History with a capital ‘H’: Many students know something about the philosophy of science, but is there a philosophy of History? Or different types of “Historical Methods”? Might we develop historical methods which take us from interpreting the past to understanding our future in new and different ways? What about cognitive computing applied to history?
Mathematics: This was well ahead of Science, an abstraction akin to Philosophy in that it is, or should be(!) driven by rock-solid logic. The ancient Greeks were straight into the notion of having to develop proofs for mathematical propositions. Indeed a mathematical proof is sufficient; once proven the job is done, no need to run and rerun the hypothesis on a zillion test cases. In Maths there is (nor was) any habit of performing as many sample calculations as possible in the hope of finding one which disproves the theory. Interesting to consider that perhaps modern computing will allow a new approach to maths? Certainly doing quasi-infinite numbers of calculations is less arduous now than it was then. A famous example of such a situation is Riemann’s hypothesis for Prime Numbers (for which no proof exists yet). The computers hum away and find no dis-proof. But still it’s not enough since one may lie out there at quasi infinity-1. Perhaps this was part of the problem with Science…that maths was a model or system entirely developed through logic and so it might have been concluded that all perfect knowledge could be inferred in a similar way, without a need to pay excessive attention to the often misleading observational evidence.
This is quite the opposite of the notion of science which is rather more utilitarian.
Science: Science relies on a theory followed by huge effort collecting a body of evidence, in search for that bit of evidence which negates the theory. But even if no such counter-evidence is found, it is clear that the evidence will never be infinite, so the exception could still occur. Science is more utilitarian, closer to ancient Rhetoric and the art of persuasion: if the body of evidence is sufficient and credible; if it ‘works’, then it’s good enough until proven otherwise. It’s a statistical play rather than a perfect mathematical proof.
Science in the ancient world was not even what we would term as science. It took a progressive turn during the Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment which followed it; knowledge was somehow ‘democratised’ rather than remaining the domain of a few. Great thanks to the printing press and advances in the printing of images through metal plate etching. Check out William Ivin’s book ‘Prints and Visual Communication’: Words are vague, images more precise and enable a new degree of communication and learning.
Society gradually came to new and different strategies to define ‘knowledge’ and to generate new learning. Names such as Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo spoke of things such as theory, experiment, Deductive and Inductive reasoning. ‘Science’ with a capital ‘S’.
The earliest efforts may have been a little odd at times, though we know the overall result has been a good one. See the example below taken from Francis Bacon discussing that very scientific notion of ‘Heat’ in the book ‘Novum Organum’:
“…all dung seems to carry potential heat … and the carcasses of animals likewise have such hidden and potential heat, so that in cemeteries where burials take place every day, the earth gathers a certain hidden heat which eats up any corpse newly interred”
But what if we translated this to the study of History?
Understanding History: History abounds with anecdotal evidence of events, each with multiple and imprecise interpretations and viewpoints. It’s like having the experimental results but without knowing what the experiment was in the first place. Rather like Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where the answer was ’42’ yet the question had been forgotten. History is in this sense very much the opposite of mathematics. Closer to science in a way, but a science where you cannot run experiments to validate your theory, checking if the same outcomes will reoccur. It is difficult if not impossible to press rewind and re-observe from multiple viewpoints to have a precise cause-effect detail. Closer to a case in law, one hopes to find a sufficient body of evidence. Ideally evidence which is directly from the scene of the crime rather than hearsay.
Like law, it is possible to write and transcribe the various pieces of evidence and lay out a quasi-rhetorical logical interpretation of events and human motivations for the jury (public at large) to accept or refuse. The interpretation of historical events can sometimes be re-written or re-evaluated. Emperor Nero always the bad guy, but perhaps he got bad press by those who came after him? Perhaps he was too much of a threat to the upper classes who did much of the writing. For sure he was no friend of the Christians who picked up the pieces. The Romans themselves, like the Egyptians, were often pretty good at manipulating History. Erasing the name of one or another uncomfortable predecessor. Issued by Senatorial edict the so-called ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ implied erasing the disgraced individual’s name from public memorabilia. Emperor Domitian did it to his brother Titus out of spite.
But what about using history to learn about the future? Might there be a strategy which allows History to blossom into an era of self-understanding for society? An ability to use the knowledge to manipulate our social environment and futures?
Some philosophers might suggest that history is cyclic; that societies, like the individuals within them, go through some form of lifecycle. Marx developed a theory of ‘Historical Materialism’ which he suggested was an interpretation of real conditions in society of the day; many of his followers preferred to see it as an interpretation of history, creating a quasi-destiny of social disruption. A theory of social development which some would like to consider a science and others as a misleading pseudo-science.
Leading edge science and mathematics like Chaos Theory will tell us that the smallest change in events can cause the most extreme difference in outcomes. The famous butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane miles away. This would suggest there should be little if any repetition in history. Disaster Theory in Engineering will tell us that any disaster event is actually preceded by a repetitive chain of events, waiting for the fatal trigger to set of the unexpected disaster event: Spot the chain and defuse that trigger and you can avoid disaster. Perhaps the butterfly is the trigger…what was the repetitive chain of events which set up the disaster potential is the question! So are there repetitive chains of events in history? Surely, but at what scale are they to be found? Leading edge mathematics and quantum physics will suggest the possibility of infinite parallel universes, each with its own set of events. This notion featured in a couple of great Sci-Fi films like ‘Men in Black’ or more recently in ‘Avengers Infinity War’ where Doctor Strange checks out all the alternative futures. Enticing, but the antithesis of any sense of purpose and destiny. Why bother if everything is subject to random butterflies?
Without being so ‘futuristic’, what about using the evidence and accepting a ‘rough estimate’ of events to help the building of a hypothesis? How about using a similar event that is known about, to suggest some of the features in another event of which we have less direct evidence? A hypothesis built on a similarity of events to provide indications of where to look for fresh evidence.
Could we use modern technology, “cognitive computing”, “learning machines”, to ingest unstructured data about historical events and spot patterns within them? To draw parallels in human events which have hitherto lain hidden to human eyes? Spot the chain of events which sets a war-in-waiting or an economic boom. The factors which set up an age of technological innovation or of social unrest. Wow.
Let’s make an example though I’m sure plenty more could be thought up: What might have been the effort and resource around the rearing and sustenance of animals, particularly horses, in ancient Rome? Or more particularly within the ancient Roman army? What size of economy was driven by different aspects of trade? Could one consider taking the parallel of the animal industry during the industrial revolution for example? Could Victorian slaughter-house registers during the industrial revolution (ie when horses and work animals were suddenly unnecessary due to mechanisation) tell us something about the equivalent period in ancient Rome (where there was no industrial revolution)? Perhaps we can draw some parallels back to ancient Rome or indeed other societies in a similar stage of development to understand the economy around animal husbandry?
A quick google search ‘horses slaughtered during the industrial revolution’ didn’t quite give me the answer I hoped for, but it did take me to a publication called “Historical Methods: A journal of quantitative and interdisciplinary history”. Interesting, so there is such a thing as ‘Historical Methods’. It’s not just about the interpretation of primary and secondary sources… Someone out there, has given this some thought; please tell us more!
All comments on the subject welcome. We love to learn and who knows perhaps we can learn to apply a new way of looking at history.