Friday, 19 April 2013

London Debate: Corfield Climate Reds; Levene Climate Blues On 1 April 2011, at the instigation of Rescue!History, a public debate was held at London University’s Institute of Historical Research on the question ‘Does Climate Change put a Spanner in the Works of History?’ In the online versions of their contributions the two main speakers agree that anthropogenic climate change constitutes a problem, but respond in different ways: Penelope J. Corfield takes ‘a relatively optimistic long-term view’ (1) while Mark Levene asserts that ‘we are truly living in an anthropocenic epoch which heralds the human end.’ (18) Corfield declares: ‘Rather than discarding historical studies, or rerouting them into another round of theoretical arguments, it is imperative to continue to do what historians already do well. That is, to amass and scrutinise evidence; to formulate and test interpretations in the light of evidence; and to debate with current and earlier generations of those who have studied the past systematically.’ (9) On the other hand, Levene concludes: ‘historians might have a critical role as pathfinders and beacon carriers... by bravely demonstrating that in the context of where we find ourselves this is neither misplaced nor lunatic but rather a project whose legitimacy and worth is imbedded in human consciousness and historical practice.’ He calls for what the kabbalists deem ‘some healing of our condition on this earth and thereby with it, some measure of cosmic repair’ or, as Christians put it, ‘some degree of grace.’ (17-8) In spite of their widely differing conclusions, both speakers argue for the acceptance of ‘Big History’, described by Corfield as embracing ‘the entire lifespan of the planet’, linking ‘physical, geological, climatological, biological, and zoological evolution directly into human anthropology and archaeology.’ (10) She accepts that ‘runaway global warming is a possibility’ and that ‘Earth might become a lifeless furnace, like the planet Venus’ but also believes that ‘humans are known as a problem-solving as well as a problem-creating species.’ (12) For Levene, Big History means first and foremost taking on board pre-history in recognition of David Christian’s insistence that ‘history is not an attribute of human history alone, but that the earth itself, life on earth and even the universe have histories’. (6) While agreeing on the necessity for Big History as advocated by Christian and others, overall this blog is more with Levene in spirit, more with Corfield in the letter. It accepts that the human predicament is more serious than Corfield for the most part implies, but still wants to argue for a continued attempt at rational denouement. It suggests that one focus of the attention of historians could be the concept of the ‘Great Acceleration’ since the Second World War as described by Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and JohnMcNeill, ‘The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives’ in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 369, no. 1938, March 2011 (available online). Twenty-four indices of change in human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (taken to be in 1750) are set out in diagrammatic form Figure 1, 851-2. In most of them, a steep rise is indicated from about the year 1950. The two centuries of prelude to the Great Acceleration, aspects of which are the concern of a large number of historians, could be scrutinised with the climax in sight. To be sure, this suggestion will invite charges of teleological distortion, and thus encourage further debate. In this regard, it is indeed worth emphasising that 1750 was a different year in most respects from 1950, a circumstance ignored by some colleagues in other disciplines. For example, the arguments put forward by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations are treated as timeless axioms by some economists, ignoring the basic circumstance that the book is firmly rooted in pre-industrial society. Corfield rightly suggests that ‘as studies of Big History tend to offer a somewhat schematic vision of recent centuries post industrialisation, they could do with further input from historians.’ (10) A long perspective on industrial society could stretch backwards as well as forwards, indeed as far as pre-historic times, as already tackled by David Christian and others and given emphasis by Corfield and Levene. Levene says that ‘we almost certainly will wish to reconsider the very basic map of history’ and that the impact of ‘a monumental societal crisis of hope’ may well lead ‘in directions many historians have been at pains to distance themselves from in recent decades: structure, metanarrative, even teleology.’ (4-5) For Corfield , historians have for the most part rejected postmodern fragmentation and ‘retain a belief in a coherent Time – within which choppy and discontinuous things can occur, as much as can continuous and regular developments.’ Of course, short papers prepared for a debate cannot spell out the points they make, so deserve to be set in the context of other publications. In Time and the Shape of History, Yale UP, 2007, Corfield examines ‘three central and interlocking dimensions of history’: ‘continuity (persistence; tradition), gradual change (evolution) and all forms of rapid, frictional and discontinuous change (turbulence; upheaval; revolution). (xx) She discusses differing view of time in an engaging and subtle manner. She provides a nuanced analysis of premodernity, modernity and postmodernity. (122-49, for example). All of us, no doubt, could add from our reading to the manner in which chronological progression has appeared to imaginative minds. ‘What a mysterious substance time was’, the heroine nun muses after emerging from an underground incarceration in Boris Akunin’s Pelagia and the Red Rooster, Phoenix, 2009, 101. ‘Sometimes it stood still and sometimes it hurtled along at breakneck speed, and no minute, or hour, or day, or year was ever equal to another.’ Vasily Grossman adds the ‘twilight monotony’ of prison and then observes: ‘The distortion of the sense of time during combat is something still more complex.... One second can stretch out for eternity, and long hours can crumple together.’ Life and Fate, Fontana, 1986, 48-9. Now, above all, we need to recognise the confluence of historical and geological time and the necessity of the replacement of anthropocentric history by anthropocenic. This shift will necessarily involve ‘another round of theoretical arguments’ that Corfield asks us to eschew. Moreover, in the two years since the London Debate, humans have shown much more evidence of problem-creating than problem-solving. Her confidence may be misplaced. Mark Levene ‘s more negative outlook might well be reinforced by his major specialisation, in genocide history, which we will not investigate here. Instead, let us consider how he has asked questions about the era of the anthropocene and suggested some answers in his ‘Introduction: A Chronicle of a Death Foretold?’ to Mark Levene, Rob Johnson and Penny Roberts, eds, History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure, Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2010, 20: Is it a function of the advent of the industrial revolution, and hence of an emergent capitalism whose origins also lie in the peculiar rise of the West? In which case is the ‘damage’ done by the last two hundred years of historical trajectory, in any sense, containable or reversible? Or is the assumption itself flawed, the advent of coal-fuelled steam engines far from being an unfortunate wrong turn rather the logical consequence of pre-existing factors, most obviously a scarcity of wood or peat for the energy needs of an inexorably rising European population? In which case, the issue at stake might be less one of a longue durée of renewable energy versus the short-term rupture of the carbon economy, but rather of a relentless human trajectory towards a seeming mastery of the planet set in motion by the ending of the last great Ice Age. Such a thesis would certainly seem to knock the idea of human agency on its head, the leap of human endeavour towards ‘civilisation’ being no more than a function of ephemeral climatic conditions which were bound to end sooner or later with, for instance, the advent of a new glacial epoch. Let us not forget that the London debate took place at a time when many other publications had already considered key aspects of its subject. Apart from works cited by Corfield and Levene, special mention might be made, for example, of Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World, Penguin, 1991 and John McNeill, Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth century, Penguin, 2000. My own Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763, Anthem, 2011, which also addresses some of the points raised in the London debate, was published just after it. While believing strongly in the importance of that debate, I also consider that we need to join in a discussion with our colleagues not only in the other humanities but also in the social and natural sciences. This is not an original suggestion. Back in 1955, in Man on his Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship, CUP, 1955, Herbert Butterfield asserted: ‘If to all the other perceptions of the scientist were added an internal knowledge of the history of his own subject, that combination would be capable of producing a higher state of awareness and a greater elasticity of mind.’ Butterfield added a quotation from Lord Acton in support: ‘History is not only a particular branch of knowledge, but a particular mode and method of knowledge in other branches.’ However, the situation is more urgent than it was in 1955, even 2011, as indicated by the movement forward from six to five minutes to midnight of the Doomsday Clock by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2012.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Pandisciplinarity and Convergence of Civilisations

