Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Term "Accident" Has No Place in Historical Understanding

"And lastly, Bury’s theory of contingent events implies that in history there are accidents, surprises, abnormalities. But the notion of the accidental is contradictory of the whole character of the historical world. It is a notion which the historian, when he sits down to write history, must dismiss from his mind. History knows nothing of the fortuitous or the unexpected; in history there is nothing extraordinary, because there is nothing ordinary. The hard winter of 1814 which ruined Napoleon’s expedition to Russia, the storm which dispersed the Armada—these, from the standpoint of the participants, were distressing mischances; all (from that point of view) might so easily have been different. But the attitude of the historian is not that of the eyewitness or the participant. Where they see mischance and accident, he sees fact and event. And he is never called upon to consider what might have happened had circumstances been different. For himself and his friends the death of William I was an accident; for the historian it is no more accidental than if he had died in his bed. To think, as Bury does, of the death of Pericles as in some sense accidental because he died of the plague is to have abandoned history altogether. If we consider Napoleon abstractly, merely as a human being, it was an accident that he was born in Corsica. But when he is considered as the historical Napoleon who (evidence obliges us to believe) was born in Corsica, his birthplace is no more accidental than any other event in the whole range of history. In short, chance or accident is a mask which it is the precise duty of the historian to tear away, it is a way of thinking which he cannot understand. In the historical past there are no accidental events because, in the scientific sense, there are no necessary or inevitable events. Nevertheless, if history has no place for the accidental, it does not replace it with ‘providence’ or a ‘plan’; it replaces accident with the actual course of events which the evidence establishes." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes


  1. Okay, so there are no accidental events, because there are no necessary or inevitable events. I can accept that.

    Still, every time we read a history book and place ourselves in the shoes of the people observing those times, the idea of a mischance or an accident seems so appropriate - not for the scholar, but definitely for a layman.

    When Kublai Khan sent a giant fleet to conquer Japan, we can almost feel how a Japanese warlord back then was contemplating an incoming defeat. That defeat truly seemed inevitable. When a rare and massive sea storm - occurring once in five centuries - negated this invasion, what other word to call it accident?

  2. Prateek, you can find Oakeshott's entire chapter on history from Experience and It's Modes online in two places -- I highly recommend reading it. In it, he makes very clear that, from the point of view of practice, it is entirely sensible to regard such events as "accidents" -- what it means is something like, "Well, no one can blame Kublai Kahn for his failure, as no one could have foreseen such a storm."

    But the historian (as historian) has no interest in placing blame. (The historian may, of course, veer off into another role without notice to the reader, and begin speaking as, say, a political partisan or social scientist.)

  3. Gene, since you are quoting (with apparent approval) Oakeshott saying nothing is accidental, and nothing is caused, in history, I think you should give us a third quote telling us what history is. At this point I have no idea. I'm not saying he's an idiot--he's obviously a deep thinker--but you're leaving us hanging here. (And it is truly your "fault," because your posts were neither an accident nor due to your DNA.)

  4. Well, Bob, first of all, realize that Mises and Oakeshott are not far apart in their understanding of history -- that should get you a long way all by itself. (This is not surprising considering they are both influenced in this regard by Croce, Rickert, Collingwood, and Dilthey.)

    So, what does Oakeshott object to about "causation" in history? Well, for him (as for Mises) history is not about causation in the sense of the physical sciences. If an historian wants to say "What caused Caesar to cross the Rubicon with his army was his belief that otherwise Pompey would have him killed," that is not objectionable, so long as we remember that here the cause is a *reason*, not a mechanical force acting on Caesar, or some statistical correlation. And we proceed here by verstehen, as you well know from Mises. (Oakeshott doesn't use the term, but I'm pretty sure he would acquiesce to my use of it here.) Ryan seems to want "causes" like a law that says "95% of all would-be dictators will cross important barriers if threatened with death by a major foe." But both Oakeshott and Mises would agree that whether or not one can derive such "laws," what you are doing when you do so is *not* history. Here is your boy on the topic:

    "The notion of a law of historical change is self-contradictory. History is a sequence of phenomena that are characterized by their singularity. Those features which an event has in common with other events are not historical." -- Theory and History, p. 57

  5. "If an historian wants to say "What caused Caesar to cross the Rubicon with his army was his belief that otherwise Pompey would have him killed," that is not objectionable, so long as we remember that here the cause is a *reason*, not a mechanical force acting on Caesar, or some statistical correlation"

    Ah yes, the old word switcheroo. I've seen plnety of them in my days.

    That being said I do get the point.

  6. Leaving aside whether Oakeshott is correct by some yardstick, am I correct that his two quoted arguments would not find universal agreement among historians?

  7. I'm sure you are correct, Jim. But Oakeshott was both an historian and a philosopher, and Collingwood, who was also both, called the chapter on history from which these quotes are pulled the finest work on the philosophy of history ever written in English.

    Subsequent historians who subscribed to the "Collingwood-Oakeshott" view of history include JGA Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

    That, of course, does not ensure that the views are correct, but does indicate that they are not some fringe views divorced from the mainstream of historical thought.