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The Concept of Historical Individuality
The Ultimate Given of History
The human search for knowledge cannot go on endlessly. Inevitably, sooner or later, it will reach a point beyond which it cannot proceed. It will then be faced with an ultimate given, a datum that man’s reason cannot trace back to other data. In the course of the evolution of knowledge, science has succeeded in tracing back to other data some things and events which previously had been viewed as ultimate. We may expect that this will also occur in the future. But there will always remain something that is for the human mind an ultimate given, unanalyzable and irreducible. Human reason cannot even conceive a kind of knowledge that would not encounter such an insurmountable obstacle. There is for man no such thing as omniscience.
In dealing with such ultimate data, history refers to individuality. The characteristics of individual men, their ideas and judgments of value as well as the actions guided by those ideas and judgments, cannot be traced back to something of which they would be the derivatives. There is no answer to the question why Frederick II invaded Silesia except: because he was Frederick II. It is customary, although not very expedient, to call the mental process by means of which a datum is traced back to other data rational. Then an ultimate datum is called irrational. No historical research can be thought of that would not ultimately meet such irrational facts.
Philosophies of history claim to avoid referring to individuality and irrationality. They pretend to provide a thorough-going interpretation of all historical events. What they really do is relegate the ultimate given to two points of their scheme, to its supposed beginning and its supposed end. They assume that there is at the start of history an unanalyzable and irreducible agency, for example Geist [spirit] in the system of Hegel or the material productive forces in that of Marx. And they further assume that this prime mover of history aims at a definite end, also unanalyzable and irreducible, for instance the Prussian state of about 1825 or socialism. Whatever one may think about the various systems of philosophy of history, it is obvious that they do not eliminate reference to individuality and irrationality. They merely shift it to another point of their interpretation.
Materialism wants to throw history overboard entirely. All ideas and actions should be explained as the necessary outcome of definite physiological processes. But this would not make it possible to reject any reference to irrationality. Like history, the natural sciences are ultimately faced with some data defying any further reduction to other data, that is, with something ultimately given.
The Role of the Individual in History
In the context of a philosophy of history there is no room left for any reference to individuality other than that of the prime mover and his plan determining the way events must go. All individual men are merely tools in the hand of ineluctable destiny. Whatever they may do, the outcome of their actions must necessarily fit into the preordained plan of Providence.
What would have happened if Lieutenant Napoleon Bonaparte had been killed in action at Toulon? Friedrich Engels knew the answer: “Another would have filled the place.” For “the man has always been found as soon as he became necessary.”1 Necessary for whom and for what purpose? Obviously for the material productive forces to bring about, at a later date, socialism. It seems that the material productive forces always have a substitute at hand, just as a cautious opera manager has an understudy ready to sing the tenor’s part in case the star should catch a cold. If Shakespeare had died in infancy, another man would have written Hamlet and the Sonnets. But, some people ask, how did this surrogate while away his time since Shakespeare’s good health relieved him from this chore?
The issue has been purposely obfuscated by the champions of historical necessity, who confused it with other problems.
Looking backward upon the past, the historian must say that, all conditions having been as they were, everything that happened was inevitable. At any instant the state of affairs was the necessary consequence of the immediately preceding state. But among the elements determining any given state of historical affairs there are factors that cannot be traced back further than to the point at which the historian is faced with the ideas and actions of individuals.
When the historian says that the French Revolution of 1789 would not have happened if some things had been different, he is merely trying to establish the forces that brought about the event and the influence of each of these forces. Taine did not indulge in idle speculations as to what would have happened if the doctrines that he called l’esprit revolutionnaire and l’esprit classique had not been developed. He wanted to assign to each of them its relevance in the chain of events that resulted in the outbreak and the course of the Revolution.2
A second confusion concerns the limits drawn upon the influence of great men. Simplified accounts of history, adapted to the capacity of people slow of comprehension, have presented history as a product of the feats of great men. The older Hohenzollern made Prussia, Bismarck made the Second Reich, William II ruined it, Hitler made and ruined the Third Reich. No serious historian ever shared in such nonsense. It has never been contested that the part played even by the greatest figures of history was much more moderate. Every man, whether great or small, lives and acts within the frame of his age’s historical circumstances. These circumstances are determined by all the ideas and events of the preceding ages as well as by those of his own age. The Titan may outweigh each of his contemporaries; he is no match for the united forces of the dwarfs. A statesman can succeed only insofar as his plans are adjusted to the climate of opinion of his time, that is to the ideas that have got hold of his fellows’ minds. He can become a leader only if he is prepared to guide people along the paths they want to walk and toward the goal they want to attain. A statesman who antagonizes public opinion is doomed to failure. No matter whether he is an autocrat or an officer of a democracy, the politician must give the people what they wish to get, very much as a businessman must supply the customers with the things they wish to acquire.
