Why, I wonder, do historians – Anglo-Saxon ones anyway – have this irrepressible need to take a side-swipe at the social sciences? Mark Mazower did this in his Dark Continent (p.367), Richard Evans devoted an entire book to it (In Defence of History) and now my old friend Norman Stone joins them, (Hungarian Review, January 2013, p. 3). I quote:

„Max Weber said that a new subject altogether needed to be invented, and he came up with Politikwissenschaft, political science. In due course, history had its revenge: political science utterly failed to do what any science should do, predict. In this case, predicting the fall of Communism. Right to the end, the political scientists, or Sovietologists, simply did not see what was happening under their noses.”

Leave to one side that Zbigniew Brzezinski did exactly what political scientists, per Stone, failed to do, predict the end of communism – read his Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century if you don’t believe me – Stone basically misconceives what the social sciences seek to do.

At their best, the social sciences offer cogent insights into collective human action. And Weber is as near to canonical as it comes. Here is a recent review from the Times Literary Supplement (28 September 2012): „Weber’s discussions of concept formation, counterfactual conditionals, rational choice, free will, the notion of following a rule, the relation of sociology to psychology, intentions versus motives, reasons versus causes, values versus facts, qualitative versus quantitative change, and statistical generalizations versus covering laws have lost none of their relevance to present-day debates.” Can history be better understood without these?

But there is a deeper methodological problem that Stone et. al simply side-step, that of the double hermeneutic. In sum, the observer, even the highly trained British historian, brings with him (and her) a set of assumptions that necessarily affect his and her interpretation of the material under investigation. Second, these assumptions will be further affected by the material investigated.

What we have in all human interaction is a two-way process, a reciprocal potentiation. This means that the Olympian detachment claimed by the historian is just a claim, there is no objectivity telle quelle, just a series of contingencies.

If I wanted to offer a side-swipe of my own, I would instruct all historians, young and old, to read Hayden White’s Metahistory:TheHistoricalImagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe until they understood that what they are engaged in is a branch of literature. And literature, as we know by now, is the realm of the unreliable narrator. Draw your own conclusions.


February 2013

György Schöpflin, MEP for Hungary (Fidesz) and formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics, University of London

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