Explaining History. How History offers Explanations and establishes Causation

Essay, 2019

8 Pages, Grade: 4.6



History is often seen especially by those outside the pitch as a vague venture and as such needs no serious scholarly attention. It is against this backdrop that this study seeks to analyze History in its explanatory context. It starts with a provisional conceptualization of History and Historical explanation, analyses the link between explanation and causation in Historical parlance, and describes the variants of the said explanation. The paper concludes that Historical explanation is but a core of understanding History for its students and critics.

RAJI Afeez Tope

Raftmedia Outreach

Ofatedo (Osogbo) Nigeria



This work attempts a conceptualization of Historical Explanation, and discusses its variants. It also attempts to solve the problem of significance of historical explanation by discarding the methodological view according to which the natural sciences have been solely subjected and also dispels explanation from the realm of social sciences as based solely on understanding. Rather, it supposes that an employment of both cores would produce a balance.

Towards A Definition of Historical Explanation

As a phenomenon, history has been severally conceptualized by scholars of history and cognate discipline as well. While none of these attempts has gained a universal acceptance, it need be said here, however, that Marwick’s1 definition would serve the purpose (herein) intended. He conceives it as “the study of the present traces of the past” or better still, “the description and interpretation of past important activities of man”. For him, it is concerned with “study”-a venture to access certain information- and “description and interpretation”-an explanation of the information accessed. History may thus be taken as a venture to access certain important information about man and an explanation of the information of the information accessed.

It is in the light of the afore that, historical explanations may be seen as consisting of a large number of singular testimonies and, in order to provide argument and unification for these testimonies, historians use only statistical generalizations since universal laws that govern historical processes to which the testimonies refer cannot be determined. However, the reconstruction of historical events, processes and structures does not necessarily demand from the historian to describe their every single component. When we do research or trying to explain past events, we are never able to describe the causal relations for an event in their totality because a historical description of a single event can be applied only to a small number of its aspects and while trying to find what led to the event we inevitably have to stop at some point of the causal chain.2

History as a science is therefore, faced with the infinity of its subject matter and consequently the historian must select the facts that he or she considers relevant for the explanation of a given problem. Precisely, this selective approach in research represents the crucial difference existing between the research of human history and the subject matter of other sciences.3 Furthermore, history is always incomplete and open toward the future and, as the historical reality changes, accordingly the notion of historical science changes as well.

Historical Explanation: A justification of Causation

The task of historians is to explain what happened in the past. When they claim to provide understanding. Tapp4 indeed argued that the role of the historian is to give an account of what, how and why event in the past occurred as they did. Causation may therefore in this light be seen as a branch of historical explanation used in answering this basic question. Of course, the act of merely describing an event has been criticized by Carr who claims that “that one may describe history but explain nothing”.5 Indicating the failure on the part of an historian in fulfilling their role.

The fore is a pointer to a historical process that subsides in causal relationships, which are essential to establishing historical explanation and aiding in the understanding of the past. Without it, historians are left with a collection of unrelated facts.6 it is therefore the predominant view now, that, historians should not be content to write ‘mere annals’, but must give something more than a record of events and discover the connections between one event and the other.7 When such connections is brought forth, historical explanation might be said to have been arrived at.

In the same light, ‘WHY’ questions also ask for a causal answer, most easily summed up as ‘BECAUSE’ – although few historians would not argue that it was so simply explained. From a myriad of factors, historians seek the relevant information to explain why the past occurred as it did.8 Employing a causal approach in my own estimation is therefore essential in helping to better explain and understand the past. It helps to make events in the past coherent and intelligible.

Causation - the relationships between events and the forces exerted in Individuals, groups, and ideas- is therefore a central pillar of historical explanation. This is perhaps Ehiabhi’s conception when he avers that “historical explanation is the justification of causation”9, the explanation of the past would therefore be inadequate without it. For it is causation that links events and issues to one another. Thus borrowing Tapp’s bold claim would not be out of place, in fact, it becomes an obligation therefore, “without a concept of causation, there can be no history”10 let alone historical explanation.

