Microhistorical Epistemology at 3rd INTH conference “Place and Displacement" 20-22 August 2018

The Centre of Philosophical Studies of History is represented in the conference by the Panel: "Microhistorical Epistemology. Building the Epistemology of Historiography through Practice"


Chair: Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen (University of Oulu)

Commentator: Giuseppina D'Oro (Keele University)

Panelists: Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Ilkka Lähteenmäki, Georg Gangl, Daniel Fairbrother


Panel Abstract:

A wide consensus seems to be emerging on “epistemology naturalized”: Philosophers cannot assume a standpoint above and beyond the actual sciences and their practices and proceed from the pure  philosophical standards of a priori conceptual or transcendental analysis or ineluctable truths of logic. This ‘postpositivist’ consensus is also widely shared in the philosophy of history and historiography, along with the commitment that historiography is nevertheless a rational and disciplined practice that produces knowledge (pace some in the postmodernist and narrativist camp).

In order to understand these knowledge-producing practices and their epistemic grounding it is necessary to focus our studies on disciplinary-specific practices. In the philosophy of historiography, epistemic values such as coherence, consistency, explanatory power, empirical adequacy, scope, exemplification, originality, fruitfulness, simplicity have occupied the discussion in recent years in this respect. Strong naturalist such as Paul Roth are weary of the validity of such values beyond the any locale while others, such as Peter Kosso and Aviezer Tucker, have put strong emphasis on one of those values, coherence in particular, as the justification of historiographic knowledge claims. To put it bluntly, strong naturalists claim that

(1) any general theories are universalistic and empirically poorly warranted. No analysis of local context can provide a generally applicable theory.

By contrast, the critics of strong naturalism argue that
(2) any analysis of practice that is only locally focused is normatively irrelevant, because the validity of conclusions is internal, i.e. confined to this
one specific locality.

In short, we are faced with a dilemma between positions keen on discipline constituting epistemic values and forms of strong naturalism. Given this state of affairs, it thus looks like that we have either empirically unfounded general theories or normatively irrelevant local analyses.

Microhistorical epistemology aims to solve this dilemma by focusing on local practices with an intent to identify epistemically significant principles in this practice. Its main aim is to develop a novel way to construct epistemic theories and to learn about the practice of historiography. In other words, it develops and implements a method, the epistemologically relevant microhistorical method, which enables the generation of warranted epistemic principles and even theories. A central premise is that the dichotomy between data and interpretation is too simplistic, because history writing begins with an existing discursive field and historical consciousness. In other words, previous research and writing sets a starting point for any research. This is to say that rules guiding epistemic inferences in historiography must be sought from the social practice of historians. This enables one to understand how a historian arrives at a specific account, in what way this account is justified and what kind of role evidence plays in this process. That is, which practices justify their intellectual outcomes (and which not) and can therefore be regarded as knowledge.


Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen: Redefining the critical and conservative writing of history One of the foundational distinctions in historiography is that between description and interpretation. A pure description characterizes the state of affairs in the external world objectively without adding any contextual or value-laden elements. Most known philosophies of history appeal to descriptions when an account of facts or of other so called factual matter is given. By contrast, interpretation is thought to provide some kind of meaning or significance for the matter of external world. Interpretation makes the matter meaningful, when viewed in a specific light or from a particular point of view. A fact can be interpreted equally well in several ways.

In my talk, I argue that this is a false dichotomy and that there is nothing like a pure description. This is to say that there is no non-inferential description and knowledge. Instead, the dichotomy should be  between old (inferential) and new(er) (inferential) descriptions. Both old and new inferential descriptions rely on different presuppositions, or perhaps on the presupposition of different times. The old inferential description appears descriptive of events and facts only because the language of it has been widely accepted and presuppositions thereby concealed.

The view is illustrated by concrete historiographical examples. While the Bolshevik revolution that happened in 1917 may seem like an obvious fact, this is only so, because of a certain convention has been accepted. Orlando Figes exemplifies in his book Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991 (London: Pelican, 2014) how this revolution can be rationally understood in eight different ways.

That all description is inferential is important regarding the rationale of historiography. The approaches that presuppose that there is pure description tend to understand historiography as something like the causal linking of independent events and as the simple narration of events. I argue that historiography at its best is rational criticism, which ‘unmasks’ old descriptions and their presuppositions. Therefore, we should make a distinction between critical and conservative historiography in which the attitude to historical language functions as a demarcation criterion: the more a study of history focuses on the language used, deconstructing old and reconstructing new, the more critical it is. Further, the less it does this and ‘merely describes,’ the more conservative the study is.


Ilkka Lähteenmäki: The Curious Case of Alexander I’s speech in Porvoo - A case study of source usage in a historical debate

The aim of the study is to cast light on the different kind of roles that primary sources play in the practice of historiographical argumentation. This is done by looking into a historical debate of a single topic that spans over a century; namely the meaning of the Russian emperor Alexander I’s speech in the Diet of Porvoo in 1809. The debate is theoretically interesting as a case study, because it embodies both Hayden White’s view of historical interpretations as being determined by nonepistemological factors and Frank Ankersmit’s idea of inert primary sources, which cannot yield answers in modern historiographical debates. According to Ankersmit, we no longer have texts, we have only interpretations of texts. His argument here being that so much historiography has been produced that historians cannot engage directly with the primary sources anymore. Instead, they have to take part in historiographical discussion of the topic.

