9 March 2010
Last Saturday in Selection Strategies in Human History I discussed the traditional periodization of Western history into ancient, medieval, and modern, and suggested that today we need a more comprehensive conception of history, which at that time I simply called “history in an extended sense.” It is noteworthy that the historical sciences have continually and, of necessity, systematically extended our scientific sense of time, with archaeology, anthropology, biology, paleontology, geology, astronomy, and cosmology pushing the limits of man’s ability to comprehend measures of time that far, far surpass anything with which he can become personally acquainted.
In the above-mentioned post I noted that I lacked a neologism to identify history in an extended sense, a sense that comprises both the natural history of our species and traditional humanistic history that has been identified as history proper because it begins with human record keeping: the texts and inscriptions of the historical era. I have decided to refer to history in the extended sense as integral history, since it represents a synthesis of natural and humanistic history, ideally integrating insights of both approaches into a more comprehensive history.
But integral history does not end there. Not only do we draw upon the bones of the paleontologist for our natural history and the texts of our chroniclers for our humanistic history, but we must also draw upon the findings of contemporary anthropology and archaeology, which often study human societies by way of our material culture. Historical theory has lagged in acknowledging the crucial role of material culture (what I have elsewhere called the Civilization of the Hand). We can think of material culture as being partway between the bones of the paleontologists and the texts of the chroniclers. With material culture, we are clearly in the realm of human artifacts, manufactures that illuminate the mind that made them. The reconstruction of a way of life from the artifacts of material culture involves the reconstruction of a human society, and thus is, in a sense, a more complex undertaking that the reconstruction of the meaning of an ancient text.
The inclusion of anthropological and archaeological investigations into material culture greatly extends traditional humanistic history with “texts” after a fashion, in so far as we can imagine a cultural artifact as a text. We must even come to think of the natural history of humanity in an extended sense, as the many species that led to our species, proto-human species that are our evolutionary ancestors, often had what we think of as specifically human behaviors, such as the burial of the dead among Neanderthals.
Integral history takes in a much greater expanse of time than traditional humanistic history, as imperfectly shown in the above illustration of the humanistic periodization nested within the integral periodization of history. Science has extended our conception of time, and therefore history, and it is incumbent upon those who seek to think both critically and synthetically about history to similarly extend our conceptions of humanistic history, pressing them as far into the past and the future as we can force our imagination to take us.
One of the problems of schemes of historical periodization, whether the traditional schematization of Western history in terms of ancient, medieval, and modern periods, or the tripartite schematization I have offered of integral history in terms of nomadic, agricultural, and industrialized societies, is that such a schema implies in a subtle way that history is finished: history has run its course, and seems even to have exhausted itself. Thus we hear people speak of the “End of History” in ominous tones. Hegel is usually interpreted in this way, and in fact Hegel gives a lot of evidence in his lectures that he did believe that German society of his day was the end of aim of history.
In other words, schematic periodizations of history suggest a totalistic conception of history that leaves little or no room for freedom or the future. But, as I noted above, this is implied more often than directly stated. Today we commonly acknowledge a period of prehistory prior to the beginning of traditional humanistic history with the advent of the historical period in the strict sense.
The traditional humanistic tripartite periodization of Western history is now also frequently extended at the other end of the spectrum with a recognition of a post-modern historical period. While I am a skeptic that post-modernism represents something that cannot be found in modernism simpliciter, the recognition of a post-modern period is in principle a recognition that the tripartite schema does not exhaust human possibilities and that history is not at an end.
The tripartite periodization of integral history that I have suggested is not to be taken in a totalistic sense of exhausting the possibilities of human history. In my Political Economy of Globalization I speculated on the possibility of an extraterrestrial demographic revolution, which can be defined in terms of the time (if it comes) when the bulk of the human species no longer lives on the Earth but has migrated either to other planets or any habitable environment, whether natural or artificial. This seems to me entirely in the spirit of identifying the Industrial Revolution as a turning point in human history, separating one period from another, since we can define the Industrial Revolution in terms of the bulk of the human species making the shift from employment in subsistence agriculture to employment in urban industry.
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