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Humanities and ESP: the Case of History

Daniel Gile
January 2008

In the ongoing debate about research paradigms in the TS community, it may be interesting to bring up the case of History. History is classified in the humanities and is perhaps unique among academic disciplines in that its product is often a narrative and/or description of a past event or situation presented in a way which is easy to understand for non-experts. To laypersons, the technical work, and in particular the collection, technical analysis and scientific assessment of data for theory development are totally invisible.

Against this background, it may be worthwhile stressing that history involves exploration of the past centred around targeted (rather than random) collection of evidence which is carefully analyzed and weighed against other available evidence, that it can develop ‘theories’ (or hypotheses, as they could be called in some other disciplines) and then seek evidence which supports them, that on the basis of such evidence, the theories being tested are strengthened or weakened. Historians are also aware that theories based on insufficient or insufficiently solid evidence are provisional and may be changed or abandoned in favour of other theories as further evidence comes in. Such work and such an approach fit rather well into the Popperian cycle of empirical theory-testing which one tends to associate with the natural sciences.

Moreover, though History deals primarily with human behaviour as do the behavioural sciences, the evidence it seeks is of a relatively permanent nature: written records and historical artefacts do get damaged over time, but they are far more stable than many physical, chemical, botanical and other objects and phenomena which natural sciences analyze and measure. Would it not make sense to call History an essentially empirical discipline (though Historians may also want to reflect on historical phenomena more ‘philosophically’ in a LAP-oriented way)? In view of the nature of the evidence sought and used to develop theories, would it be absurd to make a case for the inclusion of this discipline from the Humanities among the ‘harder’ sciences?

These questions are designed to provoke, but ultimately to make a point: if we understand that it is possible to classify a discipline from the Humanities as an empirical discipline, and if this discipline can meet requirements of the ‘Scientific Approach’ whilst using qualitative rather than quantitative research and naturalistic methods rather than experimental methods, isn’t it time we let go of superficial stereotypes of ‘science’ and focus on underlying norms and processes?

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