A big-data contribution to the history of philosophy

The history of philosophy is generally written by subject experts who explore and follow a tradition of thought about which figures and topics were “pivotal” and thereby created an ongoing research field. This is illustrated, for example, in Stephen Schwartz’s A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls. Consider the history of Anglophone philosophy since 1880 as told by a standard narrative in the history of philosophy of this period. One important component was “logicism” — the idea that the truths of mathematics can be derived from purely logical axioms using symbolic logic. Peano and Frege formulated questions about the foundations of arithmetic; Russell and Whitehead sought to carry out this program of “logicism”; and Gödel proved the impossibility of carrying out this program: any set of axioms rich enough to derive theorems of arithmetic is either incomplete or inconsistent. This narrative serves to connect the dots in this particular map of philosophical development. We might want to add details like the impact of logicism on Wittgenstein and the impact of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but the map is developed by tracing contacts from one philosopher to another, identifying influences, and aggregating groups of topics and philosophers into “schools”.

Brian Weatherson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan, has a different idea about how we might proceed in mapping the development of philosophy over the past century (link) (Brian Weatherson, A History of Philosophy Journals: Volume 1: Evidence from Topic Modeling, 1876-2013. Vol. 1. Published by author on Github, 2020; link). Professional philosophy in the past century has been primarily expressed in the pages of academic journals. So perhaps we can use a “big data” approach to the problem of discovering and tracking the emergence of topics and fields within philosophy by analyzing the frequency and timing of topics and concepts as they appear in academic philosophy journals.

Weatherson pursues this idea systematically. He has downloaded from JSTOR the full contents of twelve leading journals in anglophone philosophy for the period 1876-2013, producing a database of some 32,000 articles and lists of all words appearing in each article (as well as their frequencies). Using the big data technique called “topic modeling” he has arrived at 90 subjects (clusters of terms) that recur in these articles. Here is a quick description of topic modeling.

Topic modeling is a type of statistical modeling for discovering the abstract “topics” that occur in a collection of documents. Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) is an example of topic model and is used to classify text in a document to a particular topic. It builds a topic per document model and words per topic model, modeled as Dirichlet distributions. (link)

Here is Weatherson’s description of topic modeling:

An LDA model takes the distribution of words in articles and comes up with a probabilistic assignment of each paper to one of a number of topics. The number of topics has to be set manually, and after some experimentation it seemed that the best results came from dividing the articles up into 90 topics. And a lot of this book discusses the characteristics of these 90 topics. But to give you a more accessible sense of what the data looks like, I’ll start with a graph that groups those topics together into familiar contemporary philosophical subdisciplines, and displays their distributions in the 20th and 21st century journals. (Weatherson, introduction)

Now we are ready to do some history. Weatherson applies the algorithms of LDA topic modeling to this database of journal articles and examines the results. It is important to emphasize that this method is not guided by the intuitions or background knowledge of the researcher; rather, it algorithmically groups documents into clusters based on the frequencies of various words appearing in the documents. Weatherson also generates a short list of keywords for each topic: words of a reasonable frequency in which the probability of the word appearing in articles in the topic is significantly greater than the probability of it occurring in a random article. And he further groups the 90 subjects into a dozen familiar “categories” of philosophy (History of Philosophy, Idealism, Ethics, Philosophy of Science, etc.). This exercise of assigning topics to categories requires judgment and expertise on Weatherson’s part; it is not algorithmic. Likewise, the assignment of names to the 90 topics requires expertise and judgment. From the point of view of the LDA model, the topics could be given entirely meaningless names: T1, T2, …, T90.

Now every article has been assigned to a topic and a category, and every topic has a set of keywords that are algorithmically determined. Weatherson then goes back and examines the frequency of each topic and category over time, presented as graphs of the frequencies of each category in the aggregate (including all twelve journals) and singly (for each journal). The graphs look like this:

We can look at these graphs as measures of the rise and fall of prevalence of various fields of philosophy research in the Anglophone academic world over the past century. Most striking is the contrast between idealism (precipitous decline since 1925) and ethics (steady increase in frequency since about the same time, but each category shows some interesting characteristics.

