The Causal and the Casual in History

Is history a science? Or an art? From this starting point John Buchan, in his Rede lecture to an academic audience in the University of Cambridge in 1929, went on to say that ‘history is an art and it is also a science; we may say that it is an art which is always trying to become more of a science’. As a science ‘it must aim at representing the whole complex of the past as a chain, each link riveted to the other by a causal necessity’.
The complexities of human nature, however, defeat the scientific historicism. Buchan quotes Sainte-Beuve: ‘history seen from a distance undergoes a strange metamorphosis: it produces the illusion that it is rational. The perversities, the follies, the ambitions, the thousand queer accidents which compose it, all these disappear. Every accident becomes a necessity… Such history is far too logical to be true’. Buchan points out that we cannot find in history the precise and continual causal connections which are to be found in the physical sciences. Rationalise the facts as much as you please, there will remain things which you cannot rationalise, things which you can only call accidents. Instead of the causal we find the casual.
Having disposed of the theory that all events of the past can be seen as linked by causal necessity, Buchan gives some fascinating examples of the ‘romantic accident’ which changed the course of history. If Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James VI & I, had not died at the age of 18, would he have been a people’s king, identifying himself with popular Protestantism, and might James Graham, the first Duke of Montrose, have guided the monarchy into new constitutional paths? Had General Jackson in 1963 not been accidentally killed by his own side in the American Civil War, might Abraham Lincoln not have been assassinated and would America’s development have taken a very different direction? If a little Turkish steamer had not laid mines in the Dardanelles in 1915, at the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, would the British fleet have steamed through to the Sea of Marmara and gone on to occupy Constantinople, so shortening the Great War by three years?
Buchan concludes that we must have theories about historical processes in our attempts to interpret, as well as chronicle, the past, but we need to beware of too much rationalisation. The causal must not be allowed to exclude the casual.
Over 70 years have passed since this lecture was delivered, and many distinguished hsitorians have come and gone, but it is still of great interest to read the views of John Buchan, with his scholarly mind and with his inter-war perspective.
Jean Sloan, 2001

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