Hermeneutics is the field of the problem of reading dubious documents and document sets; Figuring out what actually happened.

Exegesis is the act of producing a reading in a non divinely inspired manner based on close documentary analyses; Telling an honest story of the past as it was.

(Exegesis’ comparator is eisegesis. Eisegesis relies on Gods’ inspiration to reveal how to correctly read. Outside of the proclamations of saints and prophets, eisegesis is normally a term of derision for a reading of texts which bends texts to serve meaning. Exegesis is meant to bend meaning to serve the texts that have been read.)

Historians are deeply interested in questions of “who” did what? In more theoretical terms, who is a social agent? Are individuals? Are institutions? Are social classes? Vibes? Cultures? Nations? Races? Gods? Monsters? Plate techtonics? The stars? Some of these are considered valid agents, others invalid. How do historians differentiate valid from invalid when reading documents to write about who did what?

Historians are deeply interested in the question of who “did what?” In more theoretical terms what is the process of causation of happenstance? Why do things happen and how? Geography? Class conflict? Chance? Divine action? Predestination? Heroic individual exertion? Press of bureaucracy? Planning and reserves to overcome Murphy? A total chaos? Some of these are considered valid theories of causation, others invalid. How do historians differentiate valid from invalid when reading documents to write about who did what?

As examples: Herbert Butterfield (1931) The Whig Interpretation of History; Herbert Spencer (1896) The Study of Sociology.

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    What is the antecedent of "Its" in "Its relative eisegesis relies on Gods’ inspiration to reveal how to correctly read."? Nov 2, 2018 at 12:57
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    Not an answer here, but with regards to what is an agent - does the term not imply will or conscious action as opposed to an object acted on by forces (natural or unnatural) which may be causal by virtue of happenstance as opposed to decision? Just wondering out loud... not a linguist or professional historian and my only experience with hermeneutics and exegesis is lay religious / scripture study.
    – Kerry L
    Nov 2, 2018 at 16:49
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    Who was it that considered certain agents and theories invalid, and what reasons did they give for saying so? Nov 2, 2018 at 17:51

2 Answers 2


I'll apply the same caveat as Mr. Geerkens, and go beyond that to acknowledge that this is a bad answer because it involves no sources. This is a frame challenge.

Historians are deeply interested in questions of “who” did what?

I'm skeptical. Both the Annales school and the Marxists (Arguably the Marxists are eisegetical (thank you for the new word)) emphasize the influence of abstract forces on history over that of "agents". In my opinion, "What happened?" is more important than "who did what?" (I'm aware that I've quoted imprecisely; after debugging excel all day, I'm not up to the challenge of finding the stack markup language to represent enclosed quotations. I don't think it damages the meaning).

What are the limits? The same as any other observational science. Based on the evidence, construct a narrative. (hypothesis or model). Test that narrative against other evidence. Does this narrative explain? If it were true, what other predictions could it make? If it were false, where would it conflict with existing evidence? How does this new narrative compare with the existing narrative? Where they differ, which has greater explanatory or predictive power?

If I recall correctly, the Whig narrative of history was undermined by Dr. Bailyn's research into revolutionary and federalist era pamphlets. The new evidence didn't support the established narrative and a new narrative was needed. Beard's narrative of Whig agency was diminished and a new narrative gave greater agency to socio-economic factors other than class. (my apologies for a crap summary of generations of scholarship.

What limits a historian? Plausibility. Predictive power. And of course, since it is science, the plausibility of competing theories.

Mr. Geerkens asked me to clarify predictive models in historiography. I avoided that in my original draft because I tend to rant and rave on the subject..... I will try to limit my rabid frothing, but I must confess it is something I don't articulate well because I get cranky. I'm also woefully out of date and I'm not sure where my basic reference texts are.

I'm a certified Risk Management Professional; there is a fairly common accusation against our profession that risk management and Bayesian statistics are not science because there is no control group, and we don't perform formal experiments. The rant usually starts when I ask where the control group for astronomy is. History is an observational science. Like astronomy or sociology, or economics or like Jane Goodall, we don't work with control groups - we do a form of regression theory - build a model, then test it against observations, and then test it again against other observations where it ought to be predictive. We tend to think about science as experimental, but there are branches of science that are purely observational.

I wish I remembered enough of the controversy between Beard and Bailyn to extend my discussion of Whiggish history above, but the example that comes to mind is Levi-Strauss' analysis of masks. (Lévi-Strauss, Claude. La Voie des masques (1972, The Way of the Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski, 1982)). Strauss analyzed masks, and noted that certain features of a mask were associated with specific mythological patterns. (I haven't read this in at least 15 years, so I may have the details wrong; the work is available online, but behind a transaction wall) Masks with square eyes and dark colors were associated with one set of archetypes. If that association were valid, then we would expect (predict) masks with round eyes and light colors to be associated with complementary archteypes. This was true for the masks in question.

Another model is class structure - If Marxist theory were valid, then we would expect class identity to have more force than ethnic identity. Observationally, that is not true; the model does not predict behavior. Predictions of behavior based on the assumption of the proletariat are much less accurate than predictions of behavior based on perceptions of race. (I freely grant that upper socioeconmic classes actively interposed race as a tool to split the proletariat, but that tactic was more successful than any predictive model.

There has been a historical narrative that war is a male activity and soldiers were male. Scally LLama articulates an alternative model that explains more of the evidence we see in history.

In order to maintain the Beard model of Whiggish history, or the Marxist model of class, you need to encumber the model with ornate assumptions that become more and more cumbersome. Models that are simpler, and more efficient at prediction win.

I'm sorry that I'm not able to articulate those examples well - I'll look for better examples.

  • I have no advanced degree - so corrected my title to the nearest correct possibility. Nov 2, 2018 at 22:00
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    I'm a physicist by education. What are your thoughts on the means by which experimental verification of a historical or historiographical theory might be obtained? How is a prediction obtained? Nov 2, 2018 at 22:02


The approach described below is my own. It is informed by my personal life experience, which includes a fascination with history that stretches back over more than five decades. I make no claim that it otherwise represents the viewpoints of professional historians or historiographers. Your mileage may vary.

All those sentient beings participating in an historical event should be regarded as actors. I see two critical dimensions of satisfaction that must be required for a particular actor to be a valid agent.

The first dimension is the possession by an actor of some combination of influence, authority, and capability.

  • Influence is the ability to exploit one's understanding, in the exercise of free will, through use of the spoken and written word, instigating action by other actors. Humans are verbal creatures, and our ability to communicate complex ideas I believe to be the most fundamental distinction between us and the beasts both wild and tame. I list this aspect of the dimension first because I believe it to be of most consequence; that much which is attributed to authority, for example, is actually due to influence.

  • Authority is the ability to instigate action by other actors through coercive use of the power structure of a hierarchy. The actual threat of coercion I see as critical to a proper assignment of authority. Much of leadership, especially competent leadership, is more properly assigned to influence than authority. The mere existence of a hierarchy is insufficient to imply authority, as hierarchies are often of competence rather than power.

    The reality TV show Survivor exemplifies the superiority of influence over authority. The immunity idol and other McGuffins introduced by the producers introduce the only true source of authority in the contest. But those who rely on such without obtaining influence are usually voted off the island at an early opportunity.

  • Capability is the possession of both means and opportunity for direct personal action by an actor that affects events. The reading of history is, by its nature, about the events that happened - and thus where capability was usually present. However we must be alert also to those events that did not happen, but could reasonably be thought of as possible events. Their absence identifies where capability existed but will was exercised to ensure they did not - and may reveal agents not immediately visible.

The second dimension is the presence of both understanding and will.

  • Understanding must be measured as encompassing both the current circumstance and the consequences of available actions. It presupposes knowledge of the present circumstance, and often also of prior events leading up to it. Understanding is necessary of an agent because without it any action taken is simply a random perturbation of the time line.

  • Will as I use it here is more restrictive than free will as defined in philosophy. An actor who is coerced into action always retains free will in the philosophical and moral sense, and full responsibility for consequence of actions taken, but may lack will as I use it here. Will is obtained, by choice, through the exercise of free will. Those World War Two slave labourers who slipped sand into engine blocks and clipped dipsticks too low achieved agency, albeit minor, through the free will choice to exercise will.

Given these definitions, any valid exegetic reading of a historical text must be accompanied by an analysis of the extent to which the various actors possess agency in the events described. It is to be expected that causation may variously be assigned at times to agents, and at times to simple random perturbation by either external events (nature) or actors lacking any significant degree of agency. The historian must be held to account for making rationale decisions on those assignments.

  • This discussion is way above my pay grade ;-) but surely causation is not merely about actors? Humans live in a material universe with its own "rules", and are subject to external forces - environmental change, crop failure (cf Irish Potato Famines) etc. IIRC both X-rays and penicillin were initially discovered by accident. "Free will" is mediated by such external factors, and is never completely free.
    – TheHonRose
    Nov 3, 2018 at 3:28
  • @TheHonRose: Did you read right to the end? "It is to be expected that causation may variously be assigned at times to agents, and at times to simple random perturbation by either external events (nature) or actors lacking any significant degree of agency." Nov 3, 2018 at 3:39
  • Yes, apologies, I probably did not give sufficient weight to your last paragraph, but I do think the emphasis on actors deprivileges the extent to which humans react to events as they occur, rather than engaging in independent action.
    – TheHonRose
    Nov 3, 2018 at 3:59
  • @TheHonRose: That's my point - providing a basis for establishing the extent to which the actors in an event have true agency, and thus qualify as agents with ability to generate planned causation instead of merely being instruments of fate. Nov 3, 2018 at 4:14

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