In my recent paper “A Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization” I argued that the study of civilization should be scientific, and that a scientific theory of civilization would be a formal theory. Prior to this, I argued in Rational Reconstructions of Time that a formal historiography is possible. What is the connection between these two claims? In A Metaphysical Disconnect I suggested that it is a philosophical problem that philosophies of time have not been tightly-coupled with philosophies of history. This implies that a formal theory of time could be tightly-coupled with a formal theory of history, and a formal theory of history would presumably encompass (or, at least, overlap) a theory of civilization. A formal theory of civilization, then, might ultimately follow from formal historiography.
I fully understand that these are strange claims for me to be making. What in the world do I mean by a formal theory of time, of history, or of civilization? How could a science of civilization be a formal science? What is a formal science, anyway? Despite the burgeoning growth of computer science in our time, which is the latest addition to the formal sciences, the very idea of the formal as a distinct category of thought (distinct, especially, from the material) seems odd and alien to us, and the distinction between the formal sciences and the natural sciences seems archaic. What are the formal sciences? Here is one view:
“To put it in Kantian terms, the formal sciences dealt with the Reine Anschauung as opposed to empirical data. By that they have been connected to the methodology of mathematics and logic, thereby being part of both the philosophical tradition and the newly won applications of mathematical sciences to the natural sciences and engineering. Both the object and the methods of the Formal sciences were recognized as different from the Natural and the Social sciences.”
“The Formal Sciences: Their Scope, Their Foundations, and Their Unity” by Benedikt Löwe, Synthese, Vol. 133, No. 1/2, Foundations of the Formal Sciences I (Oct.-Nov., 2002),pp. 5-11
In the same paper there is an explicit attempt to answer the question, “What are the Formal Sciences?” Two answers are given:
● Answer 1: “There is a profound duality in the classification of sciences according to their scientific approaches: some sciences are empirical, some are formal. The former deal with predictions and their falsification, the latter with the understanding of systems without empirical component, be it man-made systems (literary systems, the arts or social systems) or formal systems”.
● Answer 2: “Formal sciences are those that deal with the deductive analysis of formal systems (i.e., systems independent of direct human influence)”.
At present I am not going to analyze these differing definitions of the formal sciences, but I will leave them to percolate in the back of the mind of the reader in order to return to the question at hand: the study of civilization as a formal science, i.e., one formal science among many other formal sciences, however we choose to define them.
We can get a hint of what a formal science of civilization would look like from structuralist historians and historians of the Annales school, the chief representatives of the latter being Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel. Marc Bloch’s two volume history of feudalism, in particular, stands out as a great achievement in the genre, with chapters devoted to features of feudal society rather than to great events and historical turning points. Whereas John Florio had Montaigne say that I describe not the essence but the passage, Bloch sought to describe not the passage, but the essence. (I previously quoted from Bloch in Hegel and the Overview Effect.)
There is (or, there will be) no one, single way to approach formal historiography, in the same way that there is no one, single axiomatization of set theory. Even if one agrees with Gödel that set theory describes a “well-determined reality” (a realist conception that most people today would agree describes the past, even if they would hesitate to say the same of set theory), there are, as yet, many distinct approaches to that reality. So too with formal historiography; there will be many distinct formalisms for the organization, exhibition, and exposition of the well-determined reality of history.
I reveal myself as being more of a traditionalist than Bloch by my preference for approaching a theory of civilization by way of a theory of history, and a theory of history by way of a theory of time. This is “traditional” in the sense that, as I have remarked many times in other places, it has been traditional to study civilization by studying history, rather than studying civilization as an object of knowledge in its own right. I retain the historical perspective, and indeed even many of the prejudices of historians (these come naturally to me), but I can also see beyond history sensu stricto and to a science of time, a science of history, and a science of civilization that lies beyond history even as it draws from the tradition all that that tradition has to offer.
Both the essentialist approach of Bloch and the Annales school, and my own quasi-historical approach to a formal science of civilization, may each have something to contribute to a theory of civilization. Obviously, these are not the only ways to study civilization. Civilization also can be studied as an empirical science — this is probably how most would conceive a science of civilization — and even as an adventure science. What is adventure science?
