Macro-Historical Revolutions

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

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.

Another way to show the traditional tripartite periodization of Western history: classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modernity.

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.

Macro-historical divisions: a scheme of metaphysical history that comprehends both the historical and the prehistorical.

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:

Macro-Revolution, and
Metaphysical 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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Grand Strategy Annex

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3 Responses to “Macro-Historical Revolutions”

  1. Whitehead generalises the concept of nested contexts ( . If one takes the theory of Whitehead and Keynes and ignores this structure, one ends up with a conventional view which, as you suggest, may not always be appropriate.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Dave,

      Thanks for the comment! I am familiar with Whitehead’s “extensive abstraction” and his definition of points as the convergence of nested spatial intervals, but this other aspect of Whitehead’s thought that you mention here is unfamiliar to me. I will follow up on this reference.

      Extensive abstraction may well be the way to go in historical analysis, and these nested contexts may bear some relation to catastrophes that take the form of cascading failures, which we have previously discussed.

      Best wishes,


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