A deconstruction of event

By Haines Brown, 22 November 2006

This is a little commentary on an important concept in historiography that strikes me as dangerously ambivalent and is a frequent source of difficulty.

The “event” is employed as a basic unit that serves to capture three different aspects of a historical object.

First, an event can serve to identify a particular set of features that are limited in both time and place. It relies on phenomena to distinguish the event from the rest of the world and identify a particular moment in time. The event therefore represents a kind of reduction or focus of attention.

Second, it offers a handy “causal node” to capture a cause and sometimes also an effect if they happen to be local and of short duration. For example, the historian describes an event, and then, relying on some kind of explicit or implicit justification, looks to either another local event or a more permanent alteration in circumstances as its effect. Usually this is inferred from observational phenomena.

Third, an event presumes to offer a way to attach the time dimension to our necessarily static identification of an historical situation. That is, it purports to represent something as a process. The time dimension, again, is inferred from observational phenomena that happen to also be novel. The actual length of time required for the event to pass is irrelevant because the aim is not to specify change within a time frame, but to say that the event is a state of becoming rather than of being.

This ambivalence in meaning is reflected in dictionary definitions. Most definitions refer to an event as a change or a process taking place in a limited time and space, at a particular point, in which case it is similar to words such as incident, action, operation and occurrence. But it is also defined as involving causality, making it similar to words like consequence, conclusion and result. As a description of a state of affairs, it is comparable to such a phrase as special circumstance.

While causality implies the passage of time and we find evidence of time's passing through the relation of a cause and its effect, and obviously it involves some kind of entity, these three aspects, identity, cause and time, are left unreconciled, for it turns out that, purely in terms of phenomena, time, cause and identity are irreconcilable or even contradictory. How can one see the passage of time if it involves an object that is defined as being static? What is the real connection between cause and effect other than a supposition having little to do with our identification the events? Causation is obviously depends on the time dimension, but how?

I will not here attempt to resolve these questions, which will be the subject of another and longer essay. Here I only wish to suggest that event fails as a basic unit of analysis because it leaves the three aspects of an historical object unexplained and unreconciled.

Event as identity

Let me start with event as identity. We have many reasons to delineate a particular portion of reality. It may simply reflect the scope of our interest; it may be because some phenomenon is so novel or of such magnitude that it captures our attention; or the delineation of an event may be implied by the context in which the event takes place.

The first two of these are entirely subjective and therefore lack explanatory power. The lack of real explanation betrays a historiography that might otherwise have a socially constructive function, for it reduces truth to mere description—to a story well told.

In contrast, the third use of identity mentioned here depends on our employing knowledge of the wider world to ascertain the event or kinds of events that it might imply. But more importantly, and this is a critical point, it suggests that our understanding of a whole must in some way have an implication for its parts, not in terms of just their features, but their existence and identity. Unfortunately, historians tend to adopt the pre-World War II view of systems in terms of the contradictory categories of whole and parts. Wholes are not ontologically real, but simply refers to phenomena that arise from the interaction of its parts. Since the whole is therefore merely an epiphenomenon, it can have no effect on its parts except in the case of specific feedback loops that may alter the qualities of parts, but not constitute them.

To overcome this conceptual contradiction and see wholes and parts as aspects of one underlying reality, we must look beyond the historical profession and to the natural sciences. Otherwise, being unable to grasp how a whole can imply its parts, historians compelled to choose between either a reduction of wholes to parts (as in positivism) or preserve wholes as ontologically independent of its parts (idealism).

The reductionism implied by using an event to identify an historical object also encounters practical difficulties. For example, phenomena usually are just points along a continuum, lacking any objective demarcations that can serve to distinguish ranges within that continuum. To demarcate an event therefore requires an arbitrary imposition of limits or boundaries. Their justification depends on some criterion that is external to the event, but this requirement is usually ignored. As a result, the event as an identity becomes highly subjective and arbitrary, and as a whole is not even implied by observation.

