Ways of Thinking About History

The Generalized Human Urge to Systematize

I 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.

Thus, while it fails most of the time, it occasionally produces startling 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 knowlege, 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 antebellum 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, the worst of which claimed to be done in the name of wondrous new understandings of the nature of humanity.

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.

Caveat: This is an exploration of ideas, not the expression of any coherent and worked-out philosophy.  It is something of a beginner's attempt to follow various ideas wherever I can get with them while trying to think rigorously.  There will be an uneasy tension, at all times, between "soaring" on the one hand, and on the other, seeking solid ground, and trying to feel my way along the landscape like a blind man.

Questions to Be Gotten Over

In grade school we are taught (unless we refuse to be so taught) to answer any question, however foolish, and never question the question.  It is one of the reasons I virtually stopped up my ears all the time I was in secondary school.  Questions like "What are the five pillars of democracy?" got me incensed.

Oh well, maybe this is just an old obsession, but I am peculiarly apt (infuriatingly, for many years, to my wife) to say "I don't know", when my more precise thought is "Sorry, that question seems nonsensical to me."  It is true that I don't know, and I could be wrong about the nonsensicality of the question.  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 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 Loretta (my wife) and I know eachother better, I more often give the more complete answer, and we are able to deal with that.

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, as someone describes it - I can't think who).

Questioning some questions:

Who are the good guys (or who should we celebrate) in history?
To the extent that we still ask this question, the answers are changing.
"Founding fathers" are getting shorter shrift, while slaves, Native Americans, women, artisans and laborers are more and more "celebrated", along with that abstraction, "diversity".

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?

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 community 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. 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, but rather more like a steering committee.  The activity should feel more like a conversation (discourse?), a dance, or a jazz improvisation than that control that a technician exercizes at a "control panel".

But history, as a study towards outfitting our wills with power, and letting our individual wills (and in an "individualistic" culture, that is often all that comes to mind) decide how to handle that power -- such a study is, I claim, doomed to failure, nightmarish results, or at best, limited usefulness.

((I suspect the people who come closest to having an "applied social science" are military officers and sales motivators.))
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?

Where Might We Find Roots of Causation in History

Suppose, after all these caveats, we want to try to understand something about causation in history, in the faith that we will find something un-nightmarish to do with it.  It seems to me there have been two most common approaches:
Some try to follow how leaders have "made" history through their decisions.  Surely one leader contributes more to the causation of historic events than one "ordinary person".  But was the validity of this approach way overblown?  Have historians in the past been fooled by, or participated in generating, elitist myths about how "the elites" made history?  A study of Adolph Hitler surely fails to tell us "most" of why the Holocaust occurred (This "most" is quite problematic.  One reason it is problematic lies in the nature of any thing or event for which a number of things are absolute preconditions. An absolute precondition to my being alive is that I have a functioning heart.  Another is that I have a functioning liver, and so forth.  To say that either one is more the "cause" of my being alive than the other will strike most people as intuitively ludicrous, I think.).  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.

Digression: History, Volitility, Stability

Ultimately, 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 Wilhelm II's father had listened to the right doctors and lived long enough to make an impression on Germany, the 20th century would probably look totally different.  That is how it is with truly complex systems -- at least those lacking designed-in stability.  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".

What understanding can we ever have of such a world?

Question: Suppose our minds refuse to accept it; what sort of theory of history might we construct, in which big turning points in history always had suitably big causes?

An answer, or two: One approach is to postulate God, or gods, that would govern the way things turn out.  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 shear mass, their divine sanction, or their unique clearheadedness are bound to "overcome".

If every event has, perhaps millions, or an infinite number of, causes, what point is there in looking for causes?

 So, if we believe all this, we will want to study "evolving moments".

What if one turns away from the rulers, and intellectual leaders -- the "elites" -- to examine what role "ordinary people" have in historical causation?

    [Wishful thinking - how to force a mechanistic model on the world.]

