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Understanding History

Jonathan Gorman

Chapter 1. History: Practice and Theory

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  • 1 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ch. xiv.

1“I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention,” said Catherine Morland of history in Northanger Abbey.1 Must history be invention, at least a great deal of it? Is what historians say just a matter of opinion, on which no sensible person would rely? Can the historical past be safely ignored? Or perhaps, on the other hand, we should recognize history as a proper member of the group of knowledge-acquiring disciplines. Perhaps there is some reality to the historical past which historians truly understand. Maybe we need to understand the past if we are to understand the world in which we now live.

2These issues about the nature of history, and about whether historians can provide any kind of knowledge or understanding of reality, are central to the philosophy of history.

3Philosophy of history is, in principle, a huge subject. The entire range of philosophical problems, as variously understood by many schools of philosophy past and present, can be applied to the whole range of historical writing with its many approaches, and indeed to historical reality itself. There is a maelstrom of ideas — sometimes with significant political implications — where the currents of philosophy and of history meet.

4The central question which is posed in this book is whether historians can provide knowledge about reality. The main reason why it might be supposed, at first sight, that historical knowledge is not possible is that historians frequently disagree. In the case of disagreement we would like to know, who is right? The philosopher’s main concern is whether it is possible for somebody to be right, whether a correctness of understanding is something we can hope to achieve.

5A theoretical issue like this contrasts with the direct questions about the historical past that the practical historian is concerned to answer: questions about what happened when, and why. A question such as “Why did upper-class American colonists embrace republican principles in the 1780s?” we can take to be a question falling within the practice, rather than the theory, of history.

6There may appear to be an obvious contrast between the theoretical and the practical questions. There are lots of kinds of theory, and the common-sense contrast with practice can be seen very easily if we consider moral theory, which we may imagine to consist of a set of principles telling us what we ought to do. Only the very virtuous do always what they ought to do, and only in their lives do theory and practice of this kind coincide. But all kinds of theory are like moral theory in that they are concerned with what “ought” to happen, and for all of them it is possible that a difference may exist between what the theory says and what it says it about. Given a certain technological theory, a bridge ought to stay up. Given a certain astronomical theory, an eclipse ought to occur on a particular date. Given a certain theory of scientific knowledge, scientists ought to operate in some special way in order to achieve knowledge.

7The “oughts” here are not moral “oughts” (thus, they compare to “the murderer ought not to have left his fingerprints on the weapon”), but they permit a contrast in principle between theory and practice, between theory and reality, in just the same way as moral theory can. However, the contrast between theory and practice is not a simple matter. When there is a contrast between theory and practice or reality, then something needs to be changed. It may seem to be a failure of our astronomical theory, if we predict an eclipse for the wrong date; and yet we need the theory to tell us that the darkening of the sun on the date it does occur is an eclipse, and not some other kind of event. On the other hand, it may seem to be a failure of practice if something is done which conflicts with the substantive principles of our moral theory; and yet, perhaps our moral principles are inadequate to specify properly what ought to be done in respect of new classes of actions, such as in genetic engineering. Finally, if historians operate in ways which seem to conflict with the requirements of the theory of knowledge, we cannot tell, in advance of the argument, what ought to be changed, the theory or the practice (or what we take to be reality). We have in the end to rely upon the certainty of the reasoning involved in reaching our conclusion.

8Thus we cannot proceed at once to consider the philosophical issues in abstraction from the practical questions. We shall see that the practical and the theoretical questions about understanding history will not make sense to us without each other. Practical historians cannot ignore philosophical questions, and continue their research and writings regardless of the answers to them. Theorists of history cannot work without some grasp of practical historical questions.

  • 2 For a useful introduction, see G. R. Hawke, Economics for Historians, Cambridge University Press, (...)

9In this book we propose to develop the philosophical debate over history by looking, not just at traditional historical writing, but at economic history. The belief that the social world should be understood largely in economic terms is widespread, in official social thinking as well as among many historians,2 and understanding the philosophical presuppositions of economic thinking in history is of wider than technical interest. We shall show how both traditional and economic history presuppose metaphysical and moral beliefs; we shall explain those beliefs and compare them, and finally show how beliefs of this kind are to be justified.

