Last week I wrote about unpredictability, mainly as it applies to the sciences. But one doesn’t have to understand evolutionary biology or chaos theory to appreciate the real-world significance of contingency.
Crashing your bike, for example, is a highly contingent event, balancing on the fulcrum of the tiny circumstance: the patch of black ice or the open car door. Careening into the pavement, one feels keenly the power of the unforeseeable cause. Yet other events, such as weddings, usually unfold according to predetermined paths and produce predictable outcomes. Indeed, wedding planners make their living on this assumption, convincing couples that certainty is achievable, that contingency can be banished from church and reception hall.
All of this is to say something that is probably already pretty obvious: some events are more predictable than others. Historians have no quibble with this. The more interesting question is this: what kind of events matter? Which of them are the movers of history? (Or, as a historian might phrase it, which forces have the most historical agency?).
For some, the power of contingency remains a relatively minor factor in history, dwarfed by the unfolding of large-scale, long-term events. Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism, for example, sets up a series of stages (Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism) that societies pass through as people try to fulfill their basic needs. In Marx’s vision, societies evolve according to a pattern which cannot be easily upset by contingent forces. History is a supertanker which moves through the water with a momentum scarcely touched by the people on deck, no matter how unpredictably they might be acting.
On the other hand, there are the proponents of “great man” history who tend to place the course of events in the hands of individuals who make decisions that change the world: Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Justin Timberlake. This vision of history tends to be far more open to the power of contingency since unforeseeable events clearly effect the lives of individuals, even “great men.” While these histories remain enormously popular and fly off the shelves at Barnes and Nobles, they are seen as rather old-fashioned in the Academy. Here among the turtle-neck and tweed-jacket classes, the “great man” has been replaced by a focus on other agents: institutions, states, empires, or culture.
Yet even with the interest in big-scale forces such as institutions and empires, the idea of contingency has gained caché within the Academy. For many it is clear that institutional or imperial events also do not have predictable outcomes, unfolding in surprising ways with unforeseeable consequences.
The irony in all of this is that historians are largely to blame for making history seem inevitable. It is not for want of trying. Historians, even more than political analysts, do Monday-morning quarterbacking, bringing coherence to events that benefit from the wisdom of hindsight. This is what we do. Yet the irony is that, in bringing coherence to seemingly chaotic events, we loose something of the reality of the event as it unfolded.
The hardest part of history, as I see it, is not in chasing down and explaining these events. It’s in conveying the sense of open-endedness that people felt in living through them.