But the trouble with "the people" is that there are too many of them to study.  Now if they would all sort of act alike, so we could have laws describing (at least statistically) how they act, ...

    Can there be a broad analysis of the whole society without taking an atomistic approach?
    How do we make a statement about actions of millions of people unless we lump huge groups of them into categories with like behavior (classes, genders, ethnic groups), or at least separate and abstract a few supposedly key behaviors, such as economic or voting behavior, ethnicity or religious affiliation?
    Richard John, in "Governmental Institutions as Agents of Change", summarizes and critiques the latter tendency, which, in the extreme, treats government institutions and their personnel as epiphenomena floating on the surface of the "real" currents of history, where the "real" currents are movements of masses of "ordinary people" behaving in ways that we can analyze atomistically.

Werner Stark's Fundamental Forms of Social Thought asserted that a mistaken dichotomy -- between organic (organistic?) and mechanistic models -- lead social thought astray for centuries, and that it was important to abandon those two choices.
  Why am I citing this?  The truth is that Stark's organistic/ mechanistic distinction didn't seem very illuminating to me, so next, I try to come up with better distinctions

The Holistic and the Reductionistic Approaches

This is a choice people have had to make for as long as they have been walking around looking at the world.  It is what I would call a creative tension.  The danger is that we will let one possibility dominate the other.  Every now and then someone blunders across this dichotomy and has the revelation that the world has, up til now, been doing the one, and if it would just stop and begin doing the other, we would be on our way to Nirvana, or the millenium.

Holism, Big Idea-ism, Lumper-ism, or Forrest-ism

Particularism, Anti Big Idea-ism, Splitter-ism, or Tree-ism Atomism (a different distinction):  I got the impression from Stark that he was mostly just exploring this ("splitter - lumper") dichotomy, and that he identified atomism with "splitterism".  But I begin to think of atomism as not just one of the sides of that dichotomy.  In atomistic thinking,  one descends to the smallest scale possible, but in addition, one does so expecting to find, at some "low level", uniform laws of behavior which lead, in principal, to an explanation of how all things, being made up of atoms, operate.  Atoms are not only small; they are also uniform.  If you know one hydrogen atom, you know them all (well, we have to specify the isotope too, in case you were about to bring that up).

Atomistic theories make statements about the small; the pieces, but they are emphatically not about the particular.  They try to implement "silver bullet" approaches that will eliminate the necessity of studying a lot of particulars ("Everything else is stamp-collecting" said one physicist).


This Historian's Involvement With Splitterism and Lumperism

For several years now, in an attempt to understand early nineteenth century America, I have mostly read accounts of diverse people and communities, and of the world of artifacts and nature in which they lived. Wanting to come as close as possible to an accurate imagining of lived experience, I have also read old newspapers, and tried to immerse myself in literature, religion, and technology, as it was experienced then.

Philosophical, specialized, and technical writings made up a real, experiential part of life for a small but influential part of the population, so if I live long enough, I'm apt to read Blackstone's Commentaries, textbooks in moral philosophy, grammar and rhetorical textbooks, books on how to build a grist mill.  I already read a good bit of the sort of poetry and prose that got published in The Knickerbocker magazine (poetry that one would not read for the shear joy of reading poetry).

I have mostly avoided highly conceptual approaches to the early republic, as well as overviews such as Charles Sellers' Market Revolution, where the stated purpose is so broad as to leave the writer almost unlimited scope for selection on the basis of unstated criteria. Instead, I have favored biographies, memoirs, journals, local histories, art and artifacts, histories of an aspect of daily life, and, in general, works with a narrowly stated  focus.

I have been almost as shy of political history as of overviews. Major political events are accompanied by so many judgments and interpretations, made back when they occurred, or made later by historians.  I have seen enough, however, to conclude that many of the opposing opinions between historians today were already stated clearly by political commentators at the time of the events.  So, with such "headline events",  one cannot say "this is what the witnesses say happened" without introducing long, narrative-destroying lists of alternative versions.  Unfortunately, when political history reads like good narrative, that is too often a sign that it is highly biased or simplistic.

