Supplement on the Relationship between History and Other Disciplines

(Supplemental to A Thomistic Account of History.)

Within the contemporary secular (and Catholic) academy, there is for the most part no agreed-upon synthesis of all the academic disciplines, and in fact each discipline tends to be undertaken in ways not explicitly coordinated with other disciplines at all. This supplement will presume a Thomistic ordering of the disciplines and show informally where history and related disciplines fit. History, understood as the science of human affairs, includes all the humanities and social sciences, and contributes to every other discipline, not by considering the objects of those disciplines as such, but by considering what human beings have thought of those objects. (This breadth of history as a discipline has been noticed before by Thomists, for example, M. Buckley, “A Thomistic Philosophy of History”, The New Scholasticism 35.3 (July 1961): 342-362.)

Academic Disciplines as Inquiries

Of particular note among objects that history studies are inquiries. An inquiry is an activity aimed at discovery. Inquiries, then, produce knowledge about the world. But an inquiry is also, like other activities, carried out as ordered to the end of human perfection in the way that perfection is understood by the inquirers who themselves are members of a given culture and whose understanding of human perfection has their culture as part of the account of its causes. Thus, the discipline of history studies every human inquiry in order to understand those inquires and thus to render them capable of being ordered to their respective ends (and so to human perfection) in the best way. And this explains why Aristotle and Aquinas, for example, begin many of their treatments with a history of the subject (e.g. Poetics 4-5).Benedict Ashley confirms this (The Way toward Wisdom (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2006), 318): “The best way to attain a degree of objectivity and freedom to think critically is to become aware of the limitations that our own personal and social histories (‘narratives’) impose on our thinking and that of others.”

Now, since knowledge of an inquiry requires knowledge of the object of the inquiry, a historian studying a given inquiry must also know how to undertake, or participate in, that inquiry. He must be an inquirer after knowledge of that object as well as an inquirer into the history of that inquiry. So, the historian of natural science must also be a natural scientist. And in order for the natural scientist to undertake to study the objects of his inquiry in the best way, he must learn what the state of that given inquiry is and what account of its objects is the best account given so far; this means knowing the history of the inquiry. This applies to all the academic disciplines in general, but especially to theology in one way and the humanities and social sciences in another. 

Theology

Obviously, the highest disciplines is theology. Theology as an inquiry is, properly speaking, the knowledge we have of God. Because God reveals Himself to human beings within time, such revelation can only come as revelation to a culture or set of cultures. Some knowledge of history, namely sacred history, is, therefore, necessary for every human being to realize his or her potential in the best way. This can only be true knowledge of history if one understands the cultures, habits, and actions that are part of sacred history. For this reason, a true knowledge of sacred history implies knowledge of the life and thought of the Chosen people and those who interacted with them as well as of Christians and those who interact with them down to our own day, since Christian doctrine continues to develop and such developments cannot be understood in the best way without reference to their historical context (Fides et Ratio 87), in particular the purposes of those who developed the relevant doctrines. If such knowledge, needed to understand revelation itself, were not possible, the value and purpose of revelation would be negated. Since grace perfects nature, we can see that even our knowledge of history is perfected by revelation; indeed, the desire to understand revelation has motivated many advances in the study of history (for example, the study of the Ancient Near East, archaeology, etc.).

Humanities

Generally, the humanities seem to be the study of human life in all its aspects in the past. The humanities then are simply history, but of a wide variety of aspects of human life and not limited to politics in the way that history was traditionally understood. In the case of literature, for example, in so far as the study of literature aims to know the causes of literary works it is subordinate to history, as understood above; but in so far as one reads literature for the sake of enjoyment, such reading is not properly a study of literature at all, although it presumes such knowledge. It is subordinate to ethics directly, since the purpose of reading for enjoyment is enjoyment, obviously a part of happiness. The other humanities similarly are both studies of the past (and so parts of history) as well as other activities related to happiness in some other way.

Social Sciences

Now, the social sciences undertake to do more or less the same kind of study as the humanities except that they are carried out on the present culture for the clear benefit of present culture; studies of the past are also undertaken for the benefit of present culture, but typically such historical studies do not figure in policy making decisions, whereas the social sciences do. Ultimately, though, the goals of both the humanities and the social sciences are understanding human nature and human culture. It is sometimes said that history is one of the social sciences. If one means by this that history is dependent on and subordinate to the study of human nature and the study of human action in general, this is true. Now, in so far as the social sciences focus on nature, they are properly parts of natural philosophy, namely philosophical anthropology; in so far as they treat of culture and habits, they are properly part of the discipline that studies culture and habits, and this is history. This is so because sciences are differentiated by their objects; now, history’s object is the understanding of culture and the causes of human action; this is likewise the object of the social sciences; and therefore they are the same science.

It might be objected that history studies the past and the social sciences the present. But this is strictly speaking false, since every social scientific study is always of actions that are in the past and thus they could equally well be investigated by the historian. A historian trying to understand, for example, President Obama’s rise to the highest office would need both what we normally think of as history but also he would need what we nowadays normally think of social science; for example, he would need to look at studies of reactions to and perceptions of race among the American electorate at that time, which he could best get from the sociologist. There is no substantial difference between these studies of race used by the historian of the very recent past and the work of sociologists now studying race, except that the historian integrates everything in his work, whereas the sociologist does not—but both are aimed at knowing causes. The historian can investigate everything and put sociology, literature, art, etc., to use in understanding a culture, movement, period, etc., whereas the social scientist (properly speaking) only investigates within a narrow range of these topics and only by certain methods. Hence, history is the architectonic discipline among the humanities and social sciences.

Nor are history and social science distinguished by the use of experiments, since history can likewise use experiments to determine many things; for example, in the 1950s, historians determined that a hunter-gatherer group could gather enough wild grain in six weeks to feed a group of fifty people for an entire year; they did this by carrying it out in Turkey, known to have had such grain and such inhabitants, and by using only the tools then available; since the historians were able to do it, they concluded that hunter-gatherers in the same circumstances could too. We see, therefore, that the humanities and social sciences are both then part of the same discipline, history, which is and must be done for the sake of human perfection.

— Return to A Thomistic Account of History.

About Timothy Kearns

Timothy Kearns received his PhD (2014) and MA (2007) from the Center for Medieval and Byzantine Studies at The Catholic University of America and his BA in Classics from University of Texas at Austin (2001).

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