history. Stuff happens. Explaining it sometimes requires us to assume minds, especially when humans are involved. Let’s call this approach folk history. (Note that Rosenberg is targeting “theory of mind” approaches in particular, but for the application to history the specifics of these approaches don’t matter.) Now Rosenberg gave an interview detailing why we should do away with folk history:

“The problem is, these historical narratives seduce you into thinking you really understand what’s going on and why things happened, but most of it is guessing people’s motives and their inner thoughts. […] [P]eople use narratives because of their tremendous emotional impact to drive human actions, movements, political parties, religions, ideologies. And many movements, like nationalism and intolerant religions, are driven by narrative and are harmful and dangerous for humanity. […] If narrative history gets things wrong because it relies on projection and things we can’t know for sure, how should we be trying to understand history? – There are a lot of powerful explanations in history and social sciences that don’t involve narrative. They involve models and hypotheses that are familiar in structure to the kind that convey explanation in the natural sciences. For example, take Guns, Germs, and Steel, which gives you an explanation of a huge chunk of human history, and that explanation does not rely on theory of mind at all.”

Alex Rosenberg makes a number of good points: (1) Relying on inner states is guesswork. (2) We use it to feed (bad) ideologies. (3) There are other means of writing history, not involving folk history. (4) Given the choice, we should confine ourselves to the latter approach. Let’s call this latter approach naturalistic history. I think there is a lot that speaks in favour of such an approach. If you read some Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche or Freud, you’ll find similar ideas. We assume our thinking follows all these noble patterns of inference when in fact we are driven by motives and associations unknown to us. That said, the way Alex Rosenberg presents this naturalistic approach raises a number of concerns two of which I would like to address now.

  • The first worry concerns (4), i.e. the conclusion that folk history and naturalistic history should be played off against one another. Just like we need the “intentional stance” in the philosophy of mind, we also need it in history. But that’s not the whole story. Our reference to beliefs and desires does not only figure in historical explanations. It is also the very stuff we are interested in qua being human amongst other humans, and thus it shapes the events we want to explain. I concur in causing events because I ascribe mental states to others: I don’t sing in the library because I assume that it will annoy my fellow readers. Of course you can explain much of my actions by reference to biological and other factors. But at some point such explanations would have to invoke my ascriptions. Doing away with that level would mean doing away with a crucial part of the explanans. Playing off these levels against one another is like thinking that there is ultimately just one relevant explanatory level.
  • The second worry concerns (2), i.e. the tenet that narratives are the stuff of ideologies (and thus erroneous and to be avoided). While it is true that ideologies are fed by certain narratives, I know of no way to refer to (historical) data without a narrative. The naturalistic approach is not avoiding narratives tout court; it merely avoids a certain kind of narrative. It replaces the folk historical approach with a naturalistic narrative. Pretending that this is tantamount to avoiding all narratives is to suggest that the raw data of history are just there, waiting to be picked up by the disenchanted historian. In other words, I think that Rosenberg’s suggestion falls prey to a variant of the myth of the given. To say that narratives are “always wrong”, then, seems to be a category mistake. As I see it, narratives as such are neither right nor wrong. Rather, they provide frameworks that enable us to call individual statements right or wrong.

But since I have not read the book that is advertised in the interview, I don’t yet know whether this is the whole story. But who am I to try and tell this story by referring to beliefs and other mental states expressed in that book by Alex Rosenberg?

Mistakes and objectivity. Myths in the history of philosophy (Part II)

“It’s raining.” While reading or writing this sentence now, I think many things. I think that the sentence is a rather common example in certain textbooks. I also think that it has a slightly sentimental ring. Etc. But there is one thing I can’t bring myself to think now: that it is true. Worse still, if someone sincerely uttered this sentence now in my vicinity, I would think that there is something severely wrong. A charitable view would be that I misheard or that he or she made a linguistic mistake. But I can’t bring myself to disagree with what I take to be the facts. The same is true when reading philosophy. If someone disagrees with what I take to be the facts, then … what?  – Since I am a historian of philosophy, people often seem to assume that I am able to suspend judgment in such cases. That is, I am taken to report what someone thought without judging whether the ideas in question are true or false. “Historians are interested in what people thought, not in the truth”, it is said. This idea of neutrality or objectivity is a rather pervasive myth. In what follows, I’d like to explain what I think is wrong with it.

Let’s begin by asking why this myth might be so pervasive. So why do we – wrongly – assume that we can think about the thoughts of others without judging them to be true or false? One reason might be the simple fact that we can use quotations. Accordingly, I’d like to trace this myth back to what I call the quotation illusion. Even if I believe that your claims are false or unintelligible, I can quote you – without adding my own view. I can say that you said “it’s raining”. Ha! Of course I can also use an indirect quote or a paraphrase, a translation and so on. Based on this convenient feature of language, historians of philosophy (often including myself) fall prey to the illusion that they can present past ideas without imparting judgment. What’s more, at least in the wake of Skinner, this neutral style is often taken as a virtue, and transgression is chided as anachronism (see my earlier post on this).

But the question is not whether you can quote without believing what you quote. Of course you can. The question is whether you can understand a sentence or passage without judging its truth. I think you can’t. (Yes, reading Davidson convinced me that the principle of charity is not optional.) However, some people will argue that you can. “Just like you can figure out the meaning of a sentence without judging its truth”, they will say, “you can understand and report sentences without judgment.” I beg to differ. You could not understand the sentence “It’s raining” without acknowledging that it is false, here and now at least. And this means that you can’t grasp the meaning without knowing what would have to be the case for it to be true. – The same goes for reading historical texts. Given certain convictions about, say, abstract objects, you cannot read, say, Frege without thinking that he must be wrong.

Did I just say that Frege was wrong? – I take that back. Of course, if a view does not agree with your beliefs, it seems a natural response to think that the author is wrong. But whenever people are quick to draw that conclusion, I start to feel uneasy. And this kind of hesitation might be another reason for why the myth of neutrality is so pervasive. On closer inspection, however, the feeling of uneasiness might not be owing to the supposed neutrality. Rather there is always the possibility that not the author but something else might be wrong. I might be wrong about the facts or I might just misunderstand the text. Even the text might be corrupt (a negation particle might be missing) or a pervasive canonical reading might prevent me from developing a different understanding.

The intriguing task is to figure out what exactly might be wrong. This is neither achieved by pretending to suspend judgment nor by calling every opponent wrong, but rather by exposing one’s own take to an open discussion. It is the multitude of different perspectives that affords objectivity, not their elimination.