Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lieberman, historiography, and scientific methodology

Recently, I reread this blurb on the back of Lieberman’s Strange Parallels (2003)written by the foremost historian of early modern insular Southeast Asian history M.C. Ricklefs:

“…on every page Lieberman’s critical intelligence is fully engaged. It is notable that his reading is not only critical, in the sense of taking nothing for granted in the writing of others, but also self-critical….This gives the book he quality of an ongoing debate…” (M.C. Ricklefs, National University of Singapore)

Somehow, I incorrectly recalled the word “tentative” being used here, an important word in another book I was reading at the time, Alexander Bird’s Philosophy of Science (2002, p. 3). Citing a famous American court case (McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982) that found Christian creationism to not be a scientific theory, Bird lists four essential elements for a theory to qualify as a scientific theory:

1. It is guided by natural law.
2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.
3. It is testable against the empirical world.
4. Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word.
5. It is falsifiable.

Four and five seem particularly important to historical scholarship. The controversial "virtual history" or "counterfactual history" as practiced by historians like Niall Ferguson seems to cover the "testable" item above.

Anyway, the point I want to make is that Lieberman’s approach seems like a scientific method or at least in the spirit of a scientific method, for instance like the one Isaiah Berlin conveys in his essay “The Concept of Scientific History.” While essentially arguing that scientific history is not really possible, Berlin also clearly advocates the goals of science:

“…comparing historical method with that of linguistic or literary scholarship. No scholar could emend [my defintion: interpret a text to fill in gaps and provide continuity and wholeness] a text without a capacity (for which no technique exists) for ‘entering into the mind of’ another society and age. Electronic brains cannot perform this: they can perform alternative combinations of letters but not choose between them successfully, since he infallible rules for ‘programming’ have not been formulated. How do gifted scholars arrive at their emendations?…”

Having posed the question, Berlin claims that emulating science, an emulation that will never be completely successful, is what historians, in fact, do:

“They [historians] do all that the most exacting natural science would demand: they steep themselves in the material of their authors; they compare, contrast, manipulate combinations like the most accomplished cipher-breakers; they may find it useful to apply statistical and quantitative methods; they formulate hypotheses and test them; all this may well be indispensable but it is not enough.”

Berlin continues with the difference between historical method and natural science method:

“In the end what guides them is a sense (which comes from study of the evidence) of what a given author could, and what he could not, have said; of what fits and what does not fit into the general pattern of his thought. This, let me say again, is not the way in which we demonstrate that penicillin cures pneumonia” (Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind (1998), p. 53).

Lieberman does actually use the words "tentative" and "conjecture" occasionally, for instance in describing an intensification of agricultural production during the Ava period in Toungoo as a possible spur to demographic growth, army size, and successful expansionary warfare later on in the sixteenth century.

Allow me to speculate, academic environments may either allow this sort of scientific approach or disallow it according to the way academic discourse is set up. For instance, if there is a low level of collaboration and peer review, compared to the natural sciences where it is very high, papers are not very accessible, and there is endemic academic warfare, well, this would probably select against a more tentative scientific approach, favoring the offensive, with absolute assertion of ideas and resistance to debate. When and where a historian can and should be tentative is an interesting question.