Not long ago, someone I know made a remark that perfectly captures an attitude I have run into a thousand times: “Something[‘s] been on my mind. History is essentially a fiction, a creative retelling at best. We shouldn’t judge our history on its accuracy but more on whether it leaves us empowered enough to have better lives. This idea has been abused, though.”
Been abused? Similarly, the Bush and then the Obama administrations decided the NSA could spy on US citizens, but this power has been abused. In case you missed it, that was irony; of course it was bloody abused, because its fundamental nature is abusive. The idea that the study of history is fiction starts off as rubbish and then gets worse.
Let me make one distinction right off, because it often seems to be a point of confusion: there is a difference between history (what happened in the past) and the study of history (our understanding and opinions about what happened in the past). It seems trivially obvious that the object of the latter is to come as close as possible to the former, but, in any case, they aren’t the same.
There is more to the study of history than accuracy, but it must start there, with the struggle to find out what actually happened. It isn’t easy, and obviously any historian is coming at it from a particular viewpoint–the best of them make clear what this viewpoint is. But after we have determined what happened (yes, six million Jews were murdered, even if you feel more empowered believing otherwise; yes, the slaughter of the American Indian and the near destruction of his culture actually happened; yes, Bush really did sanction torture and Obama really is committing murder without due process, no matter how empowering it is to you to deny these things), we need to understand why. Once we have committed ourselves to the ongoing (and very difficult) task of determining what actually happened, we have only begun. Because the point of the study of history goes beyond, “it is good to know what happened.” The point is to be able to generalize–to understand the working of historical laws in order to make them work for us in the same way that we learned about the General Theory of Relativity and now use it in our GPS devices. Of course Einstein’s work was very difficult; and yet, one rarely hears a physicist say, “determining the laws of the motion of matter on the subatomic level is very difficult, so I think I’ll just conclude there are no laws.”
Ah, what is that I hear? Grinding teeth? What is that I see? Rolling eyes? Yes, I said historical laws–the laws of motion that apply to the actions of socially organized human beings over time. The absurdity of those who deny such laws exist is usually self-evident. What is theory? It is merely generalized experience. So let me put it this way: If you are going to say there is no such thing as historical law, then be aware you are contradicting yourself every time you wave your arms in frustration at the American voter and say, “Didn’t they learn anything the last time we had a <fill in the blank> in office?” That thing you just did was complaining that other people are failing to make the correct generalizations about history. (A note in passing: I believe that, if you are saying that, you are failing to make the correct generalizations about history, but that is another discussion.)
We know about the law of combined development (that the technology base of a culture can leapfrog, taking what it learned from another culture and, not just catching up, but surpassing it with entirely new technology). We know that economic systems that were an advance at one time–as landlord-based feudalism was an advance over a society built on slave labor–will at some point begin taking society backward and need to be replaced, as capitalism replaced the feudal-monarchical system. We know that there has been a trend, over the vast scope of history, for more personal liberty and greater democracy. Knowing these things permits us to draw important conclusions about what is happening now, and what needs to be done about it. When we see widespread attacks on democratic rights, we need to be able to draw conclusions about whether this is a fluke because some individuals happen to be not nice, or if it is part of a broader, more systemic problem. The study of history is invaluable in making this determination, and this study has nothing whatever to do with how “empowered” we want to feel.
In my opinion, the study of history is in its infancy. We are still, on many levels, postulating the existence of the ether for describing how light travels. We need to understand better. But of one thing I am very certain: this understanding will not come from people who believe that history is fiction.
33 thoughts on “Rant: The Study of History”
Brown’s Law of History: History doesn’t repeat itself. It just gives pop quizzes to see if anyone was paying attention.
“‘We shouldn’t judge our history on its accuracy but more on whether it leaves us empowered enough to have better lives.'”
I honestly cannot even imagine anyone saying something like this. Isn’t that why we tell stories, so we can get a lift from being superheroes, explorers and world-renowned pastry chefs and then get on with reality?
