Causation and the American Civil War. Two Appraisals

Benson: Certain logical principles govern explanations of human behavior: alleged causes must actually occur before their effects; men must be aware of events that allegedly affect them; explanations must jibe with generalizations about behavior and have intrinsic plausibility. Historians often neglect these principles. The best example is analysis of public opinion. Comparison of Thucydides with the historiography of the American Civil War shows both must assess public feeling on specific issues at a given time and place; but historians lack the tools to do this, and have recourse to dubious assumptions (such as that writers are the best reflection of public opinion). Sometimes even the principle of chronological priority is violated. Consistent application of the four logical principles above would at least narrow the range of potentially verifiable explanations and consequent disagreement.

Strout: Specification of a "fundamental cause" of the Civil War or other events is best construed as a retrospective observation that the cited 16cause" figures centrally in some reconstructed story. Historians explain through stories, narrations, which aim at comprehending the dramatic "logic" of a sequence of events rather than at scientific explanation. At worst general questions of causality are an irrelevant source of interminable disagreement, at best a stimulus to research, potentially resulting in a more coherent story and increased understanding. Causal accounts seem indispensable largely because explanations often involve purposes and reasons in causal disguise.