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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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1. Universal Determinism and Deterministic Sys-
Determinism, so say determinists, is misun-
derstood and misrepresented by its adversaries; and
nowhere more than in historiography. Although anti-
determinists justly retort that their position has fared
no better, they cannot well deny the determinists'
complaint. The English word “determinism,” like its
French, German, and Italian counterparts, is of seven-
teenth- and eighteenth-century coinage. It was intro-
duced as a name for two different, but related, doc-
trines. One, the doctrine that choice between different
courses of action can, in all cases, be fully accounted
for by psychological and other conditions, has as yet
played little part in historiography. The other, which,
to avoid ambiguity, may also be called “universal
determinism,” is the doctrine that everything that
happens constitutes a chain of causation, a doctrine
which obviously implies that human history forms part
of such a chain.

Universal determinism depends on a concept of
causation that was not generally adopted until after
the seventeenth-century “scientific revolution.” In an-
cient and medieval philosophy, a cause was conceived
simply as that which produces an effect. Some causes
were taken to produce their effects necessarily, as a
moving hand holding a stick necessarily moves that
stick. Others were taken to have the power to produce
an effect, which they might exercise or not without
necessitation, as a man without necessitation exercises
or does not exercise his power to move his hand. Most
ancient and medieval philosophers accepted the prin-
ciple that every event has a cause. But since most of
them took some happenings or events (namely, human
or divine actions), to be caused by agents and not by
other events, they held that some causes (namely,
human or divine actions), are not themselves events
in a causal chain. Hence they were not determinists.

The Greek atomists suggested another feature of the
concept of causation, which the work of Galileo,
Descartes (even though he was not an atomist), and
Newton was to establish in natural science. On this
concept, every event in nature is a stage in a process
the course of which is determined by laws of nature,
and can be considered a necessary consequence, ac-
cording to those laws, of earlier stages in that process.
A cause of an event is simply a set of initial conditions
that are, according to laws of nature, jointly sufficient
for its occurrence.

This concept of causation underlies Laplace's strik-
ing formulation of universal determinism, in the Intro-
duction to his Essai philosophique sur les probabilités
(1814). Treating the history of the universe as a single
process, he maintained that, from a complete specifi-
cation of the state of the universe at a given instant
(initial positions and velocities of all bodies), a super-
human intelligence knowing the laws of nature could
infer all past and all future states of the universe.
Laplace assumed that mass, position, velocity (the
terms of Newtonian physics) would suffice for the
required specification. Since it is doubtful, however,
not only whether the terms of Newtonian physics or
any possible future physics would suffice, but also
whether even a superhuman mind could specify, in any
terms, a state of the whole universe, Laplace's formu-
lation has been rejected by many determinists. It is
now more promising to define universal determinism
as the doctrine that every event in principle falls within
some deterministic system.

A deterministic system, in the sense here considered,
is a system of things in the universe. For any such
system there is a set of characteristics, each of which
is truly or falsely predicable of each thing in the system,
and some of which allow of variation in magnitude
or intensity (the variables of the system) such that a
state of the system is specified by a description of
everything in it in terms of all the characteristics in
that set. An event in the system may be defined as
any persistence or change in any of its states, in any
respect during a temporal interval. Such a determin-
istic system must, in addition, satisfy three conditions:
(1) all events in it must in principle be explicable
according to fundamental laws, which (2) mention no
characteristics except those in terms of which states
of the system are specified, (3) the explanations being
such as refer to no thing or event outside the system.
Bergmann has usefully labelled the second of these
conditions as “completeness” and the third as “clo-
sure.” Deterministic systems, in this sense, are inevita-
bly abstract. The solar gravitational system, for exam-
ple, consists of the sun, the planets, and so forth,


considered solely with respect to the characteristics
taken account of in gravitation theory, and not as
concrete objects. The duration of such systems is nor-
mally limited: thus, according to astronomers, the solar
system had a beginning, and will have an end. It is
a fallacy to infer that, because such systems are abstract
and impermanent, they are not real.

The complexity of a given deterministic system sets
a limit on how adequate a theory can be developed
of it. The Newtonian theory of the solar gravitational
system, which inspired Laplace's formulation of uni-
versal determinism, is almost uniquely adequate be-
cause the solar system is, in two respects, almost
uniquely simple: both the number of bodies composing
it—sun, planets, comets and so forth, and the number
of variables by which its states are defined, are com-
paratively few. Hence, it is practicable not only to
establish its state at the present time, but also, by the
Newtonian laws, to compute with reasonable accuracy
its past and future states. By contrast, it would be
utterly impracticable to attempt a similarly adequate
theory of the earth's geological history; for the geolog-
ical state of the entire earth at a given time would
be far too complex to define, and the variables deter-
mining geological change are more numerous. Geolo-
gists accordingly simplify. They explain geological
changes by constructing simplified models representing
states of the earth or of parts of it at different times,
and showing how, according to established laws of
nature, the forces at work within one simplified model
would bring about a transition to another. For more
complex systems, we must be content with even less
adequate sketches of a theory.

