Tuesday


energy sources

A distinction often employed in historiography is that between the diachronic and the synchronic. I have written about this distinction in several posts including Axes of Historiography, Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography, Synchronic and Diachronic Geopolitical Theories, and Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization.

It is common for this distinction be be explained by saying that the diachronic perspective is through time and the synchronic perspective is across time. I don’t find this explanation to be helpful or intuitively insightful. I prefer to say that the diachronic perspective is concerned with succession while the synchronic perspective is concerned with interaction within a given period of time. Sometimes I try to drive this point home by using the phrases “diachronic succession” and “synchronic interaction.”

In several posts I have emphasized that futurism is the historiography of the future, and history the futurism of the past. In this spirit, it is obvious that the future, like the past, can also be approached diachronically or synchronically. That is to say, we can think of the future in terms of a succession of events, one following upon another — what Shakespeare called such a dependency of thing on thing, as e’er I heard in madness — or in terms of the interaction of events within a given period of future time. Thus we can distinguish diachronic futurism and synchronic futurism. This is a difference that makes a difference.

One of the rare points at which futurism touches upon public policy and high finance is in planning for the energy needs of power-hungry industrial-technological civilization. If planners are convinced that the future of energy production lies in a particular power source, billions of dollars may follow, so real money is at stake. And sometimes real money is lost. When the Washington Public Power Supply System (abbreviated as WPPSS, and which came to be pronounced “whoops”) thought that nuclear power was the future for the growing energy needs of the Pacific Northwest, they started to build no fewer than five nuclear power facilities. For many reasons, this turned out to be a bad bet on the future, and WPPSS defaulted on 2.25 billion dollars of bonds.

The energy markets provide a particularly robust demonstration of synchrony, so that within the broadly defined “present” — that is to say, in the months or years that constitute the planning horizon for building major power plants — we can see a great number of interactions within the economy that resemble nothing so much as the checks and balances that the writers of the US Constitution built into the structure of the federal government. But while the founders sought political checks and balances to disrupt the possibility of any one part of the government becoming disproportionately powerful, the machinations of the market (what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand”) constitute economic checks and balances that often frustrate the best laid schemes of mice and men.

Energy markets are not only a concrete and pragmatic exercise in futurism, they are also a sector that tends to great oversimplification and are to vulnerable to bubbles and panics that have contributed to a boom-and-bust cycle in the industry that has had disastrous consequences. The captivity of energy markets to public perceptions has led to a lot of diachronic extrapolation of present trends in the overall economy and in the energy sector in particular. I’ve written some posts on diachronic extrapolation — The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation and Diachronic Extrapolation and Uniformitarianism — in an attempt to point out some of the problems with straight line extrapolations of current trends (not to mention the problems with exponential extrapolation).

An example of diachronic extrapolation carried out in great detail is the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, which I discussed in Are Happy Days Here Again?, speculating on how the economy will change as gasoline prices continue to climb, and written as though nothing else would happen at the same time that gas prices are going up. If we could treat one energy source — like gasoline — in ideal isolation, this might be a useful exercise, but this isn’t the case.

When the price of fossil fuels increase, several things happen simultaneously. More investment comes into the industry, sources that had been uneconomical to tap start to become commercially viable, and other sources of energy that had been expensive relative to fossil fuels become more affordable relative to the increasing price of their alternatives. Also, with the passage of time, new technologies become available that make it both more efficient and more cost effective to extract fossil fuels previously not worth the effort to extract. Higher technologies not only affect production, but also consumption: the extracted fossil fuels will be used much more efficiently than in the past. And any fossil fuels that lie untapped — such as, for example, the oil presumed to be under ANWR — are essentially banked in the ground for a future time when their extraction will be efficient, effective, and can be conducted in a manner consistent with the increasingly stringent environmental standards that apply to such resources.

Energy industry executives have in the past had difficulty in concealing their contempt for alternative and renewable resources, and for decades the mass media aided and abetted this by not taking these sources seriously. But that is changing now. The efficiency of solar electric and wind turbines has been steadily improving, and many European nation-states have proved that these technologies can be scaled up to supply an energy grid on an industrial scale. For those who look at the big picture and the long term, there is no question that solar electric will be a dominant form of energy; the only problem is that of storage, we are told. But the storage problem for solar electricity is a lot like the “eyesore” problem for wind turbines: it has only been an effective objection because the alternatives are not taken seriously, and propaganda rather than research has driven the agenda. The Earth is bathed in sunlight at all times, but one side is always dark. a global energy grid — well within contemporary technological means — could readily supply energy from lighted side to the dark side.

