Thursday, 22 May 2014

History and determinism

The belief in progress, that civilisation incrementally advances from a savage to benign state, spawned from the Enlightenment. The great thinkers from this period were convinced that their ideas could lead to societies founded on reason. Such were the views of political thinkers like Mill, Locke, Marx, Rosseau, etc. This was a deterministic view of history in that it presupposed that it had a telos - a beginning, a middle and end. For these thinkers, progress in ethics and politics is like progress in science and knowledge - it is cumulative.

Enlightenment thinking informed, alongside the ideas of the type of thinkers listed above, scientific racism. Following the discoveries of Darwin, it seemed to them vindication of the subjugation of the American tribes. The conquistadores, when they first arrived in the continent, assumed that the white races were superior because of their most 'advanced' societies. Of course, the indigenous tribes had their own practices, languages and cultures. Cultures like the Mayans were skilled in mathematics and astronomy. Most of these tribes had their own unique philosophical conceptions of the world, couched in their own logic and terms. Western European knowledge had largely been centuries of variations on the theme of Socratic thinking.

Among these 'unique conceptions' was a circular view on time. The European view was the one outlined above; it was deterministic. The aboriginal view was that time is one continuum - what happened a hundred years ago is the same as what will happen in a hundred years in the future. They did not arrogantly think, as many European thinkers did, that their societies were more 'advanced' than their predecessors. All material objects, all of their divinities, all ideas, occur simultaneously. This type of pantheism was more inclusive than monotheism, which informed this teleological view on history, in that it did not presuppose that one mode of thought is superior than another. If anything, the aboriginal view on time was more accurate than the European one. The Spanish invaders saw nothing of value in their practices, indeed saw them as verminous, and eradicated them.

There is a tendency to reduce historical events to "one" explanation and cause. I remember an incredibly stupid question in a school test which asked me why Hitler hated the Jews, as if there was a right or wrong answer. In my answer I wrote that it is ambiguous and that there is not a 'single' answer to be given. Needless to say, the teacher gave me a cross (X) and proceeded to give a definitive answer to the question.

There are many historical tracts which say that, if Franz Ferdinand had not been killed, we would not have the First World War. Tensions were already been fomented between the European countries at them time. Similarly, there have been attempts to understand what led the Germans to Nazism and the lure of fascism. Whilst you could say it was the economic deprivations or the lack of checks and balances in the Weimar republic, the truth is more ambiguous. It is better to raise questions than to answer them. There is no single cause for historical events.

Societies are complex and variegated. Civilisation is comprised of billions of people with different motives, beliefs and lifestyles. Invariably these motives and beliefs will clash and invariably there will be strife. The utopian society in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is only possible because the citizens have been engineered to accept a set of injunctions prescribed by society.

History does not speak for the voiceless. History is largely scripted by those who wield power. Prisoners, mad-men, aboriginal tribes and many cultural and religious minorities have rarely been given the chance to express their plight or insights. As a result, we have a historical narrative which is not as inclusive as it should be. When it attributes these simplistic 'causes,' it does so at the expense of the voiceless and repressed.

The truth is that history meanders. It does not follow a straight line. Ancient Rome collapsed and there followed almost a thousand years where standards of living were not as great. Indeed, the dark ages were characterised as been completely bereft of culture (which is not wholly true and at the time the Arabic world was undergoing an Enlightenment of its own). Indeed, if anything right now we are regressing. Income distribution is closer to the 19th century than it was during the tail-end of the 20th century. Another 'dark age' may be around the corner.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rousseau actually is the leading figure and precursor of the counter-enlightenment. And no era encompasses him, Locke and Marx, except maybe "modern" i.e. it would only make sense to lump them together if you're comparing modern Europeans to some other era and culture.

In the nicest possible way, I want to advise you to delete this blog, to instead write your essays on paper; leave them in a drawer for only you to read in 3 or 4 or 5 years time. You shouldn't be ashamed, being relatively young, of not having read a representative selection of the entire philosophical canon through the unabridged original texts, but you shouldn't parrot secondary sources as if it's your own considered opinion from your own reading.

Simon King said...

Ech, I knew that Rousseau is sometimes considered part of the Romantic movement, but it was a mistake to lump those disparate thinkers together, granted.

No intention of this deleting this blog.