Making institutions


The new institutionalists have largely focused on the maintenance and evolution of major social and political institutions. So Kathleen Thelen’s excellent book, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan, examines the stability and change within the institutions through which skill is transmitted, Paul Pierson looks at issues of temporarily within institutional change in Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis, and Elinor Ostrom examines institutions through which communities solve common-property resource problems in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In each case the analysis begins with the institution already well developed.

The tools of comparative historical research have proven highly useful in the context of these sorts of questions. Thus Thelen compares roughly a century of institutional history in Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and the United States to show that the same social and economic needs of an industrial economy have been satisfied with different sets of stable ensembles of training institutions, and she is enabled to consider (and sometimes reject) common theories of how institutional change and stability occur. For example, the theory of necessary functional convergence is refuted by her study.

Another important question has not been so fully examined to date within this tradition is how major institutional innovations are invented in the first place. Here too the tools of comparison are very relevant. But the challenge is to find appropriate cases: instances where roughly similar institutions emerged in concrete historical settings where we can work backwards to trace out the structural and agentic events and processes that appear to be relevant.

For this reason the appearance of Wenkai HE’s Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State: England, Japan, and China is a timely and interesting contribution. HE undertakes a comparative study of the emergence of what he calls the “modern fiscal state” in Britain, China, and Japan. He has undertaken to learn enough about these three cases in detail to be able to tell a reasonably detailed story of the emergence of this set of state tax and revenue institutions in the three settings, and he is thereby poised to consider some important institutional-causal questions about the innovations he observes. The book is a “cross-over” work, with political science methods and historical research content. The book combines new institutionalism, comparative historical sociology, and first-rate historical scholarship to make a compelling historical argument.

The subject is important for several reasons. First, as Chuck Tilly emphasized, the capacity of the modern state to increase and rationalize its ability to collect taxes is key to the extension of military and administrative power. So fiscal institution building is at the heart of modern state formation. Second, it sheds some light on the specific challenges China confronted on its road to creating a pervasive modern state at mid-19th century. Third, the granularity of the account permits rigorous explanation of some specific turning points in each nation’s course of “modernization”.

HE describes the path dependency of institution creation in these terms:

Institutional development is a highly political process as various institutional arrangements have quite different impacts on interest redistribution. Therefore, the creation of new institutions is a process rife with interactions between socioeconomic structure, in which institutions are deeply embedded, and actors with different ideas, interests, and institutional blueprints. These interactions generate multiple possible outcomes in institutional development. (1)

HE uses careful comparison of three cases to try to establish underlying causal mechanisms relevant to the invention and establishment of new centralized institutions of state revenue capture: England (1600-1630), Japan (1820-1860), and China (1820-1840).

A couple of findings are particularly interesting. One is the proximity this research has to the Tilly thesis linking war-fighting capacity and fiscal reform. HE finds that the linkage is not as direct or regular as Tilly believed in Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990 – 1992. Another interesting finding is a refutation of the view that there is some kind of necessary logic of modernization that guided this process and determined the outcome. Instead, HE finds that there was a great deal of path-dependence and contingency in these three stories — not a determinate process of “modernization.”

The combination of detailed historical knowledge of the particulars of the cases with the theoretical structure of institutionalism, path dependency, and contingency permits HE to tell a story that is satisfying both to the historian and the historical sociologist, informing both. (This was evident in the discussion of the book that occurred at the Social Science History Association meeting in November, where experts on Japan, China, and England largely supported HE’s analysis of the sequence of changes that he outlines.)

