Historical Sciences and "Great Man" Approaches to History

Guest blogger Daniel Nolan writes...

I'm interested in philosophy of history, and convinced that there should be interesting parallels between the philosophy of history and the philosophy of the historical sciences. So what I'll try to do in this post is try to draw one connection: I think there are debates to be had in the historical sciences analogous to those about so-called "great man" approaches to history: and reflecting on those analogies can be illuminating, especially for the debate in its original home in history. I'll use the label "historical sciences" for a cluster of disciplines in the sciences with past events as a significant part of their subject matter: geology, evolutionary biology, palaeontology, archaeology and astronomy, among others. I will leave history out of the "historical sciences", not to pick any substantive fights about history's place in human inquiry, but just because I'll be contrasting history with some of the others.

"Great Man" history, to give the caricature, is history focused on the deeds of particularly outstanding and influential individuals: kings, emperors, inventors, etc. (The "Man" in the label is kept intentionally, even in these more gender-neutral times, since the parade of historically central individuals was overwhelmingly men. A few women enter the history, such as Elizabeth I or Cleopatra or Marie Curie, but, according to this caricature, they stand out as exceptions.) The suggestion is that the Great Men are centrally important to the course of history, and their deeds can be invoked to explain many general features of historical societies. To understand the Roman Empire one must study Julius Ceasar and Augustus, to understand the Holy Roman Empire one must study Charlemagne and the Ottonians and the Hapsburgs, to understand twentieth century physics one must study Kelvin and Einstein... and so on. Great Man History, or GMH as I will abbreviate it, would not claim the deeds of the great are the only matter of historical interest or the only drivers of historical change, but that they are among the central matters of history.

Great Men of History?

Great Men of History?

There is much to dislike in a Great Man style of history. It neglects a range of fascinating and important historical processes and topics: the economic and cultural systems of historical societies; the lives of the "little people" of history, including most slaves, most women, most lower-class men, and so on; and changes in society due to the spread of humble innovations or demographic changes.  As well as these sins of omission, it risks committing sins of commission, attributing large changes in societies to a handful of notable individuals and events, rather than the actions of the many: as if inventors were the only agents of technological change, or generals the only people who fought in wars. Arguably, the oligarchy of the Roman Republic was due to be replaced by the rule of individual monarchs with direct control over the army regardless of who won which battle: it was due to structural pressures in the state as a whole, not the genius of Julius Caesar or Augustus.

Everyone else...

Everyone else...

Some criticisms go beyond these (by now) relatively uncontroversial points. It is possible to go further and maintain that the doings of these supposedly Great Men is next to irrelevant to historical inquiry, or are perhaps best used only as illustrations and mnemonics of significant historical information. There are two broad ways to this conclusion. One is by arguing that the so-called Great Men in fact make little or no difference, and have only a very small effect on outcomes. (After all, everyone acts in a social network, and perhaps any particular node in that network might behave much the same regardless of who happens to be in it.) The other is to argue that, as a matter of principle, historical inquiry is, or ought to be, concerned primarily with general historical trends or processes or developments. If that is so about the aim and subject matter of history, the idiosyncratic behaviour of individuals may be distracting or even confusing.  Who the various monarchs were during the development of merchant capitalism in Italy is no more relevant to the goals of history than what time of day experiments were carried out matters to physics.  Call the rejection of GMH on either of these two grounds a strong rejection of GMH.

I think these more extreme rejections of GMH go too far: and, as it happens, I think our historical inquiries should have room for the doings of "Great Men" (and women, and children, etc.), on the grounds that it is plausible that social structures that give a great deal of power and influence to individuals are likely to give rise to influential actions of those individuals. And by "power" and "influence" I do not just mean political or economic power: the practices of seventeenth century science in Europe meant that someone doing the work Isaac Newton did could shape physics for generations, for example, and so it would not be surprising if physics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would have gone very differently without him. I doubt that history ought only to concern itself with generalities, but even if it does some of the influences of Newton look general enough to be worthy of historical notice. (At one stage there was a thought that history ought to primarily aim at maximally general "laws of history" on pain of being unscientific. If that's what it takes to be scientific, history should happily embrace the label of non-science. A lot of the disciplines in science faculties should probably count as non-sciences by this criterion too.)

