On the problem of laws in nature and history: A comparison

History and Theory 38 (4):122–137 (1999)
Abstract
In the philosophy of science there has traditionally been a tendency to regard physics as the incarnation of science per se. Accordingly, the status of other disciplines is evaluated then with respect to their ability to produce laws resembling those of physics. This view has yielded a considerable bias in the discussion of historical laws. Philosophers as well as historians have tended to discuss such laws mostly with reference to the situation in physics; this often led to either one of two conclusions, namely that history is epistemologically completely separated from natural science, because it does not have universal laws, or that the ultimate goal of the study of history must be the formulation of such universal laws. I would maintain that neither conclusion is necessary. To substantiate this position, aspects of laws in nature are discussed. One aspect being often neglected is the fact that there are many cases of statistical laws in nature; there is no close link between laws and determinism. Moreover, there are natural systems which have a history, i.e. systems which are, like human history, shaped by irreversible, singular events. One important case is biological evolution and accordingly I discuss the relation between evolutionary theory and historiography. However, since we are part of the living world, one could also ask whether the laws of evolution are of direct relevance for understanding our history, in addition to the methodological similarities between the two fields. This issue of history as evolution is being investigated in detail in the final section of the paper
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