The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 6  History and the Experimental Method

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HISTORY has enrolled itself among the sciences that make use of the experimental or observational method, i.e., the historian professes to be ready to approach the solution of any problems that appear within his field in terms of scientific method. If he finds that some of his material belongs to the fields where the scientific method is not welcomed, he is likely to undertake to free his own problem of the reconstruction of past events from these other issues and attempt to keep within his own field a clean scientific conscience. That this has proved again and again an impossible program is abundantly shown in fields of higher criticism and evolution. In fact, it has been the history of dogmas that has brought more than one metaphysical problem into the range of scientific investigation. The scientific treatment of religious institutions, beliefs, and experiences has arisen in each case out of the history of these subjects. Given an orderly statement of the situations out of which these have arisen, it is impossible to avoid the hypothesis of the causal relation of these conditions to the appearance of the institutions and beliefs, and the testing of this hypothesis is found in the observation of the changes which it undergoes in the presence of like conditions.

There is one question which I should like to broach upon which scientific method in history has a direct bearing. Does the import of significance of the results of historical investigation and consequent reconstruction belong, to the past where these events lie, or is it to be found in the present and future? Otherwise stated, do we know the past through the present, and the future in so far as the test of our hypotheses depends upon future observation and discovery, or is the knowledge we are gaining knowledge of the present and future through the

(92) past? A present fossil implies a past animal, a present document a past author. The knowledge of either waits upon future investigation and observation, perhaps even upon experiment. History as an observational science can get at its past only through the present and future. But scientific investigation does not end in its data; it begins with it. The outcome of science is a theory or working hypothesis, not so-called facts. It is not the recovery of the dream we seek but the interpretation thereof. Is the serious interest in history, which is not the meanest of the attainments of an educated mind, an interest that centers in the past, in the present, or in the future? Have we learned to understand the past through the present, or are we learning to understand the present and future through the past?

The first comment that will be made upon this question is, Why this disjunction? Why not both? Certainly history provides the candle to light our feet as we advance, but, on the other hand, our very advance may be into a fuller, richer, and more significant past, where we may dwell contentedly, using the present only as the soil within which may be found the data for its reconstruction, and the vantage point for its interpretation and romantic enjoyment, and the field of interesting controversies with rival historians.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Certainly the historical scholar and those who are privileged to see the resplendent past through the medium of trained vision and sympathetic imagination are not disjunctively bound either to the strategic use of it-, treasures in fighting society's advancing campaigns or to an irrevocable domicile in its pictured realms. Or shall we say of the historically minded, vestigia nulla retrorsum? The answer is in the negative. Not only do we find the historically minded dwelling comfortably on both horns of the spurious dilemma, but the forward impulse gathers

(94) momentum from the concreting past, while its very furniture, tapestries, and personae are created in the factories of ongoing experience. The histories that have most fastened upon men's minds have been political and cultural propaganda, and every great social movement has flashed back its light to discover a new past.

But the question I have asked is somewhat more hidden and technical than that which has just been answered. Is the actual object of knowledge, the significant content which historical research reveals, the past object as implied in the present, or is it a newly discovered present which can only be known and interpreted in the past which it involves? My own answer, which I do not expect to find sympathetically received, is the latter; still I would like to present it.

The answer turns, as I have indicated, more or less upon the identification of knowledge with scientific research. If knowledge is the mere presence of an object in experience, if these walls and windows, these chairs and lights, and the people in the room, are, by grace of their being perceptually related to us, objects of our knowledge, then the person whom you discover to have written the hitherto anonymous document is, where he was and when he was, the object of your knowledge. You have simply by means of scientific research extended your specious present so that this formerly unrecognizable individual has been drawn out of the shadows, and, in this novel temporal perspective, he becomes one more figure in the world. His being there in your perspective is your knowledge of him. This definition of knowledge, this identification of the object of knowledge with the so-called percept, whether a percept by virtue of the eye or the imagination, in company with various other pragmatists 1 reject-and for reasons with which I will not burden you, though I will point out that the rejection sweeps out a vast amount of philosophic riffraff known as epistemology, and relieves one of the hopeless task of bridge-building from a world of one's states of consciousness to an outside world that can never be reached.


