In the "Decline of Greatness" which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on November 1, 1958, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. succeeded in creating the impression that the terms 'determinism' and 'fatalism' are synonymous.   Some passing references were made to different schools of thought.  However, Professor Schlesinger neglected (1) to clarify the fact that these words are not synonymous, (2) to make quite clear that not all concepts of determinism are fatalistic, and (3) to indicate that some theories of determinism are thought to be compatible with free-will.  It is a grave injustice to the doctrine of determinism, inasmuch as the average reader has very little knowledge of its philosophic implications.  It is not adequately treated in the simple explanations offered by Professor Schlesinger.  It is unlikely that this noted author is unaware of contemporary thinking on this problem.  There is much agreement that man, himself, is a cause in the stream of historical events.  I suspect that he did not intend to equate determinism with fatalism.  I am compelled to point out, however, that such an apparent identification is unfortunate, especially since it bears the authority of such an eminent thinker.
To speak of determinism as being outside the pale of choice-making seems, in the face of all that has been written about the subject, to be a misunderstanding of the issue.  Choices are made because of deterministic processes not in spite of them.  Responsibility, too, (which Professor Schlesinger envisions as lying outside the realm of determinism) is not to be dispensed with.  Both serve as deterministic forces.
Acts are not beyond the control of people merely because they live in a deterministic world.  An act is the result of all forces: physical, religious, social, tangible, intangible, etc.  To say that historical or social forces are mystical, abstract, or metaphorical is to impute little practical meaning to the patterns of group behavior.  However, pragmatic use is made of the predictability of such patterns (in advertising, use of propaganda, "educating" the public, salesmanship, etc.).  When Professor Schlesinger asks for predictions which he requires to be consistently accurate, he is asking for the impossible.  Consistent for how long?  We cannot tell how much of our ignorance the future holds until the future becomes past.  Only a god-like mind would have the infinite knowledge necessary for such prediction.  But, even if Professor Schlesinger's criticisms were correct, it would not add one iota of weight to the position that there is an area of "free" choice.  It merely puts both doctrines on an even basis -- assuming there is no evidence for either.  But scientific study shows that under many circumstances, human behavior can be predicted and directed -- on a statistical basis if not otherwise.  And, from what we know about these matters, all knowledge and all prediction have their basis only in probability and rest upon some assumption.  Hence, it is logically improper (with all due respect to Hume) to abstract an act from the causal stream of which it is a part.  The effects of an act themselves become causes in altering possible future choices.
It is unfair to give praise or blame for an act if the intent of the giving is merely reward or revenge.  However, in a society such as ours, praise and blame are meant to be causative, inducing further conformity with the demands of society.
Contrary to Sir Isaiah Berlin, we do in fact take determinism very seriously; when we eat, drink, vote, pray, pay taxes, obey laws, etc., expecting a determined result.  This is as it should be, or we would be living in a state of chaos.
There is no society which is not founded on determinism.  There is no area of life, including religion, which is not founded on determinism.  All institutions resort to punishment and reward of some kind.  In the case of religion, for example, the final punishment or reward is Heaven or Hell, or whatever the respective equivalent happens to be.
In regard to Professor Schlesinger's references to Napoleon and Shakespeare, it is not appropriate to offer Tolstoy as the representative of deterministic philosophy.  It is questionable whether someone else would have marched across Europe if Napoleon had not.  The weakness of Tolstoy's example does not at all re-enforce William James' position regarding Shakespeare.  The question as to whether the convergence of sociological pressures impinging on Strafford on Avon on April 23, 1564 had to result in the birth of a William Shakespeare with all his abilities, is hardly a sensible one.  If it had referred to sociological, physical, religious, scientific, nutritional, and innumerable other forces being responsible for W. Shakespeare's appearance on the scene with all that he achieved, I find it difficult to answer in the negative.
As to whether another might have taken his place to restore the sociological equilibrium had he died in infancy, seems to be unanswerable, except in retrospect -- not even then.  Who can say who might have been a Shakespeare?  Furthermore, the question overlooks the fact that there would necessarily have been some other sociological equilibrium.
Determinism does not mean that the world as it is today would have been the same if certain deterministic processes had not occurred.  Rather, it means that the world is as it is because of those processes.  In addition the individual as a self, as a person, as a responsible choice-making entity is one of those processes which leaves its mark on the world whether he be a Shakespeare or an infant who died shortly after birth.
History is not a specific final event, a set of events, or a temporal segment in which the events happen to be the historian's own special area of interest.  Rather it is the totality of events from "the moment of creation" to the moving present.  The child which died in infancy left its mark on the course of events, in terms of love, misery, pain, economics, hope, etc., as surely as, even if much less than, our full-grown heroes.  History is a plurality of events brought about by a plurality of causal streams, some of them contingently causal.
Many of our contemporary determinists do not rule out the individual from the stream of historical events, as Professor Schlesinger seems to suggest that they do.  They insist, rather, to the contrary, that the individual is a determining factor in that stream.

© 1997 by Pasqual S. Schievella