Historical Explanation Variants

There seems to be a number of explanation types, though not peculiar to certain history books. It may consequently seem an error thereupon, to single out one as the model for historical explanation. I shall however point out a few schorlarly discussions on this, given the fact that all views are either a further analysis of an established argument or the same argument presented in another tone.

Philosophers of history are generally divided over this issue. Some believe that historical explanation is an application of a paradigm of scientific explanation, especially Carl Hempel's covering law model or the deductive-nomological model.11 On this view, to explain a particular event is to bring it under some general causal law as an instance of that law. Accordingly, explaining an historical event is to subsume it under the general regularity to which it belongs. Because well-established causal laws are rarely found in history. Hempel concedes that historical explanations are explanation sketches, that is, vague and incomplete preliminary accounts leading to fully supported explanations like those in science. New insights into the nature of science might lead to altered versions of Hempel's original argument using different paradigms of scientific explanation. Other philosophers argue that explanations in history and science are distinct on the grounds that they address different subject-matters.12

To Atkinson, views on historical explanation come in three variants. Most prominent is the Regularity or Covering Law Theory of Hempel, Gardiner, White and others. The model supposes that explanation in history as elsewhere consist on subsumption under certain laws or model for which the explanation must follow.13 Opposed to this is the contention that historical explanations are mainly rational, i.e. in terms of an agent’s intentions, purposes, beliefs and standards. Collingwood, he observed took this line of thought and Dray, in 1957 at least, seemed prepared to follow him a good deal of the way.14 Finally, he posited, there are views to the effect that historical writing is, to say, explanatory in itself, or at any rate that specific sort of explanation (covering law, rational or whatever) are in place in history books only in so far as they contribute to the development (of) and facilitate the flowing of historical narrative. This view is as well supported by Reiner and Gallie.15

Another school of thought, the structural-effect Explanation has been furthered by D.H Ruben, a classical social scientist who thinks that; We sometimes seem to cite social structure as the explanation of something. Whatever a social structure is, it is not itself an event, and since only (it is often said) events can be causes, such a ‘structural’ explanation does not seem to be a causal explanation.16 A causal explanation He furthers is an explanation of something in terms of its event-cause(s). Some explanations may appear not to be causal explanations in this sense. There are two ways in which this appears to happen. First, we sometimes seem to explain a social structure or event by giving its function or purpose. This seems to be an explanation in terms of its effects rather than by its causes. For example, it might be claimed that the explanation for a certain social custom in a tribal society is the way in which it contributes to social stability or group solidarity. Age grade system amongst some African culture has been found to protect not only personal and group integrity but also effected social stability and proper coordination of social trends.17 An explanation of a thing in terms of its effects He observes cannot be a causal explanation of that thing but a structural-effect explanation.

Next to those discussed above is causal explanation to which William Dray is the Arch Exponent. “T o explain an event is to provide some information about its causal history” 18 as Dray puts it. In an act of explaining, someone who is in possession of some information about the causal history of some event--explanatory information, tries to convey it to someone else. Normally, to someone who is thought not to possess it already, but there are exceptions: examination answers and the like. Afterward, if the recipient understands and believes what he is told, he too will possess the information. The why-question concerning a particular event is a request for explanatory information,19 hence, a request that an act of explaining be performed.

Explanatory information comes in many shapes and sizes. Most simply, an explainer might give information about the causal history of the explanandum (what is being explained) by saying that a certain event is included therein. That is, he might specify one of the causes of the explanandum. Or he might specify several. And if so, they might comprise all or part of a cross-section of the causal history: several events, more or less simultaneous and causally independent of one another, that jointly cause the explanandum. Alternatively, he might trace a causal chain. He might specify a sequence of events in the history, ending with the explanandum, each of which is among the causes of the next. Or he might trace a more complicated, branching structure that is likewise embedded in the complete history.20


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Explaining History. How History offers Explanations and establishes Causation
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Philosophy of History, Explanation in History, How to Explain in History, Basics of History, Historical Research
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Afeez Tope Raji (Author), 2019, Explaining History. How History offers Explanations and establishes Causation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/506968


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