Integral History

9 March 2010


The familiar division of Western history into ancient, medieval, and modern periods.

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.

A tripartite periodization of integral history, a scheme of history that comprehends both the historical and the prehistorical.

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.

The traditional conception of humanistic history begins with the invention of writing and the use of writing to record events in human history. There is a sense in which writing formalizes history, but does not create 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.

Inscribed ostrich egg shells from South Africa, as much as 70,000 years old, are artifacts of man's prehistorical material culture. I wrote about these shell fragments in The Antiquity of Art.

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.

Though not to scale, this graphic gives an idea of how the traditional humanistic periodization of history nests within the integral periodization of history.

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.

Hegel's philosophy of history has given inspiration to those who think in terms of an 'End of History' and totalistic conceptions of history in which human effort is exhausted.

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.

The traditional humanistic periodization of Western history has been supplemented by a recognition that it was preceded by prehistory.

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 integral tripartite schematization of history can also be supplemented by a recognition of prehistory, and beyond prehistory to our evolutionary antecedents.

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 traditional tripartite periodization is now sometimes rendered as a quadripartite periodization with the addition of post-modernism.

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.

The tripartite integral history periodization suggested above can also be extended to a quadripartite periodization with the addition of an extraterrestrial period in which society is as radically transformed as it was by the Industrial Revolution.

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