History for the Masses

Crispin Sartwell authored an Opinion piece about how to render history, and he presented several alternative perspectives.

The problem is that history is none of these or at least it doesn’t much matter. History is a narrative; it’s rhetoric; it’s a map, and an apparent goal is to simplify trends, but in fact, real history is a complexity of events and simplification is as often as reductio absurdum that not. Sure, facts are sprinkled in so people can latch on to them and say, ‘that happened’. But history is durative. It’s not just a locus of trivia and factoids. Some say that hindsight is 20/20, but even this is untrue. Humans are not very well equipped to perform analysis and even less so when the analysis is complex. We have all sorts of cognitive biases and backwards-form noise into signal or presume some weak link is as a strong link, moreover, a causal link. Humans love the simplistic notion of cause and effect. We rarefy Newton’s Third Law and even adopt this concept into morality vis-a-vis karma: what comes around, goes around. And we apply this to history. But what if history is more like music? What if, as Debussy said, regarding music, that history is the spaces between the notes, between the events?

“Music is the space between the notes.”

— Claude Debussy

In the world of mass market investment, it’s claiming the stock market declined because of some single factor. It’s a nod to facile humans and their limited capacity to grasp complexity and to settle for some heuristic that assuages cognitive dissonance.

On a smaller scale or considering grander themes, Hegel’s Dialectics is functionally decent, but it misses the Butterfly Effect of interrelated events and forces.

 

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Rhetoric and nothing more

Morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Rhetorical devices are employed, and a person will either accept or reject the claim contingent to an emotional response based on prior experiences. This is Ayer’s Emotivist position—or even that of George Berkeley. There is no moral truth, and any moral truths are nothing more than an individual’s or group of individuals’ acceptance of a given claim. Rhetoric is used to sway the claim.

Logic is employed but only after having been filtered through the experience through the emotion and through the rhetoric. Accepting some particular truth claim does not make it true; neither does rejecting a truth claim make it false.

I’d like to expound upon this, but for now, I’ll create this placeholder.

Fast-forward, and I’ve returned. Still, I feel that morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Perhaps I’m even more convinced—and this extends into jurisprudence and politics. I’ve rather latched onto Foucault’s or Geuss’ sense of power or Adorno’s socially necessary illusion that is ideology by way of Marx.

Talking about power, Geuss says, “you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position”.

« One cannot treat “power” as if it referred to a single, uniform substance or relation wherever it was found. It makes sense to distinguish a variety of qualitatively distinct kinds of powers. There are strictly coercive powers you may have by virtue of being physically stronger than me, and persuasive powers by virtue of being convinced of the moral rightness of your case; or you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position. »

I tend to think of myself as a proponent of the Hegelian dialectic, but even this is in a rather small-t teleology manner instead of a capital-T flavour, so I feel that although history moves in somewhat of human-guided direction, there is no reason to believe it’s objectively better than any number of other possible directions, though one might be able to gain consensus regarding improvement along several dimensions. Even this will not be unanimous.

[To be continued…]