The Epistemological Foundations of History: Bloch and Carr’s Philosophy of History Compared

Today we begin a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.


The Epistemological Foundations of History:

Bloch and Carr’s Philosophy of History Compared

When reading evangelical theologians, one is almost bound to discover that there exists a passionate debate concerning the nature of knowledge and truth. Such debates typically revolve around the concepts of foundationalism and coherentism. Regarding foundationalism some evangelical theologians and philosophers have gone as far to say that “on all fronts foundationalism is in bad shape. It seems to me that there is nothing to do but give it up for mortally ill and learn to live in its absence.”[1] However there are others who offer a more temperate opinion. For instance Alvin Plantinga has argued that classical foundationalism[2] is self-referentially incoherent, yet he advocates for a different sort of foundationalism.[3] Besides being a significant debate among theologians, the subject is also debated among scientists and likely has its roots in the philosophy of science.[4] Given that these epistemological debates likely have their source in philosophy of science, or at the very least find significant contemplation in philosophy of science, it is not surprising that this debate has made its way into the realm of history which some have considered a science. How does the debate between foundationalism and coherentism play out in the philosophy of history? It does so in several areas: (1) the nature of history and historical enquiry, (2) human nature and social change, (3) causation, (4) objectivity, and (5) the meaning of history. How foundationalist and coherentist epistemologies of history play out in theory is exemplified by both Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft and E.H. Carr’s What is History? respectively. In what follows I briefly examine some of the differences between Bloch and Carr’s approach to history with an eye towards evaluating their approaches from a theological perspective.

What is history? Is it a science or is something else? Bloch believes that it is a science. Specifically, it is the ‘science of men in time.’ (27) This phrase might be read in various ways. For example, history is a science performed by “men” (read human beings) in time. Or, one might read this phrase as saying that history is the science which studies human beings who exist in time, including those who are dead and living. This is Bloch’s approach. As the science of humanity, Bloch is interested in drawing from all sources and disciplines in order to develop “universal history.” (48) Thus Bloch’s view of history is a Histoire Totale.[5] Carr, however, is insistent that history is not a science (at least in the way that science is typically conceived). Carr objects to the idea that history be called a science because it “justifies and perpetuates the rift between the so-called ‘two cultures.’”(110) What does this rift consist of? It consists mainly of the notion that the “sciences” are after universal laws and principles. This notion has been applied by some historians, including Buckle, who states that the course of human affairs is “permeated by one glorious principle of universal and undeviating regularity.” (Carr, 73). If this is what is meant by history as a “science” then Carr will have no part in it. Science however, is no longer practiced with the confidence that we can discover, let alone have access to, such universal principles. Instead, as Carr explains, “Nowadays both scientists and historian entertain the more modest hope of advancing progressively from one fragmentary hypothesis to another, isolating their facts through the medium of their interpretations and testing their interpretations by the facts.” (Carr, 77) Is this much different from Bloch’s view which also holds that various conceptual tools shade how we interpret historical data? Remember, Bloch holds that language, periodization, and characterization all affect how historical analysis proceeds. (Bloch, 156-189) Despite the apparent similarity between Bloch and Carr on this subject, the difference is radical.

At its core the difference between Bloch and Carr’s view is to be found in how they understand the process of deriving truth from the data of history. Bloch takes a tempered foundationalist approach.  As a foundationalist Bloch believes that some beliefs, i.e. our belief that the historical event X is to be explained as Y, is grounded on other beliefs that are justified. The initial or basic belief that justifies Y is the belief that X can be accessed adequately. Bloch is not naïve about how we access X. He acknowledges that the “tracks” or documents need to be carefully examined because they can be forged, tainted, skewed, or just plain wrong. Similarly, he recognizes that the scholar who examines the historical data is in danger of imposing her personal inclinations into reading the data. (Bloch, 139) This is especially true when examining historical causes because in examining causes the historian is likely to make value judgements. Carr on the other hand also believes that we can be justified in saying that X can be explained as Y. However, Carr does not understand this justification process in a foundationalist matter. There is no “basic” belief that justifies saying that X is true. Rather, the belief that “X” is true exists within a system of other beliefs. These other beliefs which make up the historian’s system of beliefs are rooted in the historian’s individual, social, and historical background. As Carr explains, “The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history.” (48) In a sense, the historian is stuck within this system of beliefs, and cannot transcend this system to get at what “actually” happens. Thus, the historian cannot actually explain or provide the causes for Y as they exist mind-independently. She can however, provide the logic of the events given her other beliefs.

