Exploring Historical Causation

2779 Words6 Pages

Exploring Historical Causation

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 causes. 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.

Open Document