24 October 2014
Why failed states now?
The idea of a failed state (or, if you prefer, a “fragile state”) has been playing an increasingly prominent role in geopolitical thought at least since the end of the Cold War. Failed States and Institutional Decay: Understanding Instability and Poverty in the Developing World by Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz identifies the use of the term “quasi-states” by Robert Jackson in 1990 as the source of the failed state concept. Whatever the provenance, the geopolitical analysis of failed states is an idea whose time has come.
Many factors have contributed to this. Rising instability as nation-states re-aligned themselves after the breakup of the Soviet Union, suppressed ethnic conflicts reemerging, de facto tolerance of “rogue” regimes (which previously would have been drawn into an alliance, but which are now on their own), and the absence of superpower sponsors willing to engage with smaller nation-states in the attempt to gain an edge in global competition, among other factors. While some fragile states were consumed by proxy wars during the Cold War, some vulnerable nation-states received substantial support from superpower sponsors and alliance blocs. A marginal nation-state as an ally in a sensitive region might be too valuable to lose, and so support was forthcoming. Also, both superpower sponsors allied themselves with autocratic regimes that were, to some extent, effective in governing, even if contemptuous of human rights.
Developments in armaments and technology have had the unintended consequence of decentralizing and widely distributing combat power, making asymmetrical conflicts sustainable for long periods of time. Also, the growth of international aid organizations that intervene when governments fail, providing food and medical care, and, in so doing, have the unintended consequence of extending the longevity of states experiencing precipitous decline, especially decline due to failures of leadership (cf. Sustaining the Unsustainable, Part Two).
Another source of contemporary state failure is what Brennan Kraxberger calls “the overwhelming bias toward preserving existing territories.” I take this feature of the contemporary international nation-state system to be a function of the stagnancy and ossification of the international nation-state system. The nation-state is geographically defined and derives its legitimacy from the territorial principle in law. Thus an international system of nation-states places disproportionate emphasis upon defining geographical territories through unambiguous borders. In the event of any international crisis, the status quo ante is always preferred, to the point of re-constituting failed states simply for the reason of retaining extant borders.
What is a failed state?
What is a failed state? On the first page of When States Fail: Causes and Consequences by Robert I. Rotberg we read:
Nation-states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose credibility, and the continuing nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes questionable and illegitimate in the hearts and minds of its citizens.
Robert I. Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: BREAKDOWN, PREVENTION, AND REPAIR”
We find a more detailed breakdown of factors of state failure from Breaking the Failed-State Cycle, based on the indicators used by the Fund for Peace in their annual rankings of failed states:
“…failed states are of the sort identified by the Fund for Peace in its Failed States Index, which is based on 12 indicators of state vulnerability: (1) mounting demographic pressures, (2) massive movement of refugees or internally displaced persons creating complex humanitarian emergencies, (3) legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia, (4) chronic and sustained human flight, (5) uneven economic development along group lines, (6) sharp and/or severe economic decline, (7) criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state, (8) progressive deterioration of public services, (9) suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights, (10) security apparatus operating as a ‘state within a state,’ (11) rise of factionalized elites, and (12) intervention of other states or external political actors.”
Marla C. Haims, David C. Gompert et al., Breaking the Failed-State Cycle,
While helpful to a certain extent, there are countless questions that could be raised in regard to the presuppositions embedded in the above definitions. What exactly counts as the factionalization of elites? Might not the Republican and Democratic parties in the US be characterized as a factionalized elites? And would we really prefer an oppressive elite that speaks with a single voice, as in North Korea? In many repressive states a factionalized elite would be a good thing.
If we instead adopt an ostensive definition, and point out examples rather than attempt to formulate what logicians call a “real” definition, we are not much better off. While there is widespread consensus on certain examples of state failure (e.g., Somalia), there are other instances that are much more problematic, and much more political. For example, the Index of Fragile States annually published by the Fund for Peace, which ranges from “very high alert” (with South Sudan at the top of the list) to “very sustainable” (a category including only Finland), places China — by some measures now the largest economy on the planet — as being “high warning,” while Argentina is listed three classes below China as “stable,” only one rung above the US. I would be the first concur that China is problematic on many levels, but to rank it that much higher than Argentina with its severe economic troubles (albeit self-inflicted) strains credulity.
It is perhaps inevitable that any definition of failed or fragile states, or any rankings based on such a definition, will be controversial in some cases and uncontroversial in other cases. State failure is evaluational and not factual; the fact/value distinction (also known as the is/ought distinction) would seem to forbid us from making making any evaluational judgment on the basis of mundane facts. This distinction is not observed in the literature, and I can even imagine that it sounds a bit strange in this context.
Such social science-derived political judgments — like the index of fragile states — derive what legitimacy they aspire to precisely from their factual basis, drawing on extensive statistics and social science research. If there were a way to conceptualize state fail in purely factual terms, this would be appropriate; or if there were a way to base an evaluative judgment of state failure on the basis of evaluational criteria, this too would be appropriate. But the subtle shift from factual survey to evaluational judgment is not merely politically problematic, but also logically problematic.
Beyond state failure: civilization failure
Let us consider political order (and its failure) at a larger scale — larger in both space and time — than the political order represented by the nation-state. Martin Jacques has introduced the idea of a “civilization-state” to identify China, and the idea is also applicable to India (European civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state). I wrote about Martin Jacques’ conception of a civilization-state earlier in Civilization States and their Attempted Extirpation. China and India as nation-states are part of the international nation-state system, but they also represent the contemporary development of ancient civilizations that can be traced all the way to separate origins during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.
How do we identify and differentiate civilizations, and, once we have done so, how do we identify a particular civilization with a present-day nation-state? In accordance with the paradigm of the geographically-defined nation-states, we typically differentiate and identify on the basis of geographical regions. Less often, we make these differentiations and identifications on the basis of the ethnicity of the population, or by other markers of ethnicity, such as language. All of these can be made to work in some contexts, and yet all are problematic.
There are a few familiar lists of civilizations from which we might draw, as, for example, those of Toynbee and Huntington. These, too, are problematic. Toynbee identified a Syriac civilization, and in so far as Syria today is the remaining legacy of Syriac civilization, Syria could be considered a civilization-state, and a failed civilization-state at that. Of Toynbee’s Syriac civilization Walter Kaufmann wrote:
“…no ‘Syriac Civilization,’ for example, ever existed, though it may possibly be convenient in some contexts to lump together the many kingdoms that existed between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to give them some such name as this; but this fictitious civilization could hardly be studied very fully without reference to its two mighty neighbors.”
Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism: Studies in Poetry, Religion, and Philosophy
Perhaps a better procedure would be to recur to those half dozen or so civilizations that had their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution — another list that would consist minimally of the Indus Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt (not clearly distinct from Mesopotamian origins), Peru, and Central America. (On early civilizations cf. my post Riparian Civilization.) However, limiting ourselves in this way to a small class of “founder” civilizations would mean that we would miss out on a lot of the most interesting developments in the history of civilization. Western Civilization, for example, is a distant descendant of the Mesopotamian founder civilization, but only after one branch of that civilization moved west and encountered a series of other civilizations, such as Viking Civilization, that ultimately changed its character decisively.
Of these founder civilizations, all have some living presence today, sometimes a mere remnant absorbed into another civilization, and in other cases a vital and distinct tradition remains to this day. If mere longevity is the criterion for civilization failure, none of these civilizations could be said to have failed. Of course, longevity is not the whole story. To cite my own western civilization once again, we have the catastrophic experience of the failure of the Western Roman Empire as an atavistic memory that continues to inform our historical conceptions to this day, two thousand years later. And then, in the very different kind of civilizational transition, the medieval world gave way to the modern world, and again after a three hundred years of modernism without industrialism, modern western civilization gave way to industrial-technological civilization. In all of these transitions, something is lost and something is gained. Shall we call the losses civilization failure? If so, what shall we call the gains?
There are no easy answers as to what constitutes a civilization and what constitutes civilizational failure. Books have been devoted to the topic, and more will yet be written. The really interesting intellectual questions are those that are revealed to us after we make the attempt to differentiate civilizations and define civilizational failure. Any initial effort will fall short, and the ways in which we discern the inadequacy of our initial intuitions has much to teach us. This must be regarded as an ongoing inquiry, and not a question that can admit of a definitive answer.
Civilization-states and state failure
In general, civilization-states are too big to fail. (Perhaps the smallest nation-state that could be identified as a viable civilization-state is Iran, and there are those who would argue that Iran is a failed state — I would not make this argument.) Too big to fail civilization-states find themselves propped up by the international nation-state system, not unlike a puppet regime, but here the puppet is not a particular leader whom more powerful leaders want to keep in office, but a particular kind of state structure that more powerful nation-states want to keep intact. The catastrophic failure of a nation-state implies the possibility of the failure of the international nation-state system predicated upon the viability of the nation-state, and the breakdown of the nation-state system is an existential threat to all nation-states. This explains, in part, the semi-hysterical response on the part of elites drawn from the leadership of nation-states to the breakup of nation-states (which has happened repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, and has therefore provided ample opportunity for political hysteria of the most polished and authoritative kind).
There is, however, a relationship between failed states and failed civilizations: failed states are, at least in some cases, symptoms of failed civilizations. In more detail: there is a poorly defined relationship between state failure and civilization failure in regions where a tradition of civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state; there is a slightly more well-defined relationship between contemporary state-failure and civilization failure where a tradition of civilization did coalesce into a civilization-state. Thus if contemporary China or India were judged to be failed states (which is, needless to say, a judgment I would not make), then there would be reason to consider whether we could judge the civilizations of China and India to have failed.
But an incipient civilization-state, which initially fails to unify the geographical region of which it is the central political entity, fragments into multiple states, each of which aspires itself to be the civilization-state, and each of which lacks legitimacy in this role because too much constitutive of that civilization lies outside its borders. Thus if, for example, we were to judge, say, France of Germany as failed states, there would be very little reason to maintain that western civilization had failed, because western civilization has so many representative nation-states as the bearer of its traditions (or, at least, some subset of its traditions).
The relationship between state failure and civilization failure is not robust because it admits of countless exceptions. A civilization that is productive of a sequence of failed states might be judged to be failed, but in another sense it could be considered successful merely in terms of fecundity: if a civilization continues to produce states, even if every such state fails, the tradition of civilization remains vital in some way. A tradition of civilization in this case may represent a particular perennial idea, something to which the human mind returns like a moth to a candle flame. Every implementation of the idea may prove disastrous, but the idea is as definitive of the human condition as civilization itself.
If a civilization-state can fail, this would represent the failure of the contemporary iteration of an ancient tradition of civilization. If it is controversial to identify some nation-states as failed, it is even more controversial to identify an entire civilization as failed. It is considered to be in bad form to compare civilizations and to rank any one as being better than any other. If we are ever going to get the point at which we can formulate a science of civilization, or, at very least, a theory of civilization, we will have to get past this proscription on the use of comparative concepts in the study of civilization.
In The Future Science of Civilizations I noted how Carnap distinguished classificatory, comparative, and quantitative conceptions as all playing a role in arriving at a scientific conception of a body of knowledge. Civilization, or the study of civilization, must pass through these stages of conceptual development, and in this process it must not allow itself to be threatened by its past errors if it is ever to make progress. As Foucault said, and as I have quoted many times, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.”
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13 October 2014
When I was a child I heard that practicable fusion power was thirty years in the future. That was more than thirty years ago, and it is not uncommon to hear that practicable fusion power is still thirty years in the future. Jokes have been made both about fusion and artificial intelligence that both will remain perpetually in the future, just out of reach of human technology — though the universe has been running on gravitational confinement fusion since the first stars lighted up at the beginning of the stelliferous era.
It would be easy to be nonchalantly cynical about nuclear fusion given past promises. After all, the first successful experiments with a tokamak reactor at the Kurchatov Institute in 1968 date to the time of many other failed futurisms that have since become stock figures of fun — the flying car, the jetpack, the domed city, and so on. One could dismiss nuclear fusion in the same spirit, but this would be a mistake. The long, hard road to nuclear fusion as an energy resource will have long-term consequences for our industrial-technological civilization.
Like hypersonic flight, practicable fusion power has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult engineering challenge. Fusion research began in the 1920s with British physicist Francis William Aston, who discovered that four hydrogen atoms weigh more than one helium (He-4) atom, which means that fusing four hydrogen atoms together would result in the release of energy. The first practical fusion devices (including fusion explosives) were constructed in the 1950s, including several Z-pinch devices, stellarators, and tokamaks at the Kuchatov Institute.
Ever since these initial successes in achieving fusion, fusion scientists have been trying to achieve breakeven or better, i.e., producing more power from the reaction than was consumed in making the reaction. It’s been a long, hard slog. If we start seeing fusion breakeven in the next decade, this will be a hundred years after the first research suggested the possibility of fusion as an energy resource. In other words, fusion power generation has been a technology in development for about a hundred years. For anyone who supposes that our civilization is too short-sighted to take on large multi-generational projects, the effort to master nuclear fusion stands as a reminder of what is possible when the stakes are sufficiently high.
I characterized fusion as a “technology of nature” in Fusion and Consciousness, though the mechanism by which nature achieves fusion — gravitational confinement — is not practical for human technology. Mostly following news stories I previously wrote about fusion in Fusion Milestone Passed at US Lab, High Energy Electron Confinement in a Magnetic Cusp, One Giant Leap for Mankind, and Why we don’t need a fusion powered rocket.
There was a good article in Nature earlier this year, Plasma physics: The fusion upstarts, which focused on some of the smaller research teams vying to make fusion reactors into practical power sources. Here are some of the approaches now being pursued and have been reported in the popular press:
● High Beta Fusion Reactor The legendary Skunkworks, which built the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, is working on a fusion reactor that it hopes will be sufficiently compact that it can be hauled on the back of a truck, and will produce 100 MW. (cf. Nuclear Fusion in Five Years?)
● magnetized liner inertial fusion (MagLIF) This is a “Z pinch” design that was among the first fusion device concepts, now being developed as the “Z Machine” at Sandia National Laboratory. (cf. America’s Underdog Fusion Experiment Is Closing In on the Nuclear Future)
● spheromak A University of Washington project formerly called a dynomak, a magnetic containment device in the form of a sphere instead of the tokamak’s torus. (cf. Why nuclear fusion will soon become reality)
● Polywell The Polywell concept was developed by Robert Bussard of Bussard ramjet fame, based on fusor devices, which have been in use for some time. (cf. Low-Cost Fusion Project Steps Out of the Shadows and Looks for Money)
● Stellerator The stellarator is another early fusion idea based on magnetic confinement that fell out of favor after the tokamaks showed early promise, but which are not the focus of active research again. (cf. From tokamaks to stellarators)
This is in no sense a complete list. There is a good summary of the major approaches on Wikipedia at Fusion Power. I give this short list simply to give a sense of the diversity of technological responses to the engineering challenge of controlled nuclear fusion for electrical power generation.
Even as ITER remains the behemoth of fusion projects, projected to cost fifty billion USD in spending by thirty-five national governments, the project is so large and is coming together so slowly that other technologies may well leap-frog the large-scale ITER approach and achieve breakeven before ITER and by different methods. The promise of practical energy generation from nuclear fusion is now so tantalizingly close that, despite the amount of money going into ITER and NIF, a range of other approaches are being pursued with far less funding but perhaps equal promise. Ultimately there may turn out to be an unexpected benefit to the difficulty of attaining sustainable fusion reactions. The sheer difficulty of the problem has produced an astonishing range of approaches, all of which have something to teach us about plasma physics.
Nuclear fusion as an energy source for industrial-technological civilization is a perfect example of what I call the STEM cycle: science drives technology, technology drives industrial engineering, and industrial engineering creates near resources that allow science to be pursued at a larger scope and scale. In some cases the STEM cycle functions as a loosely-coupled structure of our world. The resources of advanced mathematics are necessary to the expression of physics in mathematicized form, but there may be no direct coupling of physics and mathematics, and the mathematics used in physics may have been available for generations. Pure science may suggest a number of technologies, many of which lie fallow, with no particular interest in them. One technology may eventually come into mass manufacture, but it may not be seen to have any initial impact on scientific research. All of these episodes seem de-coupled, and can only be understood as a loosely-coupled cycle when seen in the big picture over the long term.
In the case of nuclear fusion, the STEM cycle is more tightly coupled: fusion science must be consciously developed with an eye to its application in various fusion technologies. The many specific technologies developed on the basis of fusion science are tested with an eye to which can be practically scaled up by industrial engineering to build a workable fusion power generation facility. This process is so tightly coupled in ITER and NIF that the primary research facilities hold out the promise of someday producing marketable power generation. The experience of operating a large scale fusion reactor will doubtless have many lessons for fusion scientists, who will in turn apply the knowledge gained from this experience to their scientific work. The first large scale fusion generation facilities will eventually become research reactors as they are replaced by more efficient fusion reactors specifically adapted to the needs of electrical power generation. With each generation of reactors the science, technology, and engineering will be improved.
The vitality of fusion science today, as revealed in the remarkable diversity of approaches to fusion, constitutes a STEM cycle with many possible inputs and many possible outputs. Even as the fusion STEM cycle is tightly coupled as science immediately feeds into particular technologies, which are developed with the intention of scaling up to commercial engineering, the variety of technologies involved have connections throughout the industrial-technological economy. Most obviously, if high-temperature superconductors become available, this will be a great boost for magnetic confinement fusion. A breakthrough in laser technology would be a boost for inertial confinement fusion. The prolixity of approaches to fusion today means that any number of scientific discoveries of technological advances could have unanticipated benefits for fusion. And fusion itself, once it passes breakeven, will have applications throughout the economy, not limited to the generation of electrical power. Controlled nuclear fusion is a technology that has not experienced an exponential growth curve — at least, not yet — but this at once tightly-coupled and highly diverse STEM cycle certainly looks like a technology on the cusp of an exponential growth curve. And here even a modest exponent would make an enormous difference.
This is big science with a big payoff. Everyone knows that, in a world run by electricity, the first to market with a practical fusion reactor that is cost-competitive with conventional sources (read: fossil fuels) stands to make a fortune not only with the initial introduction of their technology, but also for the foreseeable future. The wealthy governments of the world, by sinking the majority of their fusion investment into ITER, are virtually guaranteeing that the private sector will have a piece of the action when one of these alternative approaches to fusion proves to be at least as efficient, if not more efficient, than the tokamak design.
But fusion isn’t only about energy, profits, and power plants. Fusion is also about a vision of the future that avoids what futurist Joseph Voros has called an “energy disciplined society.” As expressed in panegyric form in a recent paper on fusion:
“The human spirit, its will to explore, to always seek new frontiers, the next Everest, deeper ocean floors, the inner secrets of the atom: these are iconised [sic] into human consciousness by the deeds of Christopher Columbus, Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau, and Albert Einstein. In the background of the ever-expanding universe, this boundless spirit will be curbed by a requirement to limit growth. That was never meant to be. That should never be so. Man should have an unlimited destiny. To reach for the moon, as he already has; then to colonize it for its resources. Likewise to reach for the planets. Ultimately — the stars. Man’s spirit must and will remain indomitable.”