Pandisciplinarity and Convergence of Civilisations

Elsmie has left a new comment on your post "pandisciplinarity and christianity":

Perhaps you miss my point which was simply that the criteria you gave for establishing a discourse as scientific (“rational, global and evolutionary”) seemed insufficient. Your response adds a bit more flesh, rejecting arguments dependent upon supernatural categories as non-scientific as well as seeing science as a never-ending quest or as you put it a “process of relentless questioning”. Without wishing to defend Christianity or any other religion I would say here that perhaps the history of Christian apologetics does show relentless questioning which in the case of the Reformation involved quite radical reformulations of ideas of duty and selfhood. This would not establish Christianity as a science, or scientific, but it might question the notion that only science and scientific history are capable of deep questioning of beliefs and evidence.

For at least one point in Butterfield’s career he was aware that scientific history was “not like natural science”; the former having a tendency to be “stubbornly local” which in the 1940s, as you point to in Minutes to Midnight, for Butterfield became a paean to the great strengths of the English tradition wherein “conservative Christianity” and “liberal thought” came together to produce a moderate and tolerant nation. As you say he was a man of his time and place and in his defence of liberal England he used his Christian beliefs and concepts to explain why his nation’s history was superior to the “secular” traditions associated with continental Europe. Hence when Europeans lost the “safeguard”, the “ballast” of the idea of original sin they were doomed to fall towards tyranny and “pagan forms of the state”. One can see that in the midst of war strong arguments (founded on Christian-liberal categories) were a way of serving the war-effort. This, if I understand you correctly, you applaud insofar as the historian was willing to harness the discipline of history, to “use” it against the fascist enemy.

Following from this you want to harness history and historians for the larger task of saving the planet. An admirable goal but I find myself uncertain as to what this means for you. What is it that historians should do that they are not doing now? In following and extending the “scientific” approaches of the Enlightenment what will be specific to your scientific history which is not present at the moment? And it occurs to me if the saving of the planet is the primary “use” to which history should be put why not allow any historical approach which accepts the reality of impending ecological disaster, puts humanity at the core and articulates this, as it seems did Butterfield, with religious underpinnings? Or can only scientific history have good uses and consequences?

Here is a response to Elsmie’s welcome comment, for which many thanks. Christianity’s ‘relentless questioning’ cannot include rejection of the divinity of Jesus Christ, whereas natural scientists reject significant bases for their enquiry when they are shown to be false, for example alchemy. I hesitate to enter discussion of biblical dogma, but to go no further than Genesis, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply’ could be dangerous advice in present circumstances, with the world’s population rising so steeply. Like his predecessors in the English Reformation, but with the same basic beliefs, Herbert Butterfield was a relentless questioner, changing his answer from The Whig Interpretation of History in 1931 to The Englishman and His History in 1944. The argument in Minutes to Midnight is that , if Butterfield could alter his views radically  under the pressures exerted by the Second World War, historians today should seriously consider how they should react to a palpably more dangerous threat, the extinction of humankind. More of that below.

For the moment, let us consider Christianity as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a faith.
In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon  & Schuster, 1996, 321, Samuel P. Huntington concluded that:
In the... global “real clash,” between Civilization and barbarism, the world’s great civilizations, with their rich accomplishments in religion, art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, morality, and compassion, will also hang together or hang separately. In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.
Indeed. But Huntington devotes more space to the clash than to the convergence, and in the fifteen years since he published his book, the threat of ecological disaster, which he barely mentions , has caught up with the threat of world war.

The discussion is developed by Nayed R.F. Al-Rodhan in Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man: A Philosophy of History and Civilisational Triumph, Zürich and Berlin: LIT, 2009, 438, emphasising that ‘The development of human civilisation is built on foundations to which everyone has contributed. This is the sense in which human civilisation is like an ocean into which rivers representing geo-cultural domains run.’  Al-Rodhan looks in particular at the example of the Arab-Islamic world to demonstrate ‘the way in which golden ages of individual geo-cultural domains are the culmination of collective contributions to human civilisation....’  Christianity is among other major faiths playing a distinctive role in the composition of sustainable history.  Apart from them, the contribution of more ‘primitive’ beliefs should not be neglected. (See, for example, Kate Prendergast, ‘Responding to Climate Change: Lessons from our Prehistoric Ancestors’, in Mark Levene, Rob Johnson and Penny Roberts, eds, History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure, Penrith: Humanities –Ebooks, LLP, 2010, 34-45.)

To return to the questions in Elsmie’s third paragraph, an answer is given in John McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century, London: Penguin, 2000, 362: ‘Modern History written as is if the life-support systems of the planet were stable, present only in the background of human affairs, is not only incomplete but is misleading.’ No doubt, this assertion should be applied to ancient and medieval history, too. There are some further pertinent observations in Mark Levene and others, History at the End of the World? and on the website  Moreover, traditional scholarship retains significance for scientific history : as E. V. Tarle emphasised in 1922: ‘the more powerful, the more authentic the generalising thought, the more it needs the erudite and erudition.’      
Pandisciplinarity and Stories

An exhibition at the London Science Museum in 2011 entitled ‘Psychology: Mind Your Head’ and celebrating the centenary of the British Psychological Society included the following observation:
Once upon a time, it was believed that stories merely recorded what happened in the world. But some modern psychologists have come to regard stories as having an almost supernatural power. What we call ‘human nature’ is now thought by some to be created by language: by conversations, narratives, folk tales, songs and poetry. We literally talk ourselves into existence.
We can also talk ourselves out of existence if we do not become alert to the possibility of no more ‘once upon a time’. Stories need all the power they can command, whether ‘almost supernatural’ or far from it, if they are to help humankind to survive. Let us briefly consider three aspects of this desideratum: Imagination, Inspiration, Explanation.

