Objective and Subjective View of the Historical Development of Societies

History has generally been viewed through the lens of an objective approach to societal development.  Historical theories abound with discussions of geography, economic forces, and the influence of factors such as access to transportation routes, developments of science and technology, interaction of various different cultures, religious forms and customs, climate, food and water access, and trade routes and hubs.  These external forces can be viewed as objective causes of historical development.  There is a role to be played, in the objective view, by specific individuals who represent or guide the transitions or provide some seminal push in a particular direction, and thus, for those who do not accept a purely objective mechanism, there is the part played by key individuals who appear at the “right place and the right time”.

Sri Aurobindo notes however that behind all this external causation lies the subjective force that drives humanity forward, that drives the development of society, and that is the ultimate and real cause of evolutionary progress of society:  “…political and economic motives have everywhere predominated on the surface and history has been a record of their operations and influence.  The one subjective and psychological force consciously admitted and with difficulty deniable has been that of the individual.  This predominance is so great that most modern historians and some political thinkers have concluded that objective necessities are by law of Nature the only really determining forces, all else is result or superficial accidents of these forces.  Scientific history has been conceived as if it must be a record and appreciation of the environmental motives of political action, of the play of economic forces and developments and the course of institutional evolution.  The few who still valued the psychological element have kept their eye fixed on individuals and are not far from conceiving of history as a mass of biographies.  The truer and more comprehensive science of the future will see that these conditions only apply to the imperfectly self-conscious period of national development.  Even then there was always a greater subjective force working behind individuals, policies, economic movements and the change of institutions; but it worked for the most part subconsciously, more as a subliminal self than as a conscious mind.  It is when this subconscious power of the group-soul comes to the surface that nations begin to enter into possession of their subjective selves; they set about getting, however vaguely or imperfectly, at their souls.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 36-37