Does this person feel all history needs to be properly interpreted or just the recent past? That is, does she feel it’s as important to think the Punic Wars were just an early example of alternative dispute resolution predating mass torts as to believe only a few thousands Jews were killed in WW II? I ask that because I have met people who feel that anything which has happened within the lifetimes of themselves or any family member is somehow special and is not to be subjected to the same analysis as “real” history, which is stuff that happened before their grandparents were born. I sort of understand what they mean because they’ve been taught to think of history as dry dates and dead people, and not something that still reverberates today, but the feel good and empowerment aspect is wholly new to me.
“The point is to be able to generalize–to understand the working of historical laws in order to make them work for us…”
I disagree with this as a blanket statement. It’s like saying the only point of math is to demonstrate the truth of Einstein’s theories. Or is it possible you’re prepared to argue that only people who study the past for the right reason are historians?
“Ah, what is that I hear? Grinding teeth? What is that I see? Rolling eyes? Yes, I said historical laws…”
I never grind my teeth, but I’ve said elsewhere I disagree utterly with the concept of historical laws. What you’re describing falls under the umbrella of sociology. The mischaracterizing of, well, everything as being subject to immutable laws of nature is a relic of the 19th century, an idea that Marxists applied to their theories to suggest they are so right they rank right up there with gravity.
Analyzing past actions and applying that analysis to the future can never be a case of hard and fast factual application of knowledge akin to atomic motion for too many reasons to address in brief. Note that doesn’t mean one cannot anticipate upcoming general trends of behavior, just that sociology is qualitatively different from physics.
OK, be difficult. Why can’t you just accept the history books as they are written, like all the good little boys and girls do?
I think I agree with your points, but it is complicated. Is History fiction? Yes and no. Too much history is written by the victors, apologists and PR people of that age. Some people like my sister-in-law ferret out things that really happened, but it’s difficult. Much too difficult for most people who are mentally weak willed anyway. The wouldn’t want to accept anything different from the official version of events even if it stared them in the face. As it does on TV today.
Are there “laws” to historical behavior? Yeah, I think so, but maybe “rules” makes more sense since they are not absolute. Certainly successful rulers/leaders have figured out how to control people by controlling what they think by controlling what they see. So when everything points to a storybook official version of events, one should be very skeptical. The old “power corrupts” rule has been shown true over and over. But people do not seem to have learned to limit power. When the king’s sibling rivals to the throne all conveniently die, one might suspect some hanky-pankey going on. And so on.
Virtually none of this stuff is taught in most HS history classes. We get Washington chopped down the cherry tree and could not tell a lie.
> The idea that the study of history is fiction starts off as rubbish and then gets worse.
Frankly I don’t think it’s even worth discussing, it’s so horrible. The very idea makes me sick.
> Ah, what is that I hear? Grinding teeth?
Sort of, because I agree wholeheartedly when you say:
> We are … postulating the existence of the ether for describing how light travels.
That era of physics had a non-scientific approach to studying the problem of the propagation of light, all the way up to the Michelson-Morley experiment. Most physicists at the time took “light needs a physical medium to propagate” to be axiomatic, and it became accepted truth for a time with neither a consistent theory nor experimental verification to back it up. Which makes it nonscientific.
That’s where history is right now, or rather, history isn’t even that far, because at that time at least physicists knew how to do proper experiments and develop proper theories in other phases of their field. History to date just doesn’t have satisfactory mathematical models nor methods of reproducible experimentation, and without these things you just don’t have science. And without science, you just don’t have theories or natural laws, you have scattered rules of thumb.
So sure, someday there may be a deeper understanding, better models, and historical theories with predictive and normative power. And it’s laudable to strive to achieve those goals. But at present, I don’t think history is scientific, and if there are indeed historical laws, we don’t know what they are.
Really, I don’t think I’m arguing with skzb very much at all, because it’s not inconceivable that historical laws could be developed by more intelligent, more perceptive, or even just more experienced people someday. But I think we are far from the day when historical laws can legitimately be said to be known or even hypothesized.
> The study of history is invaluable in making this determination, and this study
> has nothing whatever to do with how “empowered” we want to feel.
Indeed. I just think our determinations at present are unscientific, unfortunately.
