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Historians debate many things, from the Founding Fathers' motivations to the role of violence in the rise of capitalism, from the possibility of writing "grand narratives" to the best use of digital data. But about basic historical methods, there is little disagreement, only confident consensus. The work on historical method that in recent years has attracted the most attention – Jo Guldi and David Armitage's The History Manifesto – asserted in passing that historians possess a tool-box of "sophisticated" and reliable techniques. Of the roughly 50 reviews of the manifesto, only one disagreed with this claim (it called for more "theory").
In How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, the philosopher Alex Rosenberg wields a sledge-hammer against this consensus. Drawing on neuroscience, he argues that a central assumption of historians, indeed, of all of us, is merely an illusion. This assumption, which is often called "theory of mind," is the belief that people have beliefs and desires. Counter-intuitively, Rosenberg argues that this is simply not the case. Beliefs and desires aren't real. Most historians will be tempted to dismiss Rosenberg's argument for its sheer radicalism. However, they would do well to attend to the case he makes. Even if Rosenberg's particular argument about the theory of mind proves to be mistaken, and even if some of his other claims overshoot the mark, he is right in a deeper sense: historians lack a reliable methodology and persist in a splendid isolation from other fields.
Rosenberg's case hinges on the theory of mind (ToM), which he maintains plays a central role in historical studies – and is deeply mistaken. Rosenberg uses several historical debates, for example, about the origins of World War I, to show how pervasive is the assumption that historical actors pursue desires in light of their beliefs about the state of the world. In line with much recent work in human evolution (Tomasello, Hrdy), he acknowledges that an ability to more or less correctly impute desires and beliefs to others played a vital role in our ancestors rising to the top of the food chain. However, as so often with evolution, in the case of this "mind-reading" ability natural selection produced only "a quick and dirty solution," not a correct theory. Neuroscientific work of the last few decades has raised serious doubts about ToM, according to Rosenberg. Eric Kandel and others have revealed the molecular and neuronal bases of memory. At these fundamental levels, sea slug and human cognition is similar. Positive outcomes reinforce some pathways, while negative ones degrade others. The old behaviorists, for all their limitations, were basically right about conditioning. For beliefs and desires – symbolic representations – to really exist, there would have to be some independent part of the brain to interpret or read these representations. Nothing of the sort has been found. Hence all historical works based on ToM "are wrong, always wrong." We cannot know what goals and beliefs were in Emperor Wilhelm's mind when he gave the Austrians that fateful "blank check" in July 1914 – because there were no goals and beliefs there, only neurochemicals and electrical pulses. One might wonder whether the evolutionary success of ToM, which Rosenberg acknowledges, vindicates its use in historical studies. Rosenberg suggests that what once worked well enough in small communities of hunter-gatherers increasingly lost its validity with the growth of larger, more complex societies since the Paleolithic Revolution 10,000 years ago.
Rosenberg attacks ToM not just from the ground (molecules, neurons) up, but also from the top down. The history of science shows purpose being dispelled from one realm after another. First Newton described a mechanical world without final causes, then Darwin showed for the biological realm how order could emerge without an orderer. The next, and final, frontier from which purpose must be banished, Rosenberg concludes, is human cognition. ToM must go.
If historians must abandon ToM, what kind of history will be possible? Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is Rosenberg's ideal kind of history. That work argued that continental geography, the distribution of domesticable animals, and population size – and certainly not individuals – were all that mattered in the long run. Rosenberg also praises Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, whose formula r>g expressed the inevitably faster growth of capital than wages - again individuals (and their putative beliefs and desires) don't matter.
Given the radicalism of Rosenberg's critiques of ToM, one might ask why he is concerned with its role in history-writing? After all, the demise of ToM – assuming it were widely recognized – would seem likely have a much more consequential effect on our legal system. Rosenberg acknowledges these other effects, but claims that historical narratives based on ToM have caused much suffering in the world ("Stories historians tell are deeply implicated in more misery and death than probably any other aspect of human culture.") by virtue of their role in fomenting tribalism.
