Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Gen Eds P10: Philosophy of History

Today we look at the philosophy of history. The last post tried to cover the gamut of perspectives on social and political philosophy, including economics.

This is the ninth philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) as part of a general education (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").

The first nine philosophy posts were:
1. Story is a fundamental category of human thinking. Whether it be ancient old men sitting at the city gates, "Homer," or the medieval bard, we tell each other stories to amuse each other and, more importantly, to capture our values and philosophy of life. Families tell stories that capture the eccentricities of our personalities, along with our strengths, weaknesses, and values.

In short, we use stories from our history to define who we are, what we believe, what we hope, and how we should live.

Mind you, these stories are more short vignettes than they are long over-arching, uber-narratives. There has been a movement to say that we interpret reality from within a certain narrative--a version of the older idea that we interpret reality from within a certain worldview. But the stories and paradigms that inform our understandings of the world are far more granular and atomistic than they are grand and large. [1] They are more like short stories that have affinities with each other than some long grand ecrit.

It was Jean-François Lyotard (1924-90) who first described the "post" modern situation as a resistance to such "grand narratives," by which he referred to the attempt to reduce reality to simplified stories that claim to explain everything. These simplifications help us process an extremely complex world by reducing it to something you can tell a child, but they inevitably skew and spin it. As a colleague of mine once said, all "taxonomies" are inherently skewed, where a taxonomy is an attempt to reduce the truth to a list.

2. Perhaps a primary goal of the liberal arts with regard to history is to catch a glimpse of "your people's" "myths" from the outside and to catch a glimpse of other people's "myths" from the inside. A myth is a story that expresses a mystery or some fundamental perspective on life. When we tell the story of the founding of America, that story is meant to capture our values and to reinforce certain perspectives on the present.

When the "Tea Party" adopted that name, they were taking an image from America's past that they valued and applying it to our current situation. Russians tell stories from Russia's past. The Chinese tell stories from their past. All these stories are no doubt skewed in comparison with any videotape or critical examination a critical historian might give. The point of the story is something slightly different than "telling it just as it really happened."

In the "Western world," Herodotus (ca. 484-25BC) is often called the father of history, because he told the story of the Persian Wars not just from the Greek perspective, but from the perspective of other players as well. He also told the story without reference to gods causing events--he focused on human causes and effects. Finally, he drew on some historical evidence rather than hearsay alone.

Plutarch (46-120) called him the "father of lies" rather than the father of history. Why? Because Plutarch didn't like equal time for non-Greek perspectives. Plutarch represents the default human tendency to privilege the perspective of your group and not to consider fairly the perspective of other groups.

3. So there are twin problems here. On the one hand, you cannot escape your own perspective to achieve something like a God's eye or bird's eye view. The modernist goal of achieving objectivity is a "myth" of objectivity that can never be attained. Indeed, the Western "myth of progress" is itself a skewed view of history, another "grand narrative" that skews the story.

Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) suggested that the goal of the historian was to tell history "as it really happened." The historian was to base all conclusions on evidence. He or she was to question their sources rather than assume the correctness of certain ones just because you liked their perspective or trusted the source. You should focus on concrete realia rather than abstract ideological constructs.

These are indeed good goals that should steer the ship of the historian. The problem is that they are unattainable. You cannot tell history "as it really happened" because all history telling involves the selection and deselection of data. All history telling requires us to prioritize and arrange. Historical events tend to be complex, and we cannot look inside another person's head to know what they are thinking. We never totally know what we ourselves are even thinking.

As Michel Foucault (1926-1984) said, "knowledge is violence." Reality is complex, and every act of knowing it skews and does a certain violence to it.

So the myth of objectivity is a star to steer by, but one we will never arrive at. Ernest Troelstch (1865-1923) expanded on the criteria of good historical formulations. All historical conclusions should be open to revision. We should presume the laws of cause and effect. And we should interpret the past on analogy with how things happen now.

There was a clear "anti-supernaturalist" bent to Troeltsch's philosophy of history. The analogy principle, for example, would mean that we cannot infer a resurrection in the past if we do not see resurrections happening now. But you cannot prove such a thing. By what proof would we suggest that there could not have been unique events in the past?