Together with Dr. Jacob Shively, I wrote an article about adventure science, Adventure Science Enters the Space Age, noting that “big science” has become the paradigm of scientific activity at the present time, but when individual human beings are able to go exploring they will be able to pluck the low-hanging fruit of exploration and discovery. Adventure science characterizes the earliest stage of a science when discoveries can be made simply by traveling to an exotic locale and being the first to describe some phenomenon never before documented by science. Such discoveries are difficult for us now, because the low-hanging fruit of terrestrial discovery has all been plucked, but once off Earth, new worlds will beckon with new discoveries waiting to be made. This will be a new Golden Age of adventure science.
Paradoxically, the science of civilization will become an adventure science (if it ever becomes one) quite late in its history, so that adventure science will characterize a science of civilization not in its earliest stages, but in its latest stages. But civilization has had a kind of early adventure science phase as well. Archaeology was once the paradigm of adventure science — as attested to by the cinematic adventures of Indiana Jones and the television adventures of Relic Hunter — when real life explorers entered jungles and deserts and swamps to search for long lost cities. Archaeology is perhaps the closest existing discipline that we have to a true science of civilization — archaeologists have many theories of civilization — so that the adventure science that archaeology once was, was at the same time (at least in part) an adventure science of civilization. And it may be so again, when xenoarchaeologists lead the way, looking for the ruins of alien civilizations.
All of the resources of contemporary big science, with its thousands of researchers and multi-generational socially-organized research programs, will be necessary in order to develop the science that will make possible the production of interstellar vessels. In my Centauri Dreams post, The Interstellar Imperative, I wrote, “A starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument produced by technological civilization, constituting both a demanding engineering challenge to build and offering the possibility of greatly expanding the scope of scientific knowledge by studying up close the stars and worlds of our universe, as well as any life and civilization these worlds may comprise.” Once starships become a reality, they will make possible the empirical study of civilizations, which will begin as an adventure science, the primary qualification for which will be a willingness to tolerate discomfort and to travel to distant places with a determination to document every new sight that one sees.
Geology will become an adventure science like this once again as soon as human beings have the freedom to travel around our solar system; biology and ecology will become adventure sciences once again as soon as we can visit other living worlds. The study of civilization will not become an adventure science until human beings are free to travel about the cosmos, so that this is a very distant prospect, but still a hopeful one. If we do not find a number of interesting civilizations to study, we will build a number of interesting civilizations, and eventually these will be studied in their turn. In this latter instance, the science of civilization will only become an adventure science after civilization has expanded throughout the cosmos, has forgotten the saga of its expansion, and then rediscovers itself across a plurality of worlds. And once again we will be forced to reckon with Hegel’s prescience for having said that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun.
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3 June 2012
Science often (though not always or exclusively) involves a quantitative approach to phenomena. As the phenomena of the world are often (though not always or exclusively) continuous, the continuum of phenomena must be broken up into discrete chunks of experience, however imperfect the division. If we are to quantify knowledge, we must have distinctions, and distinctions must be interpolated at some particular point in a continuum.
The truncation principle is the principled justification of this practice, and the truncation fallacy is the claim that distinctions in the name of quantification are illegitimate. The claim of the illegitimacy of a given distinction is usually based on an ideal standard of distinctions having to be based on a sharply-bounded concept that marks an exhaustive division that admits of no exceptions. This is an unreasonable standard for human experience or its systematization in scientific knowledge.
One of my motivations (though not my only motivation) for formulating the truncation principle was the obvious application to historical periodization. Historians have always been forced to confront the truncation fallacy, though I am not aware that there has previously been any name for the conceptual problems involved in historical periodization, though it has been ever-present in the background of historical thought.
