Explaining the Historical Process

by Dale H. Porter

Dale H. Porter is Associate Professor and Chairperson of Humanities, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 73-93, Vol. 9, Numbers 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1979. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whitehead’s scheme for analyzing the temporal emergence of particular events provides a justification and explanation for the dynamics of historical narrative and also a set of concepts that could satisfy the demands of analytical critics.

In a previous article (HT 14:297-313) I suggested the possibility of adapting the doctrines of Alfred North Whitehead for analysis of explanatory narrative in history. At that time, it seemed that advocates of the neopositivist "deductive-law" model of explanation, following the lead of Carl Hempel, had shown how ineptly historians went about the task of formulating cause-effect hypotheses in their accounts of the past. However, the "genetic" school of explanation, including Walter B. Gallie and Louis Mink, had criticized the Hempelians for misconstruing the real task of historians -- to account for the complex individual event -- and had argued that narrative was a self-explanatory form of tinder-standing that required no analytical justification. My own suggestion was that Whitehead’s scheme for analyzing the temporal emergence of particular events provides a justification and explanation for the dynamics of historical narrative and also a set of concepts that could satisfy the demands of analytical critics.

During a year of study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, I have formulated a method for explaining the historical process that permits analysis of both the internal temporal structure of events and the external, formal relationships among them. The method is intended to be consistent with Whitehead’s scheme and with recent process-oriented models in the sciences and arts. Its primary purpose, however, is to provide the historian with a critical approach to the analysis and construction of intelligible historical narratives. Thus, terminology and levels of abstraction have been chosen to enhance the historian’s craft more than his philosophy.

This paper will summarize the results of my inquiry, emphasizing the basic conceptual scheme and its applications rather than its theoretical underpinnings. We have first to examine an actual piece of historical writing (something that critics don’t do very often) and then describe a typical event in its historical context.

The basic difficulty in historical narratives is to maintain a consistent point of view. That is, the historian is constantly tempted to shift from describing the emerging internal structure of an event to describing the relations between structural elements as if they were themselves events. When that shift occurs, considerations of cause and effect get mixed up with considerations of noncausal, aesthetic contrast; the "external" and "internal" points of view confuse each other. As an example, let us take an account of the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 AD. by the respected historian Louis Halphen (CC 28-37). This excerpt appears in the Heath "European Problems" series which is available to most readers.

Halphen’s argument runs like this: (1) by the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne had emerged as master of the West; (2) under these conditions, it was to be expected that a more general title should be added to his collection, to reflect his full power, when local conditions permitted; (3) local conditions in Rome in December, 800, demanded the intervention of an Emperor; and (4) Byzantine imperial power was at that time temporarily disrupted and incapable of intervening in Rome. Therefore, concludes Halphen, Charlemagne was acclaimed Emperor by the Pope, by his own Franks, and by the Roman people because the prevailing conditions made it both obvious and advantageous to do so. It was simply a matter of legitimizing what was already accomplished in fact.

But Halphen’s narrative is not so straightforward as the above summary suggests. After listing Charlemagne’s previous conquests as evidence of his power, he introduces the main theme with a rhetorical question: "Under these conditions, was it not to be expected" that the king should add a more general title commensurate with his authority? Then comes a second statement which contains the same elements, but shifts the terms of the argument:

One fact of capital importance dominated the whole question: in the course of the events which had unfolded in Italy since the intervention of Charlemagne in the affairs of the Lombards, the West had, around him and through him, come to be conscious of its unity as opposed to the "Roman Empire" which, following its eight-century old career in the Eastern Mediterranean, continued to embody the tradition of ancient Rome. Forced back on the Bosporus in "New Rome," that Empire had conserved only a few isolated pieces of its ancient territories to the west of the Adriatic and the Ionian seas, and the future held little in store for these fragments. The papacy itself had ceased to look to the descendants of Constantine and Theodosius and was turning instead resolutely to the Carolingians with whom it felt from this time on a close solidarity. And along with the papacy all the West, or at least all the continental West, had finally realized that by ranking itself around the Conqueror of the Saxons it would gain in strength and in its prospects for the future. (CC 28f)

In this passage the deductive argument, which treats each element of the situation as a separate event, has been overshadowed by a fabric of subjective relationships among elements treated as constituents of one complex process. And the rhetorical devices overshadow the logic. It is worth looking closely at how, and why, this is done.

First, institutions and abstractions are personalized by the use of expressions of feeling and thinking. An entity called "the West" is said to have "come to be conscious of its unity." It "finally realized" that it could profit by "ranking itself’ around Charlemagne. In contrast, the Empire is "forced back" into small areas. The Papacy, meanwhile, "ceased to look to" the Eastern Empire and, "turning resolutely" toward Charles, "felt a close solidarity" with him.

A syllogism regarding causation might be abstracted from this fabric, but it is evident that the empirical warrant for its premises lies elsewhere. This is why critics have denigrated narrative explanations. But is this really the place for logical rigor? Halphen was trying to establish the overall context of the coronation, namely a complex, dynamic relationship among the three or four significant powers. We need to grasp that relationship as a whole before we can understand the behavior of any one participant. That is why objective details were suppressed in favor of subjective feelings.

Second, there is a suggestive use of capitalization and quotation marks, as well as of epithets, to contrast the power of Charlemagne with the weakness of Byzantium. The West is able to stand on its own, but "the Roman Empire" at "New Rome" is apparently less real, more pretension than power. Also the Byzantine emperors are merely "the descendants of Constantine and Theodosius," evoking bygone glory, while Charles is the more recent, more virile "conqueror of the Saxons. Clearly this overall contrast is to be felt, not reasoned.

Third, the description of conditions is buttressed by the historian’s hindsight, masquerading as the foresight of clever contemporaries: "the future held little in store for these fragments . . ." and "it would gain in strength and in its prospects for the future." Halphen could have separated his own hindsight from the views of his subjects. But the narrative form constantly tempts writers to confuse the two, and to shift the point of view from present to past. In a fictional narrative, we would be disappointed if the author failed to do this, because it helps us identify more closely with the subjects. In nonfiction, the technique is less admired, and for the same reason.

