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Three dimensions of evaluation

The governing idea of the tri-partite theory of historiographical justification is to see historiographical theses as rationally warranted claims and argumentative interventions. More precisely, my solution to the problem of historical knowledge is three-fold. The evaluation of (synthesized) historical knowledge can be divided into three dimensions or sectors with interrelated connections: (1) the epistemic dimension; (2) the rhetorical dimension; and (3) the discursive dimension. I will first introduce all three briefly. After that I will discuss them in more detail as appropriate. All of these dimensions can be subsumed under the concept of rationality, which will be further discussed in the penultimate chapter of this book.

It is worth reminding the reader about the specific challenge that we are faced with here. Higher-order historical knowledge cannot be true in the sense of correspondence since it contains subjective-sided elements that have no counterparts in historical reality. To put this differently, what is subjective does not have a truth-maker to make its potential truth-bearer true or false. And yet: not all colligatory expressions or historiographical interpretations seem to be on a par. If 'Khrushchev's Thaw' is a good colligatory notion, 'Khrushchev's Big Chill' cannot be equally acceptable about the same historical period and material. And if we are persuaded that the nineteenth-century was the era of 'Industrial Revolution', that seems to cancel out the possibility that it was an 'Agricultural Revolution' at the same time.5 The appeal to 'truth' is out of the question, provided that the meaning of 'truth' is correspondence. We have to find another principled explanation for why some synthetizing historical expressions are to be prioritized over others. What is more, this should be done in a manner that is cognitively meaningful. 'Cognitive' may be understood broadly as signifying relevance to knowledge and knowing. This commitment thus means that a principled grounding cannot rely merely on other kinds of (possibly rational) criteria, such as moral and aesthetic ones, although they could of course also play an additional evaluative role. I will next explain in more detail what this means.

  • 1. The epistemic dimension. 'Epistemic' or 'epistemological' is a close relative of 'cognitive'. A brief terminological explication is thus in order. Larry Laudan (1984) distinguishes between epistemological values that are indicative of truth and cognitive values that may be valued for other reasons. Laudan states that 'many, and arguably most, of the historically important principles of theory appraisal used by scientists have been, though reasonable and appropriate in their own terms, utterly without epistemic rationale or foundation' (1984, 16). I will not adopt Laudan's definition of 'epistemic' but the distinction between epistemic and cognitive is useful, as is the idea that there are principles that are reasonable and appropriate in some other sense than a truth-functional one. 'Cognitive' here signifies any appropriate and reasonable criteria that make a historiographical thesis or expression concerning the past - that is, as a knowledge claim - compelling to accept. 'Epistemic' is here a sub-concept of cognitive and a more restricted notion referring not to truth-conducivity as it typically does (cf. Heather 2014), but to the relation in which a historical presentation stands with its objects of research (the past) and with evidence directly. The epistemic dimension of historiographic evaluation thus points to something that underlies the actual historiographical presentation, to the epistemic values that may be implicit in a presentation and may be explicated through a rational reconstruction. Epistemic values form a familiar set of such virtues as exemplification, coherence (including consistency), scope, comprehensiveness and originality that a notion should possess to make it epistemically valuable. The functioning of epistemic values was already discussed at length in Chapter 6 and therefore does not require further discussion here.
  • 2. The rhetorical dimension. The second dimension is rhetorical. I have chosen the term 'rhetorical' because the point is that every work of history attempts to persuade its readers to accept its central historiographical thesis. It is important to notice that we are not talking about just any kind of persuasion, but of a specific form of argumentative persuasion that relies on informal argumentative strategies and reasoning. For this reason, the second dimension could equally be called 'argumentative'. In Chapter 5 I have already discussed the sense in which a work of history can be seen to form an argument and hence will not initiate another detailed discussion about this dimension here. Discussion of the rhetorical dimension is kept on a methodological and theoretical level in this chapter, as is done also with the epistemic dimension.

The argumentative rhetorical dimension could be said to be 'internal' in the sense that this term has been used in the philosophy of science since the 1960s. That is, it refers to the internal textual and argumentative qualities of a text, as if the text formed an autonomous unit of rationality. Science was seen, and is often still seen, to advance according to its own 'internal logic' of reasoning and experimentation, which allegedly alone determines scientific theory choices. It should be obvious that while I do not wish to claim such autonomy for the works of history as textual pieces, the rhetorical dimension forms one evaluative dimension nevertheless. All the three dimensions I discuss are related. The first dimension (epistemic values) represents an abstraction of the theoretical principles embedded in historiographical argumentation, while argumentation (rhetoric) itself is manifested textually and makes a direct appeal to the readers, which constitutes the third, discursive dimension.

3. The discursive dimension. In the traditional terminology of the philosophy of science, a discursive dimension amounts to something 'external' because it refers beyond the text itself to the historiographical argumentative context. It is evident that no historical work appears as a self-contained piece from an intellectual vacuum but emerges, instead, inevitably as molded by existing historical knowledge and historiographical arguments. This is what I mean by the 'argumentative context' of historical works. The argumentative context itself has been shaped by various kinds of intellectual, political and other interests. It is my claim that a proper justification of a historiographical argument requires adequate accounting of the existing knowledge and arguments, and an appropriate intervention in a relevant argumentative context.

The idea of the argumentative context is to provide an account of the historiographical setting in which any historian has to situate his or her historiographical argument. Why is it necessary to do so? Ignoring the existing discussion would amount to disregarding prevailing historical knowledge. One would in effect be re-inventing the wheel, and most likely end up being excluded from the community of historians (because of scholarly omissions). More seriously, it would be very difficult to evaluate this kind of historiographical contribution because it would not relate to what is generally seen as justified and problematic in the research field regarding some specific topic. Perhaps one thinks that this kind of neglect of prevailing knowledge would not matter if one were to 'reconstruct' a historical episode from scratch, directly from historical sources. However, as has been discussed previously, especially in connection with the phenomenological narrativists, it is simply impossible to write history in a vacuum. That is, there is no thinking and writing of history without the existing historiographical consciousness and discourse, molded by various kinds of social and political factors. All historians simply have to locate themselves in the discursive field of historical thinking. History writing that begins from scratch and operates beyond some argumentative context is impossible.

It may be added that a professional historian should not be content with the general historical discourse but be aware and critical of the state of affairs in scholarly historiography. Finally, and to repeat my claim, the situation in the existing field of historical argumentation and the historian's response to it in part determines the degree of justification of a historiographical argument.

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