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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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In most special determinist doctrines that have com-
manded serious attention from historians, some kind
of social group is singled out as the intelligible unit
of historical study. States, nations, races, cultures,
classes, civilizations, and organized religions have all
been accounted such units; and determinist theories
have been offered both about conditions that occur in
them, and about their courses of development.

As put forward by social scientists, hypotheses about
causal factors in the occurrence of this or that social
condition usually fall short of determinism: that is, of


the form, whenever a condition of the kind C1 occurs
in a group of the kind G, then a condition of the kind
2, must, other things being equal, follow. Yet, in pop-
ular presentations, they often assume this form. Thus
race and physical environment, which obviously have
some causal significance, have from ancient times
cropped up in determinist theories. That the powers
of Western Europe developed in the nineteenth cen-
tury conditions that enabled them to dominate the
world was commonly believed to be an inevitable
consequence of the nature of the “white race.” Sophis-
ticated historians like H. T. Buckle persuaded them-
selves that the irregular work habits then characteristic
of Spaniards, by contrast with the steady ones of the
English, were consequences of an extreme as opposed
to a moderate climate. Both racialist and environ-
mentalist forms of determinism are now discredited;
for geographers have produced abundant evidence
with which neither can be reconciled. No special de-
terminist theory relying on other alleged causal factors
is even superficially plausible.

The numerous determinist theories of historical de-
velopment can be classified as cyclical or noncyclical.

1. Cyclical Theories. In his Republic, Book VIII
Plato taught that even the ideal state is subject to
decay; and, in decaying, would pass through the stages:
timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, tyranny. Prima facie,
this is an early cyclical determinist theory, although
many Platonic scholars interpret it as no more than
an ethical parable. Of the innumerable later cyclical
theories, three are still discussed by historians: those
of Giambattista Vico, of Oswald Spengler, and of A. J.

In his Principles of a New Science... concerning
the Common Nature of the Nations
(1st ed. 1725, 3rd
ed. 1744), Vico maintained that in the development
of their customs, laws, governments, languages, and
modes of thought, all nations except the divinely
chosen Israel pass through a course (corso) of three
stages: first divine or religious, then heroic, then
human. Although it is the highest, the human stage
is not stable. Having reached it, nations become disso-
lute, and return to barbarism; whereupon there is a
recourse (ricorso) of the same three stages. Even the
true Christian religion has been established by divine
providence “according to the natural course of human
institutions themselves,” in the return of “truly divine
times” that followed the disintegration of the Roman
Empire (New Science, par. 1047).

Spengler took the intelligible units of historical de-
velopment to be, not nations as Vico had thought, but
cultures, which he defined as groups of individuals
sharing a common conception of the world in which
they live, and especially of its space. In The Decline
of the West
(Vol. I, 1918; Vol. II, 1922; rev. ed., 1923),
he described such cultures as growing in the aimless
wilderness of the human past like flowers in a field,
each independently of every other. Nine of them he
identified, while allowing that there may have been
more; but he closely studied only two: the “Apollo-
nian” culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and the
“Faustian” culture of the medieval and modern West.
Each culture has a life of about a thousand years, in
which it passes through four stages, comparable to the
four seasons; an agricultural and heroic spring; an
aristocratic summer in which towns emerge; an autumn
in which cities grow, absolute monarchies subdue aris-
tocracies, and philosophy and science flourish; then
finally, a winter of plutocracy and political tyranny,
made possible by advanced technology and public
administration. Having fulfilled the possibilities of its
fourth stage, a culture develops no more. It is dead,
even though, like late imperial China, its corpse may
long continue in existence.

Toynbee's theory of historical development in the
first ten volumes of A Study of History (12 vols.,
1934-61) is not without qualification determinist: like
his view about the presuppositions of scientific history,
it is inconsistent. However, it has a determinist side,
which is as follows.

