Leopold von Ranke (1795 - 1886)

Leopold von Ranke (1795 – 1886)

In George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four there occurs a well known passage that presents a frightening totalitarian vision of history:

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.”

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, Chapter 3

What Orwell called, “…an unending series of victories over your own memory,” is something anticipated by Nietzsche, who, however, placed it in the context of pride rather than dissimulation:

“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually — memory yields.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, section 68

The phrase above identified as the “party slogan” — Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past — is often quoted out of context to give the misleading impression that this was asserted by Orwell as his own position. This is, rather, the Orwellian formulation of the Stalinist position. (Stalin reportedly hated both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.) The protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, is himself part of the totalitarian machinery, rewriting past newspaper articles so that they conform to current party doctrine, and re-touching photographs to erase individuals who had fallen out of favor — both of which Stalin presided over in fact.

The idea that the control over history entails control over the future, and the control over history is a function of control in the present, constitutes a political dimension to history. Winston Churchill (who is said to have enjoyed Nineteen Eighty-Four as much as Stalin loathed it) himself came close to this when he said that, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” This political dimension to history is one of which Orwell and other authors have repeatedly made us aware. There is another political dimension to history that is more difficult to fully appreciate, because it requires much more knowledge of the past to understand.

More than mere knowledge of the past, which seems empirically unproblematic, it also requires an understanding of the theoretical context of historiography in order to fully appreciate the political dimension of history. The name of Leopold von Ranke is not well known outside historiography, but Ranke has had an enormous influence in historiography and this influence continues today even among those who have never heard his name. Here is the passage that made Ranke’s historiographical orientation — the idea of objective and neutral history that we all recognize today — the definitive expression of a tradition of historiographical thought:

“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened.”

Leopold von Ranke, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations

The deceptively simple phrase, what actually happened (in German: wie es eigentlich gewesen — became a slogan if not a rallying cry among historians. The whole of the growth of scientific historiography, to which I have referred in many recent posts — Scientific Historiography and the Future of Science and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time among them — is entirely predicated upon the idea of showing what actually happened.

Sometimes, however, there is a dispute about what actually happened, and the historical record is incomplete or ambiguous, so that to get the whole story we must attempt to fill in the ellipses employing what R. G. Collingwood called the historical a priori imagination (cf. The A Priori Futurist Imagination). Historical extrapolation, placed in this Collingwoodian context, makes it clear that the differing ways in which the historical record is filled in and filled out is due to the use of different a priori principles of extrapolation.

I have noted that diachronic extrapolation is a particular problem in futurism, since it develops historical trends in isolation and thereby marginalizes the synchrony of events. So, too, diachronic extrapolation is a problem in historiography, as it fills in the ellipses of history by a straight-forward parsimonious extrapolation — as though one could unproblematically apply Ochkam’s razor to history. (The symmetry of diachronic extrapolation in history and futurism nicely reveals how futurism is the history of the future and history the futurism of the past.) The political dimension of history is one of the synchronic forces that represents interaction among contemporaneous events, and this is the dimension of history that is lost when we lose sight of contemporaneous events.

There were always contemporaneous socio-political conflicts that defined the terms and the parameters of past debates; in many cases, we have lost sight of these past political conflicts, and we read the record of the debate on a level of abstraction and generality that it did not have as it occurred. In a sense, we read a sanitized version of history — not purposefully santitized (although this is sometimes the case), not sanitized for propagandistic effect, but sanitized only due to our limited knowledge, our ignorance, our forgetfulness (at times, a Nietzschean forgetfulness).

Many historical conflicts that come down to us, while formulated in the most abstract and formal terms, were at the time political “hot button” issues. We remember the principles today, and sometimes we continue to debate them, but the local (if not provincial) political pressures that created these conflicts has often all but disappeared and considerable effort is required to return to these debates and to recover the motivating forces. I have noted in many posts that particular civilizations are associated with particular problem sets, and following the dissolution of a particular civilization, the problems, too, are not resolved but simply become irrelevant — as, for example, the Investiture Controversy, which was important to agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, but which has no parallel in industrial-technological civilization.

Some of these debates (like that of the Investiture Controversy) are fairly well known, and extensive scholarly research has gone into elucidating the political conflicts of the time that contributed to these debates. However, the fact that many of these past ideas — defunct ideas — are no longer relevant to the civilization in which we live makes is difficult to fully appreciate them as visceral motives in the conduct of public policy.

Among the most well-known examples of politicized historiography is what came to be called the Black Legend, which characterized the Spanish in the worst possible light. In fact, the Spanish were cruel and harsh masters, but that does not mean that every horrible thing said about them was true. But it is all too easy to believe the worst about people whom one has a reason to believe the worst, and to embroider stories with imagined details that become darker and more menacing over time. During the period of time in which the Black Legend originates, Spain was a world empire with no parallel, enforcing its writ in the New World, across Europe, and even in Asia (notably in the Philippines, named for Spanish Monarch Philip II). As the superpower of its day, Spain was inevitably going to be the target of smears, which only intensified as Spain become the leading Catholic power in the religious wars that so devastated Europe in the early modern period. Catholics called Protestants heretics, and Protestants called the Pope the Antichrist; in this context, political demonization was literal.

