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.

the anthropocene conceptual

The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives
By Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, March 2011, 842-867
[available on line]
There is much to learn from this paper, on, for example, the concept of the Anthropocene and its emergence, the Great Acceleration, peak oil and phosphorus, geo-engineering and planetary boundaries, among other perspectives.

 As the introduction asserts: ‘Climate change has brought into sharp focus the capability of contemporary human civilization to influence the environment at the scale of the Earth as a single, evolving planetary system.’ ‘But climate change is only the tip of the iceberg’, the authors go on to say, adding that humans are significantly altering other biogeochemical cycles such as nitrogen and sulphur as well as phosphorus, strongly modifying Earth’s water cycle and probably driving its sixth major extinction process. Thus, ‘humankind has become a global geological force in its own right’ and a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – is evolving. (842-3)

Among other antecedents of the concept of the Anthropocene enunciated by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, the eminent French philosopher Henri Bergson’s assertion of 1907 is quoted: ‘A century has elapsed since the invention of the steam engine, and we are only just beginning to feel the depths of the shock it gave us.... In thousands of years, when, seen from the distance, only the broad lines of the present age will still be visible, our wars and our revolutions will count for little, even supposing they are remembered at all; but the steam engine, and the procession of engines of every kind that accompanied it, will perhaps be spoken of as we speak of the bronze or of the chipped stone of pre-historic times: it will serve to define an age.’ (844-5) Nit-picking no doubt to point out that when Bergson wrote it was two centuries since Newcomen patented an early version of the steam engine in 1705. More substantially however, given the significance of James Watt’s improvement of the steam engine in the early Industrial Revolution from 1763 to 1784 as noted by Crutzen and Stoermer in their paper, it might be appropriate to mention the context of James Watt’s contribution. This context includes the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and other works from the Scottish Enlightenment. Moreover, in retrospect, do the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century appear to count for little?

The third section of the paper (845-7), devoted to the history of the human-environment relationship, includes a consideration of ‘the early Anthropocene hypothesis’ concerning the impact of the agrarian revolution, which appears implausible to the authors. There is an interesting discussion of the early use of coal from the Song dynasy (960-1279) in China, but the authors do not believe that the human use of coal and other fossil fuels made much impact before the beginning of the Anthropocene, the subject of the paper’s fourth section (847-9). Among the perceived important developments are the intensive use of fossil fuels leading to wide application of fertilisers, in turn promoting the extension of agriculture and increase in population. Noting that by 1750 the Industrial Revolution had barely begun but had spread thoughout Europe and North America, the authors suggest that ‘the year AD 1800 could reasonably be chosen as the beginning of the Anthropocene.’ This is a few years later than the 1784 chosen by Crutzen and Stoermer, but much earlier than that favoured by other analysts.

Some of these have opted for the years of the paper’s sixth section (849-53), ‘The Great Acceleration’ from 1945 to 2000, when ‘the growth imperative rapidly became a core society value that drove both the socio-economic and the political spheres.’ Impressive tables, which cannot be summarily described and merit close attention, amply illustrate the widespread increase in the pace of the advanced Industrial Revolution. Just one comment here. Noting that the embryo of The Great Acceleration was clearly evident in the years 1870-1914, the authors claim that ‘the acceleration of these trends was shattered by World War I’ and its sequel. There is at least a case for maintaining that, in some aspects such as the improvement of transport by land and movement by air, the war acted as an accelerator, while the accompanying Russian Revolution and post-war settlement helped to set the scene for both World War II and the Cold War, which also promoted technological innovation as well as steeply increasing exploitation of the world’s resources. Environmental problems were also intensified by warfare, and neglected partly because to draw attention to them could incur charges of disloyalty to a cause. Certainly, the making and use of materiel should be added to the indicators of the Great Acceleration.

Section 6 (853-60)  shows how the Great Acceleration not only continues but also spreads to the previously so-called Third World, particularly India and China (both of which, it should be added in paratheses, not only achieved rapid economic growth but also acquired nuclear weapons). The concepts of ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak phosphorus’ both emerged. At the same time, possibly, the drive to understand the genetic basis of life, even to subject it to synthesis, and the beginnings of geo-engineering, could lead towards some alleviation of the intensifying predicament, the authors suggest, but they also warn that ‘the near inevitability of unforeseen consequences should give humanity pause for serious reflection before embarking on any geo-engineering approaches.’ The mere thought of the synthesis of life has aroused widespread alarm. The authors also stress that ‘legal, ethical and societal issues, not to mention the challenges of global governance..., will need to be thoroughly explored and solved before deliberate human modification of the climate system can be undertaken.’

