domingo, 28 de diciembre de 2008

Esbozo autobiográfico de Charles Behan McCullagh

Estas notas fueron publicadas en la sección “Invitation to historians” de la revista inglesa Rethinking History (vol. 12, junio 2008, pp. 273-79). McCullagh es un filósofo de la historia australiano. Obtuvo su doctorado en Cambridge. Actualmente se desempeña en La Trobe University. Es reconocido como uno de los más firmes defensores de la causa realista en historia, siguiendo la tradición de Mandelbaum, en polémica siempre con los relativistas contemporáneos de todas las denominaciones (narrativistas, construccionistas, postmodernos…). Sus obras más conocidas son Justifying historical descriptions (1984), The Truth of History (1998) y The logic of history: putting postmodernism in perspective (2004).

I don't know why historians by and large have little interest in philosophy of history. I suspect it is because their interests are historical and ours are philosophical. I first suspected this when I was introduced to my PhD supervisor in history and raised some basic philosophical concerns with him. I wanted to know what standards were expected of professional historians, more specifically how one justifies descriptions of the past, how one interprets past events, and how one is meant to explain them. Not only was he unable to answer these questions, but it seemed to me he had never seriously considered them. I expect he enjoyed getting into the evidence and drawing conclusions from it, without reflecting upon the logic of what he was doing.

This did not matter, I suppose, while the works of professional historians were widely respected, for they had no need of philosophical defence. But when sceptics attack their credibility, and the public are told that all histories are just matters of personal opinion, equally biased and unfounded, then they do need philosophers to help rescue them. But I run ahead of my story.

My study of history at school and university had required me to read an immense amount of history, so that when I explained to Geoffrey Elton, my director of studies at Clare College, Cambridge, that my PhD supervisor could not answer my questions, he rather reluctantly offered to support my doing a PhD in philosophy of history, saying that at least I knew how history was written. He had been one of my tutors for the history tripos at Cambridge, so he knew I had been well educated! Elton, like most historians, was unimpressed by philosophy of history, but nevertheless asked Herbert Butterfield to take me under his wing, and supervise my doctorate in that field. Butterfield was very gracious and shared many of his reflections on history in a most generous way.

In the 1960s, philosophers of history were discussing C.G. Hempel and William Dray's theories of historical explanation, so I joined the fray. I soon discovered that an education in history was not nearly enough. Hempel was drawing upon philosophy of science, and Dray turned to Collingwood and the philosophy of hermeneutics. So I read assiduously in those fields. To explain individual and social behaviour it seemed obvious that one also needed a familiarity with commonsense psychology and social theory, so I attended lectures that introduced me to those. Finally, philosophers employ forms of inductive argument, and concepts such as cause and responsibility, so I had to learn a lot of philosophy as well. No wonder historians give philosophy of history a wide berth! The program of reading I set myself in those years is one that I have continued ever since.

On reflection I can see now that historians who have no interest in these fields will have little interest in the philosophy of history that draws upon them. They will prefer to discuss evidence of the past, not the logic underlying their inquiries. If they attempt to read philosophy of history such as I have published, as a few of my friends have told me, they find it difficult to follow, even though I think it is written as plainly as can be. That is because they really have no idea of the problems I'm discussing, nor of the various attempts that have been made to resolve them in the past.

Patrick Gardiner and Michael Oakeshott examined my dissertation, and my memory of my oral exam is of the two of them discussing the issues together in Oakeshott's study. With the degree in hand I needed a job, and as there were none on offer in philosophy of history I applied for and obtained a lectureship in history at the University of Melbourne. The advertisement was to teach seventeenth-century British history, but on arriving at Melbourne the professor in charge, Max Crawford, asked me to teach medieval European history. I complained that although I had studied history for four years at Sydney University and for several years at Cambridge, I had never ever read a word of medieval European history. He replied that since I was a trained historian, I would certainly be able to learn and teach it. So that was that. I'm glad to say those who succeeded Max would never ask a lecturer to teach entirely outside his or her area of competence. I have never worked so hard in my life.

Relief came after three and a half years, with an advertisement to teach philosophy of history at the newly formed La Trobe University in Melbourne. Philosophy was one of the few subjects initially offered in Humanities, and its foundation professor, Brian Ellis, was keen to make the subject relevant to other subjects being taught: notably history, science, politics, law and English. So he appointed lecturers to teach philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and so on. His department quickly expanded to well over twenty staff of lively young lecturers with a wide variety of interests in contemporary philosophy. It was immensely stimulating. Our weekly staff seminars were friendly but challenging.

