sexta-feira, 11 de outubro de 2013

Historical Interpretation by Sir Karl Popper

It can be argued that Modernism is a doctrine of the kind we now call historicist (and that historicism is an intellectual error). The philosopher Karl Popper made the word ‘historic- ism’ his own when he published The Poverty of Historicism, and we now use the word in this sense. Popper uses the word to characterize ‘a theory (about the course of historical development) which has often been pul forward, but perhaps never in a fully developed form’. He continued, ‘This is why I have deliberately chosen the somewhat unfamiliar label “historicism”. By introducing it I hope I shall avoid merely verbal quibbles: for nobody, I hope, will be tempted to question [our emphasis]. . . what the word “historicism” really or properly or essentially means.’ (The Poverty of Historicism, pp. 3-4.)
Popper defined historicism for his own use thus: '... I mean by “historicism” an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the “rhythms” or the “patterns”, the “laws” or the “trends” that underlie the evolution of history. ’(The Poverty of Historicism, p. 3.) To say that Modernism is historicist is to say that it sees artistic developments in the modem era as growing out of each other in accordance with rhythms, patterns, laws or trends.
In this extract from The Poverty of Historicism, Popper outlines an argument against historicism in general. It is important to note, however, that he does not argue against the ‘interested’ writing of history.


The Great Satan of Historical Certainties

Is there nothing whatever in the historicist demand for a reform of history - for a sociology which plays the role of a theoretical history, or a theory of historical development? Is there nothing whatever in the historicist idea of ‘periods’; of the ‘spirit’ or ‘style’ of an age; of irresistible historical tendencies; of movements which captivate the minds of individuals and which surge on like a flood, driving, rather than being driven by, individual men? Nobody who has read, for example, the speculations of Tolstoy in War and Peace - historicist, no doubt, but stating his motives with candour - on the movement of the men of the West towards the East and the counter-movement of the Russians towards the West, can deny that historic­ism answers a real need. We have to satisfy this need by offering something better before we can seriously hope to get rid of historicism.

Tolstoy’s historicism is a reaction against a method of writing history which implicitly accepts the truth of the principle of leadership; a method which attributes much - too much, if Tolstoy is right, as he undoubtedly is - to the great man, the leader. Tolstoy tries to show, successfully I think, the small influence of the actions and decisions of Napoleon, Alexander, Kutuzov, and the other great leaders of 1812, in the face of what may be called the logic of events. Tolstoy points out, rightly, the neglected but very great importance of the decisions and actions of the countless unknown individuals who fought the battles, who burned Moscow, and who invented the partisan method of fighting. But he believes that he can see some kind of historical determination in these events - fate, historical laws, or a plan. In his version of historicism, he combines both methodological individualism and collec­tivism; that is to say, he represents a highly typical combination - typical of his time, and, I am afraid, of our own - of democratic-individualist and collectivist- nationalistic elements.

This example may remind us that there are some sound elements in historicism; it is a reaction against the naive method of interpreting political history merely as the story of great tyrants and great generals. Historicists rightly feel that there may be something better than this method. It is this feeling which makes their idea of ‘spirits’ - of an age, of a nation, of an army - so seductive.

Now I have not the slightest sympathy with these ‘spirits’ - neither with their idealistic prototype nor with their dialectical and materialistic incarnations - and I am in full sympathy with those who treat them with contempt. And yet I feel that they indicate, at least, the existence of a lacuna, of a place which it is the task of sociology to fill with something more sensible, such as an analysis of problems arising within a tradition. There is room for a more detailed analysis of the logic of situations. The best historians have often made use, more or less unconsciously, of this conception: Tolstoy, for example, when he describes how it was not decision but ‘necessity’ which made the Russian army yield Moscow without a fight and with­draw to places where it could find food.

