Axes of Historiography

3 November 2012


axes of historiography

How do we orient ourselves within historiography? This may sound like an odd question; I will try to make it sound like a sensible question, and a question with relevance extending far beyond the bounds of historiography narrowly construed.

One way to orient oneself within historiography is to accept and elaborate upon a familiar schema of historical periodization. There are many from which to choose. For example, if one divides Western history into ancient, medieval and modern periods, and then goes on to describe the character of medieval civilization, this constitutes a kind of orientation within historiography. Others working on the medieval period will recognize your approach based on a received conception of periodization and will critique the effort accordingly.

While I often write about problematic issues in historical periodization, I am going to consider a very different orientation within historiography today, and this might be considered to be a methodological orientation, based on how one assesses and organizes the objects of historical knowledge.

A familiar distinction within historiography is that between the synchonic and the diachronic. I have written about this distinction in Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization and Synchronic and Diachronic Geopolitical Theories. “Synchrony” and “diachrony” sound like forbidding technical terms, but the concepts they attempt to capture are not at all difficult. Synchrony is the present construed broadly enough to admit of short term historical interaction, while diachrony typically takes a narrower view but a longer span of time. Sometimes this is expressed by saying that synchrony is across time while diachrony is through time.

Another distinction often made is that between the nomothetic and the ideographic. Again, these are intimidating technical terms, but the ideas are simple. Nomothetic (which comes from the Greek “nomos” for “law” or “norm”) approaches are concerned with law-like transitions in time: cause and effect. For example, you intentionally touch a stove not knowing that it is hot, you burn your finger, you withdraw your hand and give a shout of pain. Ideographic approaches do not quite constitute the negation of cause and effect, but they focus on all that is merely contigent, accidental, and unpredictable in life. For example, while looking at some distraction out of the corner of your eye, you trip, and in seeking to catch your fall you touch a hot stove and burn your finger.

When we put together these two historiographical distinctions — synchronic and diachronic, nomothetic and ideographic — we get four possible permutations of historiographical methodology, as follows:

● nomothetic synchrony

Law-like interaction of all elements within a broadly-defined present

● ideographic synchrony

Contingent interactions of all elements within a broadly-defined present

● nomothetic diachrony

Law-like succession of related events through historical time (especially “deep time”)

● ideographic diachrony

Contingent succession of related events through historical time

This schematic representation of historiographical methodologies is in no wise intended to be exhaustive; I’m sure if I continued to think about this, all kinds of conditions, qualifications, and additions would occur to me. For example, one obvious way to give this much more subtlety and sophistication would be to define each of the above methodological orientations for each division of what I have called ecological temporality, i.e., define each method for each level of time, from the micro-temporality of lived experience to the meta-temporality of the unfolding of ideas in history. I’m not going to attempt to do this at present, I just wanted to give a sense of the simplified schematism I am employing here, which I hope has some relevance despite its simplicity.

All of this sounds very abstract, but if just the right intuitive illustrations of each concept can be found, the concepts will gain in concreteness and depth, and their usefulness will be immediately understood. I can’t claim that I have yet assembled the perfect intuitive illustrations for all four of these methodologies, but I will give you what I have at present, and as I continue to think about this I will (hopefully) add some telling examples.

Nomothetic synchrony, as a method of highlighting the law-like interaction of all elements within a broadly-defined present, is perhaps the most difficult to intuitively illustrate. What “the present” includes is ambiguous, but I have said that the present is “broadly-defined,” so you will understand that the present is not here the punctiform present but something more like “current events.” Current events are continually feeding back on themselves by being repeated in the media and iterated throughout numerous cultural channels. Not all of this feedback, and not all of these iterations, are law-like, but some are. For example, procedural rationality — laws, rules, and regulations intended to bring order and system to the ordinary business of life — constitutes a highly complex set of law-like interactions in the present. In natural history, in contradistinction to human history, ecology is, in a sense, an instance of nomothetic synchrony, and that genre of writing/study once called “nature studies” which focuses on life cycles and predictable patterns within a defined and limited ecosystem, habitat, or niche. Anything, then, that we can describe in ecological terms can also be described in terms of nomothetic synchrony, and since I have taken the trouble to define metaphysical ecology, this category is potentially highly comprehensive. For example, if we call sociology the ecology of society, or we call cosmology galactic ecology, these disciplines could both be treated in terms of nomothetic synchrony.

Ideographic synchrony as constituted by all contingent interactions within a broadly-defined present might be summed up as William James famously summarized sensory perception for an infant: “The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing, confusion.” Ideographic synchrony is a blooming, buzzing confusion. Anarchic processes like financial markets and warfare might be good illustrations of ideographic synchrony. Of course, markets are supposed to behave according to procedural rationality, and wars are supposed to be fought according to a strategy — but we have all heard of the “fog of war” and of battlefield “friction” (both concepts due to Clausewitz), as we have all heard that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Similarly, no trading strategy survives exposure to the market.

Nomothetic diachrony, the law-like succession of related events through historical time, is the paradigmatic form of historical thought, but more often than not an elusive ideal. Many “laws of history” have been proposed, but none have been widely accepted. The only law of history that has survived is not from history, but from biology: natural selection. Evolution, while often apparently random and pervasively contingent, is a perfect illustration of law-like transitions through deep time. The “big history” movement is also a paradigm case of nomothetic diachrony, with the central theoretical narrative being that of increasing complexity.

Ideographic diachrony, the contingent succession of related events through historical time, can be illustrated in several imaginative ways. The biography of an individual primarily consists of a tight focus on a contingent sequence of events (events in the life of one individual) through a period of time not limited to the broadly-defined present. Many writers like to dwell on the role of the merely contingent and even the spectacularly accidental in history, as with Pascal’s several remarks about how if Cleopatra’s nose had had another shape, history would be different — a particular theme that has been since taken up by others (as in Daniel J. Boorstin’s book, Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected). There is also the famous rhyme about how “for want of a nail a kingdom fell” which also focuses on the disproportionate historical influence of accidental contingencies. The “butterfly effect” is another illustration.

These four concepts — nomothetic synchrony, ideographic synchrony, nomothetic diachrony, and ideographic diachrony — provide a kind of methodological orientation in historiography. But it is more than merely methodological, since particular methods imply particular metaphysical orientations as well. Someone who holds the cataclysmic conception of history — based upon a denial of human agency — is likely to pursue an ideographic methodology rather than a nomothetic methodology. However, the four conceptions of history that I have defined don’t neatly map on the four methodologies defined above, so I can’t just connect these two quadripartite schemas straight across, showing that each conception of history has an associated methodology.

It’s more complicated than that. It usually is with history.

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For more on the axes of historiography see Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography.

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One Response to “Axes of Historiography”

  1. […] generally to other concepts from historiography, specifically, what I have elsewhere called the axes of historiography. If we take two distinctions common in historiography—synchronic and diachronic on the one hand, […]

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