10In this chapter we shall illustrate historical practice with a real example, and show how our theoretical questions are essential to proper historical practice, in the judgements of historians themselves. The example has been especially chosen to make the theoretical questions particularly apparent, for unpacking the presuppositions of historical writing can often be a matter of great difficulty. When we have seen how the practical historical example links to theoretical issues, we shall continue by using that example to identify what the philosophical questions are for us.

  • 3 Details of the racial violence here, and of the economic history conference, are taken from R. W. (...)

11September 1967 marked the end of yet another summer in which American cities had been troubled by the violence of race rioting. Eightythree people — most of them black — had been killed and 1 897 had been injured, particularly in Newark and Detroit, the cities worst affected. “We are going to start with guns to get our liberation,” stated Stokely Carmichael, the black militant leader. “Our only answer is to destroy the government or to be destroyed. “No American with an interest in his country’s social reality could ignore the issues involved in satisfying black demands. Academic historians, away from the streets, were as exercised as anyone else.3

12That September many historians were at a meeting — the TwentySeventh Annual Conference of the Economic History Association — held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not one hundred miles from Newark. They were concerned with a subject linked both emotionally and in other ways to the racial problems surrounding them: black American slavery.

13The first black slaves were brought from Africa to America at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the Southern states of what in due course became the United States of America the production of tobacco and, later, cotton was less harsh on slaves than conditions in other parts of the Americas and the slave population increased naturally. By the end of the seventeenth century the majority of Southern blacks were American-born. The slaveholding way of life continued until 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed following the end of the Civil War between the Northern and the Southern states.

14The black race is an essential part of American life and history, and American people still live with the national memory of black slavery and civil war. The legal freeing of blacks may have been accomplished in 1865, but the view of blacks as being importantly different from whites, as not really a part of the ongoing progress of an essentially white nation, continued to be widespread. Racial discrimination, particularly in the Southern states, continued into the twentieth century; it continued also in the North, where it had never been absent, even among those who desired an end to slavery. Racial discrimination, and the tensions and violence it produced, were alike based on the views that blacks and whites held of each other. These views — expressions of different parts of the national memory — were fed by conceptions of the past.

  • 4 Journal of Political Economy, vol. 66, April, 1958, 95–122, reprinted in R. W. Fogel and S. L. Eng (...)

15Historians exist to supply conceptions of the past. At the Philadelphia conference they were concerned particularly with the economics of black American slavery. A major aim of that conference was to evaluate an essay written some years before, in 1958. In this article, “The Economics of Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South,” Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer4 asked the following question: Was slavery for the Southerners “an important (and evidently expensive) duty, part of their ‘unending task of race discipline’?” Or was the Southern plantation form of agriculture “at least as remunerative an activity as most other business enterprises in the young republic?”

  • 5 D. H. Fischer, Historians' Fallacies, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, p. 8.

16We cannot pass on without noticing now what was not noticed then, an example of what the historian David Hackett Fischer calls the “fallacy of many questions,” which he remarks has been variously defined as: “(1) framing a question in such a way that two or more questions are asked at once, and a single answer is required; or (2) framing a question in such a way as to beg another question; or (3) framing a question which makes a false presumption; or (4) framing a complex question but demanding a simple answer.”5 The particular thing wrong with Conrad’s and Meyer’s question is that it presents two questions as if the answer had to be “yes” to one or other of them. This was a mistake for two reasons: first, the answer might be “no” to both of them, for there might be a different and better way of dealing with the economics of slavery; second, the answer might be “yes” to both of them, for there is no inconsistency in the suggestion that duty and profit might go together. There is nothing “evidently expensive” about the “unending task of race discipline.”

17The problem the historians were dealing with here is better put as a single question: just how profitable was slavery? Conrad’s and Meyer’s work was important in particular in that it analysed the profitability of slavery in terms of “modern capital theory.” We shall explain the implications of this approach after outlining the economic viewpoint presupposed by Conrad’s and Meyer’s conception of profitability,

  • 6 Here, as in all ensuing examples, the pronouns “he,” “his,” etc. should be understood as inclusive (...)

