Understanding History


Never mind Aristotle; by "cause" (as usually translated) he means "condition of existence," like the bronze which is the substrate of the bronze statue. Never mind Hobbes; he has trouble with the idea that the kicking foot of a child imparts motion to the kicked ball. (If Hobbes puts his face in the way of the process, it is causatively likely that he will get his nose flattened). Never mind the philosophers in general; they are off on Cloud 17 with a more or less attenuated God. More to the point are the findings of the lawyers and doctors, who deal with causation directly, and in its full complexity:

If your horse bolts, and bumps a ladder, and the person on the ladder falls to his death, are you liable? In short, where are you in the causal chain? The immediate cause of death is the fall. The proximal cause of death is the bumping of the ladder. Next up the line is the skittishness of the horse, an enabling cause. And if you were aware of the horse's skittishness (this is the legal motif that the rabbis call The Ox That Gores), but took no steps to prevent the horse running about loose, you are the ultimate cause, and you can be sued for wrongful death. You can then argue that the dead man was negligent too, by standing on top of a ladder that was known to be rickety. You are in a battle about carelessness, a dispute over crimes of omission. Good luck.

If a malaria patient dies, what is the cause? The coroner may rule, malaria. But people have had malaria and recovered from it. If the room was cold, resulting in bodily chill which increases vulnerability to malaria, then the underheating is a contributory cause. By itself it might have been harmless, but in conjunction with the malaria, it makes death more likely. So also with the age of the patient, and any concurrent diseases of the patient. We may like to call these factors rather than causes, but a complete picture of the causation will include the factors.

And we have not even touched on the question of intent: the malicious neighbor who purposely shoos his horse in the direction of a hated neighbor, or the maniacal nursing home janitor who lowers the thermostat on the fussy old lady who had complained of him. Nor have we explored the dark area behind the seemingly simple concept of "intention." All of those things are, or may be, in the picture. Keep looking.


An origin may be seen as a kind of a cause; a kind of cause which continues to operate undiminished far into the future. This is one of the commonest analytical errors, and one to which etymologically aware persons are especially prone. Some examples from real life:

Raffaello Sanzio, Tiburtine Sibyl (c1514)

The first merely reflects the territorial ambition of a the Religion department, trying to bring all culture under its wing. The second will be denied by any experienced teacher, who has encountered plenty of children whose primary instincts are more in need of social mitigation than of institutional enhancement.

Even if the original meaning of a word is correctly determined, it does not follow that that meaning will remain unchanged. Meanings mutate. A semantic linkage cogent for the inventor of a word may become inoperative for later users of that word. We now join Marc Bloch, in the midst of a discussion of the fallacy of trying to understand feudalism by etymologizing some of the terms it uses:

. . . certain practices, such as clientele relations, companionship in arms, and the use of land tenure as payment for service, were carried on by later generations in Europe during the ages we call "feudal." But such practices were modified a great deal. There were two words - benefice (beneficium) among the Latin, and "fief" among the German-speaking peoples - which these later generations persisted in using, while gradually and without realizing it conferring upon them a quite new significance. For, to the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs. All this is very interesting, but it does not tell us the causes of feudalism.

Or, as we might prefer to say, it does not tell us the constituents of feudalism. The methodological point is well enough taken: a word means what it means in some particular sentence, and the dictionary has no power to restrain it from meaning something different in the next sentence. A Japanese doctor will make a subcutaneous test before giving you a shot of penicillin, knowing that sensitivity to penicillin can develop between one injection and the next. Words are like penicillin sensitivity: they may be different the next time around. Their meaning depends to some degree on what other words they are hanging out with at the time, and on what the society of the time is currently up to.

The most egregious violations of etymological good sense are encountered with Chinese characters, which (it is imagined) contain ideas disembodied from both sound and meaning, and have a permanency beyond that of any merely linguistic artifact. Much is now and then made of the claim that the word "peace" (pronounced "an") is written with "woman" under "roof." Whether one familiar with the early written form of the word "an" would see the same components may be doubted, and whether the original scribe's notion, whatever it was, remained binding for later ages, must be denied. It all comes down to this: If etymological evidence is all the evidence you have, you have no evidence.



For all these cautions, and they are to be taken seriously, the disarticulation between past and present is not total. Subject to cataclysms, there remains a substantial continuity between past and present. Bloch quotes Michelet in order to disagree with him, but we think Michelet may be right. Michelet had said:

He who would confine his thought to present time will not understand present reality.

There is a grandeur as well as an intelligibility to the longterm identity of things and causes, which it would be wrong for the historian to miss. Bloch himself says at a different point:

Under close scrutiny the prerogative of self-intelligibility thus attributed to present time is found to be based on a set of strange postulates. In the first place, it supposes that, within a generation or two, human affairs have undergone a change which is not merely rapid, but total, so that no institution of long standing, no traditional form of conduct, could have escaped the revolutions of the laboratory and the factory. It overlooks the force of inertia peculiar to so many social institutions.

Panta rhei. All things flow. But though a flow is not an identity (as Heracleitus was pleased to warn us, some time ago), it is still a form of continuity. It is a linkage, and causation is ultimately a matter of linkages. So is identity. When you can perceive and describe the mutation of identity, and the concurrence of causal factors, you are getting pretty good at change, and therefore, at history.

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