Human Agency in History

10 May 2010


Addendum to Grand Strategy in a Chaotic World

Human Agency in History

Yesterday in Grand Strategy in a Chaotic World I suggested that we could define grand strategy as natural history subordinated to human agency. If the reader has read any of my other posts this might possibly make sense, but I recognize that this could well sound very curious indeed. What do I mean by saying that grand strategy is natural history subordinated to human agency?

Firstly, I am using “natural history” here in an extended sense, and in fact I devoted a post to the first sketch of a the idea of natural history in an extended sense, which I call integral history. History has always been a synthetic discipline that has had as its purpose the formulation of a comprehensive vision of the past. Integral history is the attempt to take this process a further step and to provide a more comprehensive vision yet by putting human history in the context of natural history, as well as understanding the past in the context of a larger structure that includes what we can meaningfully say about the future. Thus I should have said that grand strategy is integral history subordinated to human agency.

A strict conception of classical historiography conceived humanistically has little or no place for natural history, and this is the traditional conception of history sensu stricto. Similarly, a strict conception of natural history conceived scientifically has little or no place of human agency. Think of how scientists formulate their hypotheses, including hypotheses concerning the past: such formulations do not address human agency, human will, human interests, or anything else human other than the naturalistic emergence of human beings from natural history.

Thus the idea of integral history is already a synthetic conception, the diverse elements of which exist in tension with each other. To get to integral history, humanistic history must be extended to comprehend natural history, and natural history must be extended to comprehend human history. Each augments the other, but each also changes the other. We know the impact that Darwin had on the self-conception of man. This was was instance of folding part of human history into natural history. For many it was a painful experience, and is still rejected by some. No less painful if systematically pursued is the recognition that human agency has a role to play in natural history. Human beings, especially since the Industrial Revolution, have been transforming the world in which they live with ever greater rapidity.

A couple of days ago in A Political Theory of Genocide I implicitly drew attention to the distinction between humanistic (or political) history and natural history when I wrote that, “A political theory of genocide is not, and cannot be, an account of genocide that focuses on the natural history of genocide, and an account of the natural history of genocide is not and cannot be a political theory of genocide.” However, I might now add that a conception of genocide based upon integral history could overcome this dichotomy between political and natural history. Beyond an integral history of genocide — and we can imagine how painful this would be, both in recognizing human agency as well as understanding genocide naturalistically, which is likely to outrage those how feel that it is an insult to victims not to discuss genocide in moralistic terms — there lies the possibility of an integral history of all human activity.

Natural history and human agency would seem to be very different things, except that but little reflection is needed in order to reveal that human agency emerged in natural history and was, at its time of emergence, utterly subordinate to natural history. Natural history records and explains the emergence of human beings, but not human agency. Integral history takes the next step and acknowledges the emergence of human agency within history. The further step yet of subordinating integral history (at least, that part of integral history yet to be determined, which is that part of the future that is not entirely constrained by deterministic natural forces) to human agency is the task of grand strategy.

There is a sense in which, at its most comprehensive level, then, grand strategy represents a reversal of fortune of nature vis-à-vis man, but this is a grand strategy indeed, and in the interim we will concern ourselves with slightly more modest conceptions of grand strategy. The grand strategy of humanity overall ought properly to be this comprehensive, but there is as yet no grand strategy for humanity, except as it exists in the minds of a few individuals how have achieved a dispassionate view of the human species on the whole. Thus we have as yet only the grand strategies of particular peoples, and these grand strategies of particular peoples fall far short of a concern with the integral history of the universe entire.

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