18It was not the first time that somebody had thought to check on how profitable the slave plantations were. The slaveholders themselves did it, of course. But there are, at the simplest, two different ways of measuring the profitability of Southern plantation agriculture. One way is simply to audit the accounts of the slave plantation, as an accountant might do. Imagine that a Southerner wishes to begin a slave plantation for himself.6 He spends, let us say, $100 000. He buys land and slaves; he purchases or rents specialist slaves and equipment to help him to clear the land and construct the buildings he will need. He buys seed and animals. If he is a reasonably good manager, and does not suffer too much bad luck, then his plantation will produce, say, cotton. This he will sell, and he will begin to make money on his investment. Perhaps he will make 5 per cent a year on his investment of $100 000, when all is accounted for. The accountant will take into consideration here all the assets, liabilities, profits and losses of the plantation, and will find the Southerner’s overall “profit.” At 5 per cent a year, certainly the slave plantation is a profitable activity.

19But the economist, as opposed to the accountant, looks for “profit” in a different sense. Suppose that there is a healthy manufacturing industry locally, in need of investment for the purchase of new equipment. The industry, in order to raise capital to purchase the equipment, sells shares in itself for money, and offers a return of 10 per cent a year. Our Southerner could, if he chose, simply invest his $100 000 with the stock market and buy the appropriate number of shares in the industry, and would then receive, if all went well, a return of 10 per cent a year. Given the choice between investing in the slave plantation operation and investing in the industry, our Southerner would lose by 5 per cent a year if he chose the plantation.

20Again, our Southerner might have a choice between operating a slave plantation, and operating a plantation with paid black or white labourers, who perhaps might work more efficiently and cover their own wages with the additional profits earned. With more profitable options such as these open to him, our Southerner will find that operating a slave plantation is not an economically profitable thing to do, whatever his accountant says, because he is losing money compared with what he might very well be doing instead. There is an “opportunity cost.” And this is so, even if there is no alternative investment opportunity to the slave plantation, so long as it would be possible to create one (after all, the plantation has to be created, too). It is the profitability of slaveholding in this economic sense that Conrad and Meyer were concerned with. We may see some of the implications of their position by looking at, for the moment, not the actual answer they gave to the question of the economic profit of slavery, but the possible answers.

21Suppose that slave agriculture in general turned out to be an economically unprofitable activity. (It may even be that other options were available that would have led everyone to be better off to some degree.) Given this, then one possible argument might go as follows: the Southern economy would be inefficient, and there would be better ways of working and producing the things needed to live on. Some people — perhaps not in the South, but near enough — would adopt the more efficient practices. They could charge a little less for their goods and still enjoy a little more profit. On the open market where such things as cotton are sold worldwide, they would compete with the slaveholding areas and undercut them in price. Prices would be forced down to the level appropriate for giving efficient producers a normal accounting profit, but this would leave the slaveholders short. No doubt local laws and restrictive practices would keep the creditors at bay for a while, and perhaps the slaveholders would enjoy their way of life sufficiently to be prepared to live with the losses as long as they could. Nevertheless the economic pressure would be on the slaveholders to change their ways. The slave system, under such pressure, would be a dying institution. Only the refusal of slaveholders to act where their best interests lay would hold off the final collapse. Slavery would be dying, and it would just be a matter of time. But if all this is so, then the Civil War was unnecessary! For it was fought to achieve, or to avoid, a result which would have occurred anyway, it might be concluded.

  • 7 Time on the Cross, vol. II, p. 12.

22The other possible answer to Conrad’s and Meyer’s question is that slavery was an economically profitable activity, and this indeed was the conclusion that was drawn, on the basis of statistical analysis. Slavery was profitable for the whole South, Conrad and Meyer argued. What was new here was not so much that slavery was profitable, for this had been asserted many times. Rather — and this is how academic advance takes place — the point was newly concluded from proper economic argument. Thus Conrad and Meyer thought that they were “disposing, once and for all, of the issue.”7 Given this conclusion, we are to understand why the slaveholders engaged in and continued with slavery until they were forcibly stopped. It was in their interests to do so.

