Three Conceptions of History

22 July 2010

Thursday


Yesterday I concluded my post on Impossible Desires with the observation that, “In so far as we did not choose industrialization, but it happened to us as part of a large social transformation that was not the act or decision of any one individual or group of individuals, it it difficult to accept.”

If we are not fatalists of one stripe or another, we want to believe in our own agency, and, generally speaking, the greater the agency we retain, the better. Yet most of what shapes our life is not anything that we have chosen. There is a famous quote from Marx that I have invoked on several occasions, with which he begins his essay on The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “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.”

Marx’s oft-quoted passage captures the intersection of human agency and vulnerability to circumstances. Men make their history, but not simply as they please. That is to say, history is partly made, partly the result of human agency, and partly it is a thing that is not made, the result of no act or decision of any one individual or group of individuals. Again, unless one is a fatalist, this is difficult to accept. If, on the other hand, one is temperamentally fatalistic, one will embrace one’s contingent lack of agency in the world as an affirmation of one’s conception of history. This is the philosophical equivalent of confirmation bias, and it is a bias that we live by.

There are many conceptions of history that men live by; one is not confined to choosing between a dialectical opposition between agency and fatalism, and even choosing a point on the continuum between the two. It occurred to me today that one way to divide attitudes to history can be derived from Anatol Rapoport’s introduction to Clausewitz, which I previously discussed in More on Clausewitz.

Rapoport distinguished political, cataclysmic, and eschatological conceptions of war, but we need not limit these conceptions to war. We can, broadly speaking, adopt political, cataclysmic, or eschatological conceptions of history on the whole. In other words, we can conceive of history as being subject to the agency of human beings (the political conception), as being subject to no agency whatsoever (the cataclysmic conception), or as being subject to a non-human agency (the eschatological conception). These, then, are three over-arching conceptions of history that an individual could adopt. I assume that an individual will usually adopt that of history conception that is most closely in accord with his or her temperament. As Fichte said, the kind of philosophy one has depends on the kind of man one is. This statement has been widely deprecated by subsequent philosophers, but I for one would defend it.

Last May in Human Agency in History I suggested that grand strategy can be defined as integral history subordinated to human agency. In doing so, I revealed my bias as to history. But the very idea that there can be such a thing as grand strategy implies that human beings have at least some degree of agency in the world, however compromised and limited. However, we certainly could formulate conceptions of grand strategy based on alternative conceptions of history, to whit: political grand strategy, cataclysmic grand strategy, and eschatological grand strategy.

Some of these ideas may seem like a stretch, but it is a salutary conceptual exercise to try to stretch the mind to accommodate unfamiliar thoughts. And, having only just now formulated the above division of grand strategies according to world view, I can think of an illustration of one of the more unlikely conceptions, that of eschatological grand strategy. And it is this: several historians have related that, under the Byzantine Empire, the belief in divine providence was so prevalent in the society, and hence in the troops mustered by the society, that soldiers on the battlefield would look for signs that one side was winning or losing, and when the decision of the battle seemed sufficiently clear, the losing troops would rapidly capitulate, assuming that it was the will of God that they should lose the battle. Here is a very practical application of a eschatological conception of history and its application to grand strategy. I could easily produce a naturalistic account of such actions, but such an account — while perhaps preferable, indeed perhaps even true — would not do justice to how the participants in the events understood them. A naturalistic account of eschatological grand strategy, in other words, would not penetrate into what Collingwood called the “interior” of events.

Byzantine soldiers were reputed to throw down their arms and flee the battle field when the tide of events turned against them, convinced they had seen the hand of God at work.

A little more thought might furnish further interesting (and unfamiliar) examples of Weltanschauungen and the grand strategies that follow from them.

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This post has been superseded by subsequent posts in which I expand the framework here from three conceptions of history to four conceptions of history. See, for example, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception.

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