L. Raymond: “I disagree with this as a blanket statement. It’s like saying the only point of math is to demonstrate the truth of Einstein’s theories.” You make a valid point. There are other reasons for studying history–pure entertainment being not the least of them.
David Hajicek: There may be an element of truth in that if you decide “the study of history” means nothing except “read what historians wrote.” But, for example, when I see the documentation for the insurance claim filed by the Free State Hotel, Lawrence, Kansas, 1856 after it was destroyed by border ruffians (with a thank you to the Lawrence Historical Society) and see the number of barrels of oysters in the claim, I think I can conclude that oysters were served in Lawrence in 1856, and, moreover, that the Free State Hotel was destroyed, whether some historian or other agrees or not.
One word: Foundation
skzb, you are in a decided minority, in that you read and try to understand historical documents. That was part of what I was pointing out. Hard to guess how many people actually learn something useful from history. 5%? 10%?
What? They didn’t like smoked oysters?
There is more to the study of history than accuracy, but it must start there, with the struggle to find out what actually happened.”
The way that works in physics, is to isolate events, and control every variable we are not interested in that affects the results. When nothing is allowed to affect the results except the variables we want to study, we can easily see the relationships among them.
To do that with history, we would find a historical topic of interest, and repeat it many times while allowing only a few variables to vary known amounts. We could figure we were controlling things adequately if we got reproducible results….
No, we can’t do that. We can’t study history the way we study physics. We must do something else, and accept some other sort of results. History is not a science.
But even with sciences, we don’t just get objective results. Like, relativity. First they got results that did not make sense. There was no way to square them with Newtonian thinking. Then Einstein proposed a solution. Basicly he took the measured results and said “The physics fits these measured results. That’s how it works.” He cut the gordian knot of trying to make sense of things, by saying they didn’t need to make sense.
Later it turned out that the reality kind of makes sense if you assume space-time is a Minkowski space and velocity is a hyperbolic rotation in Minkowski space. Unfortunately, Minkowski space does not make sense and physicists occasionally spend months or years trying to grok it and then say that it makes sense to them, but their explanations do not make sense and the pictures they draw to show what happens make sense only to them.
Luckily, physicists do not have to be able to draw pictures that make sense. If they can solve the homework problems (which is easy for SR) then they understand it well enough.
After around 100 years, some physicists came up with a new explanation. They called it “euclidean relativity”. It fits the data — the same homework problems get solved the same way — but it is much easier to understand the pictures. The pythagorean theorem works. Velocity is not a rotation but a dilation in one dimension. It’s still weird — it isn’t much like Newton — but it isn’t nearly *as* weird.
There is more than one way to imagine the same situation that gets the same result, and some of them are easier to understand than others.
If we could actually measure what happened in history, surely it would be that way too. There could be many ways to understand the same thing, that all work. They wouldn’t *seem* to describe the same causes or relationships, but they would all get the same results. In one sense if they get the same results they are the same theory. But in other ways they are very different.
Even with carefully defined circumstances in physics, we can often get unpredictable results. Here are two ways it can happen:
1. We have a situation where an important result comes by subtracting one variable from another. When both of them are large and almost equal to each other, we can’t measure the difference. It is small. It might be so small that we can’t tell whether it’s positive or negative because we can’t measure the two big numbers that accurately. Sometimes a tiny number has tiny effects, so it doesn’t matter that we don’t know anything about it except that it’s small. Sometimes it does matter. Say the people of Puerto Rico are voting whether to disassociate from the USA, and the polling predicts the vote at 50:50. They can’t know who will win, and if it’s a fair election nobody can know who will win. It’s possible that the vote will actually be 50:50 when the last fifty voters cast their votes, and a few votes will tip it. And it will affect history. If the vote is not rigged.
2. We have a situation where something important depends on one number divided by another. But there can be errors in our measurement of those two numbers. The smaller the denominator, the bigger the result. When the denominator is very small, a small error can have a giant result. And if you don’t know the sign, the result is likely to be a very large positive number or a very large negative number. And you can’t measure which ahead of time.
You can usually avoid that sort of thing in physics by doing your experiments so that the bad inputs are avoided. And when you do engineering, you can arrange your design to avoid the bad inputs. If you design an airplane you can avoid some of the bad results completely and sometimes you have to tell the pilots “Don’t do THIS or the wings might fall off.”. But with things like weather and politics you have to let things happen however they will, and you get some unpredictable results.
It may turn out to be impossible to design a political system the way you’d design an airplane. If you tell a politician “Don’t do this or the wings will fall off” he’s likely to say “Do this unrelated stuff my way or I’ll make the wings fall off”.
“In my opinion, the study of history is in its infancy.”
I have to agree. Just because there is reason to think there will never be a science of history, does not at all prove there is not a science of history already, in its infancy. There is reason to think we will never know enough about history to make a science of it. But that is not proof that it can’t be done, that is a sort of argument from ignorance. There is a great big difference between “I don’t see how it can be done using any of the methods I know about” and “I know enough to say it can never be done using any methods we can ever discover”. Science already includes a whole lot of things I’ve never heard about at all, and there could be a science of history in its infancy that uses methods I’ve never heard of.
“‘We shouldn’t judge our history on its accuracy but more on whether it leaves us empowered enough to have better lives.’”
“I honestly cannot even imagine anyone saying something like this.”
L Raymond, consider how Chinese history was done. For example, Lord Shang.
China was divided into multiple kingdoms, and Qin was among the least developed. Shang convinced the Qin king to follow his policies. Harsh punishment for anyone who broke the law, and equal punishment for anyone who knew of a crime and did not report it. He designed the laws to benefit Qin. No one could travel without a permit, which was recorded at every stop or checkpoint. No one could hide from the law.
Shang’s laws controlled everybody. But he could not control the King’s son, who could not be punished. Shang found a way. He found children for the prince to play with and be friends with, and when the prince did not study Shang punished them.
Qin prospered. Shang encouraged farmers by making them slaves if they did not produce. He encouraged soldiers by giving them farms and slaves if they were brave. He encouraged administrators by rewarding them for doing as they said they would, but he punished failure and unexpected success. He killed or enslaved merchants who tried to buy low and sell high. Quickly Qin began to overtake the other kingdoms.
The king died and the prince became the new king. Lord Shang ran away. When he tried to exchange his tired horses for fresh ones, he could not. He did not have permission, and people were afraid to take his bribes. When he tried to stop for the night the inn would not accept him. Everywhere he went, people reported him. He was caught and was sentenced to be pulled apart by horses.
A lot of the chinese history I’ve seen was written this way. It’s stories that make sense, with a moral. I don’t know how true the stories are, because the history is mostly all there is. Like, there’s independent evidence that Qin got powerful and conquered all the other kingdoms and imposed harsh laws on everybody. Probably everybody in China knows about Lord Shang but I doubt there’s more evidence for him than Robin Hood.
The story is useful. It says strong government is unpleasant and maybe deadly for every individual person, but it brings prosperity. Individual people may be punished if they work to make the government stronger, that doesn’t give them an out, but if it is strong they must obey.
“But, for example, when I see the documentation for the insurance claim filed by the Free State Hotel, Lawrence, Kansas, 1856 after it was destroyed by border ruffians (with a thank you to the Lawrence Historical Society) and see the number of barrels of oysters in the claim, I think I can conclude that oysters were served in Lawrence in 1856, and, moreover, that the Free State Hotel was destroyed, whether some historian or other agrees or not.”
I think it’s very very likely that the Free State hotel was built and later destroyed, because there aren’t a lot of people who have the chutzpah to take out insurance on a building that doesn’t exist, intending to make an insurance claim later.
And they must have thought it was plausible to the insurance people that they would have barrels of oysters. If that seemed like an unreasonable claim for that time and place, they would not make it.
However I would hesitate to look at the number of barrels they claimed, and draw conclusions from that about how many oysters they actually sold. They probably did not lose more barrels of oysters than they claimed, but they could have had less.
