Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Contingent World, Part 2 of 3


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?).

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

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 Here among the turtle-neck and tweed-jacket classes, the “great man” has been replaced by a focus on other agents: institutions, states, empires, or culture.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.


  Marmaduke wrote @

I was thinking the other day how most TV shows and Movies end very tidily with most issues resolved and that life never feels like that. Even the more complex dramas with ongoing story arcs usually tie up all the minor plots with nice little conclusions. In the real world you rarely hear (and much less rarely utter) the clever line that makes everyone go, “Oh, well that makes everything OK, then!”

This post extends that thought to history. I guess I always viewed history with the same sense that everything was concluded nicely. It hadn’t occurred to me that history was once the real world to the people living through it. They probably never felt that sense of resolution at the time. Thanks for connecting the dots for me.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the comment. I think hindsight is hard for all of us to shake, even historians. Maybe I should say especially historians because we have a vested interest in making sense of things, of finding the thread or idea that organizes the whole. On the upside, we uncover forces and patterns at work that historical players don’t see clearly because they are too close to the events at hand. On the downside, we make things too tidy and distort the experience of the event we hope to describe. I think this is particularly true of wars, revolutions, and other large-scale, inherently chaotic, events. If you pull aside the people on the streets of St Petersburg in 1917 and quiz them about what’s going on and why everyone is running, I suspect you’d get a dozen different answers.

  Lorencobes wrote @

Did you know that USA and Europe blocked Wikileaks? What do you think about it?
Thank for all

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