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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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An examination of substantive theories of historical
causation shows that many of the problems raised by
them tend to shade into others that concern, not so
much matters of fact, as the meaning and implications
of various key terms or ideas. This aspect of the subject
first began to attract widespread attention during the
latter half of the nineteenth century, when a certain
skepticism regarding the feasibility of large-scale in-
terpretations of the historical process on allegedly
scientific lines set in, and when it was felt to be neces-
sary to consider more carefully the actual structure of
the concepts by which the explanation of historical
phenomena was customarily attempted. It was clear,
for instance, that the program of elevating history to
scientific status presupposed that historical events
could be subsumed beneath laws and hypotheses of the
type that had been employed with success at the level
of natural phenomena. How far, though, was such an
assumption really justified? Was it not conceivable that
the whole notion of explanation and understanding
within the field of the human studies precluded the
adoption of such an approach, with the consequence
that some of the grandiose attempts which had been
made to set history upon the “sure path of a science”
could be regarded as mistaken in principle, the prod-
ucts of a profound categorial confusion? In any case,
was it not reasonable to investigate the logical charac-
ter of the explanations which historians in practice used
before embarking on projects whose relevance and
applicability to the subject matter of historical enquiry
had been taken for granted not critically ascertained?

The Notion of Cause. The original stimulus of much
modern controversy concerning the nature of historical
thought and understanding derived from the work of
writers who were themselves deeply opposed to the
suggestion that the explanatory procedures appropriate
to the human studies (or Geisteswissenschaften) were
not significantly different from those typically adopted
in the natural sciences. For both the German philoso-
pher, Wilhelm Dilthey, and the Italian, Benedetto
Croce, it was the dissimilarities rather than the simi-
larities between historical and scientific conceptions of
enquiry that were important and striking. Thus each
tended to emphasize the individuality or uniqueness
of historical phenomena and to lay stress upon the need
to regard the events of history in a light that presented
them as integrally related to the specific periods and
social milieus within which they took place: human
nature was not conceived to be something static, the
subject of omnitemporal laws or regularities, but was
viewed as involved in a continual process of change,
finding expression in forms of thought and feeling that
were in turn reflections of diverse patterns of life or
culture. Moreover, the concept central to history was
identified as that of human agency, and the under-
standing or inner recognition of what it is to be an
agent, pursuing purposes or adhering to practical prin-
ciples and beliefs, was held to bring into play a variety
of explanatory concepts and modes of exegesis that
were without analogue in disciplines whose province
was the nonhuman world. Many of these themes were
adumbrated with exceptional clarity and force by the
British philosopher, R. G. Collingwood, and it was
largely through his persuasive writings that they subse-
quently came to achieve wide currency in Anglo-Saxon
circles. Collingwood was especially insistent upon a
proper appreciation of the role played by thinking in
determining historical phenomena: “all history,” he
once affirmed, “is the history of thought” (Idea of
pp. 214-15). He went on to argue in accord-
ance with this dictum that the notion of cause was
employed in the historical sphere with a distinctive
meaning, a meaning that rendered misconceived and
futile attempts to assimilate history to natural science.
For him, the cause of a historical event was “the
thought in the mind of the person by whose agency
the event came about,” the historian's understanding
of such an event therefore consisting in the reconstruc-
tion or “reenactment” of the process of thinking from
which it issued. Such a model of the historian's proce-
dure was to be sharply contrasted with the mode of
explanation Collingwood attributed to the scientist,
whereby particular occurrences were shown to be
intelligible in virtue of their exemplifying generaliza-
tions correlating them with other events of a specific

The conception of historical understanding illus-
trated by the work of Collingwood has not been with-
out its critics, many of whom have considered his claim
that such understanding is radically different in form
from scientific kinds of explanation to be unwarranted.
What has come to be known as the “covering law
model,” which was developed in the thirties and forties
of the present century by a number of logical empiri-
cists and which—so far as history is concerned—has
achieved classic expression in the work of Carl Hempel,
explicitly rests upon the contention (resisted by Col-
lingwood) that any adequate explanation of a causal
type must necessarily exhibit the event to be explained
as instantiating some general law or laws; when strictly
interpreted, this was held to imply that the explanan-
dum should be deducible from a set of premisses con-
sisting, on the one hand, of statements descriptive of


initial or boundary conditions and, on the other, of
further statements expressing well-confirmed universal
hypotheses. Proponents of the view in question, which
in its general outline conformed to the account of
causality originally suggested by Hume, argued that
historical explanations, when their basic structure was
fully revealed, displayed no significant divergences
from those used in other fields of enquiry; indeed, it
was only on an analysis along the lines proposed that
the historian's manner of making the past under-
standable could be appreciated as implying an inher-
ently rational procedure, subject to the sort of check
and verification that was a precondition of the respect-
ability of any empirical discipline. Talk of empathetic
projection into the minds of historical agents, such as
was indulged in by theorists like Dilthey and Colling-
wood, might have value as signifying a heuristic aspect
of the historian's method of arriving at his explanations:
so far, however, as the problem was one of elucidating
the fundamental logic of these, it amounted to little
more than a mystifying irrelevance.