Last weekend I toured a stately mansion, the oldest building in Alexandria, VA. It was built of stone, at a time when every other construction was wooden and many were log cabins. The tour guide explained that the man was from Scotland where all the rich people’s houses were stone, and he was rich, and he thought of himself as scottish and intended to go home someday. The guide explained that they knew everything that was in the house including every slave by name, because the owner had made a list of everything for a government document in 1755. The guide was a lawyer during her work hours, and she did not question that a list prepared in a distant colony for the British government would be 100% accurate.
When you say historical laws, I wonder if you mean that, like physical laws, formulating principles that would allow precise prediction? So, future historians might have the Hari Seldon-like ability to know how events will play out for hundreds of years? Not to get too far afield, but it seems like you might end up eventually getting into questions of pre-destination, and that whole line of thinking.
Which is not to say I don’t agree with you. The idea of history as fiction is pure nonsense, I just wonder if what you mean by ‘laws’ is more like, ‘lessons we should learn in order to not screw up as much next time.’
Didn’t they learn anything the last time we had a in office?” That thing you just did was complaining that other people are failing to make the correct generalizations about history. (A note in passing: I believe that, if you are saying that, you are failing to make the correct generalizations about history, but that is another discussion.)
What would say would be a correct generalization in this situation?
I have no interest in continuing the previous conversation, but I happened to talk to a Vietnam vet the other day. He was in the navy, and based out of San Francisco. Alameda? I don’t California very much. Anyway, Southern California, he said. He spent some time in Vietnam, but never actually in country, as they say.
Anyway, he said that there was a standing order not to wear their uniforms when they were on liberty at home. Part of me got to wondering if maybe the supposed abuse of vets was different in different places, and of course the simple answer to that is “probably”. But the nature of the conversation the other day was my wondering if part of what’s going on now with the near deification of service persons is a reaction to the belief that said service persons were abused during the Vietnam War era, and the answer to that is still “probably”. So it almost doesn’t matter which thing is true for the purpose of my maundering.
I mention this because I find that aspect of the study of history interesting. That is, sometimes, depending on what you’re studying, it doesn’t matter which thing is true, only what someone thinks is true. Ultimately, I’d rather have the “what actually happened” well in hand before moving on, but you don’t always need it for studying particular moments in time.
J. Thomas: “L Raymond, consider how Chinese history was done. For example, Lord Shang.”
My greatest historical interest lies in Heian Japan, so you’ll understand why I’m already familiar with ancient Chinese history in general, and with the concept of morality tales passed off as factual accounts in particular. That I know how common it is, today as well as 2,300 years ago, has nothing to do with the fact I can’t imagine anyone I know saying such a thing, and have never had the chance to quiz people as to why they think that way.
Still, you provide a good example of a lot of research these days. Wikipedia capitalizes on the fact that people think merely looking up statements makes them informed on a subject when that’s barely the first step. Above is a good example of cross checking – the hotel insurance claim. If I were researching the topic then knowing barrels of oysters were listed as a loss on a form would be good; knowing if they were the property of the hotel to be served as food, or the property of a guest taking them elsewhere would be better. I enjoy reading documents for info such as ownership, quantities and related data, just for kicks.
Likewise in the earlier thread involving army recruits (I should get major brownie points for staying out of that one), Mr. Brust thought most recruits were down-and-out and agreed a Heritage study suggests otherwise. The study’s constant use of the phase “enlisted recruit” rather than just “recruit” made me curious. Looking into the Armed Forces Qualification Test (Army Reg. 601-210 Sec. 2-8(d)) shows it has the same bias against the poor and disadvantaged as any other standardized test (nber.org/papers/w11113), so the people Mr. Brust are talking about seem to be weeded out between joining and being accepted. That warrants further investigation if anyone is truly interested, but it shows the problem of depending on a single source for anything (wikipedia.org).
And that’s actually a pretty good example of how those of us who enjoy historical research for reasons other than applied sociology triangulate on the truth.
