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pathways (essays)

Neil Munro


There is a large number of theories about what causes historical events to happen. And without doubt there are in fact many different kinds of cause. It seems to me that the danger lies in espousing any one particular type of cause to the exclusion of all others, for there can be few, if any, events of which it can truly be said that they had but one single cause. It will however be interesting to see whether we can find any common thread running through or underlying some of these theories.

Let me clear one bit of undergrowth before going further. Many of the views and arguments about historical causation bear a strong resemblance to arguments about free will and determinism. It is not possible totally to isolate a discussion of historical causes from this wider question, but it will be helpful if we concentrate our minds on the matter of likely or demonstrable reasons why certain things happened, and as far as we are able, avoid a tendency to collapse the argument back into any views we may hold on determinism. In offering this warning, I am encouraged by E H Carr's comment that arguments about accident in history are not to be confused with arguments about determinism.

What then have historians and philosophers of history thought were the factors in historical causation?

There are the big ideas of history, which we might call Great Causes. The list is long. There is the Will of God; the cyclical nature of history; the iterative Hegelian process by which Man moves progressively towards the ideal state of liberty and self-awareness; similar ideas in Eastern philosophy; the Marxist economic variant of Hegel's ideas; the everlasting law of the Stoics; Adam Smith's "invisible hand"; blind Darwinian evolution; Montesquieu's belief that history is the result of geography and climate.

And there is chaos theory; while this is in large measure about endless random happenings, they are nonetheless supposed to be contained within some overall scheme. The flap of a butterfly's wings may result in a hurricane a week later, but according to the theory, that is to be seen as a random event which triggers off something taking place within this wider context.

It is not difficult to ridicule rigid interpretations of Great Causes, and Bertrand Russell memorably did so when he traced the cause of industrialism back by way of Galileo and Copernicus, of the Renaissance, the fall of Constantinople and the migration of the Turks, to the dessication of Central Asia. The grain of truth saves the admittedly mischievous exposition from farce.

A more serious difficulty with grand, all-embracing explanations of history is contained within the very language in which they are expressed and discussed. Indeed, even when no such position is held, historians will still talk about "the advancement of a cause", or 'la great movement", in a way that linguistically personifies certain events and creates an impression that there is more of a power or a purpose, even an inevitability about them than is the case. We find an example in the way in which popular science writers often describe genetic evolution; genes are referred to as struggling to reproduce themselves, and although the better writers constantly remind their readers that this is only use of metaphor, it is too easy to slip into an unconscious acceptance that there are indeed forces, evolutionary or more strictly historical, which make events more or less likely to happen than logic would indicate. One could almost say that historians, through writing in this way, are themselves the cause of history, certainly of how people come to see the cause. Moreover in encasing events within the framework of a Great Cause, these historians may give the impression of intent behind actions, when there was none, or even when there may have been intent to do something quite else.

Tolstoy takes the argument further in pointing out that events may well precede what future generations will see as their causes. One could imagine for example a future economic historian of a certain viewpoint allowing the cause of Britain's sustained economic growth in the nineteen-nineties to be seen as the result of a brave decision to leave the ERM, rather than the fortuitous result of being forced out of it to the dismay of the government of the day. What Aristotle called the efficient cause of the growth would not be in doubt, but the intent behind it, Aristotle's final cause, could under those circumstances come to be seen as part of a long term plan to keep this country's economic independence.

But surely the greatest objection to what I have called Great Causes, or to too strong a reliance on them, is simply that they offend our human intuition. As Dr Johnson said of free will, we just know that there must be more to historical causation than impersonal forces. Not only do we instinctively feel that individual choices have a part to play, but we have difficulty in reconciling such forces with the workings of chance which we see on countless occasions in our daily lives. We are easily drawn to the view expressed by Isaiah Berlin that reliance on such explanations for history amounts to little more than an alibi.

So what of the opposite extreme? The role of chance in history is often known as the Cleopatra's nose theory, first advanced by Pascal and holding that, had Mark Anthony been less captivated by Cleopatra's charms, he might have turned in a better performance at the battle of Actium, with all the fascinating "what if" consequences for the Roman Empire and subsequent Western civilisation that might have followed.

