I recently listened to a Free Thought podcast titled “Is There a Purpose to History?” The question at hand was historicism. I found their discussion lacking in two ways. First, they made an incorrect implication of methodological individualism. Second, they fail to consider what I think is a very strong argument for there being a direction to history.
They imply that methodological individualism means theories of group conflict are incorrect because they are not based on individual action. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses this precise problem in the section on methodological individualism.
When discussing social phenomena, we often talk about various “social collectivities, such as states, associations, business corporations, foundations, as if they were individual persons”(Weber 1968, 13). Thus we talk about them having plans, performing actions, suffering losses, and so forth. The doctrine of methodological individualism does not take issue with these ordinary ways of speaking, it merely stipulates that “in sociological work these collectivities must be treated as solely the resultants and modes of organization of the particular acts of individual persons, since these alone can be treated as agents in a course of subjectively understandable action” (Weber 1968, 13).
They use the rejection of group conflict to reject Marx. While there are many reasons to reject Marx, his theory of group conflict is not one of them. First, Marx’s class theory strongly resembles libertarian class theory, only exploitation is defined by Marx as labor and by libertarians as theft.
Modern political economy has embraced, correctly in my view, class theories and class struggles as central. In their recent book, Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the ruling elite often seek to exploit the general population through exclusive institutions. Only by creating inclusive institutions and getting rid of privileged classes of people can there be widespread economic prosperity.
I have always found arguments against history having a direction as somewhat puzzling. If history repeats itself, starting with the neolithic revolution, would it look similar? Would the first civilizations emerge in the Fertile Crescent? Would China and Europe be the most advanced? Would the industrial revolution occur in Europe? While I do not know the answer to all these questions, I find it hard to believe anyone thinks Australia would first experience the industrial revolution.
While we like to think of humanity, ourselves, as external to constraints, we are not. Society is complex, but the difference between us and ants is one of kind, not category. Ultimately our physical constraints define us. While ideas are important, the success and failure of them is more dependent on the period in which they are formulated than any platonic ideal. Plato would not have been Plato had he been born in an African village, or anywhere outside of ancient Athens.
Of course, that history has followed trends and a general direction does not necessarily imply the direction will continue, but it changes the frame of reference for the argument. Social evolution will progress within the constraints within which it exists. Were history to repeat, it would be similar, and while we cannot predict the future evolution of society, there isn’t much we can do to change it either.