A.J.P. Taylor’s Philosophy of History

So far most of my posts have been about economics. This is not because I regard it as the only true social science. Nor is it because it is the social science in which I am most interested. That title belongs to history, and to prove it, here is a piece I once wrote about A.J.P Taylor:

Historians write about the past; philosophical historians write about what we can learn from it. Probably all historians philosophise in private, but many think it wiser to avoid offering their philosophy to the public. Many historians get the facts wrong and manage to maintain their reputations. Very few recover after giving the wrong advice, even if the mistake was very slight.

Edward Gibbon, in so many ways the father of modern history, was clear from the start that he wanted to be a philosophical historian. Observing that the Roman Empire was conquered by barbarian outsiders, he cautiously concluded that a similar end for modern European civilization was unlikely. For one thing, he noted, the technological demands of modern warfare, by contrast with warfare in Roman times, meant that before any barbarians could conquer Europe, they would have to submit to a European education, and thus to cease being barbarous. Here it is important to remember that ‘barbarous’ is not meant as a synonym for ‘cruel’ or ‘stupid’, but indicates only non-membership in whatever civilizations happen to be on offer at the time. Gibbon failed to realize two things. First, education is perfectly compatible with barbarism. Second, the barbarians did not have to conquer Europe when it was strong; they could wait for it to fall into internecine warfare. If he had realized these things, he may well have foreseen the rise of two barbarian empires: the United States and the Soviet Union, the latter remaining all too European for its victory to last. Insofar as Gibbon gave advice, his advice to Europe was not to worry about the barbarians. And yet along they came.

Philosophical history soon went into decline along with the Enlightenment ideology of endless progress, to which Gibbon had sometimes been prone (‘We may…acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race’). It is not hard to see why radical intellectuals should have turned away from the ideology of progress. In Gibbon’s day the language of progress was the incendiary poetry of revolutionaries. The current order was a static one; radicalism meant supporting a change for the better. By the middle of the nineteenth century, progress itself—industrial development, economic growth, and the expansive adventures of colonialism—had become part of the respectable social order. Conservatism came to stand for permanent expansion, and intellectuals who wanted to remain radicals had to begin taking for their rallying cry: ‘stay still!’, or even ‘decline!’.

Thus, for instance, J.A. Froude challenged the idea that moral progress is implicit in economic growth, by pointing out that most production gets extracted in rent: ‘The national wealth in some inappreciable way is supposed to have increased, but the only visible benefit is to the lord of the soil, and appears in some added splendour to the furniture of his drawing-room’. Meanwhile, he gave up on philosophy of history altogether: ‘each age will have its own philosophy of history, and all these in turn will fail and die.’ As the idea of progress went, so, inevitably, did the idea that we improve on the past by learning about it. This was the beginning of the eclipse of philosophical history, now apparently making something of a comeback if TED talks and the Long Now Foundation are anything to go by.

A.J.P. Taylor worked at the darkest moment of this eclipse. He aggrandised anti-philosophical history as Gibbon had aggrandised philosophical history. One of his most famous epigrams—‘Men always learn from their mistakes how to make new ones’—dispelled with Gibbonesque neatness the fantasy of becoming wise for the future by learning from the past. He rewrote this epigram in various ways; it is itself a variation on an aphorism by the late Victorian philosopher F.H. Bradley, which reads: ‘Experience is a poor teacher; it has taught me how to know, but not how to avoid.’ In fact Rousseau wrote something quite similar in the Confessions. The national curriculum should require the memorisation of these epigrams, to spare us the endless trundling out of Santayana’s ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Our problem has always been not that we repeat the past but that we fail to improve upon it. For this, remembering is no help.

