Historicizing social action

Khmer rouge soldier

It is self evident that people are influenced by the historical circumstances in which they are raised and live. People are historicized as actors. The hard question is, how deep does that influence go?

When we consider the mental features that are invoked within the process of interpreting and acting within the world, there is certainly a range of capacities and functions at work, and there are some important differences of level that exist among these. Some of these features are more superficial than others. Take beliefs. If a person is raised in a culture in a cold climate he or she will have more beliefs having to do with snow than counterparts at the equator. A person raised in a highly racialized society will have different beliefs about other people than one raised in a more racially tolerant society. Likewise the norms of interpersonal behavior differ across settings; here too it appears that this mental feature is a fairly superficial one. Beliefs and norms seem particularly close to the surface when it comes to the features of the actor that respond to social and cultural context. Are there historical effects that go deeper into the actor — effects that show up as differences in basic ways of thinking and acting?

Values may be a little deeper, given that they have to do with the goals that people have in their actions and plans. One person sets a high value on the wellbeing of his or her family; another is primarily interested in material and financial success for himself or herself. Expectations and habits seem even deeper in the sense that they are only semi-conscious; they are features of the social cognition mechanism that generally work at a level that is invisible to the individual.

And what about character? We might think of a person’s character as the most enduring features of action and reaction; character has to do with the most fundamental aspects of the personality when it comes to making life choices. One person displays loyalty; another displays a commitment to the idea of fairness; and a third shows a basic lack of trust of others. These are differences in character. This seems like the most basic or fundamental of the mental attributes that influence interpretation and action. But like other features of practical cognition considered here, this attribute too seems historically malleable.

If this informal hierarchy of the furniture of the actor seems at all plausible, then we have essentially postulated an onion-like ordering of features of practical cognition (the thought processes and heuristics through which an individual processes his/her current situation and the actions that may seem appropriate). Here is a diagram that captures this rough hierarchy:

 Screenshot 2014 12 06 15 27 35

And the problem of historicized mentality comes down to this: how far down the onion does the effect of cultural and social context extend?

There is an analogy to this question in Chomsky’s linguistics. The superficial part of grammar is the specific set of rules that apply to one’s local language — French, Swahili, or Cajun. This feature of linguistic performance is plainly context-dependent. But Chomsky maintained that this superficial plasticity exists on top of a universal underlying grammar capacity that every human being possesses from birth. The universal grammar — essentially the capacity to learn and execute the rules of the language one hears around oneself as a child — is a constant and is not affected by context.

If we were Chomskian about action and behavior, we might take the view that there is a constant human nature at the center of the onion, which allows for the formation of the more superficial kinds of differences in action that we acquire through experience of particular times and places. And we might attempt to reconstruct this fundamental set of capacities by trying to answer the question, “What capacities must a human being have in order to acquire character, habits, expectations, values, norms, and beliefs?”.

Presumably this is a legitimate question, since there are non-human organisms that lack the ability to form some of these features. But what that implies to me is that it is possible to push the inquiry below the level of the features of human action that we have identified to this point, and that at some point we should expect to arrive at a situation of neurocognitive invariance.

But here is the crucial point: it appears to me that all the capacities identified on the diagram are themselves socially and culturally malleable. Historical circumstances certainly affect the beliefs and norms that an adult has within those circumstances; but they also affect the habits and character of the individual as well. And this means that human mentality is deeply historicized. Very fundamental features of the ways that we understand and react to the world are shaped by the cultures, institutions, and extended historical experiences that we undergo as children and adults. And this is true of the features of character that we bring to life’s decisions as much as the beliefs and values we have acquired through earlier experiences.

The image of the Khmer Rouge cadre above poses quite a number of relevant questions, and most pressing is this one: How was this generation of Cambodian young people shaped such that they were amenable to the murderous emotions, compliance, and actions illustrated in the photo?

What is the philosophy of history?


When philosophers have written about “history”, they have often had different and even incompatible goals in mind. One tradition of philosophers, generally pre-twentieth century and generally from continental Europe, have wanted to contribute to answers to large questions about the nature of history as it presented itself over time as a compound of individuals, actions, nations, and civilizations: Does history have a direction? Does history have meaning? Is there a plan to history? Do civilizations rise and fall? Is materialism or idealism the better framework for understanding the movement of history? G. W. F. Hegel, for example, wanted to discover the underlying rationality within history. This approach to the study of history is often referred to as “speculative” or “substantive.”

A second group of philosophers, also largely continental, were inspired by the strong connections that exist between individual human life and expression, and large collective events and processes. The theory of hermeneutics attempts to provide an intellectual framework for analyzing and interpreting meaningful human expressions – poetry, actions, thoughts, and motives. Hermeneutic philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries extended this approach to efforts to understand large historical events and processes in similar terms. Wilhelm Dilthey was one of the early exponents of the hermeneutic approach to human affairs. Hermeneutic philosophy of history seeks to understand events, movements, and processes in terms of the meanings that they embody and the meaningful relations they bear to other historical events.

Another group of philosophers, often in the twentieth century and often English-speaking, have focused their attention on the nature of historical knowledge rather than the concrete events of history. Analytic philosophers have wanted to clarify the grounds of historical knowledge and explanation. Issues such as the nature of narrative, the role of general laws in historical explanations, and the objectivity or subjectivity of historical judgment have been taken up by Arthur Danto, Patrick Gardner, Carl Hempel, and others. This approach is sometimes referred to as “analytical”; more generally, we might say that it is epistemological and methodological.

New questions have emerged since World War II within the discourse of philosophy about “history” by philosophers, both analytical and continental. These new areas were stimulated, first, by the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the effort to make sense of this horrendous tear in the fabric of modern civilization. How are we to make sense of the Holocaust? How should we remember it? A second source of new thinking about history by contemporary philosophers is the linguistic and semantic turn that many of the human sciences took in the 1970s and 1980s (Rorty, 1967). A cohort of writers in the 1980s and 1990s undertook to approach history from the point of view of narrative and meaning. In some ways this was a return to the hermeneutic approach to human affairs of the nineteenth century; but it was also original in that it brought new thinking from the philosophy of language into the debate.

There is a valid but limited place for metaphysical research in the area of the philosophy of history. Fundamentally, we need to have a clearer specification of the meaning of key concepts that we use in analyzing and describing historical events and structures. Philosophers can help in probing and refining these concepts. These ontological questions are really about our conceptual schemes rather than about substantive historical facts. What presuppositions are we making when we divide history into epochs or regions? Does it make sense to refer to civilizations as a whole? So we need a more explicit theory of historical ontology, and the philosophy of history can help to provide such a theory. What we cannot hope to achieve is an apriori discovery of the reality of history – its meaning, direction, or foundational causes. This is not a limitation of our ability to discover historical truths, but rather a reflection of the fact that there are no general answers to these questions at all. Kant’s critique of substantive metaphysics is decisive here.

