The Three Revolutions

12 November 2017

Sunday


Three Revolutions that Shaped the Modern World

The world as we know it today, civilization as we know it today (because, for us, civilization is the world, our world, the world we have constructed for ourselves), is the result of three revolutions. What was civilization like before these revolutions? Humanity began with the development of an agricultural or pastoral economy subsequently given ritual expression in a religious central project that defined independently emergent civilizations. Though widely scattered across the planet, these early agricultural civilizations had important features in common, with most of the pristine civilizations beginning to emerge shortly after the Holocene warming period of the current Quaternary glaciation.

Although independently originating, these early civilizations had much in common — arguably, each had more in common with the others emergent about the same time than they have in common with contemporary industrialized civilization. How, then, did this very different industrialized civilization emerge from its agricultural civilization precursors? This was the function of the three revolutions: to revolutionize the conceptual framework, the political framework, and the economic framework from its previous traditional form into a changed modern form.

The institutions bequeathed to us by our agricultural past (the era of exclusively biocentric civilization) were either utterly destroyed and replaced with de novo institutions, or traditional institutions were transformed beyond recognition to serve the needs of a changed human world. There are, of course, subtle survivals from the ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and historians love to point out some of the quirky traditions we continue to follow, though they make no sense in a modern context. But this is peripheral to the bulk of contemporary civilization, which is organized by the institutions changed or created by the three revolutions.

Copernicus stands at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and he stands virtually alone.

The Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution begins as the earliest of the three revolutions, in the early modern period, and more specifically with Copernicus in the sixteenth century. The work of Copernicus was elaborated and built upon by Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and a growing number of scientists in western Europe, who began with physics, astronomy, and cosmology, but, in framing a scientific method applicable to the pursuit of knowledge in any field of inquiry, created an epistemic tool that would be universally applied.

The application of the scientific method had the de facto consequence of stigmatizing pre-modern knowledge as superstition, and the attitude emerged that it was necessary to extirpate the superstitions of the past in order to build anew on solid foundations of the new epistemic order of science. This was perceived as an attack on traditional institutions, especially traditional cultural and social institutions. It was this process of the clearing away of old knowledge, dismissed as irrational superstition, and replacing it with new scientific knowledge, that gave us the conflict between science and religion that still simmers in contemporary civilization.

The scientific revolution is ongoing, and continues to revolutionize our conceptual framework. For example, four hundred years into the scientific revolution, in the twentieth century, the Earth sciences were revolutionized by plate tectonics and geomorphology, while cosmology was revolutionized by general relativity and physics was revolutionized by quantum theory. The world we understood at the end of the twentieth century was a radically different place from the world we understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is due to the iterative character of the scientific method, which we can continue to apply not only to bodies of knowledge not yet transformed by the scientific method, but also to earlier bodies of scientific knowledge that, while revolutionary in their time, were not fully comprehensive in their conception and formulation. Einstein recognized this character of scientific thought when he wrote that, “There could be no fairer destiny for any physical theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.”

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

The Political Revolutions

The political revolutions that began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789, and then a series of revolutions across South America that displaced Spain and the Spanish Empire from the continent and the western hemisphere (in a kind of revolutionary contagion), ushered in an age of representative government and popular sovereignty that remains the dominant paradigm of political organization today. The consequences of these political revolutions have been raised to the status of a dogma, so that it no longer considered socially acceptable to propose forms of government not based upon representative institutions and popular sovereignty, however dismally or frequently these institutions disappoint.

We are all aware of the experiment with democracy in classical antiquity in Athens, and spread (sometimes by force) by the Delian League under Athenian leadership until the defeat of Athens by the Spartans and their allies. The ancient experiment with democracy ended with the Peloponnesian War, but there were quasi-democratic institutions throughout the history of western civilization that fell short of perfectly representative institutions, and which especially fell short of the ideal of popular sovereignty implemented as universal franchise. Aristotle, after the Peloponnesian War, had already converged on the idea of a mixed constitution (a constitution neither purely aristocratic nor purely democratic) and the Roman political system over time incorporated institutions of popular participation, such as the Tribune of the People (Tribunus plebis).

Medieval Europe, which Kenneth Clark once called a, “conveniently loose political organization,” frequently involved self-determination through the devolution of political institutions to local control, which meant that free cities might be run in an essentially democratic way, even if there were no elections in the contemporary sense. Also, medieval Europe dispensed with slavery, which had been nearly universal in the ancient world, and in so doing was responsible for one of the great moral revolutions of human civilization.

The political revolutions that broke over Europe and the Americas with such force starting in the late eighteenth century, then, had had the way prepared for them by literally thousands of years of western political philosophy, which frequently formulated social ideals long before there was any possibility of putting them into practice. Like the scientific revolution, the political revolutions had deep roots in history, so that we should rightly see them as the inflection points of processes long operating in history, but almost imperceptible in their earliest expression.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution began in England with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, which was, in turn, an improvement upon the Newcomen atmospheric engine, which in turn built upon a long history of an improving industrial technology and industrial infrastructure such as was recorded in Adam Smith’s famous example of a pin factory, and which might be traced back in time to the British Agricultural Revolution, if not before. The industrial revolution rapidly crossed the English channel and was as successful in transforming the continent as it had transformed England. The Germans especially understood that it was the scientific method as applied to industry that drove the industrial revolution forward, as it still does today. It is science rather than the steam engine that truly drove the industrial revolution.

