The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method

The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method

by Marc Trachtenberg

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This is a practical guide to the historical study of international politics. The focus is on the nuts and bolts of historical research--that is, on how to use original sources, analyze and interpret historical works, and actually write a work of history. Two appendixes provide sources sure to be indispensable for anyone doing research in this area.

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This is a practical guide to the historical study of international politics. The focus is on the nuts and bolts of historical research--that is, on how to use original sources, analyze and interpret historical works, and actually write a work of history. Two appendixes provide sources sure to be indispensable for anyone doing research in this area.

The book does not simply lay down precepts. It presents examples drawn from the author's more than forty years' experience as a working historian. One important chapter, dealing with America's road to war in 1941, shows in unprecedented detail how an interpretation of a major historical issue can be developed. The aim throughout is to throw open the doors of the workshop so that young scholars, both historians and political scientists, can see the sort of thought processes the historian goes through before he or she puts anything on paper. Filled with valuable examples, this is a book anyone serious about conducting historical research will want to have on the bookshelf.

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Editorial Reviews

International Relations - Maria Ines Tato
A useful and invaluable handbook of international studies. . . . [Guides] the readers into the basic techniques of historical research: how to design a scholarly project, build an essential bibliography, read historical texts, analyze primary sources and how to write the research conclusions. . . . Especially recommended.
International Relations - María Inés Tato
A useful and invaluable handbook of international studies. . . . [Guides] the readers into the basic techniques of historical research: how to design a scholarly project, build an essential bibliography, read historical texts, analyze primary sources and how to write the research conclusions. . . . Especially recommended.
From the Publisher
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2006

"A useful and invaluable handbook of international studies. . . . [Guides] the readers into the basic techniques of historical research: how to design a scholarly project, build an essential bibliography, read historical texts, analyze primary sources and how to write the research conclusions. . . . Especially recommended."—María Inés Tato, International Relations

International Relations
A useful and invaluable handbook of international studies. . . . [Guides] the readers into the basic techniques of historical research: how to design a scholarly project, build an essential bibliography, read historical texts, analyze primary sources and how to write the research conclusions. . . . Especially recommended.
— María Inés Tato

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The Craft of International History

A Guide to Method
By Marc Trachtenberg

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12501-5

Chapter One


This is a book about method. It's about the techniques historians use to understand international politics. But issues of method cannot be dealt with in a vacuum. To see how historical work needs to be done, you first have to have some sense for what it is exactly that historians should be trying to do. What's the aim of historical analysis? What's the point of this whole branch of intellectual activity? These questions are of fundamental importance, even in practical terms. To understand the goal of historical work-to know what historical understanding is and what historical explanation is-can be of great value to the working historian. That knowledge can serve as a kind of beacon. It can help the historian see how to proceed.

Does the philosophy of history literature provide historians with the guidance they need? This question is the focus of the first two sections in this chapter, but in a word the answer is no. Does that mean that the philosophers have nothing much to offer the historians? Again, the answer is no. There are important insights available, but they are to be found in the philosophy of science literature. Thatthese writings are of real value to the practicing historian is the point of the argument in the final section of this chapter. In that section I want to draw out some of the insights to be found in that literature and show how they apply to historical work.

The Classic Tradition: Hempel versus Collingwood

In 1942 the philosopher Carl Hempel published a paper called "The Function of General Laws in History" in which he laid out a theory of historical explanation. In history as in science, Hempel said, explanation meant deduction. An explanation would show that certain initial conditions existed and would lay out general laws that governed what would happen if those conditions were met; the occurrence of the event in question would follow as a matter of course from those laws and those initial conditions. Unless a historical account had that form, Hempel wrote, that account could not be considered a real explanation. It would at best be a mere "explanation sketch." This theory of explanation, the "covering law" theory as it is often called, was a focus of philosophical discussion until about 1970. Indeed, as one leading scholar noted, the Hempel paper was so fundamental that most participants in the debate on historical explanation "quickly found themselves classified as either pro-Hempelian or anti-Hempelian."

This theory was attractive because it appealed to people's sense for what an explanation should be. If an account does not explain why an event had to happen, if it simply explains why it might have happened, then, in a certain sense, it is not a real explanation at all. As one leading philosopher of history put it: "If what we give in explanation of an event does not rule out the possibility of that event's failing to occur, then we can scarcely claim that we know why in that particular case it did occur: why in that case, in other words, the possibility of its not occurring was not realized instead. The only way we can rule out such a possibility is by arguing that the event had to occur: that it necessarily occurred. And that is what the deductive requirement of scientific explanation insures.

