The Autonomy of History
Social Change and History.
by Robert A. Nisbet.
Oxford University Press. 335 pp. $6.75.
Robert Nisbet adopts in this book the same approach to intellectual history that he employed in his previous book, The Sociological Tradition. Instead of concentrating on individual thinkers or on recognized schools of thought, he follows the late Arthur O. Love-joy in seeking to isolate “unit-ideas” which have dominated the thinking of many men of different countries and eras who were often on opposing sides of the major intellectual and ideological controversies that occupy the forefront of conventional histories of thought. In the earlier book Nisbet identified five such unit-ideas—authority, community, status, the sacred, and alienation—as the essence of the “sociological tradition” that emerged in the 19th century in response to the major historical convulsions Western Europe was then undergoing. The present book is concerned with a single idea: that of growth or development in human societies and institutions as suggested by the life-cycle of organisms, although Nisbet breaks this conception down into a number of constituent ideas such as continuity, necessity, progress, and degeneration.
Social Change and History is a far more successful application of the unit-idea approach than The Sociological Tradition, even though it deals with a much wider historical time-span—from the Greeks to contemporary American sociology—and covers a greater number of individual thinkers. Nisbet's aim in the earlier book was to call attention to the conservative pedigree of sociology, which has long been insufficiently acknowledged, at least in the English-speaking countries. But he pursued this theme in a monolithic and one-dimensional manner, forcing such disparate thinkers as Tocqueville, Simmel, and Durkheim into a single mold while casting Marx as the heavy, the naive exponent of Enlightenment progressivism that is further anathematized in the present book. Perhaps it is simply easier to show that different theorists make use in diverse ways of a single idea than to establish convincing resemblances and identities centering around five ideas. Or perhaps the idea of development in history, deriving as Nisbet shows from an almost irresistible yet vague biological metaphor, is more complex and multi-faceted than the ideas taken up in the earlier book. In any case, Nisbet utterly convinces us that theories of social change from Plato to Parsons truly are variations on a theme, whereas in the earlier book he seemed to be imposing on the classical sociologists a pattern of identity that was essentially linguistic rather than stemming from true imaginative and dramatistic affinities.
Conventional classifications of theories of social change usually include cyclical views that identify recurring cycles of growth and decline; the Christian view, based on Augustine, of a unique story of redemption and fall; 18th-century beliefs in unilinear progress; 19th-century evolutionism conceiving of history on the analogy of the Darwinian evolution of species; Hegelo-Marxist dialectical theories that combine cyclical and unilinear views by picturing history as a spiral movement; and the neo-evolutionist theories of contemporary functionalist sociologists. Such accounts accentuate the diversity of these conceptions, stressing in particular their contrasting “optimistic” or “pessimistic” attitudes toward history. Nisbet persuasively argues that this diversity is less profound than the underlying similarities stemming from the pervasive hold on men's minds of the metaphor of growth transferred from the biological realm to human life and history.
The earliest version of the growth metaphor in Western thought is the Greek concept of physis, developed most fully by Aristotle, that imputes to every living thing an inherent potency to realize its nature through a distinctive pattern of growth. “Being” and “becoming” are united in this teleological conception. From the earliest Greek myths to the present day, observation of the seasonal cycle of plant life, the most visible and dramatic manifestation of the process of growth and decay, has been the source of a powerful metaphor capturing the human imagination. Thus Robinson Jeffers in “Shine, Perishing Republic,” a poem affirming the decadence of the United States: “I sadly remember that the flower fades to make fruit,/ the fruit rots to make earth/ Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances,/ ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.” Except for the grandiose Spenglerian mood of self-pity, the author of these lines might have been Hesiod, Ovid, or Lucretius.
