Friday


Herodotus, the Father of History

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

Saint Augustine, author of City of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otto Neurath, author of Foundations of the Social Sciences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Studies in Grand Historiography

1. The Science of Time

2. Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time

3. The Epistemic Overview Effect

4. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 1

5. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2

6. 2014 IBHA Conference Day 3

7. Big History and Historiography

8. Big History and Scientific Historiography

9. Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization

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

11. Rational Reconstructions of Time

12. History in an Extended Sense

13. Scientific Metaphysics and Big History

14. Copernican Historiography

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Vernacular Declensionism

27 October 2016

Thursday


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When I was an adolescent I was quite taken with what was known at the time as “survivalism.” With the little money that I had a bought a copy of Life After Doomsday by Bruce Clayton, I subscribed to Survive magazine (at the same time I was reading Soldier of Fortune magazine), and my favorite science fiction novels were those that dealt with the end of the world. There is an entire sub-genre of science fiction that dwells on the end of the world — some of it concerns itself with the actual process of societal collapse, some considers the short term consequences of societal collapse, and some considers the far future consequences. The most famous novel in this genre is also perhaps the most famous novel in science fiction — Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz — which lingers over a post apocalyptic future at three distinct six hundred year intervals. My interest in the end of the world also led to my studying civil defense and eventually nuclear strategy, which fascinated me. This autodidactic process eventually led me to high culture sources of declension narratives, and hence to an intellectual engagement that ceased to be related to survivalism.

My Cold War childhood provided ample scope for my secular apocalyticism, but in reading about survivalism it was not long before I discovered that, ideologically, the survivalist movement was far to the right, though with some exceptions. There is was a bit of overlap between the counter-culture back-to-the-land movement, which was typically on the political left, and the survivalists, who were typically on the right. Both camps read the Foxfire books and imagined themselves returning to a simpler, and more self-sufficient life — an obvious response to the alienation produced by industrialized society and exponential urban growth. The exponential urban growth that especially blossomed in Europe and North America following the Second World War, and which effectively led to the depopulation of the rural countryside, continues in our time (cf. The Rural-Urban Divide). One of the most significant global demographic trends has been, is, and will continue to be the movement of rural populations into increasingly large megacities. This process means that the communities of the rural countryside are dismantled, while new communities are created in urban contexts, but the transition is by no means smooth, and some weather the change better than others.

Several changes occurred at or around the middle of the twentieth century that severally contributed to the rise of declension narratives: the exponential growth in urbanism mentioned above, atomic weapons and the Cold War, the dissolution of extended families, the Pill, and so on. Before this time, narratives of the future were largely expansionist and optimistic. During the Golden Age of science fiction, uncomplicated heroes traveled from planet to planet in a quixotic quest to right wrongs and to rescue damsels in distress. Now this seems very innocent, if not naïve, and we now prefer anti-heroes to heroes, as we identify more with their tortured struggles than with the uncomplicated heroes and their happily-ever-after.

Thus while our cities are larger than ever before in the history of civilization, and they are growing larger by the day, civilization is more integrated around the planet than ever before, and becoming more tightly integrated all the time (even as politicians today flee from the label of “globalization” because they know it is, at the moment, politically radioactive), and civilization is more robust than ever, with higher levels of redundancy in essential infrastructure and services than ever before, as well as possessing long-term, large-scale disaster planning and preparation, we are more pessimistic than ever before about the prospects of this vigorous civilization. Perhaps this is simply because it is not the civilization we expected to have.

In the social atmosphere of Cold War tension and the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, which could materialize at any moment out of the clear blue sky, those initially disaffected by the emerging character of modern urbanized life sought to opt out, and this process of opting out of the emerging social order was often given intellectual justification in terms of a Weltanschauung of decline, which I call declension historiography. Declensionism varies in scope, from mainstream media columnists bemoaning the declining stature of the US in a multipolar world, to disaster preparedness, to societal collapse, to awareness of global catastrophic risk and existential risk, to a metaphysical doctrine of universal, inevitable, and unavoidable decline (which is today often expressed in scientific terms by reference to the second law of thermodynamics). Doomsday preparedness, then, comes in all varieties, from those hoping to survive “the big one,” where “the big one” is a massive earthquake, hurricane, or even an ephemeral political revolution, to those gearing up for the collapse of civilization and living in a world where there is no more electricity, no hospitals, schools, governments, or indeed any social institutions at all beyond the individual survivalist and his intimate circle.