“Still, you provide a good example of a lot of research these days. Wikipedia capitalizes on the fact that people think merely looking up statements makes them informed on a subject when that’s barely the first step”
?? Did you want me to provided more sources? I mentioned some stuff that I think wasn’t in wikipedia, but it does give a starting point if somebody’s interested.I didn’t think that bringing up an example of history presented as morality story would need a lot of references to show that it was history presented as morality story…. ;-)
I thought it was a particularly good morality story. Useful in itself, more insight into chinese culture than you’d usually get from something that length, an example of history as morality story done particularly well. We can hope for more from history today, but I don’t see that they should have hoped for more from history, back when the original was written. Maybe I should have found a literal translation of the original, but i didn’t want to take the time and I liked noticing what I remembered of it.
As another example, from scripture 1st Samuel through the first part of 1st Kings gives an evocative description of palace intrigue among priests and then in a minor middle-east kingdom. Every son of the king was at risk, and whichever one was ahead to inherit the throne had a bullseye painted on his ass for the rest (and other conspirators) to aim at. One of them got accused of raping his sister and completely discredited. Another was roped into revolting early and his faction lost. Etc. Meanwhile occasional prophets would show up and try to make the king look bad. They would report scandals that people would tend to believe. The king would try to have them killed but usually they were too tricky. The story appears to faithfully quote a lot of the kings’ propaganda but it reports prophets’ scandals too. It’s probably pretty good as a manual for navigating through that sort of thing, and very likely that’s what the priests used it for. I doubt it’s particularly trustworthy as history, though.
seanjnewton: “What would say would be a correct generalization in this situation?” In the case of US politics, it often has to do with people recognizing that, really, there is no one representing their interests, and the unwillingness of sections of the middle-class to recognize that fact. In other words, it’s complicated; there is no sound-byte to deal with it.
“Still, you provide a good example of a lot of research these days. Wikipedia capitalizes on the fact that people think merely looking up statements makes them informed on a subject when that’s barely the first step.”
?? I think I mentioned various details that Wikipedia didn’t have, but it’s a good starting point if somebody wants to look at the story. I gave an example of a history lesson that was a morality tale, did you want a lot of references to show it was in fact a morality tale?
I thought it was a particularly good one. It gave a useful moral, and it highlighted some central things in chinese culture that would be hard to describe shorter and clearer. It was kind of fun. They killed the capitalists and merchants.
A strong central government brought lots of prosperity because it both allowed and required people to be productive. People didn’t like it — it was scary and generally no fun. *Everybody* got controlled. There was no obvious way to game the system. “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” didn’t work for Lord Shang.
It was a good story. We can aspire to better accurate history now, but could they have had better accurate history when the story was first written?
Consider scripture like 1st Samuel through the beginning of 1st Kings. If you’re willing to read between the lines a little, you get a lot of hints about intrigues in a religious organization and in the palace of a dinky middle-east kingdom. A nobody who gets donated to the temple winds up running it. Samuel warns people not to get a king but they want one, so he gives them a tall but undistinguished man from an undistinguished family from a small tribe. The king makes a go of it for awhile despite Samuel’s active opposition. When he is killed the conquerors set up an Israelite mercenary as a puppet king, but he goes out and finds his own patron, Hiram of Tyre, and becomes independent of his puppet-masters.
Each time one of his sons gets in the lead to inherit the throne it’s like he has a target painted on his ass and the other princes (plus other conspirators) try to take him down. One son gets accused of raping his sister and loses. Another is maneuvered into staging a revolt too early and is killed. Meanwhile “prophets” come up with scandalous stories about the king that people tend to believe. The king tries to have them killed but usually they are too sneaky and get away. Various of the king’s own propaganda stories are reported also.
When the king dies, the surviving sons compete to be king. One of them has a lot of popular support. Another has the support of the palace guard, the trained shock troops. The second son wins. He displays mercy to the leading members of the plot behind his brother, but fairly quickly most of them are dead.
It’s like a manual about such things, and that was probably one of its major uses. Accurate history, probably not so much.
“I enjoy reading documents for info such as ownership, quantities and related data, just for kicks.”
That could easily be rewarding. I enjoy imagining ways the documents could be wrong or misleading, though it’s usually hard to verify one way or another. People lie a lot, particularly if they see ways to benefit from lies.
Steven Brust: “In the case of US politics, it often has to do with people recognizing that, really, there is no one representing their interests, and the unwillingness of sections of the middle-class to recognize that fact.”
