17 February 2012
More than a year ago I formulated the idea of pastoralization as a possible development of macro-historical significance, and as a possible successor form of civilization to present-day industrial-technological civilization. In that first formulation I wrote:
If humanity withdrew into sustainable cities with their own ability to grow produce, the gradually depopulated countryside would be free to be returned to wilderness or to be at the disposal of pastoralists, or both. Wild game would be available in the wilderness for those who wanted to hunt, thus satisfying both a social need and dietary need, while nomadic pastoralists cold drive their herds seasonally from one self-sustaining city to another, selling a portion of their animals for slaughter in return for goods that they could not produce given their nomadic way of life.
I cited the emergence (actually, the re-emergence) of urban agriculture and the demographic trend toward increasing urbanization as driving forces in the scenario of pastoralization. The idea of urban agriculture is also important in another macro-historical scenario, neo-agriculturalism. Pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism are only distinct by degrees, and many of the features of each may co-exist.
Two recent books make suggestive arguments that point toward the ongoing strategic trends of urbanization and urban agriculture, which, if they become the dominant strategic trends in the future, will issue in something like pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism. These two books are $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner and Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (which latter I wrote about in Cities: The Constructive Kluge).
Glaeser’s book isn’t “brilliant” (as some reviews said) nor is he a mere shill (as some reviews seem to suggest). It is probably sufficient to read the first and last chapters and skip the anecdote the fills most of the book; you can pick up most of his ideas this way and miss very little. Really, all you need to know is the full title, since the book is concerned to demonstrate the thesis that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. One need not agree with every aspect of this argument to still agree with many or most of them, and to see that a clear case can be made for urbanization.
In regard to thinking in terms of “making a case for urbanization” we are clearly thinking in political terms rather than historical terms, and this seems to be Glaeser’s orientation. He is critical of policies that have had the unintended result of harming cities, and, since he thinks that cities are the best thing to come along in the human experience, harming cities is tantamount to engaging in self-harm. The limitations of thinking in terms of policy appear when we begin to think in terms of spans of time beyond that of a single human lifespan, and across which greater spans of time unintended consequences tend to swamp intended consequences. This is the difference between urbanization as a political idea and urbanization as an historical idea (conceived parallel to the distinction I made between globalization as a political idea and globalization as an historical idea).
If one is hesitant to fully subscribe to a rationally argued case for the city, there is, alternatively, the economic case for the city, and this is what Christopher Steiner argues in his book. He makes the case that steadily rising prices for gasoline will have far-reaching consequences for the structure of contemporary life, and these changes will have radical consequences for urban, suburban, and rural life. Although both Glaeser and Steiner argue that cities are environmentally and economically more sustainable than suburban, village, or rural life, Glaeser argues additionally that cities are a good thing; Steiner, on the contrary, argues that cities are the inevitable thing because they make more environmental economic sense. Again, this illustrates the difference between urbanism as political idea and urbanism as historical idea.
Steiner is at times almost apocalyptic in making his point, but, I think, justifiably so:
“There will be plenty of small towns that simply do not make the transition from a satellite living on cheap oil to a town that’s half self-sustaining and populated by people who not only prefer a small town life, but also are stringently loyal to their small town and are willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, their town, and their way of life. The hamlets that don’t survive, like the Wal-Marts who fall ahead of them, will be home only to ghosts, gusts, and a reclaiming Mother Nature.”
Christopher Steiner, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010, p. 151
This is very close to what I wrote about pastoralization, although I would argue further that “reclaiming mother nature” would include those individuals who would also choose to return to Mother Nature rather than live the superfantastic urban life that Edward Glaeser praises (although does not live, since he admits in the book that he lives in the suburbs). Even while high gasoline costs could make the automobile obsolete, and that part of industrial-technical civilization based upon the automobile also obsolete, there will be other technologies (like electric cars) which can be substituted. One could also, however, substitute those robust and durable technologies that preceded the automobile. Horses could be grazed in the abandoned spaces imagined by Steiner, and used for transportation by those who opt out of urban concentrations.
One way to define the difference between my closely related scenarios of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism is how the land freed by abandoned exurbs and rural depopulation will be put to use. If these lands are put to use in settled agriculture along a quasi-nineteenth century model, then the result will be neo-agriculturalism. If these lands are put to use (to the extent that they are “used” at all) for pastoralism, then we have the development of pastoralization. The neo-agricultural paradigm would likely converge upon (or, rather, return to) human societies exemplifying the agricultural macabre, while the pastoralization paradigm, with its mixture of extremely dense urbanism and nomadic pastoralism would produce a very different kind of society (or, rather, two societies), and it is difficult to say what this would be other than a unprecedented synthesis of urbanism and nomadism.
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31 January 2012
A revaluation of agricultural civilization
In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).
The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.
The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:
1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death
2: dwelling on the gruesome
3: tending to produce horror in a beholder
All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.
The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?
Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)
Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:
“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”
While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.
Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.
It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:
“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48
The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.
Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.
Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.
Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.
Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.
We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.
I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.
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12 December 2011
“From the relation of the planets among themselves and to the signs of the zodiac. future events and the course of whole lives were inferred, and the most weighty decisions were taken in consequence. In many cases the line of action thus adopted at the suggestion of the stars may not have been more immoral than that which would otherwise have been followed. But too often the decision must have been made at the cost of honour and conscience. It is profoundly instructive to observe how powerless culture and enlightenment were against this delusion; since the latter had its support in the ardent imagination of the people, in the passionate wish to penetrate and determine the future. Antiquity, too, was on the side of astrology.”