Knowledge, I conceive, is the discovery through the implication of things and events of some thing or things which enable us to carry on where a problem had held us up. It is the fact that we can carry on that guarantees our knowledge.

I should like to adduce in favor of this view that it is the only doctrine that justifies the feeling of assurance in knowledge. We cannot find justification in a permanent and irrefragable past. Each generation and often different minds within a generation have discovered different pasts. And these pasts are not only different because they have become more spacious and richer in detail. They have become essentially different in their fundamental significance. We speak of the past as final and irrevocable. There is nothing that is less so, if we take it as the pictured extension which each generation has spread behind itself. One past displaces and abrogates another as inexorably as the rising generation buries the old. How many different Caesars have crossed the Rubicon since 1800? But, you say, there must be identical events in each, else the new past could not displace the old and occupy its field. Yes, there are coincidences of events that are relatively permanent, and which make possible translation from one historic account to another. But coincidences of events are not the objects of our knowledge. Through centuries the Mesopotamian magicians recorded the dim eclipses that disastrous twilight shed on half the nations and, with fear of change, perplexed their monarchs. The clever Greeks took over their Great Saros but saw planetary bodies interposed through the revolution of heavenly spheres about the central stable earth. Copernicus, more successful than his Greek prototype Aristarchus, with the hand of Joshua stayed the sun in the heavens and dispatched the earth with her satellite in an orbit about the sun to cast the stellar shadows that are no longer ominous; and now it is a matter of indifference to the relativist whether earth or sun revolve to bring about these eclipses. The Mesopotamian recognized fantastic gods in hostile chase; the Greek, incorruptible spheres within spheres. Since the Renaissance the Western world has known

(96) inert masses moving through an indifferent space according to Newtonian laws. I am quite incompetent to paraphrase stellar history in an Einsteinian world, nor has eye seen or ear heard what new heavens and new earth will in another fifty or a hundred years displace ours in the history that that generation will write of its habitat. In all the histories there were certain coincidences that ran through all and make a thread on which all may be strung in the history of histories. But, whatever else they may be, these coincidences are but abstractions from the objects of our knowledge. They are not the past that interprets our present.

No scientist secure in his experimental method would base that security upon the agreement of its results with the structure of any changeless past that is within his ken. Indeed, if the past were fixed, there could be no more progress in knowledge, for every discovery refashions that past pari passu with the present.

Otherwise stated, the past is a working hypothesis that has validity in the present within which it works but has no other validity. However, the question of validity does not arise at all, except in the presence of some problem. It is only then that we undertake to discover the solution to the problem and assure ourselves of its validity by experiment or observation in some crucial instance if possible. And then we say that we know. Whatever fits into the world that is there, so that we act with reference to it as we do with reference to the world that is there, so far as experience is concerned, is there also, until in conduct we find that it is not there; and then we have a problem on our hands and have to find out what is there -- a problem 0f inference, of implication, of knowledge.

That sort of knowledge belongs to the present and the future that tests the hypothetical present. It does not belong to the past, that is, it does not find its significance in the past. Here again we have to distinguish between significance for knowledge and the significance that belongs, for example, to a drama. There is significance in President Wilson's fight for the League

(97) of Nations that is a timeless significance like that of an Ibsen tragedy. The significance of the planetesimal hypothesis does not lie in the past aeons in which we assume its operation but in our present use of it in stating a going universe. With new data it will be modified or laid aside. At present it is presumably truer than any other hypothesis. The past that is there for us, as the present is there, stands on the same basis as the world about us that is there. The past that has to be found out, to be inferred, is appealing for its significance to our present undertaking of interpreting our world, so that it will be intelligible for present conduct and estimation.

The long and short of it is that the only reality of the past open to our reflective research is the implication of the present, that the only reason for research into the past is the present problem of understanding a problematic world, and the only test of the truth of what we have discovered is our ability to so state the past that we can continue the conduct whose inhibition has set the problem to us.

