One of the core concerns with History has been, historically (oh, very witty, Mr. Ransome) getting to the heart of the characters who formed or are said to be responsible for those momentous events people feel the need to write about. The ‘Great Men of History’ theory advocated that any important historical event came down to some individual’s wants or actions; the Roman Republic fell because men like Sulla, Crassus, Pompey and Caesar wanted more and more power. It seems a sensible suggestion and, perhaps more importantly, it makes for a compelling narrative. It’s very hard to get into the mindset of a class or long-term historical process, but if you read something about a single person you both feel that you understand the actor and the results of their action.

This is all coming from my latest piece of non-thesis reading, ‘The Medici Giraffe,’ by Marina Belozerskaya. It’s a stunningly good book; easy to read, gripping and covering a lot of history (it goes from Ptolemaic Egypt to William Randolph Hearst). It also turns the ‘Great Men of History’ thesis upside down by providing the history of an individual via the common theme of the hunt for exotic animals. From Philadelphos’s search for African elephants (which, incidentally, lead to the discovery of gold mines and thus made Ptolemaic Egypt rich) to the discovery of black swans (Australia’s greatest contribution to Philosophy) and the fate of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine. Rather than give us the history of these people we are, instead, given the history of exotic animal collections which happens, by and by, to be centred around some famous individuals (who are, themselves, the end points of particular historical processes).

A lot of modern Histories do this now, in part because the ‘Great Men of History’ thesis is old hat and is not particularly popular in academic History Departments. Not because the thesis isn’t true in many cases but because it is often a mischaracterisation. Yes, Caesar’s wants did lead to the fall of the Republic, but let’s not forget the wave of popular support from the plebian class (as well as the excesses of the Senate). Often historical individuals only make sense in the wider context of their culture, class, et al.

If there is one downfall to ‘The Medici Giraffe’ it is that I didn’t discover any new Conspiracy Theories. Still, I don’t think that Belozerskaya intended to write on them at all, so it might just be that the book isn’t aimed at me (well, not the academic me; the leisure me loves this Fortean stuff). Still, it has prompted some conspiratorial thoughts on my part.

Steve Clarke, in his paper ‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing,’ published in The Philosophy of the Social Sciences, argued that one fault with the concept of the Conspiracy Theory was that we hold them to be ‘good’ because they offer us a dispositional view of the events under consideration. Clarke postulated that the Fundamental Attribution Error was largely responsible for people taking up Conspiracism (the belief that lots of things can be explained by reference to Conspiracy Theories). Let’s leave aside the fact that Clarke has put aside this hypothesis. Clarke’s original contention was that humans prefer dispositional rather than situational explanations. If we are offered an explanation that puts forward the reasons for the event’s occurrence framed in the terms of individuals wanting certain ends and this is contrasted with an explanation that offers us nothing by way of wants and desires (or frames them obliquely) then we tend to choose the explanation that is dispositonal (framed in the language of individual wants and desires). We seem to want to be able to ‘place the blame’ for an event on people wanting certain ends rather than accepting that the events in question might have been the end result of a much larger, less centred, historical process.

Take, for example, the end of the Republic. Most of the Patrician writers who covered the event focussed on Caesar because, it is often argued, it was easier to blame one man than to recognise that the politics of the Assembly and the Senate had become corrupt. Better Caesar be maligned than the State. Most of the Plebian writers blamed the Senate but tended to not take issue with the Assembly. Now, whilst it is true that the Republic was probably brought to its knees by Caesar and the power struggle that followed his assassination it is also true that the circumstances of Caesar’s up-bringing and political life are equally important to the Fall of the Republic. Had Caesar not been born another would have taken his place (I think the best example of this is found in Stephen Fry’s ‘Making History,’ a remarkably good time travel novel about what might have happened if Hitler had never been born).

We like the dispositional story of Caesar and the Fall of the Republic. It is easy to understand and easy to retell. The situational story, which some argue starts a hundred years earlier with the Gracchi, is a far more complex story and not so easy to grasp. The situational story is better, however. For one thing it explains more fully why Augustus takes a very different route to obtaining full control over Rome than that of his adopted father.

There is something to the notion of the Fundamental Attribution Error (Clarke doesn’t completely retract his view but rather limits the scope of it). History seems much simpler to understand when we write about it as the results of people doing things; we seem to like to understand History as a action-packed, person-centred, narrative (written History was, historically (there I go again), a form of fiction). Conspiracy Theories offer us such stories.

Mostly. The JFK assassination Conspiracy Theory goes the other way; we move from a story about Oswald acting alone to a shadowy cabal seeking the death of a president. This might be, in part, why Clarke no longer advocates the Fundamental Attribution Error. The Conspiracy Theory (well, one of them) version of events is far more situational (read: context-based) than dispositional. Then again, this might also explain why that story doesn’t seem to have gained as much traction as, say, the World Trade Center attacks of 2001. Conspiracy Theorists know ‘who really attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon’ whilst they have only vague suspicions about the cabal behind the 1963 shooting.

I suspect a lot of people do, at least initially, prefer dispositonal explanations to situational ones. The question in the literature surrounding the Fundamental Attribution Error turns on the issue of what dispositions are we pointing at when we say people prefer explanation A over B, and how that in many cases a lot of these so-called dispositional explanations are actually situational ones anyway. There is still a lot of theoretical work to be done here (and most of it belongs to the Psychology camp) in sorting out what we really mean by positing a Fundamental Attribution Error and I shall be keeping track of it to see how it fits into my project.

See, I can justify my non-thesis reading. Long story short: ‘The Medici Giraffe’ is excellent reading and wonderfully Fortean. Buy a copy now. Even better, buy two and gift me one of them. My copy, in actuality, belongs to the Library and I’m hesitant to give it back.