Varieties of Explanation in Historiography
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
edited 3/30/12

Historiography has its aesthetic dimension. Perhaps this is the most important feature of it for the professional historian. For practitioners in other disciplines, however, more burning issues are "What does history teach us? What direction can it give our practice?"

To use history as a guide, one must take care to discriminate the varieties of locution which function as a kind of explanation from those that do not. In addition, one must take care to discern different kinds of explanation, because they make substantial difference in what we would count as evidence in establishing or disconfirming them as explanations.

A useful set of distinctions was proposed by Aristotle. These distinctions are still viable today, especially because historiography is normally done in a colloquial, rather than a constrained "scientific" style.

The chart below presents these distinctions.

Aristo-telean Type
Which means?
Colloquial Example
Historiographical Examples
Final Cause Purpose, or end Why is a nail sharp? To penetrate wood which it is designed to hold together. Rudolph, 3,¶2; 6¶3; 59¶2; 146¶3.
Formal Cause Essence or nature Why are organizations resistant to change? They are systems which tend to equlibrium. Rudolph 17¶2; 24¶2; 49¶2; 53¶2
Material Cause That of which it is made. Why does a ball bounce? It's made of rubber, which is elastic. Rudolph 20¶3; 55¶2
Efficient Cause That by which it comes into being How did the floor get wet? Harry spilled his drink.

(Scientific example: Manipulation of variable X is followed by correlative changes in variable Y.)

Rudolph 52¶2; 63¶1.


Note that the same explanation might invoke several categories of cause. For example,

Why is the floor wet?

Harry dropped an ice cube on it.

Harry's action is (part of) an efficient cause.

The material cause is mentioned, i.e. the cube is made of ice.

So what?

The room is 70 degrees.

Another factor contributing to efficient cause.
So what?

Ice melts above 32 degrees.

Formal cause, i.e. it is the nature of ice to behave in certain ways under certain conditions.

Try to identify the varieties of causal explanation embedded in the following quote from Frederick Ruldolph's The American College and University 49¶1:

In the founding of colleges, reason could not combat the romantic belief in endless progress.