Finally, a relativistic sense of time augments the subjectivity of the passage. Past, present, and future are interwoven to produce the impression of movement within a formal period. For example, the papacy "had ceased to look . . ." then "was turning . . .," and finally "felt from this time on . . ." all in the same sentence! This device provides an analogy to the emergence of elements from an indeterminate past toward determinate actuality. Rather than dismiss it as bad writing, as positivistic critics have done, we ought to consider how to incorporate it in a coherent methodology.

Halphen’s persuasive arrangement of evidence and assertion, with all its allusions, attributions, and diacritical devices, forms an analogy to the temporal arrangement of the event he wishes to clarify. Rather than use a strict deductive-law argument, he has provided a means of re-experiencing the event, in such a way that the reader feels the emerging impetus toward Charlemagne’s coronation. One can deny the validity of such analogy only if one rejects the notion that events are initially and primarily formulations of subjective experience. If we ask, "what are the chances of such an arrangement occurring again?" then the answer must be couched in terms of some analytical scheme. But if we want to know how this arrangement came to be what it was, then the subjective analogue is preferable. It may be that the two modes of presentation are incompatible within the structure of the narrative. However, their incompatibility may be due to inadequacies in the theory of historical explanation.

The dynamics of "following" a narrative such as Halphen’s provide justification for two complementary modes of analysis. On the one hand, the temporal development of the action reflects the internal development of the complex event in history. Whitehead’s process doctrines allow us to sort out the phases of interaction constituting such development, and there is also a tradition of literary criticism devoted to the general forms of action, which I shall discuss below. With these tools, historians and their critics can construct and analyze narratives without falling back on the self-defeating claim that the story explains itself.

On the other hand, as we follow a narrative we are constantly deriving hypothetical lines of future development from the data already given. These anticipations are fulfilled or not fulfilled by successive phases of development, until at the conclusion of the narrative we realize a contrast between the one actual pattern of the whole event and the hypothetical patterns that might have emerged. This process assumes, of course, that the initial conditions are indeterminate as to the final pattern of the actual event. Thus, it appears incompatible with the deductive-law model of explanation. But if we conceive of the pattern of contrasts as making up a formal hierarchy of conceptual elements, which is logically as well as aesthetically related to the actual event, then we provide a means of abstracting from events the kind of terms appropriate for deductive arguments.

The hypothetical elements and contrasts evoked by the flow of narrative are, in process terms, real elements in the constitution of the actual event. The contrast between real possibilities and actuality in the final decision of the event is the source of its historical significance, in terms of its relations with its antecedents and with its relevant future. Thus the two modes of analysis, formal and temporal, are complementary, and both are required for the understanding and construction of narrative explanations.

To illustrate this argument I will attempt to analyze another typical historical event, namely the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 in England. The Reform Bill is chosen because it involved a wide range of elements and because it has been the subject of extensive research, conveniently excerpted in another Heath booklet available to most readers (RB). The analysis proceeds in four stages. It begins with a description of the hierarchy of conceptual elements implicated by the final form of the event, then moves to similar description of the antecedent world; the contrast between potential patterns of emergence Implied by the antecedent world and the one pattern illustrated by the Reform Bill passage is then accounted for by analysis of the phases of the latter’s internal development; and finally, there is consideration of the metamorphosis of the Reform Bill as a real element in the constitutions of subsequent events. Space permits only a rough sketch of the complete analysis and brief attention to its implications for the writing of historical accounts.

The passage of the Reform Bill may be defined in a shorthand way as the procedure of voting by Parliament, and approval by King William IV, of a law changing the qualifications for voting in British elections and redistributing seats in the House of Commons. By a modest extension of the duration of that procedure, we can consider also the complex of Parliamentary elections, political maneuvering, and economic change that accompanied its emergence from 1830 to 1832. This extended duration is what historians usually have in mind when they think of the "passage" of the Reform Bill. All actions in this duration are present as constituent elements in the final form of the "passage" as a complex occasion.

From a cursory glance at this duration, at the cultural geography of the time, and at subsequent events, we can ascertain that passage of the Reform Bill included, as constituent elements: Parliamentary action, the relations between members and leaders of both Houses, the king’s behavior, industrial development, bourgeois and working-class activity, and differing ideas about the preferred pattern of interaction among all of these. If we are to be clear about the relationships among these elements, we need to arrange them according to their respective levels of abstraction.

The hierarchy is built up from the most complex, particular elements to the most simple, generally applicable ones. In history, the field of "null" abstraction is the multiplicity of subjective interactions with indefinite spatial and temporal dimensions (i.e., the "experience of becoming"). It is the one actual "history" to which all histories refer and in itself is incapable of analysis.

The first level of abstraction is the level of synoptic definition, in which the form of the whole event overrides the multiplicity of relationships within and without it. We extract from the web of experience this event, with its temporal and geographical dimensions. We may compare it with other events defined in the same way. This is the level commonly employed in historical classification, when we refer to "the French Revolution of 1789" or "The War of the Roses." But such designations need to be made very carefully, so that different studies of the same event can be effectively related.

An event such as the passage of the Reform Bill, 1830-32, is a distillation as well as a synthesis, realizing some of the many potential relationships brought into focus by elements above it in the hierarchy. Those elements, in order of increasing abstraction, are: individuals, groups, institutions, concepts, and fields.1

The second level of abstraction is that of individuals, viewed as foci of patterns of relationships with other elements. Each person, as he or she interacts with other individuals, groups, institutions, and concepts, brings into focus one potential configuration representing his or her experience of what actually happened. Each person prehends only certain aspects of other elements. For example, Francis Place viewed the Reform Bill proceedings from his position as organizer of working-class demonstrations. He had close connections with other organizers, with working-class individuals and groups, and with individual Whigs and Radicals in Parliament and Cabinet. His connections with respect to the urban political magnates, the gentry, and the King were less direct and complete. And there were some elements related to, say, the Duke of Wellington which Place didn’t perceive strongly at all, or perceived as irrelevant.