This point, however, carried little weight with most historians. Their feeling was that the Hempel approach was abstract and formalistic and did not take actual historical practice as its point of departure. It did not look at what explanation meant to the historian and then try to build out from there. Hempel, with his emphasis on social scientific "laws," would force interpretation into much too rigid a mold. He did not seem to have any real feel for history as a discipline with an intellectual personality of its own. And a number of philosophers sympathized with the view that standards were not to be arbitrarily imposed on the discipline from the outside. They rejected the idea that what could not be "cut down to analytic size" in terms of those standards was to be "stripped of the epaulets of cognitive honor" and agreed that a field like history was to be taken essentially on its own terms. Their feeling was, as one of them put it, that the social sciences in general and history in particular were not to be remodeled into "deformed likenesses of physics. And they sympathized with the historians' view that the covering-law approach was unacceptable because it failed to allow for human agency-for the role that individual human beings play in shaping the course of events.

Those philosophers, moreover, were able to show that the Hempel theory was not particularly impressive, even on its own terms. Alan Donagan, for example, in one section of his well-known article on the "Popper-Hempel theory," effectively demolished Hempel's assumption that covering laws were readily available. Among other things, he showed that one example Hempel had given in his original article-an explanation drawing on three explicit covering laws-did not hold up because "all three were obviously false"! A more basic problem was that Hempel, by his own admission, did not even purport to show what an explanation was. All he did was to point to one of the things that an explanation of an event in his view had to be. It needed, he said, to provide a sufficient basis for expecting that that event had occurred. The problem here, as he himself pointed out, was that "certain kinds of information"-the "results of a scientific test," for example-might provide a sufficient basis for believing that some event had occurred "without in the least explaining why." A certain barometric reading might predict a worsening of the weather, but it could scarcely be said to cause the change in atmospheric conditions. Predictive power was just not enough for something to qualify as a real explanation. Something more was needed, but what? This was a fundamental problem, but Hempel essentially walked away from it.

This does not mean that the sort of thinking represented by the Hempel article is devoid of practical value. The Hempel approach might have been overly rigid in the reliance it placed on social scientific laws, but (as will be seen) the argument that causal explanation is closely related to logical deduction is in fact quite important. And the Hempel approach does shed some light on some second-order issues. Hempel's point, for example, that explanation and prediction are cognate concepts-that to explain an event is to be able to predict, given some general principles and certain particular conditions, that that event would occur-translates into an important point of method. At any given point in a historical argument, the historian can ask, given what was said up to that point, whether it would be possible to predict how things would develop. This provides a useful test of the power of the argument: a strong interpretation should have a certain predictive force. An interpretation, moreover, generates expectations: if it is valid, then what else would one expect to find? Consciously or unconsciously, the historian will be making predictions about what as yet unexamined sources would reveal, and those predictions can provide a useful yardstick for judging the validity of the argument.

So the Hempel tradition is not to be dismissed out of hand. The fact remains, however, that on the central issues the practicing historian will not find much of value here. But this was not the only approach the philosophers of history were able to come up with. There was, in fact, one basic alternative to the Hempel doctrine, the approach associated with the British philosopher R. G. Collingwood. Indeed, in the philosophy of history literature in the 1950s and 1960s, Collingwood's ideas were often treated as the only real alternative to Hempel's. But did this alternative approach give the historians what they needed?

The Collingwood theory was quite extraordinary. According to Collingwood, the historian was concerned not with events as such but with actions-that is, with "events brought about by the will and expressing the thought of a free and intelligent agent." The historian, he said, "discovers this thought by rethinking it in his own mind." The "reliving of past experiences" through the "rethinking" of past thought: this for Collingwood was what history was about, and this was what historical explanation amounted to. "An historical fact once genuinely ascertained," he argued, "grasped by the historian's reenactment of the agent's thought in his own mind, is already explained. For the historian there is no difference between discovering what happened and discovering why it happened." When a historian asks, for example, "'Why did Brutus stab Caesar?' he means 'What did Brutus think, which made him decide to stab Caesar?' The cause of the event, for him, means the thought in the mind of the person by whose agency the event came about: and this is not something other than the event, it is the inside of the event itself."

This, according to Collingwood, was one of the things that distinguished history from science. "The processes of nature," he wrote, could be "properly described as sequences of mere events, but those of history cannot. They are not processes of mere events but processes of actions, which have an inner side, consisting of processes of thought; and what the historian is looking for is these processes of thought." The historian discovered them by rethinking those thoughts "in his own mind." To understand why Julius Caesar, for example, did certain things, the historian tries "to discover what thoughts in Caesar's mind determined him to do them. This implies envisaging for himself the situation in which Caesar stood, and thinking for himself what Caesar thought about the situation and the possible ways of dealing with it." "The history of thought," he concluded, "and therefore all history, is the reenactment of past thought in the historian's own mind."

