Monday, April 17, 2006

On History, Causation and E J Tapp

In my last post on history I made a distinction between topic selection and the approach that should be adopted in dealing with the topic. Here I argued in part that the purpose of historical analysis is to test, not prove. When proving or justifying becomes the central point, the discipline is lost.

Upon reflection, while I still think that this is a valid point, it's also not the end of the story.

When writing, I do try to tell a story, to make things comprehensible. I also think that the role of the historian is an part that of custodian of the past of the country, tribe or group. How then, does this fit with the idea that the purpose of historical analysis is to test, not prove or justify?

Perhaps the most influential course that I have ever done measured by personal long term impact is Ted (EJ) Tapp's philosophy of history course at the University of New England.

Ted was a reflective man. His personal view was that without a concept of causation there could be no history, no way of knowing anything. He was therefore opposed to the concept of history as simply description. However, his view of causation was deeply rooted in philosophy, and he therefore introduced his students to a range of philosophical texts concerned with the concept of causation.

Central to his thinking was the difference between correlation (a and b) as compared to causation (if a then b). Drawing from the philosophy of science, he argued (at least as I saw it) that all historical theses were essentially refutable. You tried to establish your case from the evidence, to develop the case that best fitted. But you did so in the knowledge that later work might invalidate your position.

Now, and this drives to the heart of my point about method, whatever one's view about the role of the historian, all historians must write in such a way that the reader can understand both the evidence and the logic chain. That is, we must set up our arguments for later test by others.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

On History

I have just created a second blog - - dedicated to the history, culture and activities of the New England region in Australia. This inspired me to a second post today.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has been attacking what he calls "black arm band history." The PM's statement had been attacked and supported. However, my interest lies in what the debate tells us about the current state of historiography.

There is no doubt that, at least so far as Australia is concerned, the study of history has been in decline as a discipline. I find this sad. I love history.

When I look at the Prime Minister's comment, I look at the history wars, the conflict between different views of Australian history. Here I make a distinction between two things.

The first is the question of topic selection, the question to be answered. Selection of topics has always been determined by interests and values. So topics shift as interest and values shift.

The second is the question of methodology, the approach to be adopted. Herein lies the real problem in the history wars.

I may disagree with topic selection. I feel, for example, that the current selection of topics in the Australian school curriculum is narrow and biased. But that's an opinion. However, I do worry when (as seems to be happening) the approach adopted to the analysis of questions and topics is affected by opinions and values.

History as a discipline has (or should have) its own rigour. The purpose of analysis is to test, not prove. When proving or justifying becomes the central point, the discipline is lost.

On Personal Reflections

Since my first test post, I have been mulling over how I want to use this blog.

Much of my professional work is client or management focused. There is so little time for reflection, for integrating the things I do and learn, both professional and non-professional. There is also little time for conversation.

I work mainly from a home office. On some days I am alone for six to eight hours except for the constant email traffic, most focused on work issues. This adds to the converstation gap.

So, thinking about all this, I want to use this blog to chat about all those things that would otherwise be submerged.