One thing that I particularly appreciate about HE’s work is his ability to combine structure and agency into a single coherent analysis and explanation. He writes about this effort in his conclusion:

In particular, [this book] seeks to demonstrate how an eventful approach to historical causation can integrate agency, structure, and contingency into one coherent causal story to explain the creation of new institutions through an uncertain and interactive historical process. Where the trajectory of institutional development is determined neither by socioeconomic structure nor by agents with bounded rationalities, a careful analysis of events can help social scientists uncover a causal mechanism without resorting to oversimplification or retreating to a naive form of “history as storytelling.” (180)

Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad’s very interesting The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspectiveis a valuable companion to Wenkai HE’s study. Here is how Chuck Tilly summed up the ambitions of the new fiscal sociology in his preface to the volume:

Recently, a relatively small but creative group of social scientists and historians have been rectifying the long neglect of taxation in their fields. They have started to build a cross-disciplinary effort we can call fiscal sociology, with the qualification that nonsociologists provide an important part of the theory and research. Dis-playing some of the best recent work, this volume accents three major questions in the description and explanation of taxation: the social bases of tax policy, the determinants of taxpayer consent, and the social consequences of taxation. These chapters establish the vitality and importance of recent work on the social and political processes involved in taxation. (xv)

The West and the East

Ian Morris has written a pair of books that are intended to contribute to a particularly important set of disagreements in comparative economic history: what accounts for the advantage in economic development that seems to be enjoyed by Western Europe at various points in history? The key arguments are presented in  Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and he lays out the quantitative methods and evidence in The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations.

The basic argument is that current debates are critically flawed because they consider too short a timespan. Morris is an archaeologist, and he thinks the relevant differences between West and East only become apparent when we consider a timespan that extends backwards in time by at least 15,000 years.

The central analytical tool that Morris introduces is a “social development index” — an index of four features that can be measured for various social locations at various points in time. The four features are: energy capture, urban development, war fighting capability, information handling capacity. Here is the basic graph that he develops:


This graph tells a simple story of a horse race: West has a slight but constant advantage from 14,000 BCE to 4,000 BCE, broadening a bit through 2000 BCE. East pulls ahead at the beginning of the Common Era while the West declines sharply and begins to recover only 1400 years later. The West pulls ahead again by about 1700 and maintains a very small lead through the present. This is not a very dramatic story, however. Durning most stretches of this 16,000 year period there is very close alignment between the two trajectories. So it seems hard to imagine that the differences discernible here are in fact decisive historical factors.

Here is one of the primary reversals that occurs on the graph, between 300 BCE and 1100 BCE.


The social development index is interesting in its own terms. The effort to pull prehistoric and ancient archeological data into a consistent system of accounting is interesting, and Morris makes a case for the idea that these four features can be measured with enough precision to permit comparison over long stretches of time. It is “macro history” and “shape of history at a large scale”. There is one kind of truth the work supports: there is a generally rising trend in “social development” with occasional crashes and reversals. This is historical research at the most macro scale.

These four factors are significant material indicators of social development. But they do not exhaust the questions we might want to consider. Other measures we might find interesting in this kind of grand sociology include the rise / fall of religions and ideologies; ebb and flow of scope of control of political systems (Victor Lieberman on Burma and France); demographic regimes (high fertility/high mortality); stratification and exploitation (Marx); life quality for the median individual (Sen); and there certainly are others.

So the goal of measuring factors like the ones chosen here over a broad historical expanse is an ambitious and valuable one. However, I don’t think the research has the consequences that Morris claims.

First, it isn’t really posing the same kind of question as that confronted by Pomeranz and Bin Wong. The comparative economic history question is superficially similar to the one the author asks — how do Eurasian cores perform 1500-2000? But the real questions are quite different. Fundamentally they want to open the  black box of institutions, ideology, and circumstance to account for 50- or 100-year shifts. Historians like Perdue and Pomeranz really want to know about the contingencies of history, and that seems to imply a shorter timescale.

So I don’t think it’s really on the subject suggested by the title. Its real subject is this: “there are very longterm differences between the two large cores in terms of material levels and rates of development.” But it doesn’t offer an explanation of why this should be so: earliest timing, material advantages of one core over another, contingent path dependencies, … Likewise the suggestions about projection onto the coming century are overblown.

