Anthro, History, Physics-Envy

Mon, 9 Oct 1995 10:00:21 CST

In response to M. Tomaso, D. Yee describes himself as believing that
history is "just as much a science as physics." I don't share Danny's
view, but I applaud his implication that being scientific can be
considered a matter of degree rather than all-or-nothing. How
scientific is history as a discipline? Well, many historians are
committed to an ongoing interaction between evidence and reason; and
that surely is scientific. On the other hand, historians have produced
virtually nothing in the way of deductive-nomological explanations, and
precious little in the way even of inductive-statistical explanations.
(See C.G. Hempel's *Aspects of Scientific Explanation* for background.)
One thing historians have tried to do, it seems, is study "everything at
once," so to speak. The individual personalities and episodes of
history create a buzzing, booming confusion of seeming singularities.
Maybe if some scholars tried to focus on customary ways of life, which
show a structure and stability not apparent in the general stream of
history, explanatory progress could be made? That was the dream of
Edward B. Tylor (1871); and I think we can claim some modest progress.
In terms of its products, Anthropology compares favorably, as a science,
with history; but very unfavorably, with physics. No doubt there are
some excellent reasons for these differential successes in explaining
phenomena; but it is counterproductive to deny or ignore them. What's
so bad about physics-envy? --Bob Graber