The Historiography of Big History

16 February 2018

Friday


Herodotus, the Father of History

In Rational Reconstructions of Time I described a series of intellectual developments in historiography in which big history appeared in the penultimate position as a recent historiographical innovation. There is another sense, however, in which there have always been big histories — that is to say, histories that take us from the origins of our world through the present and into the future — and we can identify a big history that represents many of the major stages through which western thought has passed. In what follows I will focus on western history, in so far as any regional focus is relevant, as “history” is a peculiarly western idea, originating in classical antiquity among the Greeks, and with its later innovations all emerging from western thought.

Saint Augustine, author of City of God

Shortly after Christianity emerged, a Christian big history was formulated across many works by many different authors, but I will focus on Saint Augustine’s City of God. Christianity takes up the mythological material of the earlier seriation of western civilization and codifies it in the light of the new faith. Augustine presented an over-arching vision of human history that corresponded to the salvation history of humanity according to Christian thought. Some scholars have argued that western Christianity is distinctive in its insistence upon the historicity of its salvation history. If this is true, then Augustine’s City of God is Exhibit “A” in the development of this idea, tracing the dual histories of the City of God and the City of Man, each of which punctuates the other in actual moments of historical time when the two worlds are inseparable for all their differences. Here, the world behind the world is always vividly present, and in a Platonic way (for Augustine was a Christian Platonist) was more real than the world we take for the real world.

Immanuel Kant, author of Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens

The Christian vision of history we find in Saint Augustine passed through many modifications but in its essentials remained largely intact until the Enlightenment, when the combined force of the scientific revolution and political turmoil began to dissolve the institutional structures of agricultural civilization. Here we have the remarkable work of Kant, better known for his three critiques, but who also wrote his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens. The idea of a universal natural history extends the idea of natural history to the whole of the cosmos, and to human endeavor as well, and more or less coincides with the contemporary conception of big history, at least in so far as the scope and character of big history is concerned. Kant deserves a place in intellectual history for this if for nothing else. In other words, despite his idealist philosophy (formulated decades after his Universal Natural History), Kant laid the foundations of a naturalistic historiography for the whole of natural history. Since then, we have only been filling in the blanks.

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, author of Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit

The Marquis de Condorcet took this naturalistic conception of universal history and interpreted it within the philosophical context of the Encyclopédistes and the French Philosophes (being far more empiricist and materialist than Kant), in writing his Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind), in ten books, the tenth book of which explicitly concerns itself with the future progress of the human mind. I may be wrong about this, but I believe this to be the first sustained effort at historiographical futurism in western thought. And Condorcet wrote this work while on the run from French revolutionary forces, having been branded a traitor by the revolution he had served. That Condorcet wrote his big history of progress and optimism while hiding from the law is a remarkable testimony to both the man and the idea to which he bore witness.

Johann Gottfried von Herder, author of Reflections on the Philosophy of History of Mankind

After the rationalism of the Enlightenment, European intellectual history took a sharp turn in another direction, and it was romanticism that was the order of the day. Kant’s younger contemporary, Johann Gottfried Herder, wrote his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas upon Philosophy and the History of Mankind, or Reflections on the Philosophy of History of Mankind, or any of the other translations of the title), as well as several essays on related themes (cf. the essays, “How Philosophy Can Become More Universal and Useful for the Benefit of the People” and “This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity”), at this time. In some ways, Herder’s romantic big history closely resembles the big histories of today, as he begins with what was known of the universe — the best science of the time, as it were — though he continues on in a way to justify regional nationalistic histories, which is in stark contrast to the big history of our time. We could learn from Herder on this point, if only we could be truly scientific in our objectivity and set aside the ideological conflicts that have arisen from nationalistic conceptions of history, which still today inform perspectives in historiography.

Otto Neurath, author of Foundations of the Social Sciences

In a paragraph that I have previously quoted in Scientific Metaphysics and Big History there is a plan for a positivist big history as conceived by Otto Neurath:

“…we may look at all sciences as dovetailed to such a degree that we may regard them as parts of one science which deals with stars, Milky Ways, earth, plants, animals, human beings, forests, natural regions, tribes, and nations — in short, a comprehensive cosmic history would be the result of such an agglomeration… Cosmic history would, as far as we are using a Universal Jargon throughout all branches of research, contain the same statements as our unified science. The language of our Encyclopedia may, therefore, be regarded as a typical language of history. There is no conflict between physicalism and this program of cosmic history.”

Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970 (originally published 1944), p. 9

To my knowledge, no one wrote this positivist big history, but it could have been written, and perhaps it should have been written. I can imagine an ambitious but eccentric scholar completely immersing himself or herself in the intellectual milieu of early twentieth century logical positivism and logical empiricism, and eventually coming to write, ex post facto, the positivist big history imagined by Neurath but not at that time executed. One might think of such an effort as a truly Quixotic quest, or as the fulfillment of a tradition of writing big histories on the basis of current philosophical thought.

From this thought experiment in the ex post facto writing of a history not written in its own time we can make an additional leap. I have noted elsewhere (The Cosmic Archipelago, Part III: Reconstructing the History of the Observable Universe) that scientific historiography has reconstructed the histories of peoples who did not write their own histories. This could be done in a systematic way. An exhaustive scientific research program in historiography could take the form of writing the history of every time and place from the perspective of every other time and place. We would have the functional equivalent of this research program if we had a big history written from the perspective of every time and place for which a distinctive perspective can be identified, because each big history from each identifiable perspective would be a history of the world entire, and thus would subsume under it all regional and parochial histories.

I previously proposed an idea of a similarly exhaustive historiography of the kind that could only be written once the end was known. In my Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? I suggested that Freeman Dyson’s eternal intelligences could busy themselves as historiographers through the coming trillions of years when the civilizations of the Stelliferous Era are no more, and there can be no more civilizations of this kind because there are no longer planets being warmed by stellar insolation, hence no more civilizations of planetary endemism.

It is a commonplace of historiographical thought that each generation must write and re-write the past for its own purposes and from its own point of view. Gibbon’s Enlightenment history of the later Roman Empire is distinct in temperament and outlook from George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State. While an advanced intelligence in the post-Stelliferous Era would want to bring its own perspective to the histories of the civilizations of the Stelliferous Era, it would also want a complete “internal” account of these civilizations, in the spirit of thought experiments in writing histories that could have or should have been written during particular periods, but which, for one reason or another, never were written. If we imagine eternal intelligences (at least while sufficient energy remains in the universe) capable of running detailed simulations of the past, this could be a source of the immersive scholarship that would make it possible to write the unwritten big histories of ages that produced a distinctive philosophical perspective, but which did not produce a historian (or the idea of a big history) that could execute the idea in historical form.

There is a sense in which these potentially vast unwritten histories, the unactualized rivals to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, are like the great unbuilt buildings, conceived and sketched by architects, but for which there was neither the interest nor the wherewithal to build. I am thinking, above all, of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton, but I could just as well cite the unbuilt cities of Antonio Sant’Elia, the skyscraper designed by Antonio Gaudí, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile high skyscraper (cf. Planners and their Cities, in which I discuss other great unbuilt projects, such as Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris and Wright’s Broadacre City). Just as I have here imagined unwritten histories eventually written, so too I have imagined these great unbuilt buildings someday built. Specifically, I have suggested that a future human civilization might retain its connection to the terrestrial past without duplicating the past by building structures proposed for Earth but never built on Earth.

History is an architecture of the past. We construct a history for ourselves, and then we inhabit it. If we don’t construct our own history, someone else will construct our history for us, and then we live in the intellectual equivalent of The Projects, trying to make a home for ourselves in someone else’s vision of our past. It is not likely that we will feel entirely comfortable within a past conceived by another who does not share our philosophical presuppositions.

From the perspective of big history, and from the perspective of what I call formal historiography, history is also an architecture of the future, which we inhabit with our hopes and fears and expectations and intentions of the future. And indeed we might think of big history as a particular kind of architecture — a bridge that we build between the past and the future. In this way, we can understand why and how most ages have written big histories for themselves out of the need to bridge past and future, between which the present is suspended.

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Studies in Grand Historiography

1. The Science of Time

2. Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time

3. The Epistemic Overview Effect

4. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 1

5. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2

6. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 3

7. Big History and Historiography

8. Big History and Scientific Historiography

9. Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization

10. Is it possible to specialize in the big picture?

11. Rational Reconstructions of Time

12. History in an Extended Sense

13. Scientific Metaphysics and Big History

14. Copernican Historiography

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Grand Strategy Annex

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