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CAUSAL EXPLANATIONS I. Causal explanations involve cause and effect Single events from the past or sequences of events from the past are explained by citing other events The event to be explained is the “effect” and the other events included in the explanation are “causes”

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causal explanations i
  • Causal explanations involve cause and effect
    • Single events from the past or sequences of events from the past are explained by citing other events
    • The event to be explained is the “effect” and the other events included in the explanation are “causes”
    • Causes generally occur prior to the effect
    • Causal explanations assert that the effect occurred because of the prior occurrence of the cause
    • For every effect, there are an indefinite number of causes
causal explantions ii
  • Usually expressed in terms of probability
    • Historians can never assert that an effect will always happen but only that it will probably happen
    • Historians therefore seldom use the term “cause” but instead employ terms like “influence,” “may cause,” etc.
    • Use equivocal terms to express the degree of uncertainty embedded in their causal explanation
  • Logically demonstrating that the occurrence of an event caused a later event to happen is a process fraught with all kinds of dangers
  • The biggest danger revolves around the issue of connections
    • Just because Event A occurred before Event B, why does it necessarily follow that A caused B to occur?
establishing a causal relatonship 1
  • There must be a correlation between the two events
    • A correlation is the degree to which the occurrence of one event is associated with the occurrence of another event
      • It is the degree of interactivity between two or more events
establishing a causal relationship 2
  • There must be a proper temporal relationship in the occurrence of events
    • The cause must occur before the effect
establishing a causal relationship 3
  • There must be some sort of theoretical generalization to connect the two events
  • Theoretical generalizations are almost always implicit rather than explicit in causal explanations
    • But they are nonetheless an essential part of every logically valid causal explanation
logical fallacy 1
  • Mistaking correlation for Cause (cum hoc, propter hoc)
    • Correlation by itself can never establish cause
    • It can disestablish a cause but a correlation can occur without a cause
    • Correlation is only a necessary component of a causal explanation
      • It is not sufficient in itself to explain cause
logical fallacy 2
  • Putting effect before the cause (pro hoc, propter hoc)
    • The effect must always follow the cause and it must be separated by an interval of time (even if it is very short)
    • Cause and effect cannot happen at exactly the same time
    • Example: David Potter’s People of Plenty
logical fallacy 3
  • Reductionism
    • When a historian reduces complexity or diversity to uniformity in a causal explanation
    • Most common form is the confusion of a probable or possible cause with the prime cause
      • Mistakes one event in a chain of causative factors as the main cause of an effect
logical fallacy 4
  • Indiscriminate Pluralism
    • Occurs when a number of causal factors are put forward to explain an event but they are neither carefully defined nor weighted
      • Just thrown at the reader and the result is hopeless confusion
    • Example: Bernard Knollenberg, Origins of the American Revolution (1961)
logical fallacy 5
  • The Fallacy of Identity
    • The assumption that a cause must resemble its effect
    • One common form of this fallacy is “tunnel history”
      • Assumes that economic effects must have economic causes or that the causes of religious phenomena must be religious—and so forth
logical fallacy 6
  • The Fallacy of Responsibility as a Cause
    • Merges two different questions and demands a single answer
      • “Why did it happen?” with “Who is to blame?”
    • Historians must always be careful not to allow their moral inclination to blame someone for an event to confuse their empirical attempt to identify the cause of the event
logical fallacy 7
  • Fallacy of Mechanistic Cause
    • Break down the components of a causal complex (ie., isolate the various causes for an event) and analyze them independently from each other
    • Problem with this is that, most of time, various causes interact with each other to produce an event
      • Independently, they might not be that important but when they interact with other factors their importance becomes manifest
  • As it traditionally conceived, objectivity requires scholars to ignore personal bias to the greatest extent possible in order to describe the subject under consideration as accurately as possible.
    • Two basic positions regarding this issue
first position
  • Holds historians to the standards of the natural sciences by insisting that any other option would result in a reduction of rigor and believability
    • Historians have to adopt the concept of repeatability from the natural sciences
      • In a natural science context, this means that anyone carrying out an experiment in the same way and under the same conditions ought to arrive at the same findings and conclusions
      • For historians, this means that anyone studying the same set of evidence will come up with the same conclusions about it
  • Repeatability has less bearing for a historians than for a natural scientist
    • They have difficulty arriving at solid agreements and confirming one another’s findings
      • Critics see this as a weakness while historians see it as a sign of intellectual vitality
second position
  • Some historians argue that the measure of objectivity in history will always differ from that of the natural sciences
    • Historians study human subjects charged with emotion and passion
  • Individual historians cannot always achieve detachment or indifference
    • Historians display bias through the mere choice of a subject for study and then compound the problem by looking at this subject through a lens derived from culture, class, race, gender, religion, etc.
  • Similar hazards regarding objectivity actually exist in the natural sciences too
    • Natural scientists also often choose a subject for investigation based on a bias acquired from life experience
    • They also draw conclusions bases on less-than-total knowledge
  • The major epistemological difference between the natural sciences and history is that natural scientists generally refuse to acknowledge these problems
carl becker says
  • “In truth the actual past is quite gone; and the world of history is an intangible world, recreated in our minds.”
  • In contrast to the natural sciences, no actual object ever comes under observation in history. Instead, using the remnants of the past, historians reconstruct history, employing statements of probability, not certainty, and subject always to the limitations of a point of view
point of view
  • Point of view renders historical narratives intelligible
    • Without them, historical artifacts make no sense and historical narratives would follow no coherent line of development
  • Different versions of the same events by historians do not necessarily result in intellectual incompatibility or error
    • Divergent renditions may result in larger complementary forms of understanding in which one enriches and animates the other
paul k conkin says
  • Different standards of objectivity must apply to history
    • Historians must adhere to their own rules of fairness, reason, and logic while constructing their stories about the human past
    • They must support their claims with some kind of actual evidence as the basis for plausible and valid inferences
      • To the extent that they comply with these methods, historians will fulfill the requirements of objectivity
a warning
  • “Historical Revisionism” is a good example of what happens when historians abandon their reliance on evidence and simply let their biases take control
    • Argues that the Holocaust never happened
      • That it was a gigantic hoax perpetuated by Zionists in support of the state of Israel
      • They dress their “findings” up with the appearance of scholarly apparatus in order to make their untruths seem believable
  • Historian Deborah Lipstadt argues that the lies of historical revisionism are the work of an unsavory group of pseudoscholars with pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic biases
    • The reality of the Holocaust is not debatable
      • Abundant evidence exists to demonstrate that it happened
      • Historical Revisionists ignore this evidence and therefore lie to promote their racist agendas