As the scientific revolution drove epistemic reorganization and the political revolutions drove sociopolitical reorganization, the industrial revolution drove economic reorganization. Today, we are all living with the consequences of that reorganization, with more human beings than ever before (both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of rates) living in cities, earning a living through employment (whether compensated by wages or salary is indifferent; the invariant today is that of being an employee), and organizing our personal time on the basis of clock times that have little to do with the sun and the moon, and schedules that have little or no relationship to the agricultural calendar.

The emergence of these institutions that facilitated the concentration of labor (what Marx would have called “industrial armies”) where it was most needed for economic development indirectly meant the dissolution of multi-generational households, the dissolution of the feeling of being rooted in a particular landscape, the dissolution of the feeling of belonging to a local community, and the dissolution of the way of life that was embodied in these local communities of multi-generational households, bound to the soil and the climate and the particular mix of cultivars that were dietary staples. As science dismissed traditional beliefs as superstition, the industrial revolution dismissed traditional ways of life as impractical and even as unhealthy. Le Courbusier, a great prophet of the industrial city, possessed of revolutionary zeal, forcefully rejected pre-modern technologies of living, asserting, “We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.”

Revolutionary Permutations

Terrestrial civilization as we know it today is the product of these three revolutions, but must these three revolutions occur, and must they occur in this specific order, for any civilization whatever that would constitute a peer technological civilization with which we might hope to engage in communication? That is to say, if there are other civilizations in the universe (or even in a counterfactual alternative history for terrestrial civilization), would they have to arrive at radio telescopes and spacecraft by this same sequence of revolutions in the same order, or would some other sequence (or some other revolutions) be equally productive of technological civilizations?

This may well sound like a strange question, perhaps an arbitrary question, but this is the sort of question that formal historiography asks. In several posts I have started to outline a conception of formal historiography in which our interest is not only in what has happened on Earth, or what might yet happen on Earth, but what can happen with any civilization whatsoever, whether on Earth or elsewhere (cf. Big History and Scientific Historiography, History in an Extended Sense, Rational Reconstructions of Time, An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time, and Placeholders for Null-Valued Time). While this conception is not formulated for the express purpose of investigating questions like the Fermi paradox, I hope that the reader can see how such an investigation bears upon the Fermi paradox, the Drake equation, and other “big picture” conceptions that force us to think not in terms of terrestrial civilization, but rather in terms of any civilization whatever.

From a purely formal conception of social institutions, it could be argued that something like these revolutions would have to take place in something like the terrestrial order. The epistemic reorganization of society made it possible to think scientifically about politics, and thus to examine traditional political institutions rationally in a spirit of inquiry characteristic of the Enlightenment. Even if these early forays into political science fall short of contemporary standards of rigor in political science, traditional ideas like the divine right of kings appeared transparently as little better than political superstitions and were dismissed as such. The social reorganization following from the rational examination the political institutions utterly transformed the context in which industrial innovations occurred. If the steam engine or the power loom had been introduced in a time of rigid feudal institutions, no one would have known what to do with them. Consumer goods were not a function of production or general prosperity (as today), but rather were controlled by sumptuary laws, much as the right to engage in certain forms of commerce was granted as a royal favor. These feudal political institutions would not likely have presided over an industrial revolution, but once these institutions were either reformed or eliminated, the seeds of the industrial revolution could take root.

In this interpretation, the epistemic reorganization of the scientific revolution, the social reorganization of the political revolutions, and the economic reorganization of the industrial revolution are all tightly-coupled both synchronically (in terms of the structure of society) and diachronically (in terms of the historical succession of this sequence of events). I am, however, suspicious of this argument because of its implicit anthropocentrism as well as its teleological character. Rather than seeking to justify or to confirm the world we know, framing the historical problem in this formal way gives us a method for seeking variations on the theme of civilization as we know it; alternative sequences could be the basis of thought experiments that would point to different kinds of civilization. Even if we don’t insist that this sequence of revolutions is necessary in order to develop a technological civilization, we can see how each development fed into subsequent developments, acting as a social equivalent of directional selection. If the sequence were different, presumably the directional selection would be different, and the development of civilization taken in a different direction.

I will not here attempt a detailed analysis of the permutations of sequences laid out in the graphic above, though the reader may wish to think through some of the implications of civilizations differently structured by different revolutions at different times in their respective development. For example, many science fiction stories imagine technological civilizations with feudal institutions, whether these feudal institutions are retained unchanged from a distant agricultural past, or whether they were restored after some kind of political revolution analogous to those of terrestrial history, so one could say that, prima facie, political revolution might be entirely left out, i.e., that political reorganization is dispensable in the development of technological civilization. I would not myself make this argument, but I can see that the argument can be made. Such arguments could be the basis of thought experiments that would present civilization-as-we-do-not-know-it, but which nevertheless inhabit the same parameter space of civilization-as-we-know-it.

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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.

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Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)

Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)

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Saturday


grand strategy university

Introduction to the Scientific Study of Time

If I had an educational institution in which I could dictate the curriculum, I would have as requirements for the first year at least these two courses: “How to read a scientific paper” and “Understanding scales of time.” Of the former I will only say that, in our scientific civilization, every citizen needs to be able to read a scientific paper, so as not to rely exclusively on popularizations from journalists (perhaps I will write more on this later). The latter — understanding scales of time — is what concerns me at present. When I survey my own attempts to come to an understanding of the differing scales of time employed by the different sciences, I am struck by the slowness of my progress, but also by the importance of making progress. An organized and systematic attempt to give a unified exposition of the historical sciences and the time scales each entails would, I think, contribute significantly to making the various special sciences mutually intelligible and to encourage rigorous interdisciplinary research.

