History And Science

Scientific knowledge, according to W.H. Walsh, in his An Introduction to the Philosophy of History is that branch of knowledge which:
i.    is methodically arrived at and systematically related.
ii.    consists of, or at least includes, a body of general truths.
iii.    enables us to make successful predictions and so to control the future course of events, in some measure at least.
iv.    is objective in the sense that it is such as every unprejudiced observer ought to accept if the evidence were put before him, whatever his personal predilections or private circumstances.
It is against the above background that the claim of history tp scientific status will be examined.
There is no doubt that both in the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) and in history; knowledge is methodically arrived at and systematically related.  When the historian sets to work, he seeks to produce a significant record (or knowledge) of the human past. He conducts an enquiry into the past of man in society with present evidence which may be in form of oral tradition, archival documents and archeological artifacts.  The physical scientists conducts an inquiry into the natural phenomena through direct observation and laboratory experimentation. Both the natural scientist and the historian, like the scientist, does not just gather facts. He scrutinizes them by appealing to available evidence.  His methods, like those of the scientists, are not exclusive to him or any group but rather open to all who have the proper orientation for use, review and further investigation.
But difference exists and they should be noted.  Nature, which is the object of natural scientists study is amenable to repeated observation.  But replication is not possible in history. The historian cannot play back historical events; he can only reconstruct them. The implication here is that whereas the scientist gives a first hand account of the phenomenon he studies, the historian gives, at best, a second hand account of the events he inquires. Again, the object of the scientist’s study exists independently of him.  He can therefore investigate empirically into the object of his inquiry. But historical facts have no objective existence outside the historian. The historian is a participant-observer. Hence, the moral and emotional aloofness of the natural scientist from the object of his study does not hold for the historian. The quality of the data upon which the two work is different. Whereas, the historian’s data can be said to be working with “raw” materials, the historian’s data (his facts) have undergone some processing.
Scientific knowledge issues in general truths.  If a Zoologist sets out to find out the habits or life history of a species of animals, he chooses a member of that species.  Whatever he finds out to be true of his object, he generalizes about others in the group. But the life history of one man, or even of many individual men, will not tell anyone the life history of other men.  What is more, one cannot make a full scientific analysis of the life history of any one man. Human beings are to complex, too spiritual and various for any scientific analysis; and the life history of millions of men cannot be inferred from the history of a single man.  It is true that physical sciences no longer dwell on exactitudes as before the discovery of new phenomena is constantly bringing about the recasting of theories. But the truth is that their probabilities are still far nearer certainty than in history. E. H. Carr has argued that “the historian constantly uses generalization to test his evidence” and that the historian “is not really interested in the unique.” In explication of his argument, he contends that whenever the historian speaks of a “war” or of a “revolution,” he is using generalization; implying that there are certain features which characterize these terms.  But there generalizations which are not contestable, are in no way akin to the formulation of general laws. Granted that scientific laws are no qualified as working hypotheses expressions of tendencies and probabilities and not exactitudes, it is clear that in the physical sciences there are laws which differ in scale from any generalization which the historian might feel competent to make.
Carr argues at length on the fact that the historian is capable predicting the future.  But even then, he admits that he is not suggesting “that the inferences of the social scientist or of the historian can match those of the physical scientist in precision, or that their inferiority in this respect is due merely to the greater backwardness of the social sciences. The underlined phrases clearly establish that there are predictions: one in the physical science and the other in history and social sciences.  The fact remains that the historian’s concern is with past (the fact that he reconstructs that past in the light of present evidence notwithstanding). Though his expertise permits him to make some intelligent predictions about the present and the future, but that is not really his business.  “Historians do not prophesy” is a popular cliché. What, in fact, the historian does, in the normal courses of his enquiry, has been termed “retrodiction”. He makes an inference about something for which he does not, as yet have full and sufficient evidence. He tries to suggest what will be seen to have happened once the full (or rather new and logical) evidence is available.  Put differently, the historian uses new evidence not to foretell what the future will be but to recast what the past might have been.
The fourth characteristic, that is, of objectivity marks a fundamental difference between scientific and historical knowledge.  The scientist can be absolute in his findings, but the historian can never be completely objective. Right from the moment he begins to collect his evidence, the historian display his subjectivity. Since he writes from a particular point of view and for a particular audience, he discriminates between facts that are available and are related to his study.  Carr says “the point of view of the historian enters irrevocably into every observation which he make, “history is shot through with relativity.” The historian’s conclusion is therefore coloured in the sense in which scientists is not. Thus the historian has put his own “predilections” or “private circumstances” into his account and as such could not claim (objective) status for his discipline.
By way of illustration, Frederick Forsyth in his The Making of a Nation: The Biafra Story, writes a pro-Biafran account of the Nigerian Civil War.  His facts about and his analysis of the war reflect his bias.  General Olusegun Obasanjo in My Command writes from the angle of a participant-observer. His biases, personal and group (as a federalist) are also reflected. Alexander Madiebo’s The Biafran Revolution and the Nigerian Civil War also reflects his personal and group (as a Biafran) biases. But a scientist who wishes to inquire into the incidence of kwashiorkor during the Civil War has no personal or group biases to show.  He will be concerned with questions relating to the causes, the course and the consequences in a purely objective manner. It is clear from the foregoing that although history is a science capable of yielding knowledge, it is not” a science, no less, no more”