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878, Part Six, MORALITY AND RELIGION, “Influence of Ancient Superstition”
A few days ago Neil Houghton read my post The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought and made the following comment on Twitter:
● Neil Houghton — I add prospective agency. RT @geopolicraticus The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought: human agency in time and history
I responded with a question, and a miniature dialogue developed (within the tightly constrained limits of Twitter):
● Nick Nielsen — How would you define prospective agency? Is this agency understood in terms of possibility and potentiality?
● Neil Houghton — Great question… in one word, foresight… in more a transdisciplinary practice between, across and beyond orders of time
● Nick Nielsen — The whole problem is separating the wheat from the chaff: the wheat is the big picture; the chaff, trivial predictions.
● Neil Houghton — Yes. seeing gradience is an aspect of the problem; the difference between the big picture and trivial prediction is one such gradience.
● Nick Nielsen — Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.
● Neil Houghton — Foresight as gradience between freedom and destiny (for example) … please say more of your different kind of foresight.
This brief exchange points to something that I consider to be important, so I will attempt to give an account of the distinction I proposed between seeing the big picture and attempting to make predictions.
The most familiar form of futurism consists in making a series of predictions. Like any prognosticator of the future, regardless of methodology, the futurist is caught in a bind. The more specific his predictions, the more likely he is to be caught out. Even if the general drift of a prediction is correct, supplying a lot of details means more ways of potentially being wrong. And the more vague a prediction, the less interesting they are likely to be.
Some futurists take pride in their detailed lists of predictions, and although detail is an opportunity to be wrong, it also provides a lot of fodder for utterly pointless debate. In The Law of Stalled Technologies I wrote the following about Ray Kurzweil’s specific predictions:
Kurweil’s futurism makes for some fun reading. Unfortunately, It will not age well, and will become merely humorous over time (this is not to be confused with his very real technological achievements, which may well develop into robust and durable technologies). I have a copy of Kurzweil’s book that preceded The Singularity is Near, namely The Age of Spiritual Machines (published ten years ago in 1999), which is already becoming humorous. Part III, Chapter Nine of The Age of Spiritual Machines, contains his prophecies for 2009, and now it seems that the future is upon us, because it is the year AD 2009 as I write this. Kurzweil predicted that “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies.” It is true that many people do carry multiple gadgets with microprocessors, and some of these are linked together via Bluetooth, so this prophecy does not come off too badly. He also notes that “Cables are disappearing” and this is undeniably true.
Kurzweil goes a little off the rails, however, when it comes to matters that touch directly on human consciousness and its expressions such as language. He predicted that, “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition”, and I think it is safe to say that this is not the case. I don’t want to parse all his predictions, but I need to be specific about a few particularly damning failures. Among the damning failures is the prediction that, “Translating Telephone technology … is commonly used for many language pairs.” Here we step over the line of the competence of technology and the limitations of even the most imaginative engineers. While machine translation is common today for text, everyone knows that it is a joke — quite literally so, as the results can be very funny though not terribly helpful.
Kurzweil gives a decade-by-decade running commentary of predictions. I once had somebody scold me about ridiculing Kurzweil’s predictions, because, I was told, the dates given were intended to indicate the initial dates of a ten year period, which gives him a ten year window to be right, thus kicking all his predictions another ten years down the road. This is the kind of ridiculous debate over pointless predictions that is an utter waste of breath. Predictions can be parsed like this until the end of time; this is precisely why people are always trying to show that Nostradamus predicted something. Add vagueness to ambiguity and you create the deconstructionists’ dream: anything can mean anything.
Just to unearth one more prediction, for 2019 Kurzweil predicted:
“Paper books or documents are rarely used and most learning is conducted through intelligent, simulated software-based teachers.”
Even if we give Kurzweil another ten years, I can guarantee you that, if I am still alive in 2029, that I will still have my personal library, it will probably be bigger than it is now, and I will consult it every day, as I do now. This does not, for me, constitute rarity of use. However, I will readily acknowledge that there is, already today, no need whatever to print textbooks, since knowledge is changing so rapidly and students usually don’t retain their textbooks after they have been used for a class. In situations such as this, it makes much more sense to make the material available on the internet. But even if we don’t bother with textbooks anymore, there will be a continuing role for books. At least, for me there will be a continuing role for books.
Whether you want to take pride in a list of specific predictions, having convinced yourself through a charitable hermeneutic that they have all come true, or whether you would rather it were all forgotten as a great embarrassment along with jetpacks, flying cars, and unisex jumpsuits, this model of futurism will always have a certain novelty value, so I will predict that “laundry list futurism” (like the poor) will always be with us.
There is, however, another kind of futurism, which we may not even want to call futurism, but which does incorporate a vision of the future. This other model of futurism is not about offering a laundry list of predictions, but rather about understanding the big picture, as I have said, both in space and time, i.e., geographically and historically. Here, “seeing the big picture” means having a theory of history that embraces the future as well as the past. This approach is about seeing patterns and understanding how the world works in general terms, and from an understanding of patterns and how the world works, having a general idea of what the future will be like, just as one may have a general idea of what they past was like, even if one cannot jump into a time machine and march with Alexander the Great or listen to Peter Abelard debate.
The big picture in space and time — and the biggest picture is what I have called metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history — is a theory, which if it is to be coherent, consistent, and universally applicable, must be applicable both to the past and the future. Ultimately, such a theory would be a science of time, although we aren’t quite there yet. I hope that, before I die, I can make a substantial contribution in this direction, but I recognize that this is a distant goal.