Taylor boasted that he had only tried twice to learn from history and failed spectacularly both times. More importantly, he justified the study of unphilosophical history. If history cannot help us to deal with the future, why read it? Taylor had two answers. First, history ‘is fun to read.’ Secondly, it ‘is a matter of detached curiosity, and there can be no nobler exercise of the human mind.’ The second of these arguments is the more intellectually respectable of the two; it is also the less relevant. When Taylor was writing, British philosophers enjoyed lavish academic sinecures, charged with the task of supplying the intrinsic value of pure contemplation. Taylor believed that history was at least as good an arena for pure thought as philosophy. In a review of Pieter Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against he wrote: ‘For my part I would much rather have written Professor Geyl’s book than to have invented existentialism, or the newest craze of academic philosophers.’ Today both crazes have landed very hard, and we have much less reverence for pure thinking. On the other hand, nobody will ever challenge the intrinsic value of fun, something to which defenders of philosophy have given up all hope of appealing, though the last real chance they had of doing so was probably in the days of Thérèse Philosophe. History still has a chance.

Of course a lot of history is no more fun to read than philosophy. But, Taylor explained, this is because historians sometimes forget the art of storytelling. He repeatedly asserted that ‘the original task of the historian is to answer the child’s question: ‘What happened next?’ It was very important to him that this was a child’s question. Often he really did seem to take the tone of somebody writing for infants, though very precocious ones. His worst fear was to cause boredom; he avoided it even when the cost was confusing or offending the mature reader. His relentlessly jaunty tone, even when describing the most terrible events, probably did as much to discredit his Origins of the Second World War as its infamous (alleged) exculpation of Hitler.

His conception of the historian’s task also determined his unconventional humour. Irony is the great shibboleth of Oxford dons, but it is not the most fun kind of humour to read. It often darkens instead of lightening the reader’s mood. Taylor was never at home with it. When he claimed, for instance, that the Munich agreement ‘was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life’, his readers missed the sarcasm. Later he commented ‘I ought perhaps to have added ‘(goak here)’ in the manner of Artemus Ward.’ This reveals his true sense of humour. He would rather laugh at a preposterous antique spelling. This is why his attempts at irony usually turned either into pure bitterness or into mere absurdity.

There was one tendency he gave into at every opportunity, which was to state something serious and then follow it up with an amusing and irrelevant detail. He did this even when it diverted him from his proclaimed purpose of telling what happened next. Oddly enough, it is this improbably bathetic style that most sets him apart as a storyteller. It has not aged well in every case. Describing Whiggish history, for example, he quipped:

‘It is the doctrine of history as Progress: men always getting wiser and more tolerant; houses more comfortable, food more plentiful, new laws always better than old laws; new ideas always better than old ideas; new wives, I suppose, always better than old wives (this last much practised by the Whig aristocracy).’

This goak has, I think, lost its edge. It probably stopped seeming funny to Taylor when he himself divorced and remarried a year after writing it. This is the problem with writing history because it is fun to read. The whirligig of time can, often very suddenly, turn you into the butte of the goak. At that point most of us stop having fun.

Fortunately for Taylor there is more of lasting value in his work than he managed to admit. What remains freshest in his work—fresher even than his best epigrams—is his philosophy of history. He had one, despite his protestations. In fact it is only possible to oppose other philosophies of history by having one of your own. He felt that most philosophical historians portray humans as fixed to their roles in some larger story, of divine providence, class struggle, the irresistible rise and fall of the great powers, or the march of reason. Against this view he made the simple, profound insistence, ‘Men do think, you know.’ Humans need not always give in to what Hegel called ‘the cunning of Reason’, playing their role in realising predetermined ends. They can also think for themselves and decide what they would prefer to do. The reason history sometimes appears to be an automatic working out of blind, superpersonal forces is that world leaders almost never think. They guess and grab at whatever chances they happen to stumble upon. This theory is as much the key to Taylor’s understanding of history as the idea of class conflict was to Marx’s or the idea of civilizations as organisms was to Toynbee’s.

