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History and Inductive Risk, or the Social Harms of Bad Histories

Watson Hall 517

In analytic philosophy of science, the “Argument from Inductive Risk” presents an important challenge to the Value-Free Ideal of scientific reasoning by stating that, due to the risks inherent in the inductive process, “when non-epistemic consequences of error can be foreseen, non-epistemic values are a necessary part of scientific reasoning.” Though the genealogy of the argument traces its formulation back to other authors, it was Heather Douglas’s recent proposal that rekindled interest in the argument and the discussion around the role of values in scientific reasoning, so I will follow her formulation of it. But does the Argument from Inductive Risk apply to the case of (human) history? From a certain point of view, it does not: unlike, say, medicine or chemistry, history has no obvious, foreseeable non-epistemic consequences. History is just talk about the past, so what kind of harm could possibly follow from it? However, contrary to this view, I will argue that history (1) does have non-epistemic consequences and (2) is ridden with inductive reasoning. Therefore, the problem of inductive risk applies to it as well as to the sciences. Bad histories are not just (bad) talk about the past – they are (and historically have been) an integral part of social mechanisms of exclusion and oppression. Therefore, non-epistemic values should play a role in historical reasoning.

João Ohara is Assistant Professor of Theory and Philosophy of History at the Institute for History, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and a Good Family Visiting Faculty Research Fellow in the Department of History, Queen's University. He is the author of The Theory and Philosophy of History: Global Variations (Cambridge University Press, 2022) and other articles on the theory of history and the history of historiography.

Department of History, Queen's University

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