Just to finish the thought of a curriculum appropriate for the population of a scientific civilization, I might also consider not only a first year course in scientific method — many schools have required courses in statistics, which is a good step in this direction — but also a course in the philosophy of science and scientific methods, in order to give a comprehensive sense of the scientific enterprise and to engage students in thinking critically about the nature and limits of scientific knowledge. A scientific civilization that knows its own limits is less likely to fall victim to its own hubris than one in which these limits are not clearly understood.

Otto Neurath, W. V. O. Quine, Hans Reichenbach, and Imre Lakatos all used the idea of rational reconstruction.

Otto Neurath, W. V. O. Quine, Hans Reichenbach, and Imre Lakatos all used the idea of rational reconstruction.

The Idea of a Rational Reconstruction

The human experience of time originates in what Husserl called inner time consciousness, and human time as immediately experienced never extends beyond the lifetime of a single individual. Time consciousness, then, is severely constrained by human limitations. Human consciousness, however, not only consists in time consciousness, but also is the source of human reason, and human reason has sought to surmount the fleeting experience of time consciousness by extending time beyond the limitations of individual consciousness and the individual lifespan. This I will call the rational reconstruction of time.

Any duration of time beyond that of the human lifespan must be rationally reconstructed because it cannot be experienced directly. Extremely brief durations of time, such as are often involved in particle physics, also cannot be experienced directly, because they occur at a rate (or at such a microscopic scale) that cannot be distinguished by human sensory or cognitive faculties. These extremely brief durations of time also must be rationally reconstructed.

What is rational reconstruction? I won’t try to give a straight-forward definition, but instead I will try to give a sense of how philosophers have employed the idea of rational reconstruction. The idea originally came to prominence in the early twentieth century among logical positivists. Here is a passage from Otto Neurath that has become a point of reference in the origin of the idea of rational reconstruction:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, pp. 199-208, there p. 201.

Neurath further developed his ship analogy in other essays:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

Otto Neurath, “Anti-Spengler,” in Empiricism and Sociology, edited by Marie Neurath and Robert S. Cohen, Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973, p. 199

Here the emphasis falls upon the exigency of keeping the ship afloat, which is not the central concern of the rational reconstruction of time, but it would be an interesting exercise to apply this idea to the cognitive framework we all employ, with the necessity being active and effective agency in the world.

Quine adopted the analogy of rebuilding a ship at sea from Neurath. In his Word and Object, Quine quoted Neurath’s ship passage as an epigraph to the book and develops the theme of reconstruction throughout, extending Neurath’s positivist-inspired analogy more generally to philosophy, giving the idea contemporary currency in analytical philosophy.

Hans Reichenbach made the idea of rational reconstruction fully explicit:

“When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws.”

Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948, p. 2

Reichenbach has a footnote to this passage saying that “rational reconstruction” was introduced by Carnap, and indeed Carnap has a typically technical exposition of rational reconstruction in his Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (a bit long to quote here). Carnap’s interest in rational reconstruction seems to be due to the great influence that Russell’s philosophy had on Carnap, and it would be an interesting investigation to compare Russell’s conception of logical construction (in the parsimonious sense that Russell uses this term) and Carnap’s conception of rational reconstruction.

Imre Lakatos made extensive use of the idea of rational reconstruction in a more comprehensive context than the more narrowly logical exposition of Reichenbach. Lakatos applied rational reconstruction to the history of science, which is essentially what I am suggesting here:

“The history of science is always richer than its rational reconstruction. But rational reconstruction or internal history is primary, external history only secondary, since the most important problems of external history are defined by internal history. External history either provides non-rational explanation of the speed, locality, selectiveness, etc. of historic events as interpreted in terms of internal history; or, when history differs from its rational reconstruction, it provides an empirical explanation of why it differs. But the rational aspect of scientific growth is fully accounted for by one’s logic of scientific discovery.”

Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume I, Cambridge, 1989, “History of science and its rational reconstructions,” p. 118

A generalization of the point Lakatos makes in this passage would not be limited to the history of science: we can say that history simpliciter is always richer than its rational reconstruction, but the important problems for external history are set by the rational reconstruction of history. And, I think, we will find this to be the case; rational reconstructions of time point us to the most important problems for the historical sciences.

Cronus and Rhea, figures in one the central cosmogonic myths of classical antiquity.

Cronus and Rhea, figures in one the central cosmogonic myths of classical antiquity.

Mythology: the First Rational Reconstruction of Time

Mythology is the first “big history.” By placing human lives and human actions in a mythological context, human beings are immediately and personally related to a cosmos of enormous scope, far beyond anything to be encountered in the lives of most individuals. In order to achieve this scope, experiences had to be pooled, and a composite, richer experience draw from an inventory wider and deeper than the experiences of any one individual. This is the essence of the rational reconstruction of time, which was later taken to much greater lengths in subsequent human development.

In retrospect, mythological cosmologies are ethnocentric and parochial, usually bound to the biome of a given biocentric civilization, but in their time they constituted the uttermost and outermost reach of human reason, projecting human concerns into the heavens and beneath the Earth. Mythological cosmologies were as comprehensive as they could be at the time, given the limitations of human knowledge under which mythologies took shape.