NUCLEAR FUSION ENERGY — MANKIND’S GIANT STEP FORWARD, Sing Lee and Sor Heoh Saw
The race for market-ready fusion energy is a race to see who will power the future, i.e., who will control the resource that makes our industrial-technological civilization viable in the long term. Profits will also be measured over the long term. Moreover, the energy market is such that multiple technologies for fusion may vie with each other for decades as each seeks to produce higher efficiencies at lower cost. This competition will drive further innovation in the tightly-coupled STEM cycle of fusion research.
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Note added Wednesday 15 October 2014: Within a couple of days of writing the above, I happened upon two more articles on fusion in the popular press — another announcement from Lockheed, Lockheed says makes breakthrough on fusion energy project, and Cheaper Than Coal? Fusion Concept Aims to Bridge Energy Gap.
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10 October 2014
It is perhaps too soon to say that the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong has failed, but it can be said that the protests have now largely dispersed and the Hong Kong government has already reneged on its promises to hold substantive talks with the student leaders of the protests. The time of greatest danger to the central government in Beijing, and the puppet government it allows to rule in Hong Kong, has passed, and the protesters have had none of their demands met. The government simply had to wait, remain calm, and let the protesters get tired of protesting and go home, which they have mostly done. The government managed this feat simply by waiting and through forbearance, rather than by conducting a massacre, as some feared. Perhaps if the protesters had proved more stubborn, a massacre might have followed in due course, as at Tiananmen.
This was, of course, the unavoidable point of reference for everyone who was watching the protests from afar — and probably also for those participating, and thus putting their lives in danger: the massacre in Tiananmen Square, known in Chinese as the “June 4 Incident.” Everyone wondered of Xi Jinping, “Will he or won’t he?” If we can count it was a “win” for the central government in Beijing that the first phase of protests have passed without granting the demands of the protesters and without the violent suppression of the protests by the PLA, that is indeed to damn the central government with faint praise. And if it was the intention of the protesters to bring the attention of the world to Hong Kong, and the raise the question of whether the proclaimed Chinese policy of “one country, two systems” can work, then the protesters must be judged to have been successful.
The policy of “one country, two systems” is incorporated by the The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, says:
“One country, two systems” is the fundamental policy of the Chinese Government for bringing about the country’s reunification. In line with this policy, the Chinese Government has formulated a series of principles and policies regarding Hong Kong. The main point is to establish a special administrative region directly under the Central People’s Government when China resumes its sovereignty over Hong Kong. Except for national defence and foreign affairs, which are to be administered by the Central Government, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will exercise a high degree of autonomy; no socialist system or policies will be practiced in the Region, the original capitalist society, economic system and way of life will remain unchanged and the laws previously in force in Hong Kong will remain basically the same; Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre and free port will be maintained; and the economic interests of Britain and other countries in Hong Kong will be taken into consideration.
The rights, freedoms and duties of Hong Kong residents are prescribed in the draft in accordance with the principle of “one country, two systems” and in the light of Hong Kong’s actual situation. They include such specific provisions as protection of private ownership of property, the freedom of movement and freedom to enter or leave the Region, the right to raise a family freely and protection of private persons’ and legal entitles’ property. The draft also provides that the systems to safeguard the fundamental rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents shall all be based on the Basic Law.
A cynical reading of this text might point out that the first sentence in the above — “One country, two systems” is the fundamental policy of the Chinese Government for bringing about the country’s reunification — speaks only to the reunification of Hong Kong with China, and once that reunification has been achieved what happens in Hong Kong is left ambiguous. The central government in Beijing could maintain that, once a transitional phase of reunification has passed, Hong Kong will be no different from the rest of China, and “one country, two systems” will be a thing of the past.
This is more or less acknowledged in the Basic Law, although on a 50 year horizon, as the Basic Law itself expires on 30 June 2047. This was a sufficiently long time horizon that immediate worries could be allayed, but it turns out the Beijing would like to narrow the interpretation of the Basic Law well before 2047 rolls around. This has been anticipated, as we find in What Will Happen to Hong Kong Kong after 2047?, “…the protections against China eroding one country, two systems even before that date are far less watertight than they appear at first sight… even in this respect, the significance of June 30, 2047 is overstated.”
A familiar talking point in regard to the recent protests in Hong Kong has been the observation that the special arrangements made for the governance of Hong Kong after its handover by the British would be temporary, but extended long enough to accommodate some transition. For optimists, China during this period would open up and become more like Hong Kong, whereas now it appears that the Chinese leadership in Beijing has no interest whatsoever in opening up China in terms of social and political reform, and the period of adjustment is there simply to give Beijing time to force Hong Kong into conformity with the mainland.
How are we to understand an international trading entrepôt to be humbled under the yoke of a skittish Beijing, more concerned with asserting its control than with enjoying the benefits that accrue through a major Port with international connections, strong rule of law, and a significant banking industry? I used “humbled” here advisedly. In order to fully understand the situation of Hong Kong it must be understood in its historical and cultural context. Mainland Chinese who come to Hong Kong as tourists tell of being shabbily treated by the people of Hong Kong, who will make no attempt to speak Mandarin. If you cannot speak Cantonese, you had better try broken English.
We should not be surprised by this. Hong Kong has been a successful, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, and indeed an international city. The citizens of such a city would be understandably conscious of their differentness from the un-cosmopolitan mainland Chinese who visit Hong Kong in order to see the “big city.” Any people who have been proud, successful, independent, and, of course, overbearing also in light of their position, are going to invite resentment and a thinly-concealed desire to bring them down to a level with their current condition (to paraphrase from Thucydides). And at the bottom of most communist revolutions of the twentieth century we must remember there was a harnessing of social, cultural, and economic ressentiment, the use of the masses to overthrow the privileged — the expropriation of the expropriators. While “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has by now merely become a screen for crony capitalism, the mobilization of resentment continues to be an effective strategy for the manipulation of mass man by regimes with a communist pedigree.
Neither the pride of the successful, the popular desire to humble the proud, nor the readiness of communist regimes to mobilize popular resentment should be new to anyone. There is a reason that everyone who could afford to get out of Hong Kong got out while the getting was good. A great many former Hong Kong residents moved across the Pacific to Vancouver, British Columbia, and this has resulted in a steady stream of interesting news stories as Vancouver adjusts to its massive influx of wealthy Chinese. Just recently, for example, there was a controversy over advertisements in Vancouver that appeared only in Chinese (cf. Chinese-only sign stirs language controversy in Richmond, B.C.).
But the pre-1997 exodus from Hong Kong is not likely to be followed by a further exodus after Beijing’s decision to further tighten its grip on Hong Kong. There is an economic wrinkle in the story that makes it different from historical parallels. People will not necessarily leave Hong Kong in droves, and even if mainland Chinese could escape from China by passing through Hong Kong, they are not likely to do so in droves; Hong Kong in 2014 is not Berlin in the 1950s. After the Second World War, Germans in East Germany under communist rule could escape through Berlin until the Berlin wall was erected in 1961. And while many of these refugees wanted to escape to the west for freedom, many also wanted to escape the dismal economic regime of East Germany. These forces are not in play in today’s China and Hong Kong. On the contrary, the opposite forces are in play.
Economic refugees are now traveling in the opposite direction, with expatriate Chinese who have lived in the west, and enjoyed its personal freedoms and social openness, are returning to China to start businesses. Despite Beijing’s clampdown on freedom of expression, many Chinese choose return to China (accepting with a kind of fatalism that they must access the internet through a VPN) because the economy is growing and there are, at present, great opportunities in China for the young and ambitious who are willing to work hard. The crony capitalists of Beijing will continue to thrive, along with the princelings and returned expatriates, while the rest of the world festers in China Envy, and for this reason the leadership in Beijing has a degree of impunity that other oppressive regimes can only envy.
But the Umbrella Revolution was not for nothing. If it is true that the protests in Hong Kong failed, it is equally true that “one country, two systems” has also failed — catastrophically — and that what the central government in Beijing has proved is that it can revise, abridge, or suspend any part of the Basic Law that it likes, at any time, and to any extent. In other words, the people of Hong Kong are understood to be living under the most arbitrary tyranny conceivable, and in this sense have fewer rights and freedoms than mainland Chinese. This will have consequences not only for Hong Kong and mainland China, but also for the desire of the leadership in Beijing to negotiate reunification with Taiwan (cf. China’s Long Game With Taiwan Just Got Longer by David J. Lynch).
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7 October 2014
Since the recent Russian incursion in east Ukraine I have been seeing the term “hybrid warfare” being used. I first encountered this in the Financial Times on Friday 29 August 2014 (“Russia’s New Art of War”), which shows how far behind the curve I am, as when I looked up the term I frequently found hybrid warfare referred to as a “buzzword” (and, until now, I had heard none of this buzz). There is already an anthology of essays on hybrid warfare, Hybrid Warfare: Fighting Complex Opponents from the Ancient World to the Present, edited by Williamson Murray and Peter R. Mansoor, which takes a primarily historical perspective and focuses on hybrid warfare as the combination of conventional and irregular forces employed in tandem. In any case, here is how the FT article characterized hybrid warfare:
“The phrase refers to a broad range of hostile actions, of which military force is only a small part, that are invariably executed in concert as part of a flexible strategy with long-term objectives.”
The article also quotes General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, from an article that appeared in the Russian defense journal VPK, as follows:
“Methods of conflict,” he wrote, have changed, and now involve “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures”. All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing up the local populace as a fifth column and by “concealed” armed forces. Mr Gerasimov quoted the Soviet military theoretician Georgii Isserson: mobilisation does not occur after a war is declared, but “unnoticed, proceeds long before that.”
