I'm wondering whether there are knowledge that can be learned from history other than the fact that "event X happened". Can we infer general knowledge from those specific events? This seems to be the point of history (it would be boring if it's just memorizing series of events), but I can't see how this is justified.

I can't see that history can show us anything other than coincidences. For example, the Western Bloc won the cold war, and they happen to be based on free-market capitalism as opposed to the communism of the Eastern Bloc. I don't think we are justified to conclude that capitalism has advantage over communism. This is just one co-incidence, we haven't even proved correlation. Even if there is correlation between certain systems of society and wealth, correlation still does not mean causation.

Science have developed a way to design experiment and manipulate variables and then show that, for example, motions do obey Newton's laws. In contrast, we can't do controlled experiment or any such thing for history, so how can we learn anything from it?

  • Actually there have been plenty books and even philosophical traditions on that topic. I guess it will be hard to answer this question without even the slightest hint regarding a particular framework to refer to. Because otherwise, the answers cannot be definite in any relevant sense and will be arbitrarily relying on the framework chosen by whoever answers. – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '16 at 19:18
  • what frameworks are there? I'm not aware of them, but if there are examples I can look at them and then clarify the question – user69715 Oct 15 '16 at 19:27
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    To just name four that seem to be highly relevant off the top of my head: Empiricism (e.g. Hume), Hegelian Historicism, Marxist (=materialist) Historicism and Michel Foucault's philosophy of history (Post-Structualism). – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '16 at 19:33
  • What does Empiricism say about it? TBH, I don't understand how the other frameworks have to do about how/what we can learn from studying history - they seem to be approaches of explaining history? – user69715 Oct 15 '16 at 19:57
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    You might enjoy Karl Popper's "The Poverty of Historicism" – MmmHmm Oct 17 '16 at 3:01

we cannot do controlled experiments in astronomy or paleontology, to name just 2 genuine but non-experimental sciences. so the fact that historians cannot do controlled experiments does not mean that they cannot produce genuine knowledge.

one could argue that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is historical. when a physicist studies data from a super-collider experiment, she is in fact studying a historical record. physicists learn their craft by studying how it has been done in the past.

the study of history does not produce laws, but it can produce knowledge. when parents teach their children, they're not going by laws, they're going by experience - history - including what they learned from their parents.

just think of contemporary economics. even the most abstract theories are inevitably based on historical studies. that's where the evidence is.


  • for astronomy or paleontology, when those fields just make observations without any control, to me they are similar to history, and my question also applies to them. Maybe astronomy is different because we can potentially go to what they discover. I mean, when they discover that the moon is such and such, that information will help if we send something there. But we do not send things to World War II. – user69715 Oct 15 '16 at 20:05
  • For physics, they have control over what happens in their experiment, right? For example, they can set up experiments where force is applied to things, and all variables are the same except for the weight of the things, and they could show that the acceleration of the thing is inversely proportional to the mass. Other scientists can also reproduce this rule with their own set up. In contrast, in history, there's never the case that "all variables are the same except for one thing". And even if there is, it's even more impossible to repeat it in order to show that it's reproducible. – user69715 Oct 15 '16 at 20:11
  • well, physicists do not have control over what happens, they only control initial conditions. non-experimental sciences like astronomy cannot do this - we cannot rewind the moon and try again - but they are still genuine sciences. in other words, replicability is not a necessary feature of genuine science. – user20153 Oct 15 '16 at 20:24
  • regarding "going to what we discover": going to the moon is not astronomy. whatever we find there will be studied by e.g. geology and similar historical sciences. true we cannot send a probe to WWII, partly because WWII is a social construct. we also cannot send a probe to the Pleistocene era, but nonetheless we know a lot about it. – user20153 Oct 15 '16 at 20:30
  • I recommend that you take a look at the works of Ian Hacking, esp. "Historical Ontology" hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674016071 – user20153 Oct 15 '16 at 21:49

Yes, we can. As a matter of fact, everything we know about the external world is known through history. All scientific data are historical data; all scientific knowledge is derived from observations of past instances; as of today, no one can tell for sure how the number of past instances is related to the credibility of a belief. There are no repeatable scientific experiments because one cannot step into the same river twice - we just wilfully ignored some factors as irrelevant. It is possible that Newton's laws have lifespans, and someday the errors become so intolerable that it is necessary to revise these laws. All human knowledge is conjectural: some are almost certain; some others are extremely tentative.

Just because the number of past instances is only one, it does not make the lessons learned from it less valuable. Most people would not eat again the same kind of food that once made them violently ill; most people who were bitten once develop a healthy fear of dogs. They might be wrong, but their instincts put them on the safe side.

Speaking of these "uncontrollable" historical events, shrewd observers can nevertheless isolate contributing factors and learn lessons from them. Take the Renaissance for example, Byzantine had had books and scholars for a thousand years, but they added virtually nothing to world civilization; only after these scholars took their books to Italy did the Renaissance began to take place, which started a spontaneous progress that lasted till this day. If books and scholars were the stimuli that caused Italian Renaissance, then why Byzantine, with the same books and scholars, had been stagnant for a thousand years? Bertrand Russell could not scape from the conclusion that progress had depended upon a small number of individuals of transcendent ability: Byzantine had books and scholars but no geniuses; Italy had geniuses, no books. Then what happened to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Archimedes and all those fathers of western civilization? They quietly died out: geniuses are a species within a species - that is why their extinctions do not set off alarm.

Another example is Cromwell's revolution. After the English civil war, the English learned what kind of effects a radical revolution would most likely have, and developed a love of compromise ever since; for the next three and half centuries, no more bloody revolution ever took place in England. And, in Bertrand Russell's view, the Brits even developed a healthy disinclination towards pursuing any political theory to its logical conclusions. Ever since Cromwell and before the rise of science, gradual reforms had been characteristic of the British way of life; after the rise of science, this habit of mind is totally justified by how science works.

Another example was MacArthur's big mouth; his unrestrained public speech caused America a lot of trouble and many unnecessary deaths. Nowadays American Generals speaking softly are common; anyone who dared to speak recklessly, even in quiet whispers, was quickly relieved of command.

But I've been a philistine all this while. History offers intrinsic pleasures. If one cannot see pleasure in history itself, he had better leave history alone.

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