The concept of a deterministic system has led to
extensions in the meaning of “determinism” and its
cognates in the following way. One who maintains that
a system S is deterministic, or that a set of events K
falls within some deterministic system, is naturally said
to have embraced determinism with respect to S or
K. Such extended special usages are more common in
historiography than the general philosophical ones
hitherto considered. Thus Pieter Geyl has described
determinism as “represent[ing] the historical process
as a concatenation of events, one following upon the
other inevitably, caused as they all are by a super-
human force or by impersonal forces working in society
independently from the wishes or efforts of individuals”
(Debates with Historians, p. 238). He appears to have
in mind the view, accepted by not a few historians,
that social systems are, or are parts of, deterministic
systems, even if individual human actions are undeter-

Such views as that a given system of things in the
universe is deterministic, or that a given set of events
falls within a deterministic system, will hereafter be
referred to as “special determinist doctrines,” by con-
trast with universal determinism or the doctrine that
every event in the universe falls within some deter-
ministic system. Two elementary facts about the logical
relations between universal determinism and special
determinist doctrines are often neglected. First, uni-
versal determinism does not entail any special deter-
minist doctrine. In particular, universal determinism
does not entail the special doctrine which Geyl calls
“determinism”: it implies that human actions have a
place in the causal series, but has nothing to say about
what that place is. It is compatible both with the
doctrine that the wishes and efforts of individuals can-
not affect large-scale historical processes, and with the
doctrine that they can and do. Secondly, special deter-
minist doctrines do not necessarily imply or presuppose
universal determinism. Thus, the special form of deter-
minism mentioned by Geyl appears to allow that the
wishes and efforts of individuals may not fall within
a deterministic system. The classical example of this
logical independence, however, is found in the philos-
ophy of Descartes, who considered the system of mo-
tion and rest in the realm of matter (res extensa) to
be deterministic, except when changes in it were
caused by the activity of thought (res cogitans) which
he took to be physically undetermined. In a Cartesian
universe, even though virtually all happenings in the
material world fall within a deterministic system, uni-
versal determinism fails to hold for acts of the mind.

2. Views Improperly Classified as Determinist. (a)
“Logical Determinism” and Predestinarianism. “Logi-
cal determinism” is the doctrine that the future is as
fixed and unchangeable as the past: that just as what
has been, has been and cannot be altered; so what will
be will be, despite anything anybody may do. In the
classical “logical determinist” argument stated and
criticized in Aristotle's De interpretatione (18b 9-16)
this is said to follow from the premiss that, when it
is made, a prediction is necessarily either true or false.
Aristotle rejected this premiss as false; and A. C. Danto
has pointed out that, if Aristotle was right in doing
so, then historical foreknowledge is in principle impos-
sible. If that is so, then it follows that neither universal
determinism nor any special determinist doctrine in
historiography can be true.

Predestinarianism, sometimes called “theological
determinism,” is the doctrine that from all eternity God
has foreordained everything that happens. It has influ-
enced Christian historiography, although most Chris-
tian historians have accepted Saint Augustine's view,
in De civitate Dei, that divine revelation has to do
with the fortunes of the heavenly rather than of the
earthly city.


Both universal determinism and all special deter-
minist historical theories treat historical events as fall-
ing within a universal or a limited deterministic system.
Neither logical determinism nor predestinarianism does
so. Logical determinism is independent of any causal
theory at all; and predestinarianism is not only consist-
ent with, but is usually held together with, the doctrine
of special providence, according to which the foreor-
dained future contains undetermined interventions by
God into the normal course of events. It can, therefore,
produce nothing but confusion to classify these doc-
trines as determinist.

