“Oakeshott (1983: 94) characteristically offers a brilliant analysis of the problem which he calls the ‘dry wall theory’. Keeping in mind Pedach’s and Walbank’s account of historical development, Oakeshott believes that though historical events are not themselves contingent, they are related to one another contingently. When a historian assembles a passage of antecedent events to compose a subsequent, he builds what in the countryside is called a ‘dry wall’: the stones (that is, the antecedent events) which compose the wall (that is, the subsequent event) are joined and held together, not by mortar, but in terms of their shapes. The wall therefore has no premeditated design; it is what its components, in touching constitute. There is a circumstantial relationship, an evidential contiguity, not in terms of causality, family resemblance, design etc. These circumstantial relationships do not themselves constitute historically significant relationships.
So when a historian employs the language of causality, what he ought to be referring to is this contingent circumstantial relationship. A historical past, composed conceptually of contiguous historical events has no place for extrinsic general terms of relationship – the glue of normality or the cement of general causes’ – neither Polybius’ tyche, Pedach’s intentionality, Walbank’s interpretation of aitiai, nor a Hempelian deductive-nomological conditions are valid analyses for historical explanation. And further, Chance as an exemplar of the purely external, cannot be a genuinely causal relationship and is therefore insignificant. To reiterate: Oakeshott (1983: 83) writes that ‘when a historian invokes a notion of ‘causality’ what he is in fact doing is utilizing a rhetorical expression meaning no more than ‘noteworthy antecedents’ and no ‘law(s)’ are involved…..”
Think of it like this. Things happen – wars are fought, empires are built, roads laid, constitutions written and kings assassinated…the fodder of history. Now, in telling this story, historians try to expain things by pointing out when they think one of those events has “caused” the other.
They mean ’cause’ either in the sense that ‘x’ preceded ‘y’ and ‘y’ couldn’t have happened without ‘x’, or sometimes they mean it in a more universal sense, such that whenever ‘x’ occurs, ‘y’ is bound to – but then they run into the problem I had with Nussbaum’s explanation of Hindu fundamentalism — nice theory, but it gets in the way of too many facts.
So, then you’re left with what’s called “contingency” – which in this specialized usage is the idea that things aren’t pre-determined, that they don’t have to happen; they have the freedom to not happen.
But, Oakeshott is also saying – and I agree – that the events themselves can’t be the result of “chance” – even though their relation to each other might look like it does from our vantage point as historians
Let’s say that three people were standing around a pool and throwing rubber ducks of different colors – red, blue, and green – into it. Soon there are 15 rubber ducks floating around.
Now the ducks didn’t show up there by chance. So, someone who didn’t know anything about how they got there would be making a big mistake if he looked at the ducks and thought they had got there accidentally. But, he would also be making a mistake if he read too much into the patterns of color the ducks made bobbing around in the water.
Well – that’s a rough example. Another way of saying it would be that history shows patterns on the surface which are deceptive, since the shapes that make up the pattern are actually thrown up from below the surface or above it..