One can construct one's own version of the Cleopatra's nose theory from an endless list of possible chance happenings, and again, it is easy by exaggeration to make them appear ridiculous. Bertrand Russell has been as active in satirising this approach to history as the Great Causes approach, and with the same nagging kernel of truth. Here he argues that the existence of the United States depends on Henry VIII's fancy having been caught by Anne Boleyn. Had this not happened, England would have remained Catholic, would have accepted the Papal ruling on the New World, and all of North America would have been Spanish.

Indeed it does seem obvious that pure chance has considerable influence on events. I have already referred to our instinctive feeling that this must be so, from our experience of daily life; if x had not stopped to answer the telephone before leaving the house, he would not have emerged onto the street just when a large lorry was coming much too fast round the corner...

While it is probable that Mark Anthony's infatuation was a great deal less important in deciding the outcome of Actium than the relative strengths, motivations and dispositions of the opposing forces, it still seems to me that the contempt with which some historians regard the role of chance is not entirely justified. Collingwood writes of "a bankruptcy of historical method which in despair of genuine explanation acquiesces in the most trivial causes for the vastest effects." Carr too, after a detailed and balanced review of the role of accident in history, ends by describing purely accidental causes as "from the point of view of the historian dead and barren". But this is not before pointing to some helpful thinking on the subject, to which I shall return.

Where does all this leave us? Do we think that there is a scheme of things, or a number of schemes, which drive history? Or is chance the primary historical cause? 1 have no doubt that, analogous to the sterile nature/ nurture argument over human behaviour, the truth must contain elements of both approaches. It is as absurd to deny any role for chance as it is, for example, to pretend that the realities of geography and climate have no part to play. But it does not end there, for there is something else, implicit in what we have been discussing, if not actually mentioned: human agency. I suggest that this factor underlies many of the causes we have been considering.

Hegel, often seen as the high priest of grand historical systems, himself offers support for this view. Certainly he holds very strongly that there is a great force driving forward the course of history; it is, he says, the progress of Man, who by way of successive struggles from his initial condition of slavery, finally breaks through to the state in which he is spiritually free. He variously describes this progress as the plan of God, of Reason, or, more significantly from our point of view, as the history of a succession of acts, or of thoughts, of individuals. He even sets up what we might call a subsidiary Great Cause, in the form of Great Men. But whatever the name, he comes down to saying that it is by the actions of individuals, in some way, perhaps, caught up by the "spirit of the times", that history progresses. This begins to look like a two-tier explanation for history, with the Great Cause somehow making it all happen, deciding the strategy one might say, while human agency actually does the work, carries out the tactics to maintain the military metaphor.

Closer study of others reveals something very similar. Gibbon, while he believes in a version of Great Causes, such as barbarism, religion, the Golden Age of the Antonines, can be understood to see the ultimate cause as the very irrationality of Man himself; Adam Smith's "invisible hand", subjected to the most cursory analysis, is seen to be the sum of countless individual human decisions; Darwinian evolution may not owe a great deal to human agency (though in its more recent form, cultural evolution, it does), but, even though it is often held up as the ultimate example of determinism, it is entirely dependent on countless random mistakes, historical accidents if ever there were any; and while Montesquieu was right to point out the influence of the forces of nature, which admittedly cannot themselves easily be reduced to human agency, it is the actions of people in response to these forces that actually make history. Collingwood's own advanced, I would say enlightened form of Hegelianism, which regards history as the history of human thought, is by definition thoroughly immersed in human agency. His process of "re-enactment" calls for the historian to get as close as possible to understanding what was really happening in the past, and why, by going back and getting inside the skin, or rather the skull, of the individuals making history at the time.