Now consider the disaggregation of one topic over the twelve journals. Weatherson presents the results of this question for all ninety topics. Here is the set of graphs for the topic “Methodology of Science”:

All the journals — including Ethics and Mind — have articles classified under the topic of “Methodology of Science”. For most journals the topic declines in frequency from roughly the 1950s to 2013. Specialty journals in the philosophy of science — BJPS and Philosophy of Science — show a generally higher frequency of “Methodology of Science” articles, but they too reveal a decline in frequency over that period. Does this suggest that the discipline of the philosophy of science declined in the second half of the twentieth century (not the impression most philosophers would have)? Or does it rather reflect the fact that the abstract level of analysis identified by the topic of “Methodology of Science” was replaced with more specific and concrete studies of certain areas of the sciences (biology, psychology, neuroscience, social science, chemistry)?

These results permit many other kinds of questions and discoveries. For example, in chapter 7 Weatherson distills the progression of topics across decades by listing the most popular five topics in each decade:

This table too presents intriguing patterns and interesting questions for further research. For example, from the 1930s through the 1980s a topic within the general field of the philosophy of science is in the list of the top five topics: methodology of science, verification, theories and realism. These topics fall off the list in the 1990s and 2000s. What does this imply — if anything — about the prominence or importance of the philosophy of science within Anglophone philosophy in the last several decades? Or as another example — idealism is the top-ranked topic from the 1890s through the 1940s, only disappearing from the list in the 1960s. This is surprising because the standard narrative would say that idealism was vanquished within philosophy in the 1930s. And another interesting example — ordinary language. Ordinary language is a topic on the top five list for every decade, and is the most popular topic from the 1950s through the present. And yet “ordinary language philosophy” would generally be thought to have arisen in the 1940s and declined permanently in the 1960s. Finally, topics in the field of ethics are scarce in these lists; “promises and imperatives” is the only clear example from the topics listed here, and this topic appears only in the 1960s and 1970s. That seems to imply that the fields of ethics and social-political philosophy were unimportant throughout this long sweep of time — hard to reconcile with the impetus given to substantive ethical theory and theory of justice in the 1960s and 1970s. For that matter, the original list of 90 topics identified by the topic-modeling algorithm is surprisingly sparse when it comes to topics in ethics and political philosophy: 2.16 Value, 2.25 Moral Conscience, 2.31 Social Contract Theory, 2.33 Promises and Imperatives, 2.41 War, 2.49 Virtues, 2.53 Liberal Democracy, 2.53 Duties, 2.65 Egalitarianism, 2.70 Medical Ethics and Freud, 2.83 Population Ethics, 2.90 Norms. Where is “Justice” in the corpus?

Above I described this project as a new approach to the history of philosophy (surely applicable as well to other fields such as art history, sociology, or literary criticism). But it seems clear that the modeling approach Weatherson pursues is not a replacement for other conceptions of intellectual history, but rather a highly valuable new source of data and questions that historians of philosophy will want to address. And in fact, this is how Weatherson treats the results of this work: not as replacement but rather as a supplement and a source of new puzzles for expert historians of philosophy.

(There is an interesting parallel between this use of big data and the use of Ngrams, the tool Google created to map the frequency of the occurrences of various words in books over the course of several centuries. Here are several earlier posts on the use of Ngrams: linklink. Gabriel Abend made use of this tool in his research on the history of business ethics in The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics. Here is a discussion of Abend’s work; link. The topic-modeling approach is substantially more sophisticated because it does not reduce to simple word frequencies over time. As such it is a very significant and innovative contribution to the emerging field of “digital humanities” (link).)

Literature and memory

As a way of finding some interesting distraction in the social isolation of Covid-19 I have been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. The book primarily treats the way that literate English soldiers, educated in a certain way and immersed in a particular public school culture, found words and phrases to capture part of their horrendous experiences in trench warfare over the months or years that extended between the moment of enlistment and death. Pilgrim’s Progress plays a central role in many depictions, and some of Britain’s most striking poetry of the twentieth century comes from this time.

Fussell is primarily interested in exploring the ways that British poets who served during World War I chose to express their experience of war and the violence, fear, and chaos of the trenches. He captures the bitterness, irony, and cynicism created in this generation by the war in authors and poets like Robert Graves (Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War), and Wilfred Owen (“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”).