They go on in the seventh and final section (860-2), ‘Societal implications of the Anthropocene concept’, to remark that ‘the belief systems and assumptions that underpin neo-classical economic thinking, which in turn has been a major driver of the Great Acceleration, are directly challenged by the concept of the Anthropocene.’ This reinforces the case for a serious consideration of The Wealth of Nations, still a ‘classic’ source for ‘neo-classical thinking’. It cannot be emphasised enough that Smith wrote when the commercial-manufacturing stage of economic development was under way (as in his famous example of pin-making) and he could not comment therefore on the industrial stage or have any idea of the Great Acceleration.

Of course, a paper such as this cannot hope to be all-inclusive. Other works by its authors need to be taken into consideration: to give just two examples bearing on historical perspectives, Jacques Grinevald, La biosphere de l’Anthropocène: climat et pétrole, la double menace: Repères transdisciplinaires (1824-2007), Genève: Georg Editeur, 2007 and John McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century, London: Penguin, 2000.

More generally, to understand the Anthropocene more fully, some attention might be given to academic disciplines not mentioned in the paper, including the history and analysis of literature. See, for example, Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, London: Penguin, 1986,  24-5, 58-60, 107-8, 123, 150, 205, 446, 572, where some of the sources of inspiration are given for Leo Szilard, Nils Bohr, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. It would be pertinent to discover which literary works have influenced researchers on the Anthropocene.This consideration reinforces the case for pandisciplinarity, the use of every discipline in aid of understanding.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Climate of History

The Climate of History: Four Theses
By Dipesh Chakrabarty         
In his introductory remarks, Chakrabarty observes ‘what scientists have said about climate change challenges not only the ideas about the human that usually sustain the discipline of history but also the analytic strategies that postcolonial and postimperial historians have deployed in the last two decades in response to the postwar scenario of decolonization and globalization.’ (1)
He himself puts forward four challenging theses, making use of a wide range of authorities, most of whom are omitted here for the sake of conciseness.
Thesis I: Anthropogenic Explanations of Climate Change Spell the Collapse of the Age-old Humanist Distinction between Natural History and Human History (3-5)
Chakrabarty traces this age-old distinction along a line leading from Vico via Croce to Collingwood before quoting Stalin on unchanging geographical environment in distinction to significant developments in human society. He then notes that ‘If Braudel, to some degree, made a breach in the binary of natural/human history, one could say that the rise of environmental history in the late twentieth century made the breach wider.’ He cites the preface of Alfred Crosby Jr.’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, first published in 1972: ‘Man is a biological entity before he is a Roman Catholic or a capitalist or anything else.’ Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially in the second half of the twentieth century, Chakrabarty points outs, the distinction between human and natural histories has begun to collapse.
There is nothing much to argue with here, although an alternative line of historiographical development to Chakrobarty’s Vico-Croce-Collingwood could be drawn. Although Vico’s pioneering efforts have sometimes been unjustly neglected, the stages of progress in his ‘New Science’ – represented in turn by gods, heroes and men – were surpassed in the later Enlightenment by the hunting, pasturage, farming and commerce stages of Adam Smith and others. Croce and Collingwood are from easy to understand and add little to our understanding of the centrally important Industrial Revolution. Karl Marx, on the other hand, makes a probing analysis of the growth of capitalism, although his forecast of a proletarian revolution has turned out to be less than completely accurate. Stalin, quoted by Chakrabarty, is not the best representative of Marxist thought.
Thesis 2: The Idea of the Anthropocene, the New Geological Epoch When Humans Exist as a Geological Force, Severely Qualifies Humanist Histories of Modernity/Globalization (5-7)
Chakrabarty maintains that ‘freedom has been the most important motif of written accounts of human history of these two hundred and fifty years.’ His line of historiographical development is through what Marxists would call the ideological superstructure. However, as he concedes: ‘The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use’. He therefore recognises the force of the argument in favour of accepting the arrival of a new geological age during the same period of two hundred and fifty years – the Anthropocene, as argued by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000. Questions arise: ‘So, has the period from 1750 to now been one of freedom or that of the Anthropocene? Is the Anthropocene a critique of the narratives of freedom? Is the geological agency of humans the price we pay for the pursuit of freedom?’ In response to his questions, Chakrabarty quotes Edward O. Wilson – ‘We know more about the problem now....We know what to do’ as well as Stoermer and Crutzen – ‘An exciting, but also difficult and daunting task lies ahead of the global research and engineering community to guide mankind towards global, sustainable, environmental management.’ His own reply is ‘Logically, then, in the era of the Anthropocene, we need the Enlightenment (that is, reason) even more than in the past.’ However, he goes on to say that, in the face of sharp inequalities between and inside nations and steep population increase, freedom in human societies will be under threat since politics is never based on reason alone. Necessary long-term planning will be up against short-term politics.
Thesis 3: The Geological Hypothesis Regarding the Anthropocene Requires Us to Put Global Histories of Capital in Conversation with the Species History of Humans (7-10)
While ‘The geologic now of the Anthropocene has become entangled with the now of human history’, in Chakrabarty’s view, he goes on to remind us that ‘Scholars who study human beings in relation  to the crisis of climate change and other ecological problems emerging on a world scale make a distinction between the recorded history of human beings [of thousands of years] and their deep recorded history [of hundreds of thousands of years].’ Deep history necessitates consideration of human and other life forms – of species. However difficult, this task must be taken up by historians in ‘a conversation between disciplines and between recorded and deep histories of human beings in the same way that the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago could not be explained except through a convergence of three disciplines: geology, archaeology, and history.’ The combination of recorded and deep histories fundamentally stretches the very idea of historical understanding.
Two points arise here. First, Chakrabarty does not specify which disciplines should enter the conversation on the present crisis. We need to think about appropriate selection, Second, as Darwin’s major biographers indicate, ‘his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start – Darwinism was always intended to explain human society.’ (A. Desmond and J. Moore, Darwin, London, 1992, xix.) We would do well to bear this in mind as we consider the history-species problem today.
Thesis 4: The Cross-Hatching of Species History and the History of Capital Is a Process of Probing the Limits of Historical Understanding (10-11)
‘We never experience ourselves as a species’, Chakrabarty asserts, adding ‘without that knowledge that defies historical understanding there is no making sense of the current crisis that affects us all.’ Drought in Australia and fire in California affect rich and poor alike, and the anxiety provoked by global warming is ‘reminiscent of the days when many feared a global nuclear war’, the difference being that nuclear war ‘would have been a conscious decision on the part of the powers that be’ while climate change ‘is an unintended consequence of human actions’. Again, a couple of comments. First, the use of the past tesne concerning global nuclear war is somewhat surprising, given the current setting of the Doomsday Clock by Atomic Scientists at six minutes to the fatal hour and the warning letters sent to The Wall Street Journal on 4 January 2007 and 15 January 2008 by Henry Kissinger and others. Second, the balance of the evidence is now surely such that it is no longer appropriate to talk of climate change as unintended: denials are now as irresponsible as former dismissals of the carcinogenic effects of smoking tobacco. (Stéphane Foucart, ‘Manufacturing doubt for profit’, Guardian Weekly, 1 July 2011, 32-3.) One is reminded of the Scottish story concerning the poor souls sent to Hell. ‘We didna ken [We did not know]’, they protest. And the Devil responds: ‘Ye ken noo [You know now]’.
Dipesh Chakrabarty concludes his perspicacious and stimulating essay with the observation: ‘climate change poses for us a question of human collectivity, an us, pointing to a figure of the universal that escapes our capacity to experience of the world. It is more like a universal that arises from a shared sense of catastrophe.’ Indeed, if the ship is sinking, all hands must be applied to the pumps.   