In the meantime, familiar sciences are engaged in precisely this enterprise, though on a less comprehensive scale. Let me try to explain how this is the case.
When we work in the historical sciences, the scale of time is so great that we must settle for retrodiction, because this is what can be done within one human lifespan, or within the lifespan of a community of researchers engaged in a common research program, but if we could afford to wait for thousands or millions or billions of years we could make predictions about the future. When, on the contrary, we work in the natural sciences as in physics, we must make predictions about the future, because we must create an elaborate apparatus to test our theories, and these did not exist in the past, so retrodiction is as closed to us as prediction is closed to the historical sciences. If we could go back in time with a superconducting supercollider, we could make retrodictions in physics, but at the present stage of technology this time travel would be more difficult than the experiment itself.
We accept the limitations of science that we are forced to accept, perhaps not gladly, but of necessity. What alternatives do we have? If we would have knowledge, we must have knowledge upon the conditions that the world will allow us knowledge, or refuse knowledge altogether. We are confident that our theories of physics apply equally well to the past, even if they cannot be tested in the past, and we are confident that our theories of paleontology would apply to the future if only we could wait long enough for the bones of the present to be fossilized.
In the fullness of time, if industrial-technological civilization continues in existence, the limits of science will be pushed back from the positions they presently occupy, but they will never be eliminated altogether. However, our strictly scientific knowledge can be extrapolated within a more comprehensive philosophical context, in which the resources of logical and linguistic analysis can be brought to bear upon the “problem” of history.
When I first began writing about what I began to call integral history, and which I now call metaphysical history, my aim at that time was to give an exposition of an extended conception of history that made use of the resources both of traditional humanistic narrative history and the emerging scientific historical disciplines, such as genomic resources which have taught us so much about the natural history of our species. I have subsequently continued to expand my expanded conception of history, and this is what I call metaphysical history, elaborated in the context of ecological temporality.
A further extension of the already extended conception of metaphysical history would be a conception of history that sees the big picture by seeing time whole, past, present, and future together as one structure that exhibits laws, regularities, patterns, and, of course, exceptions to all of the same.
This, then, was what I meant when I said that, “Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.” The kind of foresight I have in mind is an understanding of historical events, both past and future, in a larger theoretical context. It is “foresight” only because it is, as the same time, hindsight. Both the past and the future are comprehended in an adequate theory of history.
I have no desire to produce a laundry list of predictions; I have no desire to say what I think the world will look like in 2019 or 2029 or 2039. I think that most of these predictions are irresponsible, though it may land a prophet on the front page of the National Enquirer. Not all such attempts at prediction, however, are irresponsible from my point of view. I have several times discussed George Friedman’s book The Next 100 Years, which strikes me as a responsible exercise in laundry list futurism. I have also discussed Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.
Kaku’s book is particularly interesting to me in the present context, because Kaku has a very specific method for his futurism. He has interviewed scientists about the technologies that they are developing now, in the present, and which will become part of our lives in the foreseeable future. I realize now that Kaku’s methodology may be characterized as a constructive futurism: he is immersed in the details of technology, and extrapolating particular, incremental advances and applications. This is a bottom-up approach. What I am suggesting, on the contrary, is a profoundly non-constructive approach to the philosophy of history, a top-down understanding that looks for the largest structures of space and time and regards all details and particulars as fungible and incidental. That is my vision of a theory of history, and I think that such a theory would give a certain degree and kind of foresight into event in the future, but certainly not the same degree and kind of foresight that one might gain from the constructive methods of Kaku and Friedman.
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8 November 2011
Today an asteroid some four hundred meters across (Asteroid 2005 YU55) passed closer to the earth than the orbit of the moon. Astronomers were careful, prior to the flyby, to let people know that there was no danger of impact, for fear of contributing to a panic. If an asteroid this size hit the earth, it would cause enormous destruction, and would probably alter the climate. If a larger asteroid hit the earth, it could cause a mass extinction, and very probably the end of civilization. If a very large asteroid hit the earth, it could spell the doom of all life.
In the earlier years of our solar system, before a great deal of the loose matter in the solar system had either impacted on larger bodies or had been cleared out of the inner solar system by the gravitational influence of Jupiter, collisions between massive celestial bodies were more common than they are in the present epoch of the solar system. One theory of the formation of earth’s moon is that the earth was hit by a very large asteroid (of the size that would today wipe out all life on earth) that tore our a significant portion of earth’s material and flung it up into orbit.
On cosmological time scales, these things do happen, and although collisions of this magnitude have become rare (even on cosmological time scales) they can still happen today. While the impact of an asteroid the size of Asteroid 2005 YU55 would be an unprecedented natural disaster from a human perspective, most earth life would survive such an event, and civilization would likely survive such an event.
Because of the current state of scientific knowledge it is entirely possible to understand such natural disasters naturalistically, that is to say, according to the naturalistic conception of history, although we know that it is human nature (probably rooted in the agency detector of evolutionary psychology) to seek for meaning in events.
In several posts I have noted the response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which occurred during the enlightenment, but at a time in history when the medieval memory of divine retribution was still very much kept alive. In Naturalism and Suffering I quoted a passage from Gabriel Malagrida’s 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), which argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:
“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”
At the time of the Lisbon earthquake there were completely naturalistic accounts given of the disaster, but there were also eschatological accounts of the disaster that found cosmic meaning in suffering and destruction. Thus even though a naturalistic conception of natural disasters was already possible given the state of scientific knowledge in 1755, the eschatological conception of disasters was still a living influence. If a disaster of great magnitude occurs today, it is usually described in naturalistic terms, but there remains a sizable minority of people who understand such things eschatologically and who are determined to find human meaning in natural events.
