Historic Determinism and the Individual


IN considering the life of man in history or in contemporary social relations there are two hypotheses open to us. We may postulate that, from the largest sweep of the historic process down to the most insignificant details of an individual’s daily life, man’s assumed control over his own action and destiny is an illusion, that he is in truth as powerless to alter his present or his future as the moat eddying in the sunbeam, troubled with no such illusory self-consciousness as mocks the highest of created beings. Or, on the other hand, we may postulate that man’s personal destiny and that of society are to some extent, and within certain limits, subject to human control, consciously directed.

If the first of these hypotheses be true, then it is evident that it will make no difference whether man takes thought for himself or not. As well might a drop of water from the ocean, rising and falling in the waves, raised to the clouds by the sun, dropped as rain on the land, attempt to change that inevitable series. What shall be, shall be, and it is useless for man to try to alter a stream of tendency and action which is merely part of the inextricable, eternal, cosmic process. But if, on the contrary, there should be any sphere in which his independent, free will may become effective for good or evil, then it becomes a matter of importance to him and to the human race whether he exerts that will or no and in what direction.

And this exertion becomes increasingly important to society in proportion to the share which the individual has in the formation and guidance of his own government and other institutions. It must be confessed that in many quarters there has been growing for the past generation a feeling of the impotence of the individual, a pessimistic fatalism as to the inevitability of the social and political drift, a relaxation of individual effort from the belief that, after all, it is of little or no avail. This may be due partly to an inevitable reaction from the too buoyant optimism of the humanitarian, social, and scientific philosophy of the Victorian era. It may also be attributed partially to the enormous increases in populations which have occurred since the industrial revolution. The depression of the effectiveness of the individual will, by the increase in the number of directing wills and minds in the great modern democracies, may also be considered a factor. Another may be found in the influence of the scientific concept of universal natural law, with its implied determinism, which has been carried over into the fields of history and social endeavor. But whatever the causes may be which tend to deaden the belief in the value of individual effort, it must be conceded that if there is any sphere for the effective and right willing of individuals in the historic and social processes, it is important that the wills of such individuals be energized rather than allowed to atrophy. It may be well, therefore, to consider whether we have as yet any valid reason to doubt the effectiveness of the individual, and in this article we shall do so from the standpoint of historic determinism.

One of the commonest, as well as the earliest, forms of determinism in history is the theological — the belief that the whole process is determined and controlled by a god, or supernatural power. However, in the Western world, at least, this doctrine has never prevented man from actively trying to control and modify his personal and social life. In our own history there were no stouter strugglers for a new order, no more determined opponents of the established one, than those who believed most strongly in predestination, infant damnation, and the constant interference of the Deity. As exerting any influence toward fatalistic inertia or political pacifism, this form of historic determinism may be discarded, certainly at the present time.

The historic process may also be considered as being determined by forces or conditions within nature but outside man, such as the geographic, climatic, and other elements of his environment, or, thirdly, by conditions partly within and partly without society and the individual. Among these are man’s economic needs and urges, from which we have derived the doctrine of economic determinism, and his physical structure and functioning, from which other forms of determinism have been derived.


There has been no more fascinating subject developed in recent years than that of anthropogeography, or the influence of man’s physical surroundings upon his development and that of his various types of civilization. That these factors modify both man’s physical structure and temperament, and have exerted a vast influence upon his settlements, migrations, industrial and other activities, no longer admits of doubt. The various climates of different sections of the earth’s surface, as well as the great climatic changes in any one of them, have influenced man directly and notably. The abundance, paucity, and character of the natural resources, and the nature of the country as to coast lines, rivers, plains, mountain barriers, and other features have also greatly modified man’s efforts.