  • 8 Ibid., p. 11

23By the time of the Philadelphia conference, nearly ten years had passed since Conrad’s and Meyer’s article had been published, and, against their expectations, those years had seen “one of the most extensive and furious debates in the history of the discipline.”8 In this time there had been a considerable development of the economic history of slavery. Those who approach history using systematic statistical methods and the principles of economic theory, like Conrad and Meyer, are sometimes called “cliometricians,” “measurers” of the ancient Greek Muse for history, Clio. The Philadelphia conference was a time for assessing this cliometrical or “scientific” approach, and for comparing it with the traditional methods of writing history.

  • 9 Ibid., pp. 15-17, 19.

24The session of the conference dealing with the matter was called “Slavery as an Obstacle to Economic Growth,” and it polarized into a discussion between the defenders and the critics of the Conrad and Meyer approach. The defenders included Stanley L. Engerman, who with Robert W. Fogel was to write a book published in 1974 which caused an even greater furore than had Conrad’s and Meyer’s article: Time on the Cross. Recalling the conference session, Fogel and Engerman said that “as the day wore on the two of us became increasingly confident that the criticisms of the cliometric analysis had missed their target... the discussion showed that economic models could be applied... to the whole array of issues thrown up by the critics.” However, “what we did not recognise, until it was too late, was the transformation in the tone of the discussion.” There were “mutual irritation,” “exasperation,” “fiery stares,” “thinly disguised accusations of racism” and “caustic charges of naïve romanticism.” Flushed faces, strident voices, passionate speeches, aggressive and menacing gestures. “We turned away from each other in anger.”9

25It was “pure romanticism,” Fogel and Engerman thought, that caused the critics not to accept the possibility that a bad political, social and moral system might yet be a vigorous, deeply entrenched and rapidly growing economic system. Slavery was efficient, but “would we next claim that blacks were better off under slavery than freedom? [They were better off materially, Fogel and Engerman later argued in Time on the Cross.] Were we trying to convince them that the abolition of slavery was a mistake?”

  • 10 Ibid., vol. I, pp. 40, 137, 210, 231, 258-260.

26And yet, “we quantifiers were challenging so much, and conceding so little, that any historian steeped in the conventional interpretation of the slave system had to be upset.” For, they later argued,10 blacks were not, as some previous historians had held, compliant and simple “Sambo” figures and nor, on the other hand, were they “rebels whose greatest achievements were such proficiency at stealing, shirking responsibilities, and feigning illness — and who were possessed of such sly capacity for lying — that they could trick their masters into believing that they were contented.” Rather, the slave system worked precisely because of the meritorious qualities of the blacks: they were labourers of “superior quality,” “diligent workers” imbued with a “Protestant [work] ethic,” with a strong sense of family.

27Nor were they just labourers: there was a hierarchy of skilled jobs, and “over 25 % of males were managers, professionals, craftsmen, and semiskilled workers.” Additionally, “by exaggerating the severity of slavery, all that has come after it has been made to appear as an improvement over previous conditions.” Finally, “we have attacked the traditional interpretation of the economics of slavery not in order to resurrect a defunct system, but in order to correct the perversion of the history of blacks — in order to strike down the view that black Americans were without culture, without achievement, and without development in their first two hundred and fifty years on American soil.”

28This is a revealingly one-sided description by Fogel and Engerman of the nature of the discussion at Philadelphia and the cause of the “transformation” in its “tone.” As defenders of the cliometric approach, they were unimpressed by the arguments of the critics, and they saw the critics as falling back, for want of rational argument, upon mere passionate appeals. However, condescendingly, they found the passion understandable, for the challenge to the conventional position was so powerful in its “correction” of the “perversion of the history of blacks.” The description reveals that Fogel and Engerman recognized no rational arguments against their cliometric approach at all, and regarded opponents as not merely unreasonable, but as being passionate in defence of a racist distortion of history.

