History in an Extended Sense

26 December 2016

Monday


Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and portals, had two faces, one looking into the past and another looking into the future.

Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and portals, had two faces, one looking into the past and another looking into the future.

In my recent Manifesto for the Study of Civilization I employed the phrase history in an extended sense. Here is a bit more context:

“One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense).”

In several posts I have developed what I call concepts in an extended sense, as in Geocentrism in an Extended Sense and “biocentrism in an extended sense” in Addendum on the Technocentric Thesis and “ecology in an extended sense” in Intelligent Invasive Species.

In Developmental Temporality I wrote:

“With the advent of civilization in the most extended sense of that term, comprising organized settled agricultural societies and their urban centers, planning for the future becomes systematic.”

And in Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience I wrote:

“Philosophy today, then, is centered on the extended conceptions of ‘experience’ and ‘observation’ that science has opened up to us, and these extended senses of experience and observation go considerably beyond ordinary experience, and the prima facie intellectual intuitions available to beings like ourselves, whose minds evolved in a context in which perceptions mattered enormously while the constituents and overall structure of the cosmos mattered not at all.”

In these attempts to extrapolate, expand, and extend concepts beyond their ordinary usage — the result of which might also be called overview concepts — each traditional concept must be treated individually, as there is a limit that is demarcated by the intrinsic meaning of the concept, and these limits are different in each case. With history, the extrapolation of the concept is obvious: history has taken the past as its remit, but history in an extended sense would apply to the totality of time. This is already being done in Big History.

When I attended the second IBHA conference in 2014 I was witness to a memorable exchange that I described in 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2:

“During the question and answer session, a fellow who had spoken up in previous sessions with questions stood up and said that there were (at least) two conceptual confusions pervasive throughout discussions at this conference: 1) that something could come from nothing (presumably a reference to how the big bang is framed, though this could have been intended more generally as a critique of emergentism) and, 2) that history can say anything about the future. The same individual (whose name I did not get) said that no one had given an adequate definition of history, and then noted that the original Greek term for history meant ‘inquiry.’ Given this Grecian (or even, if you like, Herodotean) origin for the idea of history as an inquiry, I immediately asked myself, ‘If one can conduct an inquiry into the past, why cannot one also conduct an inquiry into the future?’ No doubt these inquires will be distinct because one concerns the past and the other the future, but cannot they be taken up in the same spirit?”

There was a note of frustration in the voice of the speaker who objected to any account of the future as a part of history, and while I could appreciate the source of that frustration, it reminded me of every traditionalist protest against the growth of scientific knowledge made possible by novel methods not sanctioned by tradition. In this connection I think of Isaiah Berlin’s critique of scientific historiography, which I previously discussed in Big History and Scientific Historiography.

Berlin argued that the historical method is intrinsically distinct from the scientific method, so that there can be no such thing as scientific historiography, i.e., that the intrinsic limitations of the concept of history restricts history from being scientific in the way that the natural sciences are scientific. While Berlin’s objection to scientific historiography is not stated in terms of restricting the expansion of historical modes of thought, his appeal to a nature of history intrinsically irreconcilable with science and the scientific method is parallel to an appeal to the nature of history as being intrinsically about the past (thus intrinsically not about the future), hence there can be no such thing as a history that includes within it the study of the future in addition to the study of the past.

Here is a passage in which Berlin characterizes distinctively historical modes of thought, contrasting them to scientific modes of thought:

“Historians cannot ply their trade without a considerable capacity for thinking in general terms; but they need, in addition, peculiar attributes of their own: a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, a sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular concrete situation, which must at once be neither so unlike any other situation as to constitute a total break with the continuous flow of human experience, nor yet so stylised and uniform as to be the obvious creature of theory and not of flesh and blood. The capacities needed are rather those of association than of dissociation, of perceiving the relation of parts to wholes, of particular sounds or colours to the many possible tunes or pictures into which they might enter, of the links that connect individuals viewed and savoured as individuals, and not primarily as instances of types or laws.”

Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 140

Every cognitive capacity that Berlin here credits to the historian can be equally well exercised in relation to the future as to the past (I should point out that, as far as I know, Berlin did not take up the problem of the relation of the historian to the future). Indeed, one of the weaknesses of futurism has been that futurists have not immersed themselves in these distinctively historical modes of thought; our conception of the future could greatly benefit from a capacity for integration and perceiving the relation of parts to wholes. I don’t think Berlin would ever have imagined his critique of scientific historiography as advice for futurists, but it could be profitably employed in developing history in an extended sense.

It is common for historians to invoke distinctively historical modes of thought, and I believe that this is a valid concern. Indeed, I would go farther yet. Human modes of thought are primarily temporal, and non-temporal modes of thought come very late in our history as a species in comparison to the effortless way we learn to think of time in subtle and sophisticated ways. For example, when one learns a language, one finds that one spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to master past, present, and future tenses — the tenses of our mother tongue are so fixed in our minds that any other schema strikes us as counterintuitive (and, interestingly, even those who attain fluency in another language or languages usually revert to their mother tongue for counting). But in order to communicate effectively we must master the logic of time as expressed in linguistic tenses. Human beings are inveterate planners, preparers, and schemers; our present is pervasively animated by a concern for the future. We are so taken up with our plans for the future that it is considered something of a “gift” to be able to “live in the moment.”