Now this assumption of the pragmatist that the individual only thinks in order that he may continue an interrupted action, that the criterion of the correctness of his thinking is found in his ability to carry on, and that the significant goal of his thinking or research is found not in the ordered presentation of the subject matter of his research but in the uses to which it may be put, is very offensive to many people, and, I am afraid, particularly so to the historian. Pragmatism is regarded as a pseudo-philosophic formulation of that most obnoxious American trait, the worship of success; as the endowment of the four-flusher with a faked philosophic passport; the contemptuous swagger of a glib and restless upstart in the company of the mighty but reverent spirits worshiping at the shrine of subsistent entities and timeless truth; a blackleg pacemaker introduced into the leisurely workshop of the spirit to speed up the processes of thinking sub specie aeternitatis; a Ford efficiency engineer bent on the mass production of philosophical tin lizzies. These disparagements are all boomerangs, but I will not con-

(98) -stitute this a clinic in which to demonstrate the contusions which those who have hurled them have suffered, but will address myself to the single charge that this philosophy would dispossess men of the leisured contemplation and enjoyment of the past.

First of all, pragmatism holds no brief against aesthetic experience. It is an activity to be acknowledged like all other human activities, and like these it faces its own problems, those of appreciation, and solves them by reflection. When by reflection have been reconstructed the landscapes of that mighty world of eye and ear, or of the confused pageants of the past, the spirit enters into its enjoyment with the sense

Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

But beside the literary historian, whose works are as precious as are those of the great dramatists and architects, there is the dry-as-dust, or, as he is called today, the scientific, historian. His criterion may not be aesthetic, at least not until he has satisfied his scientific conscience. His task is the scrupulous determination of facts, the formation of hypotheses and the testing of them by the data within the reach of his investigation. But facts are not there to be picked up. They have to be dissected out, and data are the most difficult of abstractions in any field. More particularly, their very form is dependent upon the problem within which they lie. There is, of course, a vast amount of machinery involved in the storing, cataloguing and analyzing of unbound material, pertinent and impertinent, but the working of this machinery does not constitute the work of the historian. It is but his apparatus.

It is, after all, in the problem that he finds the definition of his data, and in its solution the test of his sufficiency. Have those problems any other residence than in the need to better comprehend the society of which we are a part, and is the comprehension of that society anything but the considerate effort

(99) to face conduct in that society intelligently? I do not think so. I think we overlook the intricate organization of the republic of letters to which we belong. A man picks up a problem and calls it his, with perhaps slight appreciation that he is taking up a task which arises out of the conflict of insistent social processes, for the solution of which he has volunteered. He makes it his own, but he did not originate it. The academic attitude of creating problems for Doctor's theses is not favorable to the just realization of what problems are when they are genuine. And then the man who has taken up the assignment naturally magnifies his office. He looks at the results of his labors sub specie aeternitatis because he does not see just what part of the whole job his has been. It requires the detached attitude of a later day to see the fruit of his efforts combined with that of many others in a shift of the community's attitude toward the incompetency of its institutions.

Now the past that is thus constituted is a perspective, and what will be seen in that perspective, and what will be the relations between its elements, depends upon the point of reference. If we wish to regard it metaphysically, there are an infinite number of possible perspectives, each of which will give a different definition to the parts and reveal different relations between them. Which of these particular perspectives is the right one, metaphysically? There is no answer to the question, except a mystical engulfing of all the perspectives and ourselves with them in the Absolute. But the Absolute answers no queries. It provides emotional aspirations at the price of intellectual immolation.

This particular perspective is there, thanks to the particular problem of social reconstruction that is going on, and with the change in the situation all of its features. will have suffered a transformation, and the landscape will melt into other contours as they do for the eye of him who ascends a mountain. Its significance is eternally fixed in the eternally passing and creative present. The most that we can do is to find the constants of coincident events, in themselves bloodless abstractions, by

(100) which to translate from one consentient set to another, to use the jargon of the relativist.

I do not think that this standpoint abrogates from the potency or impressiveness of the past, or relaxes the sinews of the historian; unless it be from the standpoint of the lotus-eater for whom

All things are taken from us and become portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights and flaming towns, and sinking ships and praying hands.

The past is impressive as it emerges into that form and structure which gives solidity and significance to the hasting and evanescent present.


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