As this summary suggests, there are many unanswered questions that philosophers can usefully pose to the discipline and facts of history. For this reason it is timely to consider some new approaches to the philosophy of history. The past decade has seen several contributions that are difficult to classify according to the distinctions provided above. They are analytic but not reductionist; they pay attention to narrative but nonetheless attribute rational warrant to historical accounts; and they are respectful towards the actual practices of gifted historians, rather than assuming that the philosophy of history can proceed as a separate philosophical discourse. Significantly, new contributions to this subject come from philosophers, literary critics, anthropologists, and historians. Perhaps this is a clue for how the field might most productively move forward: by incorporating several philosophical perspectives, by raising new questions, and by reaching across the human sciences as well as philosophy to find some innovative new answers.

New contributions to the philosophy of history

I am pleased at the publication this month of a book I’ve been working on for quite a long time, New Contributions to the Philosophy of History (Methodos Series).  (Here is a link to a digital version of the book on the Springer website.)  The title is self-explanatory. The book is intended to jump-start a new round of conversations within analytic philosophy about the nature of history and historical explanation.  The philosophy of social science and the philosophy of biology have contributed enormously to the progress of research in both these areas, and I believe that new discussions in the philosophy of history can be equally valuable.

The book was inspired out of the thought that reflections on history and historical knowledge have not been as prominent within philosophy as they once were; and yet the issues raised under this rubric are interesting and important.  We need to have a better understanding of some of the conceptual and epistemic issues raised by the attempt to understand and explain human history.  So it seems timely to reopen the domain of the philosophy of history with some new questions and new approaches.

The approach that I’ve taken in this book is to take very seriously the innovations and intellectual turns that gifted historians have brought forward in the past thirty years. Writers such as Philip Kuhn, Jonathan Spence, Robert Darnton, Simon Schama, Peter Perdue, and Michael Kammen have brought strikingly new perspectives to the writing of history; and often their innovations suggest new ways of formulating some basic issues in the philosophy of history.  Good historians are often deeply insightful philosophers of history as well.  I’ve tried to approach the philosophy of history along the lines of how many philosophers have approached various of the special sciences (biology, psychology, physics, sociology, anthropology): to combine good philosophical analysis and reasoning with a careful and sympathetic reading of some of the best current research efforts in those disciplines.  When Simon Schama or Albert Soboul wrestle with the question, “What sort of thing was the French Revolution?”, we can learn a lot about how to think about historical ontology.  And when Peter Perdue or R. Bin Wong propose a shift in thinking about Eurasia, we can get a much more precise understanding of the question of defining periods, regions, and civilizations.

The table of contents of the book gives a fairly good idea of the range of topics considered in the book: “History and Narrative,” “Historical Concepts and Social Ontology,” “Large Structures,” “Causal Mechanisms,” “History of Technology,” “Economic History,” “The Involution Debate,” and “Mentalities.”  These discussions circle around three different master questions:

  • How can we best define or conceptualize historical things (ontology)?
  • What issues arise in our effort to provide knowledge about the past (epistemology)?
  • What constitutes a good historical explanation (explanation)?

To these core questions, we can add another important one that emerges that perhaps falls closer to historiography than the philosophy of history:

  • What are some innovative ways that contemporary historians have invented as a basis for representing the past?

One aspect of New Contributions is especially novel: the effort I’ve made to combine an intellectual process of traditional academic research and writing with the work I’ve been doing for the past three years on this blog, UnderstandingSociety.  I announced in 2007 that “The blog is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time,” and New Contributions is my first effort to test out the viability of that idea.  Most of the chapters in the book began as conference presentations designed to contribute eventually to this new approach to the philosophy of history.  I had a book plan in mind as I wrote these papers and chapters over a ten-year period.  After the book was accepted by the excellent editors of the Springer Methodos series, Daniel Courgeau and Robert Franck, I undertook a major rewriting of the full manuscript; and I realized that I was also writing quite a few posts on various aspects of the philosophy of history in the blog.  So I undertook to integrate a lot of the new material into the manuscript.  In the end, roughly 40 postings have been integrated into New Contributions, which amounts to more than a third of the book. So this is a fairly extended test run to evaluate the notion that it is possible to make significant intellectual progress on a subject through a series of separate blog postings.

Here are a couple of key paragraphs of the book; they give something of a feel for the kind of analysis I’m trying to offer.

Why do we need a better philosophy of history? Because we think we know what we mean when we talk about “knowledge of history,” “explaining historical change,” or “historical forces and structures.” But — we do not.  Our assumptions about history are often superficial and fail to hold up to scrutiny.  We often assume that history is an integrated fabric or web, in which underlying causal powers lead to enduring historical patterns.  Or we assume that historical processes have meaning — with the result that later events can be interpreted as flowing within a larger pattern of meaning.  Or we presuppose that there are recurring historical structures and entities–“states,” “cultures,” and “demographic regions” that are repeatedly instantiated in different historical circumstances.

I do not say that these assumptions are entirely wrong.  I say that they are superficial, misleading, and simple in a context in which nuances matter. Take the idea of recurring historical structures. Is there some state “essence” possessed in common among the Carolingian state described by Marc Bloch, the theatre state of Bali described by Clifford Geertz, and the modern Chinese party state described by Vivienne Shue? If so, what is this set of essential properties that states have? If not, what alternative interpretation can we provide to “state talk” that makes coherent sense? (2)

I certainly hope the book will wind up in enough libraries around the world to allow a range of readers to get a chance to consider it!  And the digital version made available by Springer is certainly a help; it allows readers to examine some of it online (link).

Singular and generic causal assertions

It is worthwhile to notice that we can ask causal questions at two extremes of specificity and generality. We can ask why the Nicaraguan Revolution occurred—that is, what was the chain of circumstances that led to the successful seizure of power by the Sandinistas? This is to invite a specific historical narrative, supported by claims about causal powers of various circumstances. And we can ask why twentieth-century revolutionary movements succeeded in some circumstances and failed in others—that is, we can ask for an account of the common causal factors that influenced the course of revolution in the twentieth century. In the first instance we are looking to put forward a causal hypothesis about a particular event; in the latter we are seeking a causal explanation concerning the behavior of a class of events.