Moreover, the analysis is not explanatory; really it is a redescription of the phenomena. It doesn’t even invoke explanatory factors. Geography? First comer advantage? Morris believes he has the key to a large scale explanation:

Why had the West got the Maxim gun [technology and war fighting advantage] when the rest had not? (Kl 286)

But I don’t find that his “long tendencies of social development” picture actually helps in answering this question; rather, it simply repeats the phenomenon to be explained.

Morris categorizes existing theories of comparative economic development as “long-term lock-in” and “short-term accident” theories. And he suggests that his own approach doesn’t fall in either category. It is indeed longterm; but it shows variation over the longterm, so it doesn’t postulate “lock-in”. And it disagrees with the accident theory because, essentially, he doesn’t think there is a lot of contingency and path dependency in the story he tells. The material factors that drive the shape of the master graph are primary, and trump the effects of lesser factors like institutions and culture.

The question [of why the West rules] requires us to look at the whole sweep of human history as a single story, establishing its overall shape, before discussing why it has that shape. This is what I try to do in this book, bringing a rather different set of skills to bear. (Kl 460)

In fact, Morris’s account literally doesn’t tell us a thing about culture or institutions. But these are the things historians want to understand. For Morris, however, these are dependent variables in the long story of problem solving the author wants to tell. (See KL 4377)

So my overall reaction is that this is an interesting piece of research that answers a different question than the one its author highlights. It provides a very interesting view of the “shape” of human history in the two mega-regions; the attempt to measure what the author calls social development is one interesting cut on longterm historical development. But it really isn’t a good way of understanding the relationship between East and West when it comes to comparative economic development. It doesn’t identify the more proximate factors that led to surges and plateaux of development in the two trajectories. And yet that is really what the debate is all about.

Eurasian time

Victor Lieberman is probably the leading historian of Southeast Asia writing in English today. His primary focus is Burma, and throughout his career he has done a masterful job of piecing together the political, cultural, and economic history of the succession of Burmese polities over a millennium, using materials in many local languages.

His current work broadens the canvas by looking at broad temporal patterns of consolidation and turmoil across the full expanse of Eurasia, including Russia, France, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. In two volumes of Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (Studies in Comparative World History) he documents a degree of synchrony among widely separated polities that demands explanation. (Here is an earlier discussion of his programme in Volume One; link.)

Between 1240 and 1390 the principal realms of mainland Southeast Asia collapsed. The same was true of France and Kiev, whose political and economic travails merged with a general European crisis. (Kindle loc 512)

Here is how the pulsing of consolidation and disintegration looked in Southeast Asia:

In sum — in lieu of four modest charter polities in 1240, 23 kingdoms in 1340, and 9 or 10 kingdoms in 1540 — mainland Southeast Asia by the second quarter of the 19th century contained three unprecedentedly grand territorial assemblages; those of Burma, Siam, and Vietnam. (Kindle loc 799)

Lieberman defines consolidation as a broadening of scope of a polity, including territory, population, war-making capacity, and fiscal reach. And he notes that each of the world polities he studies shows a sequence of consolidation, followed by periods of turmoil and breakdown.

Along with territorial consolidation and administrative centralization, a third index of integration within each empire was a growing uniformity of religious and social practices, languages, and ethnicity. (Kindle loc 873)

And this was true as much in Burma as it was in 17th and 18th century France.

Moreover, and this is his key point, these periods show a remarkable degree of synchrony, from Kiev to Paris to Burma. So here is the central question: what kinds of global triggers or events could have created this synchrony?