At last I was free to devise a research program that would build on my work in Cambridge. I decided to write two books, one on how historians draw inferences from evidence to discover what happened in the past, and the other on how they interpret and explain the facts they have discovered. The method I adopted was to examine the philosophical literature relevant to these topics, and then see whether the theories the philosophers proposed did in fact illuminate the practice of historians. For example, I studied theories of inductive inference, such as arguments to the best explanation, and statistical inferences, and then looked at arguments among historians about the significance of historical evidence to see whether they assumed patterns of inference I had learned in philosophy. (See McCullagh 1984, chapters 2 and 3.) Historians normally do not present the reasoning that lies behind their descriptions of the past, but when those descriptions are challenged, and the significance of the relevant evidence is debated, then the patterns of inference become clear.

The aim of this work was to expose the rationality of historical descriptions. Of course there is a big difference between the process of historical thinking, in which historians imagine many possible scenarios in the past and consider their plausibility, and the arguments by which they finally justify their conclusions. It is only the latter that are relevant to judgements of the rationality of their published descriptions of the past.

What made this method of doing philosophy of history difficult were quite vigorous debates among philosophers about the subjects I had to study. For example, if one draws rational conclusions about what happened in the past from evidence available today, does the rationality of those conclusions warrant the assertion that they are true? This question has been very difficult to answer. To begin with, it requires one to have a defensible theory of what is meant by 'truth', and there is no consensus about that. Then, if historical statements cannot be proved absolutely true, in some sense, is there any good reason for believing them? More to the point, for belief to be rational, can pragmatic as well as epistemic considerations be taken into account? In other words, is it reasonable to believe something because it is useful to do so, as well as because the available evidence implies it is probably true (whatever that means)?

The more I studied the rationality of our beliefs about the world, including historical beliefs, the more I discovered that our confidence in those beliefs is out of all proportion to the probability of their absolute truth. However, were we to remain sceptical of our knowledge of the world, we could not act very confidently within it. Those beliefs which we think are probably true we accept as such for practical purposes, to achieve what we want to in the world. Whether historical knowledge has practical significance is a question to be taken up later. But even the need to produce a good history book will lead historians to assert statements as true, without qualification, though professionals know they are sometimes revised in the light of later evidence. There are practical reasons as well as epistemic ones for our beliefs about the world.

This fact has helped me understand the strength of people's religious beliefs as well. I am sceptical of those beliefs for which there is almost no evidence, or which available evidence implies are probably false. But others, for which there is evidence that is inconclusive, can be accepted I think for practical reasons, as enabling people to make better sense of their experiences of the world, and as motivating and assisting them to lead a good life (see McCullagh 2007).

The truth of history was strongly challenged at first by Leon J. Goldstein in Historical Knowing (1976), and later the possibility and intelligibility of arriving at any truths about the world was denied by Richard Rorty in his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). The issues are complex, and when I came to discuss them in the opening chapters of subsequent books, I imagine any historians who happened to read them would probably wonder why I adopted the position I did, rather than the commonsense idea that historical descriptions are true if things really happened as they say they did. Unfortunately, from a philosophical perspective, such simple answers will not do. The relations between descriptions of the world and the things or events that make them true are very difficult to describe.

Another central topic that philosophers debated at length was the nature of causation. I had attended a term's lectures on just that subject by Elizabeth Anscombe in Cambridge, so I knew the range of views. At first I decided to remain neutral about the meaning of 'cause', and simply identify the conditions for using the word. I argued that an event or state of affairs was a cause of a consequent event or state of affairs if it was contingently necessary for its occurrence (McCullagh 1984, chapter 7). By the time I came to write on causation in The Truth of History (McCullagh 1998, chapter 7), I had recognized the value of the analysis of causes as events triggering dispositions or causal powers, which produce tendencies for a certain consequence to occur without necessitating its occurrence. There is not a very regular relation between causes and effects, as Hume had supposed. Causes trigger tendencies for certain effects to occur, but these tendencies can be modified or defeated by other tendencies at work in a situation. Thus the tendency for a seesaw to be depressed when you sit on one end of it can be modified when someone sits on the other end at the same time. The analysis of causes as events triggering tendencies fits historical cases beautifully, so I added it in that later book, and in The Logic of History (McCullagh 2004, chapter 7). There is little doubt that as philosophers improve their theories, our analysis of historical reasoning will improve also.

Scepticism about the possibility of knowing what happened in the past, initiated by Goldstein and Rorty, was further developed by postmodern writers, particularly by Keith Jenkins in Re-thinking History (1991) and subsequent publications. Postmodernists view history as little more than a literary construction, moulded according to historians' language and their views of the world, in pursuit of their personal interests, which are themselves the product of the historian's place in society. They have little interest in examining the relation of written history to the past, or its rational basis in available evidence. They generally assume that although historians follow conventions of rational inquiry, these could not be proved to yield true descriptions of the past, so they were not worth worrying about. To them, history is a conventional practice, and its products are of doubtful veracity and uncertain significance.