In this “case study”, the discursive context is the different interpretations of Alexander I's speech in Porvoo. Historiographical discussion here is not about the primary sources (the speech itself), but focuses on the different interpretations of that speech that have been presented.

The study thus focuses on the primary and secondary source usage in the historiographical debate in question. The interpretations ebb back and forth between two main lines of though. In the first one, Alexander I promised Finland its own self-governance (and thus prefigured Finland’s subsequent independence in 1917). While according to the second, he did not know what he was in fact talking
about, and therefore, the speech could not possibly be understood as a founding moment of the state of Finland. The first phase begun in 1889, and ended in the “victory” of a pro-Finland national interpretation of the speech which then dominated the historiographical discussion until the 1960's. During the -60’s young historians abandoned the pro-Finland national interpretation and presented more
varied points of view. These newer views re-sparked the old debate and it is partially still going on.

During this time period spanning over a century, changes in the political climate and national ambitions seem to have mainly shaped the historical interpretations, which makes this a interesting case to explore.


Georg Gangl: The Scientific Revolution: The Emergence, Development and  Justification of a Colligatory Concept

The Scientific Revolution is a pivotal concept in the history of science which has been brought back to the forefront of disciplinary discussion through Floris Cohen’s How Modern Science Came into the World. Four Civilizations, One 17th Century Breakthrough (Cohen 2010). Cohen’s 1000 pages magnum opus has been both heralded as the new standard work on the topic and criticized for what some have perceived as its cognitivist (or rationalist) leanings; while its comparative approach that discusses the Scientific Revolution not just in relation to developments Western Europe (“4 civilizations”) has been met with unanimous approval. Phrased in the language of the epistemology of historiography, it would seem that in the debate on the work some epistemic values have been considered more crucial than others by
Cohen’s critics yet it is not entirely clear which and on what grounds.

While most theories in the philosophy of historiography generally and on epistemic values in particular submit themselves to the demand that they be empirically evaluated, not much actual empirical research focusing on real historiographical disputes has been done so far. Cohen’s widely acclaimed and discussed book seems to be a good starting point for such a philosophical and microhistorical evaluation.

Recently, it has been argued persuasively that works of historiography are evaluated practically in the disciplinary debate on both epistemic and discursive levels. This paper takes this insight on and pays therefore special attention to both how Cohen understands the concept of the ‘Scientific Revolution’ in the discursive field and how it has been understood by preceding accounts. Through this perspective, it should become clearer which different kinds of epistemic values Cohen and his critics prioritize and to what extent colligatory concepts depend upon rational factors such as epistemic values or irrational influences of all sorts.


Daniel Fairbrother:  Narrative sentences versus historical action-sentences

This paper offers an alternative to Arthur Danto’s analysis of narrative sentences as the key to understanding history. Narrative sentences offer descriptions in terms of two time-separated events and are ‘about’ the earlier event. While Danto’s sentences relate two actual events, here I argue that this obscures what it is that the retrospective description contained by a narrative sentence actually achieves.

My alternative is to conceive history as being about dynamic situations in the past which are characterised by variable ranges of possibilities for action. Narrative is just one way to convey historical situations in the absence of fully rich contemporaneous data. The reason narratives work is that they roll on a form of information which is already in one sense proto-narrative: the “what might happen next” our sense of which constitutes situational knowledge.

Narrative is not the only option. Here I prefer Timothy Williamson’s naturalistic account of human knowledge of possibilities in complex situations to describe the relevant fundamental sort of information and our knowledge of it. Basing my account on a reading of the informational content of history, not its form, makes my account specific to human history. Yet, I leave it open that analogous versions are available for other areas (e.gs. fiction, the historical sciences).

The main sections of the paper offer a detailed analysis of historical actionsentences. Historical action-sentences do two things. They follow Danto’s philosophical method in offering the logic of a type of sentence to typify historical knowledge. They are not narrative sentences, however, because they do not relate two actual events. Instead, they relate actual action-events to a context of possible next actions. The
significance of an action in a complex possibility-space is thus treated as the main informational basis of history.

This general theory lets us look back at Danto’s narrative sentences and fill-in the gaps. For example, Danto never explains why he thinks narrative sentences are only ‘about’ the earlier event in any narrative-sentential pair of events. On my account, later events – actual, but contingent – can shed light on earlier events in so far as they function as limited signals of the context of possibilities in which the earlier event took place.

The paper employs examples drawn from my broader project focussing on accounts of the transition from antiquity to feudalism. It closes by reflecting on the broader consequences of adopting “possibilism” as a fundamental theory in the philosophy of history. The origins of such a theory in the cultural geography of Paul Vidal de la Blache are taken to suggest a connection between the micro-historical concerns pursued at Oulu and the conference’s spatial theme.


Last updated: 16.8.2018