‘I Have Nothing to Write About’ – A Criticism of Empiricism

Many people complain that they often have nothing to ‘write about;’ in fact, I encounter the excuse often enough that it’s become white noise.

While it would be easy, and I would derive a kind of vicious enjoyment, out of simply considering them idiots, this is obviously a stupid thing to do. Rather, the problem seems to be that many people lack a framework that they feel is worth using their time developing; after all, you create a class for writers and tell them to do five minutes of stream of consciousness writing and the pens won’t leave the paper for at least four minutes and fifty-five seconds.

So I’m forced to believe that it’s a question of framing, and of asking the right questions. Which brought to mind the 19th century empiricists. Typified by historian Leopold von Ranke, empirical history writing was defined by its absolute refusal to bow to conjecture and the absolute lack of any framework surrounding the evidence, the result of which was a kind of history writing that in theory and in design lacked any kind of agenda on the author’s part. It was conceptualised as completely objective historical writing.

The obvious criticism jumps into many people’s heads at once. ‘You can’t be objective, because there have to be a few facts that are relevant to the case that have been left out, and leaving out information is itself a form of bias,’ they cry. True. But the point of empiricism is that they collected all the available and relevant evidence before having the audacity to make a ‘conclusion.’

Ironically, at least in this case, the same issue that pervades empirical writing also plagues the writer in this very instance: the empiricists lacked a question. In not desiring an answer from their sources, merely asking ‘what’ they were, they were failing to acknowledge all the other questions that naturally followed: Ranke left Kipling’s gang out in the cold. The classical empiricist viewpoint of historical study, which is that we should consider nothing but the absolute factual truth, what is contained within the sources, utterly disregards questions as to the human condition, from the historical mindset to the historical physical makeup and use of the muscles. Allow me to provide an example.

An empiricist archaeologist discovers, buried in the dirt somewhere in northern Europe, a strange tool. It appears to be some early derivative of the hoe or the scythe. What can the empiricist discover from this piece of evidence, apart from that it was buried in the ground? Without supplementary material – without, say, a treatise on agricultural practices, with detailed descriptions on the use of the era’s tools, the empiricist can learn nothing. At a stretch, he may conclude that the tall grass in the area was once trimmed by the scythe – but as no concrete evidence exists that such a thing ever happened, the empiricist remains uncertain.

But another kind of historian, one not afraid to theorise and test the boundaries of what only may have been the case (rather than sticking most firmly to what was most definitely the case), could easily discover how the tool was used by creating a replica and swinging it around. By physically testing the boundaries of the human body; by attempting to use the tool for various purposes and in various ways, some of which will invariably look very stupid, the non-empirical historian can create a hypothesis as to how the tool was used, and test it through application.

If the area in question is quite steeped in whatever history it has, he may also be wise to ask a modern farmer, who may use a similar tool in a similar manner. Conjecture can be applied; since the same kind of tall grass grows all throughout the land, this specific tool must have been reasonably common among farmers.

The non-empiricist has created all this conjecture without a single formal source; without a treatise, without a guide to farming in the Xth century, without any real piece of information except the tool itself and the area in which it was found. Now, conjecture alone is not very useful in discovering the truth, obviously. But it allows the historian to do something incredibly important, which is to ask the right question. Too often, people waste their time by asking the wrong questions. ‘How was this tool used?’ or ‘What was it for?’ are shallower questions than ‘What can we tell about the people who lived in this area, since they decided that using this tool was a good idea?’ and ‘What made them decide to change it? Did the technology improve or did the environment change?’

What does my criticism of an outdated mode of history writing have to do with people who constantly and annoyingly insist that they have nothing to write about? Simply that the empiricists and the bloggers have the same problem – it’s not that they’re asking the wrong questions. It’s that they’re not asking any.

This is not to brush aside one of the most important modern historians – discarding Ranke is no mean feat and not a very good idea considering he was the father of modern source-based history. But he simply wasn’t encouraging historians to ask the right questions, the questions that would have allowed us to understand historical mindsets that much earlier. So it’s no surprise, then, that historiography has largely moved past him. It’s gone to some darker places, i.e. literal Marxism, but all modern history writing contains a basically empirical core.

But the frequency with which people tell me they have nothing to write about tells me, ironically, that we haven’t learned anything about or from history, even from its most objective, fact-obsessed explorers.

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