Does this view of history reduce to an examination of our own interpretation of events? Does this mean, for example, that the historical study of the American revolution just is the study of how our current historical and social situation affects the way we understand the events of this war? Perhaps. This however, doesn’t mean that one’s historical and socially created interpretive lenses will be provincial and narrow; i.e. that does not mean one can only approach the American revolution as a 21st century pro-American because one was born in the 21st century in a patriotic setting. The historian has a “capacity to rise above his social and historical situation” but the capacity to rise above a provincial and narrow set of interpretive lenses is “conditioned by the sensitivity with which he recognizes the extent of his involvement in it.” (Carr, 54) By recognizing that he functions within an interpretive framework, and that his historical analyses are justified by other beliefs within that framework, and not something external to that framework, the historian can begin the process of expanding the framework in order to develop a more “objective” account of historical events.  This process can best be described as a hermeneutical spiral. I quote Carr at length,

The historian starts with a provisional interpretation of facts and a provisional interpretation in light of which that selection has been made – by others as well as by himself. As he works, both the interpretation and selection and ordering of facts undergo subtle and perhaps partly unconscious changes through the reciprocal action of one another. And this reciprocal action also involves reciprocity between present and past, since the historian is part of the present and the facts belonging to the past. (Carr, 35)

This hermeneutical spiral, or “unending dialogue between the present and the past,” just is the discipline of history. (Carr, 35)

Thus far we have examined some differences between Bloch and Carr’s approach to history. As an aspiring theologian engaged in the discipline church history I can’t help but ask what the theological implications of these views might be. I agree with Bloch when he says that Christianity is essentially a historical religion, that is, “a religion that is, whose prime dogmas are based on events.” (Bloch, 31) If we were to take Carr’s approach to history, then our theological reflection which is based on historical events, would result in theology which looks a lot like post-liberal theology. Postliberals, like Carr, emphasize how much language and tradition do to shape our understanding of reality. Post-liberals believe that Scripture is “world-creating,” thus the biblical narrative forms the cultural-linguistic “world” for the church. According to post-liberals we attend to the world primarily through whatever cultural-linguistic framework we possess. Thus, our experience of the world is not neutral, it is concept laden, it is experienced in light of our “language” or grammar of faith. Postliberalism’s emphasis on intra-systemic coherence and intertextuality calls into question whether Postliberals are making “real-world” claims in their theology or whether they are simply making claims about their own language/grammar. One concern with post-liberal theology is that “dispenses with external referents and reduces truth claims to simply intra-systemic consistency.”[6] Agreeing with Bloch that our dogmas are based on events, I am concerned that a full-scale adoption of Carr’s method would result in a form of history which undercut’s theology’s ability do derive dogma from historical events. For this reason, I believe that Bloch’s tempered foundationalist approach to history is preferable to Bloch’s coherentist approach.

[1] Grenz and Franke quote Nicholas Wolterstorff in: Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: WJK, 2001), 38.

[2] That is: A proposition p is properly basic for a person S if and only if p is either self-evident to S or incorrigible for S or evident to the senses of S.

[3] Plantinga’s proposal for Reformed Epistemology is clearly laid out in “Reason and Belief in God” which can be found in the book Faith and Rationality (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 16-93.

[4] Cat, Jordi, “The Unity of Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/scientific-unity/&gt;.

[5] This is a riff on Sarah Coakley’s idea of Theologie Totale in God, Sexuality, and the Self (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[6] Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm,“The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals,” in The Nature of Confession, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1996), 16.

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2 thoughts on “The Epistemological Foundations of History: Bloch and Carr’s Philosophy of History Compared”

  1. Really fascinating subject! Excellent piece, but I really struggled to follow because a lot of the terminology is alien to me. I guess you must be writing purely for academics. In any case, good job!

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