Take the idea that the outbreak of hostilities in World War I was caused by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914.  This claim might be supported by identifying a chain of events that proceeded from the assassination, to decisions in various capitals, to the mobilization of troops, to the outbreak of fighting.  The assassination was the spark that led to the conflagration.  But this is a purely singular chain of events, and there is no regular connection between occurrences of this set of events and the outbreak of war.  The sequence of causal links in this story involves pure contingency at many stages.  Assassinations don’t generally cause wars; sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Events in the category of “political assassination” do in fact have a set of causal powers — through the influence that a political assassination can have on powerful decision-makers and public opinion.  But there is no single mechanism that links assassinations to the outbreak of war.

Consider an analogy with professional basketball.  We might ask the question, “What circumstances permitted the Pistons to defeat the Celtics in Game Seven of the NBA playoffs?”  And the answer may include a mix of general and particular factors: their guards were quicker, their center shut down the lane, the Piston’s coach had a great game plan; as well as the entirely contingent events: two Celtics players collided at a critical moment, a three-point shot at the buzzer banged off the rim, there was a clock malfunction that gave the Pistons a breather.  The former types of factors are the sorts of things that might be used to attempt to explain basketball success over the course of a season and a full range of teams; these are common causal factors explaining success and failure.  The latter types of factors are fundamentally contingent and non-repeatable.  These are random events with respect to a basketball season.

Much inquiry in the social sciences has to do with singular causal processes (historical outcomes): individual revolutions, specific experiences of modernization and development, specific histories of collective action. Charles Tilly‘s career-long treatment of the collective political behavior of the French is a case in point; Tilly attempts to identify a characteristic tradition of French political action, and attempts to identify the historical occurrences which gave this tradition its specificity (Tilly 1986).  But Tilly is also interested in identifying common social mechanisms of contention; and this allows him to identify general causes as well as singular causes.

Historical investigation and “process tracing” permit us to analyze particular singular causal sequences—for example, “a floating iceberg caused the sinking of the Titanic.” This kind of singular historical analysis permits discovery of the causal mechanisms and contingent happenings that were involved in the production of the event to be explained.

A general hypothesis about causation is based on a discovery of a pattern across a number of similar cases.  For example, Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China attempts to discover causal regularities leading to the occurrence of revolution that emerge from study of a small number of particular revolutions, and Jeffrey Paige’s Agrarian Revolution offers a large-N study of cases of revolution and rebellion to attempt to discover common causal conditions.  And through either type of study we might arrive at evidence supporting general causal claims like these: “the occurrence of subsistence crises is a causal factor in the occurrence of rebellion,” “a strong state inhibits the occurrence of rebellion,” and “international crises make rebellions more likely.”

To assert that A’s are causes of B’s is to assert that there is a typical causal mechanism through which events of type A lead to events of type B. Here, however, we must note that there are rarely single sufficient conditions for social outcomes; instead, causes work in the context of causal fields. So to say that revolutions are causally influenced by food crisis, weak states, and local organization, is to say that there are real causal linkages from these conditions to the occurrence of revolution in specific instances.  If we have enough cases, then these causal mechanisms will also produce some regularities of association between the hypothesized causal factors and the outcome; but without a large number of cases these regularities will be difficult or impossible to discern.

To what extent is such a causal analysis of a unique event explanatory, rather than merely true? The account is explanatory if it identifies influences that commonly exert causal power in a variety of contexts, not merely the case of the French in 1848 or Russia in 1917. And a case study that invokes or suggests no implications for other cases, falls short of being explanatory.

I will put it forward as a methodological maxim that a causal assertion is explanatory only if it identifies a causal process that recurs across a family of cases. A historical narrative is an answer to the first sort of question (“why did this particular event come about?”); such a narrative may or may not have implications for more general causal questions. A true causal story is not always explanatory.

There is another issue raised by this topic of general and particular causal hypotheses, which has to do with the idea of “over-determination.”  Return to the case of World War I.  It might be argued that there were broad structural forces at work that were steadily increasing the likelihood of war throughout 1912-1914 — deepening economic and geographical conflicts of interest among the great powers, large-scale military planning by various governments, and a worsening arms race, for example; so war was “inevitable” with or without the spark created by the assassination of the Archduke.  If this event had not occurred, some other instigating event would have cropped up; so the conflagration was inevitable.  On this interpretation, the assassination of the Archduke was a critical part of the actual pathway leading to the outbreak of war; but there were many other hypothetical pathways that would have led to the same result.  So it is the background structural conditions that were the real and substantive causes of World War I — not the contingent and accidental fact of the assassination in 1914.

Agrarian history — the Weber edition

One of Max Weber’s early areas of research was what might be called “macro agrarian history”. This was a field of research that Weber himself largely invented. He undertook to document and explain the large patterns of economic development in the ancient world, including especially the social systems surrounding farming and animal husbandry. Weber’s cases include Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. How did the fundamental material activities of farming, trading, and consuming contribute to the development of major civilizations? This research culminated in several important manuscripts, including in particular Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations (1909; translated and edited by R. I. Frank in 1976). Weber was particularly interested in the causal and structural features of the specific forms of property relations, labor, trade, taxation, and consumption that characterized the social economies of the ancient world. And he tries to show how certain features of the agrarian system influenced the emergence of certain political and legal forms.
The title “Agrarverhältnisse in Altertum” is translated as “Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations”; but this is a little misleading. It’s not so much a work of sociology as it is a work of economic and political history at a civilizational level. The essay is offered as an account of the history and particularity of the rural economies of the ancient world — closer to economic history than sociology.

Weber’s treatment of ancient Greece is particularly detailed. So let’s inventory some of the main components of his account to get a flavor of his approach. This will give us a better idea of how he set about trying to understand and explain the social world that is presented through ancient Greek literature. Here are the first few paragraphs of his description of the agrarian society of “historic Greece” — the contemporary society of Homer, or roughly 1000 BCE:

The Greeks raised spelt, barley, and wheat, alternating this in each field with grass (hence leases were for an even number of years). This system continued to be followed except in those areas specializing in a particular crop. Occasionally, it seems, the three-field system was used, but there was no change of crops, except that legumes were grown on fallow land. The use of manure is mentioned in Homer (but green manure was not used until later times); in general, however, agricultural techniques were stabilized at a rather primitive level and thereafter did not develop.

Thus the main features of Greek agriculture continued to be ploughing with a hooked plough (for long entirely of wood) drawn by oxen, sowing seed in furrows, hacking and weeding the grain fields, and harvesting with sickle and threshing board. Hence labour intensity was considerable, and since virgin land was no longer available, it was difficult to shift from subsistence agriculture to market production, even though grain prices were high in later times.