The intelligible units of historical study are neither
nations nor cultures, but societies, and especially those
that are civilized, which, by contrast with primitive
ones, are not only relatively long-lived and spatially
extensive, but also relatively few. They are not neces-
sarily independent, as Spengler thought cultures are,
but one may be the offspring of another. Toynbee
distinguished twenty-one known civilizations, which he
allotted to three generations; primary, secondary, and
tertiary. Of the eight surviving in the present century,
five are tertiary (Western, main Orthodox Christian,
Russian Orthodox Christian, Iranic, Arabic), and three
are secondary (Hindu, main Far Eastern, Japanese Far
Eastern). Each of the five tertiary civilizations is affili-
ated to one of two extinct secondary civilizations, the
Hellenic and the Syriac, both of which are affiliated
to the same primary civilization, the Minoan. Each of
the three surviving secondary civilizations is affiliated
to one of the two extinct primary ones: the Sinic and
the Indic. In addition, there are four extinct primary
civilizations: two of them perished without issue; and
the other two each had two secondary offspring, all
four of which perished without issue. Finally, Toynbee
counted ten other civilizations that were not only
barren but necessarily so, being either abortive, or
arrested, or fossils.

According to Toynbee, a civilization comes into
being when a society responds successfully to a chal-


lenge thrown down by its physical or human environ-
ment; and it grows as long as it continues successfully
to respond to the new challenges to which every suc-
cessful response must lead. In a growing civilization,
successful responses originate in a creative minority,
which is imitated by an uncreative majority. When a
civilization responds inadequately to a challenge, it
breaks down, and a process of disintegration begins.
The unsuccessful response alienates the majority from
the minority it formerly imitated; but that minority,
although no longer creative, establishes itself as domi-
nant. The majority is thus degraded to a proletariat,
either internal or external. Disintegration proceeds in
a succession of routs (times of troubles) and rallies,
usually three of each, terminated by a decisive rout.
The last rally of all civilizations now extinct was to
form a “universal state”; and all surviving civilizations
except the Iranic-Arabic and the Western have already
formed such a state.

When seeking inductively based laws of historical
development, Toynbee treated civilizations as deter-
ministic systems, each of which necessarily passes
through the stages described above. It follows that
Western civilization, like all others, will break down
and disintegrate; the important question is whether it
has broken down already, and, if so, how far it has
disintegrated. In the first six volumes of A Study of
Toynbee decided that whether it has already
broken down is an open question; but in the last four
he explicitly repudiated the conception of civilizations
as deterministic systems, and implicitly abandoned his
search for the laws of their development. At one point,
he suggested that only the disintegration of a civili-
zation might be determined, not its growth and break-
down. Even more important, his principal interest
came to be teleological: What is the point, sub specie
of the system of civilizations itself? In his first
six volumes the function of the higher religions is to
bring certain tertiary civilizations to birth from their
secondary parents; in his last six, civilizations exist in
order to foster the higher religions.

Historically, Toynbee's is the most impressive of the
cyclical theories; philosophically, it is not. His con-
fessed inability to answer the question whether West-
ern civilization has yet broken down, since it cannot
be excused on the plea of insufficiency of evidence,
betrays a radical unclarity in his concept of a break-
down. The internal links between the concepts re-
sponse, growth, creativeness, dominance,
and break-
are plain enough; but what states of affairs in
the world any one of them describes is obscure. Al-
though Vico's and Spengler's theories are less objec-
tionable in this respect, all three have been severely
criticized both philosophically and historically. Most
of the philosophical criticisms are weak. The common-
est is the charge that they involve universal determin-
ism, which we have already shown to be false: a non-
deterministic world may contain deterministic systems.
Another common objection is that Spengler and
Toynbee especially generalize from too few cases; but
Kepler obtained his laws of planetary motion from
even fewer. R. G. Collingwood denounced Spengler
for not “working at” history but only talking about
it, on the ground that he relied on others for informa-
tion about individual facts; and for not “determining
either past or future,” but only “attaching labels” to
them, on the ground that, in making such predictions
as that, between A.D. 2,000 and 2,200 somebody will
arise in the Faustian culture corresponding to Julius
Caesar in the Apollonian one, he did not tell us who
that person would be. Yet Collingwood would hardly
have taxed Kepler with not working at astronomy,
because he relied on Tycho for astronomical observa-
tions; or Adams and Leverrier with only “attaching
labels” to space, because, in predicting that a planet
of specified mass and orbit would be at a certain posi-
tion at a certain time, they could not have told you
that that planet would be the concrete object we know
as “Neptune.”