While mythology is a rational reconstruction of the human condition, we can also can see the rational reconstruction of mythology itself when philosophically-minded later readers of mythology attempted to further bring the mythological cosmos into line with the increasingly rational order of human civilization. Plato famously wanted to ban all poets from his ideal republic, because the stories that poets tell about the gods are not always edifying, and Plato’s republic aspired to exercising absolute control over mythic narrative, to the point of inculcating a “noble lie” intended to reconcile each segment of the population with its social position. That is to say, mythology was to be employed as a tool of social control, which has always been a danger for historical thought.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Father of History

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Father of History

Classical History: the Second Rational Reconstruction of Time

The distinctive Greek gift for and contribution to rationality was expressed not only in philosophy and the earliest science, but also in works of art — the Parthenon is a monument to rationality, among other things — and literature. The Greeks invented the literary genre of history, and, once they invented history, disagreed on whether it was an art or a science. This was a perennial problem of classical historiography, but is no longer a burning question today, as the advent of scientific historiography has changed the terms of the debate in historiography.

It is at least arguable, however, that scientific historiography was always implicitly present from the origins of history in Herodotus and Thucydides, but no science existed in the time of the ancient Greeks that could realize this potential. The original Greek term used for the title of Herodotus’ The Historiesἱστορία — means inquiries, i.e., Herodotus conceived his work as an inquiry in the past, and so was part and parcel of the Greek imperative of rationality. Indeed, rationalism applied to the apparent sequence of historical accidents that is the past might well be considered the non plus ultra of rationalism. However, the method of Herodotus’ inquiries was not scientific (in the Greek sense) or logical, but rather narrative.

The extent to which history in this classical sense (one might say, in the Herodotean sense) truly is a rational reconstruction, and not a mere recounting of facts, i.e., a chronicle, is revealed by Arthur Danto’s study of the logic of narrative sentences in his Narration and Knowledge (and which logic of narrative I previously mentioned in Our Intimacy with the Past). Even the most complete account of events as they happen cannot express how the meanings of earlier events are changed by later events, which provide the context and perspective for interpreting earlier events. While Danto did not say so, the mirror image of this insight applies to the future, so that the present is given meaning in relation to its expected outcome, and expected outcomes are valued on the basis of present experience (and unexpected outcomes are also judged in terms of their divergence from expectation). This would be a theme that Big History would begin to explore, although not in these terms.

What we traditionally call history (i.e., Herodotean history) is simply that fragment of the whole of the temporal continuum narratively reconstructed from human records. We can understand this by a sensory analogy: we know from study of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes are able to see only a small portion of the EM spectrum. Beyond the abilities of human eyes, pit vipers can sense the infrared beyond the red end of the visible EM spectrum, and insects can sense ultraviolet beyond the violet end of the visible EM spectrum. Beyond the capacity of naturally evolved eyes to sense EM radiation, we can employ technology to detect radio waves, x-rays, and the rest of the EM spectrum. What human beings have called history is like the small “visible” portion of the EM spectrum: it is the small portion of the temporal continuum “visible” to human beings. The narrative method of traditional historiography allows us to reconstruct just so much history in human terms and to make it understandable to us.

The study of ice cores is an important source of data for scientific historiography.

The study of ice cores is an important source of data for scientific historiography.

Scientific Historiography: the Third Rational Reconstruction of Time

Already in classical antiquity we can see the scientific spirit at work in Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ptolemy wrote as a scientist, and not, like Herodotus, as an historian. As his science is now archaic, it is read only for its historical interest today, but in Ptolemy we can glimpse, in embryo, as it were, the scientific method in its characteristic attempt to transcend human limitations and the constraints of the human condition. In the Almagest Ptolemy compares his observations with the best observations of earlier writers, especially Hipparchus, even noting the margin of error inherent in observations due to the construction and position of instruments (cf. especially Book Seven on the fixed stars). In his chapter on determining the length of the year (Book Three, I), Ptolemy is always trying to get the oldest observations to compare with his observations, noting that nearly 300 years had elapsed between Hipparchus’ observations and this own, and reaches further back into Egyptian sources for data 600 years prior.

There is a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind, between these observations of Ptolemy and Freeman Dyson’s discussion whether the laws of nature change over time in “Time without end: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe” (1979). Dyson discusses what has since come to be called the “Oklo Bound,” based on the radioactive byproducts of the naturally-occurring Oklo fission reactor in Gabon. Dyson wrote:

“The fact that the two binding energies remained in balance to an accuracy of two parts in 1011 over 2.109 yr indicates that the strength of nuclear and Coulomb forces cannot have varied by more than a few parts in 1018 per year. This is by far the most sensitive test that we have yet found of the constancy of the laws of physics. The fact that no evidence of change was found does not, of course, prove that the laws are strictly constant. In particular, it does not exclude the possibility of a variation in strength of gravitational forces with a time scale much shorter than 1018 yr. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the laws are strictly constant. Any other assumption would be more complicated and would introduce additional arbitrary hypotheses.”

Dyson, like Ptolemy, was employing the best scientific measurements and observations of his time in the attempt to transcend his time, though while Ptolemy’s rudimentary methods spanned a few hundred years, science can now comprehend a few billion years. The transcendence of immediately experienced human time by scientific scales of time is the rational reconstruction of time made possible by the historical sciences, and, by extension, for scientific historiography.

