The Naturalistic Conception of History

28 September 2010


The three conceptions of history I have been discussing in previous posts are now...

In a couple of recent posts, Three Conceptions of History and Revolution and Human Agency, I discussed conceptions of history based on a tripartitie distinction in theories of war put forth by Anatol Rapoport in his introduction to Clausewitz’s On War. His three theories of war were the political, the cataclysmic, and the eschatological. Parallel to this I proposed three conceptions of history, the political, the cataclysmic, and the eschatological. In formulating these conceptions of history I made no pretense to originality or completeness.

...four conceptions of history, with the addition of the naturalistic conception.

I analyzed the political conception of history into that which prioritizes the role of human agency, the cataclysmic conception of history as that which prioritizes the lack of human agency, and the eschatological conception of history as that which prioritizes the role of non-human agency. Logically, this leaves a fourth possibility, that of non-human non-agency. I briefly speculated about this possibility as follows:

If we understand the political conception of history to be predicated upon the presumption of human agency in the world, the cataclysmic conception of history to be predicated upon a presumption of the lack of human agency in the world (i.e., human non-agency), and the eschatological conception of history to be predicated upon the presumption of the agency of non-human agents in the world (i.e., non-human agency), then there remains the possibility of non-human non-agency. This latter possibility could be identified as an Epicurean conception of history, since Epicurus maintained that the Gods were utterly indifferent to the deeds and fates of men. However, Epicurus did not maintain that the Gods were unable to intervene in the world, only that they were uninterested in doing so. There is also a sense in which non-human non-agency can be identified either with naturalism or Stoicism. This is a very interesting question, but I will not pursue it further at this time.

Now the time has come to pursue this, and I have realized, the more I have thought about it, that non-human non-agency — that is to say, the denial of causal agency in history to supernatural forces — is to be identified with the naturalistic conception of history. This, then, gives us a full suite of four conceptions of history: the naturalistic, the political, the cataclysmic, and the eschatological. This nicely rounds out some main trends in how human beings come to reflectively understand their history, and by filling in the gap with naturalism we come closest to that conception of history that is the theoretical basis of my own reflections on history as presented in this forum. (Though I hasten to point out that, while the naturalistic conception of history does fill in a gap left in our previous expositions, I still make no pretense to completeness; other conceptions of human history are always possible.)

Naturalistic history: humanity set in the context of the natural world of which it is a part.

The naturalistic conception of history is history understood in terms of philosophical naturalism, that is to say, history sub specie natura. I have posted several attempts to define or refine the kind of philosophical naturalism that I have in mind, among them A Formulation of Naturalism, Two Thoughts on Naturalism, Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation, and even Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology. All of these formulations are tentative. It is the nature of philosophical inquiry that it rejects dogma and therefore does not converge upon final formulations that lie beyond dispute. Our understanding of naturalism will change and advance with the continuing advance of scientific knowledge.

The cataclysmic conception of history.

That being said, we can still make some broad distinctions within naturalism. For example, I recently stumbled across a blog, mors dei, with an interesting series of posts on naturalism, distinguishing biological naturalism, methodological naturalism, and ontological naturalism. This is a sound exposition of a tripartite distinction among naturalisms that is widely recognized in contemporary analytical philosophy. I might also point out that one’s formulation of a naturalistic conception of history might have subtle differences depending upon whether one primarily conceives naturalism as biological, methodological, or ontological. However it is important to point out that these senses are in not way mutually exclusive. One could think of biological, methodological, and ontological realism as three ways of interpreting a naturalistic narrative of history.

The eschatological conception of history.

Let me try to give you an example of what I mean by this. In his now famous letter to Can Grande, Dante gave an astonishingly straight-forward account of the levels of interpretation that one might bring to his Comedia. Dante’s Divine Comedy is more than a mere story; it admits of several levels of interpretation, but as the great work of literature that it is, these many interpretations are simply perspectives on a undivided whole. Dante distinguishes four interpretations, including the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical (or metaphysical). Dante also points out that all the senses of interpretation other than the literal can be considered allegorical, so we can make a simple distinction between the literal and the allegorical, but there are also different allegorical methods of interpreting the text.

The political conception of history.

So too with the narrative of the world revealed to us by history: there are literal, allegorical, moral, and metaphysical senses, and in an explicitly naturalistic narrative of history we can distinguish within this overall narrative the thread of biological naturalism, the thread of methodological naturalism, and the thread of ontological naturalism. Thus the naturalistic conception of history is an undivided whole that has distinct facets that we will see depending upon the perspective we bring to the narrative whether as observers or participants (or participant observers).

Dante distinguished four levels of interpretation in his Divine Comedy -- the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical -- but the work itself is an undivided whole.

The our four conceptions of history described above, now including the naturalistic conception, taken in isolation are abstract ideas in and of themselves, and abstract ideas are rarely embodied in a recognizable form in the rough and tumble of the real world. In other words, in its pure form this quadripartite distinction is overly schematic. To make these schematic conceptions have more relevance and applicability, we must see each conception as embodying an ideal (here we mean “ideal” not in the sense of something to which we aspire, but in the sense of a pure concept of theory untrammeled by practice) that is an end point on a continuum.

Moreover, the four conceptions of history are two pairs, each of which is the antithesis of the other, so that these four conceptions two continua, each continuum anchored at each end by a conception antithetical to that at the other end point of the continuum. Thus the political (affirmation of human agency) and the cataclysmic (lack of human agency) are at opposite ends of what we may call the continuum of agency, while the eschatological (non-human agency) and the naturalistic (non-human non-agency) are at opposite ends of what we may call the continuum of agents.

On this graph, the x axis is the continuum of agents, stretching from human agents to non-human agents; the y axis is the continuum of agency, stretching from complete efficacy of agency to complete absence of agency. These two continua taken together constitute a two dimensional matrix whereupon we can plot subtle distinctions in conceptions of history.

The graph that we can formulate by crossing the continuum of agency with the continuum of agents yields a two dimensional field in which we can plot the subtler shades of meaning of various conceptions of history as they are to be found actually instantiated in the beliefs of particular human beings. In thus offering a subtler interpretation we demonstrate our understanding that the naturalistic conception of history — or any other single conception — is mixed with other conceptions, and probably all conceptions are found to a greater or lesser degree within our minds.

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