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  • Date: 2010 Jun 29

Scientific History


           
Let us recall that, as we pointed out earlier, scientific history is based on the idea that independently of individuals, society has its own personality and primary importance. Should it be presumed that society has no independent personality, nothing will be left except the individuals and the laws governing them, and consequently scientific history, which is the knowledge of the rules and the norms governing societies will become meaningless. History can have laws only if it has an independent nature and it can have an independent nature only if society also has a nature. In connection with scientific history the following questions are to be examined:
          
(i) As mentioned earlier, scientific history is based on transmitted history, which may be called the material to be analyzed in the laboratory of scientific history. Therefore, first of all it must be ascertained whether transmitted history is reliable. If it is not reliable, any investigation into the laws governing societies would be absurd and meaningless.
          
(ii) But if it is admitted that transmitted history is reliable and that society has a nature and a personality independent of the individuals, then it will be possible to deduce laws and general rules from historical events provided it is also admitted that the law of causation is operative in the domain of human affairs, that is the matters which are subject to human will and choice, and that such matters include historical events.
          
Otherwise, historical events cannot be considered to be subject to any rule or regulation which may be generalized. So the vital question is whether history is governed by the law of causation, and if it is, how man should use his will and choice?
           
(iii) Is the nature of history materialistic? Is it mainly governed by a material force, all spiritual forces being subsidiary to this main force, or is the case other way round, the main force by which history is governed being spiritual, and the nature of history being idealistic? Or, as a third alternative, is the nature of history multilateral, and it is governed by two or more material and spiritual forces, operating in a more or less harmonious or sometimes conflicting system?
                  
I. Reliability or Unreliability of Transmitted History
                 
There are some people who hold a very poor opinion about transmitted history. They are of the view that all reporters of historical events on account of their selfish interests, or their national and religious bias or because of their social associations and attachments, have more or less distorted and falsified almost all descriptions of historical events, and brought history into a form of their own liking. Even those who regarded it as immoral to forge and alter history intentionally, exercised selection in the narration of events and invariably reported only that which was not inconsistent with their own objectives and ideas. Though they did not add anything of their own while narrating events, they refrained from reporting that which was contrary to their feelings and beliefs. By making selections of their own liking, they shaped history as they liked. An event or a personality can be objectively studied and properly analysed only when complete relevant material is placed at the disposal of the researcher.
       
If only a part of it is shown to him and another part is concealed, the result will obviously be a one-sided and defective picture.
                   
These pessimists have the same opinion about transmitted history as some pessimistic jurists have about the hadith and religious traditions. The attitude of these jurists has been termed 'closing the door of knowledge'. The critics of transmitted history can also be described as obstructionists. Someone of them has sarcastically remarked that history is an account of the events which never took place, compiled by someone who did not witness them. A journalist is reported to have said: "Facts are sacred, but one has freedom of faith". There are others who are not so pessimistic, but still prefer to accept the philosophy of scepticism.
           
In the book 'What Is History?' Sir George Clark has been quoted to have said:
Knowledge of the past that has come down through one or more human minds, and has been processed by them, and therefore cannot consist of elemental and impersonal atoms which nothing can alter .... The exploration seems to be endless, and some impatient scholars take refuge in scepticism, or at least in the doctrine that, since all historical judgements involve persons and points of view, one is as good as another and there is no 'objective' historical truth. (E. H. Carr, What is History? p. 8)
                               
The fact is that although it is not possible to trust blindly the reports of even the reliable transmitters, yet history contains a good number of such indisputable facts that they are as good as the principles of other sciences and which can easily be checked by any researcher. Secondly, a researcher can himself scrutinize the relevant details in order to ascertain the veracity of many reports and then draws his own conclusions. Today we find that the researchers have proved the unreliability of the reports of many events which were for centuries widely accepted as facts. The story that the books of the Alexandrian library were put to fire, appeared for the first time in the 7th century of Hijrah era - yes, in the 7th century - and gradually gained so much currency that it found its way into most of the books of history. But in the last century the researchers proved that this tale was totally baseless and an invention of some prejudiced Christians. It also happens that for sometime a truth remains concealed, but subsequently it becomes known to everybody. For these reasons one must not be totally pessimistic about historical reports.
               
II. Principle of Causation
               
Is history governed by the principle of causation? If it is, the occurrence of every event must be considered to be inevitable and unavoidable, and it must be conceded that a sort of compulsion rules over history. If it is so, then where does the principle of human freedom and volition stand? If historical events are really inevitable, then no individual can be accountable, and no individual deserves any appreciation and praise or any reproach and censure. If the principle of causation is not admitted to be operative, then there can be no universal laws, and if there are no universal laws, history can have no law or norm, for the laws are a subsidiary of generality and generality depends on the principle of causation. That is the problem with which scientific history as well as philosophy of history are confronted. Some people who tend to believe in the principles of causation and generality, reject the principle of human freedom and volition in its true sense. What they accept in the name of freedom is not actually so. In contrast, some others accept the principle of freedom, but deny that history is subject to any definite law. Most sociologists hold that the principles of causation and freedom cannot exist together. They generally tend to accept causation and to reject freedom.
                
Hegel following the example of Marx, supports historical compulsion. From the view-point of Hegel and Marx freedom is nothing except consciousness of historical necessity. In the book, 'Marx and Marxism' Engels has been quoted as having said: "Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him freedom is the appreciation of necessity. Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood. Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.
         
This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves".
               
After describing briefly that under special historical conditions man can and he should step forward in the direction determined by these conditions, the same book says:
          
"Identifying and understanding these given conditions, render human action more effective. Every act in the opposite direction amounts to resisting and obstructing the historic course. To act in the direction determined by the historic course means moving within the course of history and participating in the process. But the question, as to what is meant by freedom, still remains to be answered. The Marxist school answers that freedom of the individual lies in his appreciation of the historical necessity, and the social movement towards which the whole course of history is directed".
             
It is evident that these statements do not solve any problem The real question is whether man has the power to control the historical conditions. Is he able to give them a direction of his choice or to change their course?
          
If man is unable to direct the course of history or change it, then obviously for his survival and evolution he has no alternative but to follow the course of history. Otherwise he cannot survive. Now the question is whether man has any choice to follow or not to follow the course of history, and whether in view of the principle of the superiority of society to man and the theory that the conscience, feelings and sentiments of an individual are solely the product of social and historical conditions, especially the economic conditions, is there any scope left for man's freedom?
             
Further, what after all does the statement that freedom is the knowledge of necessity mean? Is a man who has been entrapped in a flood and knows fully well that in a short while he would be swept to the depth of the river or a man who has fallen from the top of a hill and knows that because of the force of the law of gravity in a few moments he will be smashed into pieces, free in being plunged into the river or falling on the side of the hill? According to the theory of historical materialism, the social conditions put restrictions on man, give him direction, build his conscience and personality and determine his will and choice.
            
 In the face of the social conditions he is just like an empty receptacle and merely a bundle of raw material. When man is believed to be a product of his social conditions, not a producer of them, and it is alleged that from existing social conditions determine the subsequent lot of man, evidently it is not man who determines the future course of social conditions.
 
Obviously this kind of freedom can have no meaning at all. The fact is that human freedom cannot be imagined without accepting the theory of natural human disposition which means that in the process of basic and general movement of the world man has an additional dimension which forms the preliminary basis of his personality and which matures under the impact of external factors. This existential dimension gives man his human personality and enables him to dominate history and determine its course. We have already discussed this point earlier while discussing society under the heading, 'Determinism and Volition' and shall explain it further while dealing with the role of the heroes under the heading, 'Dimensions of History'.
                
Freedom of man is not incompatible with the law of causation nor with the universality of historical questions, nor with the fact that history is subject to certain laws. That man may choose a definite and irreversible course in his social life out of his own free will means compulsion with volition and is different from blind compulsion swaying man and his will.
            
There is another difficulty about the universality of historical questions and their being subject to certain laws. The study of historical events shows that occasionally some minor and accidental events have changed the course of history. Of course accidental events, contrary to the notion of some uninformed persons, do not mean the events having no cause. They are only the events that are not brought about by a general and universal cause and hence have no general rule. Now it is evident that if it is admitted that the events having no general rule play an effective role in historical movements, history will be devoid of every law, rule, norm and definite course. But we know that accidental historical events have affected the course of history. They are proverbially known as Cleopatra's nose. Cleopatra was a famous queen of Egypt. The examples of minor and accidental events which have changed the course of history in the world are innumerable.
           
Edward Hallett Carr in his book, What is History? says: "The other source of the attack is the famous crux of Cleopatra's nose. This is the theory that history is, by and large, a chapter of accidents, a series of events determined by chance coincidences, and attributable only to the most casual causes. The result of the Battle of Actum was due not to the sort of causes commonly postulated by historians, but to Antony's infatuation with Cleopatra. When Bajazet was deterred by an attack of gout from marching into central Europe, Gibbon observed that "an acrimonious honour falling on a single fibre of a man may prevent or suspend the misery of nations". When King Alexander of Greece died in the autumn of 1920 from the bite of a pet monkey, this accident touched off a train of events which led Sir Winston Churchill to remark that "a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey's bite". Or take again Trotsky's comment on the fever contracted while shooting ducks which put him out of action at a critical point of his quarrel with Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin in the autumn of 1923: "One can foresee a revolution or a war, but it is impossible to foresee the consequences of an autumn shooting - trip for wild ducks".
                  