The level of individual elements is the level of biography, with its wealth of detail, its perceptual bias, and its psychological insights. Biography has always presented methodological problems, because the relationships among individuals and other elements of an event are usually too complex to fit into explanations based on regularity. Care must be taken that no individual is presented as the full expression of the meaning of any other element. The individual prehends aspects, not wholes, just as the actual event prehends aspects of that individual’s experience.

At the individual level we see most vividly the contrast between what actually happened and what might have been. The plans and fears of individuals are often recorded in detail, and their reflections on actual events are informed with deep feeling. We can read Francis Place’s despairing letters about the apathy of workingmen -- and his warnings to government about working-class excitement -- during the Reform era, and we can read his reflections on the Bill’s exclusion of working-class interests afterward (RB 80-82). These contrasts add to the subjective intensity of the passage of the Bill as an actual event and function as dynamic elements in a narrative.

The third level of abstraction involves groups as foci of interaction. At this level, individual psychology becomes less important than group dynamics. The historian who views an event from the perspective of some group, or of the relations between groups, may illustrate his argument by reference to individuals; but the argument itself concerns the functions of the group within institutional structures and the ways in which it illustrates institutional or conceptual patterns. Norman Gash, for instance, disputes Halevey’s contention that the French Revolution of 1830 was a decisive influence in the passage of the Reform Bill by detailing the reactions of several groups, including the ultra-radicals and the ultra-Tories. He forms his opinions inductively by looking at individuals from each group and illustrates his argument the same way. But his conclusions refer to group perceptions, and it is on this level that he refines the general account of the whole event (RB 40-47).

Whether a collection of people is treated as a group or an institution depends on the purpose of the account and the relative levels of abstraction of other elements. Therefore it is impossible to make one list of groups significant for all accounts of the Reform Bill passage. But one could suggest, for example, the various factions in Parliament, the individual political unions in the cities, the Rotunda group, the Owenites, and the Benthamite Radicals.

The pattern of relationships brought into focus by any one group may be analyzed for the purpose of clarifying the patterns of other elements. For example, the ultra-Tories show significant responses to working-class activism, to the idea of revolution displayed in France, to the Church and Monarchy as institutions, and to the Duke of Wellington. Also, the pattern may be analyzed in terms of its difference from patterns in other, related events. Thus it is instructive to compare the ultra-Tories’ behavior during the Reform era with their behavior prior to and during the previous controversy over Catholic Emancipation.

It may seem that I am merely rationalizing what historians already do. But the purpose of the hierarchy is precisely to formalize the process of abstraction used by historians, so that they can avoid the logical inconsistencies that often corrupt their narrative explanations and meet the criticism that has been (I think justly) leveled at them. When we shift levels of abstraction, the pattern of significant relationships also shifts. For example, there is a tendency to analyze the behavior of groups from the perspective of Parliament as an institution, since Parliament was the scene of so much Reform action. But if we focus on an individual in the same duration, we should have to consider other types of groups to which that individual might belong: a church congregation, a family, an investment venture, or a scientific society.

At the fourth level of abstraction are institutions. It is often hard to decide whether or when a group becomes large enough, permanent enough, structured enough, or associated with physical structures or symbols to the degree implied by the term "institution." In general, institutions emphasize order more than organization, whereas groups reverse that priority: the relation between them is a relation of scale appropriate to a particular inquiry. Usually, large groups such as "classes" or "sectors" or nations can be analyzed as institutions, for their relations with other elements are apt to be illustrated through subgroups. During the passage of Reform the gentry, the political union network, "industry," and the working classes related to other elements this way. Relations between the gentry and Parliament were not those of two groups functioning within one institution, but of two institutions interacting through groups.

While individuals express themselves through specific actions, and groups through their functions, institutions do so through their structures. Beyond that, at the fifth level of abstraction, we are concerned with concepts of order: principles, ideas, doctrines. An institution articulates one pattern of relationships between the conceptual elements of a given actual event. Thus Parliament, during passage of the Reform Bill, responded to aspects of the concepts "constitution," "aristocracy," "democracy," "property rights," and so on. Only certain aspects of a concept are involved, from an institution’s perspective. "Property rights" enters into the perspectives of other institutions and through them to other groups and individuals. A vigilante group shooting a lurking trespasser in Northern Wales involves "property rights" but from a quite different perspective. On the other hand, "property rights" enters into the institutional experience of Parliament only in respect to its meaning for people who stood to gain or lose voting rights and control of boroughs and counties. The full complex meaning of this concept, illustrated perhaps in a thousand different incidents during the Reform duration, cannot be realized in any one element of any particular event.

The historian may study the ways in which different institutions prehended a concept in order to clarify the relations between them. Thus, Bristol had one view of "virtual representation," the gentry another, and urban industrial magnates a third. The contrasts between these views provided the dynamic force for Parliamentary action, which had to try to resolve them. The resolution, embodied in the Reform Bill, formed one of many configurations that might have resolved the contrasts. Those configurations not realized remain real potentials, in contrast to what actually happened, and provide the impetus for historical advance.

The sixth level of abstraction displays the categories of "forces" or "factors" traditionally used by historians to indicate their disciplinary perspective: economic, political, technological, aesthetic, psychological, social, or cultural. These categories are so ubiquitous that they demand inclusion in any scheme of analysis that proposes to be of service to historians. In accounts of the Reform Bill, political and economic perspectives figure prominently; technological, religious, and philosophical factors offer subordinate contrasts. An assessment of the relative importance of each perspective to the actual event under scrutiny is a prerequisite for consistent explanation. Historians who favor one perspective over others a priori must nevertheless clarify the contrasts among all of them, so that other historians, and philosophers, can offer amendment or amplification within an overall critical framework. The lack of such a framework, which probably must be constructed outside the confines of narrative, has meant a proliferation of studies unrelated except by the vague intuition of historians immersed in the period. And this is true of the other levels of abstraction as well.

