Nor can we become wiser for the future. It only by knows the past and the present that- we can plan for the ideal institutions of tomorrow. Laski has succinctly said, “What it is and why it is, it is by reason of its history. It’s becoming is the clue of its being and it is from that being that we must wrest its secret.”
In brief, our traditions and institutions are determined for us by our past. We are the consequences of these traditions and institutions which we did not make and which we can only partially alter. Appeal to history, therefore, is an invaluable aid to students of Political Science.
Montesquieu, Savigny, Seeley, Maine, Freeman and Laski are some of the eminent exponents of the historical method. Karl Marx found it an exclusive method. He explained the origin of the capitalist society in history and gave it the name of Materialistic Conception of History. But Sidgwick and other followers of the Philosophical School give to the historical method a secondary place for two reasons.
First, they maintain, that the historical method serves no useful purpose in solving our present and future needs as it refers only to the experience of what the political institutions had been. Every age, it is argued, has its own problems and every problem requires a solution relative to the time in which it occurs.
Secondly, history is a mere narration of events and it is not concerned with the goodness or badness of such events. Goodness or badness is only determined by ethical or philosophical standards and, accordingly, the philosophical method must precede the historical method.
Sidgwick’s arguments are quite convincing. In the historical method superficial resemblances, usually fascinating, but generally misleading, are very often made much of. In the opinion of James Bryce, the historical investigator is more susceptible to emotional influences and he very often confuses “the personal or accidental factor with the general cause at work.”
Ernest Barker, too, criticised the historical method and said, “The State is concerned less with the historical processes than with the fundamental realities essence, purposes and value—which transcend the category of time.” In spite of these well reasoned objections the utility of the historical method cannot be discounted. History has now become much more objective.
It also justifies goodness and badness of political actions, provided the investigator proceeds with an impartial mind free from prejudices and presuppositions, correlating economic, geographical or other scientific approaches. Seeley has rightly said, “We must think, reason, generalize, define, and distinguish; we must also collect, authenticate, and investigate.
If we neglect the first process, we shall accumulate facts to little purpose, because we shall have no test by which to distinguish facts which are important from those which are unimportant; and of course, if we neglect the second process, our reasoning will be baseless and we shall but weave scholastic cobwebs.”