Beyond this logic of the situation, or perhaps as a part of it, we need something like an analysis of social movements. We need studies, based on methodological individualism, of the social institutions through which ideas may spread and captivate individuals, of the way in which new traditions may be created, and of the way in which traditions work and break down. In other words, our individualistic and institutionalist models of such collective entities as nations, or governments, or markets, will have to be supplemented by models of political situations as well as of social movements such as scientific and industrial progress. These models may then be used by historians, partly like the other models, and partly for the purpose of explanation, along with the other universal laws they use. But even this would not be enough; it would still not satisfy all those real needs which historicism attempts to satisfy.

"War is the province of chance. In no other sphere of human activity must such a margin be left for this intruder. It increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events."

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz

If we consider the historical sciences in the light of our comparison between them and the theoretical sciences, then we can see that their lack of interest in universal laws puts them in a difficult position. For in theoretical science laws act, among other things, as centres of interest to which observations are related, or as points of view from which observations are made. In history the universal laws, which for the most part are trivial and used unconsciously, cannot possibly fulfil this function. It must be taken over by something else. For undoubtedly there can be no history without a point of view; like the natural sciences, history must be selective unless it is to be choked by a flood of poor and unrelated material. The attempt to follow causal chains into the remote past would not help in the least, for every concrete effect with which we might start has a great number of different partial causes; that is to say, initial conditions are very complex, and most of them have little interest for us.

The only way out of this difficulty is, I believe, consciously to introduce a preconceived selective point of view into one’s history; that is, to write that history which interests us. This does not mean that we may twist the facts until they fit into a framework of preconceived ideas, or that we may neglect the facts that do not fit. On the contrary, all available evidence which has a bearing on our point of view should be considered carefully and objectively (in the sense of‘scientific objectivity’). But it means that we need not worry about all those facts and aspects which have no bearing upon our point of view and which therefore do not interest us.

Such selective approaches fulfil functions in the study of history which are in some ways analogous to those of theories in science. It is therefore understandable that they have often been taken for theories. And indeed, those rare ideas inherent in these approaches which can be formulated in the form of testable hypotheses, whether singular or universal, may well be treated as scientific hypotheses. But as a rule, these historical ‘approaches’ or ‘points of view’ cannot be tested. They cannot be refuted, and apparent confirmations are therefore of no value, even if they are as numerous as the stars in the sky. We shall call such a selective point of view or focus of historical interest, if it cannot be formulated as a testable hypothesis, a historical interpretation.

Historicism mistakes these interpretations for theories. This is one of its cardinal errors. It is possible, for example, to interpret ‘history’ as the history of class struggle, or of the struggle of races for supremacy, or as the history of religious ideas, or as the history of the struggle between the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ society, or as the history of scientific and industrial progress. All these arc more or less interesting points of view, and as such perfectly unobjectionable. But historicists do not present them as such; they do not see that there is necessarily a plurality of interpretations which are fundamentally on the same level of both suggestiveness and arbitrariness (even though some of them may be distinguished by their fertility - a point of some importance). Instead, they present them as doctrines or theories, asserting that ‘all history is the history of class struggle’, etc. And if they actually find that their point of view is fertile, and that many facts can be ordered and interpreted in its light, then they mistake this for a confirmation, or even for a proof, of their doctrine.

On the other hand, the classical historians who rightly oppose this procedure are liable to fall into a different error. Aiming at objectivity, they feel bound to avoid any selective point of view; but since this is impossible, they usually adopt points of view without being aware of them. This must defeat their efforts to be objective, for one cannot possibly be critical of one’s own point of view, and conscious of its limita­tions, without being aware of it.

The way out of this dilemma, of course, is to be clear about the necessity of adopting a point of view; to state this point of view plainly, and always to remain conscious that it is one among many, and that even if it should amount to a theory, it may not be testable.

Source: Sir Karl Popper, ‘Situational Logic in History. Historical Interpretation’ in The Poverty of Historicism (London, 1961), pp. 147- 152. First published in 1957. Footnotes have been omitted.

In: Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Francis Frascina, Charles Harrison, Deirdre Paul. lNew York, 1987, pp. 11-13.

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