Cause, Causation, and Multiplicity: A Critique of E. H. Carr’s “Causation in History”
Abstract This paper will assess three central components of Edward Carr’s lecture ‘’Causation in History’’ in What is History? First, Carr does not show causation’s real function of distinguishing between various types of history; the kinds of causes a historian employs describes the nature of their historical inquiry. Second, Carr’s notion of “accidental causes” is oxymoronic because accidents are unpredictable for any historical actor. There is no logic to explain why unexpected accidents had to happen for historical actors from their viewpoint. Therefore, its contrast with ‘’rational causes’’ is misleading. Finally, however important causes are in formulating historical interpretations, causes do not determine a historian’s interpretation. 1. An Outline of the Main Arguments The explanation of causes in historical phenomena—explaining how historical events occurred by examining and describing the reasons behind their occurrence—is perhaps the signature hallmark of History as a Social Science. Yet, how does a historian know what a cause is and how should he or she explain the cause? This paper will provide a critique of Edward Carr’s methodology in his lecture “Causation in History,’’ collected in his seminal book, What is History? I will first assess Carr’s discussion of determinism, then discuss his distinction between accidental and rational causes, and finally, analyze how examples function throughout the lecture to highlight his arguments. From such examination, I will emphasize the function of historical causality within Carr’s framing of History as a scientific process. After examining Carr’s logic on historical causality, I will conclude with three main arguments. First, while Carr shows the necessity of causal explanations in historical analyses, he does not crucially show that the real importance of causes in historical explanation lies in their power to determine subdivisions in fields of historical research. Second, Carr’s distinction between “accidental causes’’ and “rational causes’’ is misleading because “accidental causes’’ is an oxymoronic concept. Accidents occur unpredictably and unexpectedly from a historical actor’s perspective, and it is impossible to accurately judge why an accident had to occur, unless a historical actor involved in an accident should miraculously resuscitate to directly inform the historian of the accident’s details. Moreover, if the fundamental purpose of a historical cause is to provide a logical explanation to the occurrence of historical phenomena, Carr, in conceiving “accidental’’ as an opposing concept to “rational,’’ is basically comparing illogical and logical causation in history. However, if “illogical’’ means “that which cannot be explained logically,’’ then it is questionable how an “illogical cause’’ is actually an explanatory cause. It is possible to explain that an accident became an accident, even if it is much harder to determine why an accident exactly occurred. Insofar as there is an explanation, however unsatisfactory the quality of the explanation may be, explaining how an accident came to be called as such, still qualifies as being logical, or having the capability to be explained with reasonable statements. In other words, the contrast between accidental and rational causes in historical explanation is misconstrued because “accidental causes’’ is an oxymoronic concept. Finally, while Carr may be correct in emphasizing the importance of causes in historical interpretation, he is mistaken in assuming that causes alone dictate the structure and content of historical analysis. The search for historical causes is only necessary for the sake of providing diverse angles of historical analyses; historical causes are not so important to exclusively determine and decide the entire content of a historian’s interpretation. It is the historian’s liberty to interpret facts about an event and then determine what the important causes of an event may be, but historical causes alone do not possess the great power to determine the direction of the historian’s interpretation. Rather, it is interdisciplinary historical analysis, which provides a rationale, a justification for why certain causes have better explanatory causes for a certain historical event than others, which ultimately in- forms the direction of a historian’s logic. The art of performing meticulous and exact historical interpretations involves adopting interdisciplinary methods, and only after the invocation of interdisciplinary methods to provide a rationale for establishing a hierarchy between causes can a historian perform interpretations.
2. A Brief Literature Review and the Significance of “Causation in History” A close analysis and an examination of Carr’s conception of causality and his ideas is necessary because there has yet to be a systematic study of Carr’s “Causation in History.” The majority of the secondary literature on What is His- tory? are book reviews that concentrates on commenting on the book’s overall structure and its main argument that History is a dialogue between the past and the present. This literature either mentions Carr’s discussion of historical causality solely in relation to his main argument, or ignores it altogether (1). For example, in the most recent comprehensive discussion of philosophies of History and historiography, the author closely analyzes Robin Collingwood’s emphasis on human ac- tions as the subject of historical inquiry is closely analyzed as a conditional theory for historical causation. Though Carr was a major critic of Collingwood’s views of History in general, neither Carr’s “Causation in History” as an independent work nor What is History? is given sufficient attention (2). Critical studies of Carr’s ideas regarding History have concentrated on his pursuit of objectivity and positivism, or his conceptualization of History as a study of causes. Ann Frazier (1976) argues against an absolute positivist view of History. She asserts that insofar as a historical narrative is a “reconstruction from present experience of what might have happened in the past,” it is impossible to absolutely determine what “actually happened in the past” (3). In other words, Carr’s vision for an objective and a pure History devoted to verifying past events with exactitude is untenable and impossible to realize. Geoffrey Partington (1979) criticized Carr’s “moral positivism and moral futurism” in favor of replacing them with relativism to better account for differences in time and place in which a historical event occurred when making a historical judgment (4). Most recently, Ann Talbot (2009), while comparing Carr’s view of chance and necessity with that of Leon Trotsky, concluded, “History is no longer a study of causality but is determined by the propensities of the historian” (5). In short, the secondary literature has engaged with various aspects of Carr’s view of History and concentrated on how historians write about the past and how recent interpretations of History have abandoned Carr’s concern for causality. However, the secondary literature, in particular Talbot, does not explain why Carr’s search for the role of causality in the writing of History is outdated, missing the central value of “Causality in History” as Carr’s most definitive statement on what History is as a science, for it is in this lecture where a truly scientific and methodical answer to the title of Carr’s book actually appears. A critical examination of Carr’s conception of historical causality is necessary to show why it is outdated or, as I noted earlier, there are three major deficiencies in Carr’s logic about historical causality. In “Causation in History” Carr develops the most methodological and structural argument about the nature of historical causality and criticism against historical determinism, which taken collectively, is actually devoted to explaining why History is a science, rather than explaining causality’s place in History for its own sake. Carr’s views about causality in History are essentially concerned with how causality functions in History to give its scientific character, not whether History’s entire academic identity is simply a study of causation. It is in this particular lecture where Carr’s understanding of History as a science in terms of approaches and methodology is most clearly expressed and where a genuinely structural analysis of History as a science—how historical causation reflects the scientific nature and essence of History—is most lucidly given. In short, this particular lecture deserves a close analysis because it explains why and how History functions as a science: by ordering facts through causality to transform historical fact into historical knowledge. How History becomes under- stood as History to a historian is perhaps the best method to know how history be- comes transformed into professional History. This paper intends to highlight the importance of causation within the question, “What is History?,” later evaluating Carr’s ability to frame historical inquiry as a scientific process through causation and causality.