The naturalistic understanding of massive natural disasters recognizes that a great cataclysm can befall human beings and all their works, and the event has no meaning at all. In fact, an event of such great magnitude could occur that would annihilate our species and, naturalistically understood, it would have no meaning. This is an idea that is beyond the ability of many apparently rational and intelligent people to comprehend. Indeed, even to say so sounds inhumane. Of course, a great disaster is given human meaning by the stories that emerge from the lived experience of the disaster (if anyone survives it), but this is importantly distinct from an event having an intrinsic meaning apart from that meaning given to it ex post facto by human beings who experienced it.
With the mechanized means of mass death that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century — Nazi death camps, firestorms, and the atomic bomb — new potential sources of human extinction appeared from human beings themselves. Now, someone committed to an eschatological reading of history would say that such inventions were demonically inspired, but I think that by the time mutually assured destruction had become a fact of life during the high point of the Cold War that most people understood the existential threat to humanity from nuclear war as being an entirely human creation. This was a time of conscious modernism, before the backlash that made modernity a target of cynicism and nihilistic criticism, and many people embraced a nascent naturalism as an apparently inevitable development of modern history.
Nevertheless, eschatological language was routinely employed to discuss nuclear war: Nuclear Armageddon was a typical phrase one heard during the Cold War. Despite the persistence of eschatological language, the possibility of human self-annihilation was rightly understood to have human meaning because it was a possibility brought about by human agency. Human beings were forced to recognize that they had created a power capable of destroying themselves, and many philosophers as diverse as Karl Jaspers and Bertrand Russell bent every effort to impress this fact upon the popular mind.
With the advent of atomic weapons and the possibility of human self-annihilation philosophers realized that humanity was faced with a qualitatively new and unprecedented historical development, and they quite frankly struggled to take account of it and to create new categories of evil and new ways of thinking about history in order to convey this qualitatively changed historical circumstance. This effort is unfinished in our day. Much work remains to be done. It also suggests parallel work that might be done in understanding natural disasters.
It may well be that human beings do not yet possess an adequate conceptual infrastructure, and sufficient historical experience, to be able to understand massive natural disasters naturalistically. Because of our limited conceptual infrastructure and limited historical experience, in times of great duress we are thrown back on eschatological conceptions that so dominated earlier forms of human civilization. While our industrial-technological civilization (predicated as it is upon a relentless naturalistic instrumentalism) has far outstripped most of the institutions of nomadic and agricultural society, we do not yet possess the intellectual institutions commensurate with the forces that have been unleashed. We are all of us like the sorcerer’s apprentice.
We could make a start in the direction of a conceptual infrastructure adequate to the exposition of natural and man-made cataclysms by adapting the idea of the “terror of history” to natural history. It was Mircea Eliade who introduced the phrase “The Terror of History” (in his famous book The Myth of the Eternal Return), and it is one of those rare historical bons mots — like, for example, Weber’s “The disenchantment of the World,” to which it is related — that sententiously encapsulates a paradigm shift in a single phrase.
The transhistorical models and metahistorical meanings that Eliade attributes to non-historical peoples in their understanding of history can all be found in relation to natural history as well as humanistic history. Once the disenchantment of the world takes away the possibility of investing the world with transhistorical meaning and we are, as it were, left naked before the depredations of time, we experience the terror of history. Human history had its terrors of war, disease, failed harvests, famine, riots, and cruel monarchs that could all be blunted (to some degree) by an “understanding” that all of this had happened before, all of this would happen again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Natural history is similarly replete with disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods, and droughts.
Several of these disasters, most particularly famine and disease, are in equal measures human and natural disasters, so that any distinction one draws within them cannot but be conventional. Given that human history emerged incrementally from the natural history with which it is continuous, I would argue that the cyclical and eschatological conceptual means employed to effect the devalorization of history probably emerged first in relation to natural disasters and were only later applied to specifically human history. I don’t think that Eliade would have disagreed with this, and it may well have been his intended meaning.
As far as my knowledge extends — and this is not as far as I would like — the idea of the terror of history has been exclusively applied to a traditionally humanistic conception of history. To extend the terror of history to the terror of natural history both preserves the continuity of the idea while acknowledging its extension beyond humanistic history to natural history. And the intrinsic naturalism of industrial-technological civilization intrinsically places that civilization in the context of natural history rather than eschatological history.
The idea of history has been dramatically expanded by the application of scientific methods to inquiry into the past, so much so that the distinction between humanistic history and natural history breaks down at some points (I have addressed this in several posts, especially The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History). While calling this a “break down” carries a certain negative connotation, the assertion of the essential continuity of history seems to me to be a good thing. Indeed, I have devoted a great many posts of an extended conception of history that I once called integral history and which I now call metaphysical history.
So far I have above only discussed catastrophic events in the context of naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of history, but I have divided conceptions of human history into four categories based on the conception of human agency involved:
● Political history understood in terms of human agency
● Cataclysmic history understood in terms of human non-agency
● Eschatological history understood in terms of non-human agency
● Naturalistic history understood in terms of non-human non-agency
Since I have already covered (to a limited extent) naturalistic and eschatological conceptions of natural disasters, for the sake of completeness I ought also to comment on cataclysmic and political conceptions of natural disasters.