It is different with the pioneers of new ways of thinking and new modes of art and literature. The pathbreaker who disdains the applause he may get from the crowd of his contemporaries does not depend on his own age’s ideas. He is free to say with Schiller’s Marquis Posa: “This century is not ripe for my ideas; I live as a citizen of centuries to come.” The genius’ work too is embedded in the sequence of historical events, is conditioned by the achievements of preceding generations, and is merely a chapter in the evolution of ideas. But it adds something new and unheard of to the treasure of thoughts and may in this sense be called creative. The genuine history of mankind is the history of ideas. It is ideas that distinguish man from all other beings. Ideas engender social institutions, political changes, technological methods of production, and all that is called economic conditions. And in searching for their origin we inevitably come to a point at which all that can be asserted is that a man had an idea. Whether the name of this man is known or not is of secondary importance.
This is the meaning that history attaches to the notion of individuality. Ideas are the ultimate given of historical inquiry. All that can be said about ideas is that they came to pass. The historian may point out how a new idea fitted into the ideas developed by earlier generations and how it may be considered a continuation of these ideas and their logical sequel. New ideas do not originate in an ideological vacuum. They are called forth by the previously existing ideological structure; they are the response offered by a man’s mind to the ideas developed by his predecessors. But it is an arbitrary surmise to assume that they were bound to come and that if A had not generated them a certain B or C would have performed the job.
In this sense what the limitations of our knowledge induce us to call chance plays a part in history. If Aristotle had died in childhood, intellectual history would have been affected. If Bismarck had died in 1860, world affairs would have taken a different course. To what extent and with what consequences nobody can know.
The Chimera of the Group Mind
In their eagerness to eliminate from history any reference to individuals and individual events, collectivist authors resorted to a chimerical construction, the group mind or social mind.
At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries German philologists began to study German medieval poetry, which had long since fallen into oblivion. Most of the epics they edited from old manuscripts were imitations of French works. The names of their authors—most of them knightly warriors in the service of dukes or counts—were known. These epics were not much to boast of. But there were two epics of a quite different character, genuinely original works of high literary value, far surpassing the conventional products of the courtiers: the Nibelungenlied and the Gudrun. The former is one of the great books of world literature and undoubtedly the outstanding poem Germany produced before the days of Goethe and Schiller. The names of the authors of these masterpieces were not handed down to posterity. Perhaps the poets belonged to the class of professional entertainers (Spielleute), who not only were snubbed by the nobility but had to endure mortifying legal disabilities. Perhaps they were heretical or Jewish, and the clergy was eager to make people forget them. At any rate the philologists called these two works “people’s epics” (Volksepen). This term suggested to naïve minds the idea that they were written not by individual authors but by the “people.” The same mythical authorship was attributed to popular songs (Volkslieder) whose authors were unknown.
Again in Germany, in the years following the Napoleonic wars, the problem of comprehensive legislative codification was brought up for discussion. In this controversy the historical school of jurisprudence, led by Savigny, denied the competence of any age and any persons to write legislation. Like the Volksepen and the Volkslieder, a nation’s laws, they declared, are a spontaneous emanation of the Volksgeist, the nation’s spirit and peculiar character. Genuine laws are not arbitrarily written by legislators; they spring up and thrive organically from the Volksgeist.
This Volksgeist doctrine was devised in Germany as a conscious reaction against the ideas of natural law and the “un-German” spirit of the French Revolution. But it was further developed and elevated to the dignity of a comprehensive social doctrine by the French positivists, many of whom not only were committed to the principles of the most radical among the revolutionary leaders but aimed at completing the “unfinished revolution” by a violent overthrow of the capitalistic mode of production. Émile Durkheim and his school deal with the group mind as if it were a real phenomenon, a distinct agency, thinking and acting. As they see it, not individuals but the group is the subject of history.