The seventh level is the level of ideals. Such terms as "justice," "peace," "reform," and "deference" belong at this level. As elements, they have potential for inclusion in any and all events; but their meaning is determined historically, by inclusion in this or that event. Since ideals may represent mutually exclusive ideas (at least in Western logic), it is not possible for any one event to include all of them in its hierarchy of elements. Some must be omitted, or in Whitehead’s terms "negatively prehended." Also, a particular event illustrates only certain aspects of an ideal from its historical perspective. Thus no event can realize the full potential of any ideal or group of ideals, and still less the full potential of antecedent occasions from which their historical meaning was derived.

Historians have shown the possibilities of tracing the development of ideals such as "progress" or "freedom" (as Whitehead himself attempted in Adventures of Ideas). They have also examined contrasts between ideals, such as the tension between equality and justice, or between freedom and order. In such cases, one examines the similarities and differences between the configurations displayed by each object’s articulation in the hierarchy of some actual event. Freedom may be illustrated by one configuration, order by another. The actual event determines one meaning of the contrast between them, which may be anything from complete rejection of one to a relatively new synthesis.

In review, the hierarchical scheme is constructed on a modified reductionist principle, in that each level of abstraction is to be explained in terms of the elements at the next highest level. Thus the one actual event is made up of aspects of individual experience; these in turn may be explained by reference to group relationships; and the group relationships may be accounted for in terms of their institutional functions. By proceeding step by step in the hierarchy, we avoid the fallacy of explaining a particular interaction in terms of elements so abstract that they could account for many other particulars as well.

Each element in the hierarchy illustrates aspects of the pattern of relationships on the levels above it and is illustrated by elements on the levels below. Thus, a group like the Benthamite Radicals illustrates one potential pattern of relations among the several institutions to which it adheres, and its own dynamics as a group are illustrated by the behavior of its individual members. None of these elements is to be seen as an object with adhering properties or as a property in itself. Rather, they are foci for relationships with other elements, whose potential may or may not be fully realized in the actual event.


The Analytical Hierarchy of Elements in Events

Level 7: Ideals of Civilization

Level 6: Disciplinary Perspectives

Level 5: Complex Concepts, Ideas, Principles

Level 4: Institutions

Level 3: Groups

Level 2: Individuals

Level 1: Actual Events

Undifferentiated Actuality

Definitions and Principles

1. An "element" is a focus of relationships between some or all of the elements in a hierarchy, including other elements at its own level. It brings into focus one potential configuration, or proposition, which may or may not be actualized in the final form of the event. Thus, an individual element is to be conceived of as one type of dynamic focal activity.

2. The hierarchy is constructed from a level of initial abstraction with one complex member upward toward levels of high abstraction with many members. The lower levels are oriented more temporally than spatially, while the upper levels gradually reverse that orientation.

3. As potentiality moves toward actuality, the number of propositions decreases as their complexity increases. Thus, each level is to be accounted for or explained by reference to a less complex set of elements on the level above it.

Preliminary Sketch of the Hierarchy of Elements for the Passage of the Reform Bill Of 1832

Level 7: Distress/ Balance/ Reform/ Capital/ Property/ Leadership/ Work / Justice

Level 6: Economics/ Politics/ Technology/ Science/ Military/ Religion/ Philosophy/ Culture

Level 5: Economic Distress/ Social Deference/ Social Revolution/ Exclusion/ Political Reform/ Property Rights/ Virtual Representation/ Aristocracy/ Democracy/ Constitution/ Compromise

Level 4: Monarchy/ Gentry/ Lords/ Parliament/ Political Unions/ Bristol/ London/ Factories/Counties/ Rotten Boroughs/ King’s Council/ Commons

Level 3: Canningites/ Ultra-Tories/ Radicals/ King’s Councilors/ Rotunda/ Cabinet/ Moderate Whigs/ Independent Tories/ Birmingham Political Union

Level 2: Peel/ Cobbett/ Grey/ Wellington/ Place/ William IV/ Brougham/ Palmerston/ et. al.

Level 1: Passage of the Reform Bill in England, ca. 1830-1832


An element at one level brings into focus one configuration of aspects of elements on the levels above it. For example, the Radicals at level 3 bring into focus aspects of the Gentry, Rotten Boroughs, Political Reform, Philosophy, Property and Monarchy, showing how they relate to each other in terms of the Radicals’ experience in the passing of the Reform Bill. This "Radical" configuration is in turn illustrated by the experience of individuals who prehended aspects of the Radicals as a group from their individual perspectives.

By analyzing the levels of abstraction used in different accounts of the same event, we can bring them into correlation, and construct a synthetic model of the event. This model may then be amended and refined so that the several accounts complement each other.


As one moves up the hierarchy, one proceeds from the level of complex actuality, with one member, toward levels of greater simplicity, more members, and greater potential for application. One also moves from an emphasis on organic function to an emphasis on orderly position and from temporal activity toward spatial definition. The higher levels of the hierarchy are therefore more amenable to logical analysis, the low-er to narrative description. But these are relative distinctions.

The range of potential configurations apt to be realized grows smaller as we move down the hierarchy toward the level of the actual event. The contrasts between potentiality and actuality are correspondingly increased. The actual event thus displays not only the logic of its own decision, but also the scope of undetermined possibility from which, by comparison, it derives its complex significance. What "actually happened" in the Reform era would be meaningless without our awareness and evaluation of what might have happened.

The hierarchy does not display the transformations through which it emerged. But it does constitute an affirmation of value, a statement about the relative significance of elements derived from its past, that all subsequent events must take into account. As such, it takes its place in the general scheme of extensive connection, the "external" world of cause and effect, continuity and change, which is the more traditional field for historical inquiry and philosophical criticism. As presented here, the hierarchical scheme shows why "scientific" models of explanation, based on invariant relationships between abstract properties, have failed to satisfy the historical understanding. Although elements at the higher levels of abstraction are amenable to such analysis, their realization in the actual event is mediated through more complex elements, whose primary attributes are irregularity and particularity. The interplay among elements in a given hierarchy can be and ought to be analyzed logically but they are not causal relationships.