How could there possibly be a political conception of natural disasters? One of the consistent themes in Machiavelli, to which he frequently recurs, is that while human beings cannot control fortune, they can certainly control the circumstances that dictate one’s response to fortune. In other words, one may never know when the river will flood, but in times of social stability one can build dams and levees and make every effort to assert one’s control over fortune so that, when the worst happens, it can be managed.
Chapter twenty-five of Machiavelli’s The Prince is titled, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her.” It is here that Machiavelli gives his famous formulation in which he compares fortune to a river:
“I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.”
Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XXV
In this sense, then, the political conception of natural disasters, almost all disaster planning in the industrialized world constitutes an exercise in the political conception of natural disasters. Disaster and recovery planning has become more sophisticated than at any time in the past, and wealthy governments (as well as some NGOs) have contingency plans in place for all manner of contingencies, not excluding visitation of the earth by extraterrestrials. This conception of natural disasters is closely related to the naturalistic conception, and in some contexts the two many be indistinguishable.
Similarly, the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters is nearly indistinguishable from the eschatological conception, only that the eschatological conception adds a layer of meaning that is absent from the brute recognition that unprecendented and unpredictable disasters can befall us for no reason at all, just as the political conception of natural disasters adds a layer of meaning to the naturalistic conception of natural disasters.
A sensitive and subtle account would bring out the differences between the natural and political conceptions of natural disasters on the one hand, and on the other hand the eschatological and cataclysmic conceptions. I will try to work more on this later, but for the moment I have another idea I want to sketch.
In relation to the eschatological conception of history and its realization in the concept of cosmic war, I have noted that when grievances are formulated in eschatological terms, only a cosmic war is felt to address this particularly eschatological concerns. An eschatological grievance answered with pragmatic and utilitarian measures will leave those who have asserted the grievance still with an eschatological hunger than has been unfilled. And so it is that apparently happy and prosperous peoples will throw themselves into disastrous wars (seemingly exemplifying the cataclysmic conception of war) when as eschatological need has gone unfilled and the only obvious way to fill it is to undertake some action of great moment (even if ill-conceived) equal to the feeling that demands satisfaction.
Similarly in the case of natural disasters, how they are conceived, according to what conception of history they are understood, will have much to do with the kind of aid and comfort that the victims will find to speak to their needs. Given the instrumentalist presumptions of industrial-technological civilization, those of us in the industrialized world want to know that every practical effort is being taken in order to minimize our suffering and maximize our comfort in the midst of great disruption and turmoil. Conventional disaster planning models speak precisely to these needs.
It is typically later, once the initial danger has passed, and the political process reasserts itself, that people begin asking the political questions and aligning their thinking according to the political conception of natural disasters: why there the levees and flood walls allowed to degraded? Why were they not maintained or even strengthened? Why was not more planning done, and why were not more adequate contingency plans formulated.
For the eschatological conception of natural disaster, what is wanted is spiritual aid and comfort. We can cite numerous examples from medieval and early modern history in this context. When great plagues swept across Europe starting in 1348 and continuing throughout the early modern period, the response was not typically to undertake public health measures, but rather to parade religious statues, reliquaries, and sacred objects in great processions through affected areas in order to act upon the relevant eschatological concerns.
While this sort of response is somewhat rare today, it is not absent, in in circumstances in extremis, it is not at all unusual for religious leaders to call for repentance and atonement, and to point to the disaster as an opportunity for individuals to realign themselves with an eschatological conception of the world.
For the cataclysmic conception of natural disasters I cannot imagine any response, for in the grip of actual cataclysmic events, the cataclysmic conception is, as it were, actively unfolding and proving itself. In the face of such events, what could possibly be done? For the true believer in the cataclysmic conception of history, I cannot at present imagine any more appropriate response than running and screaming in terror.
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22 October 2011
Recently I was re-reading my post of more than a couple of years ago, Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and I realize now in retrospect how limited my perspective was at the time. My first reaction at revisiting these thoughts was that I had concentrated on revolutions within the context of the traditional periodizations of Western historiography, whereas I should have taken this traditional historiography in a much larger context. But at that time I had not yet given explicit formulation to some of the ideas about history that I have subsequently posted.
The “larger context” to which I allude above I have since explicitly formulated as ecological temporality, which I also call metaphysical history, and which in its earlier stages I called Integral History. Since most of the traditional periodization of Western historiography is part of the agricultural paradigm (though the last portion of it lies in the industrial paradigm), revolutions within the traditional periodization, even when they seem to mark a decisive transition in history, are mostly internal affairs of agricultural civilization.
In retrospect, I now see that I did consider revolutions in the context of macro-temporality (which is one division of ecological temporality), but I didn’t realize while I was writing my early formulations of the transitions between the paradigms of integral history that that was what I was doing. The major transitions between periods on the level of macro-history (or, if you prefer, macro-temporality) are revolutions within macro-temporality, and these are none other than the neolithic agricultural revolution, which marked the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism, and the industrial revolution, which marked the transition from settled agriculturalism to settled industrialism. These two macro-historical revolutions divide history into three (unequal) portions.
While I have never claimed any originality for these particular divisions of macro-temporality, and in fact I don’t even recall if I found them someone and adopted them or formulated them myself independently, I have since found the same division in two other sources. Bertrand Russell in his Prospects of Industrial Civilization implicitly makes the distinction:
“A new economic mode of existence brings with it new views of life which must be analysed and subdued if they are not to dominate to the exclusion of human values. Thus in the past, it has been necesssary to destroy a superstitious reverence for agriculture, which dominated before it was made to serve the needs of human beings. many prejudices still held by modern people are nothing but remnants of the agricultural, or even of the hunting, stage of man’s development.”
