Ernest Belfort Bax

Problems of Mind
and Morals

Chapter II
The Problem of History and Methods for Its Solution

HISTORY means the content of past social reality. We may either treat this content descriptively, endeavouring to reproduce in mental imagery the reality of the past, its life and action, or we may search out the general laws of historical change and development, irrespective of concrete time or place; or we may combine the two methods in taking history in the concrete, the history of a given country, or people, or period; or universal history, understanding by this the evolution of progressive humanity from the beginnings of civilisation in Western Asia and Egypt up to the present time, and connect the phantasmagoria of particular events, incidents, and persons with the abstract laws on which all history is based. The present inquiry deals with history in the second and third senses mentioned, the senses usually understood by the phrase, the Philosophy of History.

Now it behoves us to consider on what the possibility of these two ways of treating history ultimately rests. The laws determining the historical development we find embedded as part of the reality of history. But what strikes the eye at first sight is, not the laws but the phantasmagoria itself, the events, incidents, and personalities – in a word, the phenomena of history. Now the infinite phenomena of history, the play of incidents and personalities, taken in their totality, are irreducible to law, i.e. to any formulation based on the causal category. This is shown by the impossibility of foretelling concrete events. The action of any law is constant, ex hypothesi, and can be foretold with accuracy. But it is only where a law not merely enters into, but absolutely dominates, a concrete situation, that the issue of that situation can be foreseen with any approach to accuracy, which is certainly not the case with human history. In a word, this phenomenal element in history is the domain of the antithesis of law (i.e. of the formulable causal relation) – is the domain of what we call chance. We have then two primary elements in history, the general or universal trend of things in their several departments, economical, political, intellectual, and we have the particular things themselves persons, incidents, events – constituting the material in and through which the causal relations, or laws of historical change, manifest themselves. The particular phenomena of history often modify, suspend, or deflect the law as given in its universal formula, and, although the law may, in the long run, rehabilitate itself, it is usually the chance element, the play of individual character, fortuitous incident, etc., which seems to dominate history in any determinate period, limited geographical area, or ethnical section of the human race. Our ultimate antithesis of history then is that between the particular events and persons constituting its raw material and the universal tendencies expressed in what we call its laws, i.e. the determination of the causal category governing its movement.

But traversing this fundamental abstract antithesis is a more concrete one. We may discover in the historical process two sides, the unconscious and the conscious, or the material and the psychological, as we may choose to term it. History may either be treated from the point of view of the conscious process as determining the unconscious, or the unconscious process as determining the conscious. We may either view the course of man’s conceptions and beliefs, etc., as conditioning the course of the material facts of his life and the development of his environment, or we may regard the material facts of his life as determining his ideas, beliefs, and general mental constitution. History, until quite recently, was invariably written on the basis of the former hypothesis. The late Lord Acton, even, had no hesitation in propounding it as though it were a self-evident truth. The tendency is now, on the contrary, to regard the material environment as either wholly, or mainly, conditioning the ideological (as it is sometimes called) side of human life and social development. There is a third view possible as regards this problem, and that is, to conceive the unconscious and the conscious process as reciprocally determining each other. On this view neither is the cause of the other, but each, at once, determines, and is determined by, the other. The latter is, I take it, the true and scientific view. But, even here, it can hardly be denied that the unconscious factor, the material conditions of life, has, up to the present time, had a certain priority over the conscious factor. The modes of the production of wealth, which have shaped social life on its material side, have, hitherto, on the whole, more directly influenced habits of thought and the conscious will of men than ideas and habits of thought have influenced material progress.

The tendency is for the conscious element of human life more and more to acquire that determinative power which formerly accrued to the unconscious. External circumstances have, moreover, hitherto often determined, not merely the relations of men, but also their ideas of those relations, and have even modified their conceptions of the meaning of reality in general. Yet, admitting thus much, on the one side, not only do we notice, at present, an increasing influence of the conscious will of man in modifying his environment, but in no past phase of the history of civilisation is progress entirely reducible to an unconscious factor: understanding by this a factor outside the psychological element in human life. Side by side with the series of material causation, there is always a parallel series of psychical causation, and either could be viewed in the abstract as relatively independent of the other.