With this in mind we turn to a description of an event’s antecedent world. This world will include a range of events which, like the example of the Reform Bill passage, implicate hierarchies of abstraction, with their appropriate contrasts between actuality and potentiality. Elements at the higher levels of abstraction have wide application and can thus be grouped under general labels. Elements at lower levels will be more particular and complex, making prediction of the structure of subsequent events almost impossible. Thus the hierarchical scheme will provide grounds for a general continuity in history, which can be analyzed logically, and for particular change, which can be accounted for only by description of creative process.

The whole range of hierarchical elements makes up the antecedent field of some event, such as the passage of the Reform Bill. The field has a time duration in terms of conventional historical dating which is roughly equivalent to the subsequent event. Thus the antecedent field of the Reform Bill passage is about two years long, or from the accession of the Duke of Wellington as prime minister in the Spring of 1828 (when the issue of Reform was first broached) to the first meeting of parliament after the elections of summer, 1830, when Reform became the focus of political conflict. The field can also be characterized geographically, so that if revolutionary activity on the Continent was an element in the emerging constitution of the Reform Bill passage, then the same area ought to be considered when analyzing its antecedent world. This approach follows a general principle, that the terms of explanation ought to be commensurate with the terms describing the novel event.

At first glance, analysis of a field of hierarchical elements seems hopelessly complicated. It multiplies several times over the analysis of elements in one actual event. But there are two aspects of the antecedent field that make things easier. First, in accordance with the principle of intensive relevance propounded by Whitehead (PR 148/224), the bulk of antecedent elements may be tacitly dismissed from consideration because they are irrelevant from the perspective of the event to be explained. Only where some question arises about the change in significance from what might have been expected must the historian really account for such items. For instance, Elie Halevy and other historians assumed that the revolutionary events in France during July and August, 1830, must have influenced the outcome of the British elections. But Norman Cash, reviewing the election dates and the number of uncontested seats, concluded that the cross-Channel influence was generally negligible (RB 40-47). The one historian analyzed the Revolution because he thought it mattered; the other analyzed its influence because the available data did not make it evident. Thus, although the bulk of the antecedent elements may be dismissed from consideration, it is one of the chief occupations of historians to review elements dismissed in previous accounts and to correct assessments of relevance in light of new data. In this way, critical models can be constructed and refined.

The second feature of the antecedent world that simplifies analysis is that, at the higher levels of abstraction, the same elements appear in the hierarchies of several events. This overlapping constitutes patterns of order, or nexus. For instance, the concept "Catholic Emancipation runs through a number of significant episodes in the period 1828-1830, from the election of Daniel O’Connell for County Clair in 1828 to the signing of the Emancipation bill by a reluctant George IV in April, 1829. Also, individuals such as Wellington and groups such as the Whigs appear as elements in many events. Therefore, it is unnecessary for the historian to elaborate the full hierarchies of all the important events of the antecedent world. It is enough to indicate the primary nexus and the more significant groups and individuals.

But in addition to the elements realized in occasions of the antecedent duration, we have to investigate those that remained merely potential. These illustrate relationships that did not fully develop, but were still meaningful in contrast to what actually happened. They are a part of the field of elements prehended by successive novel events, because they indicate possibilities available for future development. For instance, Charles X, Polignac, LaFayette, and Louis Phillippe appear as individual elements in the French Revolution. They were involved as aspects of actual events, but also as aspects of unrealized, potential configurations. The latter add significance to the former; they provide that subjective intensity with which actual entities enter into the constitution of subsequent occasions. The most obvious illustration of this argument is the title of Maehl’s anthology: The Reform Bill of 1832: Why Not Revolution?

It may be obvious by now that analysis of an antecedent world can become far more complex than the traditional background summary of main trends and causes. Yet it is not just an intellectual exercise. By sorting out the primary contrasts at their appropriate levels of abstraction, we provide a critical approach to both the criticism of narrative explanation and the construction of logical arguments.

In a narrative account, the historian offers events in a sequence designed to evoke in the reader’s imagination the contrasting elements and potential configurations discussed above, with the expectation that the reader will hold them together in an emerging synthesis as the story progresses. By the time the narrative reaches the events of October, 1830, the field of conditional elements we have sketched is supposed to be fairly well constituted, but in a symbolic, prelogical way. The narrative historian can afford not to be very explicit about this field, because a reader with any imagination will have been evaluating it in anticipation of the next major development in the account.

In an analytical explanation, which refines and justifies the narrative, the field of antecedents must be examined quite explicitly. The historian must sort out the major contrasts, identify levels of relative abstraction, and take note of configurations that remain potential in order to avoid the logical fallacies and stylistic shortcuts noted in the first part of this paper. Nor is this kind of analysis fatal to historians’ literary pretensions; as I will show, it can bring to light aspects of narrative construction that enhance the flow of accounts, if only because the historian is more conscious of what he is doing.

Elements of high abstraction in the antecedent field apply to many events in that duration, but also to events in previous and subsequent durations. These elements form the terms in normative or hypothetico-deductive arguments. We cannot say that "whenever Catholic Emancipation is followed by a revolution in France, the British Parliament will pass a Reform Bill." But we could hypothesize that "whenever a principle such as "Parliamentary Reform" is found in the antecedent world as a contrast between (a) moderate revival of an old ideal, (b) ultraconservative reaction, (c) popular anticipation of radical change, and (d) a vehicle for the ambitions of young politicians and idealists, then the principle in form (d) is most likely to be articulated as the primary element in some event emerging from that antecedent world." Now, this example is based on retrodictive reasoning, and it is full of traps; but in the context of nineteenth-century Britain, it might have functioned as a prediction.

The general idea is that some elements in the hierarchical field are abstract enough to be included in a formal category of relationships that applies to other events in other durations and that such applications may be formally derived and analyzed without prejudice to the critique of narrative elements described previously. In fact, the two modes of analysis are complementary.

