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John William Draper and Henry Buckle on Law and Causality October 18, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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John William Draper (May 5, 1811 – January 4, 1882)

John William Draper’s own work is astonishingly particular to modern readers.  He and Henry Buckle rigorously examined how mental progress was conditioned by material forces.  They did so by differentiating between two fundamental realms of law.  Buckle observed,  “on the one hand, we have the human mind obeying the laws of its own existence, and, when uncontrolled by external agents, developing itself according to the conditions of its organization. On the other hand, we have what is called Nature, obeying likewise its laws ; but incessantly coming into contact with the minds of men, exciting their passions, stimulating their intellect, and therefore giving to their actions a direction which they would not have taken without such disturbance.Thus we have man modifying nature, and nature modifying man; while out of this reciprocal modification all events must necessarily spring” (History of Civilization in England, 18-19).

The entire purpose of his History of Civilization in England was to understand and to describe the laws of this “double modification” and their connections.  The discovery of these kinds of regularities was important moreover because it provided for free will and allowed for effective social legislation.  Effective social legislation required that there be a “human nature” but that this human nature be not directed by Providence or determinism, since that would render the basic moral assumptions of existing criminal codes null.

Both Buckle and Draper reduced aspects of the growth of civilization to the laws of physiology.  Buckle’s account of the role of geography on the foundations of civilization and the attainment of material prosperity, is actually rooted more in theories of matter, motion, and vitality, than in geography.  The latter achieves this with more clarity, though less nuance than Buckle, probably because Draper’s works were part of an intricate, competed system.  Draper intoned, “All mundane events are the results of the operation of law.”  According to Draper, physiology, like physics had stripped human beings of their providential uniqueness, and connected them to society, “where the same laws influenced the “recesses of the individual…and social economy” (History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, 6, 1861).

For Draper, the unity of individual and social laws was an important argument for the “unity of mankind,” which demanded “an admission of the paramount control of physical agents over the human aspect and organization” where differences in climate produced differences in “intellectual power” and “civilization” (11).  National types may be disturbed by an an inflow of foreign “blood,” by peoples were not long influenced by this phenomenon as “national homogeneity is thus obviously secured by the operation of two distinct agencies: the first, gradual but inevitable dilution; the second, motion to come into harmony with the external natural state. The two conspire in their effects” (16).

Draper’s physiological language was strongest when he described the course of civilization. Nations, like individuals, were born, grow through youth and maturity, and finally die, as “there is no more an immortality for them than there is an immobility for an embryo in any one of the manifold forms passed through in its progress of development” (17-18).  This progress, ending in an “Age of Decrepitude,” may yet strike Europe, as it was presently entering a stage of maturity.  Draper was keen to underscore too (as with Buckle) that the discovery of the importance of the action of physical agents such as climate was totally compatible with free will and intellectual initiative.  Draper concluded the second volume of his History:

I have asserted the control of natural law in the shaping of human affairs—a control not inconsistent with free-will any more than the unavoidable passage of an individual as he advances to maturity and declines in old age is inconsistent with his voluntary actions; that higher law limits our movements to a certain direction, and guides them in a certain way. As the Stoics of old used to say, an acorn may lie torpid in the ground, unable to exert its living force, until it receives warmth, and moisture, and other things needful for its germination; when it grows, it may put forth one bud here and another bud there; the wind may bend one branch, the frost blight another; the innate vitality of the tree may struggle against adverse conditions or luxuriate in those that are congenial; but, whatever the circumstances may be, there is an overruling power for ever constraining and modelling it. The acorn can only produce an oak. (History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, Vol. 2, 400-1).

With both thinkers we have extremely developed exemplars of a profoundly important intellectual project which attempted to ascertain a number of interrelated problems: the scope of free-will, the extent of providence in history, and the laws affecting physical and mental progress.  The key was finding regularities in both individual intellectual progress and in national cultural growth that respected the existence of human beings under law, but which allowed for individual spontaneity (especially genius) and national distinctiveness.

Draper and Buckle’s efforts were driven by various degrees of reductionism of human affairs to physiology (especially to the physiology of Justus von Liebig) which had the effect of grounding their systems in a recognizable argumentative framework (but were equally rhetorical, sometimes relegated to the background as the narrative wore on) and by the science of vital statistics. Draper, notably, published textbooks in chemistry and natural philosophy in 1842 and 1847, so it can cautiously be argued that this was an application of a natural philosophical project to historical analysis. Draper was not concerned here so much with the nature of matter (as he had dispensed with that in earlier works).  Rather, having agreed upon the nature of matter he was then interested in the nature of causality and social regularity.


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