History and the Sciences

The apparent power of the covering-law model of scientific explanation inspired efforts to make historical explanation fit within it. After the demise of that model, many philosophers of history have proposed more liberal approaches to historical explanation, and some reflective historians have questioned the thesis that offering explanations is the business of good history. We attempt to sort through a number of conflicting ideas about historical explanation and about the historian’s commitment (or duty?) to offer the truth about the past. We suggest that histories are diverse, that historians sometimes provide explanations, that the types of explanations they offer are highly various, and that delivering the truth is often important. The picture that emerges illuminates the sciences, by reminding philosophers of the range of questions to which scientific research is directed. It also brings out affinities, not only between history and the natural sciences but also between history and anthropology and history and literature. None of these enterprises should be seen in light of a simple model of successful inquiry. None should be viewed as committed to a single monolithic aim.