Here are a few candidates that he considers. For the 10th-13th century, he considers the effects of global climate fluctuation, disease, and the predations of Mongol armies from Inner Asia. And for the 17th and 18th centuries he considers the expansion of Eurasian trade, modern arms, and monetary uses of silver in Europe and Asia (Kindle loc 8745). Here is how the climate factor works:

Agriculture also exhibited long-term dynamism, the product of several influences. By increasing the reach and force of monsoon flows and minimizing droughts linked to El Nino events, the Medieval Climate Anomaly c. 800/850-1250/1300 contributed in some uncertain but possibly critical degree to that demographic and agricultural vigor, and associated institutional vitality, characteristic of the charter era, two of whose chief polities, Pagan and Angkor, lay in dry zones. (Kindle loc 1008)

Internal to each polity are factors that appear to be local in their effects: population change, agricultural improvements, new organizational forms in governance, military, and taxation, and the diffusion of literacy and national culture. Concerning the polities of Southeast Asia he writes:

My essential argument is this: Four phenomena — expansion of material resources, new cultural currents, intensifying interstate competition, and diverse state interventions — combined to strengthen privileged lowland districts at the expense of outlying areas. (Kindle loc 996)

But the logic of these processes does not imply any sort of global synchrony; so, once again, what would serve to link consolidation and disorder in France and Burma? Here is Lieberman’s summary assessment.

Why, then, these loose, but increasingly close parallels over a thousand years? On current evidence, the synchronized florescence of Kiev, charter Southeast Asia, and Capetian France owed more to parallel social experiments and especially the Medieval Climate Anomaly than to long-distance trade. Political collapse in the 13th and 14th centuries reflected the intersection of institutional weakness with resource constraints caused by centuries of sustained growth, strains that were aggravated by post-1250/1300 climatic deterioration, shifting trade routes, Tai eruptions in Southeast Asia, and Mongol-Tatar mediations.  The latter could be either military (in Burma, Angkor, and Kiev) or epidemiological (across Europe). Political revival after c. 1450 in all five realms reflected, in part, counterphasic trends: institutional responses to antecedent weaknesses, demographic recovery, and climatic amelioration. But post-1450 reintegration also relied on substantially novel technological and organizational factors, so that each polity started from a higher level than its 10th-century predecessor.  (Kindle loc 9341)

This is world history you can get your teeth into. It is detailed, making use of the best available sources for each of the regions and polities considered. And it is bold in its effort to arrive at trans-continental, even global causes of these local developments.

Strange parallels

Victor Lieberman uses the phrase, “strange parallels,” as the title for his two-volume study of Southeast Asian history (Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830). Besides offering a highly expert history of Burma and its many kingdoms between 800 and 1830, Lieberman poses a fascinating and novel question: how can we explain the substantial historical parallels that existed between Burma and various parts of Europe, including especially France and Russia? He writes:

In fact, in mainland Southeast Asia as well as in France, the late 18th and early 19th centuries ended the third and inaugurated the last of four roughly synchronized cycles of political consolidation that together spanned the better part of a millenium. (2)

fig. 1.2. Territorial consolidation (p. 4)

The figure illustrates the kind of synchrony that Lieberman is highlighting — over a sweep of some thousand years, there is a rough-and-ready correspondence in the patterns of territorial consolidation that existed in Burma and France.

Lieberman poses the crucial historical question in these terms: “Why should distant regions, with no obvious religious or material links, have experienced more or less coordinated cycles? If we discount coincidence, what hitherto invisible ties could have spanned the continents?” (2)

Apriori there appear to be only a small number of logically distinct possibilities that could explain the fact that patterns of variation are synchronized between A and B. (1) It may be that there is a causal linkage from A to B such that A’s variations stimulate subsequent variations in B. (2) It may be that there is a common cause C whose variation simultaneously causes variation in both A and B. Global climate variation might be such an example. (3) It may be that both A and B are running through their variations according to the same internal clock, with the result that their variations are synchronized without causal interaction — like two clocks ringing out the hours in tandem or two adolescent children going through roughly the same developmental stages at roughly the same time. (4) It may be that the observed synchrony is simple coincidence, with no causal explanation whatsoever.

So far as I can see, this exhausts the logical possibilities; there is no fifth possibility.

To further complicate the picture, Lieberman points out that there were other regions of the world where these patterns of consolidation did not occur, or did so on a very different timeline. So we can exclude the idea that there was some common global cause leading to simultaneous pulses of consolidation; rather, Southeast Asia and Western Europe were synchronized, but India was not.