But the Greeks clearly distinguished between the indwelling pattern of growth shaping the lives of peoples and the actual course of events, so full of accidents, contingencies, interruptions and reversals of the developmental cycle. Herodotus and Thucydides were, after all, also Greeks. Unlike Nietzsche in Zarathustra, the classical thinkers did not interpret the eternally recurring cycles as requiring a literal re-enactment of the events and re-creation of the personalities of the past. Thus a disjunction between the overall determining pattern of social change and the actual course of history was acknowledged by the earliest users of the growth metaphor. The difference between postulated world-historical patterns and sequences of change, and the interpretation of particular time and space-bound historical events, is Nisbet's major thesis, as becomes evident in the long final chapter where he devastatingly arraigns contemporary theorists of social change for failing to grasp the distinction. This is the significance of his title, for his aims are more ambitious than merely to make a graceful contribution to the history of ideas—although he has done that too.
St. Augustine repudiated the classical—and pagan—notion of recurrent cycles, insisting that history was a single epic of growth and decline beginning when God created Adam and due to end with the imminent destruction of the world. To Augustine, any doctrine of eternal recurrence was bound to minimize the significance of the unique, redemptive event of the birth of Christ. Yet the rhythm of growth and decay he discerned in history reflected the classical pattern. He added to it two notions that remained central in later philosophies of history: an iron historical necessity, in his view imposed by God, and endemic conflict as the immediate instigator of historical change, conflict between good and evil as he saw it.
No basic modifications of the classical cyclical pattern occurred until the 17th century. The Renaissance and the beginnings of science then led a number of thinkers, of whom Francis Bacon is the best known, to conceive of the increase in knowledge as a cumulative process comparable with the progressing education of a single man but with the crucial difference that the decline and loss of mental powers occurring in old age and their eventual extinction by death fail to take place. “Within the bare space of a century, the idea of progress passed from a descriptive generalization embracing knowledge alone to one comprehending the whole of civilization and human culture, including even morality.” The 18th-century philosophers repeatedly drew on the ancient analogies between history and organic growth or the human life-cycle, but in contrast to the classical view, they cut off the cycle at the top and treated its ascending phase as ever-continuing.
But the older drama of growth and decay was not entirely forgotten: the reaction against “the pieties of progress” at the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century led to its revival in the writings of Burckhardt, the Adams brothers, Nietzsche, Spengler, and many of the founders of sociology whose ideas were the subject of Nisbet's previous book. Oswald Spengler persuaded himself and his wide reading public after the First World War that his theory of culture cycles was truly original and that the Greeks “knew nothing of change and development,” although he was clearly guilty of a “confusion of his own ‘intuition’ with what had in fact been acquired through a conventional classical education.”
The 18th- and 19th-century theorists of progress and social evolution distinguished even more sharply than the Greeks between the determining immanent pattern of change and concrete historical events. The basic pattern applied only to “universal history,” to human civilization thought of as a singular entity. A particular people might flourish and decay, innovate but succumb, as Hegel put it, to the “poison draft of the very elixir it created.” This focus on mankind as a whole preserved the postulated immanent pattern from being tainted by the “fallen world of appearances” of the observed historical record reported by empirical historians. Only the pattern discernible in the movement of humanity in the large represented “natural history,” revealing the true nature and potential of man and society free from accidents and interferences. “The distinction between the actual, minutely recorded history of a thing and the history that we conceive as flowing from its very nature, when not deflected or otherwise interfered with, remains a vital distinction for most of us even though we rarely today make it as explicit as did the philosophers of the 18th century.”