The prehistory of doomsday preppers also included those preparing for a variety of different environmental, social, and political ills. Hippies founded communes and used their agricultural skills to grow better dope. Several apocalyptic churches have predicted the end of the world, and some explicitly urged members to build fallout shelters in order to survive nuclear war (such as the Church Universal and Triumphant). The communitarians on the right have often chosen to opt out of mainstream society under the umbrella of one of these apocalyptic churches, while the rugged individualists on the right became survivalists and they prepared to meet an apocalyptic future on their own terms, but, again, often justified in terms of a much larger conception of history. This declension narrative has become pervasive in contemporary society. While the end of the Cold War has meant the decline in the risk of nuclear war, the political left now favors scenarios of environmental collapse, while the political right favors scenarios of institutional collapse due to bank failure, currency collapse, the welfare state, or the decline of traditional social institutions (such as the church and the family).

The terms “suvivalist” and “survivalism” are not used as widely today, but the same phenomenon is now known in terms of “preppers,” short for “doomsday preppers,” which indicates those who actively plan and prepare for apocalyptic scenarios. The political division and overlap is still evident. The left, focusing on environmental collapse, continues to look toward the “small is beautiful” ideal of the early environmental movement, inherited from the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study; they focus on community and sustainable organic farming and tend not to stress the necessarily violent social transition that would occur if the most shrill predictions of “peak oil” came to pass, and industrialized civilization ground to a halt (this sort of scenario approaches mainstream respectability in some popular books such as $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, which I discussed in Are Happy Days Here Again?). These left-of-center declensionists are rarely called “preppers,” but their activities overlap with those usually called preppers.

The right, in contrast, does focus on the presumptively violent transitional period of social collapse, fetishizing armed resistance to marauding hordes, who will stream by the millions from overcrowded cities when the electricity stops and trucks stop bringing in food. While details are usually absent, the generic social collapse scenario has come to be called “SHTF,” which is an acronym for “shit hits the fan,” as in, “when the shit hits the fan, if you aren’t prepared, things are going to go badly for you.” Right-of-center declensionists, like the left, have an overarching vision of the collapse of civilization (as strange as that may sound), but drawing on different ideas and different causes than the left.

What are these declensionist ideas and the presumed causes of declension? Where does vernacular declensionism get its ideas? Why is declensionism so prevalent today? I have touched upon this issue previously, especially in Fear of the Future, where I made an argument specific to the nature of industrialized society and the reaction against it:

“…apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

This explains the motivation for entertaining declensionist ideas, but it does not explain the sources of these ideas. But in the same post I also cited a number of science fiction films that have prominently depicted apocalyptic visions. It is difficult to name a science fiction film that is not dystopian and apocalyptic, and these films have had a great impact on popular culture. Even those unsympathetic to the prepper mindset effortlessly recognize the familiar tropes of societal collapse portrayed in film. Presumably the writers of these films derive their declensionist ideas from a mixture of vernacular, social media, mass media, and high culture declensionism, as these ideas have percolated through society.

The mass media rarely recognizes preppers (although I see that there is a television program, Doomsday Preppers), and when it does do, it does so in a spirit of condescension. The greatest friends of civilization today are those who never think about it and take for granted all of the comforts and advantages of civilization. For most of them, the end of civilization is simply unimaginable, and it is this perspective that is operative when the occasional article on preppers appears in the mass media, where it is presented with a mixture of bemused pity and incredulity. The target audience for these stories are precisely the people that preppers believe will not last very long when the shit hits the fan. I could easily write a separate blog post (or an entire book) about the relationship of the mass mainstream media to declension scenarios, but this is a distinct topic from that of vernacular declensionism. There is some overlap between mass media and social media, as every mainstream media outlet also has a social media presence, and the occasional social media post will “go viral” and be picked up by the mainstream media. In this way, some survivalist ideas find a wider audience than the core audience, already familiar with the message, and this can draw in the curious, who may eventually become converts to the message. Other than this, the contribution by mass media to declension historiography is very limited (except for supplying a steady stream of inflammatory news articles that are pointed out as sure signs that the end is near).

