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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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What, if anything, underlies the course of history
as a whole? What are the fundamental or real deter-
minants of historical change? Can any one factor be
picked out as being of preeminent importance? Is it
possible to formulate causal laws that hold universally
throughout the domain of historical experience? What
is the role of human thought and decision in history,
and how far is it justifiable to impute moral respon-
sibility for their actions to individual historical figures?
Is it legitimate to regard accident or chance as playing
a significant part in deciding the direction taken by
historical events? Is historical determinism true, and
if so what are its implications? These constitute some
of the questions that have been asked by theorists
preoccupied by the problem of giving an account of
causality as it manifests itself within the field of the
human past. Not only have they generated a host of
diverse and often conflicting answers; they have also
been raised at different levels of enquiry and with
distinguishable considerations in mind.

Theological and Metaphysical Conceptions. It is not,
for instance, the case that the causal agencies regarded
as determining the sequence of occurrences have al-
ways been conceived to be empirical factors lying
within the historical process. On the contrary, it has
sometimes been assumed that the clue to all that hap-
pens must ultimately be located in something that lies
outside that process, such as the will of a divine or
transcendent being. One potent source of speculation
has been the belief that the pattern of historical events
represents the unfolding of some overall purpose or
design, views of this sort originating in religious notions
of the universe and of man's place within it. Thus, early
in the Christian era, certain of the Church fathers were
already reacting against Greco-Roman views that
pictured history in terms of recurrent cycles, seeking
to substitute a conception of linear movement wherein
the intentions of a sovereign providential power were
clearly discoverable; while by the fifth century Saint
Augustine had given articulate philosophical expression
to a directional view which presupposed a providential
order and which was to prove immensely influential.
Augustine's ideas admittedly diverged widely from the
cruder hypotheses of his predecessors; moreover, he
was notably reticent about the possibility of interpret-
ing the details of terrestrial history in a providential
manner, implying for the most part that such things
fell outside the range of human cognizance and con-
cern. The same cannot, however, be said of some later
writers who looked back to Augustine for inspiration,
and least of all of the seventeenth-century French
historian, J. B. Bossuet. Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire
(1681) was indeed remarkable for the con-
fidence displayed by its author in his capacity for
penetrating the workings of the divine intelligence
insofar as these impinged upon the affairs of men. It
was not merely that he took pleasure in offering exam-
ples of the retribution visited by God upon erring
nations and individuals; he further professed to know


that even the most (apparently) fortuitous occurrences
had been “contrived by a higher wisdom, that is to
say, in the everlasting mind who has all the world's
causes and all the effects contained in one single order.”

The modern development of historical enquiry as
a firmly established discipline in its own right has
been—not unnaturally—accompanied by a marked
decline in the tendency to try to explain the general
course of history by reference to a governing agency
external to it. It is true that some latter-day theologians,
for example, Reinhold Niebuhr, have spoken as if cer-
tain forms of providential interpretation remained fea-
sible: but the proposals put forward have usually been
so tentative and heavily qualified, so imbued with a
desire not to trespass upon areas occupied by profes-
sional or “technical” historians, that to treat them as
strictly comparable with the ambitious programs of
earlier periods would be a mistake. Nevertheless, the
view that the totality of historical events can and
should be understood as composing an intelligible tele-
ological sequence has been a persistent one in human
thinking, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth cen-
turies this found expression in systems in which the
purposive element stressed by previous theological
writers was, so to speak, absorbed within the historical
process itself. Thus various attempts were made to
portray history as moving in a determinate and mean-
ingful direction, but without thereby positing a tran-
scendent entity which could be regarded as ultimately
responsible for the direction it took; the providential
principle was regarded as being immanent in world
history rather than as deriving from an extraneous

