In a previous article, we finished our exploration of Michael Allen Gillespie’s Theological Origins of Modernity. One of the things I tried to show, on the basis of Gillespie’s argument, was that modern intellectual history can be mapped, more or less exhaustively, according to a three-part diagram, where the axes are defined by the place where explanation stops. The medieval cosmos recognized three coherently interrelated "realms" of ontology: the divine, the human, and the natural. In modern history, this coherence has splintered. Now, philosophies take either the divine, the human, or the natural as their starting point, and seek to subsume the others. It is not that they are necessarily exclusive—a person can take the natural world as their starting point and still affirm the real existence of the divine and the human. In panentheism, for instance, God is seen as emerging out of, and interdependent with, the natural world. So God exists, but is not ontologically prior to nature. On the other hand, sometimes the real existence of the divine or the human is denied. In Daniel Dennett’s eliminative materialism, for instance, God is subsumed under the concept of human psychology (that is, imagination, myth-making), and psychology in turn is subsumed under the concept of the natural world (that is, force and matter.) Dennett’s term for our everyday intuitions about other people is folk psychology; it’s not a real explanation because it’s not scientific. Not only does God not exist, according to Dennett, but people, as naively and commonly understood, do not either. The natural world is ontologically prior to the divine and the human in a way that is exclusive. Then there are people who take the human as primary, and try to turn the tables on this kind of materialism by explaining it in terms of naturalistic philosopher’s bid for power. There is no knowledge without power, or power without knowledge, as Foucault says, so on this scheme Dennett’s explanation is itself explained in terms of his own ambitions, presuppositions, and context. It is “human, all too human,” as Nietzsche says.
The point is not to resolve these disputes, but to map them, to perceive more than a cacophony of competing voices and philosophical lineages in intellectual history. The master key is provided by the fracturing of the medieval worldview that we explored in the articles on Gillespie’s book. In this article, I’d like to apply this map in a reflexive way, to history itself. I’d like to show that approaches to historical thought have tended to fall along these same three axes we can perceive in other areas of thought. In a prior series of articles, I wrote about the philosophy of history. I’m going to allude in a somewhat cursory fashion to ideas that were explored in more detail there, hopefully without being too obscure. I believe the humanistic/naturalistic/theistic map provides the key I was searching for in those articles, but wasn't able to find.
There are a number of ways to approach history which presume the ontological priority of God, in one way or another. A familiar way would be the kind of history that one finds in the Hebrew Bible, where the events of Israelite history are understood in terms of the unfolding relationship of the community with God. According to the Pentateuch, God established a covenant (that is, a contract) with the Israelites after bringing them out of Egypt, which stated, more or less, that if the Israelites would abide by the law (that is, the Mosaic code), they would receive blessings like prosperity, wise rulers, and military security. If they did not abide by the law, they would be punished with famine, foolish rulers, foreign conquest, and in other ways. So when things are going well for the Israelites, that’s evidence of God’s favor; when poorly, it’s evidence of God’s disfavor. This was a very common way of looking at events in the ancient world. When the Christian community received imperial patronage under Constantine (c. 300) and Theodosius (c. 400), it was seen as evidence of God’s favor. Christians were prospering, so they must be doing something right. In a similar way, when Islam arose, and within a few generations conquered much of the Roman Empire and all of the Persian Empire, and even extended its reach into Spain and India, this too was seen as evidence of God’s favor. How could such a small number of desert tribesmen defeat these ancient and powerful empires, except with God’s help? It gave the Muslim conquerors of these empires the confidence to maintain their own cultural distinctiveness, rather than (as with the Germanic invaders of the Western Roman Empire) being absorbed into the culture of the conquered peoples.
This is not the only way of looking at history that has a theistic basis, however. Another, more recent approach, would be the “history of ideas” approach, of which an outstanding example is Arthur O. Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, which was covered in previous articles. Lovejoy doesn’t invoke God in his explanations, and his book and other histories like it can be read without any overt or necessary relationship to God. So I’m not claiming that he was explicitly theological in his approach. But if we think about his approach a bit, what sort of ontology does it imply? Lovejoy traces the history of an idea across a period of about 2000 years. His book assumes that there is an internal, logical necessity to the development of an idea, and that this necessity is displayed in its historical development. Ideas don’t unfold in just any direction, they unfold in a direction that is linear, comprehensible, and latent within the conception itself, notwithstanding the very different contexts in which the idea appears. If that’s true, what does it imply about the existence of the idea itself? If it only existed in human minds, then wouldn't it be variable in the same way that those human minds are? How then could it exert an internal pressure across so many diverse and separate minds? It seems to have an internal coherence that transcends any particular human mind. It’s the same in mathematics. If mathematical truths hold regardless of the context or particularities of individual mathematicians, doesn’t this imply that they exist outside of their particular minds?
Modern anti-science crusaders say you don’t need a scientist to tell you about global warming, you can just do your own research on the Internet.
Another historian who took this approach was R. G. Collingwood, the subject of a (much) earlier article. He held that we could understand historical development of entire civilizations in terms of the ideas they expressed. Arguably, the master idea of American "civilization" (most historians don't use this term today, but it was common in Collingwood’s time) is freedom. To believe passionately in freedom seems to be important to one’s identity as an American. There are contests about the meaning of the word, but rarely about whether it’s a good thing or not. Recently, an article appeared in the Atlantic that ascribed the outbreak of anti-intellectualism that we are living through in our time to the Protestant idea that people have to read the Bible for themselves. Once every person becomes their own authoritative interpreter of the Bible, ecclesiastical institutions take on a much diminished role. Apply this same conception of freedom to, let’s say, science, and it implies the same thing about scientific institutions. Martin Luther argued you don’t need a priest to tell you about God, you can learn about God yourself. Modern anti-science crusaders say you don’t need a scientist to tell you about global warming, you can just do your own research on the Internet. There’s a similar, underlying concept, of freedom.
If history can be thought of in terms of the unfolding of ideas, not just in individual minds but across thousands of minds, separated by broad stretches of time and space, that seems to argue for their reality outside of any particular mind. But in that case, what sort of mind do they exist in? I would argue that this approach is tacitly theistic, as is realism about ideas (that is, the claim that they’re really out there, in the world, not just in us), generally. The ontology of this approach to history (or anything else) only makes sense if you assume a transcendent thinker in whose mind such ideas exist. The power of it is that it reduces the historical field, the unassimilated mass of data that historians confront before they set out to explain (that is, to organize—they are only different aspects of the same activity) that data. An idea that exerts causal power over centuries is one that can do a lot of work in history.
Of course, plenty of people don’t assume the existence of the transcendent thinker implied by this approach. There are other approaches to history, and I would argue that part of the motivation for exploring them is the desire for a history (or a philosophy more generally) with no implied referent to God, but one that makes its sole or primary reference either to human beings, or to the natural world. Probably the dominant approach to history in our time implies a humanist ontology, i.e., one that takes human consciousness and agency as primary, as irreducible. Human decisions explain the events of history, but are not themselves explained, on this approach. For example, if we look at the approaches to history above, and ask why people believed them, a humanistic method would point us to the assumptions, interests, institutional framework, etc., in which those people operated.
Darwin wrote his society into nature, and then social theorists who came after him applied it back to society, to make it more like itself—that is, more ruthlessly and self-consciously competitive—than it had been.
In an earlier article, I used the example of Robert M. Young’s explanation of Darwinian biology. The conventional view is that Darwin discovered the facts of the natural world—they were out there waiting for him, or anyone else, to find, so the context in which those discoveries were made does not really matter. Natural selection could, in principle, have been discovered at any time in the past, and if knowledge of it were lost it could be rediscovered. Its truth is bound to impress itself on serious investigators, sooner or later. Young’s humanistic view would be that Darwinian biology is reducible to the choices and agency of Darwin and people like him. Perhaps Darwin liked to think of the world in competitive terms because he was living in a competitive, laissez-faire economy. After all, he did borrow the ideas of Thomas Malthus, a conservative economist. And that society was good to him (he was a millionaire, which is why he could take 20 years of private study to write his book), so it would have been natural for him to think in its terms, and to affirm its values. Darwin’s ideas were received most enthusiastically by people who were similarly advantaged, and who liked to think of themselves as successful competitors. Then they were applied to the society around them. The social Darwinists argued that it was only natural law for the fit to prosper and the unfit to live in squalor and misery because the prosperous were fit and the indolent were unfit. Sociology recapitulated biology. But according to Young’s argument, it was actually a circle because it was sociology that generated the biology in the first place. Darwin wrote his society into nature, and then social theorists who came after him applied it back to society, to make it more like itself—that is, more ruthlessly and self-consciously competitive—than it had been. And if we think about the most enthusiastic advocates of Darwinian biology and social theory today, who are they? Stephen Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett—all prosperous white males, just like Darwin and the social Darwinists of his own time.
Well, that’s one argument. I don’t want to get into whether it’s true or not because for present purposes it doesn’t matter. The point is that this way of doing history presumes that the consciousness and agency of human beings is primary. We have the picture of the natural world we do today not because it actually is that way, but because it’s been presented to us by people who wrote their values onto the blank canvas of the world and then called the result "nature." I would include under this same mode of historical explanation a number of thinkers I discussed in my philosophy of history series: Herbert Butterfield, Peter Novick, and Hayden White. The goal in this kind of history is to understand, rather than to explain, historical actors—to have a meeting of minds, so to speak. They aren’t explained with reference to anything outside of themselves. The result is that history gets seen as something undetermined. There’s no intrinsic logic to it, there is just what people decide. They can take things in whatever direction they want.
A third approach—at one time very prominent in history but now somewhat eclipsed—is structuralism, or "social science." Structuralism presumes the ontological priority of nature, and tries to explain human consciousness, decisions, and events as arising out of it. Karl Marx, David Christian, and Fernand Braudel (all discussed in earlier articles) all, it seems to me, share the view that if you want to understand history, you have to look at non-mental factors. For Karl Marx, these are economic relations, which is to say, material, productive relations. “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord,” he wrote, “the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” So if you want to understand capitalism, you have to understand the machinery. It was built by humans, but once "released into the wild," so to speak, exerts its own causal force, independent of what any particular person wants. And since that force works ultimately to undermine the capitalist system, no efforts taken by the capitalists or the state can prevent that outcome. All they can do is hasten, or slow, its arrival. That’s why he was able to say that the victory of communism was inevitable; there is an underlying logic of structural relations that his approach to history (he claimed) uncovered. For Fernand Braudel and the Annales School, the main thing was climactic conditions. He pointed out that there was a cultural unity to the Mediterranean that one would not expect if one were looking at politics, religion, or other cultural factors; similarities in the climate favor certain kinds of economic, social, and political arrangements. Climate explains history.
The goal of this approach is less to understand historical actors on their own terms than to get underneath their self-understanding and lay hold of the objective factors that determined their decisions. The idea is to imitate science, perhaps even discover the "laws of history" and use them to make predictions about the future. Isaac Asimov’s science fiction stories, the Foundation series, are about a social scientist who does exactly that. What many readers of these stories today probably don’t realize is that this was a real project in his time.
A similar map could be drawn with respect to mathematics: Platonic conceptions of mathematics are implicitly (sometimes explicitly) theistic, for the same reasons given above, with respect to the history of ideas; L.E.J. Brouwer’s intuitionist approach, which sees mathematics as rooted in human cognition (particularly, following Kant, our interpretation of "the thing in itself" in terms of the human categories of time and space) would be an example of the humanistic approach. W.V.O. Quine’s view, that we should derive our ontology from science, seems to imply the reality of mathematical objects, since eliminating mathematics from science would eliminate quite a bit of science, but is nevertheless naturalistic, because the reality of the mathematics is derived from science, which is in turn a description of the natural world. I haven’t tried this in other areas, but I expect something similar would be found.
In this article, I’ve tried to hammer down the concept of history a bit. There’s a sense in which it’s intuitively and obviously an account of what happened in the past, but when you start looking at it more closely, questions of a more or less philosophical nature become unavoidable. In the next articles, we’ll inquire into the concepts of science, religion, and secularism in a similar manner. The discussion of secularism will be the entry point into the next part of our series, on Charles Taylor’s magnum opus, A Secular Age.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.