Similarly, the event is presumed to have significance, for otherwise we would not have bothered to identify it at all. Obviously, significance can’t be self-contained, but must arise from the relation of the event to the whole or to its later effect. We will address the causal significance in a moment and only note here that the significance of an event for the whole requires that we have an adequate representation of that whole. Unfortunately, historians are inclined to explain a whole as merely the effect of the interaction of its parts, and to that extent they are betrayed by a circular logic: if the whole reduces to its parts, then how can the part acquire significance in relation to the whole?

Event as causal node

An understanding of the causal event is betrayed by prevalence in in historiography (more than in other sciences) of empiricist phenomenalism. If an event is observed and it is proximate to another in time and place, the empiricist infers the existence of a causal relation between them. If this association of events appears often enough, they infer a general law. However, a general law is nothing more than a statement that such events are usually associated, and it is not an explanation of why the cause led to the result. Covering laws are sometimes used by historians to represent a kind of explanation, but in the contemporary philosophy of science, that ambition appears unwarranted.

But in any case, human history is emergent and so has to do primarily with unique events. Covering laws can play only a marginal role. To infer a causal relation between two unique events based merely on their proximity is not only a hazardous undertaking, but it leaves out any explanation for the causal relation. In short-range historiography, an inference of causality from proximity may often appear sensible because the narrowness of our concern clears the deck of complications; the more trivial the historian's concern, the more a reliance on event proximity to infer causation seems to work. But for explanation that is more ambitious in terms of the real world, and particularly in long range explanation, the procedure is ludicrous. Without such causal explanation, historiography lacks an understanding of why things happened as they did, and it is reduced to entertainment.

Without elaborating the point here, it is argued that emergent processes make no sense unless they are represented in terms of their unobservable causal mechanisms. A discovery of the causal mechanisms at work empowers us because causation associated with emergent processes entails the real dispositions (a probability distribution of possible outcomes), and these dispositions we can seize upon and bend to our will. On the other hand, an “explanation” that subsumes events under a covering law only can support our better adaptation to circumstance. So it can be argued that our conception of the event in history has a significant implication for human freedom.

A association between unique events that we might infer as having a causal relation are not subject to empirical test (in any immediate sense). It is easy to find examples of causal relations between events that are not particularly proximate, and proximate events that have no causal relation. Something more is needed than just proximity to infer a causal relation. What is missing is the identification of a causal mechanism that offers an actual explanation of the relation of the cause and effect. Their proximity only increases the probability of that causal relation and does not constitute it and, of course, does not represent its explanation. However, historians' empiricist inclinations make them allergic to a discussion of unobservable causal mechanisms, for which they substitute “common sense”, to which we will turn shortly.

So far we have assumed events are simple, but of course they really are not. An event can be described as local, but it is actually linked to the wider world in both subtle and profound ways. This is nearly always the case in history, and the result is that the probability of an isolated event being the simple cause of another event as if the two existed together in a vacuum represents an idealization that inevitably leads to trouble except in the most trivial of cases. We should expect that the effect of a cause is influenced by other factors in the situation as well as the age and structure of the system in which it takes place. So, even were there good reason to associate events in a causal relation, the effect is rarely as simple as in the idealized cause. Consequently, the idealization of causality by representing it in terms of simple events introduces an artificiality that betrays the truth of our explanations.

The same is true of the “magnitude” of the causal event. We always make subjective judgements of magnitude, assuming correctly that a trivial cause will not result in a momentous outcome without introducing additional explanation. In fact, historians say that a causal event has magnitude because we judge its effect that way. It has almost nothing to do with features intrinsic to the causal event itself. Without introducing a causal mechanism, the result is that the significance of the causal event has nothing to do with its own empirical qualities. This is obviously not the case, for the efficacy of a causal event must surely depend on its empirical specificity. However, a reduction of causality to what can be inferred from the proximity of events leaves that crucial empirical data to the side.

