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), (more…)