In the world of Islam the event of the defeat of Marwan bin Muhammad, the last Umayyad Caliph is a good example of the intervention of an accident in the destiny of history. In his last battle with the Abbasids he strongly felt the need of passing water. For that purpose he went aside to ease himself. By chance an enemy soldier passed by that place and seeing him alone, killed him. The report of his having been killed spread like wild fire among his soldiers and as they had not anticipated such an eventuality, they were so upset that they took to their heels. Thus the rule of the dynasty of Umayyad came to an end, and it was on this occasion that it was said: "A kingdom was swept away by urine".
               
After explaining that every accident is the outcome of a sequence of a cause and effect that annuls another sequence of a cause and effect and not a happening without any cause at all, Carr says: . . . "How can one discover in history a coherent sequence of cause and effect, how can we find any meaning in history, when our sequence is liable to be broken or deflected at any moment by some other, and from our point of view, irrelevant sequence?"
             
The answer to this problem depends on the question whether society and history by nature have or have not a direction. If history by nature has a direction, the impact of minor incidents will be insignificant. In other words minor incidents may change the position of some pawns on the chess board of history, but they cannot affect the general course of history. At the most they can accelerate or slow down its course for a moment. But if history is devoid of nature, personality, and a course determined by that nature and personality, then it will have no definite course and no universal law, and will be totally unpredictable.
             
From our point of view, as we believe in the nature and personality of history and maintain that its nature and personality are the product of a combination of the personalities of human individuals and hence evolutionary, the accidental events do not harm to the universality and compulsion of history.
             
Montesquieu has beautifully described the role of accidents in history. We reproduce below a part of what he has said in this respect: . . . "If the outcome of a single battle, i.e. a particular cause, was the ruin of a state, there was a general cause which decreed that, that state was destined to perish through a single battle".
                 
He also says: "It was not the affair of Poltava that ruined Charles. Had he not been destroyed at that place, he would have been in another. The casualties of the fortune are easily repaired; but who can be guarded against events that incessantly arise from the nature of things?"
                  
III. Is History Materialistic in Nature?
               
What is the nature of history? Is the real nature of history cultural, political, economic, religious, or moral? Is it material, spiritual or a combination of the two? These are the most important questions concerning history. We cannot have a correct and sound understanding of history unless these questions are resolved.
                
It is evident that all the above mentioned material and spiritual factors have been and are effective in the texture of history. The question is which factor is of primary importance and determining nature? The question is which of these factors forms the real spirit of history and indicates its identity? Which of these factors can explain and interpret all other factors? Which of these factors forms the infrastructure of history and all other factors being its superstructure?
          
Generally speaking the informed people are of the opinion that history is a multi-motored machine in which all motors are independent of each other. What they mean is that history is multi-natured, not uni-natured. But the question is: if history is really multi-motored and multi-natured, what will happen to its evolutionary progress and advancement? History cannot move along a definite evolutionary line if it is driven by several independent motors, each motor generating its own movement and driving history in a direction of its own choice, unless we presume that the above-mentioned factors are mere instincts of history, which has a spirit transcending these instincts and it is that spirit which with the help of its various instincts drives history in a definite direction and forms its real identity. Anyhow, in this case history will be uni-natured, for its nature will be that which has been described as its spirit and not those factors which have been termed its instincts.
                      
In our times a new theory has gained many supporters. It is known as historical materialism or dialectic materialism. Historical materialism means economic interpretation of history and economic and historical interpretation of man, but not human interpretation of economics or history. In other words, historical materialism means that history has material nature and dialectic existence. What is meant by material nature of history is that the basis of all historical movements and phenomena of a society is its economic organization which covers its material products and the forces, relations and the system of its production. According to this theory it is economic organization which gives shape and direction to all social and moral phenomena, including science, philosophy, ethics, religion, law and culture. With a change in the economic organization all these things undergo a corresponding change.
                  
As for dialectic existence of history, that means that the evolutionary movements of history are caused by a series of dialectic contradictions, having a special interrelationship. A dialectic contradiction is different from non-dialectic contradiction for in the case of a dialectic contradiction, every phenomenon compulsorily nourishes within itself a negation of it, and as the result of this inner contradiction, develops to a higher stage which is a synthesis of the two earlier stages.
                  
Thus historical materialism implies two ideas. Firstly that the nature of history is materialistic; secondly, its movements are dialectical movements. We propose to discuss in a subsequent chapter dealing with the development and evolution of history.
          
The theory of the materialistic nature of history is based on a series of certain principles which are either philosophical, psychological or sociological, and this theory in its turn, leads to a number of other theories, concerning ideological problems. In order to make this important point clear, especially in view of the fact that certain modem Muslim writers have claimed that though Islam does not accept philosophical materialism it does accept historical materialism, and have built their historical and social theories on this presumption, we feel that it is necessary to deal with this point in somewhat detail. For this purpose we propose first to discuss the two principles on which this theory is based and the results which ensue from them. Then we will study this theory from scientific as well as Islamic point of view.
 
    
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Reference:
Man and Universe by  Martyr Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari
            
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