Interpretation of Evidence -- Generalization1
"All learning of history," says historian Robert Daniel, "is learning about generalizations- how
to form them, how to understand and remember them."2 For our present purpose, a
generalization can be treated as belonging at one of three levels: summary, limited interpretive,
and broad interpretive. A summary generalization is essentially a statement that is so obvious
and basic that it requires very little proof or argumentation to convince people that it is true:
e.g., "The Democratic party won the presidential election of 1992." (This statement is a
generalization because it summarizes the Electoral College results of the individual state
elections.) A limited interpretive generalization is more sophisticated. It makes a claim that
must be supported with evidence and argument in order to convince others that it is true. This
type of generalization is also concrete enough to be susceptible to a convincing proof: e.g.,
"The Democratic party won the presidential election of 1992 because Ross Perot split the
opposition votes to Bill Clinton " (The clause that begins with "because" makes this a
generalization that requires the support of evidence.)
Finally, broad interpretive generalizations are so grand and all-encompassing that they are
exceedingly difficult to validate with any amount of evidence or argument. Broad generalizations
often try to explain so much that even with a massive accumulation of evidence they remain
quite speculative. Karl Marx's "all history is the history of class conflict," or Arnold Toynbee's
generalizations about the rise and fall of civilizations, or Frederick Jackson Turner's claim that
"the primary factor in shaping the American character was the two-hundred year frontier
experience of its people" belong to this category. Generalizations of such magnitude, though
often very thought-provoking, are best left to philosophers.
Most worthwhile historical interpretations are generalizations at the limited level. They
provide truths of a manageable size, modest units of knowledge that can be supported by citing
the particulars on which the generalization is based. For example, a carefully written student
essay on Franklin Roosevelt's first term in office (1933-1937) might set forth the generalization:
This essay is from Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris, The Methods and Skills of History (HarlanDavidson, 2000), pp. 185-87.
RobertV: Daniel, Studying History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966)
"The emergence of radical political movements in the mid-thirties brought a leftward shift in
New Deal policy." The writer could then make such a statement plausible by examining some
specific "radical political movements" -- Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth " crusade, Francis
Townsend's over-sixty scheme, Father Charles Coughlin's attack on Roosevelt's monetary policy,
followed by a discussion of the new direction signified by the Wagner Labor Act and the Social
Security Act.
Limited interpretive generalizations and their supporting elements are the "meat-andpotatoes" of historical discourse: they compel assent; they advance un- derstanding; they deepen
knowledge; they give a signal that the writer knows the subject. How much better is such a
student generalization than a vague and almost meaningless statement like "Roosevelt had
trouble in the late years of his first administration," a thesis that seems suspended in midair,
suggesting little connection to events and developments of the times.
In addition to being supportable, limited interpretive generalizations should also add to the
readers' (or listeners ') understanding. They should provide an explanation of how and why
something happened as it did; they should explain the causes behind the event. To do so, one
need not kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer, that is, bring into play all possible remote,
proximate, underlying, or indirect "causes." Such an approach only diminishes the limited
interpretive generalization and makes it insupportable.
Developing Interpretations
The reader might ask "Where are we at this stage?" -- a good question. To summarize briefly, in
order to understand any historical development you must answer the questions- What happened?
How did it happen? Why did it happen?
We cannot emphasize enough that interpretation is a process not a singular episode. Usually
you begin an investigation with some preliminary and tentative conjectures about why things
happened the way they did. As one of C. S. Lewis's characters noted in Out of the Silent Planet,
"[Y]ou cannot see things till you know roughly what they are."3 These initial conjectures may
have to be modified or cast aside as you dig deeper into the evidence, and new ideas may be
"tried on for size." In essence, you are creating a preliminary hypothesis that will allow you to
Quoted in David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University
Press, 1985)
begin your research with a sense of direction and purpose. At each stage of your project, you
will have to refine your interpretation as new evidence comes to light and as your understanding
of the material becomes more sophisticated. In the end, your final interpretation, or thesis, must
be constructed so that it does justice to all the evidence you have discovered.
In this section, we've described a special kind of intellectual experience, and we'd like to
pause and reflect on it a bit. In essence, the historian first lifts an event from its temporal
surroundings, and then examines those surroundings for elements that bear a crucial relationship
to the event under scrutiny. In a way it is like unraveling a snarled skein of yarn. Perhaps the real
source of the difficulty is that the historian is attempting to turn the world, complex and
multilayered, into language, which is linear and can express only one idea or relationship at a
time. The process is one of mental reconstruction. Eventually the hours of reading, mental
shuffling, and reorganizing payoff: there emerges a synthesis, a mental image that combines
elements experienced separately. Some would use the term "pattern," others "insight," instead of
synthesis. Whatever word is used, the exact processes of the mental experience described here
remain a mystery to psychologists. Some- times the synthesis builds slowly, often laboriously,
occasionally with a sudden flash. Whichever the case, undue haste in trying to "make it come"
can be counterproductive. Understanding relationships seems to have a slow-paced chronology, a
point brilliantly made by novelist Eudora Welty: “Connections slowly emerge. Like distant
landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together.
Experiences too indefinite of outline in themselves to be recognized for themselves connect and
are identified as a larger shape. And suddenly a light is thrown back, as when your train makes a
curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've
come, is rising there still, proven now through retrospect.”4
Thus, after studious and extended consideration of the historical situation in which an event
is contained, the historian sees (or begins to see) that event as part of a larger whole. The event
is like a piece of jigsaw puzzle, which suddenly makes sense when seen in the context of other
pieces. For example, Adolf Hitler's confidence that his invasion of Poland in 1939 would not be
seriously challenged makes sense when seen in the context of his experience of the repeated
British and French pacifism of the preceding years. Basically, the historian comes to see an
Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings, 1984.
event as part of a whole composed of numerous individual acts, of certain prevailing conditions,
and certain action-producing pressures.
It is important to reiterate that an interpretation does not jump out of an assembled body of
factual data nor does the historian passively await a moment of inspiration. In contrast,
interpretations are aggressively sought. Historians approach historical situations with certain
expectations about how human affairs work: what moves human beings, typical tendencies of
motivation, relations between economic and political power, the relations between geography
and economic development- generally all manner of regularities that experience has reinforced.
They then actively use these expectations to develop their interpretations. What this means, of
course, is that those with wide experience in human affairs have something of a head start in
historical interpretation. But however wide one's experience, the rules of the game require that
one's expectations serve as a guide not as an inflexible formula, as a tool that may (or may not)
prove useful in explaining the event under consideration.