The Roots of the Arab Spring   /   Fall 2011

From the Editors

MOST  READERS OF  HISTORy,  IT SEEMS  SAFE TO  SAy,  DO  nOT  LOSE  MUCH sleep over the discipline of history or its methodological and interpretive questions. We read history to learn about specific topics, such as the Civil Rights Movement, or the Great War, or the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Questions of theory or episte- mology or the nature of explanation in history are not normally our concerns. Most historians probably do not give much thought to them either.

Fair enough. But while questions of understanding and explanation in history and other disciplines may seem arcane or marginal to our immediate concerns, they are important nonetheless. Historian Monica Black’s essay in this issue offers reasons why. Explanation in the human sciences, making sense of some state of affairs, past or present, is generally an effort to say why it came about, what caused it. Explanation of this sort is guided by implicit rules, by, in Black’s words, “narratives that frame our understandings of the world and constitute authorized knowledge.” These rules are predicated on a certain rationalist picture of humans, human affairs, and reality itself. When features of experience and self-understanding run afoul of these rules of “authoritative inquiry,” scholars make them conform by re-describing them in rationalist terms.

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