Posted by: L | June 9, 2007

Oakeshott on historical explanations…

Leslie Marsh, a social theorist and cognitive scientist, has this from Oakeshott at manwithoutqualities:

“Oakeshott (1983: 94) characteristically offers a brilliant analysis of the problem which he calls the ‘dry wall theory’. Keeping in mind Pedach’s and Walbank’s account of historical development, Oakeshott believes that though historical events are not themselves contingent, they are related to one another contingently. When a historian assembles a passage of antecedent events to compose a subsequent, he builds what in the countryside is called a ‘dry wall’: the stones (that is, the antecedent events) which compose the wall (that is, the subsequent event) are joined and held together, not by mortar, but in terms of their shapes. The wall therefore has no premeditated design; it is what its components, in touching constitute. There is a circumstantial relationship, an evidential contiguity, not in terms of causality, family resemblance, design etc. These circumstantial relationships do not themselves constitute historically significant relationships.

So when a historian employs the language of causality, what he ought to be referring to is this contingent circumstantial relationship. A historical past, composed conceptually of contiguous historical events has no place for extrinsic general terms of relationship – the glue of normality or the cement of general causes’ – neither Polybius’ tyche, Pedach’s intentionality, Walbank’s interpretation of aitiai, nor a Hempelian deductive-nomological conditions are valid analyses for historical explanation. And further, Chance as an exemplar of the purely external, cannot be a genuinely causal relationship and is therefore insignificant. To reiterate: Oakeshott (1983: 83) writes that ‘when a historian invokes a notion of ‘causality’ what he is in fact doing is utilizing a rhetorical expression meaning no more than ‘noteworthy antecedents’ and no ‘law(s)’ are involved…..”

My Comment:

Think of it like this. Things happen – wars are fought, empires are built, roads laid, constitutions written and kings assassinated…the fodder of history. Now, in telling this story, historians try to expain things by pointing out when they think one of those events has “caused” the other.

They mean ’cause’ either in the sense that ‘x’ preceded ‘y’ and ‘y’ couldn’t have happened without ‘x’, or sometimes they mean it in a more universal sense, such that whenever ‘x’ occurs, ‘y’ is bound to – but then they run into the problem I had with Nussbaum’s explanation of Hindu fundamentalism — nice theory, but it gets in the way of too many facts.

So, then you’re left with what’s called “contingency” – which in this specialized usage is the idea that things aren’t pre-determined, that they don’t have to happen; they have the freedom to not happen.

But, Oakeshott is also saying – and I agree – that the events themselves can’t be the result of “chance” – even though their relation to each other might look like it does from our vantage point as historians
Let’s say that three people were standing around a pool and throwing rubber ducks of different colors – red, blue, and green – into it. Soon there are 15 rubber ducks floating around.

Now the ducks didn’t show up there by chance. So, someone who didn’t know anything about how they got there would be making a big mistake if he looked at the ducks and thought they had got there accidentally. But, he would also be making a mistake if he read too much into the patterns of color the ducks made bobbing around in the water.

Well – that’s a rough example. Another way of saying it would be that history shows patterns on the surface which are deceptive, since the shapes that make up the pattern are actually thrown up from below the surface or above it..



  1. Lila,

    Here are some more recent thoughts of mine on Oakeshott’s “dry-wall” analogy.


    If we consider how Oakeshott conceives, in his famous phrase, ‘the activity of being an historian’, we see a non-coherentist account of justification and truth at work. To avoid the problems of coherentism let’s try a different interpretation albeit a somewhat controversial one: the anticipated objections will be considered later. C. Behan McCullagh (1998, p. 46) outlines what he terms the “correlation” theory of justification and truth. In it I find nothing with which Oakeshott would disagree. Now here is the controversial aspect: I take it to be a form of inference to the best explanation (IBE).

    IBE holds that we have sufficient reason (i.e. justification) for accepting that hypothesis which, if true, would best explain x, where ‘x’ is some available evidence that presents a problem of intelligibility. Its logical form is:

    X (evidence to be explained)
    Y (hypothesis which, if true, would best explain X)
    Therefore Y

    Note that IBE is a form of non-deductive inference; the premises probabilify and do not necessitate the conclusion. We accept Y because it is the best explanation of X available to us; it may still be false.