The cyclical theories of Vico, Spengler, and Toynbee
have been refuted not by philosophers, but by histori-
ans. Each, as elaborated by its author, contains radical
errors of historical fact; and none has found a defender
capable of revising it to accord with the facts estab-
lished by its critics. It is as though every known theory
of the solar planetary system as deterministic had been
shown to contain radical errors about the orbits of
several of the planets.

2. Noncylical Theories. As they lost the Christian
hope of a glorious resurrection, many thinkers of the
eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and of the Ameri-
can and French revolutionary movements that grew
out of it, came to believe not only that man was per-
fectible, but that in history he was being perfected.
Hence, when Michelet's translations, Oeuvres choisies
de Vico
(2 vols., 1835), made Vico's work known out-
side Italy, thinkers in the Enlightenment and revolu-
tionary traditions, while hailing him for treating his-
torical events as subject to fixed laws, substituted
continuous progress for Vico's cycles as their model
of historical development.

In his Cours de philosophie positive (6 vols.,
1830-42), Auguste Comte sought an explanation of this
progressive development; and, conceiving the level of
civilization at any given time to be a function of the
level reached at that time in the various branches of
knowledge, he thought he had found the explanation
in his Law of the Three Stages: that each branch of


knowledge passes successively through three different
theoretical conditions: the theological, or fictitious; the
metaphysical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive.
Human civilization must pass through the same three
stages. The theological stage, which he subdivided into
fetishist, polytheist, and monotheist phases, Comte
considered to have ended about A.D. 1400; and he was
in hopes that, when he wrote, the succeeding meta-
physical stage was in its last throes. Since he believed
positive knowledge to be cumulative, he therefore
concluded that, in the future as in the past, the move-
ment of history would necessarily be progressive. In
drawing this conclusion, he assumed that the develop-
ment of thought according to the Law of the Three
Stages cannot be thwarted by other historical processes,
i.e., that it is an independent variable.

Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) tempted some of
those who believed that history is progressive to look
to biology for an alternative to the Comtist foundation
for their faith. Among those who succumbed was
Herbert Spencer, who had earlier, in Social Statics
(1851), asserted on teleological grounds that the ulti-
mate emergence of the ideal man is “logically certain.”
In First Principles (1861) and subsequent books, how-
ever, he inferred the progress of humanity as a neces-
sary consequence of a universal evolutionary move-
ment from homogeneity to heterogeneity: an idea he
obtained by generalizing a law of the pioneer embry-
ologist von Baer. Such a movement cannot be inferred
from the Darwinian theory of natural selection; but
Spencer got over that difficulty by retaining Lamarck's
doctrine, now exploded, that acquired characters can
be genetically transmitted.

Both the Comtist and evolutionist theories of pro-
gress are philosophically vulnerable. Even if the Law
of the Three Stages were true, it would not follow that
theology and metaphysics are misguided: the Law
might be a law of degeneration. And even if Darwinian
natural selection ensures evolution by “the survival of
the fittest” (a phrase coined by Spencer), acute biolo-
gists like T. H. Huxley saw that what is biologically
fittest may not be so by other standards of value.

In A Letter to Teachers of American History (1910),
the deeply skeptical Henry Adams, writing as a former
president of the American Historical Association,
maintained that, according to the second Law of Ther-
modynamics, biological evolution is only an aspect of
a more fundamental process of dissipation of energy.
It is evident that human knowledge has increased, but
may not that gain have been bought by a loss in vital-

Within his “degradationist” hypothesis, Adams con-
structed an ingenious special determinist theory of
history in terms of a conception of human development
the germ of which he professed to find in the Phase
Rule of Willard Gibbs. Gibbs's Rule has to do with
conditions of equilibrium in systems consisting of sub-
stances which may pass through a specified number
of three phases: solid, liquid, and gaseous. In The Rule
of Phase Applied to History
(1909), Adams declared
that recent science had disclosed phases besides Gibbs's
three: in one passage he listed electricity, ether, space,
and hyper-space; but in his theory itself he treated the
last three as one, the Ethereal, and identified it with
pure consciousness. He proceeded to assume that the
history of human thought is the history of its phases,
and, by a quite unfounded analogy, that in its succes-
sive phases, the movement of thought accelerates ac-
cording to a law of squares. The phase about which
we are best informed began with the Scientific Revolu-
tion, and was ending, if it had not already ended, in
the twentieth century. Describing it as the “Mechani-
cal phase,” Adams dated it from A.D. 1600 to 1900,
and calculated by his law of squares that its predecessor
should have endured for 90,000 years. The findings of
history and archaeology, he claimed, confirm this: they
make it probable that the thought-life of man in the
100,000 years preceding the Scientific Revolution was
a single Religious phase, which was not transcended
even in classical Greece. In the twentieth century, the
Mechanical phase passed, or would soon pass, into an
Electrical phase, which would be succeeded by an
Ethereal phase. If his dates for the Mechanical phase
are correct, and he thought that the margin of error
could not be greater than a century, the Electrical
phase will last only √300, or 17.5 years, and the
Ethereal only √17.5, or about four years. Even allow-
ing for error, this would “bring thought to the limit
of its possibilities” between 1921 and 2025.