Cattle raising does not seem to have been much reduced in extent by farming until the age of the tyrants, who favoured the peasantry. The Homeric epics indicated a diet based mainly on cheese, milk, and — among aristocrats — meat. Clothing was made of wool and skins. (147)

So — crops, technology and practice, labor productivity, and consumption patterns. And what about the social relationships within which these farm activities took place?

In historical times the prevalent form of living unit was the patriarchal nuclear family. Women and children were in much the same position as among Semitic peoples: women could be bought or else married with dowry; husbands had the right to send away their wives, and could sell, rent, expel, or kill their children. Later the laws governing legitimacy, and the feeling for kin ties cultivated among the great families combined to reduce these powers of the father over his children; by the time when the Gortyn Code was first framed these changes had all taken place. (148)

But whereas the masses lived in nuclear families, nobles and kings — at first the same — lived as elsewhere in large households including agnates of a clan (genos). The purpose of this was to preserve the unity of inheritable landed estates. Thus both separate and group inheritance are mentioned in the Homeric epics; see the homosipuoi of Charondas, equivalent to the homogalaktes of Attic law. (148)

Here we have some social detail: the family, property in land, inheritance, and a “class” distinction between the farmer class and the elite families. And we have regular reminders of the primary historical sources underlying these descriptions: the Homeric epics and other surviving texts from Greek literature and history.

Weber quickly identifies social inequality in ancient Greek society and points to a system of wealth extraction from the masses to the elite families:

Those people who did not belong to a numerous and economically established clan, who were in short without land, found themselves forced to enter the clientele of one or another aristocrat. This was a later development, as the supply of new land declined and differences in wealth developed; originally membership of the community and ownership of land each presupposed the other. (149)

What about politics — the use of military force to extract resources and compel population behavior?

The Dorian cities were fundamentally military states, and so everywhere they maintained the same three tribes. Elsewhere there was great variety, but everywhere and always the formal division of a community into tribes signified one thing: that a people had constituted itself as a polis ready for war at any time. It should be noted here that the proper word for a tribe in a non-urbanized community was ethnos, as is shown by the documents of the Delphic Amphictyone. (151)

More precise information is not available for the political and social structures of autonomous communities in early times. If, however, we rely on analogies with other peoples, then we can assume that in each community the position of ruler (anax) came to be hereditary in a family made prominent by wealth in cattle and marked out as favoured by the gods by success in war and equity in judgment. (151)

When he moves on to the later period in ancient Greek history he extends the list of concepts used to characterize society; he describes the development of cities, the extension of long-distance trade, the social and cultural influence of Asia Minor, and the growth of political power wielded by aristocratic kings.

This is just a small snapshot of Weber’s historical reasoning in Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations. The book is methodical, and it moves through an orderly series of objective concepts of social organization in order to provide a description of the historically given society.

So the text is full of interesting claims and details about the agrarian regimes of human society 3,000 years ago. But here is the question that needs posing in the context of UnderstandingSociety: What is Weber trying to accomplish in this piece of writing? And how does his analysis shed light on his intuitive views of social and historical knowledge? What can we discover about Weber’s sociological imagination from this book? Several summary comments seem fairly clear.

First, much of the intellectual work here is devoted to de-coding the social and economic implications of surviving Greek literature, including particularly the Homeric poems. Weber is trying to piece together a coherent story of the modes of farming, technology, property, family, kinship, and kingship that are implied in the many small clues about social life contained in the Homeric corpus. So there is a large part of the work that is intended to be conceptual and descriptive.

Second, Weber lays bare one of his own interests in his construction of the text: a concern for viewing large social formations — civilizations or social-economic regimes — and discovering some of the material and situational factors that influence their development. This introduces an explanatory ambition to the work; Weber wants to be able to explain how some developments are the causal result of other developments.

Third, there is an important element of comparison involved in the book. Weber is plainly interested in noticing the differences as well as the similarities in the agrarian regimes he describes in Egypt, Greece, or Rome.

Fourth, there is not much attention given to the role of ideas or ideologies in this book — in contrast to the central role that ideas play in his comparative religion research some years later. And there is no trace of “interpretive” inquiry in this book either. Weber is trying to discover an objective vocabulary in terms of which to describe the material and social arrangements that are implied by the Homeric corpus, without attempting to say how the agents experienced or represented these social relations. This is not a “hermeneutic” book; if anything, it more resembles an ethnographically sensitive materialism. We might even say that the book is Weber’s, but it is something other than Weberian.

Finally, the topic of power returns repeatedly throughout the book. Weber demonstrates his recurring interest in the role that coercion and military force play in the organization of society and the concentration of wealth.

Several generations later, the great classical historian M. I. Finley undertook a parallel investigation of the agrarian economies of Greece and Rome in The Ancient Economy (1973). Finley’s work is more clearly organized by the goal of showing how the material, technical, and social relations he describes constitute an economic system — a system of production and reproduction. And it reflects a modest kind of Marxism in its effort to describe the forces and relations of production in the ancient world. Certainly the body of historical data that was available to Finley about the social arrangements of the ancient world was much greater than what was available to Weber; in this sense we are likely to judge that Finley’s account is more likely to be accurate in detail. But it is very interesting to read the two books side-by-side; they have a lot in common. And each presents an ambitious view of what is involved in knowing how ancient societies worked.

(It is interesting to discover that M. I. Finley and R. I. Frank, the translator and editor of Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations, had a bit of a dust-up in the New York Review of Books in 1970 over a review that Finley wrote of several books on the Roman Empire.)

Revisiting Popper

Karl Popper’s most commonly cited contribution to philosophy and the philosophy of science is his theory of falsifiability (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge). (Stephen Thornton has a very nice essay on Popper’s philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) In its essence, this theory is an alternative to “confirmation theory.” Contrary to positivist philosophy of science, Popper doesn’t think that scientific theories can be confirmed by more and more positive empirical evidence. Instead, he argues that the logic of scientific research is a critical method in which scientists do their best to “falsify” their hypotheses and theories. And we are rationally justified in accepting theories that have been severely tested through an effort to show they are false — rather than accepting theories for which we have accumulated a body of corroborative evidence. Basically, he argues that scientists are in the business of asking this question: what is the most unlikely consequence of this hypothesis? How can I find evidence in nature that would demonstrate that the hypothesis is false? Popper criticizes theorists like Marx and Freud who attempt to accumulate evidence that corroborates their theories (historical materialism, ego transference) and praises theorists like Einstein who honestly confront the unlikely consequences their theories appear to have (perihelion of Mercury).