Even this discussion is too limited. The whole idea of a “national grid” is predicated upon an anarchic international system of nation-states in conflict, and the national energy grid becomes in turn a way for nation-states to defend their geographical territory by asserting control of energy resources within that territory. There is no need for a national energy grid, or for each nation-state to have a proprietary grid. We possess the technology today for decentralized energy production and consumption that could move away from the current paradigm of a national energy grid of widely distributed consumption and centralized production.

But it is not my intention in this context to write about alternative energy, although this is relevant to the idea of synchrony in energy markets. I cite alternative energy sources because this is a particular blindspot for conventional thinking about energy. Individuals — especially individuals in positions of power and influence — get trapped in energy groupthink no less than strategic groupthink, and as a result of being virtually unable to conceive of any energy solution that does not conform to the present paradigm, those who make public energy policy are often blindsided by developments they did not anticipate. Unfortunately, they do so with public money, picking winners and losers, and are wrong much of the time, meaning losses to the public treasury.

When an economy, or a sector of the economy, is subject to stresses, that economy or sector may experience failure — whether localized and containable, or catastrophic and contagious. In the wake of the late financial crisis, we have heard about “stress testing” banks. Volatility in energy markets stress tests the components of the energy markets. Since this is a real-world event and not a test, different individuals respond differently. Individuals representing institutional interests respond as one would expect institutions to respond, but in a market as complex and as diversified as the energy market, there are countless small actors who will experiment with alternatives. Usually this experimentation does not amount to much, as the kind of resources that institutions possess are not invested in them, but this can change incrementally over time. The experimental can become a marginal sector, and a marginal sector can grow until it becomes too large to ignore.

All of these events in the energy sector — and more and better besides — are occurring simultaneously, and the actions of any one agent influence the actions of all other agents. It is a fallacy to consider any one energy source in isolation from others, but it is a necessary fallacy because no one can understand or anticipate all the factors that will enter into future production and consumption. Energy is the lifeblood of industrial-technological civilization, and yet it is beyond the capacity of that civilization to plan its energy future, which means that industrial-technological civilization cannot plan its own future, or foresee the form that it will eventually take.

Synchrony in energy markets occurs at an order of magnitude that defies all prediction, no matter how hard-headed or stubbornly utilitarian in conception the energy futurism involved. The big picture reveals patterns — that fossil fuels dominate the present, and solar electric is likely to dominate the future — but it is impossible to say in detail how we will get from here to there.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Advertisements

Monday


catastrophism or uniformitarianism

In my last post, The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation, I attempted to show how diachronic extrapolation, while the most familiar form of futurism, is often misleading because it fails to adequately account for synchronic interactions as a diachronic strategic trend develops. In other posts concerned with unintended consequences I have emphasized that, in the long term, unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Unintended consequences are the result of synchronic interactions that were not foreseen, that were no part of diachronic agency, and those cases in which unintended consequences swamp intended consequences the synchronic interactions have proved more decisive in shaping the future than diachronic causality.

In my post on The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation I made several assertions that clearly imply the limitation of inferences from the present to the future, which also implies the limitation of inferences from the present to the past. This brings up issues that go far beyond futurism.

In that post I wrote:

“…diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.”

…and…

“…the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time…”

The reader may have noticed the resemblance of this species of failed futurism to uniformitarianism: instead of taking a strategic trend acting at present and extrapolating it into the future, uniformitarianism takes a physical force acting in the present and extrapolates it into the future (or, as is more likely the case in geology, into the past). This idea of uniformitarianism is usually expressed as, “the present is key to the past,” and we might similarly express the parallel form of futurism as being, “the present is key to the future.” These two claims — the present is the key to the past and the present is the key to the future — are logically equivalent since, as I pointed out previously, every present is the future of some past, and the past of some future.

Since these interpretations of uniformitarianism involve uniformity across past and future, these formulations closely resemble formulations of induction also stated in terms of past and future, as when the logical problem of induction is formulated, “Will the future be like the past?” It is at this point that the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide, because it concerns a problem that all have in common.

Stephen Jay Gould noticed this similarity of uniformitarianism and induction in his first published paper, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” Gould, of course, become famous for his critique of uniformitarianism, and for this alternative to it, punctuated equilibrium (for which he shares the credit with Niles Eldredge). In this early paper by Gould, Gould distinguished between substantive uniformitarianism and methodological uniformitarianism. He tried to show that the former is simply false, and the the latter, methodological uniformitarianism, is now subsumed under the scientificity of geology and paleontology. Here is now Gould put it:

“…we see that methodological uniformitarianism amounts to an affirmation of induction and simplicity. But since these principles belong to the modern definition of empirical science in general, uniformitarianism is subsumed in the simple statement: ‘geology is a science’. By specifically invoking methodological uniformitarianism, we do little more than affirm that induction is procedurally valid in geology.”