While the spirit of science is as old as classical antiquity, and it emerged from the same Greek world that gave us Herodotus and the Greek historians following Herodotus, scientific historiography did not begin to come into its own until the nineteenth century. Besides Ptolemy there were a few other notable intimations of scientific historiography to come, as in Nicholas Steno’s laws of superposition in geology. The historical sciences began to realize their potential in the geology and biology of the nineteenth century in the geology of Lyell and the biology of Darwin. Within a few years’ of the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Lyell Published Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, which reconceptualized humanity in the context of geological time. Later in the nineteenth century, scientific dating techniques such as varve chronology (varves are annual deposits left by melting glaciers) and dedrochronology (tracing overlapping tree rings backward in time) began to give exact dates for historical events long before human records. Scientific archaeology (as opposed to mere treasure hunting) began about the same time.

Scientific historiography reconstructs time employing the resources of the scientific method, which made the reconstruction of time systematic. As long as science continues to develop, and is not allowed to drift into stagnancy, scientific historiography can continue to add depth and detail to this historical record. Scientific historiography extended the narrative tradition of history beyond texts written by human beings to the text of nature itself; the whole of the world became the subject of historical inquiry in the form of the historical sciences, which reconstructed a narrative of Earth entire, and eventually also of the universe entire, which latter became the remit of Big History.

big history montage

Big History: the Fourth Rational Reconstruction of Time

Big history takes a step beyond the initial scope of scientific historiography, not merely narrating human history on the basis of what science can tell us where texts are silent, but in going beyond human history to a history of the universe entire, in which human history is contextualized. As I write this the 3rd IBHA conference is about to take place next weekend in Amsterdam, and I am a bit disappointed that I won’t be going, as I enjoyed the 2nd IBHA conference I attended a couple of years ago (cf. Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).

The approach of big history did not come out of nowhere, but was building since the discovery of “deep time” in Steno’s laws of superposition, but especially the geology of James Hutton, then Charles Lyell, and later yet geological time scales brought to the study of life by Darwin. Science that dealt in millions of years and then billions of years slowly acclimated informed human minds of the possibilities for science completely freed of anthropocentric constraints. A hundred years ago, in the early twentieth century, we began to glimpse the size and the age of the universe entire, extending scientific scales of time beyond the Earth and the inherent geocentric constraints of human thought.

How can a human being, starting from the human experience of time, ever come to understand the life and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the largest and oldest structures of the cosmos? This grandest of historical reconstructions is possible because the universe is large and old and diverse. We cannot witness the formation of our own sun or our own planet, but we can look out into the universe and see stars in the process or formation and planetary systems in the process of formation (i.e., protoplanetary disks). If we are sufficiently diligent in surveying the cosmos, we can put together an entire sequence of the evolution of stars and planetary systems, drawn from different individual instances all today at different stages of development. While processes of stellar formation and planetary system development take place on a scale of time that human beings can never directly perceive, our reconstruction of these processes can be made comprehensible to us in this way. And when we are able to travel among the stars and to study life on many different worlds, we will be able engage in the astrobiological equivalent to this cosmological seriation, and similarly so with civilization and other forms of emergent complexity.

Big history provides a comprehensive context in which all of these scientific seriations of time scales beyond human perception can be concatenated in a single grand reconstruction of the whole of time as it is accessible to contemporary science. And, on the basis of contemporary science, Big History represents the culmination and non plus ultra of scientific historiography. Beyond the limits of empirical evidence methods other than science must be employed.

equations 0

Formal Historiography: the Fifth Rational Reconstruction of Time

The fifth rational reconstruction of time is a rational reconstruction that has not yet been constructed, but we can see, on the horizon, that this is the natural teleology of the development described above. As inductive empirical science matures and grows in sophistication, there is an increasing tendency both to rigor and to integration with other physical theories. Sometimes the imperative to greater rigor is not historically obvious, as an empirical science may remain static in terms of its formal development for a long time — sometimes for centuries. But the need for formal rigor is eventually felt, and some clever soul somewhere has an “A ha!” moment that shows the way to a formal surrogate for a previously intuitive approach. This will be true for historiography as well.

There is a contemporary school of thought — cliodynamics — attempting to transform history into an empirical, testable science, employing numerical methods and quantification. In the bigger picture, scientific historiography more generally speaking adopts the formal methods of the other empirical sciences, and this increases the rigor of historical thought over time, but these efforts remain within the paradigm of inductive empirical science. When history is eventually formalized, it will follow the trajectory of earlier empirical sciences. First the work of scientific historiography must come to maturity, and then we will be in a position to engage in a formal scrutiny of the assumptions made in scientific historiography. Some of these assumptions will be common to other empirical sciences (in the traditional Euclidean language, these will be common notions, or axioms, that are not specific to some particular subject matter) while other assumptions will be unique to scientific historiography and will thus constitute the differentia of historical thought (postulates in Euclid’s terminology).

Most working scientists in daily practice do not employ fully formalized reasoning because it is cumbersome and slow, and, in fact, inductive empirical science can continue in its traditional methodology almost untouched by formalization. There are axiomatizations of general relativity, for example (cf., e.g., “An Axiomatization of General Relativity,” Richard A. Mould, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 3, Jun. 15, 1959, pp. 485-529), but this is not the way that most physics is done today. One might think of formalization as the highest level of emergent complexity yet attained within cognitive astrobiology, with mythology, narrative history, scientific historiography, and Big History all as earlier emergents in a sequence of emergents with the later supervening upon the earlier. All of these forms of human thought about time will continue to develop — they will not be replaced or superseded by formal historiography — but it will be formal historiography that moves the discipline of history forward into the terra incognita of time.