This is especially noticeable in certain sides of intellectual development – the history of speculative opinion, for example, where we can distinctly trace the evolution from one idea to another, apart from all direct external influence. We can follow one system of conception developing into its successor without any direct modification from outside. The order is purely psychological considered per se. Similarly, on the other hand, in economical evolution we can often trace a chain of cause and effect due to the force of circumstances, apparently without any essential intervention of the human mind. But viewing the historical movement as a whole, we can see that its reality consists in the mutual determination of its two sides. One-sided causation, as between the unconscious physical surroundings and conditions of social life and the human intelligence and will as such, no more obtains than does the one-sided determination of physical conditions by the intelligently directed will of man. Each is at once limited by, and limits the other. Conscious will cannot effect change without the co-operation of the unconscious forces constituting its environment. The unconscious forces, though they may destroy a given society, it is equally clear, cannot effect evolutionary changes in it without the co-operation of intelligent will as embodied in certain, at least, of its members. It is only a question of which factor is predominant in any given case.

But there are, again, still more concrete antitheses which an analysis of human development presents to us. These we may term dynamic antitheses. History implies the organic movement of human society, with its economical, political, juridical, its intellectual, ethical, emotional, aesthetic sides. Now the question imposes itself what is the most basal antithesis underlying the whole progress of social life and manifesting itself in all these departments? The most salient antithesis of this dynamic kind, the one which dominates all others in the development of social life from the dawn of history (or, which is the same thing, from the dawn of civilisation), seems to the present writer to be that between the individual and the community into which he enters. There are, of course, as remarked, other antitheses – there is the antithesis of race in its widest sense, there is the great economic antithesis of civilisation issuing in the struggle of classes.

These antitheses seem deep-lying, but however deep-lying they may be in the very constitution of society itself, as exhibited in the evolution of civilised man in his present state, they are not so deep-lying as the antithesis of the Individual considered, on the one hand, as per se, and, on the other, as the constituent merely of that larger whole, the Community. The entire course of history shows us the struggle of the individual to emancipate himself from that close and organic union with some social whole, be it clan, tribe, people, or what not, that characterised pre-civilised and pre-historic humanity. In the earlier periods of civilisation and, indeed, till a considerable advance has taken place, the individual is still over-shadowed in importance by the community, finally in the form of the patriarchal family at one end, and the city-state at the other.

Last of all the general, industrial, and economic development, together with its accompanying intellectual development, severs the individual from his social group and from the community, as such, and converts him into an independent self-subsistent entity. At the other extreme, the State, becoming ever more impersonal and mechanical and extending itself over ever-increasing areas of population, assumes the function of the government of men, at the same time gradually undermining and destroying the administrative functions and powers of the social groups, kinship, and otherwise, of the earlier world. This relation of the individual to the community, determined, as it is, by the general current of social evolution, we contend then to be the most salient and the most deep-lying relation in historical development. Let us now consider, for a moment, the two other pairs of antitheses also, that of higher and lower race and of possessing and non-possessing class, the latter of which, at least, is of supreme importance. Let us take, first of all, the antithetic relation of higher race to lower race.

There are some historical thinkers who would base the movement of history, or, otherwise expressed, the progress of civilisation, upon the antagonism of colour or race. Thus it has been argued that the condition of the rise of civilisation out of barbarism is the duality of an intellectually and physically superior dominant race and an inferior dominated race, and the gradual fusion of the two. But whatever part difference of colour or of race may have played in history, I think a very little reflection will show it is impossible to regard the racial or colour relation as in any way an ultimate one. For one thing, such an assumption begs the question as to the real origin of racial difference. It might be argued that such difference is itself traceable to deeper-lying economic or climatic causes, and hence was in no wise an original element in social change. The second of the antitheses, that between economic interests within the social organism resulting in the class struggle of the more developed phases of civilisation is, without doubt, more far-reaching and more fundamental than the last mentioned, and on it, in conjunction with the technical development of industrial processes, is based the doctrine of the economic interpretation of history of Marx and Engels. But while conceding the immense range of explanation which the opposition of economic interests is capable of affording us in matters historical, there are, unquestionably, regions in human affairs of which it cannot exhaust the explanation, even in its most extended sense. On the other hand, the clash of economic interests can, in most cases, be very obviously treated as a special manifestation of the antagonism between individual and community, resulting from the efforts of the former to emancipate itself from its organic union with the latter. One thing is clear, and that is, that history viewed as a synthetic development of society has, as its mainspring, the rise of oppositions issuing from irreconcilable contradictions, in their turn manifesting themselves as antagonisms within the social synthesis itself. That this is so, I say, is clear, whatever view we may take as to the special contradiction, the special antithesis, which we are to regard as the turning-point of the whole process of history.