4. More on some key historical "myths" in a moment. So if the one problem is that we aim at objectivity but cannot attain it, the other problem is that while we must acknowledge our inevitable "tribalism" we should not use it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I use the word "myth," I am not using it as something that is false or necessarily bad. Our myths shape who we are and how we engage the world. They are not only important; they are inevitable.

Our myths are often based in facts and real events. But they are storied interpretations of those facts and events. But the world is arguably not a better place when "storied tribalism" is allowed to reign supreme. We can't talk to each other because you have your version and I have my version of the story, and never the twain will meet. Washington DC right now is a tale of two tribal narratives that cannot speak to each other.

So we must acknowledge our subjectivity but not acquiesce to it. We cannot transcend it but we must aim to do so. Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95) indeed suggested that we ground our being in the subjectivity of the other--being subject to the other--rather than in our own subjectivity.

The "multicultural" approach suggests that when we pretend that there is only one, objective perspective--the one we have--we simply empower the perspective of our group. And as a society as a whole, we empower the dominant culture or group without it even knowing it has a perspective. When a "white" person speaks of a color blind society, there will inevitably be a tendency to be blind to the situations and perspectives of non-whites. [2]

A multicultural approach suggests that we acknowledge our differing situations and perspectives and then work to transcend them. We do not acknowledge them to stay in them but to move toward "intersubjectivity." We move to find common ground and thus to create one story out of two.

These are the twin poles of historical investigation--objectivity and situatedness. We are situated and we must fully acknowledge that we are situated in a particular tribe and culture. We are situated in certain myths and constructs. But our goal is to understand the other from their storied perspective as well and to help them understand me within my story. Our goal is to unite our stories and transcend them, to create a larger story that includes the both of us.

In the meantime, the star of objectivity, the "myth of objectivity" remains valuable, even though we will not reach it. The star of objectivity insists that we root our interpretations of history in the events of history. It insists we favor the concrete over the abstract and ideological. We favor primary sources over secondary ones because the further we get away from the events themselves, the more layers of interpretation we have to work through. It insists that we work within the framework of cause and effect.

5. As an example, let us briefly consider the myth of Western progress. First, what is "Western" in the first place. What does Greek history really have to do with me? I am not Greek (although I married a quarter-Greek). There is no essential connection between what people like Plato or Aristotle thought and who a guy like me is who's a hodgepodge of English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, German, and Welsh.

The only reason the Greeks are important to my story is because someone connected to my past made them so. When the European story was being assembled at the beginning of the "Renaissance," they formulated it as a rebirth of the Greeks and Romans. Of course, it was a selective "rebirth." The majority of ancient Greeks--the ones that did most of the living and dying--probably had little idea who Socrates or Plato were.

Indeed, think of the term, "Renaissance," "rebirth." It implies that culture was more or less dead for a thousand years. Think of the term "Middle Ages." Middle between what? The very term, as Foucault might say, did violence to the people who lived for a thousand years by imagining them to be in the middle between good and the rebirth of good.

In short, the very idea of Western history is an imposition on history. It ignores the equally considerable--indeed in many cases superior achievements of other cultures such as the Chinese and the Indian. Egypt is pulled into the story because it is on "our side" of the globe and it is present in the biblical texts, which were important and part of the "Western story."

6. We will have recourse to consider the American story as it is currently told when we dive into history in three weeks. The American story is also told from within varying mythical frameworks. The progressive "myth" sees America as a series of improvements, with the best yet to come. The Civil War improved us in relation to slavery. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were improvements made in regard to unbridled capitalism. The twentieth century improved us with regard to women's rights and civil rights. Our current task is to keep that trajectory of progress going.

The conservative "myth" is quite different. It looks back to the founding of America as a Golden Age when everyone believed in God and the greatest principles of society were captured in a sacred document, the Constitution. When the world is in trouble, it calls on us for help because we are the best and the strongest. We saved Europe's butt in WW1, then again in WW2. But we are in danger. We need to get back to the days when America honored God. We need to elect leaders like Ronald Reagan, who captured the ideals of conservative values. We are on a spiraling downward trajectory that will lead to our destruction if we don't take America back.

Of course both of these narratives are "myths" in the sense that they both oversimplify an incredibly complex reality. They are tribal narratives. We will get nowhere unless we can supercede our own stories and begin to understand the story of the other.

6. There are of course other stories that are of historical significance because they impact us. Nationalism is the tendency of a particular nation to privilege its story and destiny over all others. [3] "American exceptionalism" is a form of nationalism. It says, "Americans are better than every one else" or perhaps, "God likes America more than he likes everyone else." The American story is told accordingly.

