Tolstoy’s philosophy of history

Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox is a particularly interesting combination of philosophical analysis and literary criticism. Berlin is a brilliant interpreter of nineteenth-century Russian thought, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one of the most important novels of that period. In “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Berlin provides a close study of the philosophy of history that is interwoven into War and Peace. Berlin has a deep appreciation of Tolstoy’s philosophical insights and rigorous logical thinking; he clearly thinks that there is a substantive and important philosophy of history embedded in this great novel.

And yet there is surely a paradox here. Tolstoy’s interest in history and the problem of historical truth was passionate, almost obsessive, both before and during the writing of War and Peace. No one who reads his journals and letters, or indeed War and Peace itself, can doubt that the author himself, at any rate, regarded this problem as the heart of the entire matter – the central issue round which the novel is built…. No man in his senses, during this century at any rate, would ever dream of denying Tolstoy’s intellectual power, his appalling capacity to penetrate any conventional disguise, that corrosive scepticism in virtue of which Prince Vyazemsky tarred War and Peace with the brush of netovshchina (negativism) – an early version of that nihilism which Vogüé and Albert Sorel later quite naturally attribute to him. (8)

Berlin constructs Tolstoy’s philosophy of history around two related themes: first, that large historical events are all but incomprehensible, being the sum of a vast number of separate actions and events that cannot be perceived or synthesized into a simple causal account. So historical “knowledge” must be understood in a very modest way, as an inherently incomplete and partial empirical study of some of the happenings constituting the historical event of interest. Here are a few passages expressing the first point:

History, only history, only the sum of the concrete events in time and space – the sum of the actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment – this alone contained the truth, the material out of which genuine answers – answers needing for their apprehension no special sense or faculties which normal human beings did not possess – might be constructed. (12)

Worst of all, in Tolstoy’s eyes, were those unceasing talkers who accused one another of the kind of thing ‘for which no one could in fact have been responsible’; and this because ‘nowhere is the commandment not to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge so clearly written as in the course of history. Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and the individual who plays a part in historical events never understands their significance. If he attempts to understand them, he is struck with sterility.’ To try to ‘understand’ anything by rational means is to make sure of failure. Pierre Bezukhov wanders about, ‘lost’ on the battlefield of Borodino, and looks for something which he imagines as a kind of set piece: a battle as depicted by the historians or the painters. But he finds only the ordinary confusion of individual human beings haphazardly attending to this or that human want. (17)

Both Tolstoy and Maistre think of what occurs as a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links – and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible. It is a view of reality which makes all clear, logical and scientific constructions – the well-defined, symmetrical patterns of human reason – seem smooth, thin, empty, ‘abstract’ and totally ineffective as means either of description or of analysis of anything that lives, or has ever lived. (66)

And second, Tolstoy is fundamentally critical and skeptical about claims to understanding the large historical event as the expression of large historical forces or movements. He regarded such attempts as indefensible metaphysical fictions rather than credible historical hypotheses:

With it went an incurable love of the concrete, the empirical, the verifiable, and an instinctive distrust of the abstract, the impalpable, the supernatural – in short an early tendency to a scientific and positivist approach, unfriendly to romanticism, abstract formulations, metaphysics. Always and in every situation he looked for ‘hard’ facts – for what could be grasped and verified by the normal intellect, uncorrupted by intricate theories divorced from tangible realities, or by other-worldly mysteries, theological, poetical and metaphysical alike. (9)

According to Berlin, Tolstoy’s antagonism to “metaphysical” explanations in history extended to the idea that there were historical laws to which events in history could be subsumed:

No matter how scrupulous the technique of historical research might be, no dependable laws could be discovered of the kind required even by the most undeveloped natural sciences. (14)

Tolstoy’s bitterest taunts, his most corrosive irony, are reserved for those who pose as official specialists in managing human affairs, in this case the Western military theorists, a General Pfuel, or Generals Bennigsen and Paulucci, who are all shown talking equal nonsense at the Council of Drissa, whether they defend a given strategic or tactical theory or oppose it; these men must be impostors, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record. Those who affect to be able to contract this infinite multiplicity within their ‘scientific’ laws must be either deliberate charlatans or blind leaders of the blind. (20)