Most of us who first studied sociology in the late 30's or early 40's were brought up on the fallacies of 19th-century social evolutionism, for these were the years when functionalism, with its emphasis on the simultaneous interdependence of the institutions of a society rather than on their change and development over time, was supplanting evolutionism as the most general theoretical perspective on human society. Nisbet's chapter on the evolutionists is the best brief summary and critique of their approach that I have read. Although the evolutionists are usually regarded—and often regarded themselves—as extending Darwinism to the sphere of social development, Nisbet points out that in fact they owed far less to Darwinian theory than to the venerable developmental conceptions that go back to the Greeks. The conviction that species had evolved from simple to complex forms was a thoroughly familiar one by the time Darwin published his major opus. His contribution was to put forward natural selection as a plausible, and later fully confirmed, theory of the causal agency producing evolution. Most of the social evolutionists, however, did not apply to social change some equivalent of natural selection but merely the concept of evolution itself. They arranged human history into a series of successively more complex institutional stages, but they overlooked the fact that, even if their arrangement had been accuate, “a trend is not a law,” as Karl Popper has convincingly argued in The Poverty of Historicism.
If Augustine's epic treats God as the Unmoved Mover of the historical process, none of the secular theories of social change, whether cyclical or unilinear, succeeds in clearly explaining why change conforming to the various patterns they discern takes place, or how the passage from one stage to another comes about. The absence of a convincing answer to “what makes the wheels go around?” or “what propels mankind ever upward and onward?” is a common failing of all of them. Here is where metaphor does the work of explanation, for in the case of plants, animals, men, and even entire species, biochemical processes, physiological maturation, individual learning, and the genetics of natural selection adequately account for observed processes of growth, decay, death, and evolutionary speciation. The theories of the moderns, when applied to human society, do not advance much beyond Heraclitus's assumption that change is simply a brute fact of the universe characterizing all things within it.
I have exaggerated slightly in the two previous paragraphs, for it was chiefly Herbert Spencer and the post-Darwinian theorists who treated evolution as a kind of self-propelling force. Most of the philosophers of progress and evolution did, as Nisbet shows, advance some notion of uniformly operating causes that served to initiate the developmental process and keep it in continuing motion. And, like Augustine's view of the role played by the struggle between good and evil, they frequently located the moving force of the process in some form of conflict, either within man or between man and his environment: for Kant it was the “unsocial sociability” of human nature, for the early economists the insatiability of human wants, for Hegel the dialectic, for Comte man's craving for increased knowledge and power, for Marx the class struggle. Yet most of these purported causal agencies are unsatisfactory, for, stipulated as universally present in human nature or society, they violate the rule that constants cannot adequately explain variables, and it is precisely change and temporal variation with which the historical record, whether arranged in an orderly sequence of evolutionary stages or not, confronts us.
In Treating Marx as a typical evolutionist, I think Nisbet fails to recognize the superiority of Marxism as a generalized logical—if not necessarily empirically accurate—model of social change. As an operative cause of historical movement, class conflict is not altogether comparable with the forces singled out by other evolutionist thinkers. To begin with, it is not a psychological impulsion rooted in an unchanging human nature but a truly sociological aspect of the structure of societies. Secondly, the classes engaged in conflict vary under different social orders, unlike the egoistic and altruistic proclivities of human beings, or their aspirations for knowledge, assumed by such thinkers as Kant and Comte. Finally, Marx does not see classes and class conflict as constants even within the same type of society: they emerge in time with the growth of class consciousness (Klasse für sich) as a result of definite and fully specified social processes. (And, of course, they disappear altogether in the final, eschatological transcendence of the historical process with the attainment of communism.)
I do not believe, as Nisbet does, that the continuing appeal of Marxism to first-rate thinkers is entirely a matter of political faith. As a theory of change, Marxism seems to me less wedded to biological analogies with organic growth and evolution than other 19th-century developmental theories, just as Talcott Parsons's functionalism is superior as a theory of social equilibrium to earlier versions more crudely dominated by the organicist analogy between the structure of societies and the integration of an organism.
The most original and exciting chapter in Social Change and History is the last one, in which Nisbet brilliantly exposes the essential fallacy of all developmental theories. All of them, he argues, survey the totality of the past from the vantage point of the thinker's present location and discern a continuous movement divisible into stages or phases. Looking back on the entire movement, the beginnings of the later stages can be detected in the earlier stages, and the complete cycle or evolution appears to reveal “processes of unfolding, of genetic continuity, of the latent evolving into the manifest, and so on.” But the continuity the thinker discerns, and the stages and phases he identifies are ex post facto intellectual ordering devices which have nothing to do with the unique, contingent events that are the actual substance of history as it is lived by mortal men.