With the existence of hard limits to the historical sciences as represented by prediction walls and retrodiction walls, on what material will formal historical proceed? Let me attempt to give a sense of the kind of formal reasoning that can extend formal historiography beyond the constraints of observation and empiricism.

It has become commonplace for physicists to assert that, since time began with the big bang, that it is nonsensical to ask what preceded the big bang. This is, we must honestly admit, a rather tortured piece of reasoning (not to mention circular). While it is true that the big bang constitutes a retrodiction wall beyond which contemporary science cannot pass, and so is a boundary to empirical science, it is not an absolute boundary to human reason. To assert that there is nothing beyond or before the big bang is a perfect demonstration of the fact that human reason does not stop at empirical prediction walls. While it is a perfectly intellectually respectable claim to assert that there was nothing before the big bang, it is not a scientific claim, it is a philosophical claim. And, by the same token, it is a perfectly respectable claim to assert that there is something beyond the observable universe, including something before the big bang, but that this is inaccessible to contemporary science. Again, this is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical claim. In this sense, both of these claims are on the level, as it were.

There is no conceivable form of scientific research that could verify the existence of nothingness prior to the big bang. Philosophically, I would assert that producing evidence of nothingness is ipso facto impossible, and hence ruled out a priori, hence ruling out any scientific claim of nothing preceding the big bang. (Either that, or “nothingness” means something very different for the physicist as compared to the philosopher. And this is most likely the case: the two are talking — if indeed they ever talk — at cross-purposes.) The recognition of a nothingness outside or before the retrodiction wall presented by the big bang can be further illuminated by thought experiments proposed by Sydney Shoemaker and W. H. Newton-Smith that demonstrate the possibility of empty time (I will not attempt to give a summary of these thought experiments here; the reader is urged to consult these authors directly; cf. Newton-Smith’s The Structure of Time, II, 4, pp. 19-24).

These are the materials with which a formal historiography will grapple, along with the concerns of what I have called infinitistic historiography and infinitistic cosmology. In this way, formal historiography will transcend even the grand reconstruction of the whole of time accessible to contemporary science that I mentioned above in connection with Big History.

While the accidents of history might seem to be the last place that anyone would look for fertile ground for the formalization of knowledge, history, I think, will surprise us in this respect. And the surprising applicability of formal methods to history will constitute yet another rational reconstruction of time.

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Euclid as imagined by Jusepe de Ribera -- Euclid was instrumental in the origins of formal thought, which began with geometry, and has since been applied to many disciplines but has not yet transformed historiography.

Euclid as imagined by Jusepe de Ribera — Euclid was instrumental in the origins of formal thought, which began with geometry, and has since been applied to many disciplines but has not yet transformed historiography.

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Three Addenda

Addendum on Rational Reconstructions of Time

Placeholders for Null-Valued Time

An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time

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rational reconstructions of time

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Thursday


Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Thucydides, Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Commines.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Thucydides, Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Commines.

Introduction

In my previous post, Big History and Historiography I touched on the question of scientific historiography, which is a central question for Big History because Big History is scientific historiography in its most recent incarnation. There are certain considerations that follow from big history being scientific historiography, and I will attempt to explore these considerations below.

Traditional Historiography

The early examples of western historiography in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides still stand as models for historical writing and historiographical method, and this is a tradition that continued on even into medieval times, in the great histories of Sir John Froissart and Philippe de Commines, who must have read their models carefully and deduced the lessons that had not yet, at that time, been explicitly formulated as principles. Despite these admirable models to emulate, a lot of history has been more or less conscious myth-making, which may then be contrasted to the unconscious myth-making that has yielded religious mythology (through a gradual process of selection not unlike that which yielded the first domesticated crops). Histories have given us historical myths, which is of course why Descartes rejected history as a source of knowledge (of which more below).

Veyne Did the Greeks

Critical Historiography

With the renaissance we begin to see the emergence of critical historiography, and this then goes on to become the dominant trend in historiography in the following centuries. Historians consciously cultivated a conception of history based on citing sources and basing all claims on written evidence, and these critical historians began to seek out original source material and then to compare and criticize sources in order to arrive, through a methodology that did not necessarily take these sources at their word, at a considered account of history. There is a fascinating book about this — Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination By Paul Veyne — that delves into the emergence of critical historiography. Veyne cites in particular the reception of the Recherches de la France (1560) of Étienne Pasquier, which cites original source material in footnotes. Readers at the time, Veyne noted, objected to this method, and asked Pasquier why he did not rather submit his text to the judgment of posterity, which would either reject it or confirm it as tradition and canon.

Although Pasquier’s Recherches de la France was an early instance of critical historiography, it was also, in its own way, a piece of mythmaking and so something of a historical myth — but not precisely the myth that Pasquier’s contemporaries were prepared to hear. Pasquier was concerned to demonstrate the independent achievements of French civilization apart from classical antiquity, so that Pasquier did not begin with the Greeks or the Romans, but with the earliest peoples of Gaul, about which he derived some sketchy background from Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul — but this, too, is an fascinating window onto historical methodology, as many historians of the later twentieth century up to the present day have attempted to derive the authentic history of colonialized peoples by reading between the lines of the histories and chronicles left by their conquerors. Pasquier was more modern than he knew, and more modern even that Veyne realized.

The historical fiction of the Donation of Constantine shaped medieval political thought, notwithstanding the fact that is was a forgery. History is sometimes made of whole cloth.

