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Our panel of 88 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

To begin with some of your observations and then move to your question: I believe you are quite right that history involves more than the listing of facts that might be more true of a chronicle than a history and the practice of history involves interpretation. While for some historians and in some philosophies of history psychological motives and individual agency are important, but for Marxist historians and a Marxist philosophy of history there is more of a stress on economic forces and social relations. I suggest that the more plausible philosophies of history recognize historical explanations as a species or type of causal explanation. So, in my view, an historical explanation of the French Revolution identifies elements persons, events the explain what happened in France in 1789 for example implying that if those elements had not occurred, the French Revolution would not have taken place. If the historian thinks the French Revolution WOULD have occurred any way, her primary explanation is nonetheless causal though it is on her account a sufficient but not necessary cause. Causal historical explanations may also involve a kind of over-determination. For example, in the USA today, the explanation of why Republicans oppose the current President's foreign policy may be both because of the content of the policy itself but also because they are the policies of a Democratic President. Either explanation alone can account for the stand taken by Republicans, but together both explanations may truly capture the current situation as well as explain the zeal behind the Republican's position --what you might refer to as their psychological motives.

After your question "Can historical value judgements be objective?" you write about "questions presuppose other questions" and you refer to identifying questions that have been answered. This suggests to me you are thinking that your first question presupposes a view of objective values and an answer to questions about how to distinguish objective from subjective values. I am not sure how to respond in the abstract, but I suggest that it is difficult to practice history without a commitment to value judgements about what to study, how to study events, and how to understand, and thus to some extent assess, individual agents and collective agency the action of nations, states, empires, cities, tribes. Take at random two historical questions, one which seems only to implicitly involves values: Did Marco Polo go to China *as he reports? and Did the Confederacy in the American Civil War leave the union and go to war to preserve and expand slavery? To answer either question one needs some theory of evidence and so this might involve a view of the value of evidence from some kind of objective point of view --that is, not relying on hunches or subjective preferences. So, such questions do require some kind of objective value judgements, I believe. The second question more explicitly invokes matters of value for it carries with it matters of praise and blame *perhaps praise for Lincoln and blame for the Confederacy. I suggest that the practice of history today implicitly involves a commitment to an impartial point of view. There would be something wrong about claiming that that a Confederate history and a Federal history of the Civil War --or the war between the states are equally valid true and incompatible e.g. it is both true and false that slavery was a war aim for the South.