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HISTORICAL CONTINGENCY

Yemima Ben-Menahem
Abstract
The paper provides a new characterization of the concepts of
necessity and contingency as they should be used in the historical
context. The idea is that contingency (necessity) increases in
direct (reverse) proportion to sensitivity to initial conditions. The
merits of this suggestion are that it avoids the conflation of causal-
ity and necessity (or contingency and chance), that it enables the
bracketing of the problem of free will while maintaining the
concept of human action making a difference, that it sanctions
tendencies without recourse to teleology, and that it recasts the
controversy between historicists and anti-historicists in less
dogmatic language.
Philosophers and logicians often make use of the distinction
between necessary and contingent truth. A common way of
distinguishing the two notions is by means of possible world
terminology. A statement is a necessary truth if it is true in all
possible worlds, and contingent otherwise. The historian has
little use for that distinction the truths she is after are clearly
not true in all possible worlds, that is, they are contingent in the
logical sense of the term. And yet, it seems quite natural to say of
a historical event, a defeat for instance, that it was necessary,
inevitable, etc., or, by contrast, that it was unnecessary, could have
been prevented and so on. It might also be of some historical
interest to find out which of the two descriptions of the defeat is
more plausible. But if all historical truths are contingent in the
logical sense, what do we mean in this context by the distinction
between the necessary and the contingent? One possibility is that
this is just a careless use of language, that the distinction has no
real content in the historical context. Another is that while these
terms lack cognitive content, they are used intentionally for
rhetorical or other pragmatic purposes. For example, we may
present the defeat as inevitable when we do not want it to harm
the reputation of the commander. A third possibility is that neces-
sity and contingency should be understood in terms of the
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notions of causality and chance: on this suggestion, the view that
the defeat was necessary actually means that it was caused, or
predetermined by other events, whereas the view that it was
contingent regards it as a random event. Although both careless-
ness and rhetoric figure amply in human speech, and although
the notions of chance and causality have been used interchange-
ably with contingency and necessity (respectively) by some writ-
ers, I find neither of these replies fully satisfactory. In what
follows I draw the distinction between the necessary and the
contingent in terms of the degree of sensitivity to initial condi-
tions, and argue that this characterization captures the meaning
of these notions in historical discourse.
We tend to speak of necessity when we think that what
happened had to happen, and of contingency when we think
things could have happened differently. My suggestion is to
understand this contrast as follows: what we mean by necessity is
that the same type of final outcome results from a variety of
different causal chains. In the extreme case, all possible chains
(possible, say, in terms of the laws of nature and certain initial
conditions) lead to the same type of result. For example, we may
think of death as necessary in this sense since a wide variety of
possible courses of life ultimately lead to death, and, so far as we
know, there is no possible path that does not. Similarly, thermo-
dynamic equilibrium will follow from a wide variety of initial
conditions, and under certain circumstances it will follow no
matter what the initial conditions. But it is perfectly acceptable to
speak of degrees of necessity with reference to less extreme cases,
as long as the final outcome is relatively insensitive both to initial
conditions and to potentially disruptive intervening events. In
this type of case, the result seems necessary to some degree, since
even were the earlier conditions different, and even were addi-
tional factors to have intervened in the causal process, the
process would probably still have resulted in the same kind of
outcome. We can say, for example, that quarrels between couples
are virtually necessary in the sense that there are many different
courses of events that lead to quarrelling, even if there is no
reason to think that all possible courses in fact do so. In contrast,
a type of outcome is contingent if there is only one course, or at
most, a few courses, that could possibly lead to it, and there is
sensitivity to initial conditions and intervening factors. Returning
to our defeat, when we say it was unavoidable, we mean that it
would have occurred even if the commander had used different
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tactics, the weather had been different and so on. If, on the other
hand, we are of the opinion that these, and many other factors
could indeed have changed the course of the battle, we see the
defeat as contingent. Note that the distinction here is not that
between causality and chance, since in both cases the defeat is
the result of a causal process. Speculations about how history
might have differed had Cleopatras nose been longer vividly
illustrate this sense of contingency.
