Personalistic v. Naturalistic Theories of Scientific History

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  • 0:04 Great Men vs Great Movements
  • 1:29 The Great Man Theory
  • 2:51 Change Caused by the…
  • 3:49 Where the Two Theories Collide
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gaines Arnold
There has always been a debate regarding whether people or events moved history. This lesson looks at the differences between personalistic theory and naturalistic theory, defines each, and provides an understanding of how they coincide.

Great Men vs. Great Movements

Drive anywhere in the United States, and you will see them. Interstates crisscross the country, based on the brilliance of German engineers, connecting people and places along corridors that promise a speedy trip. This autobahn of the U.S. was envisioned and signed into law by Dwight David Eisenhower. He was the 34th president of the United States and the Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. Truly, he was a great man.

The Great Depression was bad enough, but then the Dust Bowl happened. The Midwest and large parts of the Southwest experienced a drought and winds that lifted millions of tons of topsoil off of the ground and sent it winging toward the Mississippi River over a period of several years. The loss of farmland sent people into even deeper poverty. It was a natural disaster that caused many to emigrate from Midwestern dirt farms to the West Coast.

These two scenes from history are examples of two different theories of human historical progress. Personalistic theory states that great men within history were either endowed by supernatural forces or had tremendous willpower, and they moved history forward. On the other hand, naturalistic theory states that it was forces of nature that caused societal change. Both are credible, but they arrive at the present very differently.

The Great Man Theory

Throughout history there have been people, whether men or women, who have a significant impact. Moses, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Joan of Arc, Hitler all had their moment in the historical sun, and the effects of their time on Earth can still be felt to some degree. These individuals are part of what has come to be known as the Great Man Theory. This theory can be divided into one of two beliefs, spiritual or personal, which determine how the individual influenced history and society.

Some think that people were endowed by a supernatural force with the ability to become great. This belief is prominent in religions and was seen as the reason people such as Moses and Joan of Arc rose to prominence. This idea crosses cultures in that many different spiritual traditions point to specific people whose exploits were fueled by a spiritual force or god.

The other side of the personalistic theory coin is those who believe that great people had great personal motivation. Whether it was Lincoln rising from ignorance and poverty due to his educational ingenuity or Alexander the Great promising himself that he would be greater than his father, Phillip, greatness can be ascribed to the individual rather than a spiritual force. This theory speaks to willpower, desire, and personal qualities.

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