Lieberman’s explanation of this observed historical synchrony goes along these lines. He believes that both internalist and externalist approaches have a role to play. The internal historical dynamics of the state systems in Burma and Western Europe were governed by particular local factors. But they each created a tendency towards consolidation of land and power. And external factors provided periodic “pulses” that served to synchronize these internal patterns of development. So the effects of an external factor — maritime trade — pushed both Western Europe and Burma into extended periods of state formation and consolidation. This story combines (3) and (2) above: local processes that are developing according to their own imperatives, and occasional system-wide pulses that bring these local processes into synchrony. And the explanation allows Lieberman to place the intellectual frameworks of both Tilly and Wallerstein into the story.

Lieberman’s approach is important for the philosophy of history because it leads us to ask different questions about historical causation and historical time. And it provides important new thinking about how to approach the nexus between regional history and global history.

Social science history and historical social science

Social science methods and historical explanation seem to come together in several different ways; what can we say about the differences of approach between “history using the tools of the social sciences” and “social science research that pays close attention to history”?

E. P. Thompson treats the making of the English working class. His work is multi-faceted. He gives treatment of workingmen’s organizations and publications; churches and pastors; riots and chants; petitions to parliament; and much else. The story is historical in several respects: it provides an account of change over time and it engages in detailed and fine-grained description of specific circumstances in the past. Is Thompson attempting to explain something? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that his aim is to describe this extended, multi-location, multi-group process of “making”, along with some sense of the circumstances and features of agency that brought this “class” into being. And he goes out of his way to emphasize the contingency of the story that he tells: this “class” could have taken a very different shape, depending on altered circumstances and agency along the way. His is as much like the work of a biographer, detailing the development of personality, the contingencies of personal history, the formation of character, and the actions of the mature person.

Charles Tilly treats the development of contentious politics in France over three centuries. His account too is “historical”: it describes the development and diversity of contentious politics in France through revolution and periods of quiet. His account too is attentive to difference; he emphasizes the many ways in which French contentious “underclass” politics varied across time and across region. The politics of workers in Paris were quite different from those of the winemakers of the Vendée. But Tilly’s account is deliberately sociological and theoretical. The goal of his study is to discover causes; to test a few theoretical hypotheses about mobilization; and to use the “data” of French working class history as a basis for testing and evaluating sociological theory.

Each of these examples is a major intellectual contribution; each contributes to our historical understanding; each focuses on a historically situated working class. But the two oeuvres have substantial differences of orientation and feel. One is explicitly theoretical in its goals; the other is nuanced and descriptive. One aims at arriving at explanations; the other is interested in providing a qualitative understanding of the experience of ordinary men and women of the 18th and 19th centuries in rural England. One is historical social science, while the other is social science history.

So it is an important question within the philosophy of history, to articulate the difference between these two configurations of “social science” and “history.” How are the two genres distinguished? Are they differences of style, each embodying a complex of narrative and explanatory values? Are they at opposing ends of some sort of spectrum, ranging from descriptive to explanatory or concrete to abstract? Or are they actually logically different in some way—perhaps along the lines of the distinction between three conceptions of time described by William Sewell?

Perhaps most extremely, would we be right to consider excluding Tilly’s work from the domain of the “historical” and place it instead within the domain of social science, distinguished from other varieties of social science primarily by the fact that the data upon which it depends are facts about the past? In other words, is it possible to suggest that “historical social science” is not a variety of historical writing at all?

How might we characterize some of the differences between these two bodies of writing about the past? Do they constitute different paradigms, research frameworks, or forms of historical practice? Do they embody different complexes of assumptions about what to emphasize, what the standards of rigor are, what is required by way of description, detail, and fact; what is intended by way of explanation and understanding; the role that interpretation of the lived experience of agents plays; and so on?