At bottom, I think many philosophers of science have drawn their own conclusions about both falsifiability and confirmation theory: there is no recipe for measuring the empirical credibility of a given scientific theory, and there is no codifiable “inductive logic” that might replace the forms of empirical reasoning that we find throughout the history of science. Instead, we need to look in greater detail at the epistemic practices of real research communities in order to see the nuanced forms of empirical reasoning that are brought forward for the evaluation of scientific theories. Popper’s student, Imre Lakatos, makes one effort at this (Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes; Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge); so does William Newton-Smith (The Rationality of Science), and much of the philosophy of science that has proceeded under the rubrics of philosophy of physics, biology, or economics is equally attentive to the specific epistemic practices of real working scientific traditions. So “falsifiability” doesn’t seem to have a lot to add to a theory of scientific rationality at this point in the philosophy of science. In particular, Popper’s grand critique of Marx’s social science on the grounds that it is “unfalsifiable” just seems to miss the point; surely Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, or Tocqueville have important social science insights that can’t be refuted by deriding them as “unfalsifiable”. And Popper’s impatience with Marxism makes one doubt his objectivity as a sympathetic reader of Marx’s work.

Of greater interest is another celebrated idea that Popper put forward, his critique of “historicism” in The Poverty of Historicism (1957). And unlike the theory of falsifiability, I think that there are important insights in this discussion that are even more useful today than they were in 1957, when it comes to conceptualizing the nature of the social sciences. So people who are a little dismissive of Popper may find that there are novelties here that they will find interesting.

Popper characterizes historicism as “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history” (3). Historicists differ from naturalists, however, in that they believe that the laws that govern history are themselves historically changeable. So a given historical epoch has its own laws and generalizations – unlike the laws of nature that are uniform across time and space. So historicism involves combining two ideas: prediction of historical change based on a formulation of general laws or patterns; and a recognition that historical laws and patterns are themselves variable over time, in reaction to human agency.

Popper’s central conclusion is that large predictions of historical or social outcomes are inherently unjustifiable — a position taken up several times here (post, post). He finds that “holistic” or “utopian” historical predictions depend upon assumptions that simply cannot be justified; instead, he prefers “piecemeal” predictions and interventions (21). What Popper calls “historicism” amounts to the aspiration that there should be a comprehensive science of society that permits prediction of whole future states of the social system, and also supports re-engineering of the social system if we choose. In other words, historicism in his description sounds quite a bit like social physics: the aspiration of finding a theory that describes and predicts the total state of society.

The kind of history with which historicists wish to identify sociology looks not only backwards to the past but also forwards to the future. It is the study of the operative forces and, above all, of the laws of social development. (45)

Popper rejects the feasibility or appropriateness of this vision of social knowledge, and he is right to do so. The social world is not amenable to this kind of general theoretical representation.

The social thinker who serves as Popper’s example of this kind of holistic social theory is Karl Marx. According to Popper, Marx’s Capital (Marx 1977 [1867]) is intended to be a general theory of capitalist society, providing a basis for predicting its future and its specific internal changes over time. And Marx’s theory of historical materialism (“History is a history of class conflict,” “History is the unfolding of the contradictions between the forces and relations of production”; (Communist Manifesto, Preface to a Contribution to Political Economy)) is Popper’s central example of a holistic theory of history. And it is Marx’s theory of revolution that provides a central example for Popper under the category of utopian social engineering. In The Scientific Marx I argue that Popper’s representation of Marx’s social science contribution is flawed; rather, Marx’s ideas about capitalism take the form of an eclectic combination of sociology, economic theory, historical description, and institutional analysis. It is also true, however, that Marx writes in Capital that he is looking to identify the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production.

Whatever the accuracy of Popper’s interpretation of Marx, his more general point is certainly correct. Sociology and economics cannot provide us with general theories that permit the prediction of large historical change. Popper’s critique of historicism, then, can be rephrased as a compelling critique of the model of the natural sciences as a meta-theory for the social and historical sciences. History and society are not law-governed systems for which we might eventually hope to find exact and comprehensive theories. Instead, they are the heterogeneous, plastic, and contingent compound of actions, structures, causal mechanisms, and conjunctures that elude systematization and prediction. And this conclusion brings us back to the centrality of agent-centered explanations of historical outcomes.

I chose the planetary photo above because it raises a number of complexities about theoretical systems, comprehensive models, and prediction that need sorting out. Popper observes that metaphors from astronomy have had a great deal of sway with historicists: “Modern historicists have been greatly impressed by the success of Newtonian theory, and especially by its power of forecasting the position of the planets a long time ahead” (36). The photo is of a distant planetary system in the making. The amount of debris in orbit makes it clear that it would be impossible to model and predict the behavior of this system over time; this is an n-body gravitational problem that even Newton despaired to solve. What physics does succeed in doing is identifying the processes and forces that are relevant to the evolution of this system over time — without being able to predict its course in even gross form. This is a good example of a complex, chaotic system where prediction is impossible.

A cognitivist philosophy of history

Many of the posts here have raised issues about the philosophy of history. Here is a bit of a synthesis of many of those prior observations.

Fundamentally, we have unfolded a conception of historical explanation that derives from the central idea of situated human action; the idea, as Marx put the point in 1850, that “men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” In other words, historical explanation fundamentally involves identifying the features of agency and structure in the presence of which the great and minor events of history have transpired. Fundamentally historians are faced with the challenge of making sense of the choices that actors have made in bringing about the historical processes that interest us, given their motives and the constraints created by social institutions and structures.

Formulating ideas about agency is therefore key for historians, and we have seen a wide variety of theories of agency in prior posts: Robert Darnton’s ethnographic study of the book-makers’ apprentices; interpretations of historically specific mentalités; attributions of rational or materialist motivations to participants in riots and rebellions; interpretations of religious commitments; and so forth, throughout the almost endless variety of forms that human agency takes. This is the aspect of historical imagination that corresponds roughly to the “hermeneutic” or interpretive strand of historical thinking: what did these historical actors want? How did they think about the world? The topic of mentalités is important; to explain historical outcomes, we must have a theory of the states of mind of the actors who make history and endure it.

