From owner-h-history-and-theory@H-NET.MSU.EDU Thu Aug 10 07:00:09 2006
Thread-Topic: Ebb Tide—Social Science History
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Subject: Ebb Tide—Social Science History

From: Tom Verso <>
Date: Tue, 8 Aug 2006 15:36:05 -0400
Subject: Ebb Tide—Social Science History

Ebb Tide—Social Science History

By Tom Verso, H-History-and-Theory, 8 August 2006

Toynbee observed: “[by the eighteenth-century, prevailing Western philosophy had] partitioned the Universe into [1] an orderly province of non-human affairs in which ‘the laws of Nature’ [prevailed and were knowable; e.g. Newton's Laws] and [2] a chaotic province of human history which was dogmatically declared to be [without knowable laws].” Historians (generally) accepted this philosophy refusing to consider even the possibility of knowable scientific lawful human behavior. However, many students of human behavior did not concur with the historian's world view. For example, Adam Smith's ‘The Wealth of Nations' in 1776 was predicated on the assumption that human economic behavior in the aggregate (societies) was governed by knowable laws and the science of economics was born. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries other social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science) predicated on similar ontological and epistemological assumptions were born and developed. Meanwhile, Toynbee notes, “as each new social science encroached on the traditional domain of history…nineteenth and twentieth-century Western historians still cling to the eighteenth-century philosophy tenet that [social history was not lawful].”

It seems to me: by refusing to accept even the possibility of social laws, generalizations or even classifications, historians (generally) have ceded the most significant social behaviors (e.g. economic, political, demographic, etc.) to the social sciences. In turn, they redefined the essence of their craft as narrative writing placing great emphasis on the unique (individuals and events) and writing style. They held, for example, that knowledge of statistical means and medians was not necessary for historians to know; but, the difference between the active and passive voice was essential.

However, what Toynbee could not appreciate, writing the above in the mid twenty-century, was the seemingly insignificant ripples developing in some universities that by the 1960's would turn into an historograhic title wave. Benson, Hays, Bogue, Aydelotte, Fogel, Kousser, etc, burst onto the historiographic scene, seeking to meld history with the social sciences and giving rise to the Social Science History movement. The documents of the period clearly indicate the profound effect they had on, if nothing else, American historiography. Narrative historians, clearly on the defensive and “aroused from their dogmatic slumber” (Kant), engaged in spirited debates about the nature of the “historian's craft” (Bloch). For a time it seemed that social science historians would revolutionize historiography and take back the many areas cede to the social scientist over the previous 200 years. The movement consolidated: an association was formed (, a journal published, conferences held, and Robert Fogel won a noble prized for his work in economic history. However, their success proved to be ephemeral.

Documents clearly indicate that by the 1990's the Social Science History tide had ebbed. The narrative prevailed as the principle historiographic model and scientific minded history students could once again be seen “sleeping before the chairs of virtue” (Nietzsche). For example, in 1999 the Social Science History Association dedicated an issue of its journal to answering the question: “What is Social Science History?” In it, Paula Baker wrote: “…the never especially clear relationship between the social sciences and history has grown even more muddy…The question, then, is what kinds of work fall under the heading ‘social science history.’ Answers…go to the meaning of ‘science’ and ‘social science’.” Significantly, Ms. Baker did not think the “meaning of history” had anything to do with answering the question “What is Social Science History.” To my mind, therein lies the problem. Nowhere in that journal is there any indication that scientific minded historians need to recognize what Toynbee saw, and revisit history's eighteenth-century metaphysical assumptions about the nature of social reality and what constitutes knowledge of that reality. History cannot be made scientific by simply hitching a ride on the social science train. Ultimately history is the queen of the social sciences; for, without history there can be no social science. But, without philosophy, history is just a story.


Toynbee “Study of History” vol. 9 pp. 182-194;

“Social Science History” 23:4 (winter 1999)