These are bold claims. For days after reading Rosenberg's book, the reader may find herself wondering if her beliefs and desires are illusions. Closer inspection, however, reveals some blemishes on these big ideas. Take Rosenberg's pivotal critique of ToM. His radical reductionism (eliminitavism) is a minority view among philosophers of mind, and even the non-specialist is struck by some paradoxes. Rosenberg makes much of the distinction between symbolic representations, which are conventional and thus require an interpreter, and non-conventional signs which work without interpretation. On Rosenberg's view, only the latter occur in the brain in the form of neural responses to stimuli. And yet Rosenberg acknowledges that symbolic representation exists in the world: people interpret red octagonal shapes at intersections to mean "stop!" If individual brains are incapable of symbolic representation, how did symbolic representation arise in the first place? How are we able to interpret those red octagonal shapes? And what is the status of Rosenberg's own arguments in How History Gets Things Wrong – are these his beliefs (expressed in symbolic language) or merely external signs of his brain activity?
Rosenberg trains so much of his fire on the role of ToM in history writing that he overlooks the field's other potential flaws. For example, historians regularly use a handful of examples or instances to postulate a trend – without systematically evaluating how representative such examples are. For example, Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen engaged in a famous dispute about the mindsets and motivations of Germans involved in the Holocaust. They studied the very same German para-military unit on the east front, disagreeing about how to interpret the men's actions and words, but agreeing that the men in the unit were representative of "ordinary German" opinion. To the extent that Browning and Goldhagen tried to identify the perpetrators' motives, they would be grist for Rosenberg's mill. Yet the sociologist Michael Mann identified another kind of flaw, when he conducted a much more systematic study of the 1500 perpetrators about whom biographical material is available. His study showed that these men were more committed Nazis than the average German - contrary to both Browning's and Goldhagen's claims (Mann). Though ToM plays some role in Mann's account, his more interesting critique of the historians has to do with sampling and representativeness – a challenge historians too rarely acknowledge.
Rosenberg's preferred forms of history-writing are not as beyond reproach as he suggests. Contra Rosenberg, Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel has come in for criticism even from generally friendly reviewers. They have noted that Diamond's explanation of Europe's advantages compared to other Eurasian societies works less well than his explanation of Eurasia's advantages vis-à-vis the Americas. The fact that Europe was internally divided by its geography was not necessarily an advantage. In many other cases, for example, in India or Africa, division has meant weakness, not strength (McNeill). Answering "Why Europe?" likely requires something in addition to geography, for example the role of law in constituting Europe's exceptionally well-organized religious, political, and economic actors (Berman, Abernethy, Huff). The potential role of law and organization brings us back, of course, to the question of ToM: how can law and organization function in the absence of symbolic representations?
Finally, Rosenberg merely asserts, but doesn't show, that narratives have been immensely harmful to humanity. To the extent that narratives are important for group solidarity and hence war (an attribution that would have to be explored), they may also be the most important source of the state – and all the benefits some argue it has brought (Morris). On the other hand, as Rosenberg admits in passing, narratives may also open our eyes to another group's humanity. Think of the role that Uncle Tom's Cabin played in convincing northern whites of slavery's evil or how Anne Frank's diary helped to combat anti-semitism. In either case, narrative's consequences need to be explored and weighed.
These critiques are not meant to rebut Rosenberg's challenge to historians, but to redirect and broaden it. History does lack an adequate method. Rosenberg may turn out to be right that neuroscience fatally undermines ToM. In the meantime, however, more established claims raise doubts about history-writing that are quite similar to Rosenberg's. Psychological studies of the brain's modularity suggest that individuals are inconsistent, un-self-aware actors (Kurzban). Daniel Kahneman's work has uncovered cognitive biases to which all humans – including historians – fall prey. Natural and social sciences make efforts to "discipline" thought, thus counteracting those biases (King, Keohane, and Verba). History has yet to do so. Diamond's particular explanation of Europe's advantages over China may be incomplete, but his advocacy of using natural experiments of history holds great promise as one potential means of giving the study of history a reliability and validity – a discipline – it currently lacks.
Abernethy, David B. (2002). The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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Browning, Christopher R. (1992) Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins.
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© 2019 David Meskill
David Meskill teaches history and Social Studies at Bard High School Early College in Queens, NY. He is currently at work on a book about the flaws of history-writing.