Arriving at better understandings of the metaphysics of social structures is a second key focus of the philosophy of history being developed here. How do structures influence and constrain human action? How are structures embodied in the actions and thoughts of individuals? What are the microfoundations of social structures? It is crucial to avoid reifying social structures – attributing to “the state” or “the proletariat” a causal and ontological presence that transcends the individuals who constitute it. But it is also true that there are coherent and defensible ways of formulating conceptions of extended social structures that do not reify them, and that nonetheless provide them with an important and potent source of historical causal force. Once embedded in barracks, police stations, businesses, social networks, and command structures, the military structure of the Burmese junta creates a highly coercive set of social constraints within which Burmese citizens must act. So the fact that each structure is necessarily embodied in the actions, thoughts, and motives of a population of people does not imply that the structure lacks “autonomous” causal effectiveness to influence agents’ behavior.

This philosophy of history also emphasizes that it is very important for historians to arrive at deeper understandings of the metaphysics of social causation. This means, first, understanding the complete inadequacy of traditional positivist interpretations of causation: “causation is no more than regularity”. This Humean view does not serve the natural sciences well, and it certainly does not help us when it comes to social causation. So it is necessary to explore in a fair amount of detail a model of causation that fits with what we know about the actual workings of social processes. The model that I favor is “causal realism”; it holds that the task of arriving at a causal explanation comes down to discovering one or more causal mechanisms linking antecedent to outcome. This approach conforms well to the actual practice of historians constructing narratives. And it is supported by a careful analysis of the metaphysics of social causation as well. The microfoundational approach argued elsewhere holds that social causation proceeds through the behavior of individuals making choices within structures. But whether or not one accepts the microfoundational approach, it is necessary for historians to have a better idea of what they mean when they judge that “X caused Y.”

A fourth important idea that for this philosophy of history is the fact of historical contingency. Historical events are the result of the conjunction of separate strands of causation, each of which contains its own inherent contingency. And coincidence, accident, and unanticipated actions by participants and bystanders all lead to a deepening of the contingency of historical outcomes. However, the fact that social outcomes have a high degree of contingency is entirely consistent with the idea that the idea that a social order embodies a broad collection of causal processes and mechanisms. These causal mechanisms are a valid subject of study – even though they do not contribute to a deterministic causal order.

Further, we have observed repeatedly that social phenomena are heterogeneous and plastic. Institutions change over time in response to the actions and intentions of participants (plasticity); and generally similar institutions are nonetheless significantly different in their mid-level characteristics and dynamics (heterogeneity). Cities illustrate both characteristics. The institutional regimes through which a given city manages an important urban problem – handling the provisioning of clean water, let us say – change over time; this illustrates plasticity. And different cities have very different internal functional organizations, all serving to fulfill roughly the same set of urban functions but in very different ways (heterogeneity). It is important for historians and historical social scientists to keep these fundamental ontological facts about the social world in mind as they attempt to conceptualize the past. Otherwise we are likely to produce stylized and repetitive interpretations of the institutions and actions of the past, overlooking the important ways in which those institutions differed from each other and from contemporary equivalents.

The related ideas of meso-history and comparative history conform well to all these recommendations. By paying attention to the mid-level processes and institutions of a given time period, the historian is drawn into the distinguishing features as well as the common features of these institutions. (How did French absolutism really work, when it came to collecting taxes, raising armies, and managing a bureaucracy?) And by engaging in careful comparison across complex cases, the historian is brought to recognize the facts of institutional variation and, sometimes, commonality. (How did proto-industrial handicraft production work in Amsterdam and Suzhou; what were the similarities as well as differences of these pre-modern economic institutions?) Likewise, several discussions above have illustrated the explanatory value that derives from the study of meso-level social institutions and organizations – for example, the transportation system that exists in a given region. Further, meso-history and comparative history lead the historian to have a more practical recognition of the contingency and path dependency of mid-level economic, political, or social institutions. It is difficult to maintain that there is only one way of managing a fiscal system or growing a pre-modern industrial economy, when one’s research lays bare the similarities and differences that existed in different settings in France or Japan.

Turning to questions about evidence and objectivity, this philosophy of history offers support for the idea that historical inquiry is an empirically rigorous endeavor. Skeptics sometimes make easy statements such as “the past is unknowable,” “historical interpretations are inherently subjective,” and “all historical statements are the result of the historian’s bias.” But close examination of serious examples of historical research and debate demonstrate that historians engage in detailed historical research involving different kinds of historical evidence and theories from the social sciences, and arrive at well-grounded hypotheses about circumstances in the past. Questions like these turn out to have answers in which we can have a fair degree of confidence: “What was the typical annual food budget for an agricultural worker in England’s midlands in 1700?”, “Why did Parisian artisans support mobilization against the monarchy in 1848?”, “Did the Chinese Cultural Revolution involve deliberate strategies of mass killing?” It will sometimes turn out that there just is not enough historical evidence available to answer a given question, but this is surprisingly uncommon. Debates exist over the interpretation of the facts; but often enough, further research suffices to narrow the range of debate for the next generation. So we have found many reasons to be optimistic about the objectivity and truthfulness of historical knowledge.

This philosophy of history does not consider every problem that arises in the doing of history. I focus instead on the knowledge enterprise: what is involved in knowing (some of) the facts about the past? And what is involved in arriving at satisfactory explanations of these facts? There are other goals that historians have in doing their work, from illustrating a moral point, to entertaining a reading audience with surprising stories about those who came before. But many of the most interesting historical writings fall squarely within the “cognitivist” approach, and their examples support an interpretation of historical knowledge that is evidence-based, rigorous, and post-positivist. On this interpretation, history is a kind of social science, sharing commitments to evidence, rigorous reasoning, and critical use of theory in arriving at true statements about the world. And this is a lofty aspiration for historians and philosophers.

History of the present

What is involved in writing a history of the present? It’s not quite the oxymoron it may appear to be. It is often enough that we find ourselves in the middle of complicated, confusing, and interwoven events locally, regionally, or globally — events that require much the same sort of conceptual and integrative work that the Manchu conquest of China or the Odessa mutiny requires for the traditional historian. For example, think of the Red Shirt protests in Thailand a few months ago, or the financial crisis in September 2008. And think of the intellectual challenge presented for the observer to try to arrive at a somewhat detailed interpretation of what was occurring. This is an act of “apperception” — taking many separate pieces of evidence and experience and forging them together into a unified representation. And it seems to have a great deal in common with more traditional historical cognition.

There seems to be one specific way in which the task can’t be done at all. When we are in the midst of something big, we may be able to recognize that it is momentous without really being able to say what “it” is. That is because we don’t know how it is going to turn out. Is it a popular revolution of the have-nots against Thailand’s elites, or a short period of unrest? Is it the beginning of another Great Depression, or just a serious episode of financial turbulence? We can’t answer these questions until the events play out.

