Hot-Blooded Gluttons: Dependency, Coherence, and Method in the Historical Sciences

Published on 01 December 2017

This paper in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science recieved the issue’s Editor’s Choice award, and so is open access.


Our epistemic access to the past is infamously patchy: historical information degrades and disappears and bygone eras are often beyond the reach of repeatable experiments. However, historical scientists have been remarkably successful at uncovering and explaining the past. I argue that part of this success is explained by the exploitation of dependencies between historical events, entities, and processes. For instance, if sauropod dinosaurs were hot-blooded, they must have been gluttons; the high-energy demands of endothermy restrict sauropod grazing strategies. Understanding such dependencies extends our reach into the past in spite of incomplete data. In addition, this serves as a counterexample to two accounts of method in the historical sciences. By one, historical science proceeds by identifying ‘smoking guns’: traces that discriminate between live hypotheses. By the other, historical hypotheses are supported by consilience: the convergence of independent lines of evidence. However, testing for ‘coherency’ between past hypotheses also plays a critical role in historical confirmation. Just as historical scientists exploit dependencies between past entities and present entities to infer what the past was like, they also exploit dependencies between past entities themselves. I do not suggest that archetypical historical science proceeds in this manner. Rather, the lesson I draw is that historical methodology cannot be characterized as archetypically relying on one method or another. Historical science is at base opportunistic, and is resistant to unitary analyses.


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