Causation has always been a problem for me. I remember as an undergraduate struggling to write a 2,000 word essay explaining the French Revolution, and ending up thinking “what’s the point?”. My PhD thesis was mostly about describing rather than explaining, and where the conclusion touched on the reasons for the outcome of the English Civil War it was particularly weak. My first article mostly revolves around the question “continuity or change?” rather than “why?”, and I only ended up making strong claims about the causes of price changes in order to win an argument with the reviewer. But now I’m working on the Difficult Second Article, where I decided I could make the empirical data sexier by linking it to the debate on the causes of the English Civil War. That was probably a bad idea as it’s taking much longer than I expected, but I’ve put too much time and effort into it to abandon it now, and I need another publication on my CV as soon as possible to help with funding applications. So as well as digging into the mountain of historiography on the civil wars/revolution/whatever I’ve been looking into theories of causation.
There now follow some esoteric theoretical thoughts on an article by S. H. Rigby (from 1996, so not necessarily the latest thing, but it’s a useful starting point even if the author might have moved on since then) on causal hierarchies, taking in Keith Jenkins along the way. Don’t be surprised if I’ve misunderstood some of it – this blog was always meant to be about thinking in public.
Rigby argues against hierarchies of causation: the idea that although most historical events have multiple necessary causes, those causes can be ranked in order of how important they were. He easily demolishes both the Marxist position that there is a universal hierarchy of causes (usually with class at the top), and the traditional historiography which says that hierarchies vary according to time, place, and other circumstances. The argument against hierarchies goes something like this: if several causes are all necessary in order for something to take place, then it makes no sense to rank them, because they are all equally important. Without any one of them the event that you’re trying to explain wouldn’t have happened. Furthermore, there is no way to distinguish between causes and conditions. It all depends on the point of view of historians and their audiences. What are they interested in? What are they prepared to take as given, and what do they think needs explaining?
This is all good, but then he comes up against Keith Jenkins and things get a bit less convincing. Jenkins argues that causal chains are inevitably infinite because whenever we identify a factor that caused something, we also need to know what caused that. There is no obvious or natural point at which we can stop following the chain “backwards and outwards” (in theory at least; in practice loss of records allows us to stop sooner or later!). Rigby argues that abandoning causal hierarchies does not require us to keep following an infinite chain, and claims that his own argument does not lead to relativism or nihilism. That’s true up to a point, because his argument is based on a scenario where we agree that various causes are all necessary. In that case we can’t rank them in relation to each other, but it’s assumed that we’ve already rejected lots of other factors as being irrelevant or incompatible with our chosen causes. However, there’s nothing in the article which convincingly refutes relativism or nihilism.
There are two issues here: first, where you pick up the start of a causal chain, and second, how far you follow it. On the first, Rigby points out that not all explanations are equally valid, and gives examples of explanations which no-one would be likely to think were valid. But that doesn’t quite work. Rigby’s examples of invalid explanations are obviously invalid because they’re physically impossible. He doesn’t really have much to say about how to choose between explanations that are physically possible, and doesn’t give an example of an explanation which is possible but invalid for some other reason. If we rejected all explanations which are physically impossible we would still be left with lots of explanations which are physically possible, and therefore can’t automatically be dismissed, but which are not necessarily compatible with each other, so they can’t all be accepted at the same time. So we’re left with a large number of possible explanations, each of which is potentially valid and internally consistent. That means that there could be many different starting points to choose from before you even get as far as asking “how far back and how far afield” you want to follow the chain.
On the second point, Rigby argues that the length and breadth of the chain will be limited in practice by “first, of the existing state of knowledge in a particular field; secondly, of our own particular expertise; and thirdly, of the knowledge which we can take for granted on the part of our audience”. Earlier in the article he emphasizes how this is related to “the interests and purposes of the speaker”. Keith Jenkins points out how ideology and power might play a role here, as well as more mundane factors such as the accepted length for books and articles.
Ultimately Rigby’s attempt to refute relativisim and nihilism falls back on objectivity, despite arguments against objectivity earlier in the article, stating that “causes, in the sense of multiple conditions, objectively exist in the real world and are knowable by scientists and historians”. Jenkins rejects objectivity on philosophical grounds. Even if you don’t follow him that far, the conflation of scientists and historians, past and present, looks suspicious. If causes in the present are knowable by scientists, it doesn’t logically follow that causes in the past are knowable by historians. If objectivity was attainable, would that necessarily make a definitive causal explanation possible, or would it still be too big and complicated even if all the false explanations could be eliminated?
In any case Rigby made a very strong argument against ranking causes, which no-one can really disagree with: if you have a set of necessary causes you can’t say that one is more necessary than the others. They’re all necessary. It’s as simple as that, and it holds up regardless of what methodology you use to arrive at your necessary causes. Since his argument makes no claims about how necessary causes can or should be identified (and doesn’t need to) it clearly doesn’t lead to nihilism or relativism, but it doesn’t really depend on objectivity either. That he tried to go further is possibly a product of the time when he was writing as in the mid-90s when the theory wars were at their height (apparently – I didn’t really notice at the time, as I’ve said somewhere before) even the very mild relativism of arguing against ranking causes would have been more controversial than it deserved to be.
- Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (Routledge, 2003, first pub. 1991).
- S. H. Rigby, ‘Historical causation: is one thing more important than another?’, History, 80 (1996), pp. 227-42.