Imagination.  In an essay entitled ‘How Novels Can Contribute to our Understanding of Climate Change’, in Mark Levene, Rob Johnson and Penny Roberts, eds, History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure, Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2010, 218-33, Peter Middleton writes:
Significant novels are not just composed of ideas. The novel is an art form that induces a controlled daydream through textual strategies that have been developed over the past three hundred years to make the best of our capacity to understand time, causality, and changing ideas, through storytelling or what literary critics usually prefer to call narrative. (222-3)
Indeed, throughout the whole of the Anthropocene epoch from the eighteenth century onwards the novel has provided ‘a controlled daydream’ illuminating many of the epoch’s aspects. In his essay, Middleton focuses on novels reflecting climate change, in particular by Kim Stanley Robinson and Doris Lessing. He argues that: ‘The very best fictions of crisis do more than shine a light down into the murky affairs of the social unconscious, or give us a thrilling flight in the total reality simulator; they employ the special resources of the novel to raise issues of conceptual deficit, ethical ambiguity and failures of representations.’ (232)
In particular, these works are essential for those who cannot imagine the potential of climate change to wreck our ‘safe’ world.
Inspiration.  For some authorities, the story of the Anthropocene begins in 1945, the year of the first detonations of the atomic bomb. Several of the scientists who were closely associated with the bomb’s development made special mention of the inspirational role played in their careers by other stories. Niels Bohr recommended an unfinished novel (1824-) entitled The Adventures of a Danish Student by Poul Martin Møller, quoting the ‘philosophical meditations’ of one of the main characters on the multiplicity of identity: ‘I do not know at which “I” to stop as the actual, and in the moment I stop at one, there is indeed again an “I” which stops at it. I become confused and feel a dizziness as if I were looking down into a bottomless abyss.’ Bohr related how he sought escape from the abyss of infinite introspection in his work, helped by a friend of his father’s Harald Høffding.

Leo Szilard asserted that his ‘addiction to the truth’ and his predilection for ‘Saving the World’ came from stories his mother told him and from a Hungarian classic, The Tragedy of Man, written after the failure of the 1848 revolution by a world-weary nobleman, Imre Imlach. A long poem recounts the progress through history of Adam with Lucifer as his guide, concluding with the sun setting as only a few Eskimos survive. For Szilard, at the end of the narrative, ‘there remains a rather narrow margin of hope.’ Later, his imagination, and perhaps his hope, were stimulated by his reading of H.G. Wells, in particular by two works: The Open Conspiracy (1928) which describes the establishment of a world republic by enlightened industrialists and financiers; and The World Set Free (1914) which includes the description of a war breaking out in 1956 that destroys the major cities through the use of atomic bombs but is followed by the development of atomic energy that allows human beings to escape the solar system.

More simply, following the death of a beloved brother, Enrico Fermi recalled how, following the death of a beloved brother, he did not look back after buying at a bookstall a two-volume work, Elementorum physicae mathematicae, published by a Jesuit physicist in 1840. In a more complex fashion, Robert Oppenheimer related how he wrote short stories and poems while an undergraduate at Harvard, reading widely through T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) to Hindu philosophy as well as Principia Mathematica (1910-13) by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. He listed a considerable range of works as his studies of metaphysics: ‘the bhagavad gita, Ecclesiastes, the Stoa, the beginning of the Laws [by Plato], Hugo of St. Victor, St. Thomas, John of the Cross, Spinoza’. He went through Marx, Engels and Feuerbach, but commented: ‘I never accepted Communist dogma or theory; in fact, it never made sense to me.’ Oppenheimer’s choice of the term ‘Trinity’ for the first test site of the atomic bomb was influenced by the sonnet of John Donne beginning ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God....’ At the time of the actual test, he resorted to the declaration of the Hindu god Vishnu in the Bhagavad-Gita: ‘Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ (Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, London: Penguin, 1986, 58-61, 107-8, 123, 150, 205, 446, 572, 676.)    

