SOME SUGGESTIONS ABOUT "INTERESTS" AND HISTORICAL MOTIVATION
What motivates historical action? Powerful biological and physical forces are at work in human behavior. Time passes and people grow up, grow old, and die. The constant need to recruit and replace within any human population is a powerful motivation for change. Bad harvests, inclement weather, poor soil, rich natural resources, these are geo-physical forces for change too. Then there are those cataclysmic events in which groups attack other groups, purges, domestic terrorism, civil and international wars. We discover countless instances of individual and group "irrationalism" in the history of human action. There are other forces that shape change, but the central and enduring principle of human mobilization is perceived interests.
the pursuit of goals defined by individuals and groups.
Physicists have their vast and impersonal force = gravity
Historians have an equally vast but intensely personal force =interests
People are best assumed to do what they do, to think and believe what they do, to group together or split apart, to love or fight, because they think it is in their best interests to do so. It may not always be the case that a clear set of interests lie behind human behavior. We are nonetheless best advised to presume that humans over the long haul think and act according to "perceived interests". We can briefly deny gravity by jumping. Similarly humans sometimes briefly act with no regard for their perceived interests. But we don't defeat gravity by that temporary vault, and over time humans do not neglect preceived interests. Unless we have powerful and clear evidence to the contrary, we are safe to presume that humans act to protect or advance their interests
Perceptions in any given situation vary greatly among any large group of people, and some perceptions may be said to be irregular, irrational, or even wrong. Also, the results of human thought and action can be irregular, irrational and wrong in the extreme. But it is perilous to second-guess or trifle with the historical expression of perceived interests in the behavior of persons and groups. Over time, you cannot go wrong to assume that perceived interests motivate humans.
Influential American social scientist Harold Lasswell once ventured to list "the eight value categories" that "define the culminating outcomes (values) toward which and from which we perceive that events in the social process are moving". Lasswell presented the list and offered the above explanation in a 1958 postscript (p. 202) to the third edition of his 1936 publication Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. Here is the 3rd-edition list, in an order of implied weight or significance:
- Well Being
Lasswell offered a variation on his comprehensive list in Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry. Here (p.55) the eight "values" were defined as the "goal-events of valuation". Curiously points seven and eight were reversed in this formulation. Did Professor Lasswell later put more weight on enlightenment as a value, or had he lost faith in love?
Do we have to use social-scientific language like Lasswell's in order to get to the heart of matters? We are after all talking about fellow human beings and not sub-nuclear particles. With due respect and gratitude, I would restate Lasswell's contribution to our thinking in the following way =
Individuals and groups act in accordance with felt or conscious impulses which can be described by one or more of the eight "values" above. Furthermore, the goal or purpose of human action is to enhance one or more of the eight "values".
In other words, when Lasswell used the phrases "toward which" and "from which" in the first quote, he combined goals (toward which) with motives (from which). And by calling goals and motives "values" he accented the subjective quality of those interests "from which" and "toward which" humans act.
Perceived interests can be thought to combine variously these eight ingredients. We need not presume that the concept "interests" implies only simple, greedy impulses. Both altruism and avarice find positions on this list.
We often base our judgments about people on our sense of just how they mix and match all eight ingredients in their behavior.
Notice that this is a discussion about "perceived" interests. Are perceived interests always "real" interests? What are "real" interests? Answers surely depend on the nature of the person or group, and there is as great a variety of groups as there are perceptions of interests. At this point we very likely confront the most important distinction between gravity in physics and interests in the humanities. What do you think?
CAUSE AND EFFECT
But how do the "taxonomic levels of historical experience" [ID] and Lasswell's "value categories" relate to one another in the dynamic process of "causing" or shaping the past? Are economies the result of certain ways of thinking? Is it the other way around? Are government actions controlled by economic considerations? Does geography determine economies? Are there no "disinterested", "" or "bi-partisan" actions in history?
Before you take a stab at answers to the questions above, you might want to give brief attention to a ubiquitous concept that is seldom given careful consideration = causation.
Important events have complex "causes" and often curious "effects" (results). For example, Aristotle defined four different sorts of cause in every process of change or becoming =
The relationship between cause and effect has provided the occasion for much fascinating philosophical dispute. John Stuart Mill said =
The cause then, philosophically speaking, is the sum total of the conditions positive and negative taken together: the whole of the contingencies of every description, which being realized, the consequent invariably follows.
Without getting too far out on the philosophical limb, without choking on the word "invariably", the historian can still find ways to organize thinking about cause and effect, to reconstruct the complex chain of multiple (and always chronologically preceding) causes that feed into a defined result [TXT]. Remember: causes must precede an effect, but not everything that precedes an effect can be considered its cause.
Still, we are often interested in circumstances surrounding an event. The complex web of conditions that cause change, that feed into an event, or that result in defined outcomes, these are the very stuff of historical thought. Judgments about the relative force of various "causes" call for a most delicate touch.
Having considered the taxonomy of historical experience and
the issue of perceived interests and
it is time to hop to the discussion of
"Dozen Categories of Human Grouping"
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