Schematically, we can represent the difference between the
two cases in the following way:
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Contingency: Necessity:
Similar causes lead Different types of causes
to different types of effects lead to similar effects.
High sensitivity to initial Low sensitivity to initial
conditions. conditions.
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On this view, contingency (necessity) varies in magnitude: the


greater (smaller) the sensitivity to initial conditions, the greater
the degree of contingency (necessity). Chaotic phenomena
provide radical examples of such sensitivity. Where such phenom-
ena are concerned, the slightest change in initial conditions can
bring about a drastic change in outcome. In meteorology, one of
the first fields to apply chaos theory, this phenomena is known as
the butterfly effect a butterfly flapping its wings in Jerusalem can
cause a hurricane in Florida. Such chaotic phenomena (deter-
ministic chaos) illustrate a failure of predictability without failure
of causality. Identical causes have identical effects, but similar
causes do not, in general, have similar effects. Moreover, monot-
ony breaks down: if C is an initial state between initial states A and
B, (say, a velocity between initial velocities A and B, or a popula-
tion whose size lies between the sizes of two populations A and B
etc.), it does not follow that the effect of C will lie between the
effect of A and the effect of B. The sensitivity of historical events
to initial conditions may or may not be as radical as that of chaotic
phenomena, but it can certainly be very significant -- if he only
managed to get two hours of sleep, one might say of our comman-
der, the defeat could have been prevented. In such cases it is easy
to understand the intuition that outcomes that actually happened
didnt have to happen. Of course, if the initial conditions them-
selves are necessary effects of earlier circumstances, the situation
becomes more complex. Also, where large ensembles of systems
are concerned, we might find a large degree of overall necessity
due to the law of large numbers, but a low degree of necessity at
the level of individual events. Evidently, one has to consider many
more possibilities then the simple paradigmatic ones. But in both
simple and complex cases, I suggest, sensitivity to initial condi-
tions is the primary consideration underlying the common
distinction between the necessary and the contingent.
There are, in my view, several merits to this suggestion.
(a) Unlike the logical terms, contingency and necessity as here
defined are not binary either-or concepts, but span a spectrum of
possibilities. This suits the needs of the historian as she wishes not
only to classify occurrences into contingent and necessary ones,
but to compare degrees of stability, or degrees of sensitivity to
unexpected interference and so on. She might, for example,
want to say that a regime was initially much more stable than in
later years, when a relatively minor problem, such as a drought,
could have caused a revolution.
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(b) Contingency and necessity turn out to be quite different
concepts than chance and causality. As we saw we can get a high
degree of contingency in a perfectly deterministic process, so
causality does not entail necessity. On the other hand, a causal
chain may be interrupted by a random event without altering the
final result in cases where the process is insensitive to such inter-
ruption. It might be argued that historical explanation would
cease to be meaningful in the total absence of causality. It is
therefore an advantage that contingency as here understood
does not constitute a threat to either causality or explicability. In
general, both the category of chance and causality, and that of
contingency and necessity, can be relevant to the analysis of
historical processes; what I wish to emphasize is that neither of
them can be reduced to the other.
In the literature, there is a pronounced tendency to conflate
the concepts of chance and contingency. E. H. Carr attacks what
he calls the trap of Cleopatras nose i.e. the idea that chance
plays a significant role in history. He maintains, correctly in my
view, that Cleopatras nose, Trotskis cold, and other such famous
incidental factors, provide no support whatever for the claim that
history is a random progression of events. Had he used the above
notion of contingency, however, he could have been clearer
about the source of the confusion. The above examples illustrate
contingency rather than randomness, that is, they represent a
special type of causal connection, not the lack thereof.