For example, the historian employs as evidence “traces” that survive into the present that were once the effects of some cause. However, the empiricist can only know effects and he can’t really know causes, which are unknown except through their effects. It might seem that a reduction of causes to effects would betray any possibility for explanation and impoverish historiography. So the historian shores up his enterprise with a theoretical representation of the whole and its causal structure that is implied by these effects. Theory has been abused by empiricist historians as being a “German vice”, but the problem is not the presence of theory per se, but of a theory that is only inferred and not considered real or detached from empiria. In many sciences, theoretical objects must be treated as being real (such as a reduction of thermodynamic theory to statistical mechanics), but such is rarely the case in historiography.

Event as a representation of process

The historian takes change for granted, for otherwise there would be no history. If, on the other hand, we speak of a “stagnant” society, what is meant is the absence of significant change, not that there is no change at all. Actually, the closer we look at such a society, the more that activity and change become visible. People still wake in the morning, go to work, and engage others in meaningful relationships. Their lives at this micro-level are full of events they find very important. The impression of stagnation arises only as we distance ourselves in space and time from the micro-level.

However, to suggest that the wider perspective is somehow more real or important is a open to serious objection if it implies a disengagement with what is local and temporary. We end up with a history without human agency, one out of touch with its driving forces and constraints. Whether change is dramatic or negligible is only a subjective expression of our particular point of view unless we bring in some mechanism that ties local events to broader trends and also we have a way to assess the significance of events for the system as a whole. Any process implies a systemic view of things in which part and whole are not categorical opposites, but aspects of one reality that engages both. Event must therefore be seen as as aspect of something else that also engages the social whole.

Social wholes that have lost touch with events, and simple events lacking any explicit connection with the social whole, mean that events are being placed in an ideal isolation that renders them meaningless. If the “event” is used as a basic unit in historiography, which implies both its primacy and its isolation for the sake of its definition, the result is overwhelming subjectivism. Clearly, the event cannot really be basic at all.

Another implication of having event stand in for process is that event empties time of empirical meaning. With an event, the passage of time is merely inferred from the existence of novelty, and time is not a real constitutive factor. For example, in a person's life, the passage of time is not only manifest in such features as greying hair, but we can say that the person is old because they behave that way. In systems theory, a system is said to be immature, mature or aged because its parts acquire a more functional relationship and as a result the system behaves differently. System behavior develops in time as a result of unobservable aspects such as functional relation. The event, on the other hand, is static and cannot indicate the age of the system, which leaves time an abstraction. Time is not a factor that manifests system state, but is merely inferred from empirical change.

To escape the subjectivism and lack of any real explanation here requires an understanding of the structure and age of the system in which events take place. If this age results from a greater functionality in the relations of parts within the framework of the system's contradictions, the age of the system can be specified to explain its behavior. While this may be intuitively obvious, it is incompatible with an employment of events as the basic unit of analysis.

This forces historians to slip in their understanding of how systems as a whole work, although in a casual and covert way lest is run up against their presumption of events as basic. This is because any such explanation of the behavior of the whole presumes that such unobservables as functional relations and contradiction are real, and this is incompatible with the empiricism associated with making a fetish of events. So the hidden system features are slipped in in the form of “common sense”. Historical explanation is impossible without it. Common sense is an understanding that has its origin outside the facts of a particular situation and arises from our knowledge of just how things actually work in human affairs.

The problem with common sense is that it remains implicit as an unexamined product of the historians own personal experiences, culture and class. As a result, an event is constructed in terms of a particular, local, modern and otherwise very limited perspective, not a scientific grasp of the dynamics of the social systems as a whole. Since common sense is usually not explicit, its content can neither be critically assessed nor justified. It should represent the current development of historical science, when in fact it is based on just one person's own limited experience.


In short, an event taken in isolation does nothing more than represents the focus of our attention at the moment, and it is entirely subjective. It is not by any means a description of any real state of affairs. As an idealization of a process, it represents a collapse of process, and it is a very naive if offered as a causal node.

This is not to say we may not have good reason to describe a change that is limited in scope, and there is no reason why we can’t call it an event. The problem arises when we elevate this simple convenience to the dignity a basic conceptual tool that is useful for explanation. For that purpose the event altogether fails us. Without being critical of the event, we have no reason to look seriously for what might be a far more useful basic unit in historiography that can support the possibility of historical explanation of why things occurred as they did.