Despite its initial plausibility, and notwithstanding
the ingenuity and pertinacity with which its supporters
have sought to defend it, the covering law analysis has
in its turn encountered criticisms, two of which may
be mentioned here. Thus from one standpoint it has
been contended that the explanations historians actu-
ally provide simply do not measure up to the stipula-
tions embodied in the proposed model: the average
historian would be hard put to cite the universal hy-
potheses upon which the meaning and validity of his
causal propositions allegedly depend. The model would
therefore seem to require (at best) considerable quali-
fication and amendment if it is to serve as an adequate
framework within which to characterize how historians
in fact proceed. From another standpoint it has been
urged that the presentation of historical events as ra-
tionally intelligible in the light of the motives, aims,
and beliefs of the agents involved constitutes an in-
trinsic and ineliminable feature of historical under-
standing, and that this feature cannot be satisfactorily
accommodated within the limits set by the covering
law theory. Hence there has been a tendency on the
part of some recent writers—notably, W. H. Dray—to
try to reformulate what they hold to be the essential
points of Collingwood's antipositivist position in a way
that shows them to be both epistemologically un-
mysterious and empirically sound. Among other things,
it has been suggested that a crucial characteristic of
the causal accounts offered by historians consists in
demonstrating that the actions of which they treat were
rationally justified or required from the point of view
of the agents concerned, rather than that they were
occurrences to be expected or predicted on the basis
of inductively established uniformities. Whether, if it
is to be finally adequate, an interpretation of this kind
can really dispense with an appeal—at least at some
level of the analysis—to the notions of law or general-
ization remains a disputed question, the answer to
which would appear partly to depend upon the resolu-
tion of wider and still controversial issues in the philos-
ophy of mind.

Freedom and Determinism. An advantage that is
sometimes claimed for the approach favored by Col-
lingwood and his modern followers is that it does not
imply that there is any incompatibility between re-
garding an action as explicable and treating it as a free
one. For it is argued that to explain what a historical
agent did by referring to the good, or even compelling,
reasons that he had for doing it does not commit the
historian to maintaining that the agent's recognition
of these reasons rendered his action inevitable. And
this result may be contrasted with the consequence of
adopting a covering law analysis. In the case of the
latter, it is held, an action is said to have been explained
if and only if it has been shown to have followed
necessarily, as a law-governed effect, upon the fulfil-
ment of specific initial conditions. Thus the covering
law theorist, insofar as he considers historical events
to be capable of explanation, cannot avoid adopting
a deterministic position.

One reply to this has been that accounts of historical
causation often take the form of indicating certain
necessary, as opposed to sufficient, conditions for the
occurrence of an event, and that a covering law theo-
rist can without difficulty adapt his analysis to accom-
modate explanation in this sense. On this (modified)
view, his adherence to the postulate that historical
events are explicable need not be interpreted as carry-
ing deterministic implications. But it has also been
suggested that there is in any case no justification for
holding that the acceptance of determinism logically
excludes belief in human freedom; even if a historian
assumes all human behavior to be susceptible in prin-
ciple to explanation in terms of sufficient, and not
merely necessary, conditions, he is not thereby de-
barred from supposing that the subjects of his enquiries
sometimes acted as free and responsible agents. Thus
the traditional fear of determinism, which (as was seen
earlier) often helped to inspire resistance to certain
speculative theories of history, is based upon an illusion
that largely derives from an illegitimate identification
of causation with such notions as those of coercion and
external constraint: it is possibly with this argument
in mind that the contemporary British historian, E. H.
Carr, has written that the “logical dilemma about free
will and determinism does not arise in real life,” human
actions being “both free and determined” (What is


History?, p. 124). There are, however, others—among
them Isaiah Berlin—who have found it unconvincing
and who have felt that all attempts to analyze concepts
like freedom and moral responsibility in such a way
as to make their employment compatible with a thor-
oughgoing causal determinism ultimately fail to do jus-
tice to the implications of ordinary thought and lan-
guage. In their view, moreover, the fabrid of the
historical studies, as we customarily know and under-
stand them, is shot through with libertarian and evalu-
ative conceptions to a degree that has not always been
adequately appreciated. Hence those who have con-
tended that a commitment to unrestricted determinism
in human affairs would entail sweeping revisions of the
vocabulary and categories the historian normally brings
to the interpretation of his material have been substan-
tially right. Though this is not of course positively to
affirm that a thoroughgoing determinism is untenable,
it is to claim that for the most part historians habitually
write and think as if it were untenable. And that is
a point which, if correct, cannot be lightly brushed