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Carl Hempel Text Summary- “The Function of General Law in History”

Carl Hempel was a German writer & Philosopher. He was a prominent personality in Logical Empiricism- a major Movement in the 20th-century Philosophy of Science.

Here an attempt is made to summarise the text “The Function of General Law in History” so as to conclude the important concepts. It is clear that ‘History’ comprises of facts, figures, events, evidence, mysteries, and recurring activities pertaining to previous consequences of the past. Simply, it is the story of the past.

When we talk about General Law, it is considered mostly to be part of physical science. But, according to Hempel, general law have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences. Also, both can give account of their subject matter in terms of general concepts.

What’s the role of General Law in history? As per any General law is considered, it is based on a hypothesis which could be confirmed or disconfirmed later by suitable empirical findings. Any Law suggests that there is some evidence available. But, could we do empirical findings on historical events? Hempel says Yes! If some events have repeatedly occurred in past due to some cause, then we can generalize empirically that it will occur in future too. Also, evidence could be found in Historical studies.

In science, the general laws connect events in patterns which are usually referred to as explanation and prediction( with reference to cause and effects). In the case of explanation, the events have occurred(effect) and we predict the cause. Similarly, in the case of prediction, the determining condition(cause) is known, and we predict the effects.

‘Explanation in History’

Historical events are not ‘a matter of chance’ but is based on certain antecedent or simultaneous conditions.

Universal Law is sometimes presupposed in History.

  1. Universal Hypothesis frequently relates to an individual or social psychology which is familiar to everyday experience, and thus sometimes taken for granted.
  2. Presuppositions mostly take place in historical statements. For example, ‘hence’, ‘therefore’, ‘consequently’, ‘because’, ‘naturally’, ‘obviously’, etc strengthen up the general law pre-supposed.
  3. Certain explanations offered in history are based on the assumption of probability hypothesis rather than of general ‘deterministic’ laws, i.e., laws in the form of universal conditionals.
    Example: If ‘A’ has measles and ‘B’ came in contact with ‘A’, then he too acquired measles, and therefore, it would be concluded that B has got measles from the contact of ‘A’.

Explanation Sketch- Comparing History & Science

  1. Scientifically acceptable explanation sketch– In science,  the explanation would mostly move from description to precision. The specific statements explaining a problem well define the explanation sketch.
  2. In history, it is less possible due to the empirically invalid terms. We could hardly go to precision. It is because a word could have two or more meaning differing from culture to culture.
  3. The explanation in history is usually obtained by the method of empathetic understanding used in social which is different from natural science. The historian tries to realize how he himself would act under certain conditions.

Some Terms clarifying the use of Scientific Empirical Research in Historical Methods:-

  1. Interpretation clearly is explanations by means of universal hypothesis.
  2. The use of notions of determination and of dependence in the empirical sciences, including history, involves reference to general laws.
  3. Historians explanations, predictions, interpretations,  judgements of relevance, are taken from various fields of scientific research, as they aren’t pre-scientific generalization of everyday experiences.

Why there is no need to discover Historical Laws?

Discovering Historical laws would NOT make history methodologically autonomous and different from other branches of scientific research. Therefore, there is no need to discover Historical Laws.

Conclusively, Hempel tried to prove that raising differentiation in the methods of various field of research is waste.  And he focused on Methodological unity of Empirical science. He tried to point out various similarities in Methodologies of History & Science.

For more information, you can refer to the following texts.

The Function of General Laws in History
Author: Carl G. Hempel
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 39, No. 2(Jan 15, 1942) pp 35-48
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.



Author: Madhvi

A philosopher, Writer, Traveler, PhD Scholar, Vegan and pet-lover.

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