It cannot be denied that Adams correctly prophesied
that in the twentieth century there would be a series
of scientific revolutions. Yet, shorn of its fanciful cata-
logue of phases, and its even more fanciful law of
squares, his theory plainly is, as indeed he acknowl-
edged, a sophisticated version of Comte's. Like
Comte's, it rests on the intrinsically dubious assumption
that the development of thought is historically an
independent variable.

The final noncyclical theory that merits consid-
eration arose within the Marxist movement. At Marx's
graveside in 1883, Engels declared that “Just as Darwin
discovered the law of development of organic nature,
so Marx discovered the law of development of human
history.” Yet Marx's original position was not deter-
minist: it was avowedly a radical version of Hegelian-
ism, in which the self-alienated God of Hegel's Phe-
became self-alienated productive man.

In all societies except the most primitive, Marx held


that down to his own time production had involved
the division of labor and private property. Hence labor
had been alienated from the worker: its products do
not belong to him, and he does not labor for labor's
sake. The prevailing mode of production determines
the social system—the classes of society and the rela-
tions between them. Every social system that arises
from the alienation of labor is divided into two antago-
nistic classes: those who alienate their labor, and those
who control the labor alienated. Slavery, feudal serf-
dom, and working for wages are different forms of
alienation, each of which determines a different form
of class-division: master and slave, feudal lord and serf,
bourgeois and proletarian.

Although in the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx
and Engels declared it to be inevitable that the prole-
tariat would soon overthrow bourgeois society, they
did not describe it as a stage in a deterministic process.
Like Hegel, they treated history as the history of man,
and man as essentially rational: when he perceives that
he, or his society, is pursuing contradictory ends, he
strives to overcome the contradiction. Every change
from one form of class division to another has come
about because the superseded system was breaking
down under the burden of its contradictions, and a class
identified with a mode of production in which those
contradictions could be overcome seized its opportu-
nity. In the Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Marx wrote
that the point is not to understand the world, but to
change it: theory is a tool of action. The Manifesto
showed the proletariat what it could do, and what,
being human, it inevitably would do: the contradictions
of bourgeois society were reaching a crisis; and the
nature of capitalist production is such that the destruc-
tion of bourgeois society by the proletariat will end
man's alienation from himself, i.e., from his own labor.
For the first time in history, man will be both highly
productive and free.

The conversion of Marx's union of theory and prac-
tice into a determinist theory was begun by Engels
in Anti-Dühring (1877), and completed by Kautsky and
the German Marxists. They conceived human societies
as deterministic systems, in which change can be ex-
plained according to two fundamental laws: that less
advanced modes of production generate higher modes
(the hand-mill leads to the water-mill, the water-mill
to the steam-mill); and that, when a social system is
in conflict with the mode of production that prevails
in it, it is overthrown, and replaced by a social system
that is not. This deterministic theory, which its authors
styled “scientific socialism,” has for half a century hung
like an albatross from the neck of the Marxist move-

The principal objections to noncyclical determinist
theories of history, like those to cyclical ones, are
historical. Historical investigation has shown all of
them to be radically irreconcilable with what has actu-
ally happened. In each, it is usually possible to identify
a major thesis that is the source of error: for example,
in both Comte's and Engels' theories, it is that some
historical variable is independent of the others, namely,
the development either of knowledge or of production.
That all special determinist theories hitherto advanced
in history have turned out false does not show that
all those yet to be advanced will do likewise; but it
is a reason for skepticism.