Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10

CAUSATION

BY present semantic conventions it is easy to link generality and causality as if they were inseparably related. But in the oldest sense of the very ambiguous word “cause”—in the sense in which it is still most often unselfconsciously used by historians—the very opposite is true. Generality excludes causality. Historians assume and often explicitly refer to a general order in events. But they do not often, and never by necessity or by reason of their historical task, invent or try to verify such generalizations. However, historians continuously use causal language. In fact, they are in the only cognitive discipline in which it is correct to emphasize the types of causation present in ordinary, undisciplined, common-sense discourse.


History and Teleology

The concept of causation was, in origin, a simple inference from human volition and action. A person desired something, rearranged some objects, and attained her goal. Her act was the cause of some effect. With great precision, Aristotle first analyzed the full implications of such causation, which is clearly based on human or divine agency. He isolated four distinct aspects of or perspectives on causation, including the efficient cause, or the actual energy that lies behind an effect, and the crucial and determinant final cause, or the end toward which one directs action. In Aristotle's perspective, a person is an agent and not just an isolated complex of mass-energy states in endless transformation. One can view a person as the efficient cause of many effects, but such efficient causes are only the inverse side of operative final causes, of ends that such efficacious acts serve. This view clarifies the complementary relationship of efficient and final causes; they require each other and are only analyzable aspects of a more complex whole.

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