This is a question on the historical method, or historiography. If it does not belong here, please kindly remove it and redirect me to a more appropriate place, thanks!

I'm currently researching on the topic of historical reasoning. I have noticed that counterfactual reasoning features dominantly in explaining the causes of events, with the schema "had X not done Y, then Z would not have occurred." Is there an argument for the legitimacy of such reasoning in history? Such statements seem (pardon me) little more than thought experiments.

Another kind of reasoning that I have seen is analogical reasoning. So for instance, historians pick out certain similarities between revolutions and elicit certain common causal factors.

(Thanks to Semaphore for this development.) A recent example of how laypeople use analogical reasoning is the downing of MH17, where many were quick to draw similarities between KAL 007 (see this for example).

I am not a practising historian, and I would really like to have some insights into the historical method.

  • 1
    Regarding your example, Fox News hosts are not "historians". As for counterfactuals, I'd say that depends on how you're using it. For instance, we might approach the importance of Hiroshima/Nagasaki to Japan's surrender by asking, "Would Japan have surrendered if the atomic bombs hadn't been dropped?" Whether or not this becomes "little more than thought experiments" then hinges on whether the historian presents a logical analysis of the situation based on facts. For example, by studying the effects of the blockade on Japan's will to fight.
    – Semaphore
    Jul 24 '14 at 8:50
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    Thanks for the correction. Perhaps what I meant in mind was historical reasoning in laypeople, which shows the need for an even more rigorous justification for analogical thinking in history. Jul 24 '14 at 9:33
  • Could we clarify what the question is? You've discussed some interesting topics, but what is it that you'd like to know (beyond an insight into historical method)?
    – MCW
    Jul 31 '14 at 13:58
  • Apologies if it sounded too broad; well my question is on example of the usage of such analogous reasoning in constructing historical explanations. Jul 31 '14 at 14:00
  • Yes, and also whether counterfactual reasoning would be more reliable than analogous reasoning. Jul 31 '14 at 14:05

Unfortunately, historians are not very scientific, so the kind of reasoning you envision is more or less absent in historical research. History, as practiced today, is more about collating facts from literary sources, rather than reasoning about those facts. Not that there haven't been plenty of people who have attempted theories of historical reasoning. For example...

Karl Marx (and Engels) are perhaps the best known historical logicians. They created a method they called "dialectical materialism" which proposed a sort of logic of history. It was popular in the former Soviet Union.

One of the best known theorists on historical reasoning is Karl Popper. He was a philosopher, not a historian. As a general rule, theories on historical reasoning tend to be constructed by philosophers like Popper, not historians.

Plenty of other such theorists can be found. For example, a man named Lewis published the book "A Treatise on the Methods of Observation and Reasoning in Politics" in 1852 and you can find many other such books. Historians ignore such books.

I took many history courses in college and not once on any of the reading lists was any kind of analytical or methodological work included, nor did any of the lectures ever include any attempt to teach the students how to reason about historical fact. You can assume all American history professors were brought up in the same tradition.

In terms of recent publications you can refer to Martha Howell's "From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods" which sketches out the basics of how historians work and various techniques for ascertaining "the truth", whatever that means.

  • +1 because much of this is true, but when historians attempt to reason about trends and tendencies, they are often criticized (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) for various logical errors like: overuse of stereotyping, ignoring facts that don't fit their hypotheses, and emphasizing facts that do fit their hypotheses. Often there is not enough statistical data for something rigorous like regression analysis and no controls like in scientific method, so we are left no better than Aristotle in our logical toolkit.
    – Mike
    Jul 24 '14 at 23:15
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    Examples of widely criticized historians who attempted to build wider theories of cause and effect: Arnold J. Toynbee, William Strauss and Neil Howe, Samuel Huntington. It seems like any historian or political scientist who wants to write an overarching theory of about the cause of events had better put a steel cup in his (or her) jock strap.
    – Mike
    Jul 24 '14 at 23:22
  • To add to what @Mike said, another problem is that historians do not always know the bounds of the problem domain they are working with because it is nearly impossible to nail down all the inputs to a historical situation.
    – ihtkwot
    Jul 25 '14 at 3:07
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    Do you think Thucydides is worth a mention here?
    – andy256
    Jul 25 '14 at 6:30
  • I have followed Tyler's suggestion on Popper, and it was really interesting. While Popper was most famous for his falsificationism in science, in the Open Society and its Enemies he also advocated for history, not as a science (in the sense of Marxist historiography), but history as meaning. Jul 25 '14 at 9:45

Analogical reasoning is fine, if done well. It is normal for people to compare events with their own experiences or with other things that have happened in the past. Hopefully the analogy fits and doesn't lead

A problem with contrafactuals too far is that historians tend to freeze all other contingencies and let the history diverge wildly. In reality, things tend to 'repair' themselves. Losers in a battle work harder to get even, while winners have to move deeper into enemy territory and disperse to hold the conquered territory.

For example, in the US Civil War the capture of the CSA army at Ft. Donelson didn't end the war...instead the CSA scrambled and put out a new army that lost a close battle at Shiloh. But contrafactual histories of Gettysburg, where and CSA win would likely be a narrow one, assume that the war would end right there, rather than the US army falling back a dozen miles or so (where they had a defensive line mapped out) and fighting again. So in reality, a CS win at Gettysburg would likely end much like a CS loss did, with Lee eventually retiring to VA for the fall.

  • I can agree that so many people do stupid so well that they come off looking smart and so socially analogical is acceptable but in no other place has it business of value.
    – user1990
    Jul 25 '14 at 23:22

I would like to refer everyone to Professor Margaret MacMillan's use of analogous reasoning in her article here. It is indeed very interesting to note how analogy is used.

After further research, I came up with the following idea that analogous reasoning identifies a certain 'abstraction' from which common events are related. Historians then apply the same abstractions to newer events. I was pretty disheartened to see that there is no rigorous defence of analogous history, though. Anyhow, thanks for the numerous perspectives, and I hope you can share more ideas.

Edit: I also saw a recent post 'pattern for world wars?' which I have to clarify, is not my objective in discussing Prof MacMillan's paper here. I am more interested in the application of historical analogy, rather than coming up with a general framework to subsume all world wars under (that would just be speculative!)

  • Give the name of the article, please, as the link is broken. May 24 '18 at 18:33

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