Demarcating Time

16 August 2010


Periodization of the northwestern Iberian Peninsula: Recent Prehistory and Protohistory (calibrated dates; LAr, IEGPS, CSIC-XuGa proposal). Key: EN (Initial Neolithic); MN (Middle Neolithic/Megaliths); LN (Late Neolithic); EBA/MBA (Early/Middle Bronze Age); LBA (Late Bronze Age); EIA (Early Iron Age); LIA (Late Iron Age). (

Distinguishing between appearance and reality is the classic project of Western metaphysics. It is also the basis of all schemes of demarcation. The best known demarcation scheme of (relatively) contemporary thought is Karl Popper’s demarcation criterion for science: a scientific theory can be falsified; a non-scientific theory that may appear scientific is shown to be non-scientific by the lack of any clear method of falsification. In other words, if there is no possible way to show that a theory can be false, that theory is not scientific.

Sometimes archaeologists and art historians can be pretty utilitarian in their naming of historical periodizations. Because of the preservation of Pompeii, we have good record of wall paintings, and these are named according to numbered styles. Above is a fresco in the First Style.

Popper’s demarcation criterion is illuminating, but a fine-grained account brings out a lot of problematic cases. Most demarcation schemas are like this — they enjoy a prima facie plausibility, and when we first hear them it is like an “Aha!” moment, but, as they say, the devil is in the details, and when we descend from the momentarily illuminating intuition to the messy details of the world, the illumination begins to flicker and become uncertain, more like a candle flame in the wind than the blinding insight it seemed to be at first.

Above is a fresco from Pompeii in what is commonly known as the Second Style. There are also more creative names for these Pompeiian styles of wall painting. For example, the Second Style is also known as the Architectural Style.

Historical periodization is a demarcation of time. Or, in other terms, historical periodization is a temporal formulation of a demarcation schema. The simplest temporal demarcation is what we may call a binary demarcation: we choose a point in the continuum of time and divide all of history into before this point and after this point. The traditional demarcation between prehistory and history in the strict sense (based on written records) is like this: the event in question is the invention of systems of writing (or something conceptually similar to writing that preserves human records through some material embodiment), so that all history may be divided between before writing and after writing.

The Third Style, pictured above, is sometimes called the Pseudo-Egyptian Style. Imagine how many stylistic periodizations would have to be introduced if archaeologists had more cities preserved to the degree that Pompeii is preserved.

Binary historical periodizations are useful, but their usefulness is limited. Most historical periodizations involve a sequence of periods, one following another in the two dimensional continuum of time. The traditional tripartite distinction in Western history between classical antiquity, the middle ages, and modernity is like this. My division of integral history into nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism is also like this.

Lastly there is the Fourth Style of Pompeiian frescoes. Natural historians are in a conceptually similar situation: where there are rich fossil finds, there are elaborate periodizations of great details; in other periods of history when material evidence is lacking, detailed periodizations are also lacking.

As variables are added to the calculus of demarcation — that is to say, if we go beyond the two dimensional continuum of time and recognize other factors of dimensions of historical periodization — temporal demarcation increases by orders of magnitude and would ultimately culminate in a totalistic schema of classification. This, too, is a classic project of Western metaphysics. The contemporary informal idiom of philosophy formulates this is terms of “the furniture of the universe” or even “carving nature at the joints” (if you’re an analytical philosopher), or it invokes a “Latourian litany” of diverse constituents that variously make up the world (if you’re an object oriented ontologist).

Object Oriented Ontologists satisfy their need for demarcation with Latourian Litanies that recount the diversity of objects that make up the world.

All of this may sound a bit abstract and abstruse, but it has very practical consequences for our thinking, and how we think has very practical consequences for how we act. In short, it matters how we carve up history, for we are historical beings, and we act historically. In fact, we have so thoroughly become historical beings that “being in the moment” has become a challenge and a difficulty for us, and it is more and more an experience that is confined to mystics who are able, through strenuous application of cognitive exercises, attain to that state of perfect presentness that was once the universal condition of humanity before the emergence of historical consciousness.

A few days ago when I wrote about The Next Axial Age, I wrote the following:

The Axial Age represents the flourishing intellectual maturity of the institutions of agricultural civilization, that is to say, this is the first time in the history of agricultural civilization that its institutions passed a critical threshold beyond which such non-naturalistic developments in civilization became possible, and once they became possible they were rapidly realized in many diverse cultures and civilizations.

Immediately upon finishing this exposition of The Next Axial Age I realized that one could theorize that Jaspers’ Axial Age is the flourishing of agricultural civilization or that it is the flourishing of settled civilization. The latter, settled civilization, is still with us; the former, agricultural civilization, has all but disappeared from the earth.

If Jaspers’ Axial Age is the flourishing of settled civilization, then it is still relevant to us today, and it is incumbent upon us to fulfill the promise of the Axial Age. If, on the other hand, Jaspers’ Axial Age is the flourishing of agricultural civilization, then it has already been eclipsed by later historical events and the mythological imperative that falls to us is not to fulfill the promise of the Axial Age but to transcend it and to replace it with a new promise — the axialization of industrialized civilization. These two distinct courses of action would result in two very different civilizations of the future, and that is at least one reason it matters how we divide history with our temporal demarcations.

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