Asking Questions: Society, Truth, and Trying to Understand it All

Whenever someone asks me what I studied at Gettysburg, my go-to joke is always “History and political science, though I sometimes forget the second.” My main interest and focus was, and continues to be, history. At the same time, however, I was still trained to think like a political scientist as much as a historian. This occasionally led to another observation I’d make to myself: that I felt my history papers read too much like political science, and my political science research read too much like history.

The difference between the fields isn’t always entirely clear to those who haven’t studied the subjects. Many view political science only as learning the details of government and politics, but this is fundamentally wrong. The “science” of political science comes from how, much like other fields of social science, its adherents attempt to create rational explanations for how political actors behave and governments are formed—in summary, at least. Often, this takes the form of quantifiable theories and models that attempt to explain political decision-making processes and events. In other words, political scientists attempt to impose order on a seemingly chaotic world, seeking to simplify myriads of events into workable models that help us to explain why previous political events occurred and how current politics may continue to change.

This is fundamentally different from the study of history, as historians more often than not seek out and emphasize the complexity of past events rather seeking to simplify them. In trying to account for as many details as possible in explaining past events, historians lack this ability to create models, as the more unique events become, the less they are able to be related to other events. This makes the popular quote of “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” somewhat funny to me, as its fundamental assumption seems to be that there is a predictable pattern to historical events that, once acknowledged, can be avoided or used to one’s advantage. I expect that many political scientists would agree under the assumption that humans at least attempt to act rationally and that certain social, political, and economic conditions can lead to predictable patterns of behavior. Many historians, on the other hand, may think differently, despite the quote’s association with the field of history. If each historical event is the sum of all parts that have come before it, then no pattern can exist due to the exclusively unique nature of what has already happened and has yet to happen: decisions made by a legion of historical actors entirely dependent on the context of their time rather than some overarching pattern of behavior.

Russia in Winter: A Continual Conundrum (via Wikimedia Commons)

To use an example I commonly hear in relation to that quote, consider the prospect of invading Russia in winter. Napoleon Bonaparte famously failed to do so, as did Adolf Hitler, both in part defeated by the harsh temperatures that they were unprepared for. If I somehow possessed the capacity to make the attempt on my own and announced my intention to do so, I expect many would tell me how foolish that decision was, citing these defeats as evidence (all other geopolitical difficulty that I’d be triggering aside—like a political scientist, I’m building this example as a highly simplified model). Would the outcome of my invasion be different, however, under the context of the present day, with me making different strategic decisions and with far different supplies than those other armies? One could argue that in making different choices over the course of my invasion, coupled with my awareness of the two that preceded me, that I would fulfill the directive of the quote: I learned from history, and so I approached my invasion differently. Is that the entire truth, however, when there was no chance of me ever launching my invasion under any identical conditions to the previous two? By merely making my decisions in a new time, under a new set of circumstances, the outcome may be different, whether or not I know anything about Napoleon or Hitler’s failed invasions.

That said, I would be doing the study a supreme injustice if I did not clarify that historical knowledge is nevertheless supremely useful. Without it, we cannot grasp why the world is as it currently is. I do, however, mean to suggest that we are not fully chained to the past, much like how one’s food preferences early in life do not dictate what one eats five decades later. There may well be a connection, but changed circumstances have altered one’s palate. History, as life, is a natural progression of events constantly rerouted by new developments and occurrences that, while explainable from a context of events, rarely follow the distinct patterns favored by social scientists.

I’m beginning to enter into the strange realm of absolute truth, though, which I think ultimately defines the differences in how political scientists and historians approach their craft. Political scientists seek out the truths of society as a whole. I have a distinct memory of one of my professors quoting The X-Files when she told us that “the truth is out there,” in regards to learning and understanding political behavior. Historians, on the other hand, seek the truths of events— events that, as I’ve explained, exist in entirely unique circumstances.

Frequently, this distinction proved frustrating! When conducting political science research, I often found myself frustrated with the scholars that I read, who seemed to me to be trying to simplify things that could not be simplified and attempting to rationalize the irrational by applying seemingly arbitrary numbers and formulas to patterns of behavior. When reading history, meanwhile, I continue to wish that there were great patterns to the world and the progression of events that could be observed without resorting to gross oversimplification. There’s something comforting in the apparent knowledge that human society and events may follow a certain course (assuming, that is, the destination is a good one) rather than careening into a future full of uncertainty.

Considering these two lines of thought—what, if any, predictable order exists in society, or whether there is any stock in trying to observe historical pattern—I’ve begun to consider related, though perhaps even more abstract questions. What is progress? What direction does history move in? To what level are human events dictated by rational or at all predictable behavior? I think that no matter how one considers the current state of the world and its politics, it can be agreed upon that we live in noteworthy times, making such questions more than purely abstract speculation.

2 replies on “Asking Questions: Society, Truth, and Trying to Understand it All”

Good post! I think the whole idea of “failure to learn from history leads to repetition of it” can be put under the umbrella of “hindsight is 20/20”. We in the present (or future depending how you look at it) are viewing past events with all (or most) of the facts available to us. We can tell General Custer exactly why splitting his forces is a bad idea, and we can tell the US bureaucts responsible for turning away the Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis just how far up their asses their heads were. But this is because we KNOW how large a hostile force Custer will actually face and we KNOW exactly what those Jewish refugees were turned back into. Failure to have all the information (a near impossibility) can lead any unsuspecting person into “repeating history”; which you have already pointed out is a misnomer to begin with. Events do not happen in a vacuum which is why each one is uniquely affected by the exact circumstances that created it.

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