In the sixty years since the publication of Buckle’s History of Civilization in England, a whole literature has grown up tracing these modifications in detail upon various types of peoples in relation to their environments. As usually happens, the opening of a new field for thought tended among some thinkers to overemphasize its exclusive importance, and among a certain school ‘ geographic determinism’ overshadowed all other factors in human development. As an extreme example we may refer to Grant Allen, a disciple of Herbert Spencer, who wrote in 1878 that ‘the differences between one nation and another, whether in intellect, commerce, art, morals, or general temperament, ultimately depend . . . simply and solely upon the physical circumstances to which they are exposed. . . . The differentiating agency must be sought in the great permanent geographical features of land and sea . . . these have necessarily and inevitably moulded the characters and histories of every nation upon the earth. . . . We cannot regard any nation as an active agent in differentiating itself. Only the surrounding circumstances can have any effect in such a direction.’ Of the marvelous period of the highest Greek culture he says that ‘it was absolutely and unreservedly the product of the geographical Hellas, acting upon the given factor of the undifferentiated Aryan brain. ‘ Even at present and to minds with wider scientific training, the subject seems to be unusually tempting to dogmatic statement as to geographic influences in particular cases.

Thus, in a recent textbook we find such statements as that ‘Germany has turned especially to chemistry because of the presence of rich deposits of unusual minerals,’ and that the English have been the ‘chief investigators of the science of oceanography’ because of their use of the sea, with no qualifying conditions. The development of skyscrapers in New York City, according to this writer, would seem to be merely a ‘response to the water barrier’ of the city with the resultant high cost of land, ignoring all the other factors, physical and spiritual, which went to the development of that new type of architecture in the case of that particular bitof high-priced real estate. Indeed, so fascinating and absorbing is this game of studying the correlation between physical environment and type of civilization, so exclusive does it become in the minds of some of its less well-balanced professors, that in reading their unguarded statements one has the same feeling as, in a different metaphysical atmosphere, in reading Mather’s Special Providences and learning that when a mouse in Congregational New England destroyed some books in an attic it was found that he had annihilated only Episcopalian Prayer Books. I do not mean at all to imply that the leading scientific geographers of America or Europe are to be classed with such extremists, but the extreme statements are naturally the sensational and arresting ones and those which make the most impression upon the lay mind of the public.

Buckle himself was far more conservative in his exposition of the doctrine of geographic influence than many of his later disciples. This was also true in one point, as we shall note later, of Karl Marx who, writing a few years earlier than Buckle, may be considered as the founder of the doctrine of economic determinism, though not the first to point to the importance of economic factors in social evolution. For him, man was almost wholly a function of nature and, even when he had modified natural conditions by inventions, he yet remained merely ‘ the tool of the tool,’ as one commentator has expressed it. The most succinct and fairest expression of the economic doctrine still remains that given by Professor Seligman in the introduction to his volume on The Economic Interpretation of History. ‘The existence of man,’ he says, ‘depends upon his ability to sustain himself; the economic life is therefore the fundamental condition of all life. Since human life, however, is the life of man in society, individual existence moves within the framework of the social structure and is modified by it. What the conditions of maintenance are to the individual, the similar relations of production and consumption are to the community. To economic causes, therefore, must be traced in the last instance those transformations in the structure of society which themselves condition the relations of social classes and the various manifestations of social life. ‘ As will be noted presently, Professor Seligman qualifies this statement to a very great degree later, but the economic interpretation, which has received somewhat scant application in America as yet, is rapidly growing in appeal and may be pushed by some here, as it has been by some of the wilder extremists in Europe, to the same degree of exclusive extravagance as the theory of geographic determinism. The few important studies based upon the economic doctrine which have appeared in recent years in the United States are of great value and suggestiveness. Professor Beard, for example, in his extremely interesting volume, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, attempts merely to trace, by legitimate methods and inference, the overshadowing economic influence with reference to that political question.

Certain European and American writers in the past, however, have been far more extravagant in their claims for the exclusive determinism of the economic factors. Indeed, the whole of Greek intellectual life and philosophy have been deduced as necessary resultants from economic determinants precisely, and as illogically, as the extremist geographer, Allen, deduced them from the environmental. Not only the whole of man’s social and political institutions, but even the Christian religion, has been found by some to have been the inevitable outcome of human economic needs and their satisfactions without consideration of other elements.