Bertrand Russell, The Prospects of Industrialized Civilization, Preface to the first edition
I have also found the distinction in Analytical Philosophy of Technology by Friedrich Rapp, in which the author contrasts the view of Max Scheler and A Gehlen, writing:
“Gehlen holds, on the other hand, that there have actually been only two historical junctures of primary importance. These are (1) the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ in which mankind made the transition from a life of nomadic hunting to a sedentary one of agriculture and cattle raising, and (2) the changeover to ‘machine culture’ of the Industrial Revolution.”
Friedrich Rapp, Analytical Philosophy of Technology, London and Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1981, pp. 27-28
Now that I see my discussion of revolutions in the traditional historiographical periods of antiquity, medievalism, and modernity in relation to the macro-historical revolutions of metaphysical history, I can come to realize that revolutions take place at each level of ecological temporality, and we must both recognize the distinction between revolutions at distinct temporal levels and ecological unity of time that makes any revolution at whatever level felt throughout the whole of metaphysical history.
I thus posit the following temporally distinct forms of revolution:
Micro-revolutions are revolutions on the level of the individual. An overthrown in an individual’s way of life — especially the birth or death of an individual — is a micro-revolutionary event. It utterly transforms the life of an individual, but it may go unnoticed even by those in personal contact with the individual in question, though not necessarily. The point is that a micro-revolution may have no immediate meso-, exo-, macro-, or metaphysical effects.
Meso-revolutions are revolutions are the level of communities of individuals. Most familiar political revolutions — the revolution on Corcyra described by Thucydides, the American Revolution, the “Color Revolutions” — are meso-revolutions. We note that meso-revolutions may occur which leave the lives of individuals untouched, and which may even leave the larger historical record untouched.
At the upper end of the scale of meso-revolutions these dramatic changes become exo-revolutions when they involve a number of distinct communities over a period of time. When strategists speak of “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) they are essentially speaking of an exo-revolution. The structure of scientific revolutions, of which Thomas Kuhn famously wrote, has the temporal structure of an exo-revolution. Like other revolutions, even as exo-revolutions transform the ordinary way of doing things, they may leave surrounding levels of ecological temporality untouched.
Once again, at the upper end of the scale of exo-revolutions, these community-transcendent revolutions merge into even greater historical transformations, and these are the macro-historical revolutions mentioned above.
Beyond macro-revolutions there are metaphysical revolutions. These, too, must play out in time, but there are not primarily concerned with processes of historical events or transformations in the ordinary business of life. Metaphysical revolutions are transformations of thought. A perfect example of a metaphysical revolution is the transition from a Ptolemaic cosmology to a Copernican Cosmology.
In the big picture and the longue durée — that is to say, in the whole of metaphysical history taken together, which is the structure of ecological temporality — the fortunes of an individual may ripple through all the ecological levels of time until it resonates at the level of metaphysical history. But not necessarily. Individuals appear and disappear on the stage of life without ever making a ripple. Contrariwise, the great transformations of metaphysical history may resound through the ecological structure of time until they resonate within the life of a single individual. Though, again, not necessarily. An individual life may remain utterly untouched by the most profound transformations of history.
Revolution understood in context is revolution understand in terms of metaphysical history. There are many kinds of revolution distinguished by the temporal level at which they occur. The next time I write about revolution I will be more careful to specify its temporal structure.
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9 May 2011
As I have come to realize how much I enjoy documentaries of large scope, rather than waiting for them to fall me in a moment of serendipity, I now go looking for them. And so it is that I ordered Jacob Bronowski’s famous documentary, The Ascent of Man, from the library, and am now watching it.
The description of the series on the box, from Booklist, says that the series is, “an excellent resource for high-school and college students.” Well, it is much more than this. Like Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, Ronald’s Eyre‘s The Long Search, and Gwynne Dyer’s War, this work by Bronowski is not merely educative, as the reference to high-school and college students seems to suggest, but it takes a definite point of view, a personal point of view. This stands in the best tradition of engaged scholarship and academic freedom.
I recently wrote of Clark’s Civilisation that he maintains a number of theses throughout his presentation, and the same is true of Bronowski. These documentaries are not merely showing us pretty pictures and telling us what once happened long ago, they are making arguments, and if you aren’t aware of that an argument is being made, and that others have argued to the contrary, you will miss a lot that is valuable in these presentations. It is only thoughtlessness — and thoughtlessness is the intellectual equivalent of carelessness — that would condescend to identify these arguments as mere “resource for high-school and college students.”
I am reminded, in this context, of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. There are a few institutionalized philosophers who use this book as a classroom text. If you already know a good deal of philosophy, Russell’s survey is a very funny review, but if you do not know philosophy and attempt to learn it from Russell’s book, you will end up with some serious misapprehensions of the discipline. Russell’s history is a wonderful book, but is adopts a definite point of view, and as such sets its up in opposition to other points of view. Copleston’s history is much more detailed and closer to being objective, and Passmore’s history, though it only covers the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is better than either, though it too has a point of view.
So it is with Bronowski on the history of science and Clark on the history of civilization: these are not “textbooks,” though there is much to be learned from them. With justification, both television series are subtitled, “A Personal View.” I find much of value in these personal views; that is in fact why I seek them out. It is interesting to know that Bronowski’s science series was conceived in conscious counterpoint to Clark’s series on civilization. In an interview with Sir David Attenborough that is included on the Civilisation DVD, the latter reveals how BBC 2 controller Aubrey Singer was castigated for putting the arts “first” in having Clark’s Civilisation as the first large, multi-part documentary on the network.
