Subversions of Historical Contingency

“I am not speaking of randomness, but of the central principle of all history—contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before—the unerasable and determining signature of history.”

-Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life

Gould was primarily concerned with natural history, of course- he was writing about the Burgess Shale and its consequences for evolutionary theory and history. He chose his words very, very carefully, however- he didn’t say contingency was the central principle of natural history, he said it was the central principle of all history. Historical contingency in biology has a pretty well established opponent and bedmate in convergence- even the most ardent supporters of one acknowledge that the other plays an important role as well.

In more traditional historical studies contingency faces a very different set of opponents. The first, and most immediately obvious, is the material dialectic. It seems like it could be easy to include the Hegelian dialectic as an opponent of historical contingency if you tried hard enough, but I won’t be attempting either- the Hegelian because I don’t understand it well enough, the material dialectic because I don’t want to try and win a prize for writing the one billionth refutation of Communist historical theory. Let’s skip the question of what other opponents of historical contingency are out there for a second, though.

If you accept that contingency is the central principle of history (even if you don’t, just play along for the duration), historical interpretation becomes a process of choosing what events and processes- let’s call them historical factors- are important to understanding the progression of history, and how significant each historical factor is compared to one another. The actual methods of choosing obviously vary widely and are highly ideologically shaded. Ideally, though, an analysis of history through a contingent lens is a case-by-case process carried out through exhaustive work, rather than one consisting of large blanket statements, since that defeats the idea of a contingent historical interpretation at an internal level. The philosopher Karl Popper distinguished these two types of historical thought into piecemeal and holistic categories. Piecemeal would be the case-by-case situations we’ve been discussing. Holistic interpretations use sweeping generalizations and come to conclusions that are almost deterministic, like the material dialectic’s path of history that it lays out. More absurd examples could include a fascist populist movement’s leader laying out their terrifying pronouncements of the inevitable collapse of civilization should they not be in charge- or just any given political debate. The holistic ideas of history… well, Popper thought they were damned stupid, to phrase it more bluntly than he did. He was not a fan of communism or any utopian political theory.

Popper was referring more towards future predictions and social engineering, so there’s a large amount of mental stretching and simplifying involved in applying these categories to historical analysis. Still, his categories still work well for our purposes. Holistic interpretations of histories tend to take the events and processes involved and use them as pieces of evidence proving the broader thrust of their claims. Rigorous historical interpretations, whether holistic or contingent, will involve a large amount of work. (Ideally.) Contingent interpretations, though, are a lot more time consuming, and lack the easy answers so often present in holistic interpretations.


Let’s make a couple of safe assumptions now.

  • Let’s take it as a given that no historical analysis is objective. (If you really want to argue that point, I’m going to roll my eyes if I’m trying to be polite. If you are some sort of ideologically blank robot bent on historical analysis, vive la human resistance!)
  • Let’s allow for a little bit of cultural relativism as a useful tool for contingent historical analysis- but in a limited fashion, not the straw man absolute version of it that people on the internet love to rail against.

Accepting both of these under the contingent banner lets us compare our historical factors and end up with meaningful comparisons between them- even across cultural bounds. Without accepting the second assumption we can still compare them across cultural bounds, but we’ll lack the context to understand why they’re important in a specific culture’s society and history. Our comparisons won’t be meaningful.

Alright… so we’ve at least provisionally accepted historical contingency as a guiding principle and we’re determined to make a go interpreting it using piecemeal interpretive tools rather than holistic ones. Assuming we don’t blatantly disregard well documented historical facts in service of ideology, we’re good to go, right? (Obvious rhetorical question is rhetorical.)

It’s precisely at this point that the holistic interpretations of history begin to creep back in. These holistic interpretations nominally appear to present themselves as contingent ones. During the process, though, they attempt the construction of a direct lineage of historical factors of prime significance. Prime significance, in this case, indicates that all other historical factors are either derived from, subservient to, or overwhelmed by them. Any factors that seem to disrupt the lineage are labeled as freak outliers, misinterpretations of data or records, trivialities, or a combination thereof. These lineage interpretations also magnify trivial events that fit well into the lineage into much more important factors than they actually were.

Before we go any further discussing what I’m calling lineage interpretations of history I need to point out that they appear in all shades of the political spectrum. Post-colonial feminism and Eurocentric Reactionary ideologies both crop them up with great frequency.

What’s to really distinguish lineage interpretations from piecemeal contingent interpretations, though? Well, first off, the piecemeal interpretations do not attempt to establish a single chain of contingency, or attempt to overlay and drown out an obviously hugely important chain of contingency with many smaller ones. I can say pretty definitively that the many chains of contingency running through European history are of greater significance to world history than the chains of contingency belonging to Easter Island, even though there are valuable lessons to be learned from the collapse of Easter Island’s civilization. If I were to start saying that the European chain of contingency was the only one that mattered, though, and to start making claims that it’s overwhelmed every other chain of contingency it crossed, I’d have a Eurocentric lineage interpretation. If I were to start trying to throw numerous other chains of contingency from all around the world over the European chains in order to reduce the significance of that chain’s links (the historical factors), I’d get a post-colonial interpretation. Note with the latter that despite the fact that it uses multiple chains of contingency from around the world, it’s still using only the core ideas of post-colonialism as its lineage.

It’s certainly possible to have truly contingent post-colonial or Eurocentric interpretations of history. The most critical difference between piecemeal contingent and lineage interpretations of history is actually attempting to interpret history through a contingent lens- while lineage interpretations will end up using many of the tools of the contingent view of history, they ultimately approach it in order to achieve the same conclusions as the holistic interpretations they shade into on the side. And while lineage and piecemeal interpretations do shade into each other in the middle, that fundamental attempt to understand history without resorting to sweeping deterministic principles is what really differentiates them.

Addendum 1: The Westphalian State

I’ve realized in conversation that some further elucidation of my idea is necessary. To do so, I’m going to give an example of precisely how lineage contingent interpretations conflict with fuller understandings of history. A bunch of examples, in fact. To wit, every single modern nationalistic historical narrative.

Every single solvent nation state today is a Westphalian State. Bar none. It’s a viciously effective model of statehood when it comes to self-propagation. The reasons why aren’t as important as what was around beforehand- prior to the Westphalian model, populist support did not reside in the nation-state in the way we perceive it.

Let’s use thirteenth century England as an example. There was a wildly popular lord in England at the time named William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, universally praised for his absolute adherence to the feudal obligations between vassal and lord. His loyalty to this concept was strong enough that he on multiple occasions came into conflict with English kings. He held lands in both England and France and brokered a peace between the two that many in England found unfavorable. Marshall, however, saw no problem with having feudal responsibilities to the kings of both nations- lordship was a more important ideal to him than sovereignty.

Examples like this abound throughout the time period, with historical figures defining their loyalties and actions not on the basis of what sovereign territory they lived in, but instead by what language they spoke, or religion they followed, or any number of other motivations. The very idea of owing your primary loyalty to a nation-state would have been absurd to them, in fact, since the nation-state as we understand it simply didn’t exist. There was no broad recognition of these nations as discrete continuous entities with sovereignty over their territories- that’s a Westphalian perspective. Rulers of nations would only refrain from directly interfering with the internal affairs of other nations for fear of reprisal or simple distraction- there was no principle claiming that said interference was a violation of any principle of sovereignty. When we travel farther out from Europe or farther back in time, the principles defining nations grow even less familiar. If we go back inwards and forwards in time, we will see a steady progress towards the Westphalian state, but it took centuries to congeal. (More in the notes.)

So how does all of this make nationalistic narratives into problematic lineage contingent interpretations? Simply put, because they act as though the Westphalian nation-state is how it has always been. Treating a nation as though it has a continuous discrete existence in its modern form grants it a strong aura of legitimacy. This is a key reason why the pre-Westphalian state gets such abysmally poor representation in official histories. It’s one of those inconvenient historical processes that messes with the lineage, and so gets artificially reduced in significance to compensate.


-Any gross misinterpretations of the thoughts of well respected philosophers in this post you can blame entirely upon me being Stereotypical STEM Guy. (Hail Daedalus!) Also, my lack of knowledge of Hegel should be taken as nigh-complete ignorance.

-If you’re interested in reading more about Stephen Jay Gould’s ideas, I’d recommend picking up Wonderful Life. It’s a fantastic book. That being said, in the decades since its publication more evidence has surfaced about some Burgess Shale lifeforms, notably Hallucinagenia- we now know that the illustration of the species common when Gould first wrote the book is actually upside down. Those are relatively minor quibbles, though. Another great book by him is Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, which analyzes how geology as a science has perceived time. Since geology worries more about time (especially Deep Time) than most other sciences, it gets pretty cool. It’s also one of the more nuanced histories of science I’ve ever encountered, and for once doesn’t treat the religious figures involved in early scientific debates as slavering villains. Gould also presents some incisive criticisms on the lack of discussion of figures and diagrams in the critical analysis of texts, then puts his money where his mouth is and actually uses illustrations ranging from old geological stratigraphic columns to religious illustrations to discuss geology’s view of time. If you don’t have the time to read a full book by him, here’s a great little summary of his views on contingency.

-An example of a historian who I consider to be an exemplar of contingent interpretations is the peerless John Keay, who also happens to be my favorite historian. (Even over Howard Zinn, which is saying a lot when you’re from a hippy family.) I’d recommend checking out either India: A History or China: A History. Both are dense tomes, but well worth the effort.

-For those who couldn’t guess, my political bent leans more towards the liberal post-colonial side, but I’d hardly say I toe the party line, if for no other reason than a conviction that toeing the party line is intellectual laziness as often as not.

-Westphalian sovereignty is not synonymous with nationalism. Nationalism had already begun its rise in Europe at the time of William Marshal’s death. This can be attributed to a lot of different factors, including the rise of the middle classes and tradesfolk in Europe, eventually culminating in the Treaty of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Year’s War. If we were to travel out of Europe, we can see the distinction between Westphalian and non-Westphalian states very effectively while watching the colonial powers emplacing Westphalian governments over their colonies. It would probably be a mistake to credit the Westphalian state for Europe’s conquest of much of the world, but it was certainly a major factor in the stabilization of its global power.