Notes on Historiography

I’m going to dump a lot of text this week. I’m not sorry at all about that.

I *am* a bit concerned that this week’s writing is further from my comfort zone. Next week I’ll scoot back into familiar territory (for me, anyway).

I started IDing (eye deeing, c’mon folks) my section headings so that I can keep my long posts but refer to sections when I’m linking to myself.

More tomorrow and Thursday. It was all the same writing session, and I don’t want a backlog.



This post is the compilation of three different thoughts I collected from old notes.

I. Attribution – A simple post I read from years ago about ideology and causation, just to keep in mind.

II. Schools of Thought – For purposes of contrast/context, a sample of different easily-identified historical attitudes. The last four are the most interesting to me.

III. Political Disclosure – Some statements that I operate from, and a few off-hand opinions in case you wanna fight.


I. Attribution

This is a post from two years ago that I bookmarked (courtesy, ultimately, of the Daily Dish).

Read the full post here. It’s short and sweet.

As a history teacher, I’ve always found it interesting to discuss with high schoolers the complicated idea of ‘causation’ (that is, what caused, what contributed to, past events). What’s striking about conversations involving this topic is the extent to which students are willing (often through no fault of their own) to attribute events to ideologies – as if Nazism itself were responsible for the Holocaust.

Regarding Nazism (and Fascism, too), I stress that, without Nazis, Nazism (as an ideology) would have been unable to do, well, to do anything. This, I think, is key: that students confront the idea that systems of belief are not, in and of themselves, capable of destruction. Ideology becomes dangerous – in a historical sense – when individuals activate their core tenets. […]


II. Schools of Thought

I pulled the following from very old (written! With a pencil!) notes of mine. I think some of it was transcribed from somewhere and would love to credit it, but I can’t find it.

I think that this list is useful for contrast more than anything else.

  • Fatalists tell you it must simply be so. Historical forces sweep across the board, bearing some as victors and pummeling down others.
  • Plutarch tells you of “Great Men” and their character traits and flaws to explain how they managed the world.

Neither of those are particularly interesting. At least the following set attempted to seek explanations/justifications for historical events:

  • Arnold Toynbee describes ideological failure in civilizations past- an inability to adapt, an inability for the creative minority to continue pushing the entire civilization forward, or simple moral failure collapsing the civilization into lawlessness.
  • Hegel presents history as the product of conflicts of ideas: for every old idea there is a new one that may conflict with it. Thesis, antithesis, and finally the synthesis of a new idea results.
  • After Darwin, many rationalized a view of a history in which nations rose and fell purely on the survival value of their people. The Social Darwinists believed that the dominant civilizations were simply the fittest.
  • Marx applied Hegel’s idea to what he was witnessing in his era: the new Businessmen were supplanting the old Aristocracy. The ruling class owned the means to production, and history was a struggling of progressing new technologies and ideas enabling a new ruling class to usurp power from the previous establishment.
  • Frederick Turner’s Thesis was that geography greatly influences the attributes of a people: for instance, island nations will capitalize on naval capabilities out of necessity. His thesis in particular attributed the American consciousness to the historical American frontier in the west. My first two posts probably smelled a bit like Turner.
  • The Radicals proclaim that history belongs to the powerful. The winners write history and the losers are demonized.

Of course, all of these historical views have elements that are plausible. My favorite viewpoints, though, tend to be skeptical of anthrocentric history for non-mystical reasons:

  • Daniel Boorstin: “A best-seller was a book which somehow sold well because it was selling well.” Boorstin is especially notable for cracking open the idea of the postmodern and the hyperreal in his commentary. The Image introduces the concept of “pseudo-events”, events like press conferences that are manufactured specifically to be reported. Boorstin notes that because these pseudo-events “tend to be more interesting and more attractive than spontaneous events” specifically because they are so much more controlled. The hyperreal is much more engaging than the real can ever be. I found Boorstin in my own reading and began to look into his key ideas. I have yet to read a Boorstin book directly, though I ought to. I haven’t decided if writing about reading about Boorstin is a thing he’d find amusing.
  • Oakeshott apparently believed that “reputable political behavior is not dependent upon sound or even coherent philosophy.” Institutions are the “product of innumerable human choices, over long stretches of time, but not of any human design.” My exposure to Oakeshott came first from Andrew Sullivan, occasionally from his blog but specifically from a talk he gave at my school once.
  • Oswald Spengler is Toynbee’s evil twin, using a morphological methodology to present a tragic life cycle of cultures that caught the world’s attention in 1918’s The Decline of the West. Epochs are not meaningful units for historical study, but whole cultures are. Cultures are organisms with thousand-year natural life cycles, ending in spiritually empty Civilizations. Spengler is one of the Archdruid’s favorite sources so I’ve been considering reading more about him. Toynbee, whom I’ve heard of, was apparently responding in part to Spengler.
  • Manuel de Landa brings an entirely different animal to the table. History is the sum of nonhuman material processes- in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History he takes us through 1000CE-2000CE from a biological lens, a geographical lens, and a linguistic lens. History is the flow of occasionally self-organizing biomass and genes and other material. This was not a very easy book. I read it on Jordan Peacock’s recommendation. The broadest gist of it is that

    We live in a world populated by structures—a complex mixture of geological, biological, social, and linguistic constructions that are nothing but accumulations of materials shaped and hardened by history.

    De Landa treats complex geological, biological, and cultural processes as isomorphic. I recommend it for that reason alone- I’ve never read anything like it.

(Note: Turner might deserve to be in this section. I haven’t decided.)


III. Political Disclosure

I’m under no illusion that anyone really cares about my politics, but I wanted this thrown out there. These are points of contention that I think have been relevant to the kinds of stories I’ve presented on this blog. As I mentioned above, I have a preference for colder, less humanistic histories. As much as I enjoy biographies, I read them as effectively fictions (although you can still learn a lot from fictions.)

What people are generally like

  • People are comparatively warm to their Neighbors and indifferent towards Others. (No fundamental Goodness or anything bizarre like that.)
  • Our general disposition: “Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; my and my cousins against the stranger” [paraphrased from Fukuyama] Conflict, Cooperation, and Scale are all accounted for in that quote.
  • As long as the social environment is flat, small, uncrowded, and visible, modern people will tend towards considerateness toward one another. It’s less trouble that way. Crowding, invisibility, hierarchy, and social/literal distance all tend to diminish likelihood of considerateness. Other priorities take precedent.
  • Humans were always smart but we weren’t always smart in the narrow sense that the word is generally meant.
  • People are natural pattern-seekers and storytellers. We are not exactly ‘natural scientists’ but we’re not far off.

Relationship to states

  • We don’t need imaginary states of nature- this is the state of nature. The artificial is a subset of the natural. We were always social animals.
  • Power finds a narrative to justify itself. Humans are naturally social, and so tribes are to humans as ant hills are to ants. Institutions are not called forth by supernatural means- they propagate themselves naturally through coercion, utility, or the appearance of utility. Often a mix of the three. This is not a value judgment.
  • There are classes of problems that the market cannot solve effectively in a vacuum. I did not think this needed to be said until I read the news again this morning.

Policy in general

  • Experiment often, at different scales.
  • At the largest levels, sometimes “slowly” is just the right speed to move.
  • The more byzantine a legal structure, the more opportunities for kludge and “gaming the system” are possible.
  • Freedom is not totally won through the absence of interference. Freedom to self-actualize can be achieved through empowerment.
  • My claim to freedom ought to diminish as externalities begin to damage others.

Picking fights about contemporary congressional politics

  • Pork and logrolling are less toxic varieties of negotiation and should be reintroduced to reduce partisanship. It’s a small cost to the nation in money and resolves what are very costly conflicts in tribal/ideological terms.
  • Congressional salaries should probably go up, not down. Incentives to good behavior matter more than symbolic kinship with the “average” American.
  • Incumbency is not an inherent vice. It only can be for certain reasons. A Congress with no experience, no reliable relationships, and no norms is a shaky, unpredictable-sounding thing.

Tomorrow I talk about some kinds of Peaces. Thursday I drop some early (basic, non-insightful) notes on Pragmatism to pick up from later..