Mises Daily Articles

Home | Mises Library | Conjecture and History

Conjecture and History

  • FergusonSumner.jpg

Tags Media and CultureWorld History

08/05/2011Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Conjecture and History"]


All history is partly conjectural. If we think about the enterprise of history for a moment or two, we can easily see why this must be so. For when we walk outside our dwellings and take a look at the world around us, one inescapable fact is that much of the past is still here, still with us. Particularly if the town or city we live in has been in existence for a while, walking through such a place is something like being a geologist and passing through a present world in which outcroppings of the past — buildings, statues, place names, institutions, even transportation infrastructure (like San Francisco's famous cable car tracks) — appear cheek by jowl and fully contemporaneous with buildings, statues, place names, institutions, and transportation infrastructure established only within the last few years, or at least within living memory. But not all of the past is still here. Some of it is still here. But the rest — the majority of it — is gone.

If we are to write about the way things were in this place in the past, how are we to know about that part of the past that has not survived? The answer is that we rely on documents for information about those aspects of the past that we can no longer witness directly for ourselves. For, as the English historian John Tosh reminds us, "From the High Middle Ages … onwards [which is to say, for approximately the last thousand years], the written word survives in greater abundance than any other source for Western history." Still, though, not all the documents produced during the past thousand years of Western history have survived. Many of them are gone, lost, inaccessible to the historian. The historian can work only with what has survived.

The surviving written word is of a number of types. There are published and unpublished sources. The unpublished sources include the diaries, journals, and letters of individuals; the records and correspondence of those engaged in business enterprises; and the paperwork generated by government at all its levels. The published sources include flyers, pamphlets, almanacs, catalogues, newspapers, magazines, and books. And not all of these, whether published or unpublished, may safely be relied upon. As John Tosh observes, "many primary sources are inaccurate, muddled, based on hearsay or intended to mislead." Indeed, "the majority of sources are in some way inaccurate, incomplete or tainted by prejudice and self-interest." So some of the facts the historian needs are inaccessible and much of what is accessible is also unreliable.

What do you do, then, if you're writing an account of some historical event or some historical period or some individual's life and career and you come to a point where the available information thins out, and you don't know for sure what happened next? What if there appear to be no documents that provide that information? Or if there are several documents that give conflicting information? If it's a minor issue, one that doesn't really matter that much to the overall point you're making in the article or chapter you're writing, you can work around it, simply say nothing about it one way or another. In some cases, however, you're going to feel that you need to know what happened, if only in order to tell a coherent story — one that doesn't leave nagging questions in the minds of your readers or listeners. So what do you do?

The answer is that you make your best guess about what actually happened. You use words like "probably" and "presumably," so that your readers or listeners will know that you're dealing in conjecture, not facts. And you make your best guess. And what is that best guess based upon? It's based upon your knowledge of the historical situation, of course — the facts you do have — plus your understanding, or at least your beliefs, about human nature and about the way the world is.

The historian John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History, has proposed that every historian approaches his subject with certain assumptions, based on personal experience, about "how things happen" in the world — assumptions about the way the world works. "Sorting out the difference between how things happen and how things happened," Gaddis writes, "involves more than just changing a verb tense. It's an important part of what's involved in achieving [a] closer fit between representation and reality."

Even if a particular historian is not very philosophical of temperament — not much given to reflecting on the nature of the human condition (and this perfectly describes most historians, by the way) — that historian will still be operating under certain assumptions about "how things happen" in this world and this life. Ayn Rand used the phrase "sense of life" to describe what I'm talking about here. "A sense of life," Rand wrote in 1966,

is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics, man makes choices, forms value-judgments, experiences emotions and acquires a certain implicit view of life. Every choice and value judgment implies some estimate of himself and of the world around him — most particularly, of his capacity to deal with the world. He may draw conscious conclusions, which may be true or false; or he may remain mentally passive and merely react to events (i.e., merely feel). Whatever the case may be, his subconscious mechanism sums up his psychological activities, integrating his conclusions, reactions or evasions into an emotional sum that establishes a habitual pattern and becomes his automatic response to the world around him. What began as a series of single, discrete conclusions (or evasions) about his own particular problems, becomes a generalized feeling about existence, an implicit metaphysics with the compelling motivational power of a constant, basic emotion — an emotion which is part of all his other emotions and underlies all his experiences. This is a sense of life.