Some such thought underlies the theories of history
propounded by Vico, Kant, and Hegel. Despite their
considerable differences on other counts, these philos-
ophers at least shared the common assumption or
methodological postulate that what happens in the
historical sphere possesses an inner “logic” which can
be regarded as being intrinsic to the course of events.
By this they did not mean that the actual participants
in the process were always aware of the long-term
significance of their actions: on the contrary, they
implied that the historical purposes served by particu-
lar agents were obscure or even unknown to the agents
themselves; it was only in retrospect—and from a
vantage point that transcended the contingencies of
immediate occasion and circumstance—that the deeds
of individuals could be seen as contributing towards
the realization of a state of affairs which was in some
sense implicit from the beginning as a final goal or
end. At the same time, they did not wish to be under-
stood as recommending a kind of applied theology.
When Vico, for instance, spoke of there being an “ideal
eternal history... whose course is run in time by the
histories of all nations” (Scienza nuova, §114), he ex-
pressly repudiated the suggestion that he was postulat-
ing a divine “potter who molds things outside himself.”
It was man who made his own history; he did so,
however, in a fashion such that each stage of social
development could be interpreted as having a part to
play in a sequence that, taken as a whole, displayed
a necessary teleological structure. Likewise, Kant was
insistent upon the possibility of conceiving history in
a way that portrayed the conflicts and vicissitudes to
which men are subject by virtue of their own activities
as representing the means whereby the human species
progressively realized the capacities originally im-
planted in it by nature and thus moved towards the
fulfilment of its earthly destiny. The case of Hegel is
more complicated, since his conception of history was
impregnated with conceptions deriving from a com-
prehensive metaphysical system that encompassed
every aspect of human experience; yet here, too, a
similar theme may be discerned. For history, along
with everything else, exemplified the unfolding of a
rational principle or “Idea” that was destined to realize
itself in time. Hegel admittedly spoke of the operations
of a “World Spirit” (Weltgeist) in history, but he does
not seem to have envisaged this as an independent
agency; rather, it expressed itself directly in the activi-
ties of historical individuals and was nothing apart from
these. So understood, the historical process moved
inexorably forward, one phase giving way to another
in a dialectical progression that culminated in a form
of social life which—as the embodiment of freedom—
constituted its ultimate objective, being referred to by
Hegel as “the final cause of the world at large.”

Hegel himself sometimes gave the impression that
his interpretation of history could be regarded as a
“hypothesis” that both accounted for and was grounded
upon the empirical data at his disposal. And a major
attraction, indeed, of teological theories of the type
to which his may be said to belong has been the feeling
that, unlike explicitly theological conceptions, they do
not in the end require for their support anything other
than the attested facts of historical experience. Such
a feeling is understandable. For what, from one point
of view, the historical teleologist can be considered
to be doing is making a claim to the effect that a
certain trend or tendency has manifested itself in
human affairs; and such a claim, it would seem, is one
fully capable of being confirmed or disproved by expe-
rience alone. It is, however, one thing to assert that
events have, as a matter of fact, exhibited a particular
tendency or direction; it is another to say that it was
necessary that they should have taken the course that
they did: and it is another again to seek to confirm this


necessity by reference to the state of affairs in which
they have issued or to which they eventually led. To
argue that certain things had to happen if something
else was to happen is not in itself to explain why the
earlier events in the series occurred as they did; the
most that would be shown is that the occurrence of
the prior events was a necessary condition of the oc-
currence of the sequel. The situation would, of course,
be different if, on independent grounds, it could be
demonstrated that the end-product of history was in
some manner intended or preordained from the start
and, moreover, that there was only one route by which
such a consummation could be attained. But it remains
hard to see how such an additional assumption could
be established, or even assigned a clear meaning, in
the absence of anything over and above the facts of
man's past as determined by ordinary historical inves-
tigation. For this reason, among others, a number of
empirically-minded theorists, such as Saint-Simon and
Comte, were led to look elsewhere in their search for
an explanatory key with which to unlock the secrets
of historical evolution and change.

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.

Pluralistic and Antinomian Views. Ideas like those
of Buckle and Marx brought to the fore issues that have
not always been clearly distinguished. Thus the ques-