That’s simple, clear, and obviously correct.
I wonder if there could be ways to improve on that. Probably not without at least a change in the US constitution.
With our massive communication system, votes could be like corporate proxies. You give your proxy to whoever you trust, and maybe he gives it to somebody he trusts. Congress wouldn’t be elected representatives each with one vote, it would be people who vote for everybody that trusts them. And you could give your proxy to somebody else at any time.
That might be an improvement for people who’re paying attention, but it might result in the election fake-news craziness happening *all the time*.
And if it looked like it might actually result in legislators who did represent the interests of their voters, the people who have power now would try to stop it cold.
I’m afraid that logic generalizes pretty well. If there is a ruling class, and you want to do something that is likely to make things more egalitarian, the ruling class will try to stop it. And they have a lot of power or they wouldn’t be the ruling class.
So the main time you can make changes is during some catastrophe when the current ruling class has just failed, and that is not an ideal time to build enduring new institutions.
It is not even a particularly good time to keep armed thugs loyal to a charismatic leader from setting up a dictatorship with whatever ideological trappings he chooses.
It’s good to be alert for some alternative. There might be one. There might arise some chance combination of circumstances that would make it temporarily possible. “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
I am open to the possibility that scholars will develop laws of history that we can state with some degree of reliability. We are animals, we are driven by enzymes and electrical signals, and all sorts of other base processes. It seems to me that it’s possible to conceive (and yes, as noted above, Asimov did conceive of it) of a future in which the understandings of the relationships between humans and other humans, humans and their environment, etc., is sufficiently precise to extract laws of history. I’m not convinced historians, the discipline as currently defined, will be doing that work though.
It’s interesting to me that the people doing this kind of thing right now tend to be political scientists (in the game theory sub-section of the field), economists and various strands of psychologists who study groups. As a historian, there’s lots of economic theory that help me make sense of the past, and not so much psychological theory or poli-sci theory that I’ve read. In fact, I really draw more heavily on literary theory, because I am personally interested (as I’ve said before) not in what people did, but how people tell stories about what they did (of course, storytelling is also an action), because that’s how memory is carried forward into the future, and memory shapes future actions.
This, to me, is a gift of post-modernism. I don’t know any historian that believes there is no history, there is no truth, there are no facts. In our theory classes, we read Hayden White and others who made such arguments and then discuss what we might learn from it. We see them as a corrective to “objective history,” which tended to argue that only the deeds of the great men were worth studying. Postmodernism tells us that we, as historians, are also humans, are also creatures of narrative and biases, and to understand that was we look at the past, we are going to graft ourselves into the process.
Anyway, I liked this post. It makes me think hard about the things we know and the things we once thought we knew.
lollardfish: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. A year ago, I did my rant about post-modernism (and it really was a rant). That discussion is as dead as Heidegger, but if you’re curious, it’s here: http://dreamcafe.com/2013/09/11/fuck-post-modernism/
Yeah, I remember it, though I didn’t join in. I understand your point. And hey, speaking of things that did or didn’t happen, and the power of the shaping and re-shaping of memory, 50 years since Gulf of Tonkin today.
“At the time a devout cold warrior, Ellsberg told me his initial reaction was “We must strike back”. Yet within a few days, when Johnson repeated his accusation that “the attacks were deliberate. The attacks were unprovoked”, and assured the world that “we seek no wider war”, Ellsberg knew “all of those statements were false” – the beginnings of a disillusion that would eventually lead him to leak the top secret Pentagon Papers seven years later. What he didn’t know, and what remained for decades one of America’s most tightly guarded secrets, is that the attack on 4 August may never actually have happened.”
I’m sorry I was prickly about your tale. I didn’t have to respond, and I shouldn’t have when I’m as irritible as I have been.
The thing that bothers me the most about modern history is that we may never know exactly what happened. The controllers of history have done a good job of leaving very little trace of records that would be embarrassing. I had expected by now to find out what really happened in the Kennedy assassination, for example. While we can make guesses based on what makes more sense than the official version, they remain our guesses.
“The thing that bothers me the most about modern history is that we may never know exactly what happened. The controllers of history have done a good job of leaving very little trace of records that would be embarrassing.”