(b) Absolute Idealism and “Historism.” Absolute (or,
honoris causa, German) idealism reached its consum-
mation in G. W. F. Hegel's doctrine that the true
theodicy, or justification of God to man, is to be found
in the philosophy of history. History is the process in
which Spirit (Geist), or God, or the Idea, carries out
its self-appointed task of attaining self-knowledge: first
externalizing itself in Nature, and then overcoming that
externalization. The working of Spirit manifests itself
at different times in different peoples and cultures, it
being for Hegel a commonplace that, in his own time,
it was doing so chiefly in the Western (Germanisch)
world, especially in its Protestant parts. But although
Hegel thought it dialectically necessary that the self-
development of Spirit should in his time have culmi-
nated in the western Protestant constitutional state,
dialectical necessity is not deterministic. This is shown
by Hegel's repudiation of historical prophecy, the pos-
sibility of which is implicit in determinism in both its
universal and its special forms. “Philosophy,” he de-
clared, “... appears only when actuality is already
there cut and dried after its process of formation has
been completed” (Philosophy of Right [1822], Preface).
It is even more evident from the nature of historical
development as Hegel conceived it. It is axiomatic with
him that what is real is rational. Hence to exhibit the
present as the highest stage yet reached by Spirit is
not only the task of philosophy of history, but also the
mark of its success. To suspect that the present is less
than this betrays a shallowness of mind characteristic
of abstract thinking.

Hegel did not notice that the dialectical necessity
he professed to find in history simply reflected his
axiom. His belief that his philosophical theory of his-
tory was confirmed by his ability to interpret his abun-
dant store of historical information in accordance with
it is therefore a delusion. Any historian of moderate
parts, once assured that the present is the highest stage
reached by Spirit, could discover in the course of
history a main line of development culminating in it.
But such a line of development would not be deter-
ministic. It is not intelligible in the way in which
changes in a deterministic system are, which in princi-
ple are calculable in advance. Rather, it is intelligible
in the same way as, say, the development of sonata
form down to Haydn, which historians of music could
not possibly discern unless they were acquainted with
Haydn's work.

Although the main tradition of nineteenth-century
European historiography rejected the absolute idealist
conception of historical development, and affirmed,
with Leopold von Ranke, that every epoch is “imme-
diate to God,” its value residing in itself, it nevertheless
inherited two fatal legacies from absolute idealism. The
reality of any historical epoch is of course concrete;
and historians who reflected philosophically on their
work generally agreed with the idealists (1) that to
describe the concrete in terms of abstract concepts
must falsify it, and (2) that no aspect of anything con-
crete can be correctly understood except in relation
to all its other aspects. These two doctrines are fused
in the motto used by F. Meinecke for his DieEntste-
hung des Historismus
(1936), Individuum est ineffa-

Until the mid-1940's, this historiographical tradition,
known in Germany as Historismus, on the infrequent
occasions on which it was referred to in English was
mostly called “historism.” That usage will be adopted
in this article, although “historicism” has become the
commoner rendering since the appearance of F.
Engel-Janosi's much-cited The Growth of German

Because of its tenet that every aspect of life in a
given historical situation is conditioned by every other,
historism is sometimes held to be determinist. As the
historians who embraced historism themselves per-
ceived, if all institutions and ideas are to be understood
only in terms of their historical context, then the value
of each is relative to that context: there is neither
absolute good or evil nor absolute truth. Such relativ-
ism is suicidal. No theory which implies that there is
no absolute truth can present itself as absolutely true.
Yet although historism is relativist in this way, it is
not determinist. The “historists” did not think that an
institution or an idea is conditioned by its historical
context in the determinist sense of being a causally
necessary response to it, but only in the much weaker
sense of being an intelligible response to it.

In sum, absolute idealism and historism are not forms
of determinism: neither the dialectical necessity of one
nor the historical relativism of the other is determinist.

(c) “Historicism” and Historical Inevitability. In a
series of papers written in the late 1930's, and pub-
lished in 1944-45, Sir Karl Popper introduced the then
unfamiliar word “historicism” as a label for what he
later described as


... an approach to the social sciences which assumes that
historical prediction is their principal aim, and which as-
sumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the
“rhythms” or the “patterns,” the “laws” or the “trends”
that underlie the evolution of history

(The Poverty of Historicism, 1957). Popper sharply
distinguished historicism from Historismus, which as
was usual when he wrote, he called “historism.” His-
toricism, in Popper's sense, was a fashionable position
in the 1930's, and it has a long history, even though
Popper classified some philosophers as historicists who
were not (e.g., Hegel). There is an enormous variety
of historicist positions, some of which are determinist
and some not. An historicist position is determinist if
and only if the historical patterns or trends the exist-
ence of which it affirms are conceived as falling within
a deterministic system. Theological predestinarians are
historicists, because they make predictions on the basis
of historical patterns which they take to be revealed
by God; but, since they do not think those patterns
to fall within any deterministic system, they are not

For this reason, determinism must be distinguished
from the thesis that what happens in history happens
inevitably. Historical inevitability may be asserted on
either determinist or nondeterminist grounds. Those
fatalists who hold that the future can be predicted by
magic, accept historical inevitability; but they are not
determinists, for reasons given above.