Working out an idea about history

A: Let’s critique history.

B: Like what?

A: Like Kant’s critique of metaphysics.

B: That didn’t leave all that much. Certainly very little of what was left before.

A: Maybe not. I want to give an account of history as unscience. 

B: Understand it as the opposite of science, then.

A: Right.

B: But hasn’t that critique been quietly playing itself out? Who would ever write a book like Hegel these days? We’d all roll our eyes and snicker at grand claims of universal structure in history. No one would ever teach history as a science these days.

A: I think this is a verbal solution to a much more difficult problem. Sure, we don’t use the word “science” but we treat the thing we’re studying as a scientific entity.

B: Explain.

A: We divide it up into stages of natural progression like it’s an organism. We pull back from the data and see eras like “Middle Ages” and “Reformation” and “Enlightenment”.

B: Sure, these are rough and inadequate generalizations and everyone recognizes that these days.

A: But that’s being understood on an analogy to the sciences too. A scientist will, say, disregard friction when watching things roll in order to get a clearer view of the main law governing the roll. But what if there is no underlying law to see? What good is the simplification?

B: So this is the sort of vanity you see in history?

A: Yeah. I want to turn simplification, which is so effective in science, into an analogy against history.

B: Why say there is no law though? Isn’t there a logic to decision that plays itself out over time?

A: No – a law is timeless but action is not.

B: Say more.

A: Laws are essentially predictive but history will never give us anything predictive. A predicting historian can’t be anything more than lucky. History never gets beyond time to law. How could it? What good is this simplification process?

B: That goes way too far. Look, human action has effects on the world, and some actions have way more effect than others. You can’t tell people to stop noticing this.

A: Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere. History is becomes collective psychology.  How were human beings affected by events and what effects did this lead to. Once we have a descent idea of psychological mechanisms, history should be a cinch.

B: And I suppose you think we have none.

A: Look, the history of psychiatry is not exactly a heroic narrative of success. How many Schools have been formed and lost? Is there anything more quaint than a 60 year old theory about a case file? I see no reason to think that 60 years from now they’ll read ours in the same way, and so on ad infinitum.  Is schizophrenia any more defined than neurasthenia? Sure, maybe we have a little more data, but all the categories are inadequate.

B: You and the extremes!

A: And you are always counseling a confused moderation that never says anything definite.




  1. robalspaugh said,

    November 21, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Incarnation. Fullness of time. Salvation History. Parousia.

    History is science the way theology is?

  2. skholiast said,

    November 22, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Some of your best posts are in dialogue form. Just sayin’.

    • November 22, 2015 at 10:56 am

      I’ve thought about just shifting to dialogue form permanently.

  3. November 22, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    Are you saying that Isaac Asimov lied to me about the possibility of Psychohistory? Say it ain’t so!

  4. mike said,

    November 24, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    sounds like you’re saying that history is too complex to be susceptible to laws of history.

  5. obscure said,

    November 25, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Surely there are general laws of history: Whatever is is a unity. Whatever is an aggregate must be a unity insofar as it is internally coherent. History involves a plurality of finite things and thus aggregates. Whatever is internally coherent is stronger than that which lacks internal coherence. Whatever is finite enters into external relations and therefore nothing in history is perfectly internally coherent. Therefore there must be a constant stream of conflict and death in history which is more or less predictable as long as one is not reckless. Likewise, every historical entity must rely on a trans-historical principle in order to develop positively. If a thing is defined only by its external relations, then it is considered only insofar as it tends towards enslavement and death. When principles are ‘immanentized’ or made into primarily historical entities then that which had depended upon them is now tending towards death. The vitality of a historical organism depends upon the capacity of some office within that organism to maintain the transcendence of fundamental principles. Whatever seeks to ‘immanentize’ those principles is either an opposed organism or a ‘cancer’. Whatever comes to exist in history is involved in external relations and therefore must contain some internal contradiction no matter how intense the development of that organism’s internal coherence becomes. The strength of a ‘cancer’ is always more deadly than brute opposition involving an external entity.

    This line of thought may continue and yield a systematic particularization through which concrete facts may be interpreted. Whatever interpretation of facts emerges will not be simply false although it may be inferior to another interpretation. That interpretation which is most involved will always be the best interpretation at its moment. Whatever interpretation does not flow from simple principles or fails to involve certain available facts will be weaker than the stronger interpretation. Whatever interpretation is not in competition with the facts (it can, in principle, always involve any facts which are introduced) is always the best interpretation. An interpretation which begins with a conventional description of certain facts will always be the weaker interpretation because of its contingency and its implicit subordination to whatever independent principles determine the conventions through which a description is constructed. The idea of unity which is the spirit of all particular laws, rules, etc. must be consciously kept in mind when constructing a system. He who lacks this spirit lacks authority and thus cannot be an author of anything, but must be a slave. Immediately subordinated to the idea of unity are the ideas of identity and distinction. An infinite specification of the idea of unity is a simple identity whereas a finite specification of the idea of unity simply implies distinction of the identified entity from an entity which is not itself. With starting points like this, one may identify diverse systems of conflict in an intelligible way. Rules for categorizing things are easily understood from this point. In the indefinite aggregate of historical existence there are always facts which are not being accounted for, so there is no system understood or constructed by a finite mind which involves every fact.

    No application of principles is just an instance of those principles because a pure instance would account for every fact involved, but there are facts which cannot be involved in a real application of principles insofar as the mind applying those principles is itself a member of the plurality of facts which it would have to stand outside of if it were to simply define the entire order as a pure instance. However, a relative perfection should be possible within the context of some moment. The imperfection of thoughts and discourses contained in foregone moments does not indicate an impossibility. Whoever is conscious of these things at some moment and is thus self-conscious can attain an appropriate perfection. The future, being not yet, is nothing to a man who is performing his perfect work of the present moment. The past is also nothing unless it is understood within the perfection of the present moment wherein some inherited convention does not interfere with the cognition of simple principles and their inevitable application. Such a perfect present moment is the occasion for transcendence because one is not in conventional agreement with the historical flux of things not-present and is thus not included in the list of things which are not. Why is this so? This is a clear matter of principles: One cannot affirm that which is nothing. One can infinitely affirm that which is simply something. That which is not simply something is in itself nothing, but insofar as it is something it is subordinated to that which is simply something. There is, at this moment, that which is simply something for if this were not so then there would be simply nothing and thus no moment in which to simply affirm all things and their Cause. Such is the way of things: Therefore, at each moment one must do what one simply can do or what one can do in complexity, but the complex yields to the simple.


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