3. Carr’s Main Ideas on Historical Causality Carr opens his discussion about historical causation with the observation that the historian “commonly assigns several causes to the same event’’ (6). However, the historian is bound by “a professional impulse to reduce it to order, to establish some hierarchy of causes which would fix their relation to one another’’ to decide which cause should be “the ultimate cause, the cause of all causes’’ (7). In other words, Carr believes that a multiplicity of causes serves a secondary function of letting the historian rationally prioritize a single cause that produced an event. From this discussion of the historian’s need to identify an order to historical causes, Carr argues that “historical determinism’’ and “chance in history’’ are “red herrings’’ which obstruct the logical flow of historical causation and proceeds to show how they are not part of a proper historical logic. “Historical determinism’’ is “the belief that everything has a cause or causes, and could not have happened differently unless something in the cause or causes had also been different’’ (8). In other words, “historical determinism’’ assumes that the occurrence of every phenomenon in life is dependent on a single cause unique to that particular phenomenon such that even the slightest alteration in the cause would necessarily produce a different phenomenon. However, Carr sees “historical determinism” as both unsatisfactory and un- realistic because it does not recognize the unpredictable vicissitudes of human behavior and actions According to Carr, the choices people make defy strict classification as either a matter of free will or logical determinism. He believes that various forms of human behavior and actions can arise from both free will and determined causes, arguing that historians are flexible in understanding human actions to arise from both sources (9). From this reasoning, Carr does not entertain the view that historical events occur “inevitably,’’ unless “inevitably’’ is qualified to mean that antecedent causes would have to be different for an event’s outcome to be radically different from what was expected (10). Since Carr is uncomfortable with the notion that historical events occur in a vacuum, it is unsurprising that he also finds explanations relying on “chance’’ or “accidents’’ unsatisfactory. Not only are accidents unexplainable through “historical determinism,’’ but accidents are also causal interruptions to a string of events which a historian wishes to investigate. In other words, the occurrence of an accident is not a license with which a historian can argue that there was no clear cause for an event to occur; an accident is merely an obstacle preventing the historian from focusing on a chain of causality which clearly awaited the historian’s discovery. Of course, Carr is aware that it might be possible for accidents and chance events to happen in history, for such occurrences are not only minor, but are continually compensated by other accidents or chance events, and “chance” might be a “character of individuals’’ (11). In other words, the randomness of accidents is possible because an accident is by nature an unexpected event and the forms in which it may occur are varied and diverse, and may be influenced by the unpredictable variety of personalities of every individual. Yet, Carr finds these apologetic defenses of accidents and chance events unsatisfying because accidents and chance events are often “seriously exaggerated,’’ or perceived to “accelerate or retard’’ historical progress, a sentiment which Carr dismisses as mere “juggling with words’’ (12). Moreover, he thinks that “chance events’’ are “natural occurrences’’ which complement each other is merely an euphemism to claim that there are events in life we cannot comprehend. Carr believes that those who use accidents in their theories have granted themselves the undeserved liberty to excuse themselves from the tedious business of rigorously investigating causes of an event. Such a person, in Carr’s view, is “intellectually lazy’’ or possesses “low intellectual vitality’’ (13). In other words, because accidents are also induced via human activity and actions, Carr does not believe that accidents truly occur unexpectedly or without any causation. Insofar as accidents can be caused by some faults in human personality or will, these faults, however inherently various, deserve to be studied as causes behind the accidents they create. The historian must observe and analyze accidents just as he or she would investigate any other “normal’’ political, social, or cultural event and ponder on why the accident occurred or whether it could have been avoided or prevented at all. So how does a historian pay proper attention to historical causes and formulate a causal relationship between historical facts? For Carr, it begins with the realization that there is little to distinguish between “historical’’ and “unhistorical’’ facts such that it is always possible for the latter to become the former (14). For example, someone living in 1066 and directly witnessing the Battle of Hastings might record that the battle “is taking place,” but once a historian agrees with the witness who claims that it was important that the battle occurred, the historian preserves the fact that the battle occurred in the past and has historical importance by simply stating the same fact in the past tense: “The Battle of Hastings clearly occurred in 1066.” Yet, the murkiness of the distinction does not mean that all causes are to be treated equally, for Carr believes that there are “rational’’ and “accidental’’ causes. The former can be applied to diverse countries, eras, and conditions, which warrants generalizations. By contrast, “accidental’’ causes, which have to be specifically devoted to explaining how an accident as a particular event in a specific time, location, and circumstances, cannot be generalized. An accident occurs under particular conditions and is fundamentally a result derived only from the particular conditions and therefore “teach us no lessons and lead to no conclusions’’ (15). In other words, rationality for Carr is synonymous with generality, while “accidental’’ causes are limited in their generality because they can only be comprehended only within the specific contexts they had occurred. The more important point is that “rational causes’’ have purposes borne from human motivations, whereas “accidental causes’’ do not have an objective. With that said, such a distinction does not mean “accidental causes’’ can be dismissed. Regardless of the type of cause, Carr believes that insofar as historians are expected to make interpretations about them, they are issuing value judgments, and causality is “bound up with interpretation,’’ for the act of assigning causes is itself a judgment. Moreover, because history is a purveyor of tradition, history is obligated to be a record of “past habits and lessons of the past’’ for future generations (16). Due to the arbitrary and selective nature of historical time, Carr concludes by arguing that historians must habitually ask “whither’’ along with “why?’’ (17). The audience for whom the historian writes is as important as personal and private reasons for which the historian writes history. Carr believes that the historian’s search for causation necessarily implies a search for an ultimate cause which can clearly answer why a phenomenon occurred, and insofar as a historian is searching for the ultimate cause, “historical determinism’’ is unsatisfactory because it disregards the importance of multiple causality in ac- counting for the unexpected and unpredictable nature of historical events. Carr also finds the treatment of “chance’’ or “accidental causes’’ as synonymous with “no causation’’ as unsatisfactory, because they are just masking a historian’s laziness or unwillingness to scrutinize historical events very closely to find a logical causation between them. Finally, regardless of whether a cause is “rational”—has the ability to be generalized—or is “accidental’’—happens by pure chance or as an outcome of unexpected events—distinctions between them are not very important because causality in general must inform a historian’s interpretation, which, in turn, is a form of value judgment. The possibility of a “subjective’’ causality is not an excuse to not treat “accidental causes’’ or “rational causes’’ unequally, for the division of time, which is the basic element of a historian’s thinking, is a subjective category which is bound to change depending on the nature of a “future’’ a historian is interested in addressing. As long as the future is subject to change, so will the perception of “past’’ and “present,’’ which is why a historian must be well aware of the purpose for which he or she desires to write history and the audience for whom the historian wishes a work to have a lasting influence. Logic is important to maximize the delivery of rhetorical clarity, for it is the essence of an argument’s organization. Yet, because logic is a general description of a reasoning’s supposed trajectory, logic needs to be supplemented with proper examples to illustrate and convince others that the trajectory is an accurate and rational one. This section has shown how Carr’s logic about historical causation could probably be considered rational; the next section will examine and analyze Carr’s use of examples to determine whether there is sufficient rhetorical strength in the logic to convince the reader that the logic is traveling on its proper and designated route.
4. Carr’s Use of Examples and Their Logical Compatibility with His Main Points This section evaluates Carr’s usage of historical examples in illustrating his main themes and arguments, offering a critique about the propriety of the examples in relation to the points they are making. In particular, it will concentrate on Carr’s examples drawn from the Russian Revolution and the accident of Robinson. This section will conclude that while his use of these examples is sound because he effectively illustrates the importance of unpredictability in historical causation to a historian’s thought process, the Revolution and the accident of Robinson do not greatly support Carr’s main theoretical argument because they do not show how and why a particular hierarchy of causes is necessary for one example but not the other. Carr uses episodes from the Russian Revolution to illustrate his opposition to historical determinism. There are several problems with Carr’s use of the Russian Revolution as an example to counter the assumptions of historical determinism. Fundamentally, the example does not show how Carr would be able to choose his “ultimate’’ cause behind the Revolution’s origins. While it is clear that multiple causes must be considered to establish the complexity of the event and there- by highlight its importance, Carr does not show how a hierarchy of causes can be derived from a consideration of multiple causes. What he actually wishes to show by discussing the Russian Revolution is that “historical determinism” is not a proper historical logic because it essentially engages in counterfactual reasoning, which is not germane to the historian’s critical aim of determining the past as it is. Against historical determinism’s charge that a historian may not consider other alternatives while focusing too much on one cause, Carr argues that supposing that Stolypin had completed the agrarian reform or that the Bolsheviks did not win the Russian Revolution are not relevant to historical determinism, for the determinist would simply look for causes other than ones which actually occurred to argue that different causes would have different outcomes. Hence, Carr suggests that the suppositions have “nothing to do with history,’’ because counterfactual assertions cannot be proven with any certainty with documented evidence and are non-historical (18). The problem is that Carr never really identifies the precise kind of historical interpretation for which his example from the Russian Revolution is meant to offer support. If the suppositions he made are not “historical,’’ then the real question is, which suppositions should be deemed “historical?’’ Refutation by negation does not necessarily lead to clarity; it only serves as a proof of what an opposing argument cannot be, rather than proving the essence of the opposing argument. More- over, because the basic theoretical argument against “historical determinism’’ is that historical events have multiple causes and do not occur in a vacuum, Carr’s example should have shown how a genuine historical argument can be fruitful by considering multiple causes. After all, the real problem Carr has with “historical determinism’’ is that it assumes that historical events were bound to happen with- out any particular value ascribed to the events’ circumstantial causes. Since Carr is uncomfortable with the unscientific and unhistorical nature of the philosophy, it would have logically made more sense for him to show how historical logic operates in a coherent and powerful manner such that it could not be easily dismissed by proponents of historical determinism. Hence, it would have sufficed to show how causation and causes operate in a historical analysis rather than a proving how “historical determinism’’ has a faulty logic, since the fact that there is a deficiency in an opposing logic does not necessarily imply that an alternative logic must be better simply because it does not have that deficiency. The other problem with Carr’s use of the Russian Revolution is his assumption that the supposed currency of the Russian Revolution as a “modern historical’’ problem has greater importance than “older’’ events such as the Norman Con- quest or the American Revolution. Carr believes that there is a greater desire to remember “options’’ still available for a more recently concluded historical event than much older ones. Carr claims that the expression of diverse passions from non-historians makes it hard for them to accept conclusions of a historian who merely recounts an event as it happened (19). Carr does seem