They complement each other, however, only if we substitute a principle of indeterminism for the principle of determinism assumed by positivist models of explanation.2 (Here we depart from the basis of Hempel’s criticism.) Indeterminacy means that (1) the full range of elements in the antecedent field of a given event offers such potential for the emergence of subsequent events that the particular given event could not be predicted from it to the exclusion of any alternative. The given event must determine itself, in the sense of bringing into actuality one of many potential patterns of emergence implicit in its antecedent world. (2) Abstraction from the actual antecedent world of conditions which may fit the requirements of a hypothetico-deductive argument precludes the possibility of accounting for the emergence of a given novel event in its full particularity. By abstraction, we can account for certain types of events, but we can no more predict the particular event than a chemist can predict the location of a single molecule in a gas-filled chamber.

Thus, by describing the antecedent field we can provide a reasonable basis for logical analysis, but we also demonstrate the need for a narrative explanation of the creative process through which the Indeterminate conditions of the antecedent world are transformed into constituent elements of some novel occasion. The narrative forms an analogy to the process of emergence. If we now examine the dynamics of that process, we shall see that they can be clarified by application of concepts used in criticism of narrative fiction.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the several modes of transition from antecedent to novel occasion. Briefly, I have followed Whitehead in arguing that elements of the antecedent world are assimilated in the initial phase of emergence as objective data with corresponding subjective intensity, in the mixed mode of symbolic reference (PR 168-83/255-79). These initial data can be described as elements of composition, symbolic in nature, which in historical events appear as fragments of the hierarchical configurations previously discussed. The fragments include individuals, groups, institutions, concepts, and perspectives, derived from the antecedent world under the aegis of some set of pure potentials, graded in intensive relevance. They express tentative propositions regarding the significance of the past for this occasion. Just as an artist might begin with a certain form or a snatch of musical ideas or a line of dialogue, so the historical event begins with an array of episodic fragments. Catherine of Aragon proves barren of legitimate sons; Rome rejects Henry VIII’s appeal for a dispensation to annul his marriage. Wolsey schemes for power; Thomas Cromwell advances his career. A hundred other fragments emerge in this early phase of the English Reformation. Each fragment, a blend of feeling, fact, valuation, and potential, expresses a proposition, a statement of one possible configuration of elements for the final resolution of the creative process.

I have grouped the subsequent phases of interaction among propositions under a category of symbolic transformation. As each potential configuration is integrated into an emerging pattern, the feeling and form it symbolizes are combined with the feelings and forms of others, resulting in ever more complex and novel compositions. Each element, then, is transformed from its initial appearance as a fragmentary figure into a constituent of a larger pattern. The process continues until a synoptic judgment is reached, accounting for every item in the universe prehended by that occasion from its perspective (PR 44f/71).3

Many historians will recognize in this summary a description of their own approach to the composition of narrative. This is in keeping with our purpose to formulate a theory that makes historical narrative analogous to historical process, bringing craft and philosophy together again. There are some features of symbolic transformation, moreover, that make the analogy an explicit framework for critical study: (1) symbolic transformation deals with contrasts between propositions; (2) it proceeds generally from the realization of the most abstract contrasts to the most particular; and (3) it expresses a temporal pattern or form amenable to classification.

The first task for the historian is to identify the salient contrasts in the emerging pattern of an event and describe the transformations through which they are gradually integrated. Identification may begin with pairs of elements, but it will inevitably proceed to more complex configurations which those elements bring into focus. For example, in the Reform Bill proceedings of 1830-1832, one might sort out contrasts between Tories and Whigs, workingmen and aristocrats, fiscal conservatives and fiscal progressives, Lord John Russell and Lord Grey, and so on. But very quickly it becomes necessary to deal with the more complex contrasts among such groups as gentry, urban magnates, rural laborers, and industrial workers; among moderate Tories, ultra-Tories, and reform Whigs; and among such issues as the French Revolution, the abolition of slavery, fiscal reform, and the rotten boroughs.

The obvious problem of dealing with such contrasts in the linear form of narrative can be alleviated by pointing out explicitly what sorts or contrasts are being integrated, so that even if readers lose sight of the particular information involved, they can still appreciate the aesthetic transformation of elements. This is akin to a fiction writer’s exposing, in the story, the principles of his composition: it gives the game away, which is awkward in fiction but very desirable in history.

When we get "inside" an event, says Whitehead, the vector character of causation is overtaken by the scalar character of contrasts (PR 212/323). Thus we can distinguish between elements (and their configurations) that are larger, more important, more comprehensive, and elements that are less so. No scheme of analysis could account for all gradations of relative scale, so I have begun with a simple division into contrasts of relative parity or disparity and contrasts that are discordant or concordant. These terms represent two continua rather than discrete categories: a contrast of discordant disparity, for instance, is identified only in relation to other contrasts in the particular event under scrutiny.

Let me give some brief examples. Contrasts of concordant parity occur between two or more configurations whose primary foci have about the same size and intensity and whose function in the composition of the event is mutually supportive. In the Reform Bill proceedings, the House of Lords and the monarchy are often mutually augmentative; the political unions and the Reform Whigs work in tandem; Brougham and Russell and Palmerston enhance each other’s roles. And, though their general Orientation seems so different, even the ultra-Tories and the Radicals, in their common fear of Wellington’s power, achieve a sporadic concordance. In this sense, what we mean by concordant parity is not so much cooperation or expressed support, but a relationship in the composition of the event characterized by reciprocal intensification. Bacon and eggs, if you will.

Contrasts of discordant parity are found typically in events which lack the decisive resolution of the Reform Bill.4 One finds discordant parity between liberalism and nationalism in the deliberations of the Frankfort Assembly of 1848; between Gladstone and Disraeli in the middle of Victoria’s reign; and between workers and urban magnates in many cities during the Reform agitation of 1830-1832. The identification of such contrasts at any level of abstraction should warn the historian that the final pattern of relationships in the event may not yield a "satisfaction" of all conflicts and that these discords are the most likely foci for future occasions. However, discord in the early phases of symbolic transformation may be resolved later on, with a corresponding enhancement of intensity for the elements involved.