Even worse for older times.
Maybe the difference is that in the old days things can be assumed to have been simpler.
Like, before FDR the US government had many fewer employees, so there wasn’t as much room for them to be doing secret plots.
“I had expected by now to find out what really happened in the Kennedy assassination, for example.”
It probably won’t get resolved until it’s no longer important.
Like, if it was Mossad, that sure won’t be revealed while Israel owns the entire US congress.
If it was cuban emigrants it won’t be revealed until the situation with Cuba is resolved and the people involved have died of old age.
If it was the cuban government, likewise.
If it was the CIA, operating inside the USA against their charter, we won’t find out until after the CIA is gone.
And if by that time the US government has changed to the point that they would make up fake evidence for political purposes, we might never know what to believe. And it’s vaguely possible that the US government might change to be that way within our own lifetimes. I hate to be so cynical. 8\
We have found out that the “Gulf of Tonkin” attack that was used to start the Viet Nam war – never happened. Reports were altered and falsified by Robert McNamara to deliberately start a war. http://truth-out.org/news/item/25377-the-real-tonkin-gulf-deception-wasnt-by-lyndon-johnson
Fortunately, that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more. *stares off*
“We have found out that the “Gulf of Tonkin” attack that was used to start the Viet Nam war – never happened. Reports were altered and falsified by Robert McNamara to deliberately start a war.”
Yes, but we found out about that one. And we found out a lot about how the Iraq war just happened to get started.
There are people who say that there has never been a successful US government conspiracy because somebody always talks and tells us about it afterward. They can point to various conspiracies that we found out about.
I never quite understood how the existence of known government conspiracies proved there were no undiscovered conspiracies.
It’s not the existence of revealed conspiracies that proves there were no undiscovered ones. It’s that most government conspiracies involve so very many people, and so very much documentation, it beggars the imagination to suppose that they can last very long — at least subsequent to the creation of the bureacracy.
The reason government conspiracies continue to arise is that for many of them the organizers just don’t care if the conspiracy is eventually revealed so long as it accomplishes its immediate objective. So for example, once we get into war with Iraq, discovering there’s no WMDs after all is not a big deal and can be fobbed off as analyst errors to the various subservient news agencies that can be relied on to muddy the waters over the facts and their meanings.
“It’s not the existence of revealed conspiracies that proves there were no undiscovered ones. It’s that most government conspiracies involve so very many people, and so very much documentation, it beggars the imagination to suppose that they can last very long — at least subsequent to the creation of the bureacracy.”
So the evidence is that most *discovered* government conspiracies involve large masses of people, to the point that it beggars the imagination that the secret could last very long.
And if there are smaller government conspiracies that don’t involve so many people, they usually are not discovered, because most of the conspiracies that do get discovered are the great big ones.
I’m having a little trouble seeing the reasoning here. Why is this an argument that there are not undiscovered government conspiracies?
I never accepted that argument either. If everybody involved in the conspiracy has his reputation, freedom (could go to jail) and financial state intimately involved with keeping things secret, it is very unlikely they will tell. If they do tell, nobody believes them anyway. And there is always damage control that can be used. Worse comes to worse, the person is killed in another “accident” that nobody investigates.
Besides, Americans do not want to believe that their government would betray them that way. Plus the effective campaign by our government to put anybody who thinks there are conspiracies into the tin-foil hat loony bin.
I have a friend, a teacher of history, who causes this kind of problem when he tells his students that History is a fiction. I’ve tried to convince him he’s got to make the distinction between “fiction” and either “story” or “narrative,” but he continues to say this.
A teacher of history who says history is a fiction? That’s a crime. It’s no better than a biologist teaching creationism.
“A teacher of history who says history is a fiction? That’s a crime. It’s no better than a biologist teaching creationism.”
Well, but isn’t it OK to say that history as it has usually been done was fiction? It can be possible to create history that isn’t fiction, and still admit that history in practice so far is mostly fiction.
Kind of like a biologist who points out that biology until, say, 1850 was mostly creationism. History is just somewhere between 100 and 150 years behind biology that way.