to show why “historical determinism’’ is popular, but his analogy does not necessarily prove why “historical determinism’’ is an unhistorical logic. All events eventually get forgotten to certain degrees in which some facts are going to be better known than others, but it is primarily a historian’s scholarly curiosity which determines the importance of a historical event. Since every historian must have different reasons for believing that a historical event is important, the only impediment with regard to time would be the availability or lack of primary sources rather than a poverty of a historian’s imagination or will to realize innovation. “Older’’ events were once “modern’’ and therefore, importance is inherently a subjective standard which arises from the question of how well individuals remember events. People do remember events which are closer to their immediate memories better than older ones in terms of general details, but squabbling over how alternative causes behind an event might have changed the actual outcome is not necessarily the only reason for which a “modern event’’ must be remembered better than an older event. Christopher Columbus died believing that he had discovered “India” instead of the Caribbean, but the fact that the person might engage in a “historically deterministic’’ debate about how the course of history might have been different had Columbus really landed in North America does not necessarily mean that the person would not engage in historical determinism about other historical events, especially if the person has a passionate interest about them. Chronological distance has no definite correlation with interest because the latter is not necessarily dependent on time but rather on this person’s intellectual curiosity regardless of the event’s currency to the immediate present. Furthermore, thinking historically is a capability, not a matter of predilection. Even if that person remembers the IMF Crisis better than Columbus’s discovery of the Caribbean, it does not follow that “unhistorical’’ suppositions such as “if Columbus had set sail for Africa instead, he would have never discovered the Caribbean” are not relevant to historical thinking. A “cause’’ is not some given concept or model; one has to think through a selection of reasons behind an event to determine which reasons were essential and which ones were merely auxiliary or unimportant in precipitating the occurrence of a phenomenon. Counterfactual reasoning can help a historian think through a rationale for why a supposed cause is actually a noteworthy one; the only caution is to only think through counter- factual claims, not write them down as part of the actual historical reasoning. In other words, the clarity of memory does not necessarily lead to more “historically deterministic debates’’ because logical clarity is independent from the question of whether that logic is “historically deterministic.’’ It is perfectly logical to assume that if Columbus had not been adept at sailing when he was young, then he would have not made the voyage to the Caribbean, for one is only thinking about the causal logic of actions in a given situation and time period without describing the historical consequences of those actions. Thinking about historical events does not always have to imply that one is only thinking about history in terms of chronology, for situational logicality is also important to fathom causality in action, which is what gives contextual meaning and significance to time. Moreover, “historical determinism’’ is an attitude about a particular event or a specific set of events for which a different outcome would have been likely had causes been also different from ones which were originally suggested. Why assume that a desire to adopt such an attitude is stronger with a modern event than a more chronologically distant one? The expression of a particular attitude is not necessarily dependent on how new or old an event is, and chronic difference between a historical event and the individual who is remembering the event may vary ac- cording to the individual who decides to remember it. Yet, emotional attachment to a particular event need not inversely relate with chronological distance because reasons for recollection are far too varied to summarize merely as a function of time. As long as “modern’’ is a relative term expressed from the viewpoint of certain individuals and groups, there will be no rigid standard to determine which memories constitute “modern history.” Moreover, if the historian’s task is to select an “ultimate cause’’ of a particular event, how can a historian be so sure that there is an “ultimate cause’’ without ranking a supposedly “historically deterministic’’ cause? The danger of falling into “historical determinism’’ is not a good reason to avoid considering hypothetical claims, because a historian can always change hypotheses into positive statements by searching for relevant primary and secondary sources to test whether or not there is sufficient evidence to prove its validity. The suitability of a historical cause’s use as part of a historical argument is first and foremost dependent on how reliable that cause is. Carr’s other main concern about historical causality is the disturbing use of the concept of “accidents’’ in history as synonymous with the idea of “no causation.’’ The primary example that he uses to illustrate his critique is “Robinson’s accident.’’ Carr gives a hypothetical example of Robinson, who was crossing the street to buy cigarettes but was unexpectedly struck and killed by an oncoming car. However, if the driver was intoxicated, was driving a car with defective brakes, and hit Robinson in a dark alley where barely anything was visible, what was the actual cause of the accident—Robinson, the defective brakes, the dark alley, or the drunk driver? Instead of answering his own inquiry, Carr states that if two passers-by were to give the opinion that Robinson was killed because he was a heavy smoker, and that had he not gone out to buy the cigarettes, there would have been no accident, they would be employing a “kind of remorseless logic found in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.’’ Carr concludes by remarking that such hypothetical reasoning is not a mode of thought appropriate for history (20). The main deficiency he finds in the concept of “accidents’’ is that an “accident’’ is also an historical event. It is therefore subject to a historian’s analysis of preceding causes leading to the occurrence of the accident. In other words, “accidents’’ cannot escape a historian’s scrutiny just because they seemingly occur without any single clear cause. However complex an accident may be, Carr believes that there is still a hierarchy amongst causes behind an accident which allows the historian to discern between primary causes and auxiliary or negligible ones. The historian’s ability to discern “relevant facts’’ from “irrelevant facts’’ until there is a “rational quilt of knowledge,’’ represents an approximation of a historian’s working mind (21).