In the Times of Malta article about General Gerasimov’s appointment as Chief of Staff, Putin appoints a new army chief, Putin is quoted as saying, “new means of conducting warfare are appearing.” It would seem that Putin’s choice to head Russia’s military has taken it upon himself to formulate and refine these new means of conducting warfare, which may prove to be ideal for implementing the Putin Doctrine.
The Georgii Isserson mentioned in the above quote in the FT was a theoretician of “deep battle” (about which I wrote in Deep Battle and the Culture of War) and the author of two important treatises, The Evolution of Operational Art, 1932 and 1937, and Fundamentals of the Deep Operation, 1933. (The former has been translated into English and is available in PDF format.) Thus we see that Gerasimov is drawing on an established tradition of Russian strategic and tactical thought, and we might well ask, in an inquiry regarding hybrid warfare, if the latter constitutes the contemporary extrapolation of the Soviet conception of deep battle.
Isserson’s The Evolution of Operational Art is a highly ideological book, at the same time as being both a theoretical and practical military manual. Throughout the text he employs the language and the concepts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in a way that is familiar from many Soviet-era books. While some Soviet-era texts following this pattern are a worthless Hodge-podge, fawning for Party approval, in the case of Isserson’s book, the intermingling of revolutionary communism and organized, large-scale military violence works quite well, and this is one of our first clues to understanding the nature of hybrid warfare. There is a continuum that extends from revolutionary violence to military violence, and it is not necessary to limit oneself to any one point on this continuum if one has the ability to act across the spectrum of operations.
A translation of the above-quoted article by General Gerasimov has been posted on Facebook by Robert Coalson (the original Russian text is also available). It is a work of great military insight, admirable in its analytical clarity. In this translation we read:
“The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures — applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population. All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special-operations forces. The open use of forces — often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation — is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.”
If the methods of warfare described by General Gerasimov are to be understood as the definitive statement — so far — of hybrid warfare, then we can see from his article that this is a highly comprehensive conception, but not merely eclectic. The general states that, “Frontal engagements of large formations of forces at the strategic and operational level are gradually becoming a thing of the past.” This is undoubtedly true. I have observed many times that there have been no peer-to-peer conflicts since the middle of the twentieth century, and none seem likely in the near future. So while hybrid warfare is a comprehensive conception, it is not about peer-to-peer conflict or frontal engagements of large formations. Hybrid warfare is, in a sense, about everything other than peer-to-peer frontal engagement. One might think of this as the culmination of the mobile small unit tactics predicted by Liddel-Hart and Heinz Guderian, practiced by the Germans with Blitzkrieg, and further refined throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, but I don’t want to too quickly or readily assimilate Gerasimov’s conception to these models of western military thought.
Gerasimov, true to the Russian concern for defense in depth (a conception that follows naturally from the perspective of a land empire with few borders defined by geographical obstacles), places Isserson’s concern for depth in the context of high-technology implementation, as though the idea were waiting for the proper means with which to put it into practice:
“Long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals. The defeat of the enemy’s objects is conducted throughout the entire depth of his territory. The differences between strategic, operational, and tactical levels, as well as between offensive and defensive operations, are being erased.”
The erasure of the distinction between offensive and defensive operations means the erasure of the distinction between defense in depth and offense in depth: the two become one. General Gerasimov also demonstrates that he has learned one of the most important lessons of war in industrial-technological civilization:
“A scornful attitude toward new ideas, to nonstandard approaches, to other points of view is unacceptable in military science. And it is even more unacceptable for practitioners to have this attitude toward science.”
Science and its applications lies at the root on industrial-technological warfare no less than at the root of industrial-technological civilization, both of which are locked in a co-evolutionary spiral. Not only does the scope of civilization correspond to the scope science, but the scope of war also corresponds to the scope of science. And not only the scope of science, but also its sophistication. If Gerasimov can imbue this spirit into the Russian general staff, he will make a permanent contribution to Russia military posture, and it is likely that the Chinese and other authoritarian states that look to Russia will learn the lesson as well.
That the idea of hybrid warfare has been given a definitive formulation by a Russian general, drawing upon Soviet strategy and tactics derived from revolutionary movements and partisan warfare, and that the Russian military has apparently implemented a paradigmatic hybrid war in east Ukraine, is significant. Even as a superpower, the Russians could not compete with US technology or US production; Soviet counter-measures were usually asymmetrical — and much cheaper than the high-technology weapons systems fielded by the US and NATO. Even as the US built a carrier fleet capable of dominating all the world’s oceans, the Soviets built supersonic missiles and supercavitating torpedoes that could neutralize a carrier at a fraction of the cost of a carrier. This principle of state-sponsored asymmetrical response to state-level threats is now, in hybrid warfare, extended across the range of materiel and operations.
How can hybrid warfare be defined? How does hybrid warfare differ from MOOTW? How does hybrid warfare differ from asymmetrical warfare? How does hybrid warfare differ from any competently executed grand strategy?
It is to Gerasimov’s credit that he poses radical questions about the nature of warfare in order to illuminate hybrid warfare, as when he asks, “What is modern war? What should the army be prepared for? How should it be armed?” We must ask radical questions in order to make radical conceptual breakthroughs. The most radical question in the philosophy of warfare is “What is war?” The article on war in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes war as follows:
‘War’ defined by Webster’s Dictionary is a state of open and declared, hostile armed conflict between states or nations, or a period of such conflict. This captures a particularly political-rationalistic account of war and warfare, i.e., that war needs to be explicitly declared and to be between states to be a war. We find Rousseau arguing this position: “War is constituted by a relation between things, and not between persons… War then is a relation, not between man and man, but between State and State…”
Any definition of war is going to incorporate presuppositions, but in asking radical questions about warfare we want to question our own presuppositions about war. This suggests the possibility of the via negativa. What is the opposite of war? Not peace, but non-war. What is non-war? That is a more difficult question to answer. Or, rather, it is a question that takes much longer to answer, because non-war is anything that is not war, so in so far as war is a limited conception, non-war is what set theorists call the complement of war: everything that a (narrow) definition of war says that war is not.
Each definition of war implies the possibility of its own negation, so that there are at least as many definitions of non-war as of war itself. Clausewitz wrote in one place that, “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” while in another place he wrote that war is, “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” Each of these definitions of war can be negated to produce a definition of non-war, and each produces a distinct definition of non-war. The plurality of conceptions of war and non-war point to the polysemous character of hybrid warfare, which exists on the cusp of war and non-war.
Although the US DOD declines to define hybrid warfare, NATO has defined hybrid threats as follows:
“A hybrid threat is one posed by any current or potential adversary, including state, non-state and terrorists, with the ability, whether demonstrated or likely, to simultaneously employ conventional and non conventional means adaptively, in pursuit of their objectives.”
NATO Military Working Group (Strategic Planning & Concepts), February 2010
Let us further consider the possible varieties of warfare in order to illuminate hybrid warfare by way of contrast and comparison. The following list of seventeen distinct forms of warfare recognized by the US DOD and NATO is taken from Hybrid Warfare: Briefing to the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, by Davi M. D’Agostino (hybrid warfare is not on the list because it is not officially defined):
● Acoustic Warfare (DOD, NATO) Action involving the use of underwater acoustic energy to determine, exploit, reduce, or prevent hostile use of the underwater acoustic spectrum and actions which retain friendly use of the underwater acoustic spectrum.
● Antisubmarine Warfare Operations conducted with the intention of denying the enemy the effective use of submarines.
● Biological Warfare (DOD, NATO) Employment of biological agents to produce casualties in personnel or animals, or damage to plants or materiel; or defense against such employment.
● Chemical Warfare (DOD) All aspects of military operations involving the employment of lethal and incapacitating munitions/agents and the warning and protective measures associated with such offensive operations. Since riot control agents and herbicides are not considered to be chemical warfare agents, those two items will be referred to separately or under the broader term “chemical,” which will be used to include all types of chemical munitions/agents collectively.
● Directed-Energy Warfare (DOD) Military action involving the use of directed-energy weapons, devices, and countermeasures to either cause direct damage or destruction of enemy equipment, facilities, and personnel, or to determine, exploit, reduce, or prevent hostile use of the electromagnetic spectrum through damage, destruction, and disruption. It also includes actions taken to protect friendly equipment, facilities, and personnel and retain friendly use of the electromagnetic spectrum.
● Electronic Warfare (DOD) Military action involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum or to attack the enemy. Electronic warfare consists of three divisions: electronic attack, electronic protection, and electronic warfare support.
● Guerrilla Warfare (DOD, NATO) Military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces (also called Partisan Warfare).
● Irregular Warfare (DOD) A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.
● Mine Warfare (DOD) The strategic, operational, and tactical use of mines and mine countermeasures. Mine warfare is divided into two basic subdivisions: the laying of mines to degrade the enemy’s capabilities to wage land, air, and maritime warfare; and the countering of enemy-laid mines to permit friendly maneuver or use of selected land or sea areas. (Also called Land Mine Warfare)
● Multinational Warfare (DOD) Warfare conducted by forces of two or more nations, usually undertaken within the structure of a coalition or alliance.
● Naval Coastal Warfare (DOD) Coastal sea control, harbor defense, and port security, executed both in coastal areas outside the United States in support of national policy and in the United States as part of this Nation’s defense.
● Naval Expeditionary Warfare (DOD) Military operations mounted from the sea, usually on short notice, consisting of forward deployed, or rapidly deployable, self-sustaining naval forces tailored to achieve a clearly stated objective.