1
Isaiah
Berlins seminal Historical Inevitability is another example of
the tendency to interchange causality and necessity.
2
Aspiring to
create space for contingency and free human action, Berlin crit-
icises the notion of historical necessity. He believes that the erro-
neous use of historical inevitability is rooted in the desire to
emulate the natural sciences and thereby accord history the
elevated status of these sciences. As he takes the concept of neces-
sity to be synonymous with that of being governed by law, Berlin is
assuming that paradigmatic scientific explanations require the
concept of necessity. On the definition of necessity I have put
forward, however, not every law-governed process is a necessary
one, and typically, explanations in the natural sciences are law-like
but not necessary. Berlin himself favours explanations that focus
on contingent factors, but errs in identifying contingency with the
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1
Carr, E. H. What is History?, (London: Macmillan, 1961), Chapter 4.
2
In: Berlin, I., Four Essays on Liberty, (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).
absence of causality. I share his preference of the contingent, but
decline his analysis of the concepts involved.
(c) Another advantage is that on the suggested understanding
of contingency, we can capture the intuition of human action
making a difference without actually taking sides in the tradi-
tional free will controversy. Note that both the libertarian and the
determinist may be interested in whether a certain action or
event is necessary or contingent. For even if an action is free in
the libertarian sense, this makes no difference to the general
course of events unless it actually leads to a different result than
would otherwise have ensued, that is, unless it is part of a contin-
gent rather than a necessary causal chain. On the other hand, an
action can be predetermined, or free only in the compatibilist
sense, and still make a difference to the course of history. It
seems to me, therefore, that it is useful to bracket the traditional
problem of free will at this point. The possibility of making a
difference is historically relevant regardless of whether we are
determinists or libertarians, and of whether we are able to
provide an adequate characterization of the notion of freedom. I
believe it is primarily the notion of making a difference, rather
than the more problematic notion of freedom that is required for
the assessment of the significance of human action in history.
(d) Teleological explanations have come to be seen as highly
problematic. Considering the notion of necessity as defined here,
we may observe that a mistaken impression of teleology is occa-
sionally created by a non-teleological, causal progression, mani-
festing a high degree of necessity. When a certain state or event
will occur regardless of initial conditions or interferences, we are
tempted to think of the process as being directed toward that
particular state or event. This, however could be an illusion
resulting from a false analogy with goal-directed human action.
In the natural sciences, alleged teleology has been systematically
replaced by non-teleological descriptions, often involving the
kind of necessity we have noted. Thus, rather than conceiving of
a thermodynamic system as directed towards a certain final state
of disorder, or of entropy as a physical magnitude manifesting an
inherent tendency to increase, we represent the equilibrium, the
disordered state, or the state of high entropy, as relatively stable
with regard to initial conditions and perturbations. The same
strategy of explaining away apparent teleology might be useful in
the historical context.
(e) Finally, the present characterization is pleasantly non-meta-
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physical, pertaining more to various familiar types of processes
than to over-arching hypotheses of grand design. Since sensitivity
to initial conditions varies from one process to another, there is
no reason to assume that any one of the categories will suffice for
historical understanding; both of them can be employed as the
case requires. Philosophers of history have been divided over the
question of whether it is necessity or contingency which is the
fundamental historical category. Historicists such as Hegel and
Marx and anti-historicists such as Berlin and Foucault exemplify
polar positions. The above considerations enable one to adopt a
more balanced attitude towards this problem.
I would like to illustrate the adequacy of the above characteri-
zation by applying it to the concept of contingency as used in a
recent work on the theory of evolution. Stephen Jay Goulds
Wonderful Life is an argument against teleology, and a plea for the
acknowledgement of the contingent.