Explanation.  Climate change is a story going back many centuries but reaching a denouement in our own. The literature on the subject is voluminous, and there are many explanatory websites. However, our perceptions are limited by our personal stories: that is to say, we find it easy enough to appreciate the past (it is worth recalling that, in many languages, ‘story’ and ‘history’ are synonymous) but difficult to imagine a future stretching forward beyond our own life span.

Certainly, the arrival at our present predicament is the culmination of a longer narrative, more helpful for our understanding than a-historical systems analysis when it points towards the evolution of human disaster rather than the continuance of progress. Moreover, arguably, all academic subjects have their own narratives, a fusion of which should allow more certain prognosis of what is to come if we do not adopt an alternative to growth.

Monday, 15 August 2011

pandisciplinarity and the class struggle

Pandisciplinarity and the Class Struggle

Penny Bun writes:

You write at one point that "all hands to the pumps" is essential if an impending catastrophe is to be avoided and that this will necessitate a crossing of academic divides, with the study of history being an essential if not the central element to the enterprise. I recognise the important role of historical study in coming to an understanding of our present predicament; without it we can have no knowledge of how we got here and consequently how we might resolve the crisis. Natural science can inform us of some of the whys of environmental destruction and ways in which catastrophe might be averted, that is, technical fixes, but natural science will not tell us why and how the social formation which underpinned the emergence and the blossoming of the anthropocene age happened (unless one believes there was/is a biological determinism, a Darwinian evolutionary agent leading humanity to the anthropocene). What the natural sciences cannot supply the study of history can, or at least can take us some way to identifying social forces driving towards particular ends (both intended and unintended). Which takes me to my point: "all hands to the pumps", I can see that the call for pandisciplinarity could well receive a significant response in the academic world; however, the real problem might be in how such a level of intellectual agreement can be translated into action. Political action, informed by historical knowledge and natural science, this is surely the goal. Whether the moral imperative of "action now else we are all doomed" is sufficient is at the very least debatable. Of course one could respond that the meetings of minds is an intellectual forum within which contending solutions might fight it out with the possibility for example that free market economics could confront class struggle as the solution. If this is so does pandisciplinarity take us much beyond where we are today?

This is a welcome but troubling question. Let us begin with the response given to it in the book Minutes to Midnight, where several pages are given to the ‘classic’ exposition of the class struggle in The Communist Manifesto of 1848. As Marx and Engels put it: ‘political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.’ Ultimately, after the proletariat had taken power from the bourgeoisie’, the new order would consist of ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ In comments on the major work, Capital, the book suggests that Marx ‘had shown in some detail how capitalism was on the rise, but had not spelled out in such detail how it was to fail, still less what was to replace it. His great achievement was to analyse the process by which the development of technology far beyond the dreams of James Watt promoted a new economic system and accompanying social changes. However, he could not foresee the extent to which a managerial, technocratic stratum would become a substantial part of the bourgeoisie, and the manner in which a substantial part of the proletariat would become integrated into a consumer, service economy.’ (38-9) The beginnings of these developments helped to lead in industrial societies advancing through the nineteenth century to the aim of compromise with capitalism rather than its overthrow.

In the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was widely advertised by Lenin and his adherents as the victory of the proletariat, yet the arrival of Stalinism persuaded many Marxists to turn to Trotskyism or some other alternative. A great debate ensued in the 1960s, adherents of Marxism arguing among themselves as well as with a newer ideology – Maoism. Some of the debate was esoteric: Perry Anderson, an acute analyst of Western Marxism, emphasised its ‘lack of internationalism’ and remoteness from ‘actual masses’. (102) At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Istvan Mészáros was both calling for a radical transformation to be brought about by a mass party of the working class and writing about capital in a manner that most of its members would find difficult to grasp. (126)      

One of the most prominent Marxists in the Western world is Eric Hobsbawm, the author of remarkable works on history from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first and frequent commentator on the political scene. In his autobiographical Interesting Times; A Twentieth-Century Life, London: Abacus, 2002, Hobsbawm writes ‘I belonged to the generation tied by an almost umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’ However, he soon gave up the attempt to add Russian to his many other languages, coming to the conclusion that he was ‘a purely western intellectual’, a view reinforced by his single visit to the USSR, from which he returned ‘politically unchanged if depressed, and without any desire to go there again.’ Instead, he made frequent visits to the USA, learning ‘as much about the country in the first summer I spent there as in the course of the next decades’. (111, 200, 218, 403) Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, London: Little Brown, 2011, does not give much of a pointer to how to effect a global transformation. More erudite than instrumental, the book contains a considerable amount of exegesis of Marxist texts including The Communist Manifesto, but very little on how to advance the process prescribed by it, almost nothing about how to pursue the class struggle in the post-Soviet period, when the hope of a world revolution spreading from its original home had come to naught.