I have said I would return to Carr; he offers a nice description of what we are discussing, when he quotes J B Bury's reference to a "collision of two independent causal chains". Carr admits that one very extreme Great Cause, Marxism, has to come to terms with contingency, or as 1 am maintaining, human agency. He does not attempt to disguise that Marx can only come up with a contrived answer, which is worth quoting, "World history would have a very mystical character if there were no room in it for chance. This chance itself naturally becomes part of the general trend of development and is compensated by other forms of chance. But acceleration and retardation depend on such "accidentals", which include the "chance" character of the individuals who are at the head of a movement at the outset." And Trotsky says that "the historical law is realised through the natural selection of accidents". it seems that at bottom, everyone has recourse to human agency not only to explain how, if not why things happen, but to make them happen at all.

In fact 1 would claim that human agency is even more relevant to Marxism. In German Ideology, Marx (and Engels) say "The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals". A cumbersome way of expressing themselves, perhaps, but one which indicates that there is more to Marxism than the great impersonal forces of class and economics. And when one comes to consider the application of Marxism, by Lenin among others, there is no question of anything other than the use of highly trained individual human beings to educate, guide, lead, coerce, and where necessary to murder other human beings. All a series of highly rational, if also often utterly evil, decisions by human beings.

I do not deny that "movements" in history exist, but in the last analysis they are but the sum of many individual actions. Even the less attractive aspects of "movements", such as mob rule, are often the result of manipulation by individuals. The Enlightenment was a movement, beyond any doubt, though it may not have carried that name at the time. Certainly there was interaction, mutual influence, and some sort of snowball effect, behind the work of such great figures as Newton, Descartes, Locke, the Encyclopedists, Hume, Smith, and many of those responsible for the extraordinary progress in medicine and other branches of science and technology of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Were these people at the time working consciously in support of a "movement"? At least doubtful, I would suggest, but even if they were, and Wordsworth's famous comment about what bliss it was to be alive during the French Revolution certainly indicates that there could be a sense of being swept up in something greater than one's self, the rather mundane fact remains that everything in the end has to come down to individual actions, however much they may lead on from, or be influenced by other individual actions. Darwin is said to have gone public when he did, mainly because he believed someone else was about to pre-empt him.

In considering Great Causes, we noted how, by manipulation of the evidence, people may be led to see a particular cause as predominant. We can observe that the same may be true of chance events. Carr gives a nice case of a traffic accident in which a man is knocked down on his way to buy cigarettes. Tongue firmly in cheek, Carr asks whether the true cause of the accident may not be that the man was a smoker. Amusing as this is, there is a serious point here. The accident may well have led to an investigation, and so to a prosecution. Perhaps the street lights were not working, perhaps it was raining, perhaps someone was speeding, perhaps the pedestrian did not look, perhaps he slipped. In court the cause which will be played up will certainly be the one which involved an offence. If there was a speeding motorist, then it will be his fault, and that will come to be seen as the true cause of what happened.

Francis Fukuyama, in his "The end of history and the last man", seems to me to have arrived at a rational explanation for historical causation, offering a sensible synthesis of what we have been discussing. He has his Great Cause, which is the inevitable predominance of liberal democracy and capitalism. He produces much logical reasoning as to why this should be so, based on the merits of the system. This includes a nice Bergsonian twist in his assertion that the accumulation of past technological progress, i.e. the absorption of the past into the present, helps to create a momentum for future progress. But in the end he justifies his case in Hegelian terms, by saying that it is liberal democracy, allied with capitalism, which alone is capable of satisfying the "desire for recognition" inherent in Man. People will simply insist on these benefits and in time will inevitably achieve them. He has a robust approach to accidental cause too; the final breakthrough in a particular nation may well come about because of some unintended action (he maintains that that is how the Berlin Wall came down), but given the forces at work, or if you prefer, the sum of millions of human wishes, if one thing does not happen to bring about the change, then another will.

To summarise using the Fukuyama case, here we have a Great Cause, ultimately reducible to what individual human beings want, and they get it. How and when they get it (differentially in various parts of the world), is of course influenced by the facts of their environment, and when they get it may well be heavily affected by the workings of chance, but it is in the end as a result of actions by human beings that it happens.