The historical fiction of the Donation of Constantine shaped medieval political thought, notwithstanding the fact that is was a forgery. History is sometimes made of whole cloth.

Scientific Historiography

Critical historiography is then followed by scientific historiography, and scientific historiography begins to go beyond the original texts sought out by critical history and to pursue forms of evidence that did not even exist for previous historians, except in so far as they were preserved in folk memory. Scientific historiography has its own methods and its own canons of evidence, distinct from those of critical historiography. Scientific evidence and sources of knowledge are treated in critical fashion, but it is critical according to the methods of natural science, not textual exegesis. Both critical historiography and scientific historiography have sources and methods of evidence, and both take a critical view of these sources and evidence, but these methods remain distinct at present. These canons of evidence can be brought together if the will and the motive to force an integration and possibly even a synthesis is present, and this attempt to synthesize critical and scientific historiography is an implicit aim of big history.

One of the themes that became evident at the IBHA conference was the extent to which big history embraces the canons of evidence of scientific historiography. The terminology that has been introduced in big history is that of “claims testers,” which is systematically seeking to teach those who are learning big history how to verify the claims that are made on the basis of the methodology of natural science. This is an admirable undertaking, and I can’t say enough good things about an historical method that teaches students to be critical and to demand evidence for any and all claims made. However, the traditional historiographical challenge of “claims testing” was a hermeneutical exercise in textual exegesis. Historians got quite good at this kind of textual criticism. Already in the renaissance it was shown (by Lorenzo Valla), from internal evidence of the document, that the so-called “Donation of Constantine” was a medieval forgery. This work of exegesis continues into our own day, as ancient books are occasionally discovered and similarly interrogated. For example, the recovery of the Nag Hammadi library was a literary bonanza for New Testament scholars, whose discipline was revolutionized by this material.

Analogously, before detailed genetic studies revealed the pattern of human planetary dispersion, there was language, which preserves in its words and structures something of its own distant past, much as DNA does. Linguists traced the world’s languages backward to a root proto-Indo-European language and identified certain nodal points in the development and dispersal of that root. The study of language is in some ways an expansion upon traditional historiography based upon written language, which is say, history in the strict sense, in its narrowest construal, that of traditional historiography. That traditional historiography can be expanded and extended in this way, with the study of language, of inscriptions, of coins, the reconstruction or partially destroyed manuscripts, and other methods, shows how traditional text-based historiography can tend toward scientific historiography. The hunger for knowledge about the past does not relent where our documents leave off, and scholars have sought to fill in lacuna by hook or by crook. Some of these inventive methods have shaded over into scientific historiography.

Codices of the Nag Hammadi Library.

Codices of the Nag Hammadi Library.

Scientific Historiography and the Method of Isolation

The physical manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi libtrary themselves, and the context of their recovery, is something to be studied by scientific archaeology (after the fact, as the manuscripts themselves were initially recovered not by archaeologists, but by two Egyptian brothers who kept their discovery quiet in order to sell the find piece by piece, so that much of the archaeological context was lost), but just as traditional literary historiography is limited by its own canons of evidence and cannot penetrate into prehistory, so too scientific historiography is limited by its scientific canons of evidence, and from its studies of the physical condition of manuscripts it can say very little about the historical period as compared to simply reading the documents, which, however, is a specialized skill of scholars of ancient languages (the kind of scholars who revealed the Donation of Constantine as a forgery).

Now, in actual fact, scientific historians do not limit themselves to a scientific study of documents as physical artifacts; they also read the documents and derive information from the content, as we would expect they would. But if, as an exercise, we take the idea of scientific historiography according to the method of isolation, and consider it ideally as only scientific historiography, shorn from its association with traditional historiographical methods, we would be reduced to an archaeology of the historical period, which would be most unsatisfying.

Suppose, as a thought experiment, scientific historiography were to employ its methods to study what archaeologists call the “material culture” of the historical period, but was on principle denied any information recorded in actual documents and inscriptions. That is to say, suppose our picture of the historical past were exclusively the result of the study of the material culture of the historical past (here employing “history” in the narrow and traditional sense of history recorded in written documents). I think that our the historical past reconstructed on the basis of what scientific historiography could derive from material culture would be quite different from the story that we know of the historical past in virtue of written records. No one that I know of pursues this method of isolation in studying the historical past when documents are also available, though this method of isolation is pursued of necessity in the absence of any documents (or in the absence of a language that can be deciphered). Though this method is not pursued in history, it is important to point to that scientific historiography has its limitations no less than the limitations of critical historiography and its tradition.

Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)

Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997)

Isaiah Berlin and Scientific Historiography

Scholarship perpetually finds itself in the midst of the tension between traditionalism and modernization. If tradition is always given priority, scholarship becomes exclusively backward-looking and retrograde; Nietzsche would say that this is history that does not serve life. There have been many examples of this throughout the intellectual life of our planet. But scholarship cannot simply seize upon every intellectual trend that comes along, or it would lose touch with the established canons that have made rigorous scholarship possible. The introduction of a new idea might in fact expand these canons so that rigorous scholarship can have a wider field — I believe this to be the case with big history — but a new idea can appear to traditionalists as a threat to established research, a heresy, a diversion, or a waste of time.

Scientific historiography has been and is just such a new idea: different scholars have judged of it differently. Some few take up the new idea with enthusiasm, most are hesitant, while some few transform themselves into defenders of orthodoxy. Isaiah Berlin took up the problem of scientific historiography, and while he defended a traditionalist position, he did so intelligently, and not in the spirit of a reactionary rejecting anything that contradicts orthodoxy. For that reason we have much to learn from Berlin on this point.