According to Rand, "The key concept, in the formation of a sense of life, is the term 'important.'" What is important, worth noticing, worth heeding, paying attention to, about life? What aspects of life are important in the sense that they encapsulate and, in effect, represent something about the way the human condition is, in its essence?

Rand employed this concept of "sense of life" principally in her discussion of the arts, especially the art of fiction writing, arguing that "it is the artist's sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style" as he "selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant — and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting [what he regards as] the insignificant and accidental … presents his view of existence."

But is it not obvious that what Rand says here is no less true of the historian, who tells stories about actual events, periods, and individual human lives of the past? For the historian selects those aspects of the past that he regards as significant and, by isolating and stressing them, by omitting what he regards as the insignificant and accidental, presents his view of the event, period, or individual life he is writing about. And what he regards as significant will be, in the end, at least partially determined by his "sense of life," by his notions about "how things happen" in this world of ours.

And what if the events the historian is writing about took place more than a thousand years ago? What if they took place so long ago that no documents regarding them have survived? What if they took place before written records of any kind were even systematically created and kept? I'm thinking here of two particular historical works that loom large in the libertarian tradition: Folkways by William Graham Sumner and An Essay on the History of Civil Society by Adam Ferguson.

Folkways, which is subtitled A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals, begins by discussing the origin of folkways. "If we put together all that we have learned from anthropology and ethnography about primitive men and primitive society," Sumner writes, "we perceive that the first task of life is to live. Men begin with acts, not with thoughts. Every moment brings necessities which must be satisfied at once. Need was the first experience, and it was followed at once by a blundering effort to satisfy it." In the beginning,

"Human beings living in communities frequently 'stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action but not the execution of any human design.'"
— Adam Ferguson

the method [was] that of trial and failure, which produces repeated pain, loss, and disappointments.… Need was the impelling force. Pleasure and pain, on the one side and the other, were the rude constraints which defined the line on which efforts must proceed. The ability to distinguish between pleasure and pain is the only psychical power which is to be assumed. Thus ways of doing things were selected, which were expedient. They answered the purpose better than other ways, or with less toil and pain. Along the course on which efforts were compelled to go, habit, routine, and skill were developed. The struggle to maintain existence was carried on, not individually, but in groups. Each profited by the other's experience; hence there was concurrence towards that which proved to be most expedient. All at last adopted the same way for the same purpose; hence the ways turned into customs and became mass phenomena.… In this way folkways arise. The young learn them by tradition, imitation, and authority.

At this point, it seems to me, any properly skeptical reader simply has to ask, "How on earth does Sumner know all this?" No documents exist that could possibly give him this information. And the events he is describing happened so long ago that they could scarcely have left much physical evidence behind. Sumner's remark at the beginning of the passage about "all that we have learned from anthropology and ethnography" with regard to "primitive men and primitive society" is the tipoff.

Anthropologists and ethnographers take the fragmentary and often suggestive but always ambiguous remains of events in the remote past and, combining this scanty information with what is known about so-called "primitive" people living a "primitive" lifestyle in more recent times and with the anthropologists' and ethnographers' own notions, whether consciously or unconsciously held, about the nature of the human condition and "how things happen" in the world, they attempt to infer what life must have been like for these ancient people.

These anthropologists and ethnographers, then, are doing essentially the same thing every historian, every police detective, every natural scientist does. They are looking at an existing situation, an existing state of affairs, and asking themselves, "How did things come to this pass? What events, if they had happened, would have led inexorably to what I see before me?"

The method by which natural scientists generate hypotheses — the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called it "abduction" or "retroduction" to distinguish it from induction and deduction — but whatever you call it, it has much in common with what the elementary textbooks in logic call the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent. If it rains, then the streets will be wet. The streets are wet, therefore it has rained. Logically, not necessarily.

