What Is Historical Causation?

by Ocean Malandra

"Everything that becomes or changes," Plato said, "must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause." Historical causation is the attempt to trace current and historical events to their root causes. For example, philosopher Bertrand Russell traced the cause of industrialization back through the European Renaissance, to the fall of Constantinople, the invasion of the Turks and finally, to social disintegration in Central Asia. Historical causation tries to find an explanation for changes and is often also used to predict events, by forecasting the effects of current events on future situations. Ideas about historical causation have changed dramatically over time, but the subject has always been at the center of how we understand our world.

Ancient Ideas of Historical Causation

Ancient ideas of historical causation were often linked to metaphysical and mythological ideas about how the world works. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that fate and destiny caused events like a leader's rise to power and the outcome of wars. Several Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, tried to formulate more systematic ideas of causation. Aristotle devised a four-part inquiry into the cause of events that included tracing them back to an original idea in someone's head.

Historic Causation in the Middle Ages

In Christian Europe, many thinkers tried to reconcile philosophers' earlier ideas about causation with a world view in which all things ultimately had their origin in God. To Thomas Aquinas, not only did all things have an internal cause created by God, but all things were simply the fulfillment of God's plan.

Historical Causation in the Age of Reason

With the discovery of the laws of physics and mechanical ideas about the nature of reality, European ideas about historical causation changed drastically. Newton explicitly attacks causation as a primary force, stating that "Any movement that happens according to the first law of motion is an uncaused event." Other thinkers reexamined historical events in a new light, observing that changing certain variables could have produced different historical outcomes. Pascal's "Cleopatra's Nose" is one of the most famous examples of this: He claimed that if the Egyptian queen's nose had been just a little bit shorter, Mark Anthony would not have found her beautiful enough to forsake his Roman wife, and the world would be a different place.

Historical Causation in Modern Times

Since the scientific revolution, ideas about historical causation have tended to follow along the lines of Pascal's thinking, that even the smallest event can dramatically shape the grand scheme of things. This is apparent in advanced ideas such as the "chaos theory," in which even the flapping of the wings of a butterfly can effect circumstances on the other side of the world -- known as the "butterfly effect." Modern best-selling books like Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" apply the latest findings of archaeology and the natural sciences to trace the historical causation of what is possibly the most important subject on earth: the survival of human civilizations.

About the Author

Based in San Francisco, Ocean Malandra is a travel writer, author and documentary filmmaker. He runs a major San Francisco travel website, is widely published in both online and print publications and has contributed to several travel guidebooks to South America.

Photo Credits

  • George_Papapostolou/iStock/Getty Images