29Is this a true description of the situation at the conference? This historical question is not easy to answer, although it is obvious that the opponents of cliometrics would be unlikely to agree with it. It is not to the point, however, to investigate this historical question (even though we be historians), for suppose we were to discover that indeed Fogel and Engerman were right, and that their opponents had produced nothing but an irrational and passionate display? The purpose of the conference was to evaluate the scientific, cliometric approach to historical writing, and what is important in such assessment is not whether particular people on a particular day made a good or bad job of rational discussion, but whether rational arguments could be found for or against the cliometric approach. Success in overcoming straw men, on the part of cliometrics, is no success at all.

  • 11 Paul A. David and Peter Temin, “Slavery: The Progressive Institution?” in P. A. David et al., Reck (...)
  • 12 Herbert Gutman and Richard Sutch, “Sambo Makes Good, or Were Slaves Imbued with the Protestant Wor (...)

30There are two ways in which the cliometric approach of Conrad and Meyer or Fogel and Engerman might be assessed. One way is to ask whether these researchers have carried out their work properly. Judgement about this is a central task for professional historians. Typical questions might be these: given that econometric arguments are to be used, have these historians argued in a valid way? Or are there confusions and mistakes which may perhaps vitiate their conclusions? Conrad’s and Meyer’s paper has been described as “renowned” in an essay by two distinguished critics,11 but Fogel and Engerman have fared less well. Thus their claim that “over 25% of males were managers, professionals, craftsmen, and semiskilled workers” has been criticized as deriving from evidence in a single parish in Louisiana which was not typical of slaveholding parishes in other parts of the Souths in that “it was a sugar parish, many of its slaveowners were Creole French, their holdings were uncharacteristically large, and the age distribution of the slaves was heavily skewed toward males over 14 years of age.”12

31Notice, too, the imprecision of the statement quoted from Fogel and Engerman. The statement gives an immediate impression that the fortunate 25 per cent of blacks were spread in some significant way throughout an entire hierarchy of higher-order occupations, and yet the statement is quite consistent with a real situation in which 99.99 per cent of slaves were unskilled or semi-skilled (just what, exactly, is the difference?), while the odd few remaining shared all the higher-order occupations. Even if the statement is true, it does not say much. Here, at least, Fogel’s and Engerman’s reasoning has an imprecision which is matched by an imprecision of expression.

32The assessment of the cliometrie approach, however, means more than checking on the detail of the reasoning in the way just illustrated, valuable though this is, and crucially though it may affect our understanding of slavery. The question historians need to ask themselves here is rather this: given that the cliometric approach may be undertaken expertly, and error-free conclusions reached, is it nevertheless an approach which ought to be adopted at all?

33Fogel and Engerman recognized this question, and offered a justification for their econometric approach: they had undertaken their research “in order to correct the perversion of the history of blacks.” They were well-disposed to an analysis which supported the efficiency of black slavery, for they believed that an anti-racist position was best supported thereby. The traditional view (held by many of the abolitionists of slavery), that slavery was inefficient, they held to be anti-black.

  • 13 Kenneth M. Stampp, “A Humanist Perspective,” in David et al., op. cit., pp. 14-15.

34Yet even here, at a point in their position upon which so much of the direction of their argument depended, there was inadequate thinking embodying confusion. Thus, Kenneth M. Stampp asked, “did the abolitionists, who were ‘the most ardent opponents of slavery,’ stress the inefficiency of black labor? Almost never! The emphasis in their publications was on the inefficiency of slave labor.”13 Assuming that economic inefficiency is a proper ground for objecting to a social system, then the argument from inefficiency may be taken to operate against slavery independently of the race of the slaves. Claiming that black slave labour is inefficient is ambiguous, for it leaves open how much of the inefficiency, if any, is due to slavery, and how much, if any, is due to being black. There is nothing essentially anti-black about the claim that slavery was inefficient.

35Similarly, there is nothing anti-racist about the claim that slavery was efficient. Suppose, for example, that the racist were to argue that the very efficiency of black labour under conditions of slavery showed how natural such conditions were for the black race? Or that blacks were lacking in spirit — were indeed compliant “Sambo” figures — just because they permitted the well-oiled economic machine to function so effectively? It was a mistake on the part of Fogel and Engerman to suppose that attacking the traditional interpretation and supplying an argument for the efficiency of slavery would be relevant to the hopedfor collapse of the view that “black Americans were without culture, without achievement, and without development in their first two hundred and fifty years on American soil.” The argument for efficiency by no means precludes racism, just as the argument for inefficiency by no means implies it.