But the scientific method says, "The streets are wet? That would be the case if it had rained. Maybe it has rained." Then, the scientific method tests that hypothesis. Has it rained? What do the empirical data show? If it hasn't rained, what else might account for the wet conditions we see around us? For the historian, as we have seen, the empirical data may not be conclusive; he or she may have to make his or her best guess, based, at least in part, on his or her views on the human condition and "how things happen" in this world we all live in.

At one point in the opening pages of Folkways, Sumner writes that

It is of the first importance to notice that, from the first acts by which men try to satisfy needs, each act stands by itself, and looks no further than the immediate satisfaction. From recurrent needs arise habits for the individual and customs for the group, but these results are consequences which were never conscious, and never foreseen or intended. They are not noticed until they have long existed, and it is still longer before they are appreciated. Another long time must pass, and a higher stage of mental development must be reached, before they can be used as a basis from which to deduce rules for meeting, in the future, problems whose pressure can be foreseen. The folkways, therefore, are not creations of human purpose and wit.

This bears an almost uncanny resemblance to an observation made by Adam Ferguson nearly 140 years earlier, in 1767, in his book An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Ferguson was a Scot, born 288 years ago, on July 1, 1723, the son of a clergyman. He entered the ministry himself in 1745, at the age of 22, but found he had little talent for the work. After nine years, he gave it up, traveled on the continent for a time, then returned to Scotland and spent a couple of years working as a librarian and as a private tutor before joining the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, where he remained for most of the next three decades.

After resigning in 1785, at the age of 62, Ferguson devoted himself to travel and writing. He died early in 1816, in Scotland, at the age of 92. He wrote An Essay on the History of Civil Society not long after beginning his teaching career at the University of Edinburgh, when he was in his early 40s. And in its pages he noted that human beings living in communities frequently "stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action but not the execution of any human design." Ronald Hamowy, in his excellent article on Ferguson in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, calls this insight of Ferguson's "possibly the single most spectacular contribution to social philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment." He finds it "reflected in Adam Smith's description of the market as an 'invisible hand' and in David Hume's discussions of the origin and nature of justice." And, of course, in the more recent works of Friedrich Hayek, it has become one of the most influential ideas in modern social thought.

And where did this idea — this linchpin of the libertarian tradition — come from? From what Hamowy describes as "a conjectural history of social institutions," full of Adam Ferguson's best guesses as to what probably happened many millennia ago, when human beings were first bringing order to their social life. Ferguson had little solid factual basis for his guesses; he had to base them mostly on his beliefs about the human condition generally and about the "way things happen" in this world we all share. Not for nothing did he entitle his first chapter, "Of the General Characteristics of Human Nature."

Ferguson's beliefs on these issues, which he had formed gradually over 40-odd years of living, led him to see something different when he looked closely at the same social institutions that people had been looking at for centuries before him. They led him to see what we now, thanks to Hayek, know as "spontaneous order." As Hamowy writes,

embedded in Ferguson's conjectural analysis of the historical development of societies is the notion that the institutions under which men live are not the product of deliberate contrivance, but take their form through a process of evolution. Indeed, these institutional arrangements are of such a high order of complexity that their structure and interconnections with each other are beyond the comprehension of any mind. Rather, they come into being and are shaped by numerous discrete individual actions, none of which aims at the formation of coherent social institutions. Society is not the result of calculation, but arises spontaneously, and its institutions are not the result of intentional design, but of men's actions, which have as their purpose an array of short-term private objectives.

It seems clear, does it not, that this almost certainly is what happened long, long ago — that this is how humans came to have the social institutions we see before us when we go out to look at the world of 2011? Yet it is a historical truth which was not arrived at by studying the documents and other artifacts left over from the time in which it happened. It is a historical truth — as profound a historical truth as anyone has ever identified — which was arrived at by a man who looked intently at what little was known in the mid-18th century about the early social experience of human beings and then offered his best guess.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.

Shield icon library