History: Art or Science

At the dinner table, on the veranda in Spain, we discussed a question which I was pondering:

“Is historical study an art or a science?”

I’m aware that there is no answer to this somewhat pointless question, and after a few false starts during which we established this fact we had a lively discussion, primarily with myself arguing that history is science and Lucy arguing the alternative. Lucy had a strong case, suggesting that history is interpretation above all else, and that interpretation and dissemination of records of events is itself likely to lead to a narrative proxied through the perspective of a particular individual, and this narrative – with the emotional imprint of it’s author – is art. My counter argument is that whilst I accept that this may be the reality of historical interpretation, it is not the goal. A historian is aware that some event occurred, and it is their job to bring their understanding of the event and it’s context as close to the truth – the reality – of the occasion, as possible. In this, history is much more akin to science. The historian, as the scientist, establishes a hypothesis – a theory – and seeks evidence to support that theory.

So it was by a fortunate stroke of serendipity that I came across Lockhart’s Lament in my Evernote inbox whilst writing a short journal entry yesterday and resolved to read it (after 3 years…). The essay is a criticism of contemporary mathematical education, and the first point the author seeks to establish is that mathematics is much more art, than science. With reference to the role of approximation in mathematical thought-experiment, Lockhart comments:

“That’s just not simple, and consequently it is an ugly question which depends on all sorts of real-world details. Let’s leave that to the scientists.”

The implication here, that art disregards the imperfect and deals in the abstract; focusing on only particular attributes of the detail, is a wonderful interpretation of the essence of mathematics. It rationalises Lockhart’s emotional exclamation “…that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics.”

The counter-example, focusing necessarily on all details in order to paint the most complete picture, to include all the required context for interpretation, is my argument for history as science. My stance, in retrospect, was weakened upon reading G.H. Hardy’s excellent description, as quoted in Lockhart’s Lament:

“A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”

G.H. Hardy

I agreed with one of Lucy’s assertions regarding the reality of historical analysis: historians cannot afford to consider every detail. They, as per Hardy’s mathematician, must establish patterns and demonstrate fluidity in their narrative in order to justify the abstraction of certain details. The careful abstraction of these details without detracting from the plausibility of her interpretation of events is the historians art.

Have I convinced myself? Is history art? No. Whilst in practise artistic compromises may be necessary, I still believe that the historian’s plight is to establish theories which come as close to fact as possible.

More on Paul Lockhart’s excellent “A Mathematician’s Lament” in a later post.

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