tion of whether history is interpretable by reference
to some unitary principle (whether teleological or
causal in character) has sometimes been identified with
the question of whether history can be said to form
an intelligible field of study, susceptible to rational
understanding and elucidation. The twentieth-century
historian Arnold Toynbee has, for example, suggested
that in the absence of such a principle, history would
amount to no more than a “chaotic, fortuitous, dis-
orderly flux”; while others have spoken as if the sole
alternative to regarding historical phenomena as ulti-
mately determined by some specific set of material or
social forces was to relegate them to the sphere of the
merely random and contingent. Alleged dilemmas of
this kind may be challenged, however, on the grounds
both that they exploit ambiguities inherent in such
notions as intelligibility and contingency and that at
the same time they presuppose a too restricted model
of acceptable explanation. It can be maintained, for
instance, that a pluralistic conception of historical
causation—one, that is, which ascribes causal efficacy
to a variety of independent factors without according
paramount status to those of any single type—is in no
way incompatible with the belief that historical events
and developments can be rendered intelligible in a
perfectly straightforward sense; it has, indeed, been
argued that such a conception accurately reflects the
practice of the majority of working historians, few of
whom would admit that they were thereby committed
to the view that their subject matter was in some
fashion radically incoherent or intractable. Nor, like-
wise, need a historian think that history is the product
of arbitrary caprice, or even that it is essentially (in
Carlyle's famous phrase) “the biography of great men,”
if he subscribes to the opinion that the characters and
decisions of individual figures often play a central and
irreducible role in determining what occurs. In this
connection it is interesting to observe that the Marxian
theorist G. V. Plekhanov (1857-1918), himself an
avowed adherent to the “monist view of history” and
insistent upon the stringent limits that social conditions
and “general causes” imposed upon the capacity of
individuals to affect the course of events, was none-
theless prepared to allow that personal disposition and
talent, as expressed in the activities of individuals,
could make a real difference to what happened in
certain historical contexts. Any theory (he held) which
tried wholly to dispense with a consideration of indi-
vidual factors would assume an implausible “fatalistic”
appearance, just as one that by contrast attributed
everything to these would end, absurdly, by depicting
history as an inconsequential and wholly fortuitous
series of happenings.

A further source of difficulty and confusion has been
the tendency to conflate issues of the kind discussed
with others relating to the place of freedom in history
and to the general status of determinism. As Buckle
correctly noted, a powerful motive for resisting deter-
ministic or scientifically orientated conceptions of his-
torical development has been the conviction that their
acceptance is inconsistent with a belief in human free
will and responsibility. One characteristic reaction to
such theories has accordingly taken the form of em-
phasizing the decisive contributions made by out-
standing individuals and of arguing that if, for example,
Napoleon or Lenin had not been born, European his-
tory might have followed a markedly different course.
But the claim that the deeds of particular personalities
have often had profound long-term effects does not by
itself entail that the historical process cannot be re-
garded as constituting a causally determined sequence.
All that the determinist postulates (it may be objected)
is that, given any historical event, an explanation of
the occurrence of that event could in principle be
provided in terms of causally sufficient conditions. And
this in no sense contradicts the contention that “great
men” or “world-historical individuals” sometimes ex-
ercise a decisive influence upon what happens; what
it states is that, if and when they do, their choices and
actions must themselves always be susceptible to a
complete causal explanation.

Somewhat similar considerations apply to the claim
that the obtrusion of accidental or chance happenings
into history represents a refutation of deterministic
assumptions. It is, of course, quite true that historians
are apt to employ the notions of chance or accident
in the course of unfolding their narratives and explana-
tions: this was a feature strongly underlined by the
British historian J. B. Bury. However, as Bury himself
pointed out in a well-known essay entitled “Cleopatra's
Nose,” it is a mistake to conclude from that that the
use of such concepts presupposes “the intrusion of a
lawless element” into history. It would appear rather
that, when a historian refers to something as having
happened by chance, he implies that its explanation
lies—in a manner admittedly not easy to characterize
with precision—off the main track of his enquiry or
concern. An event that is described as fortuitous or
accidental in the context of one set of interests may
take on a different aspect when it is surveyed from
another standpoint, being seen there as intrinsically
related to the historian's principal theme or subject:
in neither case, though, need the suggestion that it has
no causal explanation be present. Bury himself, echoing
the account provided by A. Cournot in his Considéra-
tions sur la marche des idées et des événements dans
les temps modernes
(1872), referred to chance as in-
volving the “valuable collision of two or more inde-
pendent chains of causes.” As a definition this may not
be impeccable, but it at least avoids the pitfall of


presuming that, in talking of chance occurrences, the
historian is irrevocably committed to some form of