3
The book tells a fascinating
story of scientific error the misinterpretation of the paleonto-
logical findings from the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rocky
Mountains. The Burgess Shale was the site of the discovery, in
1909, by geologist Charles Doolittle Walcott, of a paleontological
treasure trove: most paleontologists agree that the population of
organisms found there represents a uniquely important evolu-
tionary period that which followed the mysterious Cambrian
Explosion. They estimate its age at 530 million years. Walcott
represented the Burgess organisms as ancestral forms of animal
life found today; that is, on his interpretation, these primitive
organisms belong to phyla to which present-day animals belong.
This interpretation meshes well with the traditional view of evolu-
tion, which construes the development of animal life as conelike:
as proceeding from a single vertex to an increasingly broad and
diverge range of species. On this conception, earlier branches
are less-developed ancestral forms of later, more complex
branches. In the 1960s, however, a closer look at the Burgess
Shale findings led to a revolutionary conclusion -- in contradic-
tion to the original assessment, many of the Burgess specimens
appear to be fossils of organisms that have no living evolutionary
descendants. Indeed, some 15 to 20 different organisms, individ-
uated from each other by their respective structural features,
represent phyla which have no progeny alive today. In other
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3
London: Penguin Books, 1991.
words, the great majority of early life-forms were completely elim-
inated; the relatively few survivors diversified into species with
contemporary descendants. There is no reason to assume that
the organisms which survived were the most highly developed.
At first sight this does not appear to be such a novel thesis. The
main philosophical conclusion that follows from Darwins theory
is that the adaptation of organisms to their environments does
not require teleological explanation; non-teleological causality
and chance suffice to account for it. But it seems that the teleo-
logical model is so firmly entrenched that while it has been super-
seded in terms of scientific theory, it remains influential in
practice. Evolution is still perceived as one of linear develop-
ment, with homo sapiens as its most advanced product. Gould
cites examples of ubiquitous distortions of the theory of evolu-
tion, which reintroduce teleological notions such as the march
of progress.
According to Gould, adoption of the erroneous paradigm,
perhaps unconsciously, led directly to Walcotts mistake, for the
cone model is explicitly directional: the present is more varie-
gated and complex than the past. Overwhelmed by this model,
Walcott failed to appreciate the wide structural diversity among
the organisms he discovered. The reinterpretation of the Burgess
Shale findings made it clear that the linear picture is false: not
only is the biological present not the product of a teleological
process, it is not even inevitable. Indeed, it is remarkably contin-
gent.
Although Gould is mainly concerned with the long-term
history of life on the planet, he does draw some overall conclu-
sions as to the nature of history in the usual sense. The polar cate-
gories of necessity and sheer chance, he claims, leave no room for
human intervention in the course of events. To us, thinking indi-
viduals who seek to shape our lives through our actions, contin-
gency is the most relevant category. Gould does not provide us
with a definition of contingency, but his imagery is suggestive.
The Burgess Shale organisms provide concrete evidence of the
possibility of a totally different natural kingdom.
4
If there were
some way to replay the tape of evolution, Gould says, the
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4
Naturally, if we had reason to believe that the selection process that determined
which of the Burgess creatures would survive was itself necessary, we would not perceive
the evolutionary process as a whole as contingent. But Gould says no such reasons have
yet been produced.
outcome would be entirely different. This metaphor, then, serves
to graphically illustrate the characterization of contingency I
have recommended.
To conclude, let us note that the concepts of contingency and
necessity as here defined find many other interesting applica-
tions in the history of science. For quite some time, the no
choice perspective was the reigning explanation in this field.
Science was likened to a highway: though it is already paved, we,
here and now, do not know its course past the upcoming bend.
This picture is characteristic of the necessitarian view. However,
most of the work in the history of science in the past few decades
has abandoned this approach in favour of the opposite picture,
which stresses the myriad interchanges, by-passes and side roads
that confront, and perhaps confound, the wayfarer: the contin-
gent elements in science as we know it today. Clarifying the
notions of contingency and necessity should facilitate a better
understanding of this change of perspective.
Department of Philosophy
The Hebrew University
Mt. Scopus
Jerusalem
Israel
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