Social media is vast and amorphous, but is given shape by each and every one of us as we pick and choose the social media we consume. This filtering effect means that like-minded individuals share a common ideological space in social media, and they overlap very little with those of divergent ideologies. The prepper community is well represented in social media, which has taken over from the small private presses that formerly distributed survivalist literature to the small survivalist community. The social media presence of preppers is all over the map, with an array of diverse social collapse scenarios, but, like survivalists of the 70s and 80s, still primarily on the political right, and often inspired by Biblical visions of apocalypse. In 72 Items That Will Disappear First When The SHTF, preppers are urged to buy boxes of Bibles: “Bibles will be in demand and can be used to barter items. A box of 100 small Bibles cost about $20.” Perhaps the writer of this article has watched The Book of Eli too many times and imagines that the Bible may be hard to come by in post-apocalyptic America. It would be extraordinarily difficult for the Bible to become a rarity — as difficult as it would be for human beings to go extinct. Both are too widely distributed to be eradicated by anything short of terrestrial sterilization. If you want trade goods, you would be much better off stocking up on books that will be rare than books that will be common, but this doesn’t stoke the prepper narrative, so the logic of commerce gives way to the ideology of social cohesion through embattled belief.

High culture declensionism, as to be found, for example, in Oswald Spengler’s classic The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), is scholarly, if not pedantic, and is essentially an exercise in the philosophy of history. (Interestingly, the most famous representatives of the Beat Generation, who foreshadowed the hippies’ back-to-the-land rejectionism of industrialized society, were avid readers of Spengler; cf. Sharin N. Elkholy, The Philosophy of the Beats, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, p. 208.) Spengler employs the old standby of a cyclical conception of history, and despite the intellectual and cultural distance we can come since cyclical history was the norm, vernacular cyclical history continues to be an influence. Vernacular cyclical history can appeal to intuitions about the life cycle of all things, and it is easy to conceive of civilization as participating in this coming to be and passing away of everything sublunary.

Saint Augustine, the father of the philosophy of history, may be cited as another high culture representative of declensionism, living as he did as the Roman world was unraveling. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD was the occasion of Saint Augustine writing his magnum opus, The City of God (De Civitate Dei). Rome had been a city untouched by any invading army for more than eight hundred years, and had functioned as the capital of the known world, and yet it had been laid low by unsophisticated barbarians. How was this to be explained? This is the task Augustine set himself, and Augustine had an answer. The ruination of the City of Man was, for Augustine, a mere detail of history, of no great importance, as long as the City of God was thriving, as he believed it to be. Indeed, the City of God would go on to thrive for more than a thousand years after Augustine as western Europe attempted to make itself over as the Earthly image of the City of God.

Augustine represents a sharp break with cyclical history. Throughout the City of God Augustine is explicit in his rejection of cyclical history, arguing against it both as a theory of history as well as due to its heterodox consequences. Thus while we can construe Augustine as a representative of declension history, it is a linear declension history. Augustine’s vision of linear declension history was remarkably influential during the European middle ages, when the few educated members of society did not perceive any break in history from classical antiquity to medievalism. For them, they were still Romans, but degraded Romans, very late in the history of Rome. The miserable condition of life of the middle ages was to be put to having come at the tail end of history, waiting for the world to well and truly end.

Vernacular declension, with its intuitive retention of cyclical history, resides awkwardly side-by-side with the Whig historiography and progressivism (ultimately derived from Augustine’s linear conception of history) that is so common in the modern world — the idea that we are modern, and therefore different from the people of the past and their world, is axiomatic and unquestioned. Human periodization of time is as natural as the categories of folk biology — our modernism, then, is, in part, a function of folk historiography (on folk concepts cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization). What are the categories of folk historiography, what kind of historical understanding of the world is characteristic of folk historiography? This will have to be an inquiry for another time.

I will conclude only with the observation that vernacular declensionism might paradoxically be employed in the service of civilization, if an interest in responses to existential threats to societal stability could be used as a stepping stone to the study of and preparation for global catastrophic risks and existential risks. That is a big “if.” When I think back to my own frame of mind when I was an enthusiast of survivalism, I thought that civilization had little or nothing of interest to me, and that all the adventure that might be possible in the world would follow from the “struggle for subsistence” that Keynes took to be the “economic problem” of humanity, and which contemporary civilization has largely solved. I still have sympathy for those who find little to value in civilization, as I can remember that stage in my own development quite clearly. In a sense, I only became reconciled to civilization; I never belonged to those who never question civilization, and who can’t imagine its extirpation. Civilization was, for me, always open to question.