Comparative historical social science is a particular instance of historical social science. There is a well-developed contemporary literature on the conceptual and methodological issues raised by comparative historical social science. And the participants in this literature generally seem to come down on the side of the “social science” conclusions rather than the “historical explanations” side of the debate. The goal of comparative social science is to assess causation, and to use knowledge of concrete historical cases as a source of evidence for evaluating causal theories. Examples include the explanation of social revolution (Theda Skocpol), the explanation of social contention (Charles Tilly), the explanation of economic development (R. Bin Wong, Philip Huang), the explanation of labor union politics (Howard Kimmeldorf).

Now let us turn the lens in the other direction and ask, in what ways do the contents of social science knowledge aid in the construction of historical knowledge? What is the role of theory and causal hypothesis in paradigm examples of historical knowledge? Virtually all historians would first insist: “Historical research cannot take the form of application of social science theory to the data. Rather, the historian’s task is to discover the particular and the grain of the materials in front of him. History is not the unfolding of theoretical premises and good historical knowledge does not result from deducing consequences from general social science theories.” That being conceded: are there forms of historical inquiry and knowledge that are importantly and rationally assisted by social science theory?

One variant of historical writing where social science theory is apparently pertinent is in the “causal narrative”. Historians are well served by appealing to social science theories of causal mechanisms in order to explain the transitions that they identify in their causal narratives. This is a logical point. And yet, it is strikingly difficult to find examples of leading historians who make use of social science theory in this way. Philip Huang is an example of a professional historian who makes substantial use of social science theory and concepts; Simon Schama is an example of a historian who is averse to this use. More commonly, the authors who provide causal narratives informed by social science theory are themselves sociologists or other social scientists (Skocpol, Tilly, Wolf, Paige).

It seems from some of these scattered observations, that there is indeed a significant difference between social science history and historical social science. The explanatory goals appear to be different, and the methods of reasoning and standards of rigor and adequacy seem to be distinct as well. So the question of how the disciplinary differences fit together is one that demands continued scrutiny.

Are there patterns of economic development?

There is an old-fashioned and discredited theory that holds that there are only a small number of development trajectories. Crudely, Western Europe’s experience — agricultural modernization, handicraft manufacture, population growth, urbanization, and large-scale mass manufacturing — is the paradigm and “normal” case, and different processes in other countries are deviations or abnormalities. This is the approach economic historians once took towards Asian economic development; it is substantially refuted by Bin Wong (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience) and Ken Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.).

A somewhat better approach postulates that there are alternative pathways of development, and that English, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian historical experiences of development all illustrate different trajectories. Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin explore this idea (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization). This approach emphasizes path dependence and the salience of institutions in economic development. Thus Robert Brenner maintains that it was differences in the particulars of the social-property relations governing farming that explained English transformation and French stagnation (The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe; see also a short descriptive essay, The Brenner Debate).

But other historians have pushed contingency and variation even deeper. So Pomeranz argues against a nation-based model of development. He argues that China’s processes of development were very different in different regions, north and south, east and west. So instead of analyzing “China,” he picks out one large macro-region, the lower Yangzi region, as the unit possessing enough integration to possess a distinctive pattern of development. Essentially, this is to say that the complex of institutions, crops, population dynamics, and urban patterns are unified but distinct in north China and southeast China, and that each constitutes a system of production with its own dynamics. So this serves to disaggregate China into several important and different regions.

So, with all this disaggregation and differentiation of economic development, let’s ask the question again: are there patterns of economic development? Or is every region, city, or state sui generis?