This attack upon the rationality and credibility of history is formidable, and I have discussed it in a number of papers, papers on the meaning of symbols and metaphors, on bias and objectivity, on narratives and interpretation, and on the role of interests in explaining actions. These studies contributed substantially to my second book, The Truth of History (McCullagh 1998), which was mostly about interpretation and explanation in history. What I argued was that written history is both a literary construction and usually a fair, credible and intelligible account of the past. The two are not incompatible. We use language to describe and explain things in the world every day, without much difficulty, and people generally do not deny the truth of what we say just because we use words and concepts we have inherited from our culture. The same thing can often be described in different ways, using a variety of words and concepts, yet all the descriptions can be true.

In order to understand the work of other philosophers of history as fully as I could, I visited a number of them in Britain, Canada and the USA, and gave papers in several universities there. The hospitality I received from Quentin Skinner, Bill Dray, Alan Donagan, Leon Goldstein, Le Roy Cebik, and Arthur Danto and their departments was very generous. And I recall enjoyable seminars at York University, Toronto, Queens University, Kingston, and Guelph University, as well as at the University of London and the University of Oslo. To keep up with purely philosophical inquiry, I attended the annual conferences of the Australasian Association of Philosophers, offering a paper on average every two years. I also attended, and presented papers at, annual meetings of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

My work on the rational justification of historical writing was intended to help historians appreciate the kinds of descriptions, interpretations and explanations they provide, and the ways in which they can be rationally justified. To that end I was careful to illustrate the points made in my analyses of history by drawing upon the works of recent and reputable historians. Even so, some found the first two books I wrote too long and complicated to read, so I decided to produce a short book, summarizing the conclusions drawn in the other two, and updating them with additional material. The result was The Logic of History (McCullagh 2004). I hope it is accessible to both historians and advanced students of history.

I have long been concerned to understand and promote the personal and social value of historical knowledge. I mention some of my convictions in the very brief conclusion to The Logic of History. Investigating the value of historical knowledge has now become my major research project. It raises very interesting questions, the main one being how can what happened in the past be relevant to the present, given the great differences between the two? In fact, of course, we have inherited institutions and habits, values and beliefs from the past, which frame our lives in the present. To assess their value, we should rely to a great extent upon information about their origins and how they have affected communities in the past. Those lacking knowledge of their history can scarcely judge the value of the various legal, political, economic and religious beliefs, practices and institutions that influence people's behaviour and consequent experience today.

Once the social values of history are appreciated, those who teach the subject, especially at schools, will be encouraged to choose topics that illuminate students' social and cultural heritage, and enable them to value it appropriately. It appals me that many teachers of history choose subjects simply for their entertainment value, leaving students ignorant of the most important elements of their traditions. They often focus upon skills of interpretation and narration, without explaining either the rational basis or the social value of the histories the students are writing. The triviality of such teaching is soon recognized by bright students, who turn away from the subject for something better.

Recently I have made a special study of the value of historical knowledge to the social sciences, in particular to the development of economic theories and policies. Neoclassical economists are content to display the rationality of their theories, with little concern for sources of irrational behaviour. Heterodox theories are much more willing to take account of historical contingencies. Both approaches have merit, and the challenge is to discover how to relate the two. Human behaviour at its best displays practical rationality, adopting means appropriate to certain ends and values in a certain context. The more accurate the information upon which a policy is based, the more successful it is likely to be.

It is my dream that history will eventually come of age. Historians will not only think rationally, as the best do today, but come to recognise the standards of rationality that distinguish professional history. And rather than writing simply to entertain, or to create and test novel interpretations of historical evidence and historical events, they will acknowledge their obligation to help society understand itself. Then, when students see how rational and valuable history is, they will be drawn into a profession upon which the health of our civilization largely depends.

Obras aludidas en la autobiografía:

Goldstein, Leon J. (1976) Historical knowing. University of Texas Press, Austin and London.
Jenkins, Keith (1991) Re-thinking history Routledge, London and New York.
McCullagh, C. Behan (1984) Justifying historical descriptions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
McCullagh, C. Behan (1998) The truth of history. Routledge, London and New York.
McCullagh, C. Behan (2004) The logic of history. Routledge , London and New York.
McCullagh, C. Behan (2007) "Can religious beliefs be justified pragmatically?", en Sophia 46, pp. 21-34.
Rorty, Richard (1979) Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.