Those who are tempted by either of the strong rejections of GMH are unlikely to be convinced by pointing at a few cases of the alleged impact of historical individuals. So let us look at what a few analogous debates might look like in the historical sciences. (I think there are other analogous debates we could look at, but I will pick one for reasons of space.)

Direct analogies in the historical sciences would be cases where individual entities of the sort a science is investigating make a difference and so are worthy of individual attention in those theories.  For example, if a single individual animal or plant makes a difference to evolutionary biology or palaeontology; or a single formation makes a difference for geology; and so on. By "make a difference" here I do not mean so much that it makes a difference to our evidence about what happened: a single fossil can tell us about a new species, or a single coin can tell us something archeologically significant. Instead "making a difference" here should be a matter of making a significant difference to what in fact happened in the past.

A broader analogy would be with the question whether the historical sciences should concern themselves with the influence of particular events or individuals at all, or whether it should focus only on general patterns and processes. (Again, as a matter of evidence particular rock formations or fossils or archaeological finds might need to be significant: but should this always in the service of general conclusions about the past?)

Questions about what scientific inquiries should be like are not settled straight away by observations about how they in fact are: bad science gets done as well as good science, after all. But it seems like a reasonable working assumption to take science that is hailed as successful as in fact being science done well, especially if it has held up as being considered good science over time. (Being considered good science is not the same as being considered correct.) By that standard, it is easy to find cases where the influence of individual specific objects and events are of interest to the historical sciences. Leaving aside some notable individual objects with continuing influences, such as the Sun or the Earth or the Moon, one of the most notable events in the geological and paleontological record is the K-T extinction, and the story of the K-T extinction has a particular historical object at its centre: the Chicxulub Asteroid. (see here for an animation of the impact).

The K-T extinction at the end of the Cretaceous is probably the most famous of the great extinction events of Earth's history, involving as it did the mass-extinction of about three-quarters of the then-existing species and (probably) the extinction of all the remaining non-avian dinosaurs. It is an exceptionally important event in palaeontology and to some extent evolutionary biology, and indirectly to geology, at least insofar as dating rocks by the presence of fossils is part of the task of geology, and not just a source of evidence borrowed from palaeontology. The Chicxulub Asteroid takes centre stage in most contemporary understandings of the K-T extinction event because it is the impact of this enormous asteroid, and the climactic effects of the material blasted into the atmosphere by it, that seems to have been responsible for the extinction. Exactly how, and what other factors played a significant role, are still controversial questions. But few experts would now deny the asteroid a starring role in the story, nor would there be many takers for the idea that a very similar mass-extinction of roughly the same species would have occurred around the same time without the asteroid.

(Being more careful, perhaps we should call the huge thing slammed into the Earth causing the Chicxulub crater the "Chicxulub Impactor", since there is some debate about whether it was an asteroid or a comet: it is definitely not uncontroversial that it was an asteroid. But I will stick to calling it the "Chixculub Asteroid" because I think it was an asteroid, and because "Impactor" is a bit colourless.)

It can ruin your whole day

It can ruin your whole day

Consider a hypothetical "strong" rejection of a "great individuals" in the historical sciences, either on the grounds that those individual objects had little causal impact, or on the grounds that the historical sciences were obliged, as sciences, to ignore individuals. This hypothetical position seems absurd in the K-T extinction case. To theorise as if the Chicxulub Asteroid is irrelevant to our understanding of the K-T extinction, or that the K-T extinction itself is not a significant part of our understanding of the history of life on Earth, would be to fly in the face of the science. To do so because of a philosophical or ideological stance would be silly. It would be less silly to try to see the asteroid and the extinction as just a special case of a more general historical process: after all, there have been other great extinctions, and it is not crazy to look for a pattern of asteroid impacts to explain them. (See Derek Turner's post about one attempt to do this). But even if we do this, I do not think we should demote the Chicxulub Asteroid from its position in the explanations offered of the K-T extinction, the disappearance of the non-avian dinosaurs, the rise of the mammals, and all the rest. Apart from anything else, its role in these explanations does not seem contingent on finding some more general pattern in extinctions or asteroid impacts or the like.