In pre-historic society the principle of contradiction, and hence of antagonism, lay outside the society itself. The primitive kinship-group and its offshoots had no principle of internal opposition in so far, at least, as it was free and independent; it had no contradiction of interest within itself. It was opposed as a social whole to similar social wholes, to similar kinship societies, outside itself. Hence the origin of war. This external opposition, or contradiction, was, at this stage, the only opposition of interest that it knew. With the rise and progress of civilisation, opposition, contradiction, and hence antagonism arose within the social organism itself. And it is this principle of internal contradiction and antagonism that constitutes the lever of historical movement and progress.

We have now to consider what we mean by Reality as applied to history, namely, in what sense we are to regard history as real, considered as a concrete series of events, in a concrete system of social life. Now, how shall the content of the past be represented? What constitutes a true presentment of history as opposed to a true understanding of history? To obtain a true presentment of any period of history we should, of course, have to identify the content of our consciousness with the content of a consciousness of a past age. This is what the historical imagination endeavours to attain. But such reconstruction as the historical imagination by means of research and archaeological lore can effect, must obviously remain, in its total result, an artificial product, since its correspondence with fact cannot be controlled by a reference to the living reality. And, again, the living reality itself is different, according to the facet from which it is regarded. Each individual lives in his own world, albeit that world at once conditions and is conditioned by the conception which enters into it of the general world of the time. And this constitutes another difficulty of reproducing any image of a past age, whether in the form of descriptive historical narrative or of pure romance. We merely call attention to this point here (although it is susceptible of not unfruitful elaboration), since it does not directly concern the subject-matter of the present essay. We are here concerned with historical truth from the standpoint of the understanding of history, not with the attempted reproduction in imagination of the content of the past in our present-day minds, which is the province of the historiographer and of the historical romancist. The reproduction of the past in this latter sense, we may observe, is a matter of feeling and, to a large extent, immediate intuition. [1] The aim of all historical narrative and historical romance should be, through the medium of picture-writing, to do this in its own way.

But what we are here concerned with, we repeat, is not the reproduction of the past in terms of feeling, but its interpretation in terms of thought. We are concerned with the endeavour to pluck out the heart of history’s meaning and present it in the formulae of abstract reflection. Attempting in this way to reconstruct history, we take as our guide that antithesis, that particular pair of opposites, discoverable in the realisation of historical progress, which seems the most fundamental, understanding by this that opposition to which others are to the greatest extent reducible. Now this opposition or antithesis, which embraces within itself more than any other single opposition traceable in the evolution of society, would seem to be, as already pointed out, the opposition between the Individual and the Community. This relation of the Individual to the Community, as a relation, seems as nearly as possible the central one in the historical movement.

The freeing of the individual from the bonds uniting him with his community, in early pre-historic society so closely knit as to constitute him a mere element, so to say, a cell in the tissue of that society itself, became, under various guises and in various subsidiary forms, the battle-ground of human progress during the historical period. The aim of the individual was to constitute himself a self-contained, independent entity, his relations to society to be reduced, as far as possible, to such as were necessary for protection against other individuals. This tendency has persistently maintained itself as a crucial one throughout the whole historical period. It is before all things traceable in the economic development of society, but scarcely less so in its intellectual development. Political and social conflicts have usually turned upon this question as their raison d’être, whatever form they may have more immediately taken on. Alike in the production and distribution of material wealth, in the political ordering of society, in social custom, in philosophical speculation, and in theological belief, we find this crucial antithesis asserting itself.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard this relation of Individual and Community, deep-lying though it may be in the structure of historical movement and historical reality, as what the Germans would call a Schablone, i.e. as a magic formula with which to conjure all other relations, or a procrustean bed into which the facts have to be fitted. Pedantry of this kind always vitiates the conclusions of historical investigation. The object of the Philosophy of History is to find formulae for the laws, or causal processes, underlying the reality of history. But these causal relations do not exhaust, or even suffice to explain, the whole of historical reality. They are, at best, universal forms persisting throughout history. The whole particular element, constituting the life of history, the phantasmagoria of actual things, events, and persons, cannot be absorbed by them without remainder over. The alogical element maintains itself stubbornly over against the logical. But even regarding the theoretical element per se, it may fairly be doubted whether it is possible to find a formula that shall cover all causal relations that disclose themselves on analysis. What is claimed for the relation of Individual and Community is, that it is the most persistent, the most salient relation in history, not that history cannot be regarded from other points of view which traverse more or less the lines of this relation, and hence which cannot always be satisfactorily expressed in its terms, taken by themselves.

