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history


the first full-blown
intellectual tradition spawned
by inquiry - a little-known fact which ought
to give pause to theory-mongers dismissive of same,
it remains the bedrock of our most fruitful understandings


When Herodotus wrote The Histories, in the mid-fifth century BCE, prose was in its infancy in Greece, "rhetoric" was mainly oral instruction - aided by condensed exemplars, rather than formal analyses - and both "science" & "philosophy" were still largely aphoristic, and coupled to poetic form. And, not only was The Histories the first fairly systematic lengthy prose work of analysis, it was also followed by a counter-reformation of the discipline - in the shape of Thucydides work - which dropped the anthropological angle, and the use of much dubious hearsay evidence, but also narrowed the focus in on the political/military sphere...an emphasis that continued to dominate the discipline into the 20th century, although by now much enriched by other concerns.

So, by the time the other intellectual modes had got their act together - at least in this (influential) case - history had preceded them twice...by setting the initial prose mode, and by redefining itself in a more rigorous (although not necessarily superior) form...

Looking at the developmental evidence - for analogies, not "primitive" models - this isn't actually too surprising. As Kieran Egan has perceptively noted, much of the anthropology in Herodotus comes across rather like a ancient Greek Guinness Book of Records - a near-universal favourite of kids at that age when they first begin testing the factual extremities of their world...and a key stage in developing the mental tools they'll need for analytical thought.

So...both in phylogeny & ontogeny, history comes first - which (of course) to superficially "progressive" thinkers from Descartes on, means that it must be "primitive" and, therefore, superseded by more formal approaches. Here, despite all their rhetoric, the post-modernists are at one w/the philosophical mainstream...as well as many areas of science. Abandoning "grand narratives" boils down to undermining narrative itself - not so coincidently, also a venerable avant-garde tradition.

Trouble is, humans happen to be narrative creatures - we ourselves are stories, constantly re-woven within the memories that are never the fixed files we imagine - and so, yet again, the postmodern presents us w/yet another vain dystopia...which could only drive people insane who were so foolish as to attempt a life bounded by its theology...

The key to fruitful historical thinking isn't a concentration upon critique, to the point where narrative dissolves in a welter of uncertainties...however smug this may allow us to feel about more "naive" approaches. Nor, pace Thucydides, is it a narrow focus upon what can be firmly established in a limited sphere. No, the real key is in the refinement/exploration of Herodotus' model...attempting to survey all types of evidence to the best of our abilities, focussing upon questions we want (however provisionally) to answer - rather than on theories or types of action - and diversifying our tools pragmatically, rather than being governed by logical strictures incapable of dealing with interlocking and multicausal events in unrepeatable time.

As such, history is a profoundly human endeavour - with all the strengths (and weaknesses) that entails. And, whilst individual questions in certain areas - such as the biogeography of domestication brilliantly outlined in Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel - may be amenable to more clearly "scientific" approaches, I doubt the same will apply overall. Simply...the factors are too diverse, and their interaction too contingent, to ever be formalised - as Popper & others have frequently reminded us.

However, this is not to say that history does not have much in common w/science... As John Lewis Gaddis has recently shown, however, its sister disciplines are the historical - rather than the social - sciences, as the latter mainly still cling to nineteenth century positivism, and are too-often obsessed w/finding "independent variables"...which (probably) don't exist in their sphere. The commonalities are rather with areas such as biology and geology, and these sciences - like historians - have developed a multitude of techniques to deal w/the recalcitrant facts of contingency, and interdependent variables of often bewildering complexity.

When we take history as the foundational model for a revived Humanities, it should be as the modest, pragmatic search engine that it is capable of being - and frequently is - so unlike most more formalistic approaches. Moreover, even pragmatic formalisms, such as the rhetorical tradition, only properly cover half the terrain because, put simply - things both change & stay the same...

History, flawed as it (necessarily) is, takes both aspects seriously - and has a grand tradition of borrowing any intellectual tool that can aid in its quest. The resulting theoretical pluralism is what humans need for real self-understanding - not quasi-theological quests for "rigour"...or overarching "grand theories" that fudge evidence for the purposes of academic empire-building.

Because, as I said earlier, we are narrative creatures. Instead of denying this - in typically utopian fashion - we need to turn our propensities in this direction to fruitful ends. Arguably, when it comes to ourselves, formal/rational models will always remain auxilliaries to fundamentally narrative understandings, ideally embedded within broader historical frames. The models are crucial to the task...but they will never take precedence - except to our detriment - as, if we deny the narrative nature of our knowledge-frames, it will simply expose us to much more damaging errors, as the intellectual record so clearly shows.


History, as they say, will out...



John Henry Calvinist