For example, it alone can explain Taylor’s paradoxical attitude towards political leaders. ‘All men are mad’, he once wrote, ‘who devote themselves to the pursuit of power when they could be fishing, painting pictures, or simply sitting in the sun.’ Why would somebody who had such contempt for the political life write about almost nothing else? Once we acknowledge Taylor’s philosophy of history, the answer becomes clear. His relationship with politicians was not one of pure contempt. He did not dismiss politics per se; he simply felt that, for the most part, it was conducted in a thoughtless way. When he portrayed Hitler as an ‘ordinary politician’, riding the waves of popular opinion, bluffing his way through foreign policy without clear goals, and repeatedly getting lucky, he was accused of being an apologist. But in his own estimation he could not have condemned Hitler more severely. For him, thoughtlessness was a greater evil than wickedness, or at least more harmful in the long run. The folly of pursuing power, for good or evil, lies in the fact that even if you achieve your goals you only have blind chance to thank for this. Political aspirants gamble their lives and carry others along with them. In some ways, Taylor revived a Renaissance philosophy of history, in which the inconstant goddess Fortune rules and the only assurance of happiness lies in keeping out of her dangerous games. Hitler did not keep out; nor did Bismarck, and the fact that one was a demon and the other was a mere brute has less to do with their characters than with the different chances that happened to present themselves to each.

But although Taylor regarded all political leaders as the worshippers of Fortune, he did not deny that, at least in principle, thought could sometimes govern human affairs instead. Politicians do not tend to think, but that is because they are usually mad. If ordinary sane people were in charge, the reign of Fortune would end. This was the thesis of Taylor’s favourite among his own books, The Troublemakers. He regarded this book, he once said, as his contribution to the history of ideas. Historians of ideas tend to think of ideas either as arising at their predetermined moments in a necessary march of mind or as perpetually knocking against each other in pitched battles. Taylor rejected both views. He took ideas to be perfectly autonomous, not controlled by any larger process. But, rather than seeing them in conflict with each other, he placed them all on one side: the side of the troublemakers. The great conflicts of history are not battles of ideas; they are battles between those who have ideas and those who have none.

Conventional politicians sometimes pretend to be inspired by ideas. But in fact, whether their goal is power or something more substantial, the closet thing they do to navigating is to guess which way the wind might blow. Only radicals—troublemakers—actually think about how things should be done. Thus they sometimes obstruct the improvised tarantelle of the politicians. But, despite being outside conventional politics, the troublemakers are the future legislators of the world. All genuine progress occurs thanks to them: ‘If there were no radicals, no troublemakers, we would still be living in caves.’ A conventional politician would not have time to invent houses; he would be too busy guessing which cave to sleep in and hoping to enjoy the accolades of his tribe if it happened not to collapse. This is as fully-fledged a theory of civilisation as anything found in Gibbon.

But Taylor did not restrict his approval to the troublemakers, or not at least to the famous ones. He was a great advocate of democracy, which for him meant the view that the people can be trusted. For an intellectual to take this attitude is exceedingly rare. When intellectuals come down in favour of democracy what they usually mean is that something of the ritual of polling booths and swearing-in ceremonies appeals to them. Beyond this they giggle or despair at the results of opinion polls and become furious when politicians fail to impose ‘expert opinion’ upon the unthinking masses. Taylor genuinely believed that the opinions of ordinary people were more to be trusted than those of professional politicians and intellectuals alike. Ordinary people are full of unlovely prejudice and suffer the effects of media misinformation. And yet it is they who most often come to their beliefs by thought rather than mere opportunism. This is because while intellectuals and politicians gain and lose by the convincingness and popularity of their ideas, ordinary people gain and lose by the consequences of theirs.

For instance, in an essay called ‘Democracy and Diplomacy’ Taylor claimed to have perceived an increasing shift towards genuine democracy in the determination of British foreign policy—a shift he mightily endorsed. He argued that the people, who actually suffer the effects of war and diplomacy, are more thoughtful in their choices concerning such things. Nothing in his argument can be faulted; it is only his prediction that British foreign policy would one day be determined by the British public that has not been borne out by the facts.