Unfortunately, Carr does not give a clear answer to the critical question, how does this discernment actually work in practice? There are two ironic errors that Carr commits in telling this narrative. First, despite Carr’s attempt to show why “accidents’’ are still valid elements to consider in historical thinking, he chose the wrong type of example; his example is purely unhistorical. We are only present- ed with a sequence of actions within one ‘historical’ moment rather than several different yet interconnected events across a wide span of time. When historians consider an accident and its causes, they always consider the accident’s relative importance to other events, figures, or conditions. To declare that an event is “historical’’ is to designate a relational quality which suggests that an event has a “historical significance’’ which can describe the event’s relationship or value by connecting with other events, figures, or conditions. If one is ever inclined to declare that a single event alone is historically significant, it can only happen because one presupposes that the event is already well-known because of its relationship with preceding or simultaneous events. For example, from Archduke Ferdinand’s viewpoint, his assassination by Gavrilo Princip was an accident. However, before investigating the causes of the assassination, the historian must establish a rationale to explain why studying the assassination is important. In the case of Archduke Ferdinand, the historian, using a bit of hindsight, can argue that the assassination began a massive wave of violence which rattled across the European continent and ignited the sparks of World War I. By contrast, in Carr’s example, we are not given a reason to believe that studying Robinson’s accident is historically worthwhile. In other words, because Carr did not explain the “historicity’’ of Robinson’s accident, we are not presented with a credible reason to believe that this is a historical event. Carr’s second error is that if we consider Carr’s reason for invoking Robinson’s accident as an example, the example does not illustrate a necessity or method to find multiple causes in historical analysis. If a historian’s prime objective in search- ing for multiple causes is to search for an ultimate cause for a historical phenomenon, then Carr ought to have shown how a historian might approach Robinson’s case as a historical phenomenon. His conclusion that a historian engages selectively with causes is not actually a literal answer to any of his two-part question: 1) How does a historian choose multiple causes? and 2) How does a historian actually select an “ultimate cause’’ from those multiple causes? This is because there is no reason to assume that there must be a single cause for Robinson’s accident at all unless Robinson himself or the driver told the police that there was actually one cause to the accident. Even if the driver had told the police that there was only one cause, it is purely the driver’s own opinion which may or may not be corroborated by other witnesses or circumstantial evidence. From an unassuming observer’s point of view, there is no exact means to verify a sequence of events and pinpoint a singular cause because the observer did not encounter Robinson’s accident in real time along with Robinson. Insofar as this difference between an observer and Robinson exists, there will always be a gulf between speculations and the actual truth. Indeed, because of this gulf, the real moral of Robinson’s accident ought to have been that searching for multiple causes is necessary for a historian to account for every possible explanation of a phenomenon, since the point of finding possible causes of an accident is to establish that an accident can be explained to convince people that the accident can be perceived as an accident. Carr’s argument that one should establish a “hierarchy of causes” implies that there is a particular cause which outranks others in terms of importance. However, there is no such thing as an absolute verification of a truth’s minute details for the historian, unless, very rarely, absolute verification is a necessary condition to prove the soundness of his or her main arguments. A historian is obliged to consider as many aspects of a past event, but no one can know every single detail to get a complete and impeccable picture of an event. The historian has the right to exercise a liberty of imagination based on primary sources and eye-witness accounts, but the historian must also understand that his or her tools to unearth historical facts also delineate the parameters of epistemological certainty. Moreover, Robinson’s example also poses the question of how a historian deter- mines a cause of an accident as an accident, a process that is limited by the quantity and quality of evidence one can find. Since the parameter of what constitutes historical knowledge is bound to change depending on which sources this historian can find, Carr is actually unable to answer the first part of his question. Further- more, because the parameters of knowledge are at the mercy of the availability of historical sources, an attachment to the belief that there must be an ultimate cause is both unrealistic and false, which is why Carr is never able to give a clear answer to the second part of his question. Historical causes are not tangible and therefore cannot be visually compared with each other. Of course, if a historian is writing an autobiography and writes a history of his or her life from what he or she remembers, then, there might be some liberty for the historian to rank causes and choose the ultimate one. In such a case, there is no basis from which another historian can ask why the causes were ranked in one way but not another, because every mind has but one master. The absence of a hierarchy among causes does not imply an absence of certain- ty or that historians ought to be skeptical about everything they encounter. To the
contrary, there are undeniable truths in history such as the Holocaust or Russian pogroms of the 19th century. Rather, acknowledging a multiplicity of causes al- lows for a holistic consideration of multiple dimensions of a historical event from which causal explanations can be drawn, which actually prevents a historian from engaging in “historical determinism.” If the objective of studying a historical event is, as Carr claims, to search for one cause with absolute explanatory power, then the historian is actually engaging in ‘historical determinism’ because such an objective reflects the idea’s actual essence. Hence, Carr’s opposition to “historical determinism,’’ which was precisely because he believed in the multiplicity of causes, does not logically follow from invoking Robinson’s example. Furthermore, the witnesses in Robinson’s accident were actually reflecting Carr’s faith in the multiplicity of causes, so the next task was for Carr to show how he could select his ‘ultimate cause’ for explaining why Robinson died. Instead, Carr vaguely suggests that the historian has to be selective about his causes without explaining the end to which this selectivity has value. Hence, Robinson’s example is actually a Straw Man argument because the original purpose for which the example was mentioned does not become clear until Carr supplies a rationale for justifying a hierarchy of causes. As for how and why the hierarchy fundamentally exists, Carr never gives a clear answer. Therefore, Robinson’s death merely illustrates an argument about an element which is not extant in any of Carr’s arguments prior to his discussion of Robinson’s death.