● Naval Special Warfare (DOD) A designated naval warfare specialty that conducts operations in the coastal, riverine, and maritime environments. Naval special warfare emphasizes small, flexible, mobile units operating under, on, and from the sea. These operations are characterized by stealth, speed, and precise, violent application of force.
● Nuclear Warfare (DOD, NATO) Warfare involving the employment of nuclear weapons (also called Atomic Warfare).
● Surface Warfare (DOD) That portion of maritime warfare in which operations are conducted to destroy or neutralize enemy naval surface forces and merchant vessels.
● Unconventional Warfare (DOD) A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery.
● Under Sea Warfare (DOD) Operations conducted to establish and maintain control of the underwater environment by denying an opposing force the effective use of underwater systems and weapons. It includes offensive and defensive submarine, antisubmarine, and mine warfare operations.
To each of these “officially” recognized types of warfare we can dialectically oppose a type of non-war or peace (the latter for ease of reference), as, e.g., “unconventional warfare” implies the possibility of “unconventional peace.” With so many varieties of warfare, it is inevitable that some of these categories will overlap with other categories of warfare, so that one particular species of peace may be another species of warfare, and vice versa. For example, one might be at “peace” in regard to a clearly delimited conception of “multinational warfare” while simultaneously being in a condition of open hostility in regard to an equally clearly delimited conception of “irregular warfare.”
One of the ways in which we might understand hybrid warfare is as accepting prima facie this diverse admixture of types of warfare that, in Wittgensteinian terms, overlap and intersect. Hybrid warfare, then, may consist of selectively, and at times simultaneously, pursuing (or avoiding) any and all possible forms of warfare across the spectrum of conflict.
Given the comprehensive scope of hybrid warfare, the resources of a major industrialized nation-state would be a necessary condition for waging hybrid warfare, and this clearly distinguishes hybrid warfare from irregular, partisan, or unconventional warfare in the narrow sense. Only the most successful and well-funded non-state entities could aspire to the range of operations implied by hybrid warfare, and in so far as one of the essential feature of hybrid warfare is the coordinated use of regular and irregular forces, a non-state entity without regular forces would not, by definition, be in a position of wage hybrid warfare. But it would be a mistake, as we can see, to get too caught up in definitions.
As we can see, trying to answer the question, “What is hybrid warfare?” (much less, “What is war?”) raises a host of questions that could only be dealt with adequately by a treatise of Clausewitzean length. Perhaps the next great work on the philosophy of war will come out of this milieu of hybrid conflict.
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26 September 2014
In some older posts I made a distinction between the iterative conception of civilization, which is a product of anonymization of production and the algorithmization of the world, and the heroic conception of civilization that celebrates singular achievement.
Industrial-technological civilization is an iterative civilization in so far as the STEM cycle that drives this civilization is repetitive, dependably producing scientific, industrial, and industrial innovation. From an iteration certain structures emerge. Civilization today regularly and repetitively produces scientific, technological, and industrial innovation in a way that is not unlike that in which earlier civilization, regularly and almost repetitively produced artistic masterpieces.
Just as agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization could not produce science, technology, and industry to rival industrial-technological civilization, so too industrial-technological civilization cannot produce artistic masterpieces to rival those of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. There is nothing from the modern world, for example, that can even approach the Nike of Samothrace. But to cite a single example is deceptive. It would be difficult to name any region of the world during any period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization that did not produce artistic masterpieces of lasting value, just as it would be difficult to name any outpost of industrial-technological civilization that did not produce innovative science, technology, and industry.
Industrial-technological civilization is not without its heroic moments. The great, heroic undertaking of industrial-technological civilization to date — the Apollo moon landings — was a technical achievement, not without beauty, not without a visceral, human dimension, but remarkable primarily for its technological accomplishment. After the manner of heroic civilizational accomplishment, once the moon landings were attained, all further interest evaporated. To repeat them would be as pointless (from this perspective) as to mimic a great work of art, as, for example, an imitation of Homer or Dante, which would always and only be an imitation and never the authentic original.
The early futurists celebrated the aesthetic of industrial-technological civilization, as, for example, when Marinetti praised the beauty of a race car, trying (a bit too hard) to make the modern age sound heroic:
“We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”
The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, F. T. Marinetti, 1909
Marinetti explicitly confronts the aesthetic mastery of classical antiquity in order to explicitly reject it. Notice, however, that the motorcar celebrated by Marinetti is an article of mass production. An automobile is the embodiment of iteration, with factories churning out millions of identical units every year. And part of the culture of industrial-technological civilization has been the celebration of this kind of industrial production as a kind of heroism. This appeared not only in the adulation of early titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford, but also in communist bloc with the propagandistic celebration of Stackhanovite labor.
The distinction between iterative and heroic production is not the only relevant distinction to be made here. A civilization in the growth phase of its life cycle may grown iteratively or heroically. The civilization of classical antiquity grew iteratively, while medieval European civilization grew heroically, though both exemplify agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. A further distinction can be made in the growth of a civilization between iterative growth, that is the repetition of a familiar model, and organic expansion, which is also iterative, but in which the model itself expands and each iteration is more comprehensive than the last. Industrial-technological civilization expands by the latter process.
Singular achievement not followed by iteration is an uncertain foundation on which to base the expansion of the civilization. More likely than not, a singular achievement will be followed by the dissolution of the legacy, as was the case with Ozymandias. But it is precisely this civilizational context that is likely to produce singular artistic masterpieces that stand alone as monuments of civilizations that ultimately could not sustain themselves. Industrial-technological expanding iteration incorporates occasional heroic moments, but it is the programmatic follow-through that has contributed to the relentless growth of industry, which has no parallel in human history. A civilization capable of sustaining itself comes at the cost of devaluing its own heroic moments and leaves no monuments other than derelict industries.
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7 September 2014
Teleology and Deontology
In moral theory we distinguish between teleological ethical systems and deontological ethical systems. Teleological ethics (also called consequentialism, in reference to consequences) focus on the end of an action, i.e., that actual result, as that which makes an action praiseworthy or blameworthy. The word “teleological” comes from the Greek telos (τέλος), which means end, goal, or purpose. Deontological ethics focus on the motivation for undertaking an action, and is sometimes referred to as “duty-based” ethics; the word “deontological” derives from the Greek deon (δέον), meaning “duty.”
The philosophical literature on teleology and deontology is vast. From this vast literature the history of moral philosophy gives us several well known examples of both teleological and deontological ethics. Utilitarianism is often cited as a paradigmatic example of teleological ethics, as utilitarianism (in one of its many forms) holds that an action is to be judged by its ability to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons (also known as the greatest happiness principle). Kantian ethics is usually cited as the paradigmatic case of deontological ethics; Kant placed great emphasis upon duty, and held that nothing is good in itself except the good will. These philosophical expressions of the ideas of teleology and deontology also have vernacular expressions that largely coincide with them, as, for example, when teleological views are expressed as, “the ends justify the means,” or when deontological views are expressed as “justice be done though the heavens may fall.”
The vast literature on deontology and teleological also points to many examples that show these categories of ethical thought to be overly schematic and, in some cases, to cut across each other. For example, if we characterize teleological ethics in terms of the aim to be achieved by an action, a distinction can be made between the actual consequences of an action and the intended consequences of an action. The intended consequences of an action may be understood deontologically as the motivation for undertaking an action. Part of this problem can be addressed by tightening up the terminology and the logic of the argument, but, as has been noted, the literature is vast and many sophisticated arguments have been advanced to demonstrate the interpenetration of teleological and deontological conceptions. We must, then, regard this distinction as a rough-and-ready classification that admits of exceptions.
Teleology and Deontology in a Social Context
We can take these ideas of teleological and deontological ethics and apply them not only to individual action but to social action, and thus speak of the actions of social groups of human beings in teleological or deontological terms, i.e., we can speak in terms of the coordinated actions of a group being undertaken primarily in order to achieve some end, or actions undertaken as ends-in-themselves. This suggests the extrapolation of teleological and deontological conceptions to the largest social formations, and the largest social formation known to us is civilization. Can a civilizaiton entire be teleological or deontological in its outlook? Does a civilization have a moral outlook?
I will assume, without arguing in detail, that a civilization can have a moral outlook, understanding that this is a generalization that holds across a civilization, and that the generalization admits of numerous important exceptions. Elsewhere I have noted the Darwinian perspective that any social group of animals that lives together in sufficient density for a sufficient period of time will evolve social customs for interaction. (This is a position that has been further explored in our time by Frans de Waal and Soshichi Uchii.) The lifeway of a particular people is coextensive with social conventions necessary for a social species to live together in a reasonable degree of harmony; what distinguishes regional permutations of lifeways are the climate and available domesticates. Both ethics and civilization grow from this common root, hence the xenophobia of traditionalist civilizations that unproblematically equate the peculiarities of a particular regional civilization with the good in and of itself.
Can this synthesis of lifeways and ethos that marks out a regional civilization (and which is consolidated in the process of axialization) be characterized as overall teleological or deontological orientation in some particular cases? This is a more difficult question, and rather than tackling it directly, I will discuss the question from various perspectives drawn from an overview of the history of civilization.
Teleology and Deontology in Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization
The emergence of settled agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization presents us with an archaeological horizon that appears globally in widely dispersed locations but at approximately the same time. (An archaeological horizon is “a widely disseminated level of common art and artifacts.” Wikipedia) Prior to an actual horizon, there are a great many suggestive sites that imply both domestication and semi-settled lifeways, but at a certain level (between 9 and 11 thousand years before present) the traces of large scale settlement and domestication of plants and animals becomes common. This is the horizon of civilization (or, more narrowly, the horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization).
The horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization exhibits global characteristics that eventually culminate in the Axial Age, when regional civilizations are given definitive expression in mythological terms. Through separately emergent, these civilizations exhibit common features of settlement, division of labor, social hierarchy, a conception of the world, of human nature, and of the relation between the two that are expressed in mythological form, which in being made systematic (an early manifestation of the human condition made rigorous) become the central organizing idea of the civilizations that followed. This period represents the bulk of human civilization history to date, a period lasting almost ten thousand years.
Recently on my other blog I undertook a series on religious experiences and religious observances from hunter-gatherer nomadism through contemporary industrial-technological civilization and on into the future — cf. Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience, Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization, Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, and Responding to the World we Find — and thinking of religious observances emergent from human religious experience it is difficult to say whether these ritual observances are performed in the spirit of teleology or deontology, i.e., whether it is the consequences of the ritual that matters, or if the ritual has intrinsic value and ought to be conducted regardless of consequences. This may be one of the many cases in which teleological and deontological categories cut across each other. Agrarian-eccleasiastical civilization at times seems to formulate its central organizing principle of religious observance in terms of the intrinsic value of the observance, and in times in terms of the efficacious consequences of these observances.
We can understand religion (by which I mean the central organizing principle of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations) as an existential risk mitigation strategy for pre-technological peoples, who have no method to address personal mortality or the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations (i.e., civilizational mortality) other than the propitiation of gods; once the transition is made from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization, the methods of procedural rationality that are the organizing principle of the latter can be brought to bear on existential questions, and it finally becomes possible for existential threats to be assessed and addressed on the level of naturalistic human action. It would not have been possible to conceptualize existential risk in terms of naturalistic human action prior to the technological expansion of effective human action.
Teleology and Deontology in Global Industrial-Technological Civilization
Civilization is an historical reality that exhibits change and development over time. The particular change in civilization that we see at the present time is a transition from regional civilizations, reflecting the coevolution of human beings and domesticates (both plant and animal) ecologically suited to a particular geographical region, to a global industrial-technological civilization that is largely indifferent to local and regional ecological and climatological conditions, because a global trade network provides goods and services from any region to any other region, which means that the maintenance of civilization is no longer dependent upon local or regional constraints.
This development of global industrial-technological civilization is likely to dominate civilization until civilization either fails (i.e., civilization experiences extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, or subsequent ruination) or expands beyond Earth and a self-sustaining center of civilization emerges in space or on another planetary body. In order for the latter to occur, human travel in space must move beyond exploratory forays and become commonplace, that is to say, we would have to see a horizon of space travel. I have called the horizon of human space travel extraterrestrialization. Until that time, civilization remains bound by the finite surface of Earth, and this means that our civilization is growing intensively rather than extensively. The intensive growth of regional civilizations exhaustively covering the surface of Earth means the closer integration of these civilizations (sometimes called globalization), and it is this process that is pushing regional civilizations (e.g., Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, European civilization, etc.) toward integration into a single global industrial-technological civilization.
The spatial constraint of the Earth’s surface together with the expansion and consolidation of settled industrial-technological civilization forces these civilizations into integration, even if only at the margins where their borders meet. Is this de facto constraint upon planetary civilization a mere contingency pushing civilization in a particular direction (which in evolutionary terms could be called civilizational directional selection), or may be think of these constraints in non-contingent terms as a “destiny” of planetary civilization? We find both conceptions represented in contemporary thought.
To think of civilization in terms of destiny is to think in teleological terms. If civilization has a destiny apart from the purposes of individuals and societies, that destiny is the telos of that civilization. But we would not likely refer to an historical accident that selects civilization as “destiny,” even if it shapes our civilization decisively. If we reject the idea of a contingent destiny forced upon us by de facto constraints upon growth and development, then we are implicitly thinking of civilization in terms of practices pursued for their own ends, which is an deontological conception of civilization.
The contemporary idea of a transition to a sustainable civilization — the transition from an industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels to an industrial infrastructure based on sustainable and renewable sources of fuel — is clearly a deontological conception of the development of civilization, i.e., that such a transition needs to take place for its own sake, but this deontological ideal of a civilization that lives within its means also implies for many who hold this idea a vision of future civilization that has been revamped to avoid the morally catastrophic mistakes of the past, and in this sense the conception is clearly teleological.
The Historico-Temporal Structure of Human Life
One of the most distinctive features of human consciousness is its time consciousness that extends into an explicit understanding of the future and its relationship to present action, and which developed and iterated becomes historical consciousness, in which the individual and the social group understands himself or itself to stand in relation to a past that preceded the present, and a future that will follow from the present. This historico-temporal structure of human life, both individual and communal, means that human beings plan ahead and make provision for the future in a much more systematic way than any other terrestrial species. This consideration alone suggests that the primary ethical category for understanding human action must be teleological. But this presents us with certain problems.
Civilization itself, and the great processes of civilization such as the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, urbanization, and industrialization, were unplanned developments that just happened. No one planned to build a civilization, and no one planned for regional civilizations to run into planetary constraints and thus to begin to integrate into a global civilization. So although human beings have the ability to plan and the carry out long term projects, many of the historical human realities that are among the most significant in shaping our lives both individually and collectively were not planned. In the future we may be able to plan a civilization or civilizational process and bring this plan to a successful conclusion, but nothing like this has yet been accomplished in the history of civilization. The closest we have come to this is to build planned communities or cities, and this falls far short of the construction of an entire civilization. Until we can do more, we are subject to a limited teleological civilizational ethos at most.
Teleological and Deontological Sources of Civilization
While agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization tends to organize around an eschtological destiny, and is therefore profoundly teleological in outlook, and industrial-technological civilization tends to organize around procedural rationality, and is therefore profoundly deontological in outlook, we can think of a prehistoric past that is the source of both of these paradigms of civilization as either essentially teleological or deontological.
The basic historico-temporal properties of human life noted above, iterated, extended, and eventually made systematic culminate in an organized and communal way of life for a social species, and this telos of human activity is civilization. Civilization on this view is inherent in human nature. This can be expressed in non-naturalistic, eschatological terms, and this probably the form in which this conception is most familiar to us, but it can also be expressed in scientific terms. Here is Carl Sagan’s expression of this idea:
The cerebral cortex, where matter is transformed into consciousness, is the point of embarkation for all our cosmic voyages. Comprising more than two-thirds of the brain mass, it is the realm of both intuition and critical analysis. It is here that we have ideas and inspirations, here that we read and write, here that we do mathematics and compose music. The cortex regulates our conscious lives. It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XI, “The Persistence of Memory”
In my post 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2 I mentioned the presentation of William Katerberg, in which he characterized ideas of inevitability and impossibility as forms of teleology in scientific historiography. While Sagan may not be asserting the inevitability of civilization emerging from the cerebral cortex, all of these conceptions belong under the overarching umbrella of teleology, whether weakly teleological or strongly teleological.
When we consider the highest expressions of the human mind in intellectual and aesthetic production, it is not at all clear if these monuments of human thought are undertaken for their intrinsic value as ends in themselves, or if they have been pursued with an eye to some end beyond the construction of the monument. Consider the pyramids: are these monuments to glorify the Pharaoh, and thus by extension to glorify Egyptian civilization as an end in itself, or are these monuments to secure the eternal reign of the Pharaoh in the afterlife? Many of the mysterious monuments that remain from past civilizations — Stonehenge, Carnac, Göbekli Tepe, the Moai of Easter Island, and the Sphinx, inter alia — have this ambiguous character.
We can imagine a civilization of the prehistorical past essentially called into being by the great effort to create one of these monoliths. The site of Göbekli Tepe is one of the more recent and interesting discoveries from the Neolithic, and some archaeologists that suggested that the site points to civilization coming into being for the purpose of constructing and maintaining this ritual site (something I mentioned in The Birth of Agriculture from the Spirit of Religion).
Teleology, Deontology, and a Philosophy of History
Teleology has been subject to much abuse in the history of human thought, as I have noted on many occasions. There is a strong desire to believe in meaning and purpose that transcends the individual, if not the entire species. The essentially incoherent desire for an meaning or purpose coming from outside the world entire, entering into the world from outside and giving a purpose to mundane actions that these actions cannot derive from any source within the world, is an imperfectly expressed theme of almost all religious thought. Logically, this is the desire for a constructive foundation for meaning and purpose; finding meaning or purpose for the world from within the world is an inherently non-constructive conception that leaves a vaguely dissatisfied feeling rarely brought to logical clarification.
The first great work in western philosophy of history, Saint Augustine’s City of God, is a thoroughly teleological conception of history culminating in the -. Perhaps the next most influential philosophy of history after Augustine was that of Hegel, and, again, Hegel’s philosophy of history is pervasively teleological in spirit. A particular philosophical effort is required to conceive of human history (and human civilization) in non-Augustinian, non-Hegelian terms.
Does there even exist, in the Western philosophical tradition, a deontological philosophy of civilization? In light of the discussion above, I have to examine my own efforts in the philosophy of history, as I realize now that some of my formulations could be interpreted as implying that civilization is the telos of human history. Does human history culminate in human civilization? Is civilization the destiny of humanity? If so, this should be made explicit. If not, a more careful formulation of the relationship of civilization to human history is in order.
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28 August 2014
In my previous post, Big History and Historiography I touched on the question of scientific historiography, which is a central question for Big History because Big History is scientific historiography in its most recent incarnation. There are certain considerations that follow from big history being scientific historiography, and I will attempt to explore these considerations below.
