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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Although the topic of historical causation has occu-
pied philosophers and historians from early times, the
discussions to which it has given rise have not con-
formed to any single continuous pattern or theme. Like
other matters that have been the focus of perennial
theoretical controversy and dispute, and particularly
those falling within the sphere of the human studies,
it has been approached from a variety of directions
and examined in the light of a number of different
perspectives and interests; as a consequence debates
on the subject have not infrequently been bedevilled
by misunderstanding and confusion. One broad division
within the field may, however, be introduced at the
outset, its being convenient for the purposes of the
present article to apply a familiar contemporary dis-
tinction and to consider the principal issues raised
beneath two main headings.

Under the first we shall discuss substantive theories
of causation, such theories being concerned, in one way
or another, with determining the actual forces opera-
tive in history and with trying to elicit the factors
ultimately responsible for historical development and
change. Theories of this type are often associated with
the speculative writings of classical philosophers of
history; but they have also found expression—whether
explicitly or implicitly—in the works of practicing
historians, informing their methodology and influenc-
ing the manner in which they have approached the
empirical data confronting them. Under the second
heading we shall be concerned with a type of theory
that is of more recent origin and which is of an analyti-
cal or critical character. Here the questions involved
have been of a conceptual rather than a factual nature,
having to do with the notion or category of causality
as it is commonly employed within the context of
historical thought and discourse: the problems raised
by this kind of investigation have not been related to
the workings of the historical process itself but have
pertained instead to the explanatory concepts and
linguistic devices in terms of which historians are ac-
customed to interpret the events of which it is com-
posed. Yet, as will emerge in the course of this survey,
the two types of enquiry have not evolved inde-
pendently of one another, there being in fact significant
connections discernible between them.


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


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


Substantive Theories. J. B. Bossuet, Discours sur l'histoire
(Paris, 1681; reprint, 1925). H. T. Buckle, The
History of Civilisation in England,
2 vols. (London,
1857-61). G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie
der Geschichte
(Berlin, 1837); trans. J. Sibree as Lectures
on the Philosophy of History
(New York, 1944). I. Kant, “Idee
zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher
Absicht” (Berlin, 1784); trans. W. Hastie as “The Idea of
a Universal Cosmo-Political History,” in Kant, Eternal Peace
and Other International Essays
(Boston, 1914). K. Marx and
F. Engels, Selected Works, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1950); idem,
The German Ideology (1845-46), ed. R. Pascal, trans, W.
Lough and C. P. Magill (London, 1938; reprint, 1965).
J. S. Mill, A System of Logic (London, 1843), Book VI. G. V.
Plekhanov, In Defence of Materialism, trans. A. Rothstein
(London, 1947). A. Toynbee, A Study of History, 10 vols.
(Oxford and New York, 1934-54; also reprints). G. Vico,
Scienza nuova, 3rd ed. (Naples, 1744); trans. T. G. Bergin
and M. H. Fisch as The New Science of Giambattista Vico
(Ithaca, 1948; 1968).

Critical and Analytical Works. I. Berlin, Historical In-
(Oxford, 1954). J. B. Bury, Selected Essays (Cam-
bridge, 1930). E. H. Carr, What is History? (New York, 1962).
Morris Cohen, The Meaning of Human History (Lasalle, Ill.,
1944). R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford,
1946). B. Croce, Teoria e storia della storiografia (Bari, 1917);
trans. D. Ainslie as History—Its Theory and Practice (New
York, 1921). W. Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften (Stuttgart,
1957-60); extracts from Dilthey's writings on history are
in Meaning in History, trans. and ed. H. P. Rickman (London
and New York, 1961). W. H. Dray, Laws and Explanation
in History
(Oxford, 1957). P. L. Gardiner, The Nature of
Historical Explanation
(Oxford, 1952). C. G. Hempel, “The
Function of General Laws in History,” The Journal of Philos-
39 (1942). Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science (New
York, 1961), esp. Chs. 13-15. K. R. Popper, The Poverty of
(London, 1957); idem, Open Society and its
4th rev. ed., 2 vols. (Princeton, 1963), esp. Vol.
II. M. White, Foundations of Historical Knowledge (New
York, 1965). P. Winch, The Idea of a Social Science (London,

Anthologies. W. H. Dray, ed., Philosophical Analysis and
(New York, 1966). P. L. Gardiner, ed., Theories of
(Glencoe, 1959). S. Hook, ed., Philosophy and His-
tory: A Symposium
(New York, 1963). H. Meyerhoff, ed.,
The Philosophy of History in Our Time (New York, 1959).


[See also Causation; Chance; Determinism in History; Free
Will; Hegelian; Historicism; Historiography; Necessity;
Positivism; Progress.]