While Bronowski’s series was undertaken in conscious contradistinction to Clark’s Civilisation, as a science counterpoint to Clark’s arts perspective, there are in fact many similarities and continuities between the two, and both maintain similar theses, though Bronowski’s are formulated in a much longer time frame. I sharply disagree with many of Bronowski’s central theses, but I will leave any criticisms for another time. For the moment I would like to focus on what I find most valuable in Bronowski’s perspective.
Bronowski is very much a practitioner of the longue durée, though he is not an historian per se, and not a structuralist. But Bronowski’s long term perspective on time adds up to more than the sum of its extended parts. The absolute quantity of history taken in my Bronowski’s perspective ultimately has qualitative consequences for the conception of history given exposition by Bronowski. I enthusiastically approve of this, as this is exactly what I have been trying to get at in what I have come to call metaphysical history (and which I formerly called Integral History).
Comparing Bronowski and Clark on history, Bronowski’s reflections are the more radical. Let me try to explain what I mean by that, and it won’t be easy. We are so familiar with the political use of “radical” that we have lost the larger, more comprehensive meaning of the term. The sense of “radical” to which I am appealing has nothing to do with waving signs in the street or calling for the overthrow of government. “Radical” in a philosophical sense is something beyond the most intemperate demands of the political radical, and therefore in a sense even more radical.
To be radical is to go to the root. It is to get at the fons et origo of things. The political radical wants to get at the root of a political problem by eliminating an old and compromised society and effecting a root-and-branch reconstruction of society. Thus the political sense of being radical is a specialized sense of “radical.” A comprehensive conception of what it is to be radical, an extended sense of radical not restricted to any one concern or discipline, is ultimately metaphysical. To be metaphysically radical is to attempt to get at the root of the world.
Husserl throughout his works of phenomenology, emphasized the radical nature of phenomenological reflection. Husserl is trying to get at the root of things, and that is what makes his thought radical. Throughout his Cartesian Meditations, for example, he calls for philosophical radicalism. This is a consistent theme in Husserl, and here is a characteristic passage:
“In recent times the longing for a fully alive philosophy has led to many a renaissance. Must not the only fruitful renaissance be the one that reawakens the impulse of the Cartesian Meditations: not to adopt their content but, in not doing so, to renew with greater intensity the radicalness of their spirit, the radicalness of self-responsibility, to make that radicalness true for the first time by enhancing it to the last degree, to uncover thereby for the first time the genuine sense of the necessary regress to the ego, and consequently to overcome the hidden but already felt naïveté of earlier philosophizing?”
Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960, Introduction, section 2, “The necessity of a radical new beginning of philosophy,” p. 6
I see Bronowski’s perspective as a scientific radicalism that is closely parallel to Husserl’s philosophical radicalism. Both forms of radicalism are metaphysical, and seek to get at the root of reality itself.
One practical example of this is that early in his television series (in the second episode, I think — I don’t yet know this as well as Clark’s Civilisation, which I nearly have memorized) Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities. I have made this claim myself, in this forum, though it is not typical to date civilization in this way. Also early in the series Bronowski says, “nature, i.e., evolution.” This reminds me of the evolutionary bluntness of JFK in his “sea” speech, which I mentioned in my post Inaugural Special Edition.
The evolutionary honesty of Bronowski is presently under attack by anti-scientific crackpots from the right. But Bronowski is equally honest about human adaptive radiation, openly discussing the adaption of various ethnic groups (formerly called “races”) to the different environments into which they migrated, and this is a position that is presently under attack my anti-scientific crackpots on the left. It is, in part, this admirable indifference to political implications that makes Bronowski’s position radical in the best sense of the term.
New forms of dishonesty and humbug are always emerging from human history, as men twist and turn their minds in an anti-heroic effort not to see things as they are, and it often requires considerable effort — a radical effort like that of Husserl or Bronowski — to transcend these ingenious efforts at self-deception. Such an effort is difficult, but the reward is correspondingly great.
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5 April 2011
In several posts I have discussed the difficulty of finding exactly the right terminology for an exposition of one’s ideas. Even if you have the idea down pat, if you can’t find an intuitively perspicuous way to formulate that idea linguistically, it can be very difficult to communicate this idea to others. With the right formulation, on the other hand, you will see the light bulb go on over another’s head and you know in that moment that you’ve made your point (if you’re explaining yourself in person).
This was recently the case with what I now call Metaphysical Ecology, and concerning which I explained that I had to change my terminology from Integral Ecology to Metaphysical Ecology. I have since made peace with this change, and in fact I prefer my new formulations in terms of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history to my previous formulations, since my project is, at bottom, a philosophical project. Since I don’t personally see anyone who reads this, I don’t know if the light bulb goes on, but I think that my revised formulations make the point better.
This concern for the right terminology has also been the case with my unnamed principle and unnamed fallacy, for which I still lack an intuitively perspicuous formulation — though I think I’m getting closer to this one, and plan to write about it again soon. In the meantime, I continue to use the very awkward formulation of the unnamed principle and the unnamed fallacy.
In my formulations of metaphysical history I have had occasion to refer several times to “conceptions of history” even as I have know that this expression is inadequate. I have meant something closer to “conceptions of history, with history taken in an extended sense.” Moreover, as I have several times written that my use of “metaphysical history” is intended to capture a sense of history in an extended philosophical sense, my formulation could be, “conceptions of metaphysical history.” This is getting close to accuracy, but it also remains awkward and unwieldy. Ideally, a formulation of an idea should not only be intuitively perspicuous, but should also encapsulate the essence of the idea in a few words. On this score, my previous formulations cannot be counted as successful.