5. Three Central Problems with Carr’s Methodology in “Causation in History’’ In this concluding section, I will identify three central problems with Carr’s method which will serve as a summary of this paper’s main arguments. First, Carr’s notion of a hierarchy of causes and its importance in historical explanation is unfortunately quite nebulous because he never specifies the purpose be- hind the existence of the hierarchy, ignoring the true function of historical causes as a form of scientific processing. Second, Carr’s distinction between “rational” and “accidental” causes is not valid because regardless of an event’s nature, multiple causes are necessary to account for inherent complexities in any historical event and such causes ultimately serve as evidence for a historian’s claim, which means that the more causes a historian can find, the more reliable and believable a historian’s account becomes. On the one hand, multiple causes are necessary to describe different facets of a phenomenon; a historian will summarize his or her main arguments to show readers how those facets constitute the “wholeness’’ of a historical fact. On the other hand, there needs to be a multiplicity in the kinds of causal analysis a historian uses to approximately position arguments within a given subfield of History. Finally, Carr is wrong to suggest that causes determine a historian’s interpretation because the former is just a means for which the historian has the freedom to determine an end. Causes are merely building blocks with which a historian constructs an independently designed interpretation. With regard to Carr’s questions about how a historian chooses multiple causes and selects an “ultimate cause” among them, I argue that the only certainty a historian can have comes from ascertaining that the nature of a cause aligns with the field in which it must be accurately used. When a historian asks the question, ‘Why was Archduke Ferdinand assassinated?’ the historian implicitly means that, in general, he or she is looking for political causes specifically related to nationalist motivations behind the assassination and its impact on the outbreak of World War I, rather than cultural or social causes behind the rise of nationalism in a general sense. An argument can be made that such distinctions can be interchangeable, since Gavrilo Princip’s association with the Black Hand was a culturally motivated expression of a desire to express Serbian nationalism. However, “political’’ and “cultural’’ cannot be so liberally applied in an interchangeable manner because they are merely generic labels conceived under the assumption that historians and the general public know that such a distinction can exist. A historian may find out that Gavrilo Princip preferred Serbian circuses to Austrian ones, but one does not use this cultural fact to describe anything with sufficient certainty about Princip’s personal decision to assassinate Ferdinand, even if there is nothing mentioned in primary sources about it. The transformation of a fact into a cause is actually a fixed relationship, in which a fact can become a cause, but a cause alone can never become a fact. The historian’s designation of an occurrence as a cause reflects a personal belief that an element within a historical figure’s character or a historical event has some reasonable degree of explanatory power. History is, in general, filled with facts, but it is the conditional possibility of several facts turning into believable causes of a historical phenomenon which truly excites the historian. Causes are essentially facts whose relationship amongst themselves and the phenomenon which they wish to explain is firmly and convincingly established by a rich array of primary sources. Facts which hardly need any source-based proof are not likely to become causes because they are generic and mundane enough to be independent of any historical situation. In short, what Carr really means by “a hierarchy of causes’’ is that not all causes are created equal. The real problem is that Carr never really demonstrated what a hierarchy of causes is. While it may not be possible to definitively identify which types of causes matter more than others, Carr ought to have at least shown how a hierarchy among causes can be conceived. Yet, the real heart of the matter is that Carr could not actually show his audience that a hierarchy among causes exists because there is no singular standard of a “hierarchy,’’ other than what a scholar perceives through a meticulous reading of the relevant historical literature. That Carr could not provide a concrete hierarchy strongly suggests the impossibility of doing so because different hierarchies of causation matter for different subfields of History. Movement of capital, markets, and industrial structure in the early 18th century matter more as direct causes be- hind the Industrial Revolution than as causes behind the death of the Avant Garde in the late 20th century. The difference in subfields also translates to differences in particular “states of the field,” or the variance in the levels of academic discourse about various historical topics, leading to different developments in varying facets of historical inquiry. The nature of primary or secondary sources a historian must search for necessarily depends on the questions the historian wishes to answer in relation to how certain historical topics have been addressed in the existing scholarly literature. In other words, a search for primary or secondary sources is a dependent variable of “current’’ historical scholarship because the main function of amassing historical information is to facilitate a productive and meaningful scholarly debate. This debate, in turn, will invite future generations of historians to construct new angles and roads along which the debate must continue. Moreover, because proving causality in historical analysis can only be done through a meticulous examination of primary and secondary sources, it follows that the richness in illustrating historical causality is dependent on the availability of sources. In short, ascribing a strict sense of a hierarchical notion of historical causality is impossible because of three main variables: multiple causes and multiplicity in the kinds of causes, a rigid relationship between facts and causes, in which only the former can transform into the latter, and finally, differences in subfields and varying conditions in historiography, which imply that a historian must pragmatically conceive of a hierarchy of causes which reflects the availability of primary and secondary sources and their ability to cogently deliver a progressive view or methodological contribution to the existing scholarship. The second major problem with Carr’s method is his misconstrued distinction between “rational’’ and “accidental’’ causes. An “accidental’’ cause is a misnomer because no cause can arise without a reason. Even the most unexpected events have clear causes because searching for