It may be well now to summarise the results of the preliminary investigation we have been engaged upon. The reality of history, we have found, consists of two elements: (1) the element of causal relation giving us the universal laws, the general trend of historic evolution; and (2) the infinite mass of facts, incidents, and personalities constituting the particular element at the basis of these laws, the material which the causal form presupposes. Hence it is that any theory of history must necessarily be in a sense a dead abstraction. No theory of history, no formula defining the laws dominating the sequence of historical phenomena, can adequately explain the life of a society considered as a living whole. The meaning of history, as presented in any theory of history, is hence never more than approximative.

But beyond the above primary distinction of factors in the content of historical reality, we have seen that within social life itself, viewed concretely, we can distinguish two aspects: (1) the material aspect of material surroundings, modes of the production and distribution of wealth, ways of life, etc.; and (2) the ideal side as represented by the reaction of the human mind and will upon its environment. The causal efficacy may accrue to either of these sides, or to both, in conjunction. In any given situation or in any given period, either may be predominant. There are certain periods in which the material, especially the economic development, determines the whole social content of that period. It suffices, in the main, to explain even the intellectual, emotional, and moral characteristics of those periods. There are, again, other periods when the course of social life and the current of progress seem determined by an ideal, a belief. In truth, however, there is always an interaction between these two sides. Each, undoubtedly, has its own line of causation up to a certain point, though in the long run, in the total result, their co-operation is manifest. But traversing these fundamental antitheses we have sought for an antithesis, operative throughout the entire historical period, which should afford us some sort of clue to the special forms progressively assumed by the life of human society during the course of history, and should hence indicate to us a necessary, a universal form, in which human society develops. Some have found this cardinal historical relation in the racial antithesis, that of higher and lower race. In the conflicts and the fusions of such races they believe themselves to have discovered the key to the development from pre-historic barbarism to historic civilisation, and therewith the impulse and the direction of all subsequent changes. Others, again, with much greater reason on their side, would find the clue to those specific forms, material, intellectual, and moral, which society has assumed at different epochs, in the economical side of social life, i.e. in the material conditions of the epoch in question. According to this view, therefore, the causes of every form of social life are discoverable in technical development, but also and chiefly in the antagonism and the resulting conflict of classes, which, arising within the economic sphere, leaves its impress throughout the entire range of social life, even in departments seemingly most remote from economic interests.

The inadequacy of the first of the theories mentioned is, I think, fairly obvious, more particularly since, as already remarked, it is open to the criticism that racial and colour differences themselves are not necessarily inherent from the beginning, but may themselves be traceable to differences of environment lying far back in pre-historic time. As regards the second theory, every advance in anthropological and historical research tends to show, more and more, the enormous measure of truth contained in it. The chief criticism to which it is susceptible, as hitherto formulated, turns upon its one-sidedness. Its advocates, too often, handle it as a Schablone, a magic key to unlock every secret and solve every problem in the development of human life and thought. They, as a rule, entirely ignore the independent action of the mental life, no less than the reaction of the mental life on the development and modification of its environment. According to the so-called “materialist doctrine of history,” the whole content of the mental life is determined solely by economic conditions and by the class struggles arising out of them. This is a point, however, which requires to be discussed at greater length than is here possible, and to which we, therefore, merely refer in passing. The above, then, however unequal in point of merit, are, I think, the two leading standpoints as regards this problem.

For our part we would trace even the last-named antithesis, that of classes having their origin in economic relations of private property-holding, down to a deeper antithesis still, namely, the antithesis of Individual and Community as such. This antithesis, which evolves in the fulness of time into the opposition of Individualism and Socialism, would seem the fountain-head whence spring those very class conflicts themselves which have rent society from within throughout the whole historical period. The most salient intellectual tendencies in history may, in the main, also be interpreted in terms of the foregoing antithesis.

