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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The Quest for Causal Laws. One factor which, from
the Enlightenment onwards, exercised a pervasive in-
fluence upon the development of historical speculation
was the progress of the natural sciences. The dis-
coveries of men like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton had
apparently opened the way to unlimited advance in
the exploration of nature, showing how ranges of phys-
ical phenomena, often of the most diverse kinds, could
be systematically accommodated and unified within
schemes of vast explanatory and predictive power. It
was, furthermore, a feature of the theories and laws
propounded that they had been evolved within the
setting of a mechanistic rather than a teleological
conception of the universe: enquiry was guided by the
aim of determining the detectable conditions under
which phenomena occurred, the uniformities of se-
quence which they exhibited in precisely specifiable
circumstances, rather than by considerations involving
the supposition that they were activated by purposive
principles mysteriously embedded in the structure of
the cosmos. It is not surprising that the possibility of
applying similar approaches and techniques to the
study of psychological and social phenomena should
have occurred to thinkers to whom it appeared un-
reasonable and obscurantist to assume the existence of
an absolute gulf separating the realm of nature from
the realm of mind. Why should the thought and be-
havior of human beings not be subject to universal and
necessary regularities comparable to those that gov-
erned physical reality? At the individual level this
attitude was to find expression in such “materialist”
works as Holbach's Système de la nature (1770) and
La Mettrie's L'Homme machine (1748), as well as in
the “associationist” psychological doctrines of eigh-
teenth- and nineteenth-century British empiricism. Its
most spectacular and influential manifestations, how-
ever, took place within the province of social theory:
here a determined effort was made to lay the founda-
tions of a historical science which would not only rival
the natural sciences in richness and scope but would
also provide a firm theoretical base from which to
conduct large-scale projects of social reorganization
and reform. The practical advantages that would ac-
crue from a proper understanding of the fundamental
determinants of history were seldom far from the minds
of those who undertook to achieve it.

If causal laws were operative within history, what
form did they take and how were they to be discov-
ered? As a number of recent critics have been at pains
to point out, the enthusiastic advocacy of a scientific
approach to human affairs was not always matched by
a corresponding grasp of the actual nature of scientific
method and inference. Thus some theorists were apt
to rely upon a rather naive mode of induction by
simple enumeration in arriving at their conclusions;
one consequence of this was a proneness to overlook
or leave out of account possible counter-examples to
the principles or generalizations they supposed them-
selves to have established. Again, it is arguable that
the interpretations they put upon certain crucial con-
cepts were on occasions open to objection. Karl Pop-
per, for instance, has maintained that the term “law”
was not infrequently used incorrectly, being misappro-
priated to apply to what were in fact no more than
particular trends or long-term processes; insofar as
these were regarded as possessing some sort of inherent
necessity, it was perhaps partly due to the survival of
teleological preconceptions which, though openly re-
pudiated, nonetheless continued to exert a covert in-
fluence. Yet another persistent feature of scientifically-
inspired theories of history was the restriction they
imposed upon the range of conditions considered to
be basically or “decisively” relevant: it was assumed
that the fundamental laws of historical development
should be formulable in a manner that gave priority
to factors of some specific type—race, environment,
and the growth of knowledge or technology being
among those variously accorded this privileged status.
As a result many of the theories in question were
monistic in character, presupposing a sharp contrast
between, on the one hand, merely superficial or “ap-
parent” causative agencies and, on the other, deep-
lying forces to whose operation the general shape and
direction taken by significant social phenomena must
in the last analysis be ascribed. Yet here, once more,
it was often far from clear what justification, empirical


or otherwise, had been offered for introducing distinc-
tions and limitations of the kind referred to. Some of
these tendencies, and their accompanying difficulties,
are illustrated in the works of two nineteenth-century
thinkers whose writings made a profound impact upon
their age: H. T. Buckle and Karl Marx.

