06 February 2010

Idiosyncrasy and History, Conclusion

My narrative yesterday brought us, with Henry's help, to a conflict in the way of looking at history. Tolstoy and Spencer are on one side of this conflict. Carlyle and James are on the other. Henry and I both, I would say, fall into the broad middle.

The issue is: how important (if at all) are the individual characteristics, the idiosyncrasies if you will, of the handful of people in a society who occupy its most august positions in social, political, or military hierarchies? Do the specific facts about "great men" (or let us say pooh-bahs) matter at all? Spencer and Tolstoy would both answer "no," in the sense and for the reasons I sought to explain yesterday. Carlyle responded, in effect, that hardly anything else matters! You wish a link? -- 'tis done.

Spencer responded to Carlyle, on behalf of his own conception of history as moving according to grand forces that entail whole populations. Spencer thought that the Carlylean conception was only "theocracy once removed," and has to be abandoned if out aspirations are scientific. James, in turn, responded to Spencer. And here we emerge into material new for this day.

James begins his discussion with a man who slips on the ice of a porch and cracks his skull. We might, to make the hypothesis interesting, suppose that several months before he had dined at a table as one of thirteen. "There are no accidents," we might say. "The whole history of the world converged to produce that slip. If anything had been left out, the slip would not have occurred just there and then. To say it would is to deny the relations of cause and effect throughout the universe. The real cause of the death was not the slip, but the conditions which engendered the slip, -- and among them his having sat at a table, six months previous, one among thirteen. That is truly the reason why he died within the year."

From the viewpoint of a hypothetical omniscient investigator, there may be truth in this. All things everywhere may impact all other things in infinite lines of convergence, and a divine intelligence could see a line of convergence between the banquet of thirteen and the fatal flaw. But we, as humans, have to proceed with greater particularity, or else we'll neglect to put ashes on the ice on that porch, or "some other poor fellow, who never dined out in his life, may slip on it in coming to the door, and fall and break his head too."

There are different cycles of operation in nature -- some macrocosmic, some microcosmic. They proceed relatively independent of one another, and for the secular purposes of human beings on most occasions we can and should treat them as independent. This, James says, was one of the great insights of Charles Darwin. Here he was using Darwin against Spencer -- two names more often bracketed in his day than distinguished. Darwin's key insight was that the variation in the form of an organism from one generation to the next may be the result of "internal molecular accidents, of which we know nothing," as James put it. The finch on one island may get a wider beak than the finch on the nearby island for natural molecular reasons, "accidental variations." The process of natural selection is separate from that. The environment selects some beaks as suitable, rejects others into the trash bin of extinction.

Napoleon, then, may well be the ice on the porch. Or, put differently, Napoleon may be the "internal molecular accidents" within a finch. The Big Picture -- the analog to Natural Selection -- comes into play only after that particular finch with that particular beak comes on the scene. Will the conditions of a particular Pacific island support that finch and allow it to thrive? Would the conditions of post-revolutionary France and for that matter the rest of Europe at the time support a particular short-statured Corsican and allow him to thrive?

It is not "theocracy" to entertain the suspicion that (a) Napoleon too harbored internal molecular accidents, which affected the decisions he made in particular circumstances, and (b) the environment allowed him to thrive to a degree than made those decisions of great importance. And if (a) and (b) are both the case, then it is clearly possible -- nay, plausible -- that if Napoleon had not been born for whatever reason, the other strong man who would have shown up in his place in the history books would not have made all the same decisions -- would have had different "internal molecular accidents," -- and these would have mattered to history.

So, yes, it seems that the idiosyncrasies of the pooh-bahs have been vindicated as a general historical cause.

It does not follow that we should revert entirely to Carlyle and hero worship. James wrote that the differences between the past and the present are due to "the Grants and the Bismarcks, the Joneses and the Smiths."

By "Grant," there, James was of course referring to a General, without whose idiosyncrasies the United States may have fractured into its constituent parts. By "Bismarck" he referred to the "Iron Chancellor" of Germany. But he then used the terms "the Joneses and the Smiths" to indicate that history is more complicated an affair than we can ever grasp if our focus remains always upon the poohbahs.


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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.