Philosophy of history golden age?

Dialogue from the PhilOfHi mailing list, 18 August 2004

From Wed Aug 18 11:27:44 2004
Subject: Re: POH golden age?
Date: Wed, 18 Aug 2004 11:27:44 -0400 (EDT)
From: (Haines Brown)

> From: John Randall Groves <John_Groves@FERRIS.EDU>
> In a way, I think POH is in a sort of golden age with Huntington,
> Fukuyama, Ritzer and so on being so popular along with lots of other
> work in Social Evolution, world systems theory, memes, Foucault,
> Habermas and such. One might say that the substantive poh has
> finally started to dominate the epistemological discussion. Anyone
> agree?

John, I've been really preoccupied, as shown by the tardiness of my reply to your question, but your point about “golden age” tweaked my curiosity, and I couldn't put it aside. I'll try to come to terms with it by offering the following little commentary.

Some painful thoughts on the “golden age” of historiography

We speak loosely of a “golden age”—a term that originated in the Ancient Western cyclic notion of history (which in turn may be an effect of slavery and powerlessness). It seems to have entailed three assumptions that do not rest easily with us today.

1. There is an essential (using the term loosely) quality of a time and place that allows us to characterize it as a whole. Otherwise, one period in history is like all others—an evanescent and infinite complexity that necessarily eludes the limited grasp of our imagination.

The ancient West was governed by fortuna—probably an inevitable result of its inability to construct significant power beyond that of an unstable political order. Given this, I suppose the notion of a golden age was an effect of political order, just as an age of iron represented an age of political disorder. Political order seemed to allow at least some limited success when all other aspects of life remained so backward (I suppose we could say as much of modern fascism).

Since the late nineteenth-century, the concentration of the social and economic power necessary for really significant change has increased enormously. For this reason, the characterization of a whole independently of its parts has become less problematic in principle since World War II. The social mass has real potential power beyond the sum of its individuals, who today are largely propertyless wage earners; the monumental concentration of capital today is not the result of petty savings, but of global economic dynamics.

However, what might come naturally in quantum mechanics turns out to be a recalcitrant goal in historiography. Although hinted at though a reductionism (whole arising from parts) or idealism (parts manifesting a whole), a wedding of the whole and its parts has never been seriously entertained in modern historiography. Seeing history as a dialectical process might offer an obvious direction to go, but there is an interesting resistance to it in mainstream historiography, where intellectual issues must in principle be separated from personal agendas, the whole separated from its parts.

Therefore, any golden age in the philosophy of history has today reduced the original intent to characterize life as a whole to merely partifular aspects of life, and at the same time historiography became the baliwick of scholars defined as individuals by notions of “profession”—by an internalization of (bourgeois) collective behavioral standards.

Historians might not openly admit their loss here, but surely they understand that a grasp of the whole represents a kind of personal intellectual power, perhaps an alternative to professionalism. For example, “thick description” can never empower, either the individual or society, however useful or entertaining it might be. But the point is moot, for historians shy away from representing their efforts in terms of power.

Thinking of historiography in terms of intellectual power is quite different than the ancient notion of a golden age. The modern notion of a golden age is entirely compatible with the worst of times, and arguably is even a manifestation of such times (just think of the personal situation of the greatest world historians).

Furthermore, with the ending of the bourgeois revolution, historiography ceased being a representation of the social whole serving as a means to change and became a method for self-identification in terms of the past (as defined, incidentally, by the historian), and (given the situation of the so-called “middle class”) often ends an apotheosis of the present. Both projects are profoundly conservative. Such conservatism naturally suits people lucky to be situated within the more advantaged nations rather than in less developed ones.

2. The sense of life hanging together as a whole makes possible assigning it a value, such as in terms of its relative desirability. Just as there are ages of gold, there are ages of silver and iron.

Again, in the Ancient West, this made sense. Fortuna was an objective force that manifested itself quite independently of our will and in ways that clearly had value implications. It was definitely an advantage to have been born in a golden age.

Today we know that this was a subjective evaluation resulting from the ancients' inability to shape the course of history. Beyond the the perception of momentary ups and downs of accident, it was not the result of an “objective” or real (naturalistic) evaluation of circumstance. Today, the third and tenth centuries strike us as brilliant, but they used to be considered dark ages. We can no longer escape questions such as, a “golden age” in what respect? For whom? That is, in the name of pragmatic realism, we are inclined to take a reductionist approach to the question of value to drage it onto safer ground.

For example, we may be confident that technology has progressed, but that assurance whithers when technology is placed into the context of the social whole, where its effects may be as destructive as beneficial, and where analysis in terms of causation becomes more subjective.

And yet, we regret the loss of a grand theory that accompanies this pragmatic reductionism. It seems that historians naturally assign a value to the whole, representing some situations in history as more worthy of attention than others. However, if pressed to explain this presumption, I suspect historians would offer only a feeble justification or forced to admit to a reductionism combined with presentism: they studied a period and now teach it because it appealed to them, or it appeared to buttress the existing social order.

I regret this lack of courage. An atomistic notion of society implies that all values must be personal. Nevertheless, it is clear that societies as a whole nevertheless do posit a value for certain times and places. In U.S. culture, for example, and not just in dusty tomes, the U.S. Civil War has profound significance. This is not merely the effect of good scholarship and would exist if there were no historians at all.

If society as a whole can assign value and institutionalize that value, then in light of globalization, there certainly can be a global evaluation of various times in the past. Now, for example, on the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (although ignored in the U.S. for good reason), we see some manifestation of a global opinion concerning an historical event. If so, does this universality not imply the assignment of value that manages to distance itself from pure subjectivism? If truth is intersubjective, then truth is a function of social universality and constrained by circumstance.

3. A golden age was the result of the ancients lacking the strength to shape their own destiny and construct a golden age.

We see in today's world a growth of urban poverty, of social dislocation, and the lack of real democracy. As a result, people are inclined to see events as being beyond their control, especially as they become ever more aware of distant events through mass media. For example, the effect of Al Jazeerah (TV) on mass consciousness cannot be overestimated, not because it is biased, but because it draws people into a world sadly out of joint. I suspect this combination of socio-economic stress and heightened awareness explains the development of the militant (evangelical) Christianity and Islam that we see today.

However, this powerlessness might also encourage a golden age in historiography if historiography assumes the function of the Consolation of Philosophy in lieu of its 19th-century aspiration to be an instrument of social change.

If historiography today is an opiate of the masses, merely a reflection, or even justification, of times out of joint, then the flourishing business of historiographic idea production might not be something positive, but to be regretted. Whether it is a golden age in historiography surely cannot be dissociated from the need for social progress; we cannot separate ideas from material realities. The point is not to undertand the world, but to change it.

Haines Brown