There are many Black Legends in history, often the result of conscious and purposeful propagandistic effort. There are also, it should be noted, white legends, also the work of intentional propaganda. White legends whitewash a chequered history — exactly the task that Stalin set for Soviet civilization and which Winston Smith undertook for Oceania.

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Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)

Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An idea that has had a great influence despite being at very least misleading and more often completely wrong is that of recapitulation — also called embryological parallelism or the biogenetic law (the latter by Ernst Haeckel, who was also the originator of ecology). Recapitulation was most famously summed up in the phrase:

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

The idea here is that the development of the individual organism recapitulates, or reproduces in miniature, the phylogenetic history of the species to which the individual belongs. The often mistaken idea of recapitulation as it has been applied to biology, however, did have fortunate although unintended benefits, because in looking for evidence of recapitulation biologists began seriously studying developmental processes. Early on this primarily took the form of experimental embryology, but later become more sophisticated. This developmental interest eventually led to the study of evolutionary developmental biology, which is now usually referred to as evo-devo.

Quine took up the theme of recapitulation in order to cleverly skewer metaphysics in the best tradition of Post-Positivist Thought, which he formulated as follows:

Ontology recapitulates philology.

In other words, ontology, in presuming to detail the structure of reality, just gives us back again the structure of language by which we have attempted to describe the world, however imperfectly. The implied corollary here is that different languages with different philologies will yield different ontologies (an idea better known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis).

So what has evo-devo and Quinean post-positivism to do with biology in relation to cosmology? We can understand the traditional recapitulation idea as a variation on another ancient human idea, that of the microcosm as a mirror of the macrocosm: the development of the individual as the microcosm mirrors the development of the species as the macrocosm. Similarly, terrestrial biology, as a complex ecological system on Earth, can be understood as the microcosm of the complex ecological system of cosmology, which here becomes the macrocosm. Thus as biology is the microcosm and cosmology the macrocosm, is it the case the biology recapitulates cosmology?

But do we even know, can be even say, what biology is or what cosmology is? Is it possible to make any generalization as sweeping as this without falling into incoherency? Generalizations are made, of course, but there is a question as to the legitimacy of any such generalization. The most common generalization about the whole of biology or cosmology is that they exhibit progress. Because this is one of the most common overall interpretations, it is only the interpretation that has been most refuted and has come under the heaviest attacks.

Stephen J. Gould has most memorably be associated with a consistent refusal to see progress in the history of life, and he expressed this forcefully in one of his later books, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, in which he returns time and again to the theme that life is overwhelmingly simple, and the human tendency (which we would now call anthropic bias, following Nick Bostrom) to see progress in this history of life is to distort the history of life by interpreting the whole of life in terms of a thin tail of complexity that emerges merely because life has a minimal bound of complexity. Since life cannot become less complex and still remain life, the essential variability of life will, with time, eventually blunder onto greater complexity because there is nowhere else for life to go. But that does not make greater complexity a trend, much less a driving force that results in ever more complex and sophisticated life forms.

Gould wrote:

“…I can marshal an impressive array of arguments, both theoretical (the nature of the Darwinian mechanism) and factual (the overwhelming predominance of bacteria among living creatures), for denying that progress characterizes the history of life as a whole, or even represents an orienting force in evolution at all…”

Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Gould writes a bit like Darwin, who called his own Origin of Species “one long argument,” so it can be difficult to get just the right quote from Gould to illustrate his argument and his point of view, so the quote above should not be considered definitive. Thus the following quote also cannot be called definitive, but it does give a sense of Gould’s “big picture” conception of his work, and even suggests an approach to cosmology consistent with Gould’s ideas:

“…this book does have broader ambitions, for the central argument of Full House does make a claim about the nature of reality… I am making my plea by gentle example, rather than by tendentious frontal assault in the empyrean realm of philosophical abstraction (the usual way to attack the nature of reality, and to guarantee limited attention for want of anchoring). I am asking my readers finally and truly to cash out the deepest meaning of the Darwinian revolution and to view natural reality as composed of varying individuals in populations — that is, to understand variation itself as irreducible, as ‘real’ in the sense of ‘what the world is made of.’ To do this, we must abandon a habit of thought as old as Plato and recognize the central fallacy in our tendency to depict populations either as average values (usually conceived as ‘typical’ and therefore representing the abstract essence or type of the system) or as extreme examples…”

Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Gould, as the great enemy of progressivism (and, as we see in the above passage, a passionate advocate of nominalism), may be contrasted with Kevin Kelly’s explicit defense of progress in his recent book What Technology Wants (which I have written about in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium). In Chapter 5 of his book, “Deep Progress,” Kelly takes the bull by the horns and against much recent thought and much well-justified cynicism, argues that progress is real. Aware of the difficulties his argument faces, Kelly states up from the expected objections:

“Any claim for progressive change over time must be viewed against the realities of inequality for billions, deteriorating regional environments, local war, genocide, and poverty. Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills bred by our inventions and activities, including new problems generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old problems. The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.”

