domingo, 21 de julho de 2013

“On W. B. Gallie’s Philosophy and the Historical Understanding”

Published in 1964, W. B. Gallie’s Philosophy and the Historical Understanding is part of a paradigmatic change in the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of history. Since Carl Hempel’s The Function of the General Laws in History (1942), the main discussion in this incipient field was whether the historical explanation fitted the “covering law model”, according to which a particular event is explained when, and only when, subsumed to a general law. In the first place, it helped to increase the philosophers’ awareness that history at least can explain its matter by organizing events into a narrative. In the second place, it took part on the replacement of the a-historical “World according to Hempel” for the historical “World according to Kuhn”, to use Arthur Danto's words.[1] Two notions, followability and “essentially contested concepts”, mark his enterprise.

1. Followability

History, Gallie pointed out, “is a species of the genus Story”. It didn’t meant that there is no difference between a historical story and a fictional one, because the former was based on evidences and exhibited to its reader “its interconnections with other relevant historical evidence and results”. Still, the historical narratives are “followable or intelligible in the same general way that all stories are”.

For this reason, to develop his notion of followability, Gallie’s first step was to answer the question “what is a story?”. In Hempel’s covering law model, explanation and prediction were treated as logically similar. In Gallie’s view, this model couldn’t be applied to the analysis of narratives of any kind. When the reader follows the narrative towards its conclusion, what he or she finds is not a conclusion of the same type as the one found in a deduction or a prediction. Even if the conclusion was predicted by the reader, much more important in a story is the relation that allows us to see the logical connection by which the comprehension of a later event requires, as a necessary condition, the previous event. The sequences of “internal conclusions” are followed because we want to get to the “final conclusion”. This latter one is distinguished from the others because is the focus on the reader’s interest almost from the beginning: “it is chiefly in terms of the conclusion - eagerly awaited as we read forward and accepted the story's end - that we feel the unity of a story”.

The kind of understanding one gets by following a story, in Gallie’s view, can be compared to the following of a cricket match. When the viewer requires an explanation of what happened, his or her goal is not to eliminate the contingencies,[2] as happens in the scientific kind of explanations, in which there can be predictions: in fact, an unpredictable play can be followed by the spectator with no difficulties. The goal of the explanations (or, let’s say, to keep with the comparison, of the clarification of a rule in a play not understood by the viewer) is only to allow him or her to keep following the game. The one who follows a story, accordingly, reaches a kind of understanding very different of the scientific one. If the explanation required by the follower of the story can be compared to one that helps the enthusiast to keep following the game, the one searched for the scientist can be compared to one that interests a gambler, whose main interest is the final result of the game, independently of its development.

[1] DANTO, Arthur C. The decline and fall of the analytical philosophy of history. In: ANKERSMIT, Frank & KELLNER, Hans (Eds.). A New Philosophy of History. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995.
[2] Mink observes that “Gallie does not define ‘contingent’ but he remains stoutly phenomenological in using it: it always means for him ‘surprising’ or ‘unexpected in the circumstances,’ rather than ‘not subject to law’ or ‘not predictable in principle.’” (Historical Understanding. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987, p, 134).

This post is part of the series: “On W. B. Gallie’s Philosophy and the Historical Understanding”
Part 1: Followability
Part 2: Essentially contested concepts

Further reading 

William H. Dray, Laws and Explanation in History (1957). Dray’s book is the first solid reaction to Hempel’s “covering law model” to point out that historians might “explain” by telling a story, and not only and not necessarily by subsuming particular events to general laws.

Louis O. Mink, Philosophical Analysis and Historical Understanding (1968), republished in his Historical Understanding (1987). In this review essay, Mink discusses Morton White’s Foundations of Historical Knowledge, Gallie’s Philosophy and the Historical Understanding and Danto’s Analytical Philosophy of History. In his opinion, Gallie describes very well the non-reflexive reading of a historical text, but ignores the fundamental fact that the historian already knows “the end of the game”. The implications of this difference are further developed in the magisterial History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension (1970).

Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973). This groundbreaking work tries, among other things, to develop an ideal model of the historical text. Gallie’s “followable story” is taken as part of a bigger whole, which also includes the plot, the argument and the ideological implication. Also, as Hens Kellner indicated (link), White treats the “historical explanation” debate as “essentially contested”, in the sense that there is not, for him, one single correct way to produce “explanation effects”.

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