Contrasts of relative concordant disparity show how the pattern of relationships focussed on one element is reflected and augmented by that of a less significant one. In the arts, this is achieved by repetition and variation of a motif in various parts of the composition. In historical events, such contrasts appear at all levels of abstraction and express the gradations of intensive relevance worked out in the process of concretion. As configurations of elements (i.e., propositions) are gradually integrated, the degrees of subordination may shift considerably. These alternatives are not eliminated from the temporal constitution of the event, but remain as overtones of value for the one pattern actualized in its final decision.

The interplay between disenfranchisement and enfranchisement in the Reform Bill proceedings may illustrate concordant disparity. The first version of the Bill was introduced with a strong emphasis on getting rid of the rotten boroughs, while the enfranchisement of the new urban-industrial areas to the north appeared as a subordinate program. Opponents of government introduced an amendment reversing that disparity, and the final version of the Bill contained a compromise in which the pressure to guarantee new seats to the industrial constituencies was more evident than hostility to the rotten boroughs. Yet, as students of later reform movements can testify, the original contrast remained as a potential alternative, providing what Whitehead termed a "lure for feeling" in subsequent occasions.

Contrasts of discordant disparity illustrate relatively minor conflicts which detract from the resolution of the whole, cast doubt on its synoptic judgment of the past, and remain as potential seeds of change. For example, the general support of the working classes for the Reform Bill of 1832 gains in significance when placed against their bitterly disappointed aspirations for voting rights and their increased awareness of class discrimination. Discordant contrasts represent mistakes in the process of symbolic transformation. The mistakes may be only apparent and with a more sophisticated view may be seen as relatively concordant instead; that is why the identification of discordant contrasts is a useful procedure. Other discords need to be recognized for what they are: signs that historical events, like artists, rarely achieve perfection.

The development of a pattern of contrasting configurations follows the path of "ingression" described by Whitehead in that contrasts at the most abstract levels are resolved first. The particulars cannot be determined until the generalizations which they illustrate have been arranged. In historical events, this means a progressive decision regarding the contrasts between propositions focussed at the level of fields, then complex concepts, institutions, groups, and individuals, ending with the most complex, particular decision as to the actual event. It may sometimes appear from the historical records that an institution or concept is the final aspect to be settled, as in the Reform Bill proceedings, when the legislation emerged swiftly from the king’s concession on creation of additional peers. But in actuality, the exact experience of the participating groups and individuals could not be determined prior to a decision about the relative weight of the principles they espoused or the institutions within which they functioned. Their role in any potential configuration prior to the final resolution of the event may be quite definite, but the status of that configuration remains unresolved.

The identification of contrasts and the analysis of their transformations will obviously be a matter for judgment, and therefore for dispute, among historians and their critics. No one familiar with the discipline can expect such an analytical scheme to bring about a new era of perfect resolution. We could expect, however, a gradual narrowing of gaps between different accounts and interpretations, a movement from uncertainty toward certainty, as historians refine their critiques within a common heuristic. This expectation (or faith) is all that the proud designation of science comes to: a disciplined approach to inquiry. It is prevalent also in such "subjective" fields as literature, where criticism is directed toward the delineation of categories of meaning shared by most informed members of the field.

Recent work in literary criticism, in fact, suggests a way to diminish controversies arising from analysis of temporal development in historical events. The whole sequence of symbolic transformations may be thought of as a plot.

In a pair of well-known essays, R. S. Crane and Norman Friedman outlined an approach to forms of the plot that discarded the notion of a mere sequence of action. Rather, argued Crane, "the plot of any novel or drama is the particular temporal synthesis effected by the writer of the elements of action, character, and thought that constitute the matter of his invention" (TN 141). One of these three elements will usually predominate in a given plot. It will be the focus of change, while the other two elements react to it and not primarily to each other. Thus there are plots of character, plots of action, and plots of thought. Beyond these basic forms, however, one must consider the power of the whole pattern to evoke analogous experience in the reader, to affect his thoughts and feelings. The concept of plot concerns not only what happens, but also how it is expressed. Analysis of the symbolic elements of the plot must follow a synoptic judgment about the whole composition.

Crane’s concept of plot can be adapted for historical narratives and for historical events if we make the transition from "people-centered" fiction to "event-centered" accounts of the past. The characters in an historical event are, for analytical purposes, its propositions. "Character" expresses the content of the proposition, its various elements and their complex pattern of relationships. In a plot of character, this pattern undergoes qualitative change in response to its adventures with other propositions (action) and to the emerging implications of its perspective on the past and anticipation of the future (thought).

Plots of action are built around the adventures of propositions rather than their qualitative change: in an historical event, this means the shifting of contrasts from parity to disparity, from concord to discord, from significance to insignificance as the pattern of the event emerges from potentiality toward actuality.

The element of thought in a plot means an awareness, either by characters or author, of the implication of some configuration or contrast as a potential judgment of the past and anticipation of the future. This awareness may rise to the level of consciousness or remain relatively intuitive or instinctive. Thus it may be applied to historical events without entailing anthropomorphism. In Whitehead’s work the element of thought is termed the "perspective" of the event. A perspective originates from the prehension of a matrix of pure potentials and emerges during the phases of symbolic transformation. The emergence of perspective forms the plot of thought.

For example, the coronation of Charlemagne involved changes in the way certain configurations (focussed on Charlemagne, on the Papacy, and on the Byzantine court) perceived the past and organized themselves for subsequent interaction. These changes may be described in terms of institutions or concepts in addition to individuals or groups. The awareness of circumstances manifested in an institution such as the papal curia shows up in its relations with other elements in an event.

Crane’s concept of plot seems to be a useful way to approach the temporal composition of historical events and of their narrative analogues. It provides both a sense of the whole pattern, which is the best starting point for intelligent criticism, and a means of distinguishing the constituent changes of character, circumstance, and perspective. By delineating the plot of an historical event, we establish a common referent for critical analysis of contrasts and thus reduce the range and intensity of arguments that are bound, as we admitted earlier, to occur.