Monday, 11 July 2011

pandisciplinarity today

'And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins, than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved. For the contrary hereof hath made particular sciences to become barren, shallow, and erroneous; while they have not been nourished and maintained from the common fountain.'
Francis Bacon

The purpose of this blog is to promote 'the common fountain' via the agency of pandisciplinarity, a concept discussed in a pamphlet issued in 1995 and a book published by Anthem Press in 2011, Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763. 

As this title suggests, the emphasis is on a period of approximately two and a half centuries following the year in which James Watt 'tried some experiments on the force of steam', to use his own words in 1763. To use the words of Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000: 'To assign a more specific date to the onset of the 'anthropocene' seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the eighteenth century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable.' (Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, 'The Anthropocene' in the IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme) Newsletter 41, 2000, 17.) More recently, the subject has been discussed in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, March 2011 and at a Conference held by The Geological Society in London on 11 May 2011, both posing the question:: 'The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?' The urgency of the situation was succinctly conveyed by an observation made at the Conference by the Society's President to the effect that if we carry on as we are, we shall all disappear in carbon-rich slime, irrespective of the term used to describe the process.

The blog agrees with the assertion of Roger Smith: 'it is possible to envisage history as a form of knowledge bridging the institutional divisions between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. We need history in order to understand, in the fullest sense of "to understand", any of the forms that knowledge takes.' (Roger Smith, Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature, Manchester UP, 2007, 258, with his italics.) 

The aim of the book Minutes to Midnight is threefold: 1) to note major advances in the natural sciences and their application from James Watt's onwards; 2) to set out an analytical narrative of the Anthropocene Era; 3) to pay particular attention to the development of history as an academic discipline in association with other humanities, the social and natural sciences, and to illustrate its response to the changing circumstances of successive periods. The blog will supplement and amplify this threefold aim, and thus promote 'the common fountain' of the twenty-first century.