Message-ID: <>
Date: Tue, 17 Nov 1998 10:38:44 -0500
Sender: PHILosophy OF HIstory and theoretical history <PHILOFHI@YORKU.CA>
From: John GROVES <John_R_Groves@FERRIS.EDU>
Subject: influence/founders/propagators


A dialog from the PhilOfHi list, November 1998

Date: Tue, 17 Nov 1998 10:38:44 -0500
From: John GROVES <John_R_Groves@FERRIS.EDU>

Dear Philofhi people:

Eustace and Haines have raised an interesting topic on the matter of influence. Are we to rate, say, Jesus as very important as the founder of the religion, or do we rate him lower with the historical influence going to those like St. Paul, who propagated his doctrines? Let me put in my two cents for the founders. Jesus was certainly a necessary condition for Christianity. That is undeniable. Now St Paul and others did most of the leg work, but weren't they influenced by Jesus in a rather big way? Isn't Jesus the logical starting point in tracing the chain of influence back? In counter-factual terms, Paul would not have been possible without Jesus, so the influence question must, imho, go to Jesus. That is, unless we think that Manicheanism would have appealed to those who became Christians as easily as Christianity did.

Randy Groves

Date: Tue, 17 Nov 1998 10:56:22 -0500
From: Steven Kayser <skayser@HOME.COM>

John Groves writes:

> Paul would not have been possible without Jesus, so the influence
> question must, imho, go to Jesus.


When i look at the similarities between the cult of Mithra and the cult of Jesus, i wonder if Paul really needed Jesus or if he could have made do with any number of characters.

Date: Tue, 17 Nov 1998 17:56:57 -0500


Good to re-title the thread, for the interesting subject of the determinants of historical importance does not belong under “Reason” and Hegel.

To populate the field of discourse, I mention that the real parent of this topic was the ill-fated discussion of Hart's list. I'm afraid that I was so negative about accepting a “great man theory” of history that I upset Nikolai, but the virtue of Randy's contribution is to offer something positive to make discussion possible. The criterion for discussion: necessary condition.

Secondly, I should recall that another parent for this theme was a discussion of Reason in history. In my last contribution to that I argued myself out on a limb. I suggested, first, that historical impact represents a consequence of action, and only living people can act. Secondly, in the case of Jesus, I tried to illustrate that the character of Christianity and its world impact is almost entirely due to factors that were entirely subsequent to Jesus’s death.

Upon reflection, I think an implication is that no one in history has any “historical” impact, but at best only a “world” impact without entail. We may reconstitute the historical process in our mind, but there are no historic agents that extend beyond the span of a human life.

I'm not entirely happy with this conclusion myself, and I suspect the real problem is that historians have not yet been able to represent history in thought as a processes, but only as a succession of static states like movie stills. Yes, Kai and Fred, I do think Hegel pointed in the direction of such a possibility, although not being able to achieve it in terms acceptable to the 20th century. And, yes, Eustace, I see thermodynamics as offering an important model for thinking about processes (even, like Hegel, about contradictory processes), but I would not warmly embrace applying thermodynamics to history (for example, I'm not impressed by efforts to do so such as that of Adams for the ancient Near East, for ex.)

Thanks for tolerating these reflections, and I now turn to your suggested criterion of importance. I had argued that Jesus played little role in shaping the character or causing the growth of the religion named after him, but he may well have been a necessary precondition of Christianity, and so I’d like to look at that.

Unfortunately, I'm not at all persuaded that necessary condition is necessarily associated with historical importance. Let me support this with some examples. Just as Christ may have been a necessary condition for Christianity, Joseph was a necessary condition for Christ. Why say Christ is important, but Joseph a non-entity (or a mere fool, as he was typically represented in Medieval art)? Everything has necessary conditions, and every necessary condition has necessary conditions going back to the beginning. “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, ...” and the “butterfly effect” are examples where petty conditions have major consequences; and history also offers examples of major events with negligible consequences.

I realize I'm fudging the difference between “necessary” conditions and conditions in general, but to argue that one condition was really necessary and another not seems to require some some way to judge the degrees of necessity, and that, I believe, is the real question. The reasoning becomes circular. Also, there are conditions that are really necessary, but still are petty. The bombardier who pushed the button on the plane that bombed Hiroshima performed a very minor act, but it was a very necessary condition. To say that his act was petty, while President Truman’s policy decision was momentous requires some justification looking beyond the events in question.

So the effect of the action of a great man on history seems to depend more on circumstance than on the man or his action. If a great man didn't happen to exist at the time, he would have to be invented.

Another problem is that history is in principle emergent (negentropic). That is, in principle all effects are more significant, interesting, or unique than their necessary conditions or immediate causes. In the static and mechanical terms traditionally used by historians, outcomes are implicit in their conditions, and so knowing conditions will enable you to predict outcomes. Of course, then there would be no history at all! History, though, is a creative (emergent) process in which our retrospective predictions at best only define the probability distribution of possible outcomes.

That is, historical significance never is adequately explained by the circumstances we inherit from the past, but is always created through struggle in the in the present. The past only constrains this creative struggle in the present. Again, historians have failed to develop the conceptual tools and vocabulary to represent this in thought, and so they are incapable of analyzing historical importance.

Wow! I'll be jumped on for that! The thinkers whom I see as having pointed in the necessary direction are often denigrated: Hegel, Engels, Bergson, Spengler, Arthur Koestler (I'll raise eyebrows with that one ;-), etc. We become so obsessed with arguing the truth value of what such authors said that we fail to see them as contributing to a process of intellectual development that we should be carrying forward, but fail miserably to achieve. We should all be using Hegel's dialectics, dialectical materialism, put Úlan vitale on a scientific basis, reconcile Spengler with systems theory, and get Koestler's “holons” away from metaphysics, etc., to forge a new representation that will be adequate to the 21st century. In fact, people seem more inclined now to retreat than advance.