The general division of plot forms into "action, character," and "thought" may be further developed in accord with Norman Friedman’s later essay based on Crane’s ideas. Friedman outlined some fourteen plot forms, distinguished by the direction or type of change involved in each of the three divisions (TN 145-66). For instance, a character may change from good to evil (or the reverse), become disillusioned, survive a series of tests, or prove to be more admirable in a crisis than anyone could have believed. While there is not space here to discuss all of Friedman’s categories, it may be said that their application to historical events yields useful insights without unreasonably straining the "fit" between his definitions and the historian’s traditional approach to the data. Friedman’s categories are not all equally useful, of course, and some may need revision before they can be applied to the full range of historical events. But they do provide an initial framework for critical comparison of historical events and of the narrative accounts explaining them. They allow historians to replace their ad hoc explanations with identifiable perspectives subject to correlation and refinement.

The analysis of an historical event in terms of its plot forms and related symbolic transformations eventually leads back to the final phase of synoptic resolution, illustrated by a hierarchy of contrasting elements, through which the event was initially defined. But now, instead of using this phase as a guide to the antecedent world, one can turn the other way, toward the future. In its final phase, the event establishes concrete conditions to which subsequent events must conform. It thus becomes an objective datum in the world beyond itself, in so far as it is prehended by subsequent events. At the same time, the event in its symbolic form expresses a contrast or pattern of contrasts between concrete actuality and relevant forms of potentiality. This aspect also passes on into subsequent occasions. When an event becomes an objective datum in the emerging constitution of some subsequent occasion, its symbolic form is interpreted anew, in relation to other symbolic objects, but always in conformity with the conditions established by its own actualization. This process of "passing on," which involves a conditioned change of symbolic form, I have termed the metamorphosis of an event. By studying the metamorphic adventures of a given event, we can better estimate its historical significance, and also get a better sense of what to look for in its antecedent world.

Thus far I have talked about metamorphosis only in the simple case of a single antecedent appearing as an element in the constitution of a single novel event. But it will be obvious that the term implies a more complex arrangement, in which an event is prehended from several subsequent perspectives, becoming illustrated in many different ways from duration to duration. For example, the balance of authority between Pope and Emperor, a feature of many occasions prior to the coronation of Charlemagne, was assimilated as a complex element in that event. But it was perceived one way by the Frankish King and his court, quite another way by the Papacy in Rome, and still another way by the Byzantine court. The three viewpoints represent three configurations in the emerging constitution of the event. Moreover, the coronation of Charlemagne was not the only event in that duration to incorporate the historical relationship between Pope and Emperor as a symbolic element. There were dozens of other events prehending the same condition from their own perspectives. As each prehension became realized in the final form of some actual event, the original contrast between papal and imperial authority underwent kaleidoscopic elaboration. Any subsequent occasion would therefore assimilate it in a great variety of intermediate forms, and would have to recombine them to establish its own particular feeling for that contrast.

The complete metamorphic analysis of any event would appear to be a formidable challenge. It requires a thoroughness and a talent for painstaking clarification that few historians may care to claim. Yet it is a necessary prerequisite to the reestablishment of narrative as a valid form of explanation. It is, on the one hand, an extension of our analysis of an emerging actual event and, on the other, an extension of our analysis of its antecedent world.

Fortunately, the analytical scheme is relevant to the massive body of research already published by historians. We have innumerable studies of this or that trend, this period or that period, and descriptions of "the state of Europe" or "the economic situation" in selected durations. The construction of an analytical scheme begins with the organization and critical appraisal of these efforts, not with a whole new edifice of information. Also, once the scheme is known, the effort of construction can be shared among historians of diverse interests.

Metamorphic analysis completes the basic approach to historical explanation derived from Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and from related research in the arts and sciences. This approach assumes that narrative accounts form analogues to the composition of historical events and that the dynamics of narrative are expressed in events as symbolic transformations, emerging in temporal patterns, and resulting in definite configurations that can be analyzed at several levels of abstraction. It is based on the compatibility, even the mutual necessity, of analytical and narrative modes of explanation. Because it is evident that previous modes are no longer efficacious, I have suggested a great many changes, stemming from a fundamental shift in the perception of reality, in the way we research, write, and criticize historical accounts. Even the few examples I have used here for illustration demonstrate the need for a wholesale reassessment of the work historians do.

As a starting point, I would suggest a series of monographs analyzing reputable published accounts of individual events, in terms of their plot forms, contrasts, and levels of abstraction. In this way we can build upon the achievements of the past and provide an easier transition to the new model for craft-oriented historians who are traditionally wary of philosophical schemes. Beyond that, though one may shrink from the prospect, we must produce a full-blown example of the complete analysis and narrative explanation of some historical event before the process approach to historical inquiry can be accepted as a useful framework for discourse in the discipline.



CC -- The Coronation of Charlemagne: What Did It Signify? Ed. Richard E. Sullivan. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1959.

HT -- History and Theory, by Dale H. Porter, "History as Process," 14 (1975), 297-313.

RB -- The Reform Bill of 1832: Why Not Revolution? Ed. William Henry Maehl, Jr. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1967.

TN -- The Theory of the Novel. Ed. Philip Stevick. New York: The Free Press, 1967, for the two essays by R. S. Crane, "The Concept of Plot," 141-45, and Norman Friedman, "Forms of the Plot," 145-66. ‘The Autonomy of Historical Understanding," in Philosophical Analysis and History, ed. William Dray (New York:Harper and Row, 1966).



1 These categories are a fairly traditional part of the historian’s frame of reference and are perceptively discussed by Carl Gustavson in his manual A Preface to History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955).

2 Of the recent work in physics, biology, anthropology and art criticism which I have used to support and illustrate arguments for indeterminacy, the most cogent is Kenneth G. Denbigh, An Inventive Universe (New York: George Braziller, 1975).

3 The concept of synoptic judgment was developed by Louis O. Mink, "The Autonomy of Historical Understanding," in Philosophical Analysis and History, ed. William Dray (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

4 In Whitehead’s scheme there can be no real discord in the final satisfaction of an event: every element positively prehended will have its determined role to play. Historical events, however, are so much less unified than Whitehead’s model -- they are more like societies of occasions -- that some discord is inevitable.