Well, suppose we stay away from political history; is narrative then important?  Or can it give us "truth in history"? Well, there is nothing quite like narrative as an aid to imagining lived experience. Isn't it just as distorting of reality as more conceptual approaches? Perhaps, but much of the best narrative puts one in touch with the reality, distorted as it may be, that someone of the time actually experienced. Conceptual analysis, though a necessary check on narrative, tends to remove one from the sense of movement; of life.

I don't say that unifying concepts are a bad thing -- only that I haven't considered myself ready for them yet; I want to always have at least one foot, as nearly as possible, in the world of lived experience.

I do have a hearty interest in big abstractions applied to human life, as someone with an undergraduate major in psychology. On the other hand, as a one time dilettante scholar of Soviet history, I am very suspicious of attempts to conceptually unify history. While part of me is very Burkean -- skeptical of abstractions -- another part is always excited at the idea of a new conceptual approach to human life; one that might not be disaster prone.

In studying the history of the early American republic, my method has been to always, when bored or stuck, plunge into something which I know virtually nothing about. Fortunately, there has never been a shortage of things I "know virtually nothing about". I have also tried to couple this endeavor with increasingly ambitious attempts to contribute something - to engage with - the people who know the most about the people and the period, and who have a culture that, however imperfectly, is constantly challenging assertions and putting them to the test.

In Defense of Big Ideas (and Narrative?)

But to begin to examine the idea of the "Big Idea" -- no one can look at the world free of abstraction, except perhaps an infant, staring at the "buzzing, blooming confusion", somehow learning to discern patterns. One cannot have a coherent view of a large subject without some sort of "Big Idea" or set of ideas, or conceptual framework.

Today, thousands of academic historians research hundreds of sub areas of history.  Something approaching microhistory is the safe endeavor, in which one can, with hard work, get ones due.  There is no disrespect meant -- these are the books I've spent most of my time reading.

The more risky thing is to try to wrap a huge conceptual cloak around "Jacksonian America", say, or some large segment of it, or to write a doctor's thesis, as someone I know did, about "Slavery and the Meaning of America".  Such efforts may be greeted as the long awaited "magisterial synthesis"; or greeted with a yawn; or they may be considered wrong-headed and pernicious, or ax-grinding books floating too free of the historic facts.

Maybe the prototype of the Big Idea is the Big Narrative, with (a) central events, and/or (b) central characters and/or (c) unifying concepts. Narratives, roughly following the scheme of: "(a) This is what happened to (b) X, Y, and Z, and, and (c) here is what it means.", are the most natural form of history, or of proto-historical communication.  I suspect they may be as old as language itself.

Going back as far in history as it is possible to go, narrative has often (perhaps usually, and certainly so if we go very far back in history) been the kind of literature most responsible for changing nations and cultures.  Nearly all influential religious writings have been, in form, primarily narratives; much more so than they have been analyses of the nature of reality, of good, or the universe, or catalogues of behavioral prescriptions.  We come down to the antebellum period, and find Uncle Tom's Cabin doing more to promote abolitionism than the Testimony of 1000 Witnesses, or any other factual or exhortatory document -- at least Uncle Tom's Cabin did more to change the attitudes of great masses of people, though we'll never know for sure whether Uncle Tom's Cabin would have been written without the Testimony of 1000 Witnesses, or some other less widely read book.  Ann Douglass' Feminization... talks about a general shift in ethical didactic literature away from analysis and direct exhortation, and towards story telling, that was especially pronounced in this period.

It is a curious fact that writers around the time of the early 19th century, were self-conscious about the idea of narrative -- enough to name many books Narrative of...; a quick search of the New York Library's online catalogue for titles starting that way shows hundreds, of which a very high percentage of them are from the period of the early American republic. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass comes to mind immediately.