Stephen Jay Gould, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” American Journal of Science, Vol. 263, March 1965, p. 227

That is to say, the earth sciences use the scientific method, which Gould characterizes in terms of inductive logic and the principle of parsimony (I would argue that Gould is also assuming methodological naturalism) — therefore everything that is worth saving in uniformitarianism is already secured by the scientific status of geology, and therefore uniformitarianism is dispensable. Having once served an important function in science, uniformitarianism has now, Gould contends, become an obstacle to progress.

As I noted above, Gould didn’t merely assert that uniformitarianism was no longer necessary, but devoted his career to arguing for an alternative, punctuated equilibrium, which asserts that long period of stasis are interrupted by catastrophic discontinuities. While much has been written about uniformitarianism vs. punctuated equilibrium, I see this as the thin end of the wedge for considering all kinds of alternatives to strict uniformitarianism, and to his end I think we would do well to explore all possible patterns of development, whether uniform (slow, gradual, incremental), punctuated (sudden, catastrophic, discontinuous), or otherwise.

Of course, we could easily produce more sophisticated formulations of uniformitarianism that would avoid the subsequent problems that have been raised, but this is the path that leads to Ptolemaic epicycles and attempts to “save the appearances,” whereas what we want is a rich mixture of theoretical innovation from which we can try many different models and select for further development those that are most true to the world.

Since the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide at the point represented by the problem of the relationship of parts of time to other parts of time (and the idea of temporal parts is itself philosophical contested), all of these disciplines stand to learn something of value from exploring alternatives to uniformitarianism. In so far as futurism is dominated by nomothetic diachrony, and constitutes a kind of historical uniformitarianism, very different forms of futurism might emerge from a careful study of the alternatives to uniformitarianism, or merely from a recognition that, as Gould put, uniformitarianism is no longer necessary and something of an anachronism. If there is anything of which futurists ought to beware, being an anachronism must be close to the top of the list.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Saturday


Synchronic interaction is like the ripples of rain drops in a pond, which collide with other ripples and create new patterns.

Synchronic interaction is like the ripples of rain drops in a pond, which collide with other ripples and create new patterns.

In Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization and Axes of Historiography I discussed the differences between synchronic and diachronic approaches to historiographical analysis (and in much greater detail in Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography). The synchronic/diachronic distinction can also be useful in futurism, and in fact we can readily distinguish between what I will call synchronic extrapolation and diachronic extrapolation.

Synchronic interaction is as familiar as a conversation, which rarely follows a straight line.

Synchronic interaction is as familiar as a conversation, which rarely follows a straight line.

If we understand synchrony as, “the present construed broadly enough to admit of short term historical interaction” (as I formulated it in Axes of Historiography), then synchronic extrapolation is the extrapolation of a broadly construed present across its interactions. This may not sound very enlightening, but you’ll understand immediately what I mean when I relate it to chaos and complexity. Recent interest in chaos theory and what is known as the “butterfly effect” has led some to think in terms of synchronic extrapolation since the idea of the is of a small event the interactions of which cascade to produce significant consequences.

An exponential growth curve is one form of diachronic extrapolation.

An exponential growth curve is one form of diachronic extrapolation.

As a form of futurism, synchronic extrapolation is not familiar (probably because it doesn’t take us very far forward into the future), but we need to keep it in mind in order to contrast it with diachronic extrapolation. Diachronic extrapolation is one of the most familiar forms of futurism today, especially as embodied in Ray Kurzweil’s love of exponential growth curves, which are usually diachronic extrapolations. One of the reasons that I remain so skeptical about the claims of Kurzweil and other singulatarians (even though I have learned a lot about them recently and have a less negative picture overall than initially) is the heavy reliance on diachronic extrapolation in their futurism. I frequently cite specific examples of failed exponential growth curves or technologies (like chemical rockets) that seem to be stuck in a technological rut (what I have called a stalled technology), experiencing little or no development (and certainly not exponential development), and I do this because readers usually find specific, particular examples persuasive.

The straight line of causality of falling dominoes constitutes another model of diachronic extrapolation.

The straight line of causality of falling dominoes constitutes another model of diachronic extrapolation.

I have discovered over the course of many conversations that most people tune out extended theoretical expositions, and only sort of wake up and pay attention when you give a concrete example. So I do this, to the best of my ability. But really, the dispute with diachronic extrapolation (and particular schools of futurist thought that employ diachronic extrapolation to the exclusion of other methods, such as the singulatarians) is theoretical, and all the examples in the world aren’t going to get to the nub of the problem, which must be given the theoretical exposition that it deserves. And the nub of the problem is simply that diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.

The interplay of synchronic interaction and diachronic succession is like a chain reaction.

The interplay of synchronic interaction and diachronic succession is like a chain reaction.

Diachronic extrapolation may be derailed by historical singularities, but it is far more frequent that nothing so discontinuous as a singularity need happen in order for a straight-forward extrapolation of present trends fail to be be realized. I specifically single out diachronic extrapolation in isolation, because the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time. This simultaneous synchrony and diachrony resembles a chain reaction of ever-growing consequences from the initial point of departure.

In my two immediately previous posts — Addendum on Automation and the Human Future and Bertrand Russell as Futurist — I dealt obliquely with the problems of diachronic extrapolation. Predicting technogenic unemployment on the basis of contemporary automation, or predicting a bifurcation between annihilation or world government, is a paradigm case of diachronic extrapolation that fails to sufficiently take into account future interactions that will become as important or more important than the diachronically extrapolated trend.

This was the point that I was trying to make in Addendum on Automation and the Human Future when I wrote:

I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date.

In other words, a diachronic extrapolation of current employment trends — technogenic unemployment, new jobs created by new industries, and perennial problems of unemployment and underemployment — is helpful in so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in capturing the different world that the future will be.

Similar concerns hold for Russell’s failed futurism that I reviewed in Bertrand Russell as Futurist: Russell took several trends operating at present — war, nuclear weapons, anarchic competition among nation-states — and extrapolated them into the future as though nothing else would happen in history except these closely related group of strategically significant trends.

In my post on Russell’s futurism I cited his essay “The Future of Man”, but Russell made the same point innumerable. times. In his first essay on the atomic bomb, “The Bomb and Civilization,” he wrote:

Either war or civilization must end, and if it is to be war that ends, there must be an international authority with the sole power to make the new bombs. All supplies of uranium must be placed under the control of the international authority, which shall have the right to safeguard the ore by armed forces. As soon as such an authority has been created, all existing atomic bombs, and all plants for their manufacture, must be handed over. And of course the international authority must have sufficient armed forces to protect whatever has been handed over to it. If this system were once established, the international authority would be irresistible, and wars would cease. At worst, there might be occasional brief revolts that would be easily quelled.

And in his book-length study of the same question, Has Man a Future? Russell made the same point again:

“So long as armed forces are under the command of single nations, or groups of nations, not strong enough to have unquestioned control over the whole world — so long it is almost certain that sooner or later there will be war, and, so long as scientific technique persists, war will grow more and more deadly.”

Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 69

We have seen that armed forces continue to be under the command of individual nation-states, and in fact they continue to go to war with each other. Moreover, scientific technique has markedly improved, and while the construction of weapons of mass destruction remains today a topic of considerable political comment, the availability of improved weapons of mass destruction did not automatically or inevitably lead to global nuclear war and human extinction.

In the same book Russell went on to say:

“…it seems indubitable that scientific man cannot long survive unless all the major weapons of war, and all the means of mass destruction, are in the hands of a single authority, which, in consequence of its monopoly, would have irresistible power and, if challenged to war, could wipe out any rebellion within a few days without much damage except to the rebels.”

Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 70

In writing these comments, we can now see in hindsight that one of the major strategic trends of the second half of the twentieth century that Russell missed was the rise in the efficacy of asymmetrical resistance to irresistible power. Russell does not seem to have recognized that authorities in possession of de facto irresistible power might choose not to annihilate a weaker power because of global opinion and the hit that such an actor would take to its soft power if it simply wiped out a rebellion. Moreover, the wide distribution of automatic weapons — not weapons of mass destruction — proved to be a disruptive force in global political affairs by providing just enough friction to the military operations of great powers that rebellions could not be wiped out within a few days.

The rise of twentieth century guerrilla resistance and rebellion was an important development in global affairs, and a development not acknowledged until it was already a fait accompli, but I don’t think that it constituted an historical singularity — as it is part of a devolution of warfare rather than a breakthrough to a new order of magnitude of war (which seems to have been what Russell feared would come about).