The early examples of western historiography in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides still stand as models for historical writing and historiographical method, and this is a tradition that continued on even into medieval times, in the great histories of Sir John Froissart and Philippe de Commines, who must have read their models carefully and deduced the lessons that had not yet, at that time, been explicitly formulated as principles. Despite these admirable models to emulate, a lot of history has been more or less conscious myth-making, which may then be contrasted to the unconscious myth-making that has yielded religious mythology (through a gradual process of selection not unlike that which yielded the first domesticated crops). Histories have given us historical myths, which is of course why Descartes rejected history as a source of knowledge (of which more below).
With the renaissance we begin to see the emergence of critical historiography, and this then goes on to become the dominant trend in historiography in the following centuries. Historians consciously cultivated a conception of history based on citing sources and basing all claims on written evidence, and these critical historians began to seek out original source material and then to compare and criticize sources in order to arrive, through a methodology that did not necessarily take these sources at their word, at a considered account of history. There is a fascinating book about this — Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination By Paul Veyne — that delves into the emergence of critical historiography. Veyne cites in particular the reception of the Recherches de la France (1560) of Étienne Pasquier, which cites original source material in footnotes. Readers at the time, Veyne noted, objected to this method, and asked Pasquier why he did not rather submit his text to the judgment of posterity, which would either reject it or confirm it as tradition and canon.
Although Pasquier’s Recherches de la France was an early instance of critical historiography, it was also, in its own way, a piece of mythmaking and so something of a historical myth — but not precisely the myth that Pasquier’s contemporaries were prepared to hear. Pasquier was concerned to demonstrate the independent achievements of French civilization apart from classical antiquity, so that Pasquier did not begin with the Greeks or the Romans, but with the earliest peoples of Gaul, about which he derived some sketchy background from Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul — but this, too, is an fascinating window onto historical methodology, as many historians of the later twentieth century up to the present day have attempted to derive the authentic history of colonialized peoples by reading between the lines of the histories and chronicles left by their conquerors. Pasquier was more modern than he knew, and more modern even that Veyne realized.
Critical historiography is then followed by scientific historiography, and scientific historiography begins to go beyond the original texts sought out by critical history and to pursue forms of evidence that did not even exist for previous historians, except in so far as they were preserved in folk memory. Scientific historiography has its own methods and its own canons of evidence, distinct from those of critical historiography. Scientific evidence and sources of knowledge are treated in critical fashion, but it is critical according to the methods of natural science, not textual exegesis. Both critical historiography and scientific historiography have sources and methods of evidence, and both take a critical view of these sources and evidence, but these methods remain distinct at present. These canons of evidence can be brought together if the will and the motive to force an integration and possibly even a synthesis is present, and this attempt to synthesize critical and scientific historiography is an implicit aim of big history.
One of the themes that became evident at the IBHA conference was the extent to which big history embraces the canons of evidence of scientific historiography. The terminology that has been introduced in big history is that of “claims testers,” which is systematically seeking to teach those who are learning big history how to verify the claims that are made on the basis of the methodology of natural science. This is an admirable undertaking, and I can’t say enough good things about an historical method that teaches students to be critical and to demand evidence for any and all claims made. However, the traditional historiographical challenge of “claims testing” was a hermeneutical exercise in textual exegesis. Historians got quite good at this kind of textual criticism. Already in the renaissance it was shown (by Lorenzo Valla), from internal evidence of the document, that the so-called “Donation of Constantine” was a medieval forgery. This work of exegesis continues into our own day, as ancient books are occasionally discovered and similarly interrogated. For example, the recovery of the Nag Hammadi library was a literary bonanza for New Testament scholars, whose discipline was revolutionized by this material.
Analogously, before detailed genetic studies revealed the pattern of human planetary dispersion, there was language, which preserves in its words and structures something of its own distant past, much as DNA does. Linguists traced the world’s languages backward to a root proto-Indo-European language and identified certain nodal points in the development and dispersal of that root. The study of language is in some ways an expansion upon traditional historiography based upon written language, which is say, history in the strict sense, in its narrowest construal, that of traditional historiography. That traditional historiography can be expanded and extended in this way, with the study of language, of inscriptions, of coins, the reconstruction or partially destroyed manuscripts, and other methods, shows how traditional text-based historiography can tend toward scientific historiography. The hunger for knowledge about the past does not relent where our documents leave off, and scholars have sought to fill in lacuna by hook or by crook. Some of these inventive methods have shaded over into scientific historiography.
Scientific Historiography and the Method of Isolation
The physical manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi libtrary themselves, and the context of their recovery, is something to be studied by scientific archaeology (after the fact, as the manuscripts themselves were initially recovered not by archaeologists, but by two Egyptian brothers who kept their discovery quiet in order to sell the find piece by piece, so that much of the archaeological context was lost), but just as traditional literary historiography is limited by its own canons of evidence and cannot penetrate into prehistory, so too scientific historiography is limited by its scientific canons of evidence, and from its studies of the physical condition of manuscripts it can say very little about the historical period as compared to simply reading the documents, which, however, is a specialized skill of scholars of ancient languages (the kind of scholars who revealed the Donation of Constantine as a forgery).
Now, in actual fact, scientific historians do not limit themselves to a scientific study of documents as physical artifacts; they also read the documents and derive information from the content, as we would expect they would. But if, as an exercise, we take the idea of scientific historiography according to the method of isolation, and consider it ideally as only scientific historiography, shorn from its association with traditional historiographical methods, we would be reduced to an archaeology of the historical period, which would be most unsatisfying.
Suppose, as a thought experiment, scientific historiography were to employ its methods to study what archaeologists call the “material culture” of the historical period, but was on principle denied any information recorded in actual documents and inscriptions. That is to say, suppose our picture of the historical past were exclusively the result of the study of the material culture of the historical past (here employing “history” in the narrow and traditional sense of history recorded in written documents). I think that our the historical past reconstructed on the basis of what scientific historiography could derive from material culture would be quite different from the story that we know of the historical past in virtue of written records. No one that I know of pursues this method of isolation in studying the historical past when documents are also available, though this method of isolation is pursued of necessity in the absence of any documents (or in the absence of a language that can be deciphered). Though this method is not pursued in history, it is important to point to that scientific historiography has its limitations no less than the limitations of critical historiography and its tradition.
Isaiah Berlin and Scientific Historiography
Scholarship perpetually finds itself in the midst of the tension between traditionalism and modernization. If tradition is always given priority, scholarship becomes exclusively backward-looking and retrograde; Nietzsche would say that this is history that does not serve life. There have been many examples of this throughout the intellectual life of our planet. But scholarship cannot simply seize upon every intellectual trend that comes along, or it would lose touch with the established canons that have made rigorous scholarship possible. The introduction of a new idea might in fact expand these canons so that rigorous scholarship can have a wider field — I believe this to be the case with big history — but a new idea can appear to traditionalists as a threat to established research, a heresy, a diversion, or a waste of time.
Scientific historiography has been and is just such a new idea: different scholars have judged of it differently. Some few take up the new idea with enthusiasm, most are hesitant, while some few transform themselves into defenders of orthodoxy. Isaiah Berlin took up the problem of scientific historiography, and while he defended a traditionalist position, he did so intelligently, and not in the spirit of a reactionary rejecting anything that contradicts orthodoxy. For that reason we have much to learn from Berlin on this point.
Here is a representative passage from his essay on scientific historiography:
“The gifts that historians need are different from those of the natural scientists. The latter must abstract, generalise, idealise, qualify, dissociate normally associated ideas (for nature is full of strange surprises, and as little as possible must be taken for granted), deduce, establish with certainty, reduce everything to the maximum degree of regularity, uniformity, and, so far as possible, to timeless repetitive patterns. Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
Notice in this above passage that Berlin is attributing a nomothetic (lawlike) approach to science and an ideographic (contingency and accident) approach to history. There is a long 19th century tradition of associating history exclusively with the ideographic (i.e., the contingent). This is especially true in Windelband’s 1894 Rectorial Address “History and Natural Science,” which was to be such a profound influence upon Heinrich Rickert, who continued this tradition of thought. While figures like Windelband and Rickert were committed to a rigorous method in historiography, the idea of history as exclusively ideographic is at bottom a Platonic motif, and in Plato the nomothetic is necessary, apodictic truth, worthy of being immortalized among The Forms, while all else is the realm of mere shifting opinion. It is in this tradition Descartes is implicitly following as he searched for an apodictic truth upon which to build science, and along the way dismissed history in a famous passage:
“…fables make one imagine many events to be possible which are not so at all. And even the most accurate histories, if they neither alter nor exaggerate the significance of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, almost always at least omit the baser and less noteworthy details. Consequently the rest do not appear as they really are, and those who govern their own conduct by means of examples drawn from these texts are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights of our romances and to conceive plans that are beyond their powers.”
René Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Searching for Truth in the Sciences
Cartesians thereafter were well known for their lack of interest in history as an intellectual discipline, and if one takes mathematical reasoning as one’s paradigm (an early theme in Descartes that is already evident in his Rules for the Direction of Mind) it is not surprising that historical knowledge will not measure up to this apodictic standard. Even today one finds a quasi-Cartesian skepticism about history among some intelligent individuals whose epistemology is derived, implicitly or explicitly, from mathematics and the non-historical natural sciences.
From his presumption that history is ideographic and science nomothetic, Berlin determines that each contradicts the other:
“…to say of history that it should approximate to the condition of a science is to ask it to contradict its essence.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
While it is true that scientific method has focused on the nomothetic while historiographical method has focused on the ideographic, is it not possible that there is a nascent, undeveloped ideographic science and a nascent, undeveloped nomothetic historiography, each discipline waiting to be born, as it were, when our conceptual infrastructure feels the want of them and we are forced to develop new conceptions that transcend our old conceptions of science and history? Nomothetic science, ideographic history, nomothetic history, and ideographic science will naturally fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, each complementing rather than contradicting the other. Integrating human history into a background of scientific history, as in cosmology, geology, biology, etc., one is integrating the nomothetic and the ideographic.