causation is essentially identical to search- ing for reasonable connections previously ignored or overlooked. Furthermore, if Carr himself acknowledged that ‘accidental’ causes need to undergo strict academic scrutiny as much as “rational’’ causes, then what he really means is that a scholar must have the same approach and attitude toward “accidental’’ causes as he or she has toward “rational’’ or normal causes. Yet, Carr does not illustrate how a historian actually investigates “rational’’ causes because he is interested in comparing “accidental’’ causes with “rational’’ ones rather than demonstrating how a historian uses each type of cause to con- struct a historical analysis or make an observation. In practice, Carr did not have to make a distinction between the two causes. A historian can propose rational explanations for supposedly accidental causes, and once this is done, there is no difference between “rational’’ and “accidental’’ causes. I will illustrate my point by comparing Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon as a “rational’’ event, and Pierre Curie’s carriage accident as a literally “accidental’’ event. I will show how these two events deserve equally serious scholarly attention because they all involve the same process of investigation, regardless of an event’s nature. Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon would be a rational event because the crossing itself is a “reasonable’’ action in that a man mounted on horseback can cross a river because he has the will and means to do so. Such an action can be expected, for regardless of what the Roman Senate thought, Caesar only had two choices: defy the Senate by crossing the river or obey the Senate and let them limit his actions. Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon was not “surprising’’ as an action in itself; neither would the decision not to cross be surprising, unless Caesar somehow died for reasons unrelated to the crossing. By contrast, Pierre Curie’s carriage accident is not a rational event because the exact circumstances are open to much speculation. We do not know so many de- tails about how Marie Curie’s husband died, but it would hardly matter whether the driver of the carriage or Pierre Curie was drunk or whether Curie was jogging when the driver lost control of the carriage and hit Curie at break-neck speed. What remains true independent from causes is that it was an accident because neither Curie nor the driver would have expected to run into each other, for they were no mutual acquaintances. According to Carr, the rationality of a cause does not affect its historical investigation, making both “rational” and “accidental” causes garner the same approach. Although Carr never defines what a “rational’’ event is, since human beings are responsible for creating events, it follows that what is rational is what can be expected within the realm of reasonable human behavior and thought. If the primary function of historical causes is to explain why a phenomenon, regardless of its nature, occurred, then identifying how an accident became an accident is in itself an explanation, no matter how unexpected or unforeseeable the accident must have been to the people involved in it. However, regardless of how much we know or do not know about Caesar or Pierre Curie, the principles of research remain identical. A historian must first amass all records on the crossing of the Rubicon and Pierre Curie’s accident, gather any witness testimonies to corroborate on controversial or obscure aspects of each case, perform a theoretical analysis of causes and speculations, and finally, arrive at reasonable conclusions based on the existing evidence. The rationality of the research process which is common to both events is what makes a study of the two events rational, for the nature of an event does not necessarily reflect or dictate the nature of the means with which one ought to study each event. If accidents, like rational events, also have causes, then Carr ought to have shown how “accidents’’ could be considered the antithesis of rational events. An accident is unexpected, but is not irrational, for every cause of an accident is borne from actions which the individuals involved consider rational. If two speeding cars collide, it could be an accident borne from the drivers’ disregard for the speed limit, or from one driver’s inebriation. Still regardless of whether it is due to mis- handling the car or personal flaws, none of the causes are irrational. Disregarding the speed limit or drinking heavily may have been a mistake, but neither of these activities are incapable of having a logic ascribed to them, for a historian can still argue that committing these mistakes, regardless of their severity, contributed to the occurrence of the accident. Insofar as all actions have causes and motives in their creation, the historian is obliged to study them with an eye towards collecting all relevant facts, an action unrelated to how rational or irrational a historical event may seem. It is because, as I argued through the example of Caesar crossing the Rubicon and Pierre Curie’s accident, no elements are beyond the reasonably expected scope of human behavior. Regardless of whether an event was planned or turned out to be an accident, what remains constant in both cases is that there are various actions a person can take at a particular time, and every action will have a distinct set of reasons. Carr’s distinction between rational and “irrational’’ causes is therefore, a faulty comparison, for there is no clear reason given to believe that accidents are inherently “irrational,’’ and because historians can also surmise about causes behind accidents insofar as accidents are human-induced events. The final point of this paper is that a historian’s personal selection of causes does not dictate a singular direction of interpretation. Establishing causation and providing interpretation are independently creative activities conjoined by the necessity to give coherence to a historian’s general argument. Carr seems to believe that a historian is reflecting private opinions through a selection of causes, but the selection is only the means to the ultimate end-to generate a unique interpretation which does not necessarily reflect what the causes themselves have to say about a topic. Causes in and of themselves reflect no emotions; until the historian judges the causes to be positive or negative in nature in relation to the argument he or she wants to make from the causes, causes are merely guidelines and building blocks to the overall argument which gives the essential structure to the historian’s logic. Causes merely reflect a historian’s judgment about a possibility in believing that a phenomenon happened in one direction. The real essence of the historian’s argument lies in what the historian thinks about the phenomenon, not the causes. The historian’s attention must not be limited to understanding how a car’s assembly line malfunctioned, but