Many of Berlin’s examples of distinctively historical thought position the historian as attempting to explain historical change. The emphasis on describing change in history results in an indirect deemphasis of continuity, though continuity is arguably the overwhelming experience of time and history. It would be almost impossible for us to delineate all of the things that we know will happen tomorrow, and which we do not even bother to think of as predictions because they fall so far near certainty on the epistemic continuum of historical knowledge. All of the laws of science that have been discovered up to the present day will continue to be in effect tomorrow, and all of the events and processes that make up the world will continue to be governed by these laws of nature tomorrow. We could exhaust ourselves describing the nomological certainties of the morrow, and still not have exhausted the predictions we might have made. Thus it is we know that the sun will rise tomorrow, and we can explain how and why the sun will rise tomorrow. If you are an anchorite living in a cave, the sun will not rise for you, but you can nevertheless be confident that Earth will continue to orbit the sun while rotating, and that this process will result in the appearance of the sun rising for everyone else not so confined.

But our sciences that describe the laws of nature that govern the world are incomplete, and they are in particular incomplete when it comes to history. I have noted elsewhere that there is (as yet) no science of time, and it is interesting to speculate that the absence of a science of time may be related to a parallel absence of a truly scientific historiography or a science of civilization. Because we have no science of time, we have no formal concepts of time — or, rather, we have no concepts of time recognized to be formal concepts. I have argued elsewhere that the idea of the punctiform present is a formal concept of time, i.e., interpreted as a formal concept it can be employed in a formal theory of time which can illuminate actual time as an ideal, simplified model. But as soon as you try to interpret the idea of the punctiform present as an empirical concept you run into difficulties. Would it be possible to measure a dimensionless instant? The punctiform present is like a pendulum with a weightless string, frictionless fulcrum, and no air drag. No such pendulum exists in actual fact, but the ideal pendulum remains a useful fiction for us. Similarly, the punctiform present is a useful fiction for a formal science of time.

A truly (perhaps exhaustively) scientific historiography would not only employ the methods of the special sciences in the exposition of history, but would also incorporate a science of time that would allow us to be as definite about history to come as we can now be definite about our predictions for the natural world as governed by laws of nature. It is not difficult to imagine what Berlin would have thought of such an idea. Here is another quote from Berlin’s essay on scientific historiography:

“…the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour — seems an attempt to square the circle.”

Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History,” in Concepts and Categories, p. 142

What Berlin here condemns as an attempt to square the circle is precisely my ideal in history, and it is what I called formal historiography in Rational Reconstructions of Time. A formulation of history in an extended sense would be a step toward a formal historiography.

While on one level I am interested in history as an intellectual discipline in its own right — history for history’s sake — and therefore I am interested in formal historiography as a sui generis discipline, I also have an ulterior motive in the pursuit of a formal historiography that can develop history in an extended sense. Such a formal historiography will be one tool in the interdisciplinary toolkit of future scientists of civilization, who must study civilization both in terms of its past and its future.

. . . . .

Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)

Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Advertisements

4 Responses to “History in an Extended Sense”

  1. Xcalibur said

    This reminds me of the fictional discipline of ‘psychohistory’ from Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy; in which the decisions of very large quantities of people could be predicted mathematically (the “vagaries of an individual” were unpredictable).

    I see no reason why prediction of the future should not develop into a proper science. If there are principles of history and civilization, then it should be possible to employ those principles for future projections (just as Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire, based on factors such as freezing of caste, excessive bureaucracy and centralization, lack of initiative, etc.).

    I once read a book from the 1950’s in which experts in various fields made predictions of the future. On some points they were surprisingly accurate (airline industry, lasers, microwaves, etc.), on others they were way off (no one predicted the Soviet Union to fall when it did). While they foresaw the rise of computers, no one back then seemed to realize that there would be exponential leaps beyond vacuum-tube mainframes.

    In conclusion, the future is difficult to predict, but not impossible. It would require well-developed principles and a large pool of data in order to establish probable futures.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I have been hearing similar things from others as well. Recently on Twitter Bruno Mota wrote, “He is arguing for the establishment of the Second Foundation. Way to go Mr. Seldon!” The closest thing to a real psychohistory today is cliodynamics. I find the references to psychohistory flattering, and I think cliodynamics brings some interesting ideas to history, but I consider the idea of psychohistory and the practice of cliodynamics to be infected with psychologism.

      My ideal for a science of civilization is based less on the empirical sciences and owes more the formal sciences. I imagine a science of civilization as a formal science that can stipulate axioms for understanding history, which then can be employed in the analysis of historical phenomena like civilization. In my post Rational Reconstructions of Time I distinguished stages in the development of history from mythology through Herodotus and scientific historiography up to contemporary Big History, and looking forward to what I call formal historigraphy. This idea of formal historiography is the same point as I was making in this post. I understand how counter-intuitive this sounds, as most people can’t even imagine the possibility of delineating the formal structures of history apart from empirical content.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

      • Xcalibur said

        I understand the difference. Instead of mathematically predicting what people do on large scales, you’re investigating the principles of history — the laws that govern how civilization works. I’ve brought up Toynbee on other posts, and it seems that his Study of History was a preliminary effort at understanding those laws. His proposed laws include challenge-and-response, golden mean, the fall of universal states and heroic/barbaric ages, etc. While it was a respectable pioneering effort, it fell short of establishing a science. Aside from Toynbee, there are other efforts at understanding the ‘big picture’, as well as commonly circulated ideas such as “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”. But for all the history that’s been written, we still lack a science of history.

      • geopolicraticus said

        Yes, exactly, we still lack a science of history, which is why I recently wrote A Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization (NB: this is the link to the paper version of this essay; the link in the blog post above is to the post on the Icarus Interstellar website).

        I tend to use Toynbee very gingerly. There are some good insights to be found in his work, but those who have taken up Toynbee have, I think, taken the potential of Toynbee’s insights in the wrong direction, and so have done him a disservice. I thought I was coining a new term in an email I wrote yesterday, and then today I find that “collapse porn” has already been used. The authors of collapse porn, both fiction and non-fiction, have taken Toynbee as their guide. This is not a good sign.

        Best wishes,

        Nick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: