Book Review: David C. Krakauer, John Lewis Gaddis, Kenneth Pomeranz, eds. History, Big History History & Metahistory (Santa Fe Institute, 2017)

The Santa Fe Institute sounds like an Elon Musk/ Lex Luther style lair, where the brightest thinkers come together to hatch a scheme for controlling the planet. What many of the participants of the book want to control is the shape and scope of historical narrative. They want history to be big, to cover grand themes over large time frames. The end goal of such big history is to find regularities in human affairs, to in a sense predict or control the future.

To this end, the Institute brought together an impressive array of people. For example, Nobel-prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann contributes a chapter on grand forces versus chance in history. He looks for mathematical constants for things like population growth and the rate of technological change. The whole thing seems like a non-sequitur however. No one doubts that there are large-scale patterns in physics, manifesting themselves in the human environment. Regularities in human life shaped by physical forces are different from historical laws however. Gel-Mann and others simply want to collapse history, by which I mean freely made human action made against the backdrop of environmental conditions, with those environmental conditions themselves.

This book is as much about the trouble of finding regularities as in the promise. Most of the technical problems of finding and analyzing on the larger scale, I find less interesting than the philosophical discussion about the goals and value of big history. Kenneth Pomeranz wants to know what categories we should analyze, since many of the categories we use are no promising. Peter Turchin writes a clear defense of cliodynamics, but seems to damage his own purposes when he writes that cycles or periods are never smooth, but are too complex to be portrayed in mathematical models. The problem with Turchin’s approach is that it seems impossible to tell the difference between a correct and incorrect interpretation of the data. He admits that the signal is often indistinguishable from the noise. The issue seems to be analogous to some econometric problems, in which we try to isolate a variable. The problem, however, is that history and historical causes and effects (especially at the proposed scales of big history) is far more complex than a set of isolated variables.

The most charitable interpretation I can give of the book is that it is reminiscent of the view of Peter Burke in his History and Social Theory, where he argues that historians need to acknowledge that sociologists are making worthwhile generalizations. Using the words of J.H. Hexter, we might say that the splitters need the lumpers, and the lumpers need the splitters. If the authors want to seek ways for historians to collaborate across disciplines and fields, and if they see big history as a compliment to the regular scales of history and the micro-histories that many of us already write and find so useful, then I say “onward!”

But it is when big history paradigm moves toward dominating other approaches that I begin to worry. That is why I am glad that there are a few splitters in this book, a few voices of discontent with the picture of big history. One is John Lewis Gaddis, who channels Tolstoy and Clausewitz to talk about complexity theory. How can we calculate the infinitely complex, or make predictions when there are thousands or millions of individuals making decisions that bear on the outcome of a situation? Gaddis’ analogy is that theory is like coaching, and those making predictions are like coaches preparing players for what might come. But Gaddis’ final comments seem be throwing his hands up at the whole project: “…that while laws may indeed govern these infinitesimals  [small amount of free will], they make no difference because we cannot feel their effects, therefore our illusion of freedom is, for us, freedom itself.” This is the most literary and perhaps poetic chapter of the book, with Gaddis’s strength as a writer on full display.

Geoffrey Harpham, former director of the National Humanities Center, provides the strongest voice of dissent from the Santa Fe Big History paradigm. Harpham argues against the possibility of a complete account of the past, and that such an account, which Krakauer aims for, faces more than just technical problems.  He compares this 21st century endeavor with the history of 19th century philology,  in which learned men aimed for a complete understanding of human history through history of language. The problem with philology, Harpham explains, is that it “reach exceeded it’s grasp” and it was used by a variety of ideologues to impose racist views. The point Harpham wants to get across is that it is not an entirely harmless endeavor to aim for a complete history, but that such an enterprise can go wrong. In this, Harpham defends disciplinarity and the view that not all knowledge can be assembled into a single view of the world. His argument is worth quoting at length:

“We have become accustomed to demonizing disciplinarity,” he writes, “as if it kept us from realizing our full human cognitive destiny, something we could achieve if we were not burdened with academic departments – or if we had a giant brain like Newton’s. But beneath those arbitrary  disciplinary divisions by which modern knowledge is organized is the deeper and non-arbitrary facet of disciplinarity or division itself, which, I would submit, has both epistemological and even moral justifications. We should not underestimate the value in having a large number of sectoral discourses that aspire to adequacy within their frames.”

Harpham seems to be defending what I have been calling “historical pluralism”, the view that there are multiple possible true stories we can tell about any history event or process. If we act as if there is only one history, one story to tell, we become like the 19th century philosophers of history, whose ideas, like those of the philologists, were used to impose single overarching views of the universe.

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