History is plainly not a science, and sociology, which pretends that it is, is a fraud; no genuine laws of history have been discovered, and the concepts in current use – ‘cause’, ‘accident’, ‘genius’ – explain nothing: they are merely thin disguises for ignorance. (22)

So: history’s fabric is granular and heterogeneous, there are no grand historical laws, there is no teleology or direction in history. Does this mean that it is impossible to explain historical outcomes of interest? I don’t believe it does; because I believe we can locate our historical research at a meso-level of causal explanation through which it is possible to analyze and explain particular historical events (linklinklink). Through concrete historical research we can identify some of the causal mechanisms and conditions that made certain historical events likely in their contexts — without imagining that there are general laws and grand theories that could be discovered that allow reduction of history to a formula.

This position seems compatible with the framework that Berlin attributes to Tolstoy on the question of historical knowledge. However, it would appear that Berlin sides in the end with the “incomprehensibility of history” interpretation as the best reading of Tolstoy’s view. Only the most local facts can be known, and the effort to knit together a coherent narrative of a complex event — as a result of deliberate actions, causal mechanisms, and conjunctural conditions — is purely illusory and subjective. Our minds force a kind of order on the past; but this order is a fiction, not a fact.

Berlin seems to insist on something like this feature of framework-dependence in discussing Tolstoy’s view of “understanding an individual’s actions”:

Sometimes Tolstoy comes near to saying what it is: the more we know, he tells us, about a given human action, the more inevitable, determined it seems to us to be. Why? Because the more we know about all the relevant conditions and antecedents, the more difficult we find it to think away various circumstances, and conjecture what might have occurred without them; and as we go on removing in our imagination what we know to be true, fact by fact, this becomes not merely difficult but impossible. Tolstoy’s meaning is not obscure. We are what we are, and live in a given situation which has the characteristics – physical, psychological, social – that it has; what we think, feel, do is conditioned by it, including our capacity for conceiving possible alternatives, whether in the present or future or past. Our imagination and ability to calculate, our power of conceiving, let us say, what might have been, if the past had, in this or that particular, been otherwise, soon reaches its natural limits, limits created both by the weakness of our capacity for calculating alternatives – ‘might have beens’ – and (we may add by a logical extension of Tolstoy’s argument) even more by the fact that our thoughts, the terms in which they occur, the symbols themselves, are what they are, are themselves determined by the actual structure of our world. Our images and powers of conception are limited by the fact that our world possesses certain characteristics and not others: a world too different is (empirically) not conceivable at all; some minds are more imaginative than others, but all stop somewhere. (80)

Or, as Berlin summarizes Tolstoy’s treatment of the battle of Austerlitz:

Nikolay Rostov at the battle of Austerlitz sees the great soldier Prince Bagration riding up with his suite towards the village of Schöngrabern, whence the enemy is advancing; neither he nor his staff, nor the officers who gallop up to him with messages, nor anyone else, is, or can be, aware of what exactly is happening, nor where, nor why; nor is the chaos of the battle in any way made clearer either in fact or in the minds of the Russian officers by the appearance of Bagration. Nevertheless his arrival puts heart into his subordinates; his courage, his calm, his mere presence create the illusion of which he is himself the first victim, namely, that what is happening is somehow connected with his skill, his plans, that it is his authority that is in some way directing the course of the battle; and this, in its turn, has a marked effect on the general morale around him. The dispatches which will duly be written later will inevitably ascribe every act and event on the Russian side to him and his dispositions; the credit or discredit, the victory or the defeat, will belong to him, although it is clear to everyone that he will have had less to do with the conduct and outcome of the battle than the humble, unknown soldiers who do at least perform whatever actual fighting is done, that is, shoot at each other, wound, kill, advance, retreat and so on. (17)

The battle is fundamentally chaotic; and yet the historians have created a narrative around the causal influence of the arrival of Bagration. But for Tolstoy “it is clear to everyone that he will have had less to do with the conduct and outcome of the battle than the humble, unknown soldiers who do at least perform whatever actual fighting is done”.

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