Historiognosis

When I was in school, history was just a series of strange and unfamiliar stories -some interesting, most forgettable. Of course, I recognize the irony in describing the effects of teaching methods that are now, themselves, historical, but I still wonder how decisions were made about which facts to focus on. The date of a battle, or the names of the generals who were killed are easily agreed upon, and yet what about things like the beginning of the Enlightenment, or when the Little Ice Age began and ended? They are surely more approximations -opinions- than known ‘facts’.

Again, when I was much younger and my leaves were still green and tender, it seemed that most, if not all, of the important historical figures were male, and by and large, European. Females, if they were mentioned at all, were like adjectives that added colour to their male nouns. There were, of course, exceptions -Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century Abbess, polymath, and musical composer of sacred monophony is my favourite, I think- but only relatively recently have more historically important females been  ‘discovered’. Heaven only knows how many more lie patiently awaiting exhumation.

And, let’s face it, even when I was in high school, Columbus was still felt to have ‘discovered’ America, much to the amused astonishment of the original inhabitants, no doubt. And Africa had never been considered to have hosted any civilizations worthy of the name, let alone exhibited any philosophical thinking, or theological profundities.

I suppose, for an interested but no doubt naïve amateur, it has always been the arbitrariness of the choices about what happened in the past, and often, the seemingly limited perspectives of the almost infinite number of  possibilities available, that trouble me.

And yes, I understand that the sources from which conclusions are drawn may be unreliable, or reflect the biases of their creators (or historians), and I can imagine that even where the written documents may be clearly worded, their meanings are not fixed for all times. Societal norms, and expectations also no doubt influence what was felt to be important to record. So, although I am intrigued by History, I am wary of any lessons it might purport to offer those of us alive today.

Still, I continue to be attracted to new analyses, and I remain curious about novel ways of approaching and evaluating the Past. So, it was with a frisson of excitement that I embarked upon the exploration of a rather complex essay that suggested there may be a more objective way of appraising history -a mathematical approach that is no doubt old-hat to professional historians, but new to uncredentialled and only part-time acolytes like myself. Amanda Rees, a historian of science in the department of sociology at the University of York, surveyed attempts to objectivize History, and bring it more in line with the Natural Sciences with their use of statistical analyses and the like: https://aeon.co/essays/if-history-was-more-like-science-would-it-predict-the-future

Rees, ends her first paragraph with a question: ‘If big data could enable us to turn big history into mathematics rather than narratives, would that make it easier to operationalise our past?’ There have been several unsuccessful attempts to try something like this. For example, ‘In the 19th century, the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle used a broad-brush approach to the past in an effort to identify ‘natural laws’ that governed society… Buckle’s contemporary, the French positivist Auguste Comte, had earlier proposed his ‘law of three stages’ which styled human society as passing through ‘theological’ and ‘metaphysical’ stages, before arriving at a scientific self-understanding through which to build a better society.’

And then there was ‘the more elaborate social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. These views were an attempt to marry the organic nature of evolution to history, but unfortunately, became embedded in the Zeitgeist of the time and seem to us nowadays as distinctly racist.

Rees, however, spends considerable time explaining the views of Peter Turchin, who in 2010 was an ecologist in the  University of Connecticut. ‘Why, Turchin wanted to know, were the efforts in medicine and environmental science to produce healthy bodies and ecologies not mirrored by interventions to create stable societies? Surely it was time ‘for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science’… he proposed a new discipline: ‘theoretical historical social science’ or ‘cliodynamics’ – the science of history.’

Of course, unlike objective attributes such as, say, temperature or infective processes, ‘‘historical facts’ are not discrete items that exist independently, awaiting scholars who will hunt them down, gather them up and catalogue them safely. They need to be created and interpreted. Textual archives might seem relatively easy to reproduce, for example, but, just as with archaeological digs, the physical context in which documents are found is essential to their interpretation: what groups, or items, or experiences did past generations value and record… What do the marginalia tell us about how the meanings of words have changed?’

A good example perhaps: ‘is it really possible to gauge subjective happiness by counting how many times words such as ‘enjoyment’ or ‘pleasure’ occur in the more than 8 million books digitised by Google?’ Or another: ‘a quantitative study of American slavery, in which Fogel [Robert Fogel, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economic history] used plantation records to show that slavery was an economically efficient means of production, and to suggest that Southern slaves were better off than many Northern wage-earners.’ And yet, ‘plantation records didn’t fully capture the nature of slavery. How could they, when they were created by one group of humans at the expense of another?’

It is for this reason, among others, that ‘a positivist language of science – of testing hypotheses against data – sits uncomfortably with the practice of history.’ Are historical facts (a debatable term at best) really ‘things’? Turchin seemed to think so.  ‘Inspired by the work of the American sociologist Jack Goldstone, who in the 1990s had tried to translate Alexis de Tocqueville’s philosophy into mathematical equations, Turchin began to relate population size to economic output (and, critically, levels of economic inequality) as well as social and political instability… Social structure, for example, could be treated as a product of health and wealth inequality – but to measure either, you need to choose approximate and appropriate proxies. The process was further complicated by the fact that, when you’re working with a chronology that spans millennia, these proxies must change over time. The texture of that change might be qualitative as well as quantitative.’ You get the idea: apples and oranges.

And anyway, what makes anybody believe that the Natural Sciences (which Turchin was trying to emulate) are actually capable of producing ‘objective knowledge’? ‘Half a century of research in the history of science has shown that this perspective is deeply flawed. The sciences have their own history – as indeed does the notion of objectivity – and that history is deeply entwined with power, politics and, importantly, the naturalisation of social inequality by reference to biological inferiority. No programme for understanding human behaviour through the mathematical modelling of evolutionary theory can afford to ignore this point… meta-analyses and abstract mathematical models depend, by necessity, on manipulating data gathered by other scholars, and a key criticism of their programme is that cliodynamicists are not sensitive to the nuances and limitations of that data.’

By this stage in the essay, I was not only confused, I was also disappointed. But, could I really expect an answer to the arbitrariness of historical data when even my brother and I, in describing an event from our shared childhood, can never agree on what really happened? It’s all perspective in the end; as Nietzsche said, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’

And anyway, my brother doesn’t know what he’s talking about…