The Impossible Necessity of History

Some book titles are so compelling that you’d feel guilty if you didn’t at least pick the book up and skim it. Such is the case with Ged Martin’s book, Past Futures: the Impossible Necessity of History (University of Toronto Press, 2004), based on the 1996 Joanne Goodman lectures at the University of Western Ontario. Despite his thoroughly convincing arguments that historical explanation, as we know it, is methodologically and analytically impossible, he managed to convince me that it is nonetheless worth doing. This is the kind of book that people used to describe as a tour de force. What’s Martin’s argument?

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

He asserts that the data available to historians are hopelessly incomplete, the models they build are fraught with selection bias, and our view of the past is unjustifiably judgmental. He advocates giving up traditional historical scholarship in favor of locating events in time, identifying their relationship to each other, and connecting them to the provisional present.

In terms of data, three problems confront anyone turning to the historical record for evidence about what “happened in the past.” First, throughout most of human history, very little that happened was permanently documented. Hugely significant events went unrecorded or noted with incomplete details using fragile techniques and materials, which disintegrated, burned, and were lost forever. Second, only a minuscule fraction of the population has ever been in a position to actually have their actions recorded. Much of what we do know about the past concerns that vanishingly small segment of the population some have recently labeled the 1%: elites who had the luxury of employing others to document what they did or the resources to create semi-permanent records using materials such as stone or parchment. The vast majority of the population engaged in activities that are now essentially invisible to us, although forensic anthropology and archaeology are pretty good at working with the few artifacts we can find. Third, more problematic is the tendency of those people who did leave records behind to engage in hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, and untrustworthy accounts of the role they actually played in historical events. Although the rise of modern digital technology would seem to have improved matters greatly, Martin argues that the problem still exists, but now on a grander scale. It is simply impossible to know everything that happened in the past.

In terms of model building, contemporary historians are in the unfortunate position of knowing exactly how things turned out. First, scholars are tempted to build their explanations backwards, starting from outcomes and then searching for plausible prior events, continuing back through history until reaching a “satisfactory” explanation. But, they will be working with historical materials left behind from each era by people who had their own theories of why things had happened and structured their documentation accordingly. Second, almost all events have multiple causes.  Prioritizing them and determining how much leverage each exerted on an outcome of interest is nearly impossible, given the data problems mentioned above. Martin compares this task unfavorably to the situation that laboratory scientists work with, which allows them to run multiple experiments, under conditions where they can control many possible causes, and isolate the influence of specific factors. By that test, of course, almost all social science explanations will also fail. Third, and perhaps more important, uncertainty permeates every aspect of human activity, with people facing multiple options at every turn. Even focusing on “decision-making,” as Martin advocates, doesn’t remove the problem of people having only the faintest of ideas concerning what’s going to happen next, given the action they take. Moreover, because we have no way of getting inside the heads of the people who made those important decisions, we can only speculate as to what they were thinking at the time they acted.

The “past futures” of the title refers to the fact that from the perspective of the present, everything in the past could be viewed as the realized futures of people who had little clue as to what was coming next. Today, we are their future, but it is highly unlikely that one any of them foresaw it. In writing history by looking backwards, from the present, it is tempting to make our “known past” part of our explanation by treating it as the intended future of humans who were making decisions about what options to pursue. But of course, lacking clairvoyance, they had no ability to imagine all the possible futures that would unfold. Nonetheless, the temptation to write linear, coherent narratives about why things had to happen the way they did overwhelms most scholars.

But wait, there’s more! Martin also takes historians to task for imposing normative judgments on the actions of historical figures, using contemporary values. The severity of the normative judgment increases, the further back in time the historian travels. He uses the example of people involved in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as more contemporary examples. Martin’s point is that such normative judgments cloud the construction of analytic arguments, biasing the selection of cases and causal principles.

Despite the incredibly bleak picture Martin draws of the impossibility of historical analysis, he nonetheless concludes his book with the argument that contemporary social scientists “need” historical analysis. Giving up their quest for comprehensive explanations of historical events, historians can instead simply locate events in time and identify their relationships to one another. They can tentatively indicate which events were more significant than others by making comparisons to possible alternatives, now known because we have the luxury of looking backwards. Abandoning the conceit of the superior present, they can remind us that “each succeeding present is merely provisional, nothing more than a moving line between past and future.”

Discerning readers of my blog post will now recognize why I like this book so much: this is a very evolutionary argument, cognizant of the need for humility in building tentative explanations of social phenomenon. “Past futures” are always explicable, if one is willing to commit the kinds of methodological and analytic fallacies that Martin points out. Don’t go there. He argues that contemporary historiography has plenty to do, without falling into the trap of building “neat and tidy” explanations. Instead, historians can make us aware of our own ethical standpoints and caution us against ransacking the past for justifications of currently favored policies. The future awaits us, but it is probably not the one that we envisioned, nor could we.