Thursday, October 1, 2009

Position Paper # 10 Carl Gustav Hempel


Cause and Effect

It is not arguable that every event has its cause, and normally, the causes of events, which happens around us, can be understood by our common senses. Human beings in general have a tendency to seek hidden causes or factors behind events. We ask ‘why’ when something happens and we answer ‘because’ to a question about an event. It is also applied in history. We are studying not just what happened in the past but also the causes, factor, insight behind the events. When we say that we understand a certain event, it means that we understand not only the event itself but the causes, the factor that made the event happen. According to Collingwood, we, Historians, should not be satisfied only with the past events themselves but must go deeper and draw things behind the events.

Carl Gustav Hempel, a German positivist philosopher, tries to point out causation from each historical events and he also insists that general laws plays a vital role in explaining and substantiating the events. I quote: “General laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, that they form an indispensible instrument of historical research, and they even constitute the common basis of various procedures, which are often considered as characteristics of the social in contradiction to the natural sciences. (Hempel, 1942)

What are the general laws? The term General law is used in the field of science and that means according to Hempel, “the idea that the statement in question is actually well confirmed by the relevant evidence available. (Helmpel, 1942) And we may call this as ‘universal hypothesis’. Obviously, he tries to study history with scientific approach which requires empirical knowledge. He says that “in every case where an event of a specified kind C occurs at a certain place and time, an event of a specified kind E will occurs at a place and time which is related in a specified manner to the place and time of the occurrence of the first event. (Helmpel, 1942)

Actually, I do not like the scientific approach to history because I believe that there are many things that cannot be explained by scientific notions and laws. However, I would have to agree with Hempel in some parts. I cannot deny that there is a cause behind an effect. It is a very simple but absolute law of the world. The water boils when the temperature is at 100 . The effect that water boils will not occur unless the temperature rises up to 100 . Likewise, also in history there is a certain thing that causes a certain event and the most of causations are general and easy for us to understand. And general laws play an important role that connects cause and effect.

I have always opposed a scientific approach in history, but this time I would have to say that historians need a scientific mind and perspective in order for them to study history more profoundly. But it does not mean that every historical event can be explained by certain laws and formulas. I do not think every universal hypothesis fits to explain certain events.

There are things that can be generalized and explained by certain laws. For example, we all generally know that a revolution might occur when people are being starved and they are being oppressed by unjust authority. This general law, or let’s say common sense, helps us explain a revolution by suggesting the causation of a revolution. That is why Hempel insists that a general law gives us a big help in explaining or studying historical events.

However, we should not overlook the fact that there are events that cannot be explained by general laws all the time. We cannot always give a clear and obvious explanation about the causation of event. And there will now be what positivist call “Pseudo-explanation”


Pseudo Explanation

Based on metaphors rather than laws; they convey pictorial and emotional appeals instead of insight into factual connections; they substitute vague analogies and intuitive ‘plausibility’ for deduction from testable statements and are therefore unacceptable as scientific explanations. (Ibid., p. 234)

A Pseudo explanation is not really obvious and factual. This term is used by positivists when they criticize the explanations that are not scientifically obvious and clear. However, I believe that a pseudo explanation which is mocked by positivist is quite useful tool in explaining and interpreting history.

I have been arguing that there are many things that cannot be explained by certain laws or scientific explanations. This is the limit positivists face. Those events which are not describable with specific laws are used to be under the pseudo-explanation which suggests metaphors and vague analogies rather than factual insight.

This sort of explanation seems to be much similar with Collingwood’s ‘a priori imagination.’ A priori imagination, even though it must be based on historical context, is not obvious and factual. In fact, a priori imagination is quite probable and can give us certain teachings and insight behind the events. However, we cannot say it is absolutely factual all the time since it is more on vague analogies and plausibility. I do not deny that Collingwood’s a priori imagination is not really obvious compared to scientific explanation. But it can draw certain insights and teachings behind history which positivist can’t give.

For example, when we say about Michelangelo Buonarroti, a brilliant artist during Renaissance period, can we give clear scientific laws which can explain the causation of his creative works? Can we say about the event that he creates things could happen because of x% of y cause and y% of x cause?
I am not driving out Hempel’s idea from historical study. I strongly agree with his idea of cause and effect. And as a Historian, a trial to draw the cause of certain event is quite necessary. However, I believe that we cannot give a general law and a scientific law for all the events. Sometimes, we must use our priori imagination to understand and interpret certain historical events. And we cannot say that this kind of imagination is nothing but a guess at all because a priori imagination proposed by Collingwood must be containing proper and wealthy knowledge and understanding of historical context and human mind (because a priori imagination is mainly dealing with human reason). The imaginations based on strong foundation of knowledge and historical context are reliable.

Hemple’s trial to explain history by giving probability of causation which brings certain events is quite unfamiliar but interesting with me. However, I would say that it is quite impossible for us to give exact percentage of chance of an event happening because there are causes that we can’t realize and find out behind of the events. We cannot say that these x,y, and z are everything that caused the event. What we can do is only suggesting this certain event (cause) would have caused the event (effect) most.

I would take the method of studying history which synthesizes ideas of both Hempel and Collingwood. I believe that historians must be able to find out general laws which are acceptable to common sense and that connect a cause and effect. But at the same time, historians should not be always bound by demand of scientific and general laws for all the events. We may as well take a priori imagination which positivist considers as pseudo explanation to analyze and interpret the historical events that cannot be explained in scientific means.


Collingwood, R. G. (1946). The idea of history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Pp.
205-334 .

Marie Hughes Warrington (2009). 50 Key Thinker on History New York: Routlege

Hempel, C.G. (1942). The function of general laws in history. In The Journal of
Philosophy, 39, 35-48.


  1. ...absolute chance... is a contradiction. Chance means it may or may not happen. The probability is sort of a measure of the likelihood of something happening.

  2. ah,, yes haha.. you're right.. hm, i just mean to say it is not possible to give exact persentage of chance of the events.. because there are a lot of causes behind events that we cannot actaully reailze.. I will edit! thank you Sir!