The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England
He posed a dual challenge, especially to other historians. First, he offered a blanket condemnation of historical thinking in England. He asserted that while other fields such as law, geology, and philology had made great strides in gathering the materials suitable for understanding the past, historians had made little use of them:
In all the other great fields of inquiry, the necessity of generalization is universally admitted, and noble efforts are being made to rise from particular facts in order to discover the laws by which those facts are governed. So far, however, is this from being the usual course of historians, that among them the strange idea prevails, that their business is merely to relate events, which they may occasionally enliven by such moral and political reflections as seem likely lobe useful. According to this scheme, any author who from indolence of thought, or from natural incapacity, is unfit to deal with the highest branches of knowledge, has only to pass some years in reading a certain number of books, and then he is qualified to be an historian; he is able to write the history of a great people, and his work becomes an authority on the subject which it professes to treat.In short, Buckle's first challenge was for historians to improve their professional competency by means of wider reading in more fields and by means of combining these fields in a search for general laws. The second challenge was for history to take the natural sciences as its model, as he considered himself to have done: 'I hope to accomplish for the history of man something equivalent, or at all events analagous, to what has been effected by other inquirers for the different branches of natural science.'
In Buckle's view, human social behaviour shows the same regularity as natural phenomena, and for a simple reason: whenever we do themselves are the results of 'antecedents.' Therefore, if the historian knows all the antecedents, plus all the 'laws of their movements,' he could 'with unerring certainly predict the whole of their immediate results.' Even the rates of marriage, crime and suicide vary regularly with the national circumstances, which ultimately derive from the climate, food, soil and 'General Aspect of Nature'—the last being the topographical features that control the association of ideas in any given people. Such thinking enabled Buckle to make truly whopping generalizations, the main one being that in Europe natural phenomena tended to 'limit the imagination, and embolden the understanding,' while outside Europe, 'all nature conspired to increase the authority of the imaginative faculties, and weaken the authority of the reasoning ones.'
Buckle's book caused a furor in the English literate public. As H.J. Hanham has said, for a generation 'no one could claim to be an educated man who had not read his Buckle.' Darwin himself wrote to a friend: 'Have you read Buckle's second volume? It has interested me greatly; I do not care whether his views are right or wrong, but I should think they contain much truth. There is a noble love of advancement and truth throughout, and to my taste he is the very best writer of the English language that ever lived.' The book was reviewed by an impressive number of men of letters and academics—Leslie Stephen, Goldwin Smith, John Morley, Sir Henry Maine and Lord Acton. The widespread attention, however, did not mean that Buckle's work was received with approval. Most of the reviewers attacked the book ferociously. Some of the critics pointed out that Buckle made mistakes in details; others contended that Buckle generalized without enough evidence. Macaulay, for example, wrote in his diary that Buckle 'wants to make a system before he has got the materials; and he has not the excuse which Aristotle had, of having an eminently systematising mind,' But the theme which dominated the criticism was an assertion of free will against Buckle's idea of material causation. It was this point that led many reviewers to conclude thar there could be no science of history, at least in Buckle's sense.