The historian's goal was thus to bring the past back to life by rethinking past thoughts in the present. Indeed, according to Collingwood, that was the historian's only goal. History, he insisted, was "nothing but the re-enactment of past thought in the historian's own mind." The thoughts that a historian "can re-think for himself" are "all he can know historically." "Of everything other than thought," he said, "there can be no history." Human reason was the only factor of interest to the historian. Montesquieu, he said, had "misunderstood the essential character" of the differences between various nations and cultures: "instead of explaining their history by reference to human reason, he thought of it as due to differences in climate and geography." "History so conceived," he argued, "would become a kind of natural history of man, or anthropology, where institutions appear not as free inventions of human reason in the course of its development, but as the necessary effects of natural causes." To be sure, he admitted, there was "an intimate relation between any culture and its natural environment; but what determines its character is not the facts of that environment, in themselves, but what man is able to get out of them; and that depends on what kind of man he is."

This whole approach would today, I think, strike even the most conservative historians as narrow and dogmatic and in fact as a bit bizarre. Philosophers have traditionally tended to view the Collingwood approach more sympathetically, but even some philosophers have found that approach a little hard to take. How could Collingwood simply assume, for example, that social institutions were "free inventions of human reason"? How could he be so dismissive of factors having little to do with "action" and "rational thought" in his sense? Collingwood would simply lay it down as a basic principle that "so far as man's conduct is determined by what may be called his animal nature, his impulses and appetites, it is non-historical." But this view was obviously rather arbitrary. To be sure, conscious thought plays a role, sometimes a very important role, in shaping the course of events, and one of the historian? basic techniques is to try to look at things through the eyes of the people he or she is studying. But the historian? goal is to make sense of the past-to see how things fit together, to understand the logic underlying the course of events-and often that logic has a great deal to do with nonintellective factors. Demographic change, economic growth, shifts in the distribution of power among states: developments of that sort are obviously of fundamental historical importance. To explain why Brutus stabbed Caesar (to take Collingwood's own example), the historian would want to see what was going on in Rome at the time socially, economically, culturally and above all politically: the goal would be to see not just what was in Brutus's mind at a particular moment, but to understand the whole process that had led up to the assassination of Caesar. Or to put the point in more general terms: historical evolution, like evolution as a whole, is not always driven by intent; the "structure selects," the environment, both human and natural, plays a key role, and the "why" questions are thus not always answered by looking essentially to conscious thought.

So for most historians the Collingwood theory was not taken too seriously. And what this meant was that neither the Collingwood school nor the Hempel school gave the historians much that they found useful in the way of philosophical guidance. The two schools represented opposite ends of a spectrum: one emphasized structure and law-like regularity, and the other free will and human agency. But every practicing historian knows that both sorts of factors come into play. Part of the art of doing history is being able to figure out how exactly in any particular case the balance between them is to be struck, and this of course is an empirical and not a philosophical problem. The two schools together had dominated Anglo-American philosophy of history in the 1950s and 1960s, but from the point of view of the practitioners, neither tradition had generated much in the way of insight into what history should be.

The Constructivist Challenge

Practicing historians by the late 1960s had thus come to have a fairly low opinion of the philosophy of history literature. J. H. Hexter, for example, referred in 1967 to the "long-standing failure of a considerable number of talented philosophers writing about history to say anything of much interest to historians." Many other historians felt much the same way. But the tradition Hexter was criticizing was already petering out, and within the space of a few years a very different body of theory had emerged. This time the theorists were saying things of considerable interest to historians. But did this new body of theory actually meet their needs any better than the body of theory it had replaced?

The new movement was based on the idea, not particularly new in itself, that history is not so much discovered as invented. The argument was that the past itself no longer exists; what happened in the past cannot be perceived and is not directly knowable; it therefore takes an act of the imagination to create a picture of the past. That picture could take many different forms, all equally legitimate. As Hayden White, the leading figure in the movement, put it: "any historical object can sustain a number of equally plausible descriptions or narratives of its processes."


Excerpted from The Craft of International History by Marc Trachtenberg Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

William Stueck
This is an important book, without question. It provides an extremely useful guide for graduate and undergraduate students who want to know more about thinking about international politics and conducting and presenting research. There is nothing in print that speaks as clearly and persuasively to students.
William Stueck, University of Georgia, author of "The Korean War: An international History" (Princeton)
Steven Van Evera
Marc Trachtenberg has written a comprehensive, how-to manual for doing international history. There is nothing available like it.
Steven Van Evera, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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