One disanalogy between the asteroid and supposed Great Men is that the asteroid seems like an exogenous shock to the biological and even geological systems we study. (Another is the sheer amount of force and power it exerted: even the most fanatic proponents of the importance of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great or Isaac Newton do not think they had that sort of impact!)  So for a more direct analogy it would be helpful to have cases of great individual events and objects of the sort typically generalised about which do explanatory work in their own right in solving problems in the historical sciences. Cases like this are not far to seek. Astronomy is full of explanations that appeal to particular structures and particular objects, on a much vaster scale than the Chicxulub Asteroid. (The alleged influence on orbits in the Solar System of the mysterious Planet 9, if its existence turns out to be confirmed, will be one group of cases close to home.)

Stephen J. Gould famously pointed out the case of the Channelled Scablands in Eastern Washington State as a case where "gradualist" explanations had to make way for a more catastrophist one. (Gould, S.J. 1992. "The Great Scablands Debate", in The Panda's Thumb New York: Norton 194-203) The scablands in question are a great area of scoured rock that were a long-standing geological puzzle, though at one stage the favoured explanation for the vast geological feature was that it was formed over a long period of time by relatively gradual water erosion. The currently accepted explanation, instead, is that they were formed in either one event or a small number of events, and were due to floods from Lake Missoula, which was then a large glacial lake in modern-day Montana. A large lake built up behind a slowly melting glacier, which suddenly gave way under the pressure of the water. A single event like this produced a scoured landscape for hundreds of miles, and the landscape was formed by about 40 of these dramatic floods.

The movements of a glacier in one day, or even one season, are usually not enough to drastically change an entire landscape. But no geologist to my knowledge is concerned that the Channel Scablands are explained in this way. It is not even particularly surprising that a great glacial dam might give way all at once, any more than that human-made dams that have defects or which are under unusual stresses might sometimes give way dramatically. The postulated dam collapse, even though it is a single, dramatic, short-lived event, need not be dismissed as irrelevant or struck from the pages of geology as unfit to explain geological phenomena: to do because of a hypothetical antipathy to "great event geology" would be absurd. It is true that in the Channel Scablands case, there have been subsequent geological explanations elsewhere relying on single dramatic flows produced in similar ways. (Gould even discusses a case from the geology of Mars.) But as far as I can see the explanation of the Channel Scablands in terms of its glacial lake would have been a good one without this larger pattern of explanation: and indeed it was accepted as a good explanation by geologists before the other cases were understood.

It looks like a strong rejection of "great object palaeontology" or "great event geology" or other "great individual" historical sciences is not warranted, and even seems a little ridiculous: inquiries in good order in these fields sometimes explain targets of interest by invoking particular objects or discrete events, and not just types of processes or types of individuals. If explaining phenomena of interest to palaeontology and geology by appeal to individual historical individuals is sometimes good practice, this on the face of it suggests that there should be no blanket ban on historical explanations that rely on the doings of particular identified individuals. At the very least, unless history is radically unlike the historical sciences in this respect, there is no bar in principle to citing the action of individuals. On the face of it, some individual historical actors might be unusual enough or influential enough to influence the course of history, in a way that a historian interested in explaining historical outcomes might need to mention.

It could still be for all that has been said that individual human action cannot be significant even though the behaviour of asteroids and glacial lakes can, if individual historical actors are too unlike asteroid impacts or glacier dam bursts.  After all, the energy released by the hardiest humans over a lifetime is dwarfed by the rush of the burst scablands lake, let alone the Chicxulub impact. Still, it is not that kind of measure that is relevant to historical impact: even if a ruler is soft-spoken, entire cities can be destroyed with an order. There is unlikely to be any argument of principle that justifies a strong rejection of Great Man History, if we take the analogies seriously. This, of course, should not lead us to re-embrace the GMH of the bad old days: but perhaps the influential historical individuals can find a place among the other historical causes and processes in our historical theories.

Thanks to Sara Bernstein and Adrian Currie for feedback.


Daniel Nolan is McMahon-Hank Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He has broad philosophical interests, including metaphysics, the philosophy of science, meta-ethics, philosophical logic and the philosophy of language.