36Moreover, even if it could be shown that being anti-racist required us to find black slavery to be efficient, this would not help Fogel and Engerman to argue in favour of their cliometric approach. There are two separate issues here: first, should a cliometric approach be adopted? and second, is slavery efficient? There is no essential connection between the approach adopted and the conclusion reached. One does not have to believe in a cliometric approach to hold that slavery was an efficient system, nor is one committed to holding slavery efficient if one adopts a cliometric approach. There is thus neither the claimed link between anti-racism and economic efficiency, nor the claimed link between economic efficiency and cliometrics.

37It is easy to see, now, how the “transformation” in the “tone” of the discussion at the Philadelphia conference came about, if many of the historians there thought as Fogel and Engerman thought, that racist or anti-racist beliefs were involved so straightforwardly in the different economic arguments put forward, or directed in such simplistic ways the course which historical research should take. We may conclude that undertaking a cliometric approach “in order to correct the perversion of the history of blacks” is not a proper justification at all. But what, then, would be a proper justification?

38Racial discrimination, we have noted, is based on the views that blacks and whites hold of each other, and these views are fed by conceptions of the past. Historians exist to supply conceptions of the past. We have seen that the adoption of a cliometric approach to the economics of black American slavery has led to a conception of the slave system as being economically efficient. This conception has permitted an explanation of the continuation of the slave system until it was forcibly stopped. This conception is also one which raises, for a number of historians, the issues of racism. Practical questions about how slavery is to be understood and explained have required the historians to assess the merits of a cliometric approach. The only justification for this approach so far provided is in terms of its anti-racism, and we have seen that this justification is inadequate. Moreover, the attempt at a better justification, or a proper criticism, degenerated into irrationality, according to Fogel’s and Engerman’s view of the Philadelphia conference.

39Historians are thus forced, by the practical question of how to understand the slave system, to answer a number of theoretical questions. We may note, first, the problematic link between the present and the past. Suppose a historian were to produce a correct, objective account of the American past, including particularly a complete understanding of black slavery and interracial attitudes. If nobody were to take any notice of him, then what he writes would have no effect upon presentday concerns. Racially inspired rioters are acting in part out of a conception they have, beliefs they hold, about the nature of themselves, of opposing or different races, and especially of their own and their ancestors’ racial experience. They have a conception of history, then; but it is important to recognize that such beliefs would be effective stimulants to action even if those beliefs were completely wrong. If incorrect beliefs influence people to do things which they would not otherwise do, that may or may not be a pity, but it is the way the world is. (People do not normally act from beliefs that they hold to be incorrect. When you believe something, you believe it to be true.)

40Do not think that a correct understanding of the racial past would somehow improve the racial present, as if truth and goodness were linked. While it is possible that historians might be so ineffective at putting their knowledge across through education that people come to believe that historical knowledge is mere opinion, this is not in fact the ease. Our society does have respect for historical truth. But many historical truths are unpalatable truths, and some might hold that, for present peace, they are better forgotten. Plato, the classical Greek philosopher, argued, of his ideal state “the Republic,” that the citizens should be persuaded of a mythical past in order to give them a better conception of themselves, so that they might act more justly within society. What is accepted as history may be a matter of present-day politics, with truth ignored. On the other hand, the search for historical truth may itself be politically inspired, and the truths themselves may be of political significance.

41Just as an understanding of the past — even an incorrect one — may influence one’s approach to the present, so we have seen that an understanding of the present may influence one’s approach to the past. In practice we have seen some historians defend their position in terms of arguments for and against racism. Independently of such moral or political beliefs, we have seen also that the academic study of the history of black American slavery has been approached through beliefs adopted in advance of discussion or research, beliefs about how best to explain what happened. We have noted beliefs in “modern capital theory” and in a so far unexplicated “traditional approach.” We see that the discussion about the most appropriate way to proceed has been linked emotionally and in other ways with racial tensions in the present.

