Tuesday, November 15, 2016

history is myth?

Jacques Barzun and Henry F Graff: The Modern Researcher (Harcourt, Brace and World, NY, 1970), page 172, on the nature of causality:

          "The historical researcher is thus led to adopt a practical distinction about causality that has already commended itself to workers in physical science. They draw attention to the difference between causation that occurs in a long chain of events of various kinds and causation within a closed system. An example of the first is: the forming of a cloud, the  darkening of the sun to earth dwellers,  the lowering of temperature, people putting on coats, a thunderstorm bursting, a person taking refuge under a tree and being struck by lightning and killed. This chain of 'causes' is miscellaneous and each event in it unpredictable, not because it is not determined, but because it occurs outside any controlled or controllable limits. As against this, in the physics laboratory, an elastic body of known stresses and strains goes through a series of evolving states; at any moment a single definite distribution of measured stress and strains is the effect of the previous moment, which may therefore be regarded as its complete cause, as the cause.

         The distinctive feature of the first kind of causality is that there is no restriction on the events that may be related. It is open to the observer's insight to select, not causes in sense number two, but conditions that belong to the chain and have the merit of interesting him and his audience. It is for them to judge whether the resulting narrative is intelligible, consonant with the experience of the race, and useful in orienting the mind amid the welter of facts."

         During the heyday of scientific (or "scientistic") thinking, some thinkers believed that all knowledge of the world could be reduced to logic and mathematics. Some believed that the evolution of society was a deterministic, rule-driven process whose "Laws" could be derived through empirical study and logical analysis (Karl Marx). Today such ideas strike us as quaint or dangerous (note 1) It was even dreamed for a while that history would become a branch of science!

          The Modern Researcher is described as "the classic manual on all aspects of research and writing". It is that and more, one of those inspired "sui generis" - one of a kind, hard to characterize works. Not just a "how-to" manual on the use of index cards to keep notes, the authors also explore fascinating "philosophical" questions on the nature and goals of research and verification or on the nature of causality and truth.  

            In the above quote, what Bazrun and Graff are suggesting is, to my way of thinking, much more radical, than it first appears. It is instructive that they use the term "narrative" to describe what history is. The criteria used to evaluate history's story - "interesting", "intelligible", "consonant" with individual or collective experience, and "useful" (itself subjective, depending upon whose use) seem more "aesthetic" than "scientific" in nature. No longer is history seen as the description of something "objective", "out there" (which is how science views its work) but rather as an artistic endeavor of creating something new and vital from the raw, dead data that chronology provides. Thus, say the authors, each generation must create its own history anew. The work of the historian is never finished then..

           But more interestingly - more disturbing, too - if history is more akin to art, literature and myth than to science, math or logic, what are the criteria with which to judge history? What distinguishes good from bad history?

           The authors' words - originally penned sixty years ago - were perhaps a bit ahead of their time. Today, as dissatisfaction with science and its accomplishments grows, it is obvious that people are turning to "mythic representations" of the world. A crude form of the "Golden Age" - to which we must return to be saved - is echoed in Donald Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again!" The rising tide of ecological disasters taps into that potent Judeo-Christian Archetype, the End Days (Apocalypse). Sometimes, the Apocalypse is reduced to mere justification for the status quo. American fundamentalist "christians" claim that these disasters are "Signs" of the End Days. Environmentalist activists are then accused of doing Satan's work since God has planned for earth's near destruction. An interesting perversion and corruption of a religious myth if there ever was one! God made responsible for human stupidity and greed.. Blasphemy, I say!


1- historical determinism / fatalism / fascism: studies by clinical psychologists of fascist and fascist sympathizers during and immediately after World War II revealed that "authoritarians" tend to see the world in black / white, stereotypic ways, often with a rejection of the idea of free will and self-determination. (Authoritarian thinkers are found, generally, at both extremes of the political spectrum: Stalinist communists were as "fascist" ans authoritarian as any nazis.) Part of the worldview of the fascist or authoritarian usually involves

Substitution and Stereotypy -- superstition, cliché, categorization and fatalistic determinism (for example, the Nazi ideology's cult of "racial determinism", one does what one does because one's ancestors came from a certain part of the world).

See, for example, http://www.cepsr.com/clanek.php?ID=328

          Such world views are dangerous because they lead to false - or, at best - oversimplified - causal connections between events between, for example, being a bad person and being Jewish (Nazis), Muslim (islamophobes) or Mexican (Donald Trump during the 2016 US Presidential Election).

 robbed of their childhood? Not much happiness there (probably not much curiosity or sense of wonder either..) Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth League).

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