Here, again, I wish to emphasize that such extremists do not represent the sounder historical and economic scholars, but their unbalanced pronouncements impress that part of the public which reacts more easily to startling generalities than to cautious investigation.

As Henry Adams once said, those who read Buckle’s first volume in 1857 and, two years later, Darwin’s Origin of Species could not then doubt that ‘historians would follow until they had exhausted every possible hypothesis to create a science of history.’ As new sciences or pseudo-sciences have developed, one or another historian, enamored of some one of them, has endeavored to make it the controlling or determining factor in the historic process as envisaged by himself. Even the Freudian psychology has seriously attempted to recast the American Revolution in terms of an obscure neuroticism on the part of Samuel Adams, and the rending of an empire has been traced to the inferiority complex and ‘dream world’ of that astute if not always immaculate politician.

Of a different type of determinism has been the search for the general laws, rather than merely a determining cause, which may rule over the historic process. In his brilliant presidential address made at the last meeting of the American Historical Association, Professor Cheyney attempted, modestly and tentatively, to arrive at certain historical laws which, he said, he did not conceive of as ‘principles which it would be well for us to accept, or as ideals which we may hope to attain, but as natural laws, which we must accept whether we want to or not . . . laws to be accepted and reckoned with as much as the laws of gravitation, or of chemical affinity, or of human evolution, or of human psychology. ‘ He finds these to be the law of continuity— the impossibility of any sudden break with the past; the law of impermanence — the inevitable rise, growth, and decline of social groups or nations; the law of interdependence — that no part of the human race can progress by the injury of another; the law of democracy — the tendency for all government to come under the control of all the people; the law of necessity for free human consent; and the law of moral progress — the slow but measurable increase in the influence of morals upon human affairs. Quite different was Henry Adams’s attempt to discover a mathematical law of progress and decline in his application of the physical concept of ‘phase’ to the domain of history.


It is evident from these brief notes on certain recent tendencies in historical work that we are drifting far from the idea of man as a thinking, selfconscious being, determining by his own thoughts and acts the destiny of himself and his fellows. It is true that man has ever felt that his acts are subject to the veto of a higher power, whether expressed in terms of theology or of science. As Professor Cheyney pointed out in the address to which we have referred, we find this thought in one of the earliest written documents of any section of the human race, the papyrus of Ptah Hotep. There it is written that ‘never hath that which men have prepared for come to pass; for what the deity hath commanded, even that thing cometh to pass.’ But it may be noted that the scribe thought of men as self-consciously and freely struggling for something, however their efforts might be brought to naught by a higher powder. It is at least the stimulating conception of two wills clashing, even though man’s might always prove the weaker. That conception is of a quite different order from those of the geographic, economic, and other determinists of the extremist groups, who find that man’s thoughts, motives, and deceptive belief in his own will and self-direction are in reality all moulded and determined by the forces of nature.

Indeed, according to them, human society merges into nature and becomes as inevitably a part of the cosmic process as the gathering of star dust into nebulæ. If that is the case are we not theoretically justified in giving up all effort and allowing ourselves to become the mere sport of the forces concerned? If the theories are correct, have we any will in the matter at all? If Phidias or Aristotle or Pericles was merely the product of geographic Hellas may not a New Yorker shift all responsibility to Manhattan Island, content himself with murmuring ‘God is great,’ and cease from troubling Mr. Hylan? It has been said, with a good deal of truth, that the problem of determinism in history is merely a new phase of the old problem of the freedom of man’s will. However, the psychologic effect of the doctrine is rather different. This may be due to the fact that man’s individual consciousness is far more highly developed than his social consciousness and spurs him on to action in spite of theory. The most determined fatalist will still struggle for his own good or strive to save his life. The urge to do so is so great as not to be affected by any inhibition in the realm of theory. But the urge to strive for the good of society, or to save its existence, is far weaker, and succumbs far more quickly to the doctrine that the individual is powerless in the matter. However, do the facts of history or science, as thus far developed, point inevitably to the conclusion that man is thus powerless? Is there any foundation for the position taken by the various extremist groups?