One of the most interesting points in Berlin’s essay is his suggestion, by way of an analogy with unscientific thought, of the possibility of an unhistorical mode of thought:
“…to be unscientific is to defy, for no good logical or empirical reason, established hypotheses and laws; while to be unhistorical is the opposite — to ignore or twist one’s view of particular events, persons, predicaments, in the name of laws, theories, principles derived from other fields, logical, ethical, metaphysical, scientific, which the nature of the medium renders inapplicable…”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
A truly comprehensive and integrative history — presumably the aim of big history — would have to avoid both unscientific and unhistorical modes of thought, and this is a valuable observation. This demonstrates that big history is not merely eclectic, but must also, like any rigorous discipline, be defined in terms of what it excludes.
Even though I do not agree with Berlin in detail, and often I disagree with him when it comes to the big picture also, I think that big history can only benefit by engaging with his ideas and his perspective. Ignoring the problems that Berlin points out is not, in my opinion, intellectually responsible. The scholar is called upon to respect and to respond to the arguments of earlier scholars, if only to refute them in order to demonstrate to future generations a blind alley to be avoided.
This brings me to the final quote I will take from Berlin’s essay, and where I most completely disagree with him:
“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.”
Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”
I am not saying that Berlin’s approach to history is a blind alley, since traditional historical scholarship can continue and be absorbed into the architectonic of big history, but Berlin is definitely asserting that “the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied” is a blind alley, and here I must decisively part company with Berlin. I think it both possible and desirable to seek a pure theory of history that would stand in relation to applied, empirical history as pure geometry is related to empirical geometry. I would call this discipline formal historiography, and it strikes me as the obvious next development following traditional historiography, critical historiography, and scientific historiography.
Probably this view would divide me no less from most big historians than from traditional historians like Isaiah Berlin. Big history could be a formal school of historical thought in the way that the cultural processual school in archaeology is a formal school of archaeological thought, no less concerned with formal models and the hypothetico-deductive method than with excavating mounds and sorting pottery sherds. But this clearly does not appear to be the direction in which big history is headed.
There could, of course, be a small subfield of formal big history within the overall umbrella (or, if you like, big tent) of big history, which would proceed in true hypothetico-deductive fashion, formulating general laws about history, deriving predictions from these laws, and confirming or disconfirming the laws by testing the predictions against actual events. The scientific method at its most formal has served us well in other capacities, and we have yet to bring its full force to bear upon historical questions.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
8. Big History and Scientific Historiography
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24 August 2014
History without Big History
Not long before I attended the 2014 IBHA “big history” conference I picked up a book at a used bookstore titled History: A Brief Insight by John H. Arnold. The book is copyrighted 2000, with additional text copyrighted 2009. Upon my return from the conference in California, I looked over the book more carefully, scanned the bibliography for names and titles, read the index, and skimmed the text. There is no hint of big history in the book.
There are a number of historians for whom “big history” simply does not yet exist, and, on the basis of textual evidence alone (that is to say, without knowing anything about John H. Arnold except what I found in this one book), John H. Arnold would seem to be one of these historians. I have enjoyed what I have read so far in Arnold’s book, and he covers a range of historiographical questions from human nature (does it change or is it the same in all ages?), through Leopold von Ranke (about how I recently wrote in Political Dimensions of History), to Fernand Braudel and the twentieth century Annales school of historians. There is much here to appreciate, and from which to learn.
It is still, today, possible to write a general introductory text on history and say nothing about big history. Is it significant that a contemporary historian can review perennial ideas of historiography without mentioning the growing contribution of big history to historiographical thought? It is, I think, both significant and understandable. I will try to sketch out why I think this to be the case.
Is there a place for historiography in big history?
Big history, although a creation of historians (David Christian specialized in Russian and Soviet history), owes more to the emergence of scientific historiography than to traditional historiography, and it shows. During my time at the IBHA conference the traditional language and concepts of historiography were notable in their absence: I did not hear a single person (other than myself) mention diachronic, synchronic, ideographic, or nomothetic approaches (four concepts that I have integrated in what I called the axes of historiography), nor did I hear any mention of the Carr-Elton debate or its contemporary re-setting in the work of Rorty and White by Keith Jenkins, nor did I hear anyone mention those figures and ideas that appeared in John H. Arnold noted above, such as Ranke, Bloc, and Braudel.
In the discussion following the presentation by John Mears the traditional historiographical question was asked — Is history a science or does it belong with the humanities? — but, surprisingly in a group of historians, the question was not taken up in its historical context, and it is the historical context of the question, in which history has tended toward the scientific or toward the humanistic by turns, that could most benefit the emerging conception of big history. The question came up again in a nearly explicit form in Fred Spier’s plenary address on the last day, “The Future of Big History,” when Spier brought up C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on “The Two Cultures.” In the middle of the twentieth century Snow had dissected the misunderstanding and mutual mistrust of the sciences and the humanities. This would have been the perfect time and the perfect context in which to pursue the relationship between these two cultures in big history, but Spier did not pursue the theme.
Paradoxical though it sounds, there is, at present, little or no place for historiography — that is to say, for the traditional conflicts and controversies of historiography — within the framework of big history, which seems to effortlessly bypass these now apparently arcane disagreements among scholars, which appear small if not petty within the capacious context of the history of the universe entire.
Big History and Scientific Historiography
Big history is, indirectly, a consequence of the emergence of scientific historiography in the previous century. This is one of the great intellectual movements of our time, and in saying that there appears to be little or no place for historiography within big history I am not seeking to demean or disparage either big history or scientific historiography. On the contrary, I have written many posts and scientific historiography, and the idea plays an important, if not a central, role in my own thought.
From the diversity of opinion represented at the IBHA conference I attended, one can already see divisions emerging between the more natural-science based perspectives and more traditionally humanistically-based perspectives on big history, and one can just as easily imagine a formulation of big history that is more or less an extended branch of physics, or a formulation of big history that only incidentally touches upon physics while investing most of its resources in human history — though, to be sure, a human history greatly expanded by scientific historiography.
For the moment, however, it is the emerging trend of scientific historiography that is the central influence in big history, and this accounts both for the marginalization of traditional historiographical controversies as well as the particular approach to historical evidence that is adopted in big history.
The Handwriting on the Wall
One can already see the handwriting on the wall: big history will become, and then will remain, the dominant paradigm in historiography for the foreseeable future. Any reaction against big history that seeks to raise (or to restore) minutiae and miniaturism to a preeminent position will simply be absorbed into the overall framework of big history, which is sufficiently capacious to find a niche for anything within its comprehensive structure, and which is not bound to reject any kind of historical research.
Given the present paradigm of scientific thought, there is no more comprehensive perspective that can be adopted than that of big history. And when, in the fullness of time, science advances past its present paradigm and places our present knowledge in an even more capacious context, big history can be expanded in like fashion. This is because, as David Christian noted, big history is a form of “framework” thinking. Evolutionary biology is similarly a form of framework thinking, and it was able to seamlessly incorporate plate tectonics and geomorphology into its structure, and is now incorporating astrobiology into its structure for an ever-more-comprehensive perspective on life. Big history as a theoretical framework for historical thought is (or will be) in a position to do the same thing for history.
Even though big history is still inchoate, perhaps one of the reasons it is likely to experience more resistance than the school of world history (there has been an interest in “world history” for some time before big history appeared) is that it incorporates a few definite and distinctive ideas, and, moreover, ideas that have not been a part of traditional historiography (specifically, emergent complexity and “Goldilocks” conditions). When big history develops a more coherent theoretical framework big history will find itself forced to define itself vis-à-vis the traditional historiographical concepts that it has so far largely avoided. One way to do this is to cast them aside and proceed without them; another way is to choose sides and become pigeon-holed into categories of historiographical thought that do not precisely suit big history.
The Structure of Historiographical Revolutions
It has been the nature of intellectual revolutions to cast aside past conceptual frameworks and to strike out in new directions. The most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, meticulously detailed this process of intellectual revolution. Big history might be just such an intellectual revolution, and with the power of the scientific historiography it can easily abandon the traditions of historiography and strike out to map its own territory in its own way. I think that this would be a mistake. While past intellectual revolutions have needed to break with the past in order to make progress, this break with the past has come at a cost. When renaissance scholarship not only broke with the medieval past, but ridiculed its scholasticism, this may have been necessary at the time, but it resulted in the loss of the sophisticated logic created by medieval scholars, which could have extended and deepened the work of the literary and humanistic scholars of the renaissance. Instead, the tradition of medieval logic lay fallow for five hundred years, and is only being rediscovered in out time, when it is less of a help than it might have been in the past.
Big history could, without doubt, do without traditional historiography, but it would do much better to learn the lessons painstakingly learned by historical scholars since the emergence of critical history, starting with the same renaissance scholars who rejected medieval logic but who created a new discipline of the critical analysis of the language of historical documents. In the transition from the medieval to the modern world it was probably necessary to make a clean break with the past — the Copernican revolution, which plays so large a role in Kuhn’s thought, is another instance of a modern break with the medieval past — but social conditions have changed radically, and it is less necessary to make a break with modernity than it was to make a break with medievalism.
I count myself as a friend of both scientific history and big history, but I don’t think that it is necessary to reject the historiographical tradition in order to pursue these historical frameworks. On the contrary, scientific history and big history will be much more sophisticated if they learn to use the tools developed by earlier generations of historians.
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Studies in Grand Historiography
7. Big History and Historiography
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