be extended to observe how the car as a finished product qualitatively suffers as a result of faults in the assembly line. Carr’s argument about causes might be feasible if a historian is trying to find out the causes behind a historical tragedy, but even in this case, the historian’s real argument is about proving one can see that it was a tragedy. For example, if the sinking of the Titanic was truly due to a crash into an iceberg, and a historian proves that indeed it was so, the moral of the research is not just that “a ship hit an iceberg and sank.” Rather, the moral is that because of this linkage, one can conclude that it was a terrible accident and a tragedy. Even if a historian should conclude with identifying the iceberg as the cause of the tragedy, the identification of the cause does not dictate the interpretation of the phenomenon because interpretation is not about identifying what or why something happened. Instead, interpretation is concerned with what one should observe from the structure of a historical phenomenon that emerges from identifying the cause behind the phenomenon. Identifying causes alone does not make the study of History interesting; one needs to show how causes function to produce original observations about a holistic phenomenon that emerges from showing a causal relationship between or within a series of linked phenomena. Once a general picture of a historical phenomenon emerges, every historian can have a glimpse into how the phenomenon got concluded, no matter how many diverse facts about it are unearthed. Yet, the most interesting question in historical research is not what happened, but how an event unfolded to produce a particular result. In answering “how,’’ every historian is bound to focus on diverse and specific causes to explain the general outcome. Most historians will not focus on what the importance of a particular cause is simply by analyzing the cause in its own terms but on what that cause means in relation to a web of other multiple causes. Furthermore, since a cause is but one element in a historian’s interpretation of relations between phenomena; what are termed “causes’’ were actually phenomena happening in real time for historical actors. Therefore, the originality of historical interpretation does not arise simply from cherry-picking elements from a single phenomenon to serve as “causes’’ but in linking multiple phenomena into one grand narrative. In creating this grand narrative, the historian’s goal is to show how the phenomena relate to each other, and therefore to produce an original view about how to understand the relationship. What Carr’s arguments do show is that a search for causes and causation is worthwhile because every historical cause originally begins from ascertaining historical facts, which in turn, helps a historian discover and rationally explain new discoveries. Moreover, historical causes need to delineate boundaries between various subfields in History to assure that each field employs appropriate causes which best explain a phenomenon under scrutiny. Furthermore, a proper search for historical causation must not engage in a distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘accidental’ causes because all causes are valuable insofar as they serve the primary function of explaining what happened and why an event occurred. Insofar as the historian’s duty to tell the true sequence of actions behind an event remains valid for all rational or accidental incidents, a historian must concentrate on finding causes to fulfill a cause’s fundamental purpose. Finally, causes are building blocks to facilitate an original and interesting interpretation of a historical event, but causes alone do not possess the power to determine the entire direction of an interpretation. An incisive eye for finding accurate explanations must combine with a historian’s unique imagination and vision to recreate a believable “image’’ of a reality that corresponds closely to the truth which the historian found. The combination can only come about smoothly if a discovery of causes and an original analysis of the significance of the discovery are independent and not concurrent activities of an inquisitive scholarly mind. A respect for a cause’s individuality that is distinct from a historical fact, a respect for a cause’s explanatory prowess rather than its rational or accidental nature, and a separation between the discovery and interpretation of causes are essential to the pursuit of History as a rigorous, liberal, and original science.
1 Bernard Barber, “Review of What is History? by Edward Hallett Carr,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 68, No. 2 (September, 1962), 260-262; Seymour Itzkoff, “Review of What is History? by Edward Hallett Carr,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (June, 1962), 132-134; Jacob Price, “Review of What is History?: The George-Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, January-March 1961 by Edward Hallett Carr,” History and Theory, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1963), 136-145; Patrick Gardiner, “Review of What Is History? by E. H. Carr,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 73, No. 4 (October, 1964), 557-559. 2 Aviezer Tucker, “Causation in Historiography,” in Aviezer Tucker ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 101. 3 Ann Frazier, “The Criterion of Historical Knowledge,” Journal of Thought, Vol. 11, No. 1 (January, 1976), 66-67. 4 Geoffrey Partington, “Relativism, Objectivity, and Moral Judgment,” Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2 (June, 1979), 125-139. 5 Ann Talbot, “Chance and Necessity in History: E. H. Carr and Leon Trotsky Compared,” Historical Social Research, Vol. 34, No. 3 (2009), 95.
6 Edward Hallett Ibid (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961), 116.
7 Carr, What is History?, 117.
8 Ibid, 121-122. 9 Ibid, 122-123. 10 Ibid, 126.
11 Ibid, 133.
12 Ibid, 137.
13 Ibid, 134.
14 Ibid, 135.
15 Ibid, 141.
16 Ibid, 142.
17 Ibid, 143.
18 Ibid, 127.
19 Ibid, 136.
20 Ibid, 138. In the actual passage, he calls it the “Dodgsonian mode” after the author of Through the Looking Glass.
21 Ibid, 136.
References Barber, Bernard, “Review of What is History? by Edward Hallett Carr,” American Journal
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Education Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (June, 1962), 132-134. Partington, Geoffrey, “Relativism, Objectivity, and Moral Judgment,” British Journal of
Educational Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2 (June, 1979), 125-139. Price, Jacob, “Review of What is History?: The George-Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures
Delivered in the University of Cambridge, January-March 1961 by Edward Hallett
Carr,” History and Theory, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1963), 136-145. Talbot, Ann, “Chance and Necessity in History: E. H. Carr and Leon Trotsky
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