Here is an implicit exposition of the problems of the truncation principle by Marc Bloch, one of the most eminent members of the Annales school of historians (which also included Fernand Braudel, of whom I have written on many occasions), and who was killed by the Gestapo while working for the French resistance during the Second World War:
“…it is difficult to imagine that any of the sciences could treat time as a mere abstraction. Yet, for a great number of those who, for their own purposes, chop it up into arbitrary homogenous segments, time is nothing more than a measurement. In contrast, historical time is a concrete and living reality with an irreversible onward rush… this real time is, in essence, a continuum. It is also perpetual change. The great problems of historical inquiry derive from the antithesis of these two attributes. There is one problem especially, which raises the very raison d’être of our studies. Let us assume two consecutive periods taken out of the uninterrupted sequence of the ages. To what extent does the connection which the flow of time sets between them predominate, or fail to predominate, over the differences born out of the same flow?”
Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, translated by Peter Putnam, New York: Vintage, 1953, Chapter I, sec. 3, “Historical Time,” pp. 27-29
Bloch, then, sees times itself, the structure of time, as the source both of historical continuity and historical discontinuity. For Bloch the historian, time is the truncation principle, as for some metaphysicians space (or time, for that matter) simply is the principle of individuation.
The truncation principle and the principle of individuation are closely related. What makes an individual an individual? When it is cut off from the rest of the world and designated as an individual. I haven’t thought about this yet, so I will reserve further remarks until I’ve made an effort to review the history of the principium individuationis.
The “two attributes” of continuity and change are both functions of time; both the connection and the differences between any two “arbitrary homogenous segments” are due to the action of time, according to Bloch.
The truncation principle, however, has a wider application than time. To express the truncation principle in terms of time invites a formulation (or an example) in terms of space, and there is an excellent example ready to hand: that of the color spectrum of visible light. There is a convention of dividing the color spectrum into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But this is not the only convention. Because the word “indigo” is becoming almost archaic, one now sees the color spectrum decomposed into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.
Both decompositions of the color spectrum, and any others that might be proposed, constitute something like, “arbitrary homogenous segments.” The decomposition of the color spectrum is justified by the truncation principle, but the principle does not privilege any one decomposition over any other. All distinctions are equal, and if any one distinction is taken to be more equal than others, it is only because this distinction has the sanction of tradition.
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5 November 2009
One year ago, on Wednesday 05 November 2008, I began this blog with the post Opening Reflection. In that opening reflection I announced my intention to see contemporary events through the prism of geopolitics, and geopolitics in turn through the prism of ideas. While I have attempted to do this, and have on occasion successfully tied these together, I also made no rigorous effort to contain myself within self-imposed boundaries.
Like an intellectual Epicurean, I have followed my tastes and inclinations quite to the exclusion of any systematic program of comment, sampling whatever fare attracted me. I gravitate to the ideas I most enjoy, for it is with the ideas that I most enjoy that I feel most free and can write spontaneously. Most of the pieces I have posted have been more or less spontaneous productions of the day. A few I labored over for several days, but that was the exception. Sufficient unto the day has been the inspiration thereof.
It is only recently that I have learned of a wonderful quote from Fernand Braudel, the great French historian of the longue durée and representative of the Annales School of historiography:
Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.
Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901
While this passage does not appear in the abridged version, the abridged version does include much that reflects this point of view. Braudel returns time and again, in detail and in general overview, to his structuralist orientation. There is a sense in which Braudel’s approach to history is something genuinely new, a novel way to understand human experience. Braudel is no less a methodological naturalist than Thucydides, but his method is nevertheless profoundly distinct from that of Thucydides, though not in a sense in which he seeks to confront and overturn the tradition.
This passage from Braudel also reflects, more and more, my own point of view on history. The political events of the day, upon which I had primarily intended to comment in this forum, seem to me to progressively embody the ephemera of history. I was always committed to understanding the world in terms of the big picture, in terms of the longue durée; the experience of writing this blog has only confirmed me in this prejudice. The passing events of the day are as meaningless as the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave unless they are understood to be shadows of Forms that can be apprehended only by turning away from the fleeting shadows and looking into the blinding light of the ideal.
While I have had very few readers compared to those blogs that are sufficiently popular to have become news in and of themselves, I have nevertheless had more viewers than I expected; far more people have read something here than have ever picked up a copy of one of my books. And while most people who visit probably don’t read much, or in great detail, I do know that I have had a few visitors who have read me quite carefully, as I have received some perceptive comments (and criticism) over the past year. To all who have visited this forum, thank you.
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