Eugene Guth on Historians and the Scientific Approach
By Eugene Guth
Historical evolution entered also philosophy and social sciences, like economy and political science, and law. The chief purpose of these efforts was, however, not the study of history for its own sake but for the utilitarian purpose of "learning from the past." Moreover, such historical studies of, for example, law or economy have often been written by lawyers and economists and not by historians. The dissatisfaction of historians with such accounts is perhaps partially responsible for the negative attitude of most, or at least many, historians toward the achievement of scientific thinking and heir failure to explore the possibilities which a scientific approach has to offer. This "tension" between historians and social scientists is an interesting topic in itself, but would lead us far away from our main topic.
Incidentally, a historical approach developed gradually, encompassing all arts and letters, literature and languages, art and music; all have been studied in a historical manner. Again, however, this started as a work of specialists interested in the history of their topics. Pioneers like Winckeman, Dr. Burney, Tiraboshi, and Victor Cousin intended with their books to deepen and broaden the appreciation and understanding of the student of art, of music, or literature, and of philosophy. The emphasis on the historical environment was taken up only later by more or less professional historians.
I return now to the contrast between the Hero-Worship attitude of Carlyle and the modern general history of Ferrero, two authors who influenced me greatly in high school, as I mentioned before. Ferrero's "The Greatness and Decline of Rome" is perhaps not as well-known in the United States as it should be. Ferrero was also an early believer in, and wrote a little book about, the "Unity of the World." (Willkie's book, "One World or None" came ten years later.)
Since a lot of you, I am sure, have not heard about Ferrero before, let me tell you what the distinguished American historian, Charles A. Beard, says about him in a Foreward to that little book: "It is a small book about a great subject by a distinguished thinker. Such combinations are not common, and it is written with an artistic flair which delights the reader by whirling him in time and space, challenging him and informing him."
In the Preface of the American edition of his history of Rome, he displays an attitude which can be applied to the history of contemporary United States. "I have studied the history of Rome from the point of view of the transformation of man, of the increase of luxury, and of the standard of living from generation to generation." This attitude is less dated than that of Mommsen, for example, whose books "were written from the special point of view that interested the majority at that time, the conflict between the public and the monarchy."
Ferrero also wrote a very interesting volume called the "Women of the Ceasars." This is a topic which is sometimes not considered adequately. People talk about "the man behind the throne," and we should consider the "women behind the men." The women behind the men play a much more important role, for instance, for politicians, than a lot of people think. This was true about the Caesars and it also is true about scientists. I could mention several cases. Quite a few scientists who were great became even greater, because they had the proper wives, and scientists who could have been equally great were retarded by not quite so good a choice.
(Here is something which is not directly related to our topic. Some of you may not know the "Women of the Caesars." At that time, the women already had greater freedom when Rome became the master state of the Mediterranean Area. There were different types of legal marriages – one was "manus," which ws the older form where all the goods of the wife passed to the ownership of the husband, so that she could no longer possess anything in her own name. And there was the marriage without "manus," in which only the dowry became the property of the husband, and the wife remained mistress of all her other belongings and all that she might acquire. This is not the modern way where she keeps hers and she gets his.)
Among modern historians, let me discuss very briefly Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose books some of you may have read. Schlesinger is a follower of Carlyle, a romantic historian. He considers history made by "men in buff coats and breeches, with color in their cheeks, with passions in their stomachs, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men." This type of history is in contrast to the unromantic, "scientific" approach of Ranke, which emphasized thoroughness and impartiality at the expense of readability. Sometimes the text was almost drowned in footnotes!
Schlesinger is an adherent of the "confusion theory" of history. He believes in the "role of chance, the contingency, the sheer intricacy of situations, the mark of battle." This is in contrast to the "conspiracy theory," according to which "if something happened, somebody planned it." Schlesinger also disagrees with the "prophetic historians," like Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee, who use "one big hypothesis to explain a variety of small things." All these diverse attitudes in history in general show up also in the history of science.
About the Author
Eugene Guth, http://michaelguth.com/family/eugeneguth.htm , made pioneering contributions to Polymer Physics and significant contributions to Nuclear and Solid State Physics. At the age of 23, he wrote the first comprehensive history of quantum theory in a 170-page Handbuch der Physik (Vol. IV) article, which was highly praised by Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli.
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