Buckle had been impressed by his reading of Auguste
Comte and J. S. Mill, themselves both wedded to the
conception of a social science, and he regarded it as
a scandal that so little had previously been done “to-
wards discovering the principles which govern the
character and destiny of nations.” In particular, he
heaped ridicule upon doctrines—such as those ascrib-
ing to men a power of undetermined free choice—
which in his view had hindered the creation of a
genuinely scientific interpretation of history. Against
obfuscatory and “metaphysical” dogmas of this kind
he affirmed the “undeviating regularity” with which
human actions followed upon antecedent circum-
stances, and he set out to provide a detailed account
of the fashion in which what he called “three vast
agents”—climate, food, and soil—combined to deter-
mine the original character and evolution of different
peoples and cultures. Buckle's erudition was consid-
erable and his deployment of it to substantiate his
claims was not devoid of value, leading other historians
to take seriously matters that had not received the
attention they deserved. Yet what he said can hardly
be considered to have fulfilled his own ambitious aspi-
rations. His generalizations were conspicuously lacking
in precision, and his denial that such factors as govern-
ment and religion could properly be regarded as
“prime movers of human affairs” functioned more as
a prejudice than as an argued thesis. Moreover, having
proved to his satisfaction that a particular condition
was necessary to the production of some social out-
come, he was liable to pass without further ado to the
conclusion that it was sufficient as well. Thus his con-
duct of the enterprise he had undertaken seemed often
to be vitiated by logical confusions in addition to the
methodological inadequacies it displayed.

Marx's conception of history was subtler, and in
general has proved to be far more fertile in its conse-
quences for historical writing and research. Roughly
speaking, it involved the contention that the final
determinant of historical movement was to be found,
not in the ideas men entertained, but in their material
activities and methods of production; it was the ma-
nipulative interaction between man and his environ-
ment—the ways in which men worked upon it in order
to create their means of subsistence and to satisfy their
developing needs and wants—that was responsible for
the course taken by human affairs, necessitating the
form assumed by phenomena in other departments of
social life and experience. Marx and his followers were
thereby led to distinguish between the economic
“base” of society (consisting in the productive forces
together with the class alignments these forces gave
rise to) and the ideological “superstructure” (compris-
ing religion, ethics, political institutions, systems of
law, and so forth), the latter being essentially the
product of the former. History could thus be seen as
owing its momentum to changes that took place in
human productive techniques and to corresponding
movements and conflicts within the social structure:
as Marx and Engels wrote in their German Ideology
(1845-46), “men, developing their material production
and their material intercourse, alter, along with this
their real existence, their thinking and the products
of their thinking” (p. 38). Such a theory possessed a
challenging originality and economy; it appeared both
to illuminate hitherto uncharted ranges of historical
phenomena and also to set in a new light, at times
even to undermine, such traditional modes of explana-
tion as those that emphasized individual plans and
projects and the beliefs or ideals that inspired them.
Yet, despite the insights it undoubtedly embodied, the
very comprehensiveness and neatness of the Marxian
interpretation was felt by some to mask a variety of
problems concerning its validity and its application in
practice to the material it was designed to explain.
How far, for example, was it possible to describe or
identify the factors assigned to the economic base or
“foundation” without introducing considerations of a
political or juristic nature? What exactly were the
grounds for asserting that ethical or political doctrines
were essentially expressions of the interests of econom-
ically determined classes, and how was such an hy-
pothesis to be empirically tested? Or again, was it
legitimate to treat the role of individual personalities
in history as cavalierly as Engels, in particular, some-
times implied? More generally, could it not be argued
that the progressivist optimism, implicit in the Marxian
notion of history as moving inexorably forward towards
the creation of social forms that would render possible
the complete realization of human potentialities, owed
more to the postulates of the Idealist metaphysic Marx
had absorbed in his youth than to any entailed by a
strictly scientific methodology? It was one thing (such
critics protested) to stress the importance of economic
factors and to show how these might exert an unsus-
pected but nonetheless crucial influence upon historical
change; it was surely quite another to suggest that,
once their significance had been appreciated, the entire
historical process would present itself as conforming
to a necessary pattern in such a way that future phases
of its development could be unerringly predicted.