Can History Really Be A Science?



The notion of History as a science conjures images of the historian as a lab coat wearing researcher hunched over their evidence in the laboratory of the museum or archives. The historian-as-scientist is imagined as one who performs “experiments” and tests hypotheses in this lab and observes the results. Obviously such a process is laughable for a historian to undertake, yet associating the term scientific with the discipline of history is bound to raise a few skeptical eyebrows among academics, and bring to mind the lab coat historian among laypeople. But is this what we really mean when we argue that the study of History can, and should, be thought of as a scientific endeavor? Certainly as Marxists we approach our study of History, through the method of historical materialism, from a standpoint that we claim is scientific. Yet, are we merely repeating an old axiomatic claim about the Marxist study of history being “scientific” with no regard for what we mean, and what others understand contemporaneously, as science? Observing most Marxists of various tendencies who attempt to be serious about understanding the motion and functioning of human society, one begins to see that this happens more than us Marxists would care to admit.

This presents a problem. If we are serious about employing the methodology of historical materialism, while claiming our analyses are scientific, then we must be absolutely clear about what we mean when we use the term science. This means delineating how the term is understood in academia, and how it is used by the scientific community, from our conception of science as it applies to the study of the development of human production and social activity.

The notion of History as a science began to take shape in the 19th century, largely out of the insistence of the German historian Leopold von Ranke. Ranke railed against the “moralizing” history written by historians like Edward Gibbon (whose History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire opined that Rome fell because of a lack of virtue and the influence of Christianity, both of which undercut martial values, thus making them susceptible to barbarian invasion). In opposition to this Ranke proposed wie es eigentlich gewesen, or to “show how it really was” by simply presenting the facts of History. This view of History was easily grafted onto the rising philosophies of positivism and empiricism, both of which claimed an impartial objectivity when studying human society. It also neatly reflected the laissez-faire attitude of the bourgeoisie due to its rejection of the need for a philosophy of history. This imagining of History as simply a regurgitation of “facts” gleaned from reading a document is what most people assume historians do. For example, the historian enters an archive, finds an important figure’s personal diary, and recounts in narrative form to the public what they read about what that important figure said about a significant event. Nothing more, nothing less. In this scenario the historian is reduced to a crude reporter of details.

Leopold von Ranke, historian and collector of facts and fine medals.

Of course, this is not what the historian actually does, nor is it the way in which History should be presented. Furthermore, is this method really scientific, as the empiricists claim due to their belief in the complete separation between subject and object? Without delving too deeply into the question of objectivity, which was handled masterfully in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession, let’s examine this positivist and empiricist assumption.

Is a complete separation between the object under study and the subject doing the study really possible? All researchers, whether they are historians, biologists, or archaeologists, cannot fully separate themselves from their own biases (ideology, class position, the influence of those that provide their funding for research etc.) A quick analogy will serve to illustrate this point. When I was an undergraduate I enrolled in a course on film theory. Throughout the course we discussed and debated the notion that documentaries can actually document real life. It is assumed that the director and cinematographer turn on the camera and let it roll, similar to the Rankean historian just reading a document and projecting the facts. However, this neglects the role that framing plays in cinematography. The director can decide what is included in the frame and what is excluded from the frame, which will inform the viewer’s interpretation of events. There is no possibility to avoid this. The director makes an artistic choice informed by their own biases in the presentation of the material, regardless of its designation as a documentary film or not. The historian is much the same as the director. They choose what to keep in the frame of research and what to exclude based on their own internal and external biases, as well as sifting through information that may not be of use to the study. Their finished product, shaped by their own artistic choices, is like a film, and this shapes how their audience will react to and interpret their work. In short, facts do not speak for themselves. Their interpretation and arrangement, much like film editing, give them life.

Writing history is kind of like being Hitchcock.

So, if by History being a science we don’t mean the Rankean interpretation, then what do we mean? If historical materialism claims the mantel of science, then what is its relationship to the empiricist and positivist interpretations that also claim to be scientific? In Richard C. Lewontin’s Biology As Ideology he exposes the prevailing view of vulgar scientism (the view that empirical science is the only legitimate authority on objective truth and that the scientific method is universally applicable to all things). “Scientists do not begin life as scientists, after all, but as social beings immersed in a family, a state, a productive structure, and they view nature through a lens that has been molded by their social experience. Above that personal level of perception, science is molded by society because it is a human productive activity that takes time and money, and so is guided by and directed by those forces in the world that have control over money and time. Science uses commodities and is part of the process of commodity production.”1 Clearly, science itself is tied intimately to capitalist society and its ideology, so we don’t mean that historical materialism is scientific in the sense that we reproduce bourgeois narratives about the separation between subject and object and the separation between our study of society and society’s influence on us.

