Friday, 6 June 2014

Tolstoy, Taylor and History

I would surmise that many readers find Tolstoy's pondering on causality in War and Peace a drag on the story and an overweening authorial intervention. Reading A.E. Taylor's excellent chapter on Causality in Elements of Metaphysics at the same time gives one a sense of where the Russian sage's ponderings may or may not have gone astray. His causal inventory of the outcome of battles in Napoleon's Russian campaign is,I feel, ironic.

i) Cause and effect must be strictly correlative. For to say that there may be variations in the cause not followed by corresponding variations in the effect, is to say that there can be conditions which condition nothing; and to admit variation in the effect without variation in the cause, is to allow that there are occurrences which are at once, as effects, determined, and yet again are not determined, by the assemblage of their antecedents. Thus Plurality of Causes is excluded by the very conception of a cause as the totality of conditions. Following up this line of thought further, we see that it leads to a perplexing result. The "totality of conditions" is never a real totality. For there are no such things as isolated effects and causes in the world of events. The whole fact which we call an effect is never complete until we have taken into account its entire connection with everything else in the universe. And similarly, the whole assemblage of conditions includes everything which goes to make up the universe. But when we have thus widened our conception of the cause and the effect, both cause and effect have become identical with one another and with the whole contents of the universe. And thus Causation itself has disappeared as a form of interconnection between the elements of Reality in our attempt to work out its logical implications.
(from chap. Change and Causality in Elements pg.181.

Tolstoy seems to agree that feeding everything into a causal account of battles, Napoleon's valet not leaving out waterproof boots before Borodino, the cold that ensued etc, etc. merely dissolves everything into a formless chaos. The notion of cause in history loses connection with its basis in science. Taylor again:

Thus any form of the causal postulate of which we can make effective use necessitates the recognition of that very Plurality of Causes which we have seen to be logically excluded by the conception of cause with which science works. As we contended above, any form of the principle in which it is true is useless, and any form in which it is useful is untrue.

Monty Python history of WW II. (from memory)
'Rommell, nice chap, very cunning. Borman, not a nice chap, not very cunning'.

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