Here is what seems plausible to me. The best hope we have for generalizations about economic development is not at the level of wholes — regions or nations. Rather, what we can hope to do is to discover a number of recurring processes and mechanisms — political, demographic, technology, institutional, and economic — that can be identified and studied in multiple historical cases. In this category of recurring processes and mechanisms, I would include “proto-industrialization,” “scissors crisis,” “high level equilibrium trap,” “state fiscal crisis,” and “rapid urban growth” — along with dozens of other comparable social and economic processes. These are mid-level social processes and mechanisms that correspond to specific opportunities or situations of persons and groups in a developing society, and they can arguably occur in historically separate cases. And actors will adjust their behavior in relation to these processes in their particular settings, to pursue their goals. Finally, some of these processes will aggregate in particular historical settings — often in novel ways — to give rise to a particular historical trajectory. (Notice that this is methodologically very similar to the picture that McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly paint about the possibility of generalizations about contentious politics; Dynamics of Contention.)

Historians and the philosophy of history

How should the philosophy of history interact with the practice of working historians?

The philosophy of history is challenged to discover and explore the most fundamental questions about historical inquiry and knowledge. How should this research be conducted? And how should the philosopher’s development of the subject make use of the practice of the historian? Look at this question from the point of view of the historian, and we will find that the separation between “doing” and “reflecting upon” history is not as sharp as it might appear.

For the best historians, there is no recipe for good historical inquiry and exposition. There are methods and practices of archival research, to be sure, and there are general recommendations like “be well informed about existing knowledge about your subject matter.” But the great historians take on their subjects with fresh eyes and new questions. They often arrive at novel ways of framing their historical questions; they find new ways of using available historical evidence, or finding new historical evidence; they discover new ways of drawing inferences from historical data; they arrive at new ways of presenting their knowledge and narratives; and they question existing assumptions about “causation,” “agency,” or “historical period.” As the historian grapples with the topic of research and the evidence that pertains to the topic, he or she is forced to think creatively about issues that go to the heart of historical inquiry and reasoning. In other words, the historian is forced to think as a philosopher of history, in order to achieve new insights into the problems she considers.

There is a less creative approach to historical research, of course. One can choose a familiar topic; seek out some new sources that have not yet been fully explored; adopt some familiar theoretical motifs; and place the findings into a standard narrative for publication. This mechanical approach resembles “normal science” for historians. But the results of this type of approach are inherently disappointing; it is unlikely in the extreme that new historical insights will emerge.

So when we consider the work of really imaginative historians, we find that the researcher is functioning as a philosopher of history at the same time as he or she is developing an innovative approach to the historical question under examination. And this means that the philosopher can gain great insight by working very carefully with the writings of these great historians. The philosopher can probe questions of historical inquiry, historical reasoning, historical presentation, and historical knowledge, by thinking through these questions in conversation with the working historian.

Consider a few examples that illustrate this productive possibility. First, consider the evolving state of affairs in historical treatments of the French Revolution. In the past forty years historians have taken a shifting series of perspectives on the events, social conflicts, cultural circumstances, and political realities of the Revolution. New research and new narratives have emerged on the Ancien Regime, the revolution, the Terror, and the consolidation of power by Napoleon. Fertile historians such as Soboul, Cobb, Darnton, Schama, Sewell, or Chartier have tested and explored a variety of new perspectives — from Marxism, from social history, from cultural studies. And they have provided a much more nuanced body of knowledge about the social and cultural reality of the Revolution. This body of work provides a rich domain of conceptual and historiographical material for the philosopher of history.

A second example is the lively debate that has occurred about comparative economic history of England and China. In the past 15 years historians of Chinese economic history have challenged standard models of economic development and have argued for a more balanced comparative economic history for Eurasia. This debate has moved into great detail in the effort to answer such basic questions as whether China’s agricultural economy was declining, static, or rising in productivity in the 17th century; or whether the standard of living was higher or lower at opposite ends of Eurasia. Once again, a philosopher of history can find great stimulation to further conceptual and philosophical research by studying this debate in detail; the debate provides a living example of how historical knowledge is born.

So my answer to the primary question here is this: that the philosophy of history needs to be fully immersed in some specific historical debates involving the most creative and imaginative historians. Careful study of these debates and sustained interaction with historians like these will lead in turn to much more developed understanding of the nature of historical reasoning.

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