That point is fair enough, but it doesn’t really close off the discussion. There is still the question, what can contemporary observers do to understand and document an important event as it unfolds? And here the answer is very similar to traditional historical research. Observers can collect and record documents in real time. They can interview participants. They can view and interpret the communications of the powerful and the insurgents. And, on the basis of these kinds of investigations, they can begin to arrive at interpretations of what is occurring, over what terrain, by what actors, in response to what forces and motives. In other words, they can attempt to arrive at an evidence-based integrative narrative of what the processes of the present amount to.

Think, for example, of western academics who found themselves in Shanghai in the late 1930s. They were in a position to talk with ordinary people, Communist activists, and Guomindang officials. They were able to collect the ephemera of the social struggle that was underway. They were able to observe at close range the Japanese assault on the city. And, perhaps, they were forced to join one of the great mass evacuations in history, with tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese people fleeing the city on foot. These observers lived a bit of China’s history; but they were also in a position to write a part of its current history in 1938. One such academic was Professor Theodore Herman, who lived in China during the period and gathered an important collection of political posters and other ephemera (link).

And we can extend these examples indefinitely. Think of the young African-American activists who went south in 1963, who lived and made this piece of American history; and think of the perspective they were able to arrive at in conceptualizing America, 1963. And for some of these men and women, the discovery and writing of the history was itself an important part of the struggle. (Here is an excerpt of an interview with Professor Gloria House that gives a vivid sense of this aspect of historical experience and interpretation (link).)

So a couple of things seem true. One is that there is a form of “historical apperception” that is just as necessary for understanding the present as for understanding the past. A second point is that a given “history of the present” is doubly contestable: the contemporary’s angle of view may be limited enough that future historians will conclude that the apperception was fundamentally flawed; and the processes underway may turn out so differently from what was expected, that the mid-stream apperception may be judged basically misleading when the process is complete.

But a few other things are true as well. The participant has an immediate access to documents, speeches, and events that later historians can only envy; so by recording these observations the participant can lay a good foundation for later interpretations. The participant has often had direct experiences that give him or her a specific understanding of some aspects of the events — for example, the passions and motives associated with the period. And third, the participant’s historical observations may in fact be remarkably acute, taking observations of current activities and constructing them into a historical representation that holds up well. So attempting to write a history of significant events in the present is a valid intellectual goal.

So far I’ve looked at the easy part of the question: historical apperception of specific events and processes. Much harder is the more general question: to what extent is it possible for an observer in 2000 to attempt an interpretation of “fin-de-siècle” America? That is, to what extent is it possible to encapsulate the broad sweep of the present from the perspective of the present? And here we can probably agree with Zhou Enlai in 1989 when asked, “what is the significance of the French Revolution?” — “It is too early to tell.”

The historian’s task

What are the intellectual tasks that define the historian’s work? In a sense, this question is best answered on the basis of a careful reading of some good historians. But it will be useful to offer several simple answers to this foundational question as a sort of conceptual map of the nature of historical knowing.

First, historians are interested in providing conceptualizations and factual descriptions of events and circumstances in the past. This effort is an answer to questions like these: “What happened? What was it like? What were some of the circumstances and happenings that took place during this period in the past?” Sometimes this means simply reconstructing a complicated story from scattered historical sources – for example, in constructing a narrative of the Spanish Civil War or attempting to sort out the series of events that culminated in the Detroit race riot / uprising of 1967. But sometimes it means engaging in substantial conceptual work in order to arrive at a vocabulary in terms of which to characterize “what happened.” Concerning the disorders of 1967 in Detroit: was this a riot or an uprising? How did participants and contemporaries think about it?

Second, historians often want to answer “why” questions: “Why did this event occur? What were the conditions and forces that brought it about?” This body of questions invites the historian to provide an explanation of the event or pattern he or she describes: the rise of fascism in Spain, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the great global financial crisis of 2008. And providing an explanation requires, most basically, an account of the causal mechanisms, background circumstances, and human choices that brought the outcome about. We explain an historical outcome when we identify the social causes, forces, and actions that brought it about, or made it more likely.

Third, and related to the previous point, historians are sometimes interested in answering a “how” question: “How did this outcome come to pass? What were the processes through which the outcome occurred?” How did the Prussian Army succeed in defeating the superior French Army in 1870? How did Truman manage to defeat Dewey in the 1948 US election? Here the pragmatic interest of the historian’s account derives from the antecedent unlikelihood of the event in question: how was this outcome possible? This too is an explanation; but it is an answer to a “how possible” question rather than a “why necessary” question.

Fourth, often historians are interested in piecing together the human meanings and intentions that underlie a given complex series of historical actions. They want to help the reader make sense of the historical events and actions, in terms of the thoughts, motives, and states of mind of the participants. For example: Why did Napoleon III carelessly provoke Prussia into war in 1870 (David Baguley, Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza)? Why has the Burmese junta dictatorship been so intransigent in its treatment of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (Nicholas Farrelly, Burma’s General Objectives)? Why did northern cities in the United States develop such profound patterns of racial segregation after World War II (Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit)? Why did young men in the 1910s and 1920s prefer dangerous, noisy internal combustion automobiles to safe, quiet electric vehicles (Gijs Moms, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age)? Answers to questions like these require interpretation of actions, meanings, and intentions – of individual actors and of cultures that characterize whole populations. This aspect of historical thinking is “hermeneutic,” interpretive, and ethnographic.

And, of course, the historian faces an even more basic intellectual task: that of discovering and making sense of the archival information that exists about a given event or time in the past. Historical data do not speak for themselves; archives are incomplete, ambiguous, contradictory, and confusing. The historian needs to interpret individual pieces of evidence; and he/she needs to be able to somehow fit the mass of evidence into a coherent and truthful story. So complex events like the Spanish Civil War present the historian with an ocean of historical traces in repositories and archives all over the world; these collections sometimes reflect specific efforts at concealment by the powerful (for example, Franco’s efforts to conceal all evidence of mass killings of Republicans after the end of fighting); and the historian’s task is to find ways of using this body of evidence to discern some of the truth about the past.

The photo above gives a small glimpse of the challenges the historian faces. In order to interpret the photo as “a moment in the Spanish Civil War”, the historian needs to provide a careful interpretation of its provenance and content. Who are these soldiers? Where is the fighting taking place? Was the photo staged? What, if anything, does it tell us about the social conflicts and military circumstances of the Civil War? How can it help the reader of history to come to a better understanding of the experience of civil war?

