Jan 10, 2008

How much proof must a historian offer?

PROBLEM: In communicating his ideas to others, how much proof must a historian offer?

IMAGINARY EXAMPLE: Let's say historian Dr. A writes an essay whose purpose is to persuade readers to adopt a certain idea. His publisher, the Journal of the Intellectual History of France in the Central Middle Ages, sets a length limit at only 2000 words. Within that limit, the historian must present and prove his thesis: Siger of Brabant--a teacher of liberal arts in the university at Paris, c. 1265--was the first academic to try to establish philosophy as an autonomous discipline, that is, a field of university study that is independent of the demands of the "science" of theology (the mistress whose handmaiden is philosophy).

Given the circumstances (for example, the brevity of the essay and the fact that an essay allows no question-and-answer process for clarification or elaboration), Dr. A realizes that he must hold modest expectations of success. He intends only to sketch the basic points of a line of proof for his theme.

In Dr. A's essay, a single sentence states his theme. Directly or indirectly, the other sentences (all statements about past reality) are elements of his proof of his theme. By citing primary and secondary sources in medieval and modern texts, the essay's footnotes elaborate some of the proofs or at least lead readers to further information and argumentation. By citing examples at various stages of his argument, he is connecting his theme to (past) reality, even if he is not offering a full, explicit chain of proof back to sense-perceptible reality.

Dr. A's essay is completely objective (that is, the conclusions follow logically from facts of reality) and yet it contains not even one self-evident statement. A proof is one form of validation, the form in which a thinker connects evidence (ultimately, sense-perceptible) step by logical step to his conclusion, the one to be proven.

In the chain of Dr. A's proof, reaching back from the theme to sense-perceptible reality, there is a "gap" between the lowest links in the chain of his proof and the sense-perceptible reality subsumed by his theme. This gap often appears in historical writing, wherein the "reality" of the past consists in a few artifacts--such as a thousand-year-old manuscript or an inscription chiseled on a stone monument--surviving from past times; such evidence must be interpreted and is not self-evident.

What an objective writer ultimately relies on to connect his theme to sense-perceptible reality, besides the immediate and necessarily abbreviated argument (proof) he presents, is the fact of shared context. In our example essay, Dr. A defines his intended audience as being at least graduate students in the field of medieval French history, specializing in 13th Century philosophical transmission.

By defining his audience in this narrow way, he is trying to ensure that he and his target readers have the same context--that is, the same set of relevant knowledge outside the immediate content of his essay. Presumably the writer and his readers can then, on demand, connect that shared context to sense-perceptible reality. For instance, given his theme and his definition of audience, Dr. A does not need to prove that a university existed in Paris in 1265. What he does need to prove, to some contextually-determined degree, is that Siger held and advocated the idea of autonomy for philosophy as a field of study in the university.

Especially outside the field of philosophy, objective writers seldom need to prove their themes down to the level of explicit self-evidencies. The writers and their intended audiences share a context of knowledge which, in turn, presumably they can, on demand, connect to sense-perceptible reality.

CONCLUSION. A writer needs to offer enough proof of his theme to achieve his purpose for the audience he is addressing in the chosen circumstances. All three factors--the writer's purpose, his intended audience, and his circumstances--set the context that drives the writer's decision to provide such-and-such amount of proof for his theme.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

P. S. 1 -- Corollary: Criticizing an author, in a particular piece of writing, for "failing" to prove his case down to sense-perceptible reality is to expect the impossible. An author need only provide as much proof as his purpose, audience, and circumstances demand. In certain contexts, he can rightly assume that his audience can take the remaining steps on a path to a complete proof.

P. S. 2 -- My January 2, 2008 article on self-evidency was preliminary to this article on amount of proof. This article on amount of proof, in turn, is preliminary to another problem I have been wrestling with: What is the proper relationship between an intellectual and his audience? What do they owe each other, if anything? Originally these various subjects were a single cognitive traffic-jam. At least I have now sorted them onto three--interconnecting--roads. I am making progress.


Bryan said...

Ayn Rand addresses the issues of delimiting an essay and judging one's audience in The Art of Non-Fiction, chapters 2 and 3.

On page 7, "What is the nature of an article? First observe that you cannot do everything at once. Whatever you are writing--a theoretical work on a revolutionary idea or a small piece about a narrow concrete--you cannot say everything you know about the subject."

She also notes, "...when it comes to writing, people forget this principle and attempt to cram everything they know about the subject into one article. Yet this cannot be done even in a series of books."

"All writing is selective in every aspect--not only in style, but in its most basic content, because you cannot communicate everything."

I would think it fairly odd or unusual to criticize an author for delimiting his essay to a proper scope. I do not see this done very often. For example, a recipe for pork chops is never criticized for leaving out mention of how nutrition is essential for man's life, or the chemical composition of pork. More often, it's not the reader but the writer who has the unrealistic demands--of himself.

-Bryan H. (Please see my other comment for contact information).

Burgess Laughlin said...

I have gained great value from a slow study of Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction. A local Objectivist writer's study group spent six months going through it, to the great profit of all.

The issue I encounter occasionally is not delimiting the scope of a statement by a historian (or other intellectual), but delimiting the proof he offers for this theme. No one can prove a complex theme, in all its aspects, down to sense-perceptible reality. The historian can sketch a proof or he can point the way, but he cannot, in a typical essay, provide a total reduction of a complex theme to sense-perceptibles. He must assume a certain context of knowledge already agreed to as proven.

Burgess Laughlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Burgess Laughlin said...

Gus Van Horne ( http://gusvanhorn.blogspot.com/ ) in a recent article brings attention to a passage in Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, pp. 8-9. There Rand discusses the issue of how much proof one needs to offer. She suggests that for an essay writer, writing to a general audience, it is only possible to "demonstrate" your point, not prove it as one would in a formal scientific or other technical paper. Historians write scientific papers sometimes, but at other times they write to broader audiences.

By "demonstrate," she means sketch a proof in its most important elements. For example, one could name a few of they key elements and give some examples.

I note too that Rand provides a lesser amount of proof for an audience that already agrees with her premises.

Her main point is that an unanswerable, irrefutable essay is impossible; and a writer shouldn't bother trying to create one.