Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization

29 March 2010

Monday


For a more theoretical exposition of synchrony and diachrony you can read my more recent post, Axes of Historiography.


When I see a post that I wrote starting to appear as the result of searches, sometimes many months after I first wrote it, I often use that as an excuse to re-write and hopefully improve the content of a post now being accessed. It is also an opportunity for me to re-visit the ideas of the post in question. This was the case with a post of last October, Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I expanded some of its content and added some illustrations.

In Counter-cyclical civilization I argued that while we need not see civilizations as conforming to an organic model and therefore exhibiting a predictable life cycle, if we do interpret civilizations in this way we can still think of the life cycle of a civilization being interrupted and thereafter following an unprecedented path of development. If sufficient counter-cyclical forces emerge within a civilization it might conceivably be spared the completion of its life cycle and therefore predicable extinction.

In reviewing the contrast I made in that post between the organic model of civilization and the mereological model of civilization it became immediately obvious to me that I was essentially contrasting synchronic and a diachronic perspectives on civilization. Diachronic and synchronic are terms from structuralism that indicate, respectively, an historical perspective and a structural perspective. I would prefer to call these the functional perspective and the structural perspective, but whatever you call the distinction there is definitely a difference between thinking of anything primarily in historical terms and being concerned with its development and thinking of anything in primarily structural terms and being concerned with inter-relationships independent of history.

A side by side comparison of organic and mereological models of civilization makes something obvious that should have been obvious to me earlier: the organic model is diachronic while the mereological model is synchronic, to use the language of structuralism.

While separable in theory, structural and functional perspectives are of course integral in practice, and any mature theory will incorporate both perspectives to a certain degree, even if it emphases one or the other. A purely functional or purely structural perspective, whether on civilization or anything else, is an abstract perspective. Abstract perspectives are valuable for bringing out certain features of anything, and thus can help to sharpen our understanding of something usually so submerged in detail that it is not usually seen in stark relief, so we must attempt to keep both abstract and concrete perspectives in the mind at all times if we are to understand things in detail without losing sight of the big picture.

Freshwater limnology is a way of thinking that naturally tends to a structural perspective.

In the contrast between abstract functional and abstract structural perspectives, we see how the two interpenetrate as soon as we attend to the details of whatever it is we are talking about. If we try, for example, to bring a structural perspective to ecology, we might study freshwater limnology with an eye toward understanding the interactions between organisms and between organisms and their immediate environment in a river or a lake without concerning ourselves with the development of that ecosystem, how it evolved, what major changes will come next, and the like. But even a rigorously structuralist perspective will have to take in some span of time. In this case, structuralist freshwater limnology will at least need to consider a period of time that will include the life cycle of its organisms. If these organisms include, for example, the tree roots that often intrude into streams and ponds, this perspective might need to be expanded to a hundred years or more, which would mean a period of time during which many, many generations of shorter-lived organisms would come and go. Thus our structuralist freshwater limnology would involve a decision as to how deeply we would go into history, and this depth could be extrapolated all the way to include evolutionary biology.

Evolutionary biology is a way of thinking that naturally tends to a functional perspective.

Evolutionary biology tends to the functional; it never loses sight of the position of a given organism in history. Ecology, by its very nature, tends to the structural; it may, at times, become oblivious to history. Because of the strongly functional cast of evolutionary thought, it is almost difficult to imagine a structural approach to evolutionary biology, but one certainly could approach it this way, and if one did it would, I think, more and more resemble ecology. Similarly, the more ecological thought is pushed in a functional direction, the more it would approximate evolutionary biology.

What I have written above about the functional perspective of evolutionary biology and the structural perspective of ecology could be applied quite directly, mutatis mutandis, to the organic model of civilization. Moreover, we could say that the mereological model exemplifies (and naturally tends to) a structural perspective while the organic model exemplifies (and naturally tends to) the functional perspective. In other words, and to return to structuralist terminology, organicism is diachronic while mererologicism is synchronic. Or even in biological terms: structuralism is the ecology of civilizations; functionalism is the evolutionary view of civilization.

In their ideal and abstract forms, structural and functional thought — organic and mereological thought — are polar end points of a continuum along which our actual thought is and ought to be located (what philosophers sometimes call polar concepts). Structure must be informed by function and function must be informed by structure.

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