It has been said (by L. P. Hartley, a contemporary of Russell) that the past is a foreign country. This is true. It is also true that the future is a foreign country. (Logically, these two claims are identical; every present is the future to some past.) We ought to make no pretense to false familiarity with the future, since they do things differently there.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Axes of Historiography

3 November 2012

Saturday


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.

. . . . .

. . . . .

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

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Monday


For a more theoretical exposition of synchrony and diachrony you can read my more recent post, Axes of Historiography.


When I see a post that I wrote starting to appear as the result of searches, sometimes many months after I first wrote it, I often use that as an excuse to re-write and hopefully improve the content of a post now being accessed. It is also an opportunity for me to re-visit the ideas of the post in question. This was the case with a post of last October, Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I expanded some of its content and added some illustrations.

In Counter-cyclical civilization I argued that while we need not see civilizations as conforming to an organic model and therefore exhibiting a predictable life cycle, if we do interpret civilizations in this way we can still think of the life cycle of a civilization being interrupted and thereafter following an unprecedented path of development. If sufficient counter-cyclical forces emerge within a civilization it might conceivably be spared the completion of its life cycle and therefore predicable extinction.

In reviewing the contrast I made in that post between the organic model of civilization and the mereological model of civilization it became immediately obvious to me that I was essentially contrasting synchronic and a diachronic perspectives on civilization. Diachronic and synchronic are terms from structuralism that indicate, respectively, an historical perspective and a structural perspective. I would prefer to call these the functional perspective and the structural perspective, but whatever you call the distinction there is definitely a difference between thinking of anything primarily in historical terms and being concerned with its development and thinking of anything in primarily structural terms and being concerned with inter-relationships independent of history.

A side by side comparison of organic and mereological models of civilization makes something obvious that should have been obvious to me earlier: the organic model is diachronic while the mereological model is synchronic, to use the language of structuralism.

While separable in theory, structural and functional perspectives are of course integral in practice, and any mature theory will incorporate both perspectives to a certain degree, even if it emphases one or the other. A purely functional or purely structural perspective, whether on civilization or anything else, is an abstract perspective. Abstract perspectives are valuable for bringing out certain features of anything, and thus can help to sharpen our understanding of something usually so submerged in detail that it is not usually seen in stark relief, so we must attempt to keep both abstract and concrete perspectives in the mind at all times if we are to understand things in detail without losing sight of the big picture.

Freshwater limnology is a way of thinking that naturally tends to a structural perspective.

In the contrast between abstract functional and abstract structural perspectives, we see how the two interpenetrate as soon as we attend to the details of whatever it is we are talking about. If we try, for example, to bring a structural perspective to ecology, we might study freshwater limnology with an eye toward understanding the interactions between organisms and between organisms and their immediate environment in a river or a lake without concerning ourselves with the development of that ecosystem, how it evolved, what major changes will come next, and the like. But even a rigorously structuralist perspective will have to take in some span of time. In this case, structuralist freshwater limnology will at least need to consider a period of time that will include the life cycle of its organisms. If these organisms include, for example, the tree roots that often intrude into streams and ponds, this perspective might need to be expanded to a hundred years or more, which would mean a period of time during which many, many generations of shorter-lived organisms would come and go. Thus our structuralist freshwater limnology would involve a decision as to how deeply we would go into history, and this depth could be extrapolated all the way to include evolutionary biology.

Evolutionary biology is a way of thinking that naturally tends to a functional perspective.

Evolutionary biology tends to the functional; it never loses sight of the position of a given organism in history. Ecology, by its very nature, tends to the structural; it may, at times, become oblivious to history. Because of the strongly functional cast of evolutionary thought, it is almost difficult to imagine a structural approach to evolutionary biology, but one certainly could approach it this way, and if one did it would, I think, more and more resemble ecology. Similarly, the more ecological thought is pushed in a functional direction, the more it would approximate evolutionary biology.

What I have written above about the functional perspective of evolutionary biology and the structural perspective of ecology could be applied quite directly, mutatis mutandis, to the organic model of civilization. Moreover, we could say that the mereological model exemplifies (and naturally tends to) a structural perspective while the organic model exemplifies (and naturally tends to) the functional perspective. In other words, and to return to structuralist terminology, organicism is diachronic while mererologicism is synchronic. Or even in biological terms: structuralism is the ecology of civilizations; functionalism is the evolutionary view of civilization.

In their ideal and abstract forms, structural and functional thought — organic and mereological thought — are polar end points of a continuum along which our actual thought is and ought to be located (what philosophers sometimes call polar concepts). Structure must be informed by function and function must be informed by structure.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: