Intentions and Causation

(This is the second of five posts on themes that I found important at the Modern British Studies conference in Birmingham at the start of July. See

For me, another big strand of thought at the conference was to do with intentions and causation. Deborah Cohen gave a stirring plenary on understanding the intentions of Anglo-Argentine mercantile families (which was incidentally an incredibly powerful demonstration of the importance and pleasure of doing history with emotions in… see other post).

I have often tried to make the intentions of historical actors an important part of the stories I tell about the past, but I also worry about the methodological and political wisdom of doing this.

Whose intentions do we end up talking about? Most often the richest and most powerful agents, most often men, who embodied whiteness, physical and mental health, masculinity, and heterosexuality.

I felt uncomfortable, for instance, in a paper by Martin Francis, who began with a complaint about how conservative the aims of the MBS WP 1 were. This criticism seemed fairly ungenerous given that his paper was an attempt to better understand the emotions of one powerful, white, colonial official in Egypt. Is it so radical to pay attention to the feelings and thoughts of Great Men? This looks like a very old style of history indeed, simply re-cast through the languages of psychology, psychoanalysis, or history of emotions.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be. Seth Koven’s talk exploring the story of a conscientious objector in the First World War was partly built (as I understood it) on queering the lives and choices of individuals and families who might appear to embody ‘straight’ cultural authority.

Done well, this is powerful stuff. Done less well, it can risk slipping into biography (gasp!) or old-school diplomatic history, or something which sounds a lot like the kinds of history that many historians I respect have spent their entire careers critiquing.

It is not as if we flat out can’t do histories that take seriously the intentions of a range of actors. There are lots of researchers who have subtle languages of intention and agency for agents with less power. Many of these ideas are covered in the excellent ‘History from Below’ symposium hosted on the Many Headed Monster blog (here: and in the follow-up symposium which is going live over the next month on ‘The Voices of the People’ (see here: In my own research, I have been interested in the ways that people whose ‘voices’ are hard to hear expressed themselves in other ways, through their bodies, or through the strategic uses of silences (

The other point that nags at me about intentions, and whose intentions historians write about, is that, for all Deborah Cohen said about the surprising intentions of her Anglo-Argentine merchant families, who prioritised profit over ‘British interests’ and family over profit, it is uncanny how neither ‘British interests’ nor profits suffered all that much.

When I asked her about this, she pointed out that these families did lose their fortunes eventually, as a consequence of the strategies they had pursued, but the doubt remains at the back of my mind that this all looks a touch disingenuous. Rich people saying they don’t want to be rich, informal imperialists who do not celebrate Empire. I wonder: are their stated intentions dishonest, or naïve, or are they irrelevant to what actually happens in history? That would make for a radical (although perhaps too Foucauldian for my taste) history of intention that says even the intentions of the powerful don’t matter as much as the patterns they unconsciously embody.

This translates into provocative questions of method. The problem, I think, is not so much issues of evidence such as those I’ve already touched on (can we actually find sources for intentions, do people lie about them, do they misremember them) although these problems quickly get more complex (what about unconscious intentions, how individuals are dishonest with themselves about their intentions?). The fundamental methodological question is whether historians need intentions to explore causation at all. Intentions appeal to the trends in current research into emotions and subjectivity, but it is one thing to argue that historians should be interested in what people at the time thought and felt, and quite another thing to argue that this matters because history is shaped by individual intentions.

It is certainly possible to do exciting and rich history that completely (and deliberately) ignores the stated intentions of historical actors. In an exhilarating paper, Simeon Koole explored the entanglement of law, touch, and spatial practice in London, through an exploration of crimes committed in the fog. His paper did not lack emotional and personal colour, touching (ahem) on a range of cases, and discussing several individuals accused of crimes ranging from assault to public indecency. At no point in his paper was Sim interested in how the intentions of lawyers, witnesses, victims, or criminals shaped touch. If anything, the most powerful actors in his account were fog and law, a point he made in a variety of ways that I can’t do justice. His arguments drew on the Actor-Network-Theory associated with Bruno Latour and others, who have often argued that human intention is a red herring, and that actors and agency are more mediated, distributed, and contingent than modernist accounts suggested.

I don’t fully know what I think about this issue of agency and intention yet, but perhaps that uncertainty is a good starting point. The fact that there are exciting historians emphasizing intentions and innovative historians leaving them out may be as much as anything else a sign of the productive diversification of approaches in the field.


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