Book Review: Alex Rosenberg, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories (MIT Press, 2018).

A new book by an established philosopher of science challenges the value of narrative explanations, of history, and of purposeful action more generally.

Historians, it seems, have been doing it wrong. They have been under the spell of believing that people act with purpose, and that by studying history we can understand human motivations and actions. They think, furthermore, that we can tell narratives that accurately describe cause and effect in the past. In truth, says the author, history can teach us nothing, or next to nothing, and we cannot know the motivations or purposes behind the actions of others. Narratives, Alex Rosenburg says, are wrong, or almost always wrong.

In the style of much modern popular science, Rosenberg pulls the reader along with insights from laboratory experiments and a teasing element of suspense of the type “Is X true: “find out the answer in the next chapter.”  But it takes 160 pages before one encounters his thesis that humans are not rational, we don’t make choices, and we don’t have motivations. We are, in short, only the products of the physical world. Our mental processes are atoms bouncing around. The narratives we tell are illusions, patterns in our mind that are the result of an evolutionary process. They are patterns which help us cope with the complexities of the world. Narratives, then, are not real.

I think this book fails at many levels, and it deserves to be criticized, but to be criticized in a spirit of collegiality, because it brings a challenge that is worth considering.

The first thing a reader must know or figure out is that Rosenberg despises the theory of the mind, and that the book is essentially a sustained attack on it. The theory of the mind appears to be the idea that we have inputs (like the senses) which are then processed by our various mental tools, biases, persuasions, etc, to then give rise to some kind of output, namely our purposeful choice of action.

Rosenberg writes of the theory of the mind as something that evolved, something that we “have.” (73-74). He calls it our “folk psychology.”   So, in this sense, it is not a theory, per se, but the actual way that our minds function, and the source of narrative thinking.  The theory of the mind, in this disambiguated meaning, is an adaptive trait of evolution, but a poor one, because it does not give us an accurate understanding of the world. At the same time, Rosenburg thinks the theory of the mind is useful in everyday applications. So was Ptolemy’s conception of the universe, so was Newton’s physics, he analogizes. For narratives to be true, Rosenberg says, the theory of the mind needs to be at least partially true. Most of the book then consists of examples of neuroscience research that discredit the theory of the mind, thereby calling into question narrative explanation.

The title of the book is, of course, “How History Gets Things Wrong.”   But the title is not an accurate descriptor of the book.  The book does not really explain how history or historians get specific things wrong. It is instead an argument about the entire inadequacy of narratives, the failure of history as a whole. The title should be “History is Always Wrong, Sometimes.”

I add the word “sometimes” to this proposed title change, because Rosenberg appears to backpedal or hedge his initial position that historical narratives are always wrong. First of all, he distinguishes between academic history, which isn’t always wrong, he says, and popular history, which is “almost always wrong.” (3)  Academic history is less susceptible to being wrong, he thinks, because it is rarely written in narrative form (a claim that academic historians might disagree with).  But I’m troubled more by the  phrase “almost always wrong” which suggests to me the possibility that history can sometimes be right.  This is not a typo or lapse of judgment in his argument. On page 11, Rosenberg also writes that history gets “almost everything wrong.”  It remains unclear to me then if, in his view, narrative is always incorrect, or indeed nonexistent, and by what standard or measurement a narrative might be judged correct. It is one thing to point to an abundance of narratives that are false or contradictory, and another to claim that no narrative could be correct.

It seems that Rosenberg judges historical explanations by the standards of the natural sciences, in which we must isolate factors of cause and effect to some high level of certainty.  History, he says, “does not confer real understanding.” (3). Again, however, this leaves room to doubt his views.  If it does not confer real understanding, does it then confer some kind of understanding that is not real? Is the only real understanding that of the natural sciences?  Rosenberg appears to suggest that there can be only one true explanation of a historical event. Is the very act of putting events in chronological order and ascribing to them some cause and effect a false way of understanding true reality? He seems to think so. In addition to noting the shortcomings of narratives, Rosenberg presents a general skepticism of historical knowledge, of the ability for anyone to gain knowledge of any kind from historical observation. The irony this poses for scientific observation is not addressed.

Historians, unlike scientists, Rosenberg writes, don’t ever come to a consensus view about historical events. This is a weakness of the historical method, he thinks. On the contrary, however, one might argue that historians do sometimes come to a general consensus about basic historical events, and scientists are not always in agreement about theories or the interpretation of data. To charge history with failure because there is disagreement seems unfair. Data does not interpret itself, neither in history nor science, and a variety of explanations could demonstrate the strength of a discipline, not its weakness.