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Wednesday


Saint Augustine made a distinction between progress for the City of Man and progress for the City of God.

Recently I wrote about progress in Biology Recapitulates Cosmology where I contrasted Stephen J. Gould’s explicit anti-progressivism to more recent forms of progressivism found in futurism and technological thought. Western thought has a long history of finding both progress and decadence in its own historical record. Even as St. Augustine was writing while the Roman Empire was falling apart and there were barbarians literally at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was Bishop, Augustine acknowledged that the City of Man was in a bad way and likely to get worse, but the City of God was going from triumph to triumph as divine providence led the way — thus rescuing a kind of progress from the ruins of a civilization in the process of collapsing around him. Augustine’s was a brave gambit, and later attitudes tended to be more narrowly progressive or declinist, not making the distinction that Augustine made.

Is Augustine’s thought an example of smuggling progress into human history by way of divine providence, or are contemporary conceptions of progress a secularized formulation of divine providence, as Karl Löwith would have argued? This is an interesting question, but I am not going to try to answer it here. I have strong views on this, and I want to write a detailed post (or several posts) specifically about this question (though I have already written some specifically about the idea of secularization, in addition to citing Löwith’s influential work in several posts, such as Addendum on ontological extrapolation, Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, and Marxist Eschatology).

In any discussion of progress one must carefully distinguish between the kinds of progress that are possible. For example, we can distinguish at least technological progress and moral progress and aesthetic progress, just for starters. One might explicitly argue for technological progress, and all those measures of quality of life directly attributable to technological progress like per capita GDP, access to clean water, and so forth, while saying nothing about moral progress or aesthetic progress (as seems to be the case with Kevin Kelly’s explicit argument for progress in What Technological Wants). I don’t think that many people today would assert that the pictures painted today are obviously better than the pictures painted in the past even if our technology seems obviously superior. Therefore aesthetic stagnation might go hand-in-hand with technological progress. I also doubt that many today would argue that we are becoming obviously more ethical with the passage of time and the growth of technology.

It would also be a good idea to distinguish between stagnation and retrogression, so that we are thinking in terms of a continuum that runs between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression, with stagnation as the “golden mean” between the two (as it were). It is common to use the term “stagnation” not only to indicate a socioeconomic system that is moving neither forward nor backward, but also for socioeconomic systems that are losing ground and moving backward. Thus making the distinction between stagnation and retrogression, and placing both in relation to progress, allows us to differentiate societies that are static from societies that are declining. For lack of a better term, we can call the continuum between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression the continuum of progress.

To gain a proper appreciation for the role that the continuum of progress has played in human affairs we must further distinguish the perception of progress, stagnation, or retrogression from any quantifiable measure of progress, stagnation or retrogression. If we want to think about economics in isolation (i.e., in isolation from other possible social measures of progress), we can immediately see the significant role that perceptions play, as it is often claimed that the collective action of declining consumer confidence can cause an economy to go into recession even if there is no other trigger for an economic downturn. Keynes’ remarks about the role of “animal spirits” also has a role to play in economic perceptions in contrast to economic reality.

Human beings being what they are, a significant divergence between appearance and reality can be maintained for some period of time if enough people are prepared to delude themselves. This is am important point, so I want to go into it in more detail, and most especially I want to elucidate economic appearance and reality in terms of two philosophical ideas: self-deception and the sorites paradox.

I have mentioned in other posts that I think the role of self-deception in human affairs is greatly underestimated. Self-deception is simply lying to oneself, and it is especially associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. People lie to themselves all the time, and for a variety of motives. If you approach life as though everyone was always on the up-and-up, you will soon find yourself disabused of that illusion, for it is illusion rather than reality that is the order of the day in human affairs. Human society only exists in virtue of a complex tapestry of fine-crafted duplicity that people teach themselves to believe in as the price of being part of any society.

The sorites paradox is an ancient idea associated with the ambiguous use of terms. If you have a heap of grains of sand, and take away one grain of sand at a time, when does it cease to be a heap? Contrariwise, if you begin adding one grain of said to another, when does it begin to be a heap? The same paradox is also formulated in terms of baldness: if you pluck the hair off a head one by one, when does the head qualify as being bald?