We are aware of the arbitrariness of “periodization” when dealing with the history of particular nations or civilizations. Nisbet notes that conventional histories of civilizations start with the Egyptians, drop them after the year 1000 BCE to take up the Chaldeans, move to Greece, next to Rome, then to the medieval period of Western Europe, and on to the 20th century touching on various peoples and places along the way. But the Egyptians did not disappear after 1000 BCE, nor did the Italian peninsula revert to an uninhabited wilderness between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. The point is that “civilization” is an abstraction, not a living entity that restlessly attaches itself to the Egyptians, the Romans, and other peoples and then relinquishes them—a useful abstraction, to be sure, but a non-Westerner would make quite a different selection from “world history” based on a different principle of abstraction that is a consequence of his present location. What is true of the history of civilization under Western eyes is equally true of even more comprehensive entities such as Humanity, Society, or Culture when pictured as developing immanently through time.
Men are inescapably prone to conceive of history as a single unified drama—even the most conscientious and careful professional historians have tried their hand at it. But the developmental assumptions of philosophers of history seriously distort our understanding of causal relations when applied to more limited areas and periods than those embraced by mankind as a whole or even a particular civilization—to, for example, the history of one nation, economic system, or culturally unique institution in a single century or less. Functionalist sociologists have roundly discredited and rejected the sweeping evolutionary schemas of 19th-century theorists, yet when, sensitive to the common charge that they are unable to account for social change, they have striven to apply their concepts to the explanation of change, they have fallen back on the same assumptions of internal differentiation and continuous stages cherished by the evolutionists. Change is represented as resulting from the cumulation of the conflicts, tensions, and “role strains” present in a particular institutional system from its beginning to the point where a “developmental breakthrough” suddenly occurs and transforms the system. Since functionalists too have always been bewitched by a biological metaphor, that of the organism as a self-maintaining system of interdependent parts, it is hardly surprising that they should invoke the idea of self-generating growth when they turn to change, a consideration that Nisbet seems to me insufficiently to stress, evidently out of a stronger sympathy than my own for functionalism's primary concern with persistence, stability, and the unconscious wisdom of tradition.
Whatever the usefulness for expository or dramatizing purposes of imagining Mankind or Western Civilization or Technology as huge, coherent, immanently developing units, to regard early 19th-century British capitalism, the traditional Chinese family, or Negro-white relations in the United States as similarly encapsulated, self-moving entities is to distort the historical record. Real history, Nisbet tells us, is not an affair of systems containing internal dynamisms but of the impact of “external” influences—wars, migrations, trading, the diffusion of new ideas—on the nations, classes, communities, and institutions whose fate arouses our interest. History is a record of concrete, dated events and “it is the event as such: the intrusion, the impact, the impingement upon a given mode of social behavior of some force that cannot, by its nature, be deduced from that mode of behavior.” Comparative historical studies are worth undertaking in order to answer such general but definite questions as “under what conditions do revolutions occur?” rather than for the purpose of bringing different societies under the overarching umbrella of a universal developmental theory. Nisbet's conception of the methods and uses of historical study is close, as he acknowledges, to that of Max Weber, although his views have been primarily influenced by those of his former teacher at the University of California, the late F. J. Teggart, to whom the book is dedicated.
“If,” Nisbet concludes, “‘unique events,’ as they are called, are not amenable to the systematic needs of social theory, so much the worse for theory. . . . Whatever the demands of social theory, the first demands to be served are those of the social reality we find alone in the historical record.” Rarely has the autonomy of history as human experience in all its contingency and irreducible reality been so soundly and eloquently defended.