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The concept of chance

Dr Sakul Kundra
Tuesday, April 18, 2017

E.H Carr in What is History? said "everything that happens has a cause or causes and could not have been different unless something in the cause or cause had also been different. The human being whose actions have no causes and thus are undermined is as much an abstraction as the individual outside society".

Similarly, Professor Popper's assertion that "everything is possible in human affairs is either meaningless or false — the axiom that everything has a cause is a condition of our capacity to understand what is going on around us".

Additionally, everyday life would be impossible unless one assumed that human behaviour was determined by causes which are in principle as certainable.

Whereas, a historian does not reject free will except on the untenable hypothesis that voluntary actions have no causes. Thus, deterministic view of history is a legacy of the enlightenment that regarded society as a subject of universal laws. These principles are close to positivist history.

Ravinder Kumar in his article "Chance and determinism" had tried to explain the concept of chance and determinism for the historical process. He put different sectors of human life broadly into three concrete and related spheres, each of which was associated with a distinct form of causation.

* Firstly, at the base of the social world lies man's adaptive interaction with nature whose bearing on society can be predicted with reasonable measure of certainty;

* Secondly, much less susceptible to prediction and yet capable of revealing long-term trends are the enduring structure of society, its political and intellectual life and its economic organisation; and

* Thirdly, in this level of historical causation lie the conscious and unconscious actions of individuals and social groups which are never fully determined by the physical environment or the social circumstances.

Moreover, Mr Kumar showed that with the "interplay of three levels of causation it can produce fairly rigorous reconstruction of the past as all three levels share a basic assumption about the character of the historical process as a connected flow of events from the past to the present held together by a chain of cause and effect across time".

Carr stated in practice that a "historian does not assume that events are inevitable before they have taken place. They frequently discuss alternative courses available to the actors in the story, on the assumption that the option was open, but they explain why one course was eventually chosen rather than the other. Nothing in history is inevitable, except in the formal sense that for it to have happened otherwise the antecedent causes would have had to be different".

Does chance or accident have a place in historical causation and how relevant is Cleopatra's nose theory?

J.B. Bury published an essay in the 1920s called Cleopatra's Nose which stated "history is governed by the fortuitous collision of two or more independent chains of causes and historical events can not be explained in terms of general laws because the chapter of accidents and chance coincidence entered into historical processes as a disturbing element".

It means that chance has a massive role in history. Bury tried to demonstrate that history is by and large a chapter of accidents, a series of events determined by chance coincidences and attributable only to the most causal cause. For example, Cleopatra's beauty led to Mark Antony's infatuation. This reflects the connection between female beauty and male infatuation but this sequence of cause and effect interrupt the historical methodology of a historian to investigate.

Equally important is J.S Grewal's article on Cleopatra's Nose explains that "ancient Greek historians invoked a variety of human, institutional and natural causes to explain change. Their conception of causation was linked with the idea of the usefulness of historical knowledge for the future. The unknown and uncontrollable elements like fate, fortune, destiny or accidental happenings acquired some significance in the 16th century but in the 19th century under the influence of positivism, which equated the human world with the world of nature and searched for universal laws, philosophers and historian remained preoccupied with the search for general causes of historical events and the laws governing the social world. Then chance was once again relegated to the back stage".

Therefore, a historian treats causation as a tool to explain a change but Grewal believes "there is a possibility that because of the inbuilt provision in history for the incorporation of new evidence and new interpretations, the chance coincidences are not necessarily condemned to irrelevant for all times to come".

Karl Marx has stated the importance of chance in history is trivial, as "firstly, it was not very important. It could accelerate or retard but not by implications, radically alter, the course of events. Secondly, one chance was compensated by another, so that in the end chance cancelled itself out and lastly, chance was especially illustrated in the character of individuals".

Alternatively, Carr has totally rejected the chance theory as unconvincing. He stated "the role of accidents in history is now a day seriously exaggerated by those who are interested to stress its importance".

He believes that describing some thing as a mischance is a favourite way of exempting oneself from the tiresome obligation to investigate its cause. Therefore, he explains that a proficient historian points out that something hitherto treated as accidental was not an accident at all, but can be rationally explained and significantly fitted into the broader pattern of events.

He evaluates "history begins with the selection and marshalling of facts by the historian to become historical facts. The fact is promoted to historical fact once its relevance and significance are discerned. The causes determine his interpretation of the historical process and his interpretation determine his selection and marshalling of the causes. The hierarchy of causes, the relative significance of one cause or set of causes or of another is the essence of his interpretation".

Accidental incidences have some effect but they fail to explain rational interpretation of history or their inability to throw any light on the character of the particular causal sequence.

But historians choose only those causes, which are historically significant and explains the rational explanation and interpretation.

Other accidental causes are considered irrelevant as they do not have a meaning either in the past or in the present.

A historian works on the common-sense approach in order to investigate and interpret an event or action. Similarly, a selection of relevant causes and rejection of others.

Overall, the rational cause helps to form generalisation in history and lessons can be learned from them, whereas the accidental cause fails to establish generalisation because of its uniqueness from which no lessons can be learnt or conclusions can be driven.

A historian works to give explanation to the past in light of present and of the present in the light of past, and rest which does not fit into cause and effect relationship is worthless for a historian. I shall conclude with James Brein's words, "causation is a crucial component in providing a more complete and coherent explanation of the past. Without causation, the historian is left with a collection of facts, ordered sequentially but unrelated …. causation links events and issues to one another, giving coherence and meaning to the past".

* Dr Sakul Kundra is an assistant professor in history at FNU. Views expressed are his and not of this newspaper or his employer.

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