Let us take two examples from two prominent figures to determine what we must insist on when we speak of the study of history, and more specifically the methodology of historical materialism, as being scientific. First, let’s look at what the historian John Lewis Gaddis has said. Now, Gaddis himself is a proponent of neoconservative ideology and is a friend of George W. Bush, however, his comments on the nature of History as a science in his book The Landscape of History are quite revealing. Gaddis claims that the “hard sciences” (e.g. chemistry, biology etc.) are unique because they produce a consensus within the academic community, while History produces no such consensus, and actually produces greater division! The problem of viewing History as a science arises, according to Gaddis, because we are comparing it to the wrong types of science. The hard sciences, such as chemistry, are based on actual replicability (literal testing of something in which the results can be recreated in a lab), rather than virtual replicability (thought experiments centered on non-directly observable processes based on a collection of evidence). Sciences like astronomy, geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology rarely fit within the confines of a laboratory. They depend on thought experiments and computer simulations because they concern themselves with phenomena that cannot (for the most part) be recreated in a laboratory. History, as a science, is similar to geology and the others because it also relies on thought experiments based on a collection of evidence. For example, the lifetime of one human makes it impossible to directly observe tectonic plates shifting to form mountains, yet we know this happens based on a plethora of evidence, as well as observed phenomena that can be extrapolated to explain larger geologic processes. In the study of history, we know that the French Revolution happened, yet we do not know the direct cause, or if there even was a single cause, for why it happened. However, we can gather evidence to make an argument that is then extrapolated to explain a larger historical process.

I like late-night talks on the phone with George W. Bush and writing tired Cold War propaganda.

This is the basis of science. Broadly defined, science is the process of formulating a hypothesis, gathering evidence and information, testing and analyzing the evidence, and then accepting or rejecting the original hypothesis based on the results. History is much the same. For example, we formulate the hypothesis that the French Revolution occurred because of a class struggle between the nascent French bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy, culminating in a revolutionary upheaval, as has been put forward in Marxist historiography of the French Revolution since the 19th century. From there we gather evidence based on the social and class makeup of France, the role of productive relations and the development of productive forces in spurring a revolutionary situation etc. Then we test this against competing historiography, and finally, decide whether the results of the study conform to the original hypothesis, or if the hypothesis or conclusion is wrong.

The second prominent figure that can shed light on this discussion is Louis Althusser, a prominent French Marxist. For Althusser, as for Marx, science is not a simple collection of data and its presentation (a la the Rankean, positivist, and empiricist methods) but “…an abstract, ideal (or, rather, idea-dependent) discipline that proceeds by way of abstractions and demonstrations: for example, the Greek mathematics founded by Thales (or those designated by this no doubt mythical proper name).”2 So, in this sense, science is a process that is based on real and ideal abstractions (both of which Marx made use of in Capital and other works) that proves its validity through demonstration. It’s strange, yet true, that Gaddis would agree with Althusser and Marx on this point!

Louis Althusser. He liked pipes and Marxism.

So what does all of this mean for us Marxists, and for historical materialism specifically? It means that we should assert that historical materialism is a scientific methodology for studying and understanding the changes and developments of human society. However, we should not attach the term scientific to historical materialism if, however consciously or unconsciously, we mean a bourgeois, empiricist formulation of historical materialism. Firstly, because such a formulation is, at its root, anti-scientific, and secondly, because such a view leads towards a propping up of bourgeois ideology by way of rejecting the critical methods of ideal and real abstractions in favor of a vulgar application of the scientific method. Furthermore, an empiricist and positivist historical materialism will inevitably tend to cede ground to bourgeois, and reactionary historiography and ideology, which in our post-modernist era are quite open about their biases and the role of narratives and identities in the making of history. This is because such a view, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century Marxist circles, neglects the role of class struggle and qualitative change in historical materialist historiographic writings, and instead focuses on quantitative elements as the motive force of historical change and neglects the role of superstructural aspects like ideology in shaping history and in writing it.

When we say that historical materialism and History can be, and should be scientific, we must insist that that means a recognition of the role of ideology and class position in the formulation of History, along with the acceptance that historical materialism rejects alignment with a universalization of the scientific method. Historical materialism as a scientific investigation into the development of human society should stand in relation to science in the same way that astronomy, geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology do. It should give primacy to thought experimentation, abstraction, evidence collection, and narrative form, and most importantly a focus on class struggle. A study that embraces this interpretation of historical materialism would truly be a form of scientific art, which is what we Marxists should be defending and synthesizing.

  1. Lewontin, Richard C. Biology As Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 3.
  2. Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2014), 13.

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