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Tucker, Aviezer. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography.

TUCKER, Aviezer. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 291 pp. Cloth $70.00--Aviezer Tucker's philosophy of historiography is epistemological as opposed to the philosophy of historical interpretation, which is ethical, political, and aesthetic. What is presented in textbooks and other popular accounts as "history" is historiographical interpretation, the end product of historiography. There are no pure empirical facts in historiography. Historiographers do not observe historical events but study them inferentially from what can be observed. Evidence may confirm some theories more than others; or theories may explain evidence more or less well, or both.

Neither history, nor historiography, nor other fields of inquiry have essences that determine method, Tucker tells us. However, scientific historiography has been successful, and its progress can be studied empirically and descriptively, as distinct from a "phenomenological" (p. 3) approach focused on historiographers' own and often misleading self-awareness.

Critical cognitive values about sources first emerged--other than in juridical evaluation of conflicting testimony--in biblical scholarship and were then extended to classics by Friederich August Wolf. Simultaneously, there arose a scientific quest for an extinct common ancestor of European and Asian languages. All these disciplines used evidence to infer a common cause, not directly knowable, as does evolutionary biology. Leopold Ranke, son of a lawyer, descendent of Lutheran ministers, student of theology and philology, is the key figure in developing the paradigm of historiographical method inspired on the methods of biblical scholarship and classical philology. The Rankean paradigm is closer to realism, realism "is a better explanation" (p. 257) of the Rankean paradigm than constructionism.

Traditionalist historiography, which is guided by the fact that something has been handed down, is the target of critical historiography. Tucker affirms that historiographical traditions are not causally connected with the events they write about and that traditionalist consensus can only be maintained by coercion. Underdetermined constructionism "is the best explanation" (p. 258) of traditionalist historiography.

Perhaps the central thesis of the present book is that consensus on historiographic beliefs in an uncoerced, heterogeneous, and sufficiently large group of historians is indicative of the knowledge of history, although consensus neither guarantees knowledge nor is a necessary condition for knowledge. Indeed, Tucker prefers the label of "uniquely heterogeneous" (p. 28) for the group likely to possess knowledge. Unique heterogeneity tends to exclude the possibility that a consensus based on something other than knowledge like cultural, gender, or ideological bias make them "less probable than the knowledge hypothesis" (p. 30). Disagreement among uncoerced, heterogeneous, competent historians is a sign of historiographical opinion rather than knowledge.

When historians agree in their historiography, they agree on evidence and theory. Sometimes there is not enough evidence to rule out all but one historiographical hypothesis. Underdeterminism (as opposed to indeterminism or determinism) holds that evidence plus theories constrain historiography to a finite range of outputs. Historiography may be underdetermined in three ways: because the evidence is limited, because theories and hypotheses manage to cover more evidence by sacrificing economy and clarity to scope, and finally because they are ad hoc interpretations of vague underdetermined theories.

In studying the relation between historiography and evidence, the present work follows Quine's 1985 "Epistemology Naturalized." Quine and Duhem insist that evidence is not sufficient to choose between scientific theories, since different and incompatible theories may use the same evidence. Quine stresses that theories are wholes some of whose parts have close links to empirical observations, while some parts simply depend on other elements of the theory. Quine and Duhem may not have the last word on science, since scientists tend to find agreement on the basis of simplicity and avoid ad hoc hypotheses. But their underdeterminism thesis could still hold for historiography.

Fidelity is the degree to which a piece of evidence preserves information about its cause. But the cause is contained in a hypothesis, so that the degree of fidelity depends on correctly identifying the cause or "on the hypothesis it is produced as evidence for" (p. 121). The Donation of Constantine has fidelity as evidence about medieval church-state relations, but not about Constantine's relations with the Church.

The criteria for the best theories are consilience, simplicity, and analogy. Greater consilience is the character of explaining more different kinds of evidence. The value of theory is the product of its consilience and its simplicity. While the simple theories of a historical school will be consilient, the factoring in of necessary ad hoc interpretations, which are mutually inconsistent, reduces its value to zero.

Colligation is the grouping of particular historical events as part of one large event. Thus the effort is to understand a context--given background information and theories--as one whole rather than as an instance of general principles. Scientists deal with complex properties of unique events by reducing them to lower level simple properties, but Tucker is not convinced that we know what a historiographic reducing theory would be like.

A critic might say that Tucker offers mainly a phenomenology of the philosophers of historiography. I suspect that this will limit the book's appeal: too much epistemology for historians, too little historiography for nonspecialist philosophers.

Tellingly, the history developed at greatest length is the history of a method, biblical criticism. Those who hold that method is dictated by what is studied may well think that Tucker leapfrogs over what is studied into the reflection upon the studying.

One wonders how useful Tucker's basic signs of historical knowledge really are. Further, there is not likely to be consensus about new theories. A popular consensus such as that the earth is round is frequently traditional, not based on any kind of scientific understanding. More importantly, one could argue that scientists, not to mention mathematicians, are homogeneous qua scientists. Physicists are people who think like physicists, whatever their religion or politics.

Finally, if George Washington is not a fact, but a hypothesis (however solid), because we can't know him directly but rather by reports, it would seem that George W. Bush is a hypothesis for most of us. This odd use of "hypothesis" does not reflect something specific to historiography, but a peculiar epistemology.--James G. Colbert, Fitchburg State College.
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Author:Colbert, James G.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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