Thinking about this awkwardness and the need for an incisive formulation, I have hit on Agent-Centered Metaphysics as an adequate expression of my intentions and ambitions for this line of my thought. As soon as I thought of this I also thought of Agent-Oriented Ontology (by obvious analogy to object-oriented ontology), but that would be a bit tendentious, so I will not make use of it, though it is accurate and perhaps informative because of the analogy.
So, my historico-metaphysical formulations of human agency (the political), human non-agency (the catastrophic and cataclysmic), non-human agency (the eschatological), and non-human non-agency (the naturalistic) I will henceforth collectively refer to as “Agent-Centered Metaphysics.”
My ultimate source for this is Plato himself, whose definition of being I discussed in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being. If being, as Plato says, is the power to affect or be affected, then we affect through our actions (i.e., our agency) and are affected in turn through the actions of others (i.e., the agency of the other). Thus being and agency are convertible terms: to do is to be, and to be is to do (or be done). This is the heart of Agent-Centered Metaphysics. Metaphysical history and metaphysical ecology grow out of this living germ of being-as-agency. I account my recent work on Ecological Temporality as especially important to this effort, as time is central to any understanding of the ways in which beings affect and are affected by others, i.e., time is central to the understanding of agency. Thus my Platonic point of departure is immediately given an anti-platonic spin.
Another point of reference I have emphasized throughout is Anatol Rapoport’s interpretation of Clausewitz in terms of a more comprehensive tripartite distinction in conceptions of war: the political, the cataclysmic, and the eschatological (Clausewitz is the paradigmatic representative of the first of these three). I discussed Rapoport’s scheme in several posts, especially More on Clausewitz, Three Conceptions of History, and The Naturalistic Conception of History.
I have, to date, only made the merest sketch of Agent-Centered Metaphysics, and the greater part of the work suggested by my formulations remains to be done. That is to say, the very idea of Agent-Centered Metaphysics invites and indeed demands extrapolation to the fullest extent of philosophical thought.
One problem in particular that I have worked on a little but for which I do not yet have a good formulation is the relation between agency and demography. I see the world through the twin prisms of agency and demography, and I have defined the divisions of metaphysical history (prehuman prehistory, nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism) on the basis of demography, but I have yet to work out the systematic relationship between the two. So that is as much as to say that this is all very much a work in progress, and I am here confirming that to write a blog is to think in public (as someone said — I don’t know who it was).
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22 March 2011
In my post on Integral Ecology I began to formulate an extended conception of ecology. I had earlier attempted, in several posts, a parallel extended conception of history that I called Integral History.
After I wrote Integral Ecology I have since learned that the term “integral ecology” has already been employed. In fact, there is a book titled Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens Ph.D. and Michael E. Zimmerman Ph.D., and a blog devoted to expressing the development of the ideas given exposition in the book, Integral Ecology, Michael E. Zimmerman’s blog. Looking a little further, I discovered that there is a blog and a journal called Integral Theory. As though that weren’t enough, a few days ago I was in the library and I saw a book titled Integral Spirituality. At that point I knew I needed to discontinue my use of “integral,” which has apparently become an overused term of late.
It appears, then, that my terminology for my efforts was ill-chosen, and I should have Googled these terms before I used them. Mea Culpa. I didn’t take these basic steps, and so now I must compromise with my earlier formulations. Finding the perfect language for the expression of one’s ideas is often a difficult undertaking, and when one finds what one feels are adequate terms, one is understandably hesitant to surrender them. A perfect neologism or a clever turn of phrase can make the difference between a memorable formulation that can be immediately understood intuitively, and a formulation that is forgotten as soon as it has been given an exposition. This is one reason in my post An Unnamed Principle and and Unnamed Fallacy, I didn’t even attempt to name the principle or the fallacy I attempted to describe: I did not yet (and still do not) have the perfect language to express this fallacy, so my formulations remain tentative and my references must include my awkward “unnamed fallacy” locution. All is all, this is an admittedly unsatisfying state of affairs.
It is, then, with regret that I will discontinue my use of the phrase “integral ecology,” but I am not going to give up on the development of the idea of a purely general and therefore more comprehensive extended sense of “ecology.” While those who have already made use of the phrase “integral ecology” are also moving in the direction of an extended sense of ecology, I do not wish to have my efforts conflated with their very interesting efforts, as my ideas have different sources and aspire to distinct ends. My project is ultimately and pervasively a philosophical project, and so I will express myself in language more closely derived from the philosophical tradition.
I‘ve spent some time with my Roget’s Thesaurus trying to find an alternative formulation, and none of the synonyms for “integral” were exactly what I wanted, so for the present, and perhaps beyond the present, I will henceforth attempt to express myself in the idiom of Metaphysical Ecology and Metaphysical History. While I can understand why these terms might be off-putting to some, in the long run I think these will be better formulations for my thought, since the generalization of ideas that I seek will ultimately converge on philosophical ideas.
For some time I have been working on a post to extend the ideas I initially formulated in Integral Ecology, specifically to give a fuller exposition of time in the setting of an extended ecology. This exposition is largely unaffected by my changed terminology or my discovery that others have been developing a conception of integral ecology. So I will now continue with the development of what I will call Ecological Temporality, although now formulated in a setting of Metaphysical Ecology (and metaphysical history, which we will see is convertible with the same).
I‘ve thought about going back over old posts and reformulating them according to my newer terminology, but for the time being at least I will allow them to stand as they are.
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