Causation In History

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Item Code: IDH361
Author: Indu Banga
Publisher: Indian Institute Of Advanced Study, Shimla
Edition: 1992
ISBN: 8185425795
Pages: 33
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.3" X 6.2"
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Early in 1990, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study organized a seminar on 'Philosophy of science' at Cochin in collaboration with the Indian Science congress. However, the scope of this seminar was not confined to natural and life sciences. In fact, a number of philosophers and social scientists participated in the seminar. Though it was at a rather late stage that the lat Professor Sukhamoy Chakravarty suggested that seminar may focus on 'Chance and Determinism', several of the participants agreed to write on this theme.

At the time of preparing the proceedings of the seminar for publication, Professor Indu Banga observed that three papers dealing with the theme of 'causation in history' complemented or supplemented one another in such a way that, if put together, they could form a separate unit with special interest for historians and social scientists. These three papers were reprinted to form this booklet.

I am thankful to Professor Indu banga as much for editing these papers as for giving the idea of their separate publication and for writing an appropriate preface.


The three essays in this volume reflect on the centrality of causation in history from somewhat differing perspectives. But they converge on what may be regarded as the broad professional consensus on the nature and method of history as an autonomous science.

Accounting for change is as old as history-writing itself. In the essay on 'Cleopatra's Nose' Professor grewal discusses the concept of causation in relation to the changing worldviews since the ancient times, and with reference to the rise of modern science. The essay brings out how with the changed view of science in the 20th century, the view of history and causation also changed.

The ancient Greek historians invoked a variety of human, institutional and natural causes to explain change. Their conception of causation was linked up with their idea of ;the usefulness of historical knowledge for the future. Since the 'unknown and the uncontrollable' elements, variously called Fate, Fortune, Destiny or chance, could not possibly help man in 'dealing with the future', these were seen essentially as 'undeserved calamities'. Accidental happenings acquired some significance in the 16th century paradoxically after the 'discovery' of laws governing the natural world. While Pascal invoked chance or 'Cleopatra's Nose' in support of the belief in Providence, the historians of the Enlightenment invoked it to undermine that belief, and to emphasize the role of general causes. In the 19th century, under the influence of Positivism, which equated the human world with the world of nature and searched for universal laws, philosophers and historians remained pre-occupied with the search for the general causes of historical events and the laws governing the social world. Chance was thus once again relegated to the backstage. It was reinvoked at the turn of the century to register a revolt against Positivism and to rescue history from its deterministic stranglehold.

However, historians did not have to lay the stress on chance for long to assert the autonomy of their discipline vis-à-vis science. Emphasis on history as 'a special form of knowledge' coincided with the changing conceptions of science in the 20th century. In physical sciences nature came to be viewed no longer as something given and distinct but as process undergoing change in interaction terms- relative to the situation, the scientist and historical developments; and laws of science not as universally valid standards, but as theories and hypotheses opening the way to fresh knowledge. With this built-in provision for progress in scientific knowledge, the physicist's enterprise did not seem too far apart from the historians'. Their understanding of the past rested on empirical evidence, albeit derived inferentially; their generalizations served as hypotheses for further investigation; and the historical knowledge was both relative and progressive, growing with the discovery of fresh facts and fresh interpretations.

The historians could now have a more rigorous view of causation treating it 'as a tool' essential to explain change. They could now view determinism as simply the belief that everything that happens has a cause or causes, and that all human actions are both free and determined according to the point of view from which they are considered. Likewise, accidental happenings too had causes, but these represented causal sequences which could not be synthesized into generalizations amenable to rational interpretation and application to other times and places. Thus, though not rejected altogether, chance happenings have come to be assigned only a marginal place in historical causation. There is a possibility, however, that because of the inbuilt provision in history for the incorporation of new evidence and new interpretation, the chance coincidences are 'not necessarily condemned to remain irrelevant for all times.'

Professor Ravinder Kumar suggests that to understand the relevance of the concepts of chance and determinism for the historical process, it may be worthwhile to break different sectors of human life broadly into three concrete and related spheres each of which associated with a somewhat distinct form of causation. At the base of the social world lies man's adaptive interaction with nature whose bearing on society can be predicted with reasonable measure of certainty. Much less susceptible to prediction, and yet capable and intellectual life and its economic organization. At the third level of historical causation lie the conscious and unconscious actions of individuals and social groups which are never fully determined by the physical environment or the social circumstances. If the fortuitous play of chance and unpredictability has any place in historical explanation then it is in the realm of thoughts and actions of men in society.

The interplay of the three levels of causation is capable of a fairly rigorous reconstruction of the past. But the historians may differ radically over the nature and precedence of causes invoked by them. There are different and often divergent reconstructions as there are multiple pasts and different ideologies of social action. Yet all of them, even those with a deterministic bias believing in an overall pattern and direction in history, and its predictability, share the basic assumption about the character of the historical process as 'a connected flow of across time'.

Notwithstanding the indispensability of social theory for comprehending the historical process, there is a 'Creative tension' between history and theory. The empirical exporations of the past acquire an autonomy of their own capable of transcending the theoretical framework within which they were commenced. The 'historical logic' as distinct from formal logic, draws upon the conscious and unconscious motivations and social behaviour of particular individuals and human communities in a concrete sequence of cause and effect. The 'partial irrationality' of human beings and their aggregates makes it difficult to frame any rigorous laws of social behaviour or predict the future with any certainty. The feedback effect of the growth of knowledge upon the human actor further precludes possibilities of predictions about the future course of human history. The inherent uncertainties in the 'Historical logic' and its empirical matrix thus have the potential for the creation of new social theory through the replacement of an existing generalization by a more fruitful one.

While underlining the centrality of causation for the philosophy and methodology of history, the third essay argues that the historians generally use the word 'cause' for 'any one of a number of antecedents identified to explain the consequent and separated from it by a temporal interval, howsoever slight'. The historians proceed by simplifying causes in terms of their relative bearing on the consequent. They take into account all kinds of relevant antecedents, neither material nor cultural factors alone making causes in terms of their relative bearing on the consequent. They take into account all kinds of relevant antecedents, neither material nor cultural factors alone making much sense to them. They seek to identify multiple 'causal chains' from different sectors of life, and with differential regress in the past. They look for spatio-temporal continuity, that is, the cause continuing into the effect and the effect becoming cause.

Causal analysis rests on theory in the sense of 'a set of logically coherent propositions with a suggestive potential'. A conscious use of theory 'as an analytical tool' enables the historians to fruitfully employ the insights, concepts and techniques of the other human sciences which also suggests new questions and opens up new avenues of research. In this 'constructive orientation to the allied sciences' they see no threat to the autonomy and the distinctive empirical character of history.

Finally, all perceptions of causality rest on the historian's value preferences embedded in his existential situation and informed by his outlook on the future. 'Value-orientation' not only influences the selection and the ordering of antecedents, it also imparts depth and a sense of reality to historical reconstruction. 'Unless a historian wishes his work to be still-born, his causal explanations have some relevance to the contemp0orary society and its problems and goals'.

Cleopatra's Nose1
Chance And Determinism12
Historical Causation21
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