Rosenberg contrasts the discipline of history with science, where, he thinks, theories are getting better all of the time. His views are obviously anti-Kuhnian, and there he presents no doubts about the current scientific theories he holds.  Science is a different kind of knowledge, isn’t stories, he says.  (125) Science is rather “theories, laws, models, findings, observations, experiments.” (4).  Rosenberg also tends to treat science not as an argument, with various positions, but as a settled form of knowledge. Indeed, he consistently uses phrases like “if neuroscience is right”  (212) , in which neuroscience is not a field of knowledge but a particular school of neuroscience, or a single view of the world.

Rosenberg’s definition of history is actually quite narrow, to the extent that few working historians would recognize it.  He charges popular narratives with inventing incorrect narratives, and argues that we cannot know the motives of historical actors (we cannot get into their minds), but that even if we could, we would not find motives, but only neurons.  Rosenberg’s understanding of the historical method seems to be this: that historians line up events in chronological order and then seek to drawn connections between the dots. (12). This neglects the true work of most historians to study context, various theories of the social sciences, psychology, and whatever else might be necessary to interpret human action. Rosenberg’s use of the term “history” also shifts.  He excuses academic history, charges popular history, and then moves to the public understanding of history in commemoration events. History might be conceived of in a broader sense, however, as any kind of thought about purposeful cause and effect, human action, over time. And, at some basic level, it seems that we can learn from history.  Watching other people, learning from our own mistakes, provides us with knowledge that we can act on. In fact, without historical knowledge, what kind of practical knowledge would we even have about the world?

I am afraid that Rosenberg’s book is what happens when you cross disciplines with the attempt to conquer not converse. Rosenberg flatly denies that neuroscientists need philosophers of the mind. And, it appears that he believes that philosophers and scientists don’t need to bother with the philosophy of history, either. Rosenberg seems completely unaware of, or at least chooses to ignore the eighty or so years of arguments about narratives, narrative explanation, causation, and the like, have been the subject of a large literature in the analytic philosophy of history.  And, it is not as if philosophers of history have ignored problems of accounting for historical explanation via the methods of natural sciences. In the nineteenth century, the German Heinrich Rickert argued that history had a method separate from the natural science, that it dealt with problems that the natural sciences could not yet solve. Or think of the hermeneutic tradition of Wilhelm Dilthey and the idea that historians study meaning not material. Whether historical explanations are generalizable like those in the natural sciences was a major topic in the mid-twentieth century, with names like Carl Hempel, Maurice Mandelbaum, and Karl Popper weighing in. Where is any reference to Arthur Danto, Hayden White, David Carr, Paul Roth, and scores of others who have theorized narrative?

On one level, I suspect Rosenberg is telling us something we already know. Narrative does not exist in the physical world; it is in our minds, our own construction.  We know that we can’t get into the head of an actor to know their motivations.  In judging historical explanations as “right” or “wrong”, however, Rosenberg fails to explain by what standard we might judge a story or a historical fact to be true.  Getting a true reading of another’s mind would be a high barrier for history, or science, or any pursuit. But what if a historian writes a narrative in which they ascribe purpose X as the true motivation behind person Y’s action, and then person Y hears or reads this narrative and agrees that yes, his own motivation was as the historian described. Could we then say that the historians narrative is correct?

There is a genuine philosophical problem here about the nature of humanity, the reality of the world and our ability to understand it, but I don’t think that this is philosophical problem that can be solved empirically.  Yet, this is precisely the approach the book takes, with empiricism as the solution for metaphysics, observation without the need for reason, science without skepticism.  Rosenberg wants to discredit historical narratives by telling us that we think this way because it is an evolved trait. But in questioning the value of narratives, and whether they can be correct or not, it makes no difference whether or not narrative thinking was an evolved trait. Likewise, it seems gratuitous and unnecessary to his larger argument that Rosenberg wants to blame narrative thinking for so much of the world’s problems.  Historical narratives, he thinks, have done more harm than good.  But how could one possibly quantify this. This is not scientific, and it’s a non sequitur.

Rosenberg closes with the suggestion that we need an alternative to historical narrative. The alternative he proposes is evolutionary game theory  – Darwin applied to history –  such that we can explain everything as the result of mechanical or chemical processes, not as thoughts or purposes behind specific action. Rosenberg, in short, wants to remove human thought and purpose action from history.  The result of Rosenberg’s paradigm is the death of history, and its replacement with science. If scientists can write history better than the historians, surely they are welcome to do so.  And perhaps some day scientific history, the dream of the nineteenth century, will be capable of providing all historical knowledge.  For the time being, however, evolutionary game theory is far from capable of providing us with convincing historical explanations for most major events and processes. Historical narrative may fall short of scientific certainty, but that is not what historians have been looking for. Historical narratives are the inevitable result of our limited best attempts at understanding the past and ourselves.


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