Where is the class struggle today, then? Social disturbances in the developed world show little if any Marxist class consciousness, more frustrated consumerism, while Maoism is proclaimed in Nepal and central India, to mention two examples in the developing world.

Academically, ‘class struggle’ comes under the heading of the social sciences, which form a bridge between history and other humanities on the one hand and the natural sciences on the other. Not only Politics and Sociology are involved here but also Psychology – the workings of the minds of individuals as well as groups, about which we are continually learning. Back in conclusion to pandisciplinarity. Intellectual arguments by definition are often without influence beyond the ivory tower, but this circumstance does not negate them. Moreover, the most urgent conflict today is between those who accept that we are confronted by an ecological crisis far deeper than economic meltdown on the one hand and those with a vested interest in renewed growth (both producers and consumers) that amounts to more pollution who deny it on the other. Of course, so to speak, as the Titanic approaches disaster, we are all in it together, even though a few travel first class and most are in steerage or service. But this time, there will be no other ships coming to the rescue: hence, ‘all hands to the pumps’.  

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

pandisciplinarity and christianity

Pandisciplinarity and Christianity

Elsmie writes:
Clearly the scientific status of history is central to your project. One question: you write that the study of history as a science is validated by the extent to which it is ‘rational, global and evolutionary’; would it follow that espousal of Christianity which was coherent, rational and saw history as process from Creation to the Fall and on to an end, would this be scientific? Or are there other characteristics required to make world views scientific?
The short answer is that it is up to Christians to demonstrate the scientific qualities of their faith, of concepts such as ‘Creation’, ‘Fall’ and ‘an end’. The Pandisciplinarity blog is secular, literally in ‘relating to an age or period’ to give the derivation of the word from the Latin ‘saecularis’.

But the question deserves a longer response. To quote the book that led to this blog:
Since they involve supernatural phenomena, theological considerations cannot be included in secular discussion, particularly if we apply to it the words of the progenitor of Christianity as reported by St Matthew: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21). Caesar acts, God judges. The empire that Caesar helped to create attempted to impose its so-called Pax Romana upon as much of the world as possible, and to use this concept as an important part of its self-justification, confidently explaining phenomena by the purpose they served – might was right. A series of successors have acted in a similar manner, most of them making the additional claim of God’s support and sanction. Of course, Holy Writ is open to interpretation, and there has been no shortage of theologians acting as spokesmen for empire. Ultimately, however, as indicated by imperial decline and fall, Ecclesiastes would appear to have hit the nail on the head in the assertion that ‘all is vanity’ (Ecclesiates 1:2). Human history might well come to an end and God make his final judgement.
(Paul Dukes, Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era, London: Anthem, 1911, 8-9)
Christianity and other religions receive little mention in the rest of the book, although they are possibly included in its conclusion in an implicit manner: ‘At the present critical moment, from whatever quarter, we need all the assistance we can get, and it is therefore possible to envisage a pandisciplinary approach to our present predicament.’ (133)

Elsmie’s question prompts some further reflections. Unlike Christianity and other religions, science does not deal in certainties, but probabilities, especially when dealing with predictions of the future. Moreover, there are unknowns, even unknowables. Of course, the distinction is not that sharp since, as I understand them, Christians view Christ as ineffable, beyond words. Thus I hesitate to say more except that, essentially, religion is a matter of faith and belief, where doubt and the process of relentless questioning, which are the keys to a sound approach to the acquisition of understanding through both science and history, are not  normally to be found.