As a corrective of these fancies the truism must be stressed that only individuals think and act. In dealing with the thoughts and actions of individuals the historian establishes the fact that some individuals influence one another in their thinking and acting more strongly than they influence and are influenced by other individuals. He observes that cooperation and division of labor exist among some, while existing to a lesser extent or not at all among others. He employs the term “group” to signify an aggregation of individuals who cooperate together more closely. However, the distinction of groups is optional. The group is not an ontological entity like the biological species. The various group concepts intersect one another. The historian chooses, according to the special plan of his studies, the features and attributes that determine the classification of individuals into various groups. The grouping may integrate people speaking the same language or professing the same religion or practicing the same vocation or occupation or descended from the same ancestry. The group concept of Gobineau was different from that of Marx. In short, the group concept is an ideal type and as such is derived from the historian’s understanding of the historical forces and events.
Only individuals think and act. Each individual’s thinking and acting are influenced by his fellows’ thinking and acting. These influences are variegated. The individual American’s thoughts and conduct cannot be interpreted if one assigns him to a single group. He is not only an American but a member of a definite religious group or an agnostic or an atheist; he has a job, he belongs to a political party, he is affected by traditions inherited from his ancestors and conveyed to him by his upbringing, by the family, the school, the neighborhood, by the ideas prevailing in his town, state, and country. It is an enormous simplification to speak of the American mind. Every American has his own mind. It is absurd to ascribe any achievements and virtues or any misdeeds and vices of individual Americans to America as such.
Most people are common men. They do not have thoughts of their own; they are only receptive. They do not create new ideas; they repeat what they have heard and imitate what they have seen. If the world were peopled only by such as these, there would not be any change and any history. What produces change is new ideas and actions guided by them. What distinguishes one group from another is the effect of such innovations. These innovations are not accomplished by a group mind; they are always the achievements of individuals. What makes the American people different from any other people is the joint effect produced by the thoughts and actions of innumerable uncommon Americans.
We know the names of the men who invented and step by step perfected the motorcar. A historian can write a detailed history of the evolution of the automobile. We do not know the names of the men who, in the beginnings of civilization, made the greatest inventions—for example lighting a fire. But this ignorance does not permit us to ascribe this fundamental invention to a group mind. It is always an individual who starts a new method of doing things, and then other people imitate his example. Customs and fashions have always been inaugurated by individuals and spread through imitation by other people.
While the group-mind school tried to eliminate the individual by ascribing activity to the mythical Volksgeist, the Marxians were intent on the one hand upon depreciating the individual’s contribution and on the other hand upon crediting innovations to common men. Thus Marx observed that a critical history of technology would demonstrate that none of the eighteenth century’s inventions was the achievement of a single individual.1 What does this prove? Nobody denies that technological progress is a gradual process, a chain of successive steps performed by long lines of men each of whom adds something to the accomplishments of his predecessors. The history of every technological contrivance, when completely told, leads back to the most primitive inventions made by cave dwellers in the earliest ages of mankind. To choose any later starting point is an arbitrary restriction of the whole tale. One may begin a history of wireless telegraphy with Maxwell and Hertz, but one may as well go back to the first experiments with electricity or to any previous technological feats that had necessarily to precede the construction of a radio network. All this does not in the least affect the truth that each step forward was made by an individual and not by some mythical impersonal agency. It does not detract from the contributions of Maxwell, Hertz, and Marconi to admit that they could be made only because others had previously made other contributions.
To illustrate the difference between the innovator and the dull crowd of routinists who cannot even imagine that any improvement is possible, we need only refer to a passage in Engels’ most famous book.2 Here, in 1878, Engels apodictically announced that military weapons are “now so perfected that no further progress of any revolutionizing influence is any longer possible.” Henceforth “all further [technological] progress is by and large indifferent for land warfare. The age of evolution is in this regard essentially closed.”3 This complacent conclusion shows in what the achievement of the innovator consists: he accomplishes what other people believe to be unthinkable and unfeasible.
Engels, who considered himself an expert in the art of warfare, liked to exemplify his doctrines by referring to strategy and tactics. Changes in military tactics, he declared, are not brought about by ingenious army leaders. They are achievements of privates who are usually cleverer than their officers. The privates invent them by dint of their instincts (instinktmässig) and put them into operation in spite of the reluctance of their commanders.4
Every doctrine denying to the “single paltry individual”5 any role in history must finally ascribe changes and improvements to the operation of instincts. As those upholding such doctrines see it, man is an animal that has the instinct to produce poems, cathedrals, and airplanes. Civilization is the result of an unconscious and unpremeditated reaction of man to external stimuli. Each achievement is the automatic creation of an instinct with which man has been endowed especially for this purpose. There are as many instincts as there are human achievements. It is needless to enter into a critical examination of this fable invented by impotent people for slighting the achievements of better men and appealing to the resentment of the dull. Even on the basis of this makeshift doctrine, one cannot negate the distinction between the man who had the instinct to write the book On the Origin of Species and those who lacked this instinct.
