Re: Anthro, History, Physics-Envy

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Tue, 10 Oct 1995 11:58:15 +1000

Bob Graber writes:
> 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.

It may sound like the difference between Graber and myself is purely
terminological, but I believe it's more important, so I will follow
this up. Graber sees physics as "more scientific" than history,
while I see both disciplines as just as scientific but as having
their own methods.

> many historians are
> committed to an ongoing interaction between evidence and reason; and
> that surely is scientific.

No argument there!

> historians have produced
> virtually nothing in the way of deductive-nomological explanations, and
> precious little in the way even of inductive-statistical explanations.

I think we need to accept "historical explanation" as another category.

> 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.

It depends on the historian. Most concentrate on particular aspects
of history - diplomatic, economic, political, social -- simply because
there is too much work involved in a comprehensive treatment. Few
modern historians concentrate on personalities and "episodes" to the
extent you suggest. As you point out, we have come a *long* way
since the 19th century.

> 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?

Lots of historians have! You might like to read Braudel (or any of
the other Annales historians), if you haven't already done so --
I think some of his ideas would appeal to you. (There was a nice
paragraph at the beginning of _The Structures of Everyday Life_ --
on the fundamental importance of demographics -- which I meant to
keyboard and send to you, but I can't remember whether I did or not.)

> 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.

Why? Why must anthropology be comparable with physics? Obviously
anthropology does a darn sight better than physics at explaining
kinship structures, and has a tough time explaining the origins
of black holes. And obviously sociological comparisons can be made
(the physicists get more funding :-). But in what sense can more
fundamental comparisons be made? (Not a 100% rhetorical question --
I do believe there are some ways in which they are comparable. I
just don't think it is nearly as simple as you make out.)

> What's so bad about physics-envy?

Physics envy is bad because the methodology of physics -- and in
particular the stress on "deductive-nomothetical explanations"
-- just doesn't work in the historical sciences (which, as I have
pointed out, include such subjects as palaeontology and, to some
extent, cosmology and geology). Physics-envy has resulted in
attempts to build the "wrong" kinds of theories in some of the
social and biological sciences. (Which is not to say that I think
the "deductive-nomothetical" has no role in history or anthropology --
just that I don't think it has the same overriding importance it does
in fundamental physics.)

Danny Yee.