In short, historians conceptualize, describe, contextualize, explain, and interpret events and circumstances of the past. They sketch out ways of representing the complex activities and events of the past; they explain and interpret significant outcomes; and they base their findings on evidence in the present that bears upon facts about the past. Their accounts need to be grounded on the evidence of the available historical record; and their explanations and interpretations require that the historian arrive at hypotheses about social causes and cultural meanings. Historians can turn to the best available theories in the social and behavioral sciences to arrive at theories about causal mechanisms and human behavior; so historical statements depend ultimately upon factual inquiry and theoretical reasoning. Ultimately, the historian’s task is to shed light on the what, why, and how of the past, based on inferences from the evidence of the present.

Metaphors for history

What kind of thing is “history”? Think of the history of the Roman Empire, or the history of Tokugawa Japan, or the history of the American banking system. We want to be able to conceptualize these complex stories as possessing some kind of unity over centuries of time, thousands of locations, and millions of lives; we want to be able to identify common threads of development, common themes or topics that continue to recur throughout the history of the period. And yet it is plain that history consists of unmeasured diversity and heterogeneity as well — individuals, psychologies, local conditions, aberrant princes, external threats, famines, floods, and panics. So historians are led to adopt different kinds of metaphors to attempt to provide a degree of unity to their subject. There are quite a few different metaphors that have been used to characterize history: a river, a tree, a labyrinth, an ocean, a landscape. Several are particularly worth unpacking, but the metaphor that I prefer is “pathway.”

Here is how the river metaphor might work as a way of thinking about the “course” of history. Rivers have tributaries — rivulets of water flowing down hill into the broader concourse. History has “streams” of contributing events that lead to the larger outcome — the confluence of developments in the French medieval rural economy, the development of the fiscal crisis of the Ancien regime, and the emergence of a town-based bourgeoisie, for example, coming together to contribute to the unfolding of the French Revolution. There is a seeming unity to a river over time, even though the constituent water simply passes through continuously; analogously, one might view history as a “stream” of events that individual humans pass through, constituting a larger and more stable historical current. (Though of course we won’t forget the Heraclitus paradox.) Rivers are to some extent constrained — by existing topography, but also by human artifacts (dams, levees, flood walls). Historical developments too are constrained by circumstances such as agricultural productivity, population levels, and warfare. Rivers sometimes change their course — for example, the frequently changing course of the Yellow River over many centuries. But more commonly they become longstanding features of the terrain over centuries or millenia. Analogously, there is at least the semblance of long, steady periods of continuity of human affairs within human history — interrupted by crises and turning points. (See an earlier posting on the idea of a turning point.) Rivers have a direction of flow — from north to south, from high ground to lower ground. And some interpreters of history have argued analogously for a direction of change in history as well — towards “progress,” “modernization,” greater administrative intensity, higher standards of living for the population, or greater democracy, for example. And rivers have a powerful momentum of their own — we can be swept away in the currents of the Mississippi River, as John Reed was swept up in the events of the Russian Revolution.

The river metaphor captures some of our intuitive thinking about history — tributaries, currents, stretches of turbulence. But it also conveys a necessity or inevitability that fails to come to grips with the deep contingency of history. A river has an inexorable course of flow — from high ground to low ground. And the topography essentially determines the shape and configuration of the river bed. This metaphor suggests that history too has an inevitable course or direction — which is profoundly untrue.

How about the idea of history as a tree? Here, the idea is that there are “branches” in history — points where developments could have gone “left” or “right”, and the next phases of history are dependent on the specific branches that have been taken before. America could have invested in canals rather than railroads — and its transportation history and subsequent urbanization would have been significantly different. (Robert Fogel makes an argument along these lines in Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History; here is a nice, short description of his argument.) The analogy isn’t exactly between “history” and “tree”; instead, it is between the space of hypothetical historical possibilities and the branches of a tree. Actual history is one specific pathway through this tree of possibilities. Finally, trees have systems of “roots” — the structures under the ground and out of sight that explain the nutrition and growth of the tree. And how often historians turn to expressions like “the roots of the Cold War extend back to X, Y, and Z.”

This metaphor does a better job of capturing the contingency of history, in that it highlights that the actual course of history is simply the aggregate result of the branches or choices taken previously — with the clear understanding that other routes through the space of possibilities were possible as well. One of the obvious difficulties with the tree metaphor, though, is the extreme uncertainty that exists about the branches, the hypothetical alternative outcomes that might have put a given society on a different trajectory. For any given major historical event we can speculate with varying degrees of rigor about how things might have come out differently; but we can’t really go very far down the route of the “alternative history” that might have ensued. So the idea of a “tree diagram of alternative histories” is only a metaphor, not something that could be accomplished through historical research. (Niall Ferguson has an interesting book on “counterfactual history”; Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.)

So here is a third possible metaphor for history: history is an accumulation of pathways and contingencies that embed human action over time. I find that this metaphor works well as a way to characterize the course of history. Paths are created by purposive agents, going somewhere with an understanding of the topography. Pathways become roadways, and they become systems of constraint and opportunity. And they sometimes become the elements or segments of larger systems with long historical and human consequences (for example, the Roman road system illustrated at Ambrussum above). Road systems illustrate the meaning of “path-dependence”; once the pathway exists, other routes across the terrain become less likely. And the metaphor illustrates as well the perpetual interaction of agent and structure that good historians almost always emphasize; the plasticity of social entities; the contingency of their specific properties; and their constraining power influencing human choices.

The pathways metaphor incorporates both diachronic and synchronic elements into our conceptualization of history. At a given time, history presents us with a given set of embodied constraints and opportunities that represent the accretion of the past as a context for the present. The system of roads penetrating through a medieval town represent a snapshot of its history over a thousand years — and a set of frustrating obstacles to the contemporary driver. Marx puts the weight of history’s legacy in these terms in the Eighteenth Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

But there is a diachronic aspect of the metaphor as well: the structures that constrain the present today are themselves involved in a temporally extended process of modification and accretion from yesterday to today to tomorrow. The road system continues to evolve in response to contemporary needs and wants, and presents a new set of constraints and opportunities to the generation to come.

On this approach, history doesn’t have any ultimate directionality; it is simply the sum of a long series of inventions, actions, interventions, and accidents over decades or centuries. At the same time, it is subject to a degree of explicability, in that earlier moments of historical development set the stage for choices and inventions in the next phase. Outcomes are “path-dependent”, in that they depend critically on the circumstances and accidents of the past. But at the same time, there is a degree of “sunk costs,” social momentum, and embodied infrastructure that make some historical developments much more likely than others.

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