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5

Despite these difficulties, Kelly soldiers on finishes his chapter on progress as follows:

“…there will be problems tomorrow because progress is not Utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except Utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now.”

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5

It is admirable that Kelly makes a distinction between progress as a direction of development and progress as an end or aim. What Kelly is doing here is to posit non-teleological progress, and this is an idea that deserves attention. Non-teleological progress only partially blunts the force of Gould’s determined opposition to finding progress in history, because Gould often assumes without stating that progress implies a goal toward which a progress of development is developing, but whether or not it answers all of Gould’s objections, it deserves attention if for no other reason than that it confounds expectations and assumptions about historical thought.

Kelly, in arguing for increasing complexity against a tradition denying historical progress or trends as anthropocentric, is himself part of another emerging tradition, that is the growing discipline of Big History. In the works of David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Fred Spier, inter alia, the central theme of history conceived as a whole from the big bang to the present day is the theme of increasing complexity.

Does the universe, on the whole, exhibit increasing complexity? We could bring to cosmology essentially the same arguments that Gould used in biology, especially since Gould wrote that he had wider ambitions for his ideas. It would be easy to argue that the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium, in the same way that life is overwhelmingly composed of bacteria. Just as life has a minimal bound of complexity, and only blunders into higher complexity because it has nowhere else to go, so too matter has a lower bound of complexity — ordinary baryonic matter composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons doesn’t get any simpler than hydrogen — and it could be said that it is only with accidental variation over time that complexity emerges in the universe because matter has nowhere else to go except in the direction of greater complexity.

Thus we can admit the existence of greater complexity in biology or cosmology, but it would be a mistake to argue that this complexity is the telos of the whole, or that it is a trend, or that it is even predominant. In fact, we know that bacteria predominate in life and that hydrogen predominates in cosmology. The later emergence of complexity does not alter the overwhelming predominance of the simple, and to judge of the whole by a long and very narrow tail of complexity is to allow the tail to wag the dog.

Between the inner intimacies of biology that transpire unnoticed within our bodies, and the distant and impersonal life cycles of stars and galaxies and the cosmos, unnoticed by us because it is too large and too slow to play a role in human perception, there lies the broad ground of human history. Even if biology and cosmology can be interpreted in terms of overwhelming simplicity and the absence of any trend or progress, does this have any relevance for human affairs?

It should be evident that human history, the macroscopic doings of human beings on a human scale of time, can be interpreted either according to the Gould model or according to the model of progress that one finds in Kevin Kelly and Big History.

I have mentioned in an earlier post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, how I came to realize that history can be a powerful method of conveying an interpretation, and it is wrong to understand history in the sense of a list of names, dates, and places in the spirit of what might be called histoire vérité.

This is a sense of historiography most famously attributed to Leopold van Ranke, who wrote:

“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen].”

Later historians have endlessly debated what exactly Ranke had in mind when he mentioned showing that actually happened; even if Ranke thought (as he is usually interpreted) that there is a single unique and correct account of history, there is no single and unique account of Ranke.

There is an Hegelian interpretation of Ranke’s much-discussed aside on showing what actually happened (“wie es eigentlich gewesen,” which has, of course, been translated in varying ways), according to which “gewesen” must be understood in an essentialist sense, so that to say what really happened is to give the essence of what happened — and this, I hope you will agree, can be very different from giving “the facts, just the facts.”

This Hegelian-essentialist interpretation of Ranke is illuminated by a famous aphorism of Hegel’s such that, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.” When this is read through contemporary spectacles it doesn’t make any sense at all, because we tend to think of the “real” as that which really is or really happened, and we know very well that the world as it is has no end of irrationality in it, so that to say that for Hegel to say that the real is the rational makes Hegel look like a fool or worse. If, however, we understand the “real” to be the essentially true, or even the genuine — so that Hegel’s aphorism can be rendered, “The genuine is the rational and the rational is the genuine” — it suddenly becomes clear how the real and the rational might be systematically interrelated.

Here we encounter the deeper ontological substratum of these divergent interpretations of history, whether natural, human, or cosmological. The difference between the orientation of Gould and the orientation of Kelly and others is the difference between nominalism and essentialism. Nominalist historiography can give us all the facts, but ultimately cannot do anything more than sum up the facts. If you sum up the totality of life or the totality of matter in the universe, you are forced to acknowledge that life is overwhelmingly bacteriological in nature, and the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium.

There is, for the nominalist, nothing to say beyond this. The essentialist, however, finds a narrative buried within the mountain of facts, but there are many essentialists, and they all have their own narratives. And essentialism is weakened by the one thing that can never touch nominalism: underdetermination. All essentialist accounts are underdetermined by the evidence. Nominalist accounts on principle never go beyond the evidence, and for that reason they are not underdetermined by the evidence, but they are also unable to say anything relevant about the meanings and values that constitute the daily bread and butter of human life. And so our strict conscience may suggest to us that we ought to stop with nominalism, but our less-than-strict human conscience suggests to us that there is something more than an undifferentiated mountain of facts.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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