Understanding History

The fact that the past changes should not be regarded as a nuisance. It is one of the things historians are interested in. It is also one of the things which make history difficult. A piece of phosphorus ignites on contact with water. That is an event. The condition for that event, the reactivity of phosphorus, does not itself change; you can do it again tomorrow. But the background situations in history, such as the receptivity of a culture to an idea, can and do change over time. In describing a culture, it does not suffice to inventory it; we have to chart its differences as it moves through time.

And the differences are not in themselves predictable; we cannot give an equation for them, or foretell their precise outcome. The theorists of the Lu Confucian school, at the end of the 04th century, excited by new ideas in the understanding of history, thought otherwise:

Dz-jang asked whether things ten generations hence could be foreknown. The Master said, in the Yin's continuing with the Sya rituals, what they subtracted and added can be known. In the Jou's continuing with the Yin rituals, what they subtracted and added can be known. And if someone should carry on after the Jou, even though it were a hundred generations, it can be known (Analects 2:23, c0317)

Pierre Simon de Laplace

But they were wrong. A state of history is not wholly determined by the previous state. The idea that if the initial velocities in the system are known, all else follows, is the error of Laplace. Even in physics, the linkage is statistical; in human events, it is even more uncertain. There are psychological factors as well as mechanical ones. Not even the economic factors, which are regarded by some enthusiasts as determinative, are grounded wholly in what are usually called economic considerations. Other realms obtruded. The verdict in a technically open-and-shut murder trial is a question mark; it may depend not on law or precedent, but on the eloquence of counsel for the defense. Such eloquence is expensive precisely because it is efficacious. (Darrow charged high for saving Leopold and Loeb from a death sentence, though as it happened the parents of Leopold and Loeb refused to pay).

But historical change is also not irrational. It is not determinate, but it is orderly. The kind of order that it has can be seen in sequences, on the larger scale. No one development of a simple idea can be predicted (it may catch on or it may not), but simple ideas will precede more complex ones of the same type. Reactions to traumatic events cannot be foretold (disasters may either weaken or stimulate religious faith), but any reactions will follow, and not precede, those events.

The past does not merely change in becoming the present; the present also operates retrospectively on the past. Each age has its own idea of the past. These new ideas too are not predictable in detail, but they tend to follow very standard lines of development. Among them:

The Greeks tended to get hung up on the question of whether everything changes, or nothing changes. The next higher-order question is whether there are permanent rules for impermanence: fixed models for change. There too, the best answer is not quite that simple. There are constant tendencies toward change, and constant tendencies toward equilibrium. Those constant tendencies are easy to detect within situations, but they rarely dominate any one situation to the exclusion of other simultaneous factors. The velocity of a shell does not exclude the operation of gravity on that same shell. This the artillerists know, hence computations of range and firing angle. Then you have the wind. What is more volatile than the wind? But also, what is more constant, say in a ceremonial archery match, than the possibility of interference by wind? Learning to balance such multiplicities in practical situations makes the good general, or the good historian.


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