So, what do self-deception and the sorites paradox have to do with the continuum of progress as it applies to economic appearance and reality? Economic progress is one of the most quantifiable forms of progress of all human endeavors. Whatever economic measure we care to take — GDP, per capita GDP, steel production, potable water, and so forth — we can measure these and monitor progress based upon them. If you decide that progress is a nation-state in which there is a chicken in every pot, you can measure if there is a chicken in every pot, and how often, etc. So it would seem, given these relatively discrete measures, that the measurement of economic progress would be difficult to fudge.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and much of this has to do with the predominant role that human perception plays in large economies that can only be measured statistically. Because of the potential divergence between economic perception and economic reality, a population might believe itself to be experiencing progress even while it is moving backward. Or a population might believe itself to be moving backward even while objective measures demonstrate progress (of whatever sort of progress is defined as progress by that society).

Statistical measures of a large economy bear a strong resemblance to the sorites paradox. You might be able to demonstrate that a population is incrementally growing wealthier, but since a heap of wealth is always just a heap of wealth, and you don’t notice a few dollars more or a few dollars less, any more than you would notice a few grains of sand more or less on a heap of sand, it is entirely possible that even as a society grows wealthier, it might believe itself to be growing poorer, or even as a society is growing poorer, it might believe itself to be growing richer. Such counter-factual perceptions, if maintained by collective self-deception, can make an entire nation believe that it is going in the right direction when it is not, or vice versa.

Schumpeter noted that the growth of mature industrialized economies usually hovers about two percent, and although this modest two percent growth will double the size of the economy every 35 years — which is an impressive achievement if we think of the long history of stagnation of agricultural civilization — it probably isn’t enough to satisfy those who believe that they are getting a bad deal from the system. Schumpeter might have also noted that a two percent growth rate wouldn’t be noticeable from year to year, even if it is noticeable in the longer term — being noticed is different from being measurable. And if we add the difficulty of noticing two percent growth to the possibility of collective self-deception that growth is not happening, well, people may well believe that they are going backward even when the economy doubles in size every generation.

What I wrote in the above paragraph about growth also holds for economic decline: a decline of two percent per year might never be noticed year-on-year, even if it is obvious over the longer term. And if there is a collective self-deception that things are getting better, because we want to believe that things are getting better, people can easily delude themselves that the world is improving even as they are impoverishing their descendents.

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What, then, is history?

23 August 2010

Monday


Saint Augustine asked “What then is time?” and acknowledged that he could not answer the question. But, as Wittgenstein has pointed out, some things that cannot be said nevertheless can be shown.

Augustine famously asked in his Confessions:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)

quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.

If time is a mystery of the order identified by Augustine, what then is the history that is constituted by time?

In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote the following:

Parables.–It has been said that the mind is essentially narrative in its constitution. Whatever validity such a claim might have or might lack, stories may well be the most effective literary device for communicating the gist of an idea. Perhaps philosophers would have had a larger audience had they written parables instead of treatises.

Variations on the Theme of Life, Section 390

It could be said that the creation of narratives is an attempt to assert mastery over the complexity of history, and so to deliver oneself from what Mircea Eliade called the Terror of History — and the terror of history can only emerge with the emergence of historical consciousness. Historical consciousness is the midwife that delivers time of history. How does historical consciousness operate? Narratively. Usually.

In Deep Battle and the Culture of War I suggested that Western military thought focuses on the mastery of time. Mastery of history represents the apotheosis of the ambition to exercise strategic mastery over time; the mastery of time culminates in the mastery of history as its total form. Thus another definition of grand strategy emerges from this line of thought: grand strategy is the mastery of history.

Conceptions of history — the cataclysmic, the political, and the eschatological as discussed in Three Conceptions of History — form the basis for transforming the whole of time into a narrative. The conception is the intellectual dimension — often subtle, usually implicit, rarely brought to full consciousness — while the narrative is the moral, emotional, and aesthetic dimension of what is intellectually expressed as a conception of history.

The narrative dimension comes to us naturally, and speaks to us on a fundamental level: we feel it as much as, if not more than, we know it. It is important to pass through this stage of knowing — knowing on a visceral level, understanding history as a matter of gut feeling — but it has limitations that are as powerful as the lessons that it has to teach us. Therefore it is equally important to transcend this stage and to bring our implicit conception of history to fully explicit consciousness so that we know and understand what we are doing.

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