In examining the degrees and forms of determinism assumed in history we may note certain general and specific aspects of the theories. In so far as man has to work out his individual or racial destiny subject to general laws, such as those suggested by Professor Cheyney, there is nothing which should serve to depress individual effort. The only one of those deduced by him which might seem to have a pessimistic implication — the law of impermanence — merely places limits upon the life of nations similar to those which we have to recognize in the life of the individual. As individuals, we are born, grow, sicken, and die, but this physiological cycle has no bearing whatever upon the problem of the freedom of our wills.

In the same way, in the larger cycle of the life of organized societies, the fact that they may decline by natural law as inevitably as they arise has no bearing whatever upon the ability of the individuals who compose them to mould the destinies of their groups or nations during their existence. Individuals may or may not have that ability, but the law of impermanence is wholly irrelevant to the question at issue. Such a law belongs to what we may call the physiology of history.

We may similarly trace the development of the individual from the union of two germ cells, through all the stages of growth, disease, decay, and death. That is a legitimate standpoint from which to observe one aspect of that individual life, but if we had every detail in such an account should we have in any sense a biography of the man? The discovery of the laws relating to the physiological growth of the individual has been of enormous benefit to mankind. It may make no difference to the universe whether a man is a living, thinking, willing organism or has degenerated into his physical elements after death, but it makes all the difference to the man.

The laws of physiology thus far discovered have taught us that, if we are to maintain our health, we must do certain things and avoid others. It is precisely because we can and do avail ourselves of such known choices that the discovery of those laws has been of service. In the same way the discovery of the laws of the health or disease of nations would not mean that we were less capable of determining their development but that, on the other hand, by enabling us to foresee the results of certain choices of conduct it would enable us to extend and enrich the average national life, as we have been able to extend and enrich the average individual life.


In a survey of the literature dealing with the relations between geography and man’s history we are struck by certain aspects of the geographer’s contribution to the historian. One of these is the vast span of time, compared with the life of the individual, required for the influence of certain geographic factors to be felt, and, in some cases, as that of the alterations in climate, for the factors themselves to become operative. We are, in these cases, dealing with what, we may term the geology rather than the physiography of history. We cannot understand the physiography of any locality without knowing its geological history, the original formation of its rocks, the slow upheaval, perhaps, from below an original sea level, the crumpling of the earth into mountain ranges, their slow denudation, or the effects of glacial action. But here, as in the general laws of history, we are dealing with a different order of facts from those which we study in describing a landscape in its human terms of villages and the life of their inhabitants. Man’s activities are influenced by the climate, by the nature of the soils and other resources, by the character of the portion of the earth in which he dwells; but this is merely the framework of an environment to which he reacts, and he reacts very differently at different times and under different conditions.

In fact, when we leave the broader generalizations and come down to tracing the influence as a determinant of any particular geographical factor upon any particular people at a particular time, we find that we have to make so many allowances for other factors in the way that such a people respond to their environment as to force us, by any canon of common sense, to consider geographic factors merely as modifiers and not as determinants at all. Consequently, the leading workers to-day in the field of anthropo-geography have adopted an extremely conservative attitude as compared with the extremists of a few years ago. In what is probably the ablest contribution to this growing science in America, Miss Semple’s Influence of Geographic Environment, the author states in preface that she ‘speaks of geographic factors and influences, shuns the word geographic determinant, and speaks with extreme caution of geographic control.’ Many of the most scientific workers in the field to-day admit the decreasing importance of geographic factors as peoples progress in knowdedge and control over their environment, although this is denied by some. Buckle himself stated that the influence of the physical environment decreased as civilization progressed, and that the advance in civilization had been ‘characterized by a diminishing influence of physical laws and an increasing influence of mental laws. ‘

