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Explanation in History

Written by Marica Vernazza, this article appeared on the fourth issue of the journal Filozofska istraživanja in 2008.
 
The article discusses different types of explanation in history and tries at the same time to solve the problem of significance of historical explanation by discarding the methodological view according to which the natural sciences are based on explanation while social sciences are based solely on understanding. Historical explanations consist of a large number of singular testimonies and, in order to provide argument and unification for these testimonies, historians use only statistical generalizations since universal laws that govern historical processes to which the testimonies refer cannot be determined. However, the reconstruction of historical events, processes and structures does not necessarily demand from the historian to describe their every single component. When we do research or trying to explain past events, we are never able to describe the causal relations for an event in their totality because a historical description of a single event can be applied only to a small number of its aspects and while trying to find what led to the event we inevitably have to stop at some point of the causal chain. History as a science is therefore faced with the infinity of its subject matter and consequently the historian must select the facts that he or she considers relevant for the explanation of a given problem.

Precisely this selective approach in research represents the crucial difference existing between the research of human history and the subject matter of other  sciences. Furthermore, history is always incomplete and open toward the future and, as the historical reality changes, accordingly the notion of historical science changes as well.

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