Karl Marx (1818-83) had a philosophy of history. His perspective was that history was the story of class struggle. It began with kings and slaves, a thesis and antithesis that conflicted until they resolved in a synthesis with lords and serfs. [4] That thesis-antithesis pair lead to a synthesis of aristocrats and merchants, which lead to a synthesis of the bourgeoisie and proletariat (worker). He believed that he was living in the final thesis-antithesis pair, and that it would lead to bloody revolution and finally a classless society.

That communist "myth" had immense influence in the twentieth century. It influenced the formation of the Soviet Union and countless other revolutions. "Ideas are dangerous," G. K. Chesterton said. But they are only dangerous in the hands of dangerous people. And they are only powerful in the hands of those who can use them to light a fire. "Ideas have consequences," not because of the ideas themselves but because of the power they can wield in the hands of charismatic figures.

7. There is some truth in the parable that says, "Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it" (George Santayana). There are cause and effect patterns that stand outside my apprehension of them (critical realism). There is a "history itself" even though I only know history as it appears to me.

Certain actions tend to lead to certain effects. If we completely reject any truth to history outside of our own perspective on it, we are lost in a whirlpool of solipsism.

So what of the Christian story of history? There are those who have suggested it is an existential myth that has no need for historical foundation. [5] But if there is no historical reality to the Christian story, then it would seem to lose its power. Christians do not want to believe that the Christian story is a mere story that we tell to ground who we are and how we live. We want to believe it has some basis in objective fact.

So if you had been at Jesus' tomb two thousand years ago, might you have witnessed him coming from the grave? This is not a question of subjective perspective. It is a question of historical event. Either his body was there and then it was not or the story is not historically accurate.

Will there be a point in the future when Jesus returns again in a visible way? Either he will or he won't. It isn't a question of intersubjectivity. It either will happen or it won't.

So history is either linear (headed on a trajectory) or it isn't. The other option is the cyclical view, that history more or less repeats itself, over and over again.

Of course "historic" Christianity views these core events as historical events rather than subjective perspectives. God exists as a Being distinct from our existence or belief in him. God as real being interacts with history in a way that is like the cause and effect of humans interacting with history. Jesus was a real person who really died on a cross and really became alive again such that his human body was no longer dead in a grave but is in continuity with the body he has now.

Objectivity and situatedness capture the twin poles of critical realism when it comes to historical investigation. There is such a thing as history itself. God knows it because he knows all the events of history in all their interrelationships with each other. No human has the capacity, the access, or the intelligence to have a God's eye view. We are stuck in our tribal perspectives. But we must aim to supersede them.

Next Week: philosophy of art

Classic reading
  • Augustine, The City of God
  • G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit
  • Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto
  • Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
  • Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
  • Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
[1] We might expect that our paradigms would have certain commonalities and affinities, family resemblances. We can loosely speak of collections of similar paradigms that constitute a worldview. But these should be balanced with our formative stories, along with our key practices and symbols.

[2] The very terms "whites" and "blacks" arguably reflect the kinds of historical shifts that Michel Foucault wrote about so forcefully in some of his writings. Before the slave trade, there was no such thing as a "black" race. There were only individual tribes. When the differentness of African slaves was pitted en masse against their captors and "owners," black became a descriptor for a collection of people who before would have distinguished their "races" from each other.

So "white" is created in counter-position to "black." Black is created by a new paradigm, and white is created in consequence. But in America, "white" was not a title given simply because of skin color. When Italians first immigrated to America, they were not immediately considered "white." All this is to say that these perspectives have a history, and it is not the "story" we tell ourselves today.

[3] The very idea of the nation-state is arguably a modern development. In older times, ethnicity was more the basis for societies. Empires, by contrast, involved the subjection of other groups by a dominant group ruling the other groups, rather than a singular identity for the whole.

[4] This philosophy of "dialectical materialism" was loosely based on G. W. F. Hegel's (1770-1831) sense of history as the story of the conflict of opposing ideals moving toward absolute spirit. The language of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, however, came more from a simplification of Hegel than from Hegel himself.

[5] Rudolph Bultmann did not believe Jesus historically rose from the dead but considered the myth very meaningful as a metaphor for creating meaning in a meaningless world.

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