42While Fogel’s and Engerman’s link between anti-racism and cliometrics has been shown to be mistaken, no alternative justification for the cliometric approach has yet been presented. It may seem, at this point, that perhaps history has to be written against the background of prejudged beliefs such as those mentioned. Thus history perhaps has, in the end, to be a matter of mere opinion. Maybe there could not be a neutral and objective observer, who could decide impartially a heated discussion. For who, to the satisfaction of the anti-racist, could decide impartially between him and the racist, except another anti-racist? It could not be a matter of independent arbitration, for that would seem to the proponents of such positions to be like compromising between truth and falsehood. Why consider arguments for a false position?

43Evidence is no help, no matter how exact the reasoning involved; as we have seen, the problem is less one of how correct the answer is to some question, but rather one of whether that question ought to be answered at all, or what answering it is worth. The Philadelphia conference was intended to solve this latter problem with respect to the cliometric approach, but the contributors Fogel and Engerman (if no one else) regarded it as having degenerated into irrationality, and at this stage it is difficult to see how rational arguments could have been brought to bear.

44If history were mere opinion, then acting out of respect for historical truth would be mere wishful thinking. The very argument about the possibility of historical knowledge could be a part of the armoury of an aspiring tyrant, so long as he was secret and expert enough, or had a Party which did not deviate from the “correct” line on the matter. Those who wish to bend the present to suit their own concerns would be able to create and change what is accepted as history as it advantaged them to do so. Race rioters might become race murderers, with stronger “historical” justification for their actions.

45What would be a proper justification for adopting a cliometric approach? This question of how historians ought to proceed is not itself a question answerable by practical historical research, but a necessary question of historical theory. More basic still, we wish to know whether the choice of historical approach can be objectively made, whether there can be a proper justification, rather than one adopted on the basis of unfounded present-day moral or political opinions. This general philosophical question has specific forms with practical historical implications: for example, essential to the practical historical example given in this chapter is the question of whether historians ought to have proceeded by asking whether slavery was a profitable institution. Historians at the Philadelphia conference needed to know whether answering the question “was slavery profitable?” was a way of achieving knowledge at all, so that it would be possible to dispose, once and for all, of the issue.

46The most fundamental historical theory is concerned with how knowledge is to be achieved about the world in which we have lived and acted. It is here that the philosophy of historical knowledge becomes necessary. Theory sets guidelines for practice, and practice is blind without it. Theory tells us what knowledge is. Without an answer to the theoretical questions of the nature and possibility of historical knowledge, the discussion at Philadelphia could not have avoided being irrational, and history could not avoid being mere invention.


1 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ch. xiv.

2 For a useful introduction, see G. R. Hawke, Economics for Historians, Cambridge University Press, 1980. For an explanation of statistical methods, see Roderick Floud, An Introduction to Quantitative Methods for Historians, London: Methuen, 1973.

3 Details of the racial violence here, and of the economic history conference, are taken from R. W. Fogel and S. L. Engerman, Time on the Cross, vol. II, Appendix A; Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.

4 Journal of Political Economy, vol. 66, April, 1958, 95–122, reprinted in R. W. Fogel and S. L. Engerman eds. The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, New York: Harper and Row, 1971, 342-361, especially p. 343.

5 D. H. Fischer, Historians' Fallacies, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, p. 8.

6 Here, as in all ensuing examples, the pronouns “he,” “his,” etc. should be understood as inclusive of either gender. No sexist implication is intended or should be inferred.

7 Time on the Cross, vol. II, p. 12.

8 Ibid., p. 11

9 Ibid., pp. 15-17, 19.

10 Ibid., vol. I, pp. 40, 137, 210, 231, 258-260.

11 Paul A. David and Peter Temin, “Slavery: The Progressive Institution?” in P. A. David et al., Reckoning with Slavery, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 168.

12 Herbert Gutman and Richard Sutch, “Sambo Makes Good, or Were Slaves Imbued with the Protestant Work Ethic?” in David et al., op. cit., p. 77.

13 Kenneth M. Stampp, “A Humanist Perspective,” in David et al., op. cit., pp. 14-15.

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