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…

Can Anyone Laugh?

Frailty, thy name is woman, Hamlet said, upset about his mother’s behaviour. Perhaps Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had bad memories of the play. In a recent speech on moral corruption in Turkey, he is quoted as saying that : “Chastity is so important. It is not only a name. It is an ornament for both women and men. [She] will have chasteness…. [The woman] will know what is haram and not haram. She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.

http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2014/07/deputy_prime_

minister_of_turkey_says_women_shouldnt_laugh_in_public.html   

She will not laugh in public? This part, at least, is so patently stupid that I wondered whether it hid a voracious appetite for literature and philosophy -some reference or other to something pedantic or arcane. He is reputedly well educated and intelligent; perhaps he was naively mindful of Nietzsche and his assertion that laughter is an escape from the prison of reason and logic, while also having the potential of expressing social conflict. Maybe Arinc is afraid that women may have reason to stir up social tension.

Too academic? Okay then, suppose he has read Henri Bergson who felt that laughter may eliminate eccentric behaviour because it derides those who deviate from social norms… On the other hand, maybe he hasn’t: I suspect this is a bit more of a Mobius strip than Arinc would like.

Well, there’s always Plato, who didn’t feel that laughter had much value for human experience and in fact may be malicious. He argues that laughter is a malicious reaction to the domination over a more unfortunate member of society, and those occasionally engaged in laughter are exposed to something base which should be avoided. (Many of these quotes are from Sewanee Senior Philosophy Essays:

http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2002/Greenfield.html)

But of course Arinc would then be cognizant of the various classical theories of laughter – the three most mentioned ones being: Superiority Theory which is the one advanced by Plato and which suggests that “all laughter is a response to the comical ignorance in others.” And then there is the Relief Theory engendered by stress or anxiety. Another would be the Theory of Incongruity which is a reaction to something unexpectedly inappropriate…

But these don’t seem to capture the thrust of his argument. Maybe he understood the impenetrable words of Thomas Hobbes: “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” –although isn’t that just the Superiority Theory disguised by words..?

My own theory is that he was unduly influenced by the Wikipedia take on Herodotus:

For Herodotus, laughers can be distinguished into three types:[32]

  • Those who are innocent of wrongdoing, but ignorant of their own vulnerability
  • Those who are mad
  • Those who are overconfident

Why not Wikipedia? It’s easily found, easily assimilable and, in a pinch, easily editable. And it would be simplistic enough to appeal to people who are only half listening to his speech. Who only half remember his words. Too bad he didn’t plagiarize the page –then he could have been exposed for more than just propounding a silly statement. But no, he decided to try on the philosophical garb of religious authority.

And yet, when I actually stop and think about what he said, I have an uneasy feeling that his comments were not steeped in philosophy –Western philosophy, at any rate. They seem to emanate from an assumption that women are beginning to assume a too prominent –too equal–  role in Turkish society. You note that he uses the term ‘haram’ to contain a woman’s actions. As I understand the term, it is an Arabic one of Islamic jurisprudence employed to designate any action forbidden by Allah, and referred to in the Quran as such.

Clearly I am not an Islamic scholar and may be way off the mark, but I cannot seem to find any prohibition on laughter –male or female- in my research. It doesn’t appear to be haram… So what is Arinc talking about? Occuring as it does in a speech for an Eid el-Fitr meeting July 28, it is not likely to be a simple off-the-cuff remark.

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/women-should-not-laugh-in-public-turkish-deputy-pm-says-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=69732&NewsCatID=338

No, I suspect this was an ill-conceived, and terribly naïve attempt to curb the rising power of women in Turkey. It no doubt disturbs the sleep of those in power –those with vested interests in maintaining the archaic status quo. But by using the religious card, it is all the more abhorrent. That any religion –any culture, for that matter- would proscribe laughter for its adherents is itself ridiculous. Unbelievable. Risible…

At the risk of parsing the stereotype, let me return one final time to Shakespeare –this time to Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

“That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,                                                                                   If with his tongue he cannot win a woman.”  

Listen up Arinc; the world is waiting…and laughing.