Another of Taylor’s refrains was that we do not know what the public thinks. ‘Some historians understand science and technology,’ he wrote. ‘Some understand philosophy. I know how a newspaper office works, which makes me sceptical about studies of public opinion.’ All scaremongering about the stupidity of public opinion and the danger of allowing it to govern public affairs is premised on the false supposition that we know what the public thinks. Taylor insisted that public opinion is terra incognita and newspaper polls do nothing to map it out. The public does not speak for itself. Once in a while the historian can glean hints of what ordinary people actually think, through figures like John Bunyan or William Cobbett: ‘the common man suddenly grown articulate.’ But such people are rare, and they can easily become corrupted if their fame buys them an induction into the Establishment (a term, by the way, that Taylor claimed to have coined). Genuine public opinion remains in utter obscurity. Taylor was fond of slightly misquoting G.K. Chesterton: ‘we are the people of England, who have not spoken yet.’ Still, the examples of Bunyan and Cobbett are enough to show that the common person is a natural troublemaker and an implacable subversive. Taylor never understood why historians puzzle about how the Bolsheviks or the Chartists became revolutionaries. The real question, he said, is why everyone is not a revolutionary. In fact he believed that every sane person is, deep down. It is just that a minority of insane conservatives happen to rule the world.

Anybody who claims to understand Taylor must speak about his success as a popular historian. Nobody who did understand him would dare try to explain it. He could sustain public interest in a television program in which nothing happened besides him lecturing in a bare studio. Nobody had ever performed this conjuring trick before, and I doubt that anybody will ever manage it again. Certainly it was the test of his theory that history is fun; those of us who grew up with colour television could be forgiven for thinking that history consists entirely of uninformative animated diagrams, bromides delivered in unlikely locations, and interviews with narcoleptic curators.

All of Taylor’s lectures endeavoured to answer the ‘child’s question’. But they answered a great deal more. Taylor was probably not the first person to bring history to the people. He was almost certainly the first to bring them philosophy of history. But this was inevitable, since his philosophy of history was all about the people. It is the nameless many who suffer the most from the follies of highly articulate but utterly unthinking politicians. It was Taylor’s great, bold, and not yet quite acceptable hypothesis that, in their obscurity, ordinary people are thinking for themselves. Although they had not spoken, it was his innovation to speak to them, and to speak to them as fellow thinkers and fellow radicals. He often pretended to be one of them—not a very convincing pretence from the Oxford-educated son of a wealthy Lancashire capitalist. But although he was a man of privilege, he was the one man of privilege who actually did what all the others only advocated: he took the working (and middle) classes seriously, unconditionally and publicly.

Unthinking opportunists rule the world. Things would be better left in the hands of thoughtful ordinary people. This was Taylor’s philosophy of history, not, as sometimes alleged, the view that everything happens by accident. It fit in fairly well with the philosophy of history promoted by R.G. Collingwood, probably the greatest official philosopher of history during Taylor’s age. Collingwood believed that philosophy consists ultimately in the conscious articulation of things we already subliminally know. A philosophy is original, not because it yields new knowledge (that is the business of science), but rather because it presents to us the things that we did not know that we knew. Often we do not want to know what we know, and a radical philosophy is one that overrides this aversion. Taylor’s philosophy of history consists above all in one of the most unwelcome and salutary reminders ever proposed to politicians and intellectuals alike: people do think, even if their leaders do not. As far as I know, he never quoted the next (and final) line of Chesterton’s poem, but the whole of his career, balanced on the precarious margin between the inarticulately thoughtful and the articulately thoughtless, seems to embody it:

‘…we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.’


One thought on “A.J.P. Taylor’s Philosophy of History

  1. Pingback: Defining Philosophy | Origin of Specious

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