Skip to main content

The New History and Social Science

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

The History of Western Civilisation. By Harry Elmer Barnes. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. Two Volumes. $10.00.

The “new” history, fathered by James Harvey Robinson, is history written from the point of view of social science. It stresses particularly non-human factors in the evolution of material techniques; and on the human side it leans on the reed of psychology for a raison d’etre of religion, art, ethics, and all activities not plainly connected with the struggle for survival. It is Dr. Barnes* expressed intention to put into practice in the two volumes of his “History of Western Civilization” the ideal of the new history, and to cover the career of Western civilization from the earliest times to the present. Certainly no one can quarrel with the scope of his ambition. Even to list without comment the main activities and institutions of man, from prehistory to the present day, within the confines of a million words is a daring task. But Dr. Barnes undertakes even more—criticism and an attempt to point a moral. In view of this colossal enterprise, it is not remarkable that the accomplishment should fall somewhat short of the aim. Yet no one will deny that here is assembled a vast amount of val-uableiinformation together with shrewd and sometimes penetrating interpretation. If these two fat volumes paradoxically give the reader the impression of being thin, the answer is not far to seek: the catalogue of human achievements even in the narrowest line of endeavor would be hard to compress within thirty such volumes.

The strength and the weakness of this history illustrate the strength and the weakness of the theory of present social science on which this history is based. This theory understands scientific method as exclusively empirical and inductive, explicitly accepts mechanical natural selection as applicable to social institutions, and tacitly commits itself to the old automatic stimulus and response psychology. Such a philosophy believes in rational progress, but distrusts reason. It requires a scale of values, but leaves value purely subjective. It is on the one side gratifyingly liberal, and on the other dreadfully pedestrian. As a consequence, a history which concurs in the premises of social science is strong in its explanation of the effect of the inert environment on man, but the question of why human endeavor responds dynamically to that environment sometimes in one way and sometimes in another is left a mystery. It is not surprising that Dr.

Barnes can make nothing much out of Christianity and the Middle Ages except a “failure of nerve” and a retrogression into supernaturalism. His premises explain why more space is given in this work to modern speculation in corporate securities, or to the agricultural technique of the Middle Ages, than to Alexander the Great, Plotinus, and Joan of Arc. Perhaps they explain also why nearly one half of the two thousand pages is devoted to late nineteenth- and twentieth-century politico-economic history. Certainly this latter half is the most interesting portion of the book: particularly good is the author’s treatment of the causes of the World War, and his estimate of democracy and of the capitalistic system.

It may, however, be doubted whether a compendium of economic and social institutions, with addenda on the work of artists, writers, and philosophers, can properly be called a general history. Can the story of man’s career be presented in a scheme which sees progress only in terms of improvement in material technique and in the organization of society for a just distribution of material goods? In many ways the new history has to distort and cripple facts as much as the old history. For instance, in this scheme, religion is only fear and propitiation of the unknown. How well does this apply to Buddha, Jesus, or St. Francis? For instance, art must be the satisfaction of a subjective desire for ornamentation. How well does this explain the grotesque, terrible figures of El Greco, Dante’s Inferno, or the self-crucifixion of a Van Gogh? What to do with the inescapable value of Hellenism, which arose within a nearly primitive economy and an unjust state? Does the naturalistic ethics account for the actions of a Socrates or a Regulus? Are social movements mechanical, or do they not rather work through great tragic personalities like Hildebrand and Napoleon?

There are times when Dr. Barnes’ naturalistic thesis is contradicted by his intelligence, as for example, his understanding of the Protestant mind in its effects upon industrialism, and in his admirable exposition of the growth of nationalism. To this reviewer, the author’s own remarks in most cases appear much more cogent than the authorities on social science whom he quotes with such finality. But in general Dr. Barnes’ presuppositions do not allow him to envisage human history organically; rather they lead him to place dominant causes and particular effects on the same level of classification, and thus to list them all equally as causes. In the domain of letters, this tendency to mix categories runs into some ludicrous results, as when he writes: “Lindsay’s poetry is notable for its moving rhythm. Frost has devoted himself to describing the simple life and natural scenery of Northern New England, . . . and Miss Millay is the outstanding lyrical poet of contemporary America” 1

The conclusion and moral which Dr. Barnes draws from history is that, for civilization to continue, social relations must be subjected to the same scientific discipline that natural science enjoys. With this diagnosis few intelligent people would quarrel. But that such a consummation can be wrought through the present empirical methods of social science, which shovel together without rank or relation great heaps of data drawn from every level of abstraction, is a pathetically vulnerable inference. By the same token, it is more than questionable that an agglomeration of these facts, even though they be intelligently discussed, can constitute a synthesis—a history of civilization.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading