History and SystematizationI will always be enticed by the dream, of a grand system for discovering, from history, how to make a better world.
At the same time, nearly all experience tells me this is a foolish, often dangerous, chimera.
To systematize, seems to be an irrepressible urge, evident in many people, and a part of the design of human beings. This urge has given rise to religions, cults, literary salons, 'think tanks', universities, philosophical societies and their journals, those arrogant 'master narratives', grand unified field theories, scientific and historical conferences, and paranoid fantasies.
This drive to systematize resembles, in a way, the child-sized inflatable "Bozo the Clown" punching bag, I had as a child. It had a round base weighted with sand. If you tried to knock it over, it would always spring right back with the same grin on its face, over and over again.
The drive to systematize will latch onto an object, like the goal of understanding the human body and countering its diseases, and create one foolish system after another, for hundreds, even thousands, of years, until one day, maybe, it all starts coming together. That is the upside - the payoff that has occasionally come from our system building fixation.
Thus, while it fails most of the time, it occasionally produces stunning breakthroughs in our ability to understand and control aspects of the world, for better or worse. Medicine is a striking example. For thousands of years there has been some sort of medical profession, and theories, books, and schools devoted to the attempt to understand the human body and prevent and cure disease. Yet only in the last century and a half have we come to understand what was causing most disease (parasitic micro-organisms), and how to counter them. With enormous energy, humankind kept theorizing about, and treating, disease, and patients paid fortunes to doctors, despite what today seems like their staggering inability to actually do anything useful for disease sufferers, but now at last,
... parents no longer see half their children die before adulthood.
Going beyond the example of medicine, the most recent breakthroughs in knowledge, allow me to exchange notes with a researcher in England or Australia.
Such breakthroughs have also lead to blitzkrieg, the twentieth century police state, and hydrogen bombs.
Then there is the project of understanding human, particularly social, behavior. Enlightenment philosophers and revolutionary era Americans dreamed of a Christian or secular millennium of light. For some, the key was a 'moral science', or calculus of human values. But we were not, after all, on the brink of a golden age then. Rather, slavery was to be an integral part of American life a long while yet, and the world at large had the twentieth century ahead, of horrendous deeds, some of the worst catastrophes brought about in the name of Marx's grand theory of History.
So I have something like a love-hate relationship with this sort of intellectual ambition, or enthusiasm. Sometimes I see people who appear totally in the grip of optimism about the power of a certain system -- disciples of Marx, or Ayn Rand for example, and they worry me deeply. Conversely, my extreme lack of any clear belief about what is the best policy for U.S. government, or system for the world to follow, leads some to believe that I'm indifferent to political events.
But I also love this systematizing aspect of human nature as one might love a flawed family member. Sometimes I turn it loose to soar and build castles in the air. But I make a discipline of coming back, every time, to those things we call 'facts', or what seems real and solid, or is connected to the real and solid by small and careful steps of reason.
Questions to Be Gotten Over
- The conviction persists, though history shows it to be a hallucination, that all the questions that the human mind has asked ... can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact, intellectual progress usually occurs through shear abandonment of questions together with both alternatives they assume, an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitalism and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them, we get over them.
- --John Dewey (quote lifted from Preface to The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain
by Terrence Deacon, Some emphasis added).
Oh well, maybe this is just an old obsession, but I am peculiarly apt (infuriatingly, for the first years of our marriage, to my wife) to say "I don't know", when my more precise thought is "Sorry, that question doesn't seem to make sense to me (and I think the problem is fundamental, and rewording it won't help)."
It is true that I don't know, and I could be wrong about the nonsensicality of the question, so there's something to be said for the more modest, less confrontational version. To discern what is a valid question is one of the most difficult tasks of all. But most people don't agree with this, and/or would think that these statements I've been making are some kind of double-talk or gibberish.
Usually, if I share with my conversation partner, the impression that a question seems nonsensical (or contentless), I am unwillingly that much more embroiled in the question that made no sense to me (unless I unilaterally break off the conversation, which people are apt to resent). Most people, unlike me, are sure they're making sense most of the time, and so would be quite offended by such an assertion. But I am telling myself all the time, in response to my own thoughts, "OK, that's nonsense, just forget it." Now that my wife and I know each other better, I more often express my true doubts about taken-for-granted innocent sounding questions.
The question, "What question should I be asking?" is the one to go back to over and over - so I claim. Ah, one might say, "But that is a normative question, and you have just made a normative claim! A normative claim about a normative question -- in one sentence! What is your authority? What will be your standard for that 'should'?"
Why do I worry about getting such a response? I think because people associate statements about the difficulty of knowing anything with dogmatic cultural relativity, or an obsession with debunking norms (the "village atheist" syndrome).
Some Questions to Question (and maybe get over):Q1) Who are the good guys (or who should we celebrate) in history?
For a while, founding fathers were treated as having had their due, while "ordinary people" including slaves, Native Americans, women, artisans and laborers were more and more "celebrated", along with that abstraction, "diversity". Founding fathers and political history is however making a comeback among academic historians.
Q2) Approaches to Causation:
Suppose we forget about history as a "celebration" of anything. Suppose the historian comes, not to praise Caesar, nor to scold him, but to study Caesar, his time, and the world he lived in, looking for chains of causation -- inquiring why such a man came to exist, and how he effected the world? Would that be a more useful pursuit?
Q3) Suppose we did understand causation in history/society. Where would it get us?
In the natural sciences, the discovery of consistent relations of causation has greatly increased our control over nature. Now, in the study of history, have we grasped any causal relations in such a way as to increase our control over history? It seems doubtful. Are we likely ever to do so? If we did, what would be the end result? How about "control over our destinies". But if history would teach us how to "cause" anything, it would teach us how to "cause" the sort of occurrences history is made of -- events involving communities, societies, institutions, and there's the rub.
Here, the "control" model, of a man at a "control panel", or in a "control center", operating a big machine, breaks down or becomes problematic. Maybe everyone can have his or her own computer or car to control, and some few people can "control" a factory, or a whole "military establishment", but we certainly can't each have our own world to "control". I think this is the fallacy, as Habermas and others say (in effect, I think), of trying to apply "instrumental reasoning" in a context in which it doesn't work (or it is a nightmare if it does, to any large extent, work). Some worry that western society is too stuck in a worldview, paradigm, or "climate of opinion" (cf. Carl L. Becker) that can see no other kind of rationality but instrumental reason.
At any rate, if we should ever "hit the jackpot" of historic and sociological knowledge, and take huge steps in the direction of real ability to "control", it should not feel like having a steering wheel in ones hands, more likely like being on a steering committee. More optimistically, our "use" of history to "control our destinies" might feel more like a conversation (discourse?), a dance, or a jazz improvisation; not that control that a technician exercises at a "control panel".
But history, as a study towards outfitting individual wills to control, even if the desire is to mend the world -- such a study is, I think, doomed to failure, nightmarish results, or at best, limited usefulness.
Outside of nightmare regimes, I suspect the people who come closest to having an "applied social science" -- being able to re-engineer the culture they run up against -- are military officers and sales motivators (for whatever that's worth).
Now if we could only have a universally agreed upon goal, like "the greatest good for the greatest number", maybe we could agree to seat that goal (in the incarnation of a leader, answerable to all), at the great control panel of instrumental reason. Maybe that would redeem instrumental reason, and allow us to view history like "any other science". See any problem with that?
Suppose, after all these caveats, we still try to understand something about causation in history. Suppose we could apply such knowledge by, oh, say, a community decision about changing culture.
Q4) Who makes history? The great men or women? Or the masses? Oh, that one.
Once all history was about how Great Men "made" history. Surely one "leader" contributes more to the causation of historic events than one "ordinary person". But just how overstated is this idea that leaders "make" history? A study of Adolph Hitler surely fails to tell us "most" of why the Holocaust occurred. Supposing we understood Hitler "perfectly", that would still not explain how dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, and ultimately millions of people boosted him to his place of power, and then supported him in a career of unparalleled destruction.
Q5) Can we predict the direction of history? I think over the medium run, when things aren't terribly chaotic as they are something like half the time, maybe.
Ultimately though, I think, history is maddeningly contingent and infinitely multicausal; that ridiculously small changes could have made things turn out very differently; that, for example, if Kaiser Wilhelm's father had listened to the right doctors and lived long enough Wilhelm off the throne for another decade or so, the 20th century could have looked totally different.
That is how it is with truly complex and undesigned systems. It has been called the "butterfly effect" -- that there could be an instance where a particular butterfly flapping its wings in China effects whether or not a hurricane takes place in Florida. If one accepts this, it may seem as if there can be no coherence in history; that it is indeed "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".
Q6) Suppose our minds refuse to accept this extreme contingency. What sort of theory of history might we construct, in which big turning points in history always had suitably big causes?
One approach is to postulate God, or gods, that would govern the way things turn out. People have favored this for most of history.
Another is belief in some sort of collective consciousness, or "spirit" or "destiny" of a given nation, or other sort of grouping, such as the "proletarian class", or "believers in the true god", or those who "clear their minds of superstitions and see things as they actually are", who due to their sheer mass, their divine sanction, their "rightness", or their unique understanding are bound to "overcome".