Instead, a few comments on the work of a historian who was also a committed Christian and wrote extensively about connections between his work and his faith. I happen to have had personal contact with him, too, listening to him on European history and receiving his hospitality. The overwhelming impression I formed of Herbert Butterfield was of his earnestness. However, neither in his lectures nor in his conversation did he say anything about religion. His writings appear to indicate a belief in three levels in the study of history: individual, social and providential. Great men like Napoleon, possibly lesser mortals too, could influence the course of events: individuals were more important than the political and economic aspects of history. The duty of the researcher was to scrutinise available sources to establish the social context in which individuals operated, always recalling that subsequent judgements were relative to time and circumstance. It was at this level, Butterfield argued, that the historian functioned in a scientific manner, which was for him above all technical. Beyond, there was the providential, about which, in his view, mere mortal researchers could say little. (See, for example, Herbert Butterfield, Writings on Christianity and History, Edited with an Introduction by C.T. McIntire, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, especially ‘The Christian and Historical Study’, 151-71.)

Like all individuals, as he himself had said, Butterfield was the creature of his time and circumstance. He was born in 1900, and his early outlook was no doubt influenced by the First World War, his mature output – by the Second World War and the Cold War. He died in 1979 before ecological problems came to wider attention, and global, if not universal, consciousness began to grow along with the ecumenical movement. No blame can be attached to him for this, and he remains an inspiration to some of his successors, just as he in his turn was influenced by predecessors such as Lord Acton. That is the way of the study of history.

Today, there are good reasons for being familiar with the three Abrahamic religions, Moslem and Jewish as well as Christian, in a world in which they all exercise great influence. Other systematic belief systems, notably Buddhism, retain wide adherence. However, the apparent death of Marxism-Leninism since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago should not mean the end of the attempt to consider history as a secular science. A version of it remains the official ideology of the People’s Republic of China, merging to some extent perhaps with Confucianism and Taoism, whose ways, including a reverence for nature, remain indicative.

I was born in 1934, and have clear childhood memories of the Second World War. For example, I recall how we were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ in gardens and allotments. All of us, however young or old, in whatever station in life, were adjured to do our bit for the great cause. Churchmen prayed for the triumph of Christian good over godless evil, often ignoring the fact that our staunch Soviet Allies were officially materialists (even though Stalin and his henchmen sought the support of the Orthodox hierarchy and their God against the Nazi Wotan).

Today’s slogan ‘Grow More’ echoes ‘Dig for Victory’, but we are faced with a greater challenge than that of 1939-1945: it may be less immediately evident, but the strong balance of probability supported by an ever more powerful body of evidence is that anthropogenic disaster awaits us if we do not radically change our behaviour. In this pursuit, we need help from whatever quarter.

So thank you, Elsmie, for your questions. I hope you find my answers helpful. Peace be with you!         

Friday, 29 July 2011

the emergence of pandisciplinarity


Having been founded three years after Columbus ‘discovered’ America, the University of Aberdeen celebrated its quincentenary in 1995. This encouraged associates of the Centre for Russian, East and Central European Studies to look at the area of its prime interest in a long chronological perspective as well as a wider context. For this purpose, we adopted a conceptual framework first devised in ancient Greece and then revived in the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – the three unities of time, place and action. Action was used in the sense that Aristotle had applied to drama: ‘It is necessary, then, just as in other imitative arts there is one imitation of one thing, that the plot, being an imitation of the action, should be concerned with one thing and that a whole, and that the parts of the action should be put together that if one part is shifted or taken away the whole is deranged and disjoined, for what makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no part of the whole.’ The other two unities were noted in the eighteenth century by, among others, the Aberdonian philosopher Thomas Reid: ‘Created things have their particular place in space, and their particular place in time.’ However, he continued: ‘time is everywhere, and space at all times’, thus emphasising the need for a guiding principle. In the late twentieth century, for this purpose, we expressed the hope ‘to move beyond interdisciplinarity towards pandisciplinarity, to attempt to recapture some of the comprehensive nature of enquiry associated with the Renaissance at the time of the university’s foundation in 1495, or with the Enlightenment during its development in the eighteenth century.’ We attempted under this broad heading to include such ideas as Chaos, Complexity, Gaia and Post-Modernism. (Paul Dukes, Cathryn Brennan, Xenofont Sanukov, Jean Houbert, Time, Place and Action: Quinquennial Perspectives on Russia, East and Central Europe, Aberdeen: Centre for Russian, East and Central European Studies, 1996).

