Free will, and all that…again

Following up on earlier posts about historical determinism, free will, all that sort of stuff, I offer this astonishing snip from the New York Times, musings by Paul Kennedy on the eternal question of who makes history – great men, or impersonal forces: 

Interestingly, the most important challenge to Carlyle’s great-leader theory came from his fellow Victorian, that émigré, anti-idealist philosopher-historian and political economist, Karl Marx. In the opening paragraphs of his classic “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” he offers those famous lines: “Men make their own History, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

What an astonishing sentence. In it Marx captures not only the agency of human endeavor, but reminds us of how even the most powerful people are constrained by time and space, by geography and history.

Yes, astonishing too is the occurence of favorable comment on Karl Marx in the press, let alone the Times.  Fact is, he was a brilliant historian and thinker.  Maybe not so hot as a practical politician.  Not unlike Mao, about whom I am reading in Phillip Short’s biography – and he too made a difference as an individual.  A big difference!  But as Short makes clear, he did so within the structures of Chinese cultural history, adopting or slipping into the role of detached-philosopher-emperor, the object of daily veneration, just as Mao was brought up to bow to the image of Confucius each morning.

6 Responses to Free will, and all that…again

  1. That is a very interesting quotation. I have always thought it interesting that we tend to define “great men” by the acts that they achieve and yet there is always the counterfactual situation where they lead quiet lives. Hitler might have been a moderately successful artist (had he not been turned down by the academy), Einstein might have become a banker if he’d not done so badly at school. Kripke of course makes much of this in ‘Naming and Necessity’ as an illustration of the problem in logic of descriptivist theories of names.

    But some of the suggestions he makes are quite interesting as a form of thinking about the history of ideas. What if Aristotle had taken up farming rather than philosophy?

  2. lichanos says:

    …yet there is always the counterfactual situation…

    Not fond of counterfactuals. They violate Lichanos’ iron law of historical determinism: This happened because that’s what happened. See the first link in the post…

    I’ve lost my taste for analytic philosophy – don’t think I ever read Kripke, though I heard about him endlessly in college… Too late now!

    Einstein might have become a banker if he’d not done so badly at school.

    It is a myth that Einstein did badly at school. He went to quite prestigious institutions and was granted a Ph. D. He was generally regarded as an excellent student. His problems were elsewhere. I’m not just being picky – I think this sort of myth-mongering is often the nub of counterfactual speculation.

    • I myself am more of a Spinozist bent when it comes to questions of human freedom. But we do speak in counterfactuals even when we’re not doing analytic philosophy — hopefully we do take a tea-break sometimes. For example, if you hadn’t raised the issue of historical determinism, then I would never have made my ill-informed remark about Einstein. I would like to apologise to Albert, his family and school-teachers for any distress caused.

  3. zeusiswatching says:

    Years ago, I read some of his article about the American Civil War. He was very insightful and I think his comments were in the same vein.

    • lichanos says:

      Yes, I think I read those too. Funny thing, the Civil War was closely observed by scads of Europeans. The first ‘modern’ all out war, use of rail, modernized artillery, AND trench warfare that foretold WWI. So…what did Georges Clemenceau learn from his time here in the USA?

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