What we have just said of the theory of geographic determinism may also be said of economic determinism. In America the ablest exponent of the doctrine has been Professor Seligman, and in his final estimate he states that ‘ from a purely philosophical standpoint, it may be confessed that the theory, especially in its extreme form, is no longer tenable as the universal explanation of all human life,’ and that ‘as a philosophical doctrine of universal validity, the theory of “historical materialism" can no longer be successfully defended.’ Although he believes it to have been substantially true of the past, he thinks it will become less and less true of the future. As Dr. Shotwell has pointed out, even Marx’s extreme economic determinism ended in assuming the control of mind. When Marx turned from considering the past evolution of society to forecasting the socialist state of the future, he predicated that the proletariat, hitherto ground down by blind economic forces, were finally to master economics for themselves and so to control the forces which had formerly mastered them. This same admission on the part of those most interested in proving geographic or economic control over man’s history — the admission that in the end mind counts increasingly in the scale — receives added confirmation from Professor Cheyney in his sixth law of history, that of moral progress. ‘Obscurely and slowly,’ he says, ‘yet visibly and measurably, moral influences in human affairs have become stronger and more widely extended than material influences. ‘

Of course, the extreme determinists claim that this is a mere begging of the question, and that mind and morals are themselves the products of the determining factor. Aside, however, from the unproven assumptions involved in this claim, it may be pointed out that we can never know the ultimate cause of the present universe, and that as we trace back successive proximate causes we are apt to find them multiplying as do the ancestors of any individual in his family tree. It may be that the derivation of a particular moral idea, for example, may be traced to economics, but to describe the derivation of a thing is not to describe its potential possibilities or developed nature.

If we approach the question of historic determinism from the standpoint of biologic necessity, we are involved in all the philosophical difficulties which are beginning to beset the biologist in his narrower field. The more the development, structure, and functioning of living beings are studied, the more difficult does it become to reject ‘end as distinguished from mechanical cause.’ In the functioning of the individual cells which make up the aggregate of a living body there is now recognized to be a quasi-purposiveness that cannot be philosophically ignored. The study of life requires the employment of conceptions which do not belong to the realm of mathematics, physics, chemistry, or the other sciences, though these are all required for the full understanding of the living organism. The sum total of all the data derived from them, however, is inadequate to complete knowledge of life itself.


The modern method of extending the bounds of knowledge is by considering reality in one aspect only at a time. The philologist is concerned only with the laws of language, the mathematician with the serial order, and so with the other scientists, each working in his particular field which he purposely isolates. But the actual universe has many aspects, innumerable pointsof approach, no one of which alone can give us an adequate idea of the underlying reality. The various sciences are, as it were, but varying points of view from which we scan nature. We can no more interpret its vast richness solely in terms of chemistry than in those of theology. In the last few generations, the natural sciences have made such enormous strides in adding to our knowledge of certain aspects of the universe that they have overshadowed all other methods of approach to its problems. It is too often forgotten, however, that these sciences rest on certain metaphysical assumptions which are ignored by the public and often held naïvely or unthinkingly by scientific workers themselves. By utilizing these assumptions we have been able to solve a vast number of problems, as the algebraist solves his by the use of x, y, and z. But it by no means follows that all the problems of the universe can be solved by making the same assumptions and using the same rules. This fact, and it is a most important one, is largely lost to view because of the dazzling results of science in exploiting the universe from its particular standpoint. As a method of investigating one aspect of reality it has been an unqualified success, and the possibility that there are other aspects, for the interpretation of which it might not be fitted at all, has been lost to sight, ignored, or flatly denied. Every age unconsciously fashions its own philosophy, and this philosophy moulds the thoughts and outlook of the millions who never read a philosophical work. As Viscount Haldane has recently said of the scientists, ‘ it is only their clinging to an a priori metaphysical view, held most often unconsciously, that makes so many try to render the phenomena of life into physical and chemical conceptions.5