In succeeding years, we used the concept in a number of ways, for example in an article of 2002 examining intellectual development in the Soviet 1920s: ‘October in the Mind: The Russian Revolution, Freidizm and Pandisciplinarity.’ (Revolutionary Russia, vol. 18, no. 1, 2002, 1-23). But it was not before reading the seminal article by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘The Anthropocene’ (IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme) Newsletter 41), that we developed a new focus, set out in Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763, Anthem, London, 2011. The book asserts that the study of history should be scientific – that is rational, global and evolutionary, taking its place among other sciences –humane, social and natural – in a pandisciplinary approach to humanity’s present predicament. It differs from most other approaches to the subject in its emphasis on application rather than explanation. In other words, rather than asking: what is history?, it attempts to answer the question: how can history be of use in today’s crisis?

The concept of pandisciplinarity was far from emerging in Aberdeen alone. For example, John R. Hall, Professor of Sociology at Davis, California brought it into his book Cultures of Inquiry: From Epistomology to Discourse in Sociohistorical Research, Cambridge: CUP, 1999, in particular pp. 173, 179, 259-61. In a chapter entitled ‘Discursive hybrids of practice: an introductory schema’, Hall has a section devoted to ‘The pandisciplinarity of inquiry.’ He notes that in the three decades concluding the twentieth century, historians and sociologists have sought ‘to define an enterprise shared by the two disciplines.’ He argues that ‘the pandisciplinarity of inquiry identifies commonalties in an enormous array of scholarship, ranging across literary and cultural studies in the conventional humanities, divergent approaches to the study of history (“social history,” “cultural history,” “oral history,” etc.) and the conventional social sciences – divided by disciplines (economics, geography, etc.) but united both by shared substantive interests (markets, colonization, culture, etc.) and by shared practices across disciplines, from ethnography to statistical analysis.’ Hall criticizes the concept of the two cultures advanced by C.P. Snow as ‘culturally arbitrary’ and advances that of the Third Path taking us ‘beyond merely parochial assertions about the supposed superiority of any particular local method.’ His approach ‘identifies limits to any quest for a single, objective social science, much less a “science of history” via social theory.’ Hall concludes:

The route of the Third Path opens out into an emergent network of communication, unevenly tied together by nodal connections among discourses, practices, and procedures of translation that push back the frontier of any absolute differend. Knowledge produced by way of culturally coherent practices of inquiry and their contestation can result in more than storytelling, even in the absence of an encompassing pure Reason.

Paul Boytchev takes an ‘Equilibristic pandisciplinary approach to technology enhanced learning’ (Proceedings of the Fortieth Jubilee Spring Conference of the Union of Bulgarian Mathematicians, Borovetz, April 5-9 2011.) He concentrates on ‘the core ideas of the equilibristic and pandisciplinary approaches in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) and the way they could be combined into  a single approach’ with special reference to the relationship between the Humanities and Arts on the one hand and Science, Mathematics and Computing on the other. No doubt, the computer has a key role to play not only in TEL but more widely. (See, for example, ‘Computing for the future of the planet’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, October 2008 [available online] ).  

As already intimated, our approach to pandisciplinarity differs from others in its emphasis on the central problems of our age symbolised by the Doomsday Clock, set by atomic scientists from 1947 but including new developments in the life sciences and technology as well as climate change from 2007 onwards. However, we would be foolish to ignore less instrumental discussions of this concept as illustrated above or considerations of other allied concepts such as consilience. This was first advanced in 1840 by the Cambridge scholar William Whewell in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Literally meaning ‘jumping together’, for Whewell ‘The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.’ Whewell is quoted by the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson in the update and development entitled Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge, London: Little, Brown and Co, 1998, 6-7. Most of his book is devoted to a consideration of the nature of a full range of academic disciplines. In the twenty-first century, Wilson believes, ‘the natural sciences, and the humanities, particularly the creative arts... will be the two great branches of learning’, with the social sciences occupying a bridge position between them. (10) Although ‘the humanities... will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them’, there will remain a distinction between ‘the future excursions of science and the imaginative flights of the arts.’ (333) However, Wilson gives the study of history, on which we place emphasis, sparse attention: even though he believes that the ‘imminent environmental bottleneck’ will cause ‘a new kind of history driven by environmental change’, he neglects old kinds of history. (320)  Moreover, while he makes the Enlightenment the fundamental point of departure for his argument, he says very little about history as process. Hardly surprising, perhaps, in view of his speciality.

And Wilson’s conclusion runs true to type, too: ‘We are, it seems, Old World, catarrhine primates, brilliant emergent animals, defined genetically by our unique origins, blessed by our newfound biological genius, and secure in our homeland if we wish to make it so.’ (333).
Amen to that.