Monday, April 17, 2006

On History, Causation and E J Tapp

In my last post on history I made a distinction between topic selection and the approach that should be adopted in dealing with the topic. Here I argued in part that the purpose of historical analysis is to test, not prove. When proving or justifying becomes the central point, the discipline is lost.

Upon reflection, while I still think that this is a valid point, it's also not the end of the story.

When writing, I do try to tell a story, to make things comprehensible. I also think that the role of the historian is an part that of custodian of the past of the country, tribe or group. How then, does this fit with the idea that the purpose of historical analysis is to test, not prove or justify?

Perhaps the most influential course that I have ever done measured by personal long term impact is Ted (EJ) Tapp's philosophy of history course at the University of New England.

Ted was a reflective man. His personal view was that without a concept of causation there could be no history, no way of knowing anything. He was therefore opposed to the concept of history as simply description. However, his view of causation was deeply rooted in philosophy, and he therefore introduced his students to a range of philosophical texts concerned with the concept of causation.

Central to his thinking was the difference between correlation (a and b) as compared to causation (if a then b). Drawing from the philosophy of science, he argued (at least as I saw it) that all historical theses were essentially refutable. You tried to establish your case from the evidence, to develop the case that best fitted. But you did so in the knowledge that later work might invalidate your position.

Now, and this drives to the heart of my point about method, whatever one's view about the role of the historian, all historians must write in such a way that the reader can understand both the evidence and the logic chain. That is, we must set up our arguments for later test by others.


John Hanson said...

A wonderful gentleman. I was fortunate to have Prof Tapp for a "philosophy of History" Masters course at Waikato University (NZ) in the late 1970's. I remember always leaving the 2 hr tutorials ravenously hungry owing to the amount of thought and reflection he put upon us. He certainly shaped my 40 yr History teaching career.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a lovely comment, John. Thank you. It's good to have him remembered!

Anonymous said...

Like those others above I studied Philosophy of History under Ted Tapp (at Waikato in the mid 1970s). I took issue with the frequent hammerings he handed out to religions in general, & Christianity in particular, but his analysis of, & comment on, Scientific Method ("Your search must never be to prove your theories. You must strive always to disprove them. So your conclusions must remain tentative, if tentative for ever.") has been a cornerstone of my intellectual baggage for 40+ years. This seems obvious (& self-evident) if we apply even a small amount of critical analysis to the process of "observation, evidence, hypothesis, experimentation, amendment". Would to God more (some?) of our alleged investigative journalists approached their tasks in this way. His dinners at Hamilton's restaurants were memorable too.

Jim Belshaw said...

My apologies for my slow response on this one anon. It was good to get another positive view on Ted!