Besides the general laws of historical evolution deducible from the antagonism latent within these leading antitheses we have mentioned, there are numerous empirical laws which it is difficult to reduce to any comprehensive principle in the present state of historical thought. These laws, or apparent laws, are discoverable by a mere method of induction from the facts of history. As yet, however, the collation, the sifting, of the facts and the assignment of the true values of the respective relations they present to us – in other words, the systematic study of the past – has not advanced far enough to allow us to view these empirical laws in their just proportions, or in their bearing on those wider principles already discussed. For the reduction of history to the simplest formula, or formula, to which in the nature of things it is capable of being reduced, a much greater amount of spade work has to be accomplished than has yet been done. When greater advances are made in this respect, we may hope, with reason, to acquire an insight that will enable us to view these empirical generalisations as special applications of the larger principles in question. We have, of course, in all cases to deal with the special difficulty attendant on all theorising in the domain of history, namely, the want of precision that all attempts to reduce historical reality to a definite formula have to contend with. The alogical element in the manifold phenomena of history is more difficult to bring under the definiteness of a thought-formula with success than in the case of any other department of the real world. The extreme concreteness of human society as compared with these other more abstract departments of science, as has been indicated by Comte and other thinkers, though from a different point of view, has rendered human society the last department of reality amenable to scientific treatment.

After all, considered not merely from the point of view of the totality or, if you will, of the infinity of things, but even from that of the existence of man on the earth, the span of the filled content of time that we call history is little more than infinitesimal. Yet, infinitesimal though it be as compared with other real contents of time and space, yet it none the less contains infinity, infinite multiplicity within itself. This point of the “infinitely little” in history is, seldom, properly realised, even by scholars and thinkers, and not at all by the world at large. History, to the mind of the world at large, even including the average educated man, is little more than a loose congeries of symbols. Every epoch, every connection of events appears to his mind merely in an abstract symbolical form. And this is not merely confined to the ordinary man. We all of us, in looking back upon history, have present to our minds ideas which are in truth mere symbols. The difference between the scholar or thinker and ordinary man, in this respect, is that the former recognises the fact that his ideas of history are mere symbols, whereas the latter does not. These symbols often express the reality of history about as much as a roughly sketched map does a landscape. The limitless multiplicity of detail, an insight into which alone brings us nearer to the life and reality of the past, is unsuspected by the intelligence of the average citizen. Even to the scholar and thinker, the insight spoken of belongs, in any positive degree, seldom to more than a limited portion of history – limited, that is, as regards time, or space, or both. For the rest, he also has to be content with the usual symbolic conceptions.

What the detail, the “infinitely little,” in history really means may be realised by a consideration of the constitution of the small fraction of contemporary life which comes under the direct consciousness of any given person. Every country, every district, every city or village, every street, every family, every social circle has its sequence of events partly its own and partly not its own, as touching and modifying the larger life at certain points. It is too often forgotten or, at least, is not explicitly apprehended, that every moment of the historical past embraces such complexity of detail as this. We speak of Augustus, of Charlemagne, of Napoleon as marking epochs, but do we adequately apprehend that every obscure town, say in Asia Minor, in the reign of Augustus, every manor of the time of Charlemagne, every countryside of the time of Napoleon, had each its own life and contemporary history, with its persons and events, trivial daily rounds, etc., just as we have to-day in a suburb of twentieth-century London? Does, I ask, any average educated man realise this? Yet it is this, the particular, the infinitely little, in history, which in the historical concepts of the average man is not merely, as is natural, subordinated to the essential features of the historical movement, but is completely absent. In the mind of the ordinary man the landmarks of history obtain in the form of blurred and colourless images, symbolic concepts of leading events and leading figures, and that is all. That every period has a life of its own, with all the infinite minutiae of which all life mainly consists, though the fact would, of course, be admitted formally by everyone if challenged in so many words, is truly apprehended, at most, by a few historical thinkers. This difficulty in the imaginative reproduction of history is, in itself, a fruitful cause of misconception, arising from the failure to take into account in their relative proportion the forces that give their direction to the main currents of history.



1. One of the most remarkable instances of this reproduction of the atmosphere of a past age in the art of the present is to be found in Wagner’s Meistersinger. We feel, in some inexplicable way, that the music brings us in contact with the consciousness of the late mediaeval German city. We feel that it touches in us some nerve in our consciousness that reawakens an echo of the consciousness of that remote time.


Last updated on 12.10.2004