Geography, economics, biology, psychology, sociology, and the other sciences have enormously enriched the content and conception of history. History can never again be written as the record of the acts, desires, caprices of a few leading men and their effects. But it may well be asked whether the sudden opening of these vast new domains of knowledge has not tended to depress unduly the share taken in the historic process by thinking, willing man. Are we not in danger of making too much of the environment, understood in its broadest sense, and too little of the chief actor in our drama, the self-conscious individual man, whose reactions to that environment form the real theme of our story? No doctrine is held more in contempt at the present time than that of the ‘ great man in history.’ It will probably never be held again in its old form; but have we not reacted too far? It is true that no individual, no matter how vast his apparent historic importance, can alter the historic process in any direction he might choose; but because he cannot make himself felt unless he is in harmony with the social forces of his time, are we to assume offhand that those forces accomplish everything and that the influence of the ‘great man’ is wholly negligible? May he not give just the deflection at any given time which may set those forces in a direction which they would not otherwise have taken, with incalculable results?

The view, for example, is becoming more and more widely held that the American Revolution was inevitable owing to many causes. I myself believe it to have been so. But to proceed from that to say that the life and character of Washington were not of determining importance I believe to be an unscientific assumption. Had it not been for Washington, I do not believe that the revolt would have succeeded at that time in achieving separation from England. Granted that the separation was inevitable sometime, is it scientific to assume that the course of all European and American history would have been unchanged at all from what it was? Or is it scientific to assert dogmatically that, if Washington had died or failed the cause, some other man with the same qualities would have of necessity arisen to replace him? Is not that a gratuitous assumption, not only not based upon any provable facts but opposed to the fact of the scarcity of great men in history? Is it not more scientific, as William James pointed out many years ago, to accept great men as part of our data and as, at least, one factor in effecting social change?

And as with the great man in the nation, so it is with the small man in his community. Is it any more scientific, though it may sound more learned, to invoke as sole causes of social change the ‘great cyclical forces’ rather than the thoughts and wills of you and me and the rest of our hundred and ten millions who make up the present nation? It may be that our thoughts and wills are more or less dependent upon those of all the rest, and that these constitute a ‘force’ against which at times we seem powerless. But in so far as we ourselves think and act are we not modifying, infinitesimally it may be, that very force, and is it not incumbent upon us so to do? It would seem as though, within the limits set for us by our environment and subject to the as yet undiscovered laws of history, the future of the nation depended very much upon our doing so. Rather than rest in a fatalistic belief in the forces shaping our destiny it behooves us to attempt actively to mould that destiny for ourselves and our posterity, welcoming all knowledge of the conditions under which we exist and of the laws which may be utilized to shape our ends.

As we have seen, the extreme views held by certain determinists in geography, economics, and the other sciences are not sanctioned by the leading men in those various branches of knowledge, and the whole trend of recent thought is rather toward ascribing a wider and wider range to the spiritual factors. History can never be a mere science, in the narrow popular meaning of that word in America. It is not wholly determined by the laws postulated by the sciences. The metaphysical assumptions underlying the sciences probably underlie certain portions of the historic process as well and can be used for their interpretation, but there are others which require an entirely different method of approach. For the past three generations, the shadow of scientific determinism has been slowly obscuring in the popular mind the light from the spiritual side of the universe, as the shadow of the moon in an eclipse obscures the light from the sun. The attitude of the unphilosophical public was never warranted even by the facts of science and certainly not by a view of the universe which gives to science its proper place and function.

In history the delimiting of the field in which determinism plays its part, and the recognition of the potency of the spiritual factors, should restore tone to the slackened will of the citizen. If, in despair, man should refuse to believe in and to avail himself of his power to control his own destiny, then, and then only, would there be no hope.

Yea, if no morning must behold
Man, other than were they now cold,
And other deeds than past deeds done,
Nor any near or far-off sun
Salute him risen and sunlike-souled,
Free, boundless, fearless, perfect one,
Let man’s world die like worlds of old,
And here in Heaven’s sight only be
The sole sun on the worldless sea.