    Now, of course, a whole set of questions immediately presents itself as to what constitutes the ‘best explanation’. The matter cannot be fully discussed here; elucidation can be found in Peter Lipton’s (1991) standard text.

    We infer to the best explanation regularly in science, history, and practice. It is formally elusive, indeterminate in its technical expression, but easily recognisable in specific examples. Jack has never liked Jill but suddenly becomes affable towards her. Jill starts to receive invitations to Jack’s parties; Jack also sends Jill the occasional solicitous email; Jack asks Jill her opinion on a range of matters and listens carefully to her views. How best to explain this turn of events? We discover that Jill is standing for election to a committee which is likely to be divided on her candidature and on which Jill is likely to have a casting vote. So we infer that Jack has become affable towards Jill in order to secure her vote. From our knowledge of all concerned, this is the best explanation. It may be wrong; perhaps Jack has undergone a moral conversion. But we have no evidence, outside this episode, of any such conversion. If further evidence becomes available, the best explanation may change.

    So far as I can make out, this is very much Oakeshott’s approach to the nature of both historical and scientific explanation. It is hard to see how else, in science, he could explain why:

    “The image of a stationary earth is replaced by that of a stationary sun, iron dissolves into an arrangement of electrons and protons, water is revealed to be a combination of gases and the concept of undulations in the air of various dimensions takes the place of the images of sounds.” (Rationalism in politics, 1991 ed. pp. 504-5).

    These images changed because they provided or supported, according to the evidence available, the best explanation of a range of problems. And the image of the dry-wall, invoked in his later accounts of historical explanation (On History and Other Essays, 1983), is exactly apt for IBE. We infer the hypothesis that would, if true, provide the best explanation of the available evidence. We build the wall (infer the historical hypothesis) that best fits the stones together (explains the available evidence). (Oakeshott’s “dry-wall” analogy has some resonance with Haack’s crossword analogy of scientific justification – her so-called Foundherentism (Haack, 1993) which allows the relevance of experience to empirical justification without postulating any privileged class of basic beliefs or requiring that relations of support be essentially one directional).

    Two objections may be expected to this account of Oakeshott. The first is that it commits the fallacy of supposing that, because IBE fits well with (much of) what Oakeshott says, that therefore he accepts the model of IBE. The reply to this is that we know that Oakeshott cannot be a correspondence theorist about justification, at least with respect to historical explanation, because our historical explanations cannot correspond to an inexistent past. If Oakeshott does not subscribe to IBE, then it would be interesting to know what presents itself as a probable alternative, if correspondence is certainly out of the question and coherence were not in play.

    On a clarificatory point: in the cases of IBE justification considered above, we focused on justification in believing that X (believing that something is the case), which may yield knowledge that X. It is clear that, on Oakeshott’s account, justification will operate differently in ethical, political, and social action as involving justification in decision-making or practical reasoning, in deciding how to act, as well as justification in what to believe. In the background is Ryle’s epistemological distinction by which it is widely agreed that Oakeshott was influenced.


    Susan Haack (1993). Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology, Oxford: Blackwell.

    Peter Lipton (1991). Inference to the Best Explanation. London and New York, Routledge.

    C. Behan McCullagh (1998). The Truth of History London and New York: Routledge.

  2. Hi again-

    — that’s interesting – to the extent I understand it, which mayn’t be the case since my acquaintance with analytical philosophy is almost non-existant – one audited course, long forgotten….

    but having different justifications for social, political and ethical actions I’ve always felt, intuitively, was right.

    now, I suppose I should read Ryle..

  3. I would concede that my interpretation is highly contentious, at least amongst Oakeshottian political theorists, who typically, are not au fait with analytical epistemology and metaphysics. You are not alone.

    Ryle is a cracking read – like Oakeshott, Ryle is a superb stylist with a juicy polemical edge.

  4. On my never ending list of things to read…

    I will enjoy it. I did most of my theory reading with intellectual historians – Dr. Pocock was one.. and theory-wise I picked up whatever I did from literary criticism….which probably accounts for the fact that I like to use whatever I can find at hand to fit where I think I want to go on wholly intuitive grounds.


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