Here is a representative passage from his essay on scientific historiography:

“The gifts that historians need are different from those of the natural scientists. The latter must abstract, generalise, idealise, qualify, dissociate normally associated ideas (for nature is full of strange surprises, and as little as possible must be taken for granted), deduce, establish with certainty, reduce everything to the maximum degree of regularity, uniformity, and, so far as possible, to timeless repetitive patterns. 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.”

Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”

Notice in this above passage that Berlin is attributing a nomothetic (lawlike) approach to science and an ideographic (contingency and accident) approach to history. There is a long 19th century tradition of associating history exclusively with the ideographic (i.e., the contingent). This is especially true in Windelband’s 1894 Rectorial Address “History and Natural Science,” which was to be such a profound influence upon Heinrich Rickert, who continued this tradition of thought. While figures like Windelband and Rickert were committed to a rigorous method in historiography, the idea of history as exclusively ideographic is at bottom a Platonic motif, and in Plato the nomothetic is necessary, apodictic truth, worthy of being immortalized among The Forms, while all else is the realm of mere shifting opinion. It is in this tradition Descartes is implicitly following as he searched for an apodictic truth upon which to build science, and along the way dismissed history in a famous passage:

“…fables make one imagine many events to be possible which are not so at all. And even the most accurate histories, if they neither alter nor exaggerate the significance of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, almost always at least omit the baser and less noteworthy details. Consequently the rest do not appear as they really are, and those who govern their own conduct by means of examples drawn from these texts are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights of our romances and to conceive plans that are beyond their powers.”

René Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Searching for Truth in the Sciences

Cartesians thereafter were well known for their lack of interest in history as an intellectual discipline, and if one takes mathematical reasoning as one’s paradigm (an early theme in Descartes that is already evident in his Rules for the Direction of Mind) it is not surprising that historical knowledge will not measure up to this apodictic standard. Even today one finds a quasi-Cartesian skepticism about history among some intelligent individuals whose epistemology is derived, implicitly or explicitly, from mathematics and the non-historical natural sciences.

From his presumption that history is ideographic and science nomothetic, Berlin determines that each contradicts the other:

“…to say of history that it should approximate to the condition of a science is to ask it to contradict its essence.”

Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”

While it is true that scientific method has focused on the nomothetic while historiographical method has focused on the ideographic, is it not possible that there is a nascent, undeveloped ideographic science and a nascent, undeveloped nomothetic historiography, each discipline waiting to be born, as it were, when our conceptual infrastructure feels the want of them and we are forced to develop new conceptions that transcend our old conceptions of science and history? Nomothetic science, ideographic history, nomothetic history, and ideographic science will naturally fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, each complementing rather than contradicting the other. Integrating human history into a background of scientific history, as in cosmology, geology, biology, etc., one is integrating the nomothetic and the ideographic.

One of the most interesting points in Berlin’s essay is his suggestion, by way of an analogy with unscientific thought, of the possibility of an unhistorical mode of thought:

“…to be unscientific is to defy, for no good logical or empirical reason, established hypotheses and laws; while to be unhistorical is the opposite — to ignore or twist one’s view of particular events, persons, predicaments, in the name of laws, theories, principles derived from other fields, logical, ethical, metaphysical, scientific, which the nature of the medium renders inapplicable…”

Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”

A truly comprehensive and integrative history — presumably the aim of big history — would have to avoid both unscientific and unhistorical modes of thought, and this is a valuable observation. This demonstrates that big history is not merely eclectic, but must also, like any rigorous discipline, be defined in terms of what it excludes.

Even though I do not agree with Berlin in detail, and often I disagree with him when it comes to the big picture also, I think that big history can only benefit by engaging with his ideas and his perspective. Ignoring the problems that Berlin points out is not, in my opinion, intellectually responsible. The scholar is called upon to respect and to respond to the arguments of earlier scholars, if only to refute them in order to demonstrate to future generations a blind alley to be avoided.

This brings me to the final quote I will take from Berlin’s essay, and where I most completely disagree with him:

“…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. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.”

Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, “The Concept of Scientific History”

I am not saying that Berlin’s approach to history is a blind alley, since traditional historical scholarship can continue and be absorbed into the architectonic of big history, but Berlin is definitely asserting that “the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied” is a blind alley, and here I must decisively part company with Berlin. I think it both possible and desirable to seek a pure theory of history that would stand in relation to applied, empirical history as pure geometry is related to empirical geometry. I would call this discipline formal historiography, and it strikes me as the obvious next development following traditional historiography, critical historiography, and scientific historiography.

Probably this view would divide me no less from most big historians than from traditional historians like Isaiah Berlin. Big history could be a formal school of historical thought in the way that the cultural processual school in archaeology is a formal school of archaeological thought, no less concerned with formal models and the hypothetico-deductive method than with excavating mounds and sorting pottery sherds. But this clearly does not appear to be the direction in which big history is headed.

There could, of course, be a small subfield of formal big history within the overall umbrella (or, if you like, big tent) of big history, which would proceed in true hypothetico-deductive fashion, formulating general laws about history, deriving predictions from these laws, and confirming or disconfirming the laws by testing the predictions against actual events. The scientific method at its most formal has served us well in other capacities, and we have yet to bring its full force to bear upon historical questions.

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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?

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