THE IMPORTANCE OF ASKING "WHY" QUESTIONS
Sometimes we know what happened, but why did it happen, and why did it have the influence it did? These questions about cause and effect create an eternal fascination and lead us to discuss one of the most important topics in the study of history - cause and effect. Cause and effect are like "unruly twins." In historical study they are inseparable, but it is often difficult to see just how they relate to each other. Keep in mind several considerations:
1. Always distinguish between the precipitating cause and the background causes of a great event.
You might call the precipitating cause the triggering cause, the cause that sets events in motion. The background causes are those that build up and create the context within which the precipitating cause works. Precipitating causes are often dramatic and fairly clear. Background causes are more difficult to sort out and often ambiguous.
Background causes offer rich possibilities for writing about the " why " of history. They often figure in serious newspaper reports trying to explain events that suddenly made headlines. The triggering cause makes the news; journalists and historians rush to explain the background cause that created a state of affairs where the triggering cause could work. If you pull the trigger of an empty pistol, you get only a snap of the firing pin. The pistol must be loaded before it will fire. Background causes are, in effect, the cartridge loaded in the gun that make the trigger do something important.
Precipitating or triggering causes can be worthwhile subjects in themselves. Exactly what happened at Fort Sumter on that April day in 1861? Why was it that passions were so aroused on that particular day in that particular year? The " what " question and the " why " question come together - as they often do.
2. Remember that historical causation is complex.
It is almost always a mistake to lay too much responsibility for a happening on only one cause. Good history considers different but related causes for a great event. The study of history helps us see how many different influences work on what happens. Causes in history are like tributaries to a great river. While a bad historian sees only the main channel of the largest stream, a good historian looks at the entire watershed and maps the smaller streams that contribute to the whole.
Good historians see things in context - often a large context of people and events surrounding what they seek to describe. Thinking in context means that we try to sort out and weigh the relative importance of various causes when we consider any important happening. The sense of context is especially important today, when historians have discovered the masses, the common people who must follow if others are to lead.
These questions lead us to investigations of mass culture, including the lives of people often scarcely literate who have left few written records behind. Since it is hard to resurrect the life of the masses, the problem of answering the " why " questions of history becomes complex and uncertain. But these difficulties don't remove from historians the obligation to try to make sense of them.
3. Be cautious in your judgments.
Do not give easy and simple causes for complex and difficult problems. Many events were caused by complex influences. We become foolish when we try to lay too much responsibility on one dramatic event or famous leader. The caution should also extend to your judgments about motivation in history.
When " why " questions seem to be answered, inquiring historians may look on the evidence again and discover another possible answer that contradicts accepted wisdom. The process of reconsideration is ongoing in the history profession - that's what historians do - "revisit" or "revise" history. Careful study of the evidence may often turn up new possibilities about questions that seem to have been answered.
More Information on Cause and Effect
Avoid common fallacies in historical reasoning. "Fallacies" are illogical arguments that pose as logical statements. You may be familiar with the term "straw man." People set up straw men when they argue against positions their opponents have not taken or when, without evidence, they attribute bad motives to opponents.
By all means avoid the fallacy that comes wearing an elaborate Latin name - post hoc ergo proper hoc . The Latin means simply, "After this; therefore because of this," and it refers to the fallacy of believing that if something happens after something else, the first happening caused the second.
Example: A more subtle problem with this fallacy arises with events that are closely related although one does not necessarily cause the other. The stock market in New York crashed in October 1929. The Great Depression followed. The crash contributed to a lack of confidence that made the Great Depression a terrible trauma for Americans and Europeans. But it is a mistake to say that the crash caused the Depression. Both seem to have been caused by the same economic forces. It is in this sort of relation that it becomes most necessary to think out the various strands of causation and to avoid making things too simple.
Avoid the "bandwagon fallacy," the easy assumption that because many historians agree on an issue, they must be right. Consensus by experts is not to be scorned. But experts can also be prone to prejudices. Great historical work has been done by people who went doggedly in pursuit of the evidence against the influence of the consensus. But be sure you have evidence when you attack a consensus. You won't get anywhere if all you have is a gut feeling. Unless you have evidence to support your ideas, you may end with a bad case of mental indigestion.