Individuals act in order to bring about definite results. Whether they succeed or not depends on the suitability of the means applied and the response their actions encounter on the part of fellow individuals. Very often the outcome of an action differs considerably from what the actor was eager to achieve. The margin within which a man, however great, can act successfully is narrow. No man can through his actions direct the course of affairs for more than a comparatively short period of the future, still less for all time to come.
Yet every action adds something to history, affects the course of future events, and is in this sense a historical fact. The most trivial performance of daily routine by dull people is no less a historical datum than is the most startling innovation of the genius. The aggregate of the unvarying repetition of traditional modes of acting determines, as habits, customs and mores, the course of events. The common man’s historical role consists in contributing a particle to the structure of the tremendous power of consuetude.
History is made by men. The conscious intentional actions of individuals, great and small, determine the course of events insofar as it is the result of the interaction of all men. But the historical process is not designed by individuals. It is the composite outcome of the intentional actions of all individuals. No man can plan history. All he can plan and try to put into effect is his own actions which, jointly with the actions of other men, constitute the historical process. The Pilgrim Fathers did not plan to found the United States.
Of course, there have always been men who planned for eternity. For the most part the failure of their designs appeared very soon. Sometimes their constructions lasted quite a while, but their effect was not what the builders had planned. The monumental tombs of the Egyptian kings still exist, but it was not the intention of their builders to make modern Egypt attractive for tourists and to supply present-day museums with mummies. Nothing demonstrates more emphatically the temporal limitations on human planning than the venerable ruins scattered about the surface of the earth.
Ideas live longer than walls and other material artifacts. We still enjoy the masterpieces of the poetry and philosophy of ancient India and Greece. But they do not mean for us what they meant to their authors. We may wonder whether Plato and Aristotle would have approved of the use later ages have made of their thoughts.
Planning for eternity, to substitute an everlasting state of stability, rigidity, and changelessness for historical evolution, is the theme of a special class of literature. The utopian author wants to arrange future conditions according to his own ideas and to deprive the rest of mankind once and for all of the faculty to choose and to act. One plan alone, viz., the author’s plan, should be executed and all other people be silenced. The author, and after his death his successor, will henceforth alone determine the course of events. There will no longer be any history, as history is the composite effect of the interaction of all men. The superhuman dictator will rule the universe and reduce all other people to pawns in his plans. He will deal with them as the engineer deals with the raw materials out of which he builds, a method pertinently called social engineering.
Such projects are very popular nowadays. They enrapture the intellectuals. A few skeptics observe that their execution is contrary to human nature. But their supporters are confident that by suppressing all dissenters they can alter human nature. Then people will be as happy as the ants are supposed to be in their hills.
The essential question is: Will all men be prepared to yield to the dictator? Will nobody have the ambition to contest his supremacy? Will nobody develop ideas at variance with those underlying the dictator’s plan? Will all men, after thousands of years of “anarchy” in thinking and acting, tacitly submit to the tyranny of one or a few despots?
It is possible that in a few years all nations will have adopted the system of all-round planning and totalitarian regimentation. The number of opponents is very small, and their direct political influence almost nil. But even a victory of planning will not mean the end of history. Atrocious wars among the candidates for the supreme office will break out. Totalitarianism may wipe out civilization, even the whole of the human race. Then, of course, history will have come to its end too.
[1 ]Letter to Starkenburg, Jan. 25, 1894, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Correspondence 1846–1895 (London, M. Lawrence, Ltd., 1934), p. 518.
[2 ]Taine, Les Origines de la France contemporaine, 1, Bk. III (16th ed. Paris, 1887), pp. 221–328.
[1 ]Das Kapital, 1, 335, n. 89.
[2 ]Engels’s Herr Eugen Dührings Revolution in Science (Anti-Dühring), (London, Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd., 1934).
[3 ]Ibid., p. 191. “[T]he weapons used have reached such a stage of perfection that further progress which would have any revolutionising [sic] influence is no longer possible.”
[4 ]Ibid., p. 193. “And we have seen in case after case how advances in technique, as soon as they became usable in the military sphere and in fact were so used, immediately and almost violently produced changes in the methods of warfare and indeed revolutionized them, often even against the will of the army command.”
[5 ]Engels, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staates (6th ed. Stuttgart, 1894), p. 186.