Thursday, January 05, 2006

On historical change

Historians never cease to amaze me: their perverse, cheerful lack of any rigorous theoretical framework is truly astonishing. They feel able to make any sorts of statements only based on rhetorical formulations, at the same time adamantly declaring that all is relative and every generation writes its own histories - then happily proceeding to “disprove” old viewpoints. Based on what exactly giving the premise? I simply regard this as intellectual laziness or worse (fairly common to all human studies nowadays). In my view causation is the key: how can we write about history without addressing causality in any way? We can make all sorts suppositions based on vague “common sense” about “deep currents” and “surface froth” but as long as we lack an actual theory of historical causation, what can we really say? Tolstoi’s point in the preface of War and Peace that history is not at all dependent on individuals seems utterly meaningless to me. History obviously consists only of a myriad of individuals - it is also a gigantically complex web with an almost infinite number of mutually reacting factors. This seems like the definition of a chaotic process to me: small factors can have great effect. Who can say? The total constellation of circumstances will determine the immediate consequences but is itself unique and irreproducible, "random", and there is no way that we could extrapolate long to the future based on it. Or so I feel, lacking a theory of historical causation. It does seem like a hindrance to me.


helsinkian said...

How much can one individual do to change the course of history? Now that Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke, so many newspaper accounts have been about how generally one man can't do much but this exceptional man had it all to draw the map of the Middle East according to his wishes.

I don't know why I feel that these exceptional individuals are so fascinating. Everybody's saying one person doesn't matter and then, suddenly, it all depends on one person.

I'm convinced that when the times are exceptional, exceptional individuals can and will change the course of history. In which direction, that depends totally on what that individual is doing and what for.

In covering the life and death struggles of Arafat, the Pope and now Sharon, the mass media are driving us into a frenzy to think that this is the last guy that really mattered drawing his last breath.

I guess Sharon makes me think of Kekkonen. Everybody has known he's been getting too old to handle his job and still everybody has been telling there is no alternative to his charismatic person.

Now I don't think Sharon will be remembered as the most remarkable prime minister of Israel. There have been so many strong personalities in that post before him and the most remarkable thing about Sharon's premiership really his how so controversial a politician could become so popular a leader. How did he change his image and what made him do that Gaza move?

Maybe my thoughts first went to Israel because I think the Middle East is the one place in the world where historical change is happening very drastically and where huge changes are needed to avoid a very sad century that would otherwise be in front of them. Sharon's illness may be a blessing in disguise because I really think Israeli politicians have to realize that in spite of the towering presence of Sharon other, younger politicians are capable of shouldering the tasks of the premiership. They can do all that he did and more and in a less cynical manner. I think Israel needs some youthful optimism, a belief in that power structures can be changed.

Sharon and all of the older generation (this goes for older Palestinian leaders as well) basically believed in a static Middle East, where most countries will remain as dictatorships. I don't think the future of the Middle East belongs to dictators, warlords and terrorists. I think Sharon was changing his policies and changing the course of history. But I don't believe he could see clearly where history was moving.

I can't see the course of history, either, but my hope is that a younger generation (even sixtysomethings are younger than Sharon) of Israeli leaders will sense the winds of change and navigate the ship of the Jewish state to a course that will secure both the future of Israel and help the Arab peoples in winning their rights and not falling to the temptations of fundamentalism. Some wish list but I sincerely hope that historical change will take place and the Middle East will again be a territory the rest of the world can look up to in search of guidance.

stockholm slender said...

Sharon is good example. I have often been thinking of Lenin - it is very hard to see anything like Soviet communism emerging without his remarkable, destructive energy and psychotic singlemindedness. That he should have been injured the moment he was, opened the way to Stalin, and I suspect that no other way would have done it. This is not to believe in the Great Person theory of history: circumstances, constellations force us, but they act and are in return impacted by specific individuals. What I do belief is that coincidents and happenstances (is that really a word?) influence history significantly and unpredictably.