The book is interesting in part because of the particular moment that we are all enmeshed in right now, from Mumbai to Milan to Manchester to Detroit. The world of Covid-19 feels a bit apocalyptic — even if there are no heavy artillery pieces thundering away in the distance. It seems certain that we will all have memories of this period that will be clear and sharp, and colored by the illness and deaths of so many people around the world and the country. Also similar is the pervasive sense of the utter incompetence and arrogance of the national government (in the United States, at least), in its lack of preparation and foresight and its continuing efforts to minimize the crisis. Just as the officers and soldiers of 1916 despaired at the complacent idiocy of the general staff, so we have come to despair at the moral and scientific buffoonery that emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reading Fussell led me to reread Robert Graves in his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That. Graves himself was seriously wounded by artillery fire during the battle of the Somme, at the age of twenty. His colonel mistakenly wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, saying “I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss” (Graves, 274). That turned out to be premature; Graves survived the war. But a pleasure he took with him throughout his life came from the words that were said about him when it was believed in London that he was dead: “The people with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my parents: my housemaster, for instance” (281). But there was a disadvantage in being dead: “The only inconvenience that my death caused me was that Cox’s Bank stopped my pay and I had difficulty in persuading it to honour my cheques.” An advantage was also possible, though; he was able to make changes to his own obituary. During recovery in Wales with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he writes, “We made a number of changes in each other’s verses; I remember that I proposed amendments which he accepted in his obituary poem ‘To His Dead Body’ — written for me when he thought me dead.” And he and Sassoon agreed about the idiocy of the war: “We no longer saw it as a war between trade-rivals; its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.”

The items that Graves took back with him to the front following his recovery are quite interesting — the list makes one think of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book, The Things They Carried.

I went back as an old soldier; my kit and baggage proved it. I had reduced the Christmas tree that I first brought out to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery in it, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary British army issue would only cut British wire). Instead of a haversack I had a pack like the ones the men carried, but lighter and waterproof. I had lost my revolver when I was wounded and had not bought another; rifle and bayonet could always be got from the battalion. (Not carrying rifle and bayonet made officers conspicuous in an attack; in most divisions now they carried them, and also wore trousers rolled down over their puttees like the men, because the Germans had been taught to recognize them by their thin knees.) Instead of the heavy blankets that I had brought out before I now had an eiderdown sleeping-bag in an oiled silk cover. I also had Shakespeare and a Bible, both printed on india-paper, a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin, and two light weight, folding, canvas arm-chairs, one as a present for Yates the quartermaster, the other for myself. I was wearing a very thick whipcord tunic with a neat patch above the second button and another between the shoulders; it was my only salvage from the last time out except the pair of ski-ing boots which I was wearing again, reasonably waterproof — my breeches had been cut off me in hospital (293-294)

The whipcord tunic was the same clothing he wore when wounded by shrapnel at the Somme — hence the neat patches in two places front and back.

What is particularly interesting about The Great War and Modern Memory is the creative selectivity that it illustrates. Fussell chooses particular poets, particular poetic devices, and particular features of a subaltern’s war experience to tell his story. But there is a limitless range of choice in all these features. Fussell could have told many different stories, using boundlessly different sources and perspectives. There is no final and comprehensive story for building out the title “The Great War and Modern Memory“. Fussell’s genius is his synthetic ability to take a handful of details from multiple sources and fuse them into a powerful, unified story. His development of the theme of euphemism in war is a brilliant example. But of course it is just one such story. And there are limitless materials that would add insight to the story but that have never been studied — including countless military records of specific engagements, unpublished but archived memoirs and diaries of soldiers who served at the Somme or nameless corners in the trench system, or home-side newspaper accounts of life and war in France. Fussell makes use of materials like these, but his examples are only a small fraction of those available. 

Jay Winter’s introduction to the book captures Fussell’s perspective on his material very precisely: angry, disgusted at hypocrisy, and entirely cynical about the top officers. Part of what Fussell brought to this book in his own duffle bag of equipment was his own service in the US Army during the Battle of the Bulge, an experience he describes in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. And of course he wrote this book during the final years of the war in Vietnam — a war with similar futility, irony, and waste. Winter writes:

Fussell was a great historian, one who found a way to turn his deep, visceral knowledge of the horrors and stupidities of war into a vision of how to write about war. … How did he do it? By using his emotion and his anger to frame his understanding of memory, and his insight into the way language frames memory, especially memories of war. War, he knew, is simply too frightful, too chaotic, too arbitrary, too bizarre, too uncanny a set of events and images to grasp directly. We need blinkers, spectacles, shades to glimpse war even indirectly…. The indelible imprint Paul Fussell left on our understanding of war was on how language frames what he termed “modern memory”. (kl 102)

Paul Fussell was both an angry and a witty man. He was drawn to the poets and novelists of the Great War in Britain in part because they were, like him, truth-tellers about war. But his earlier work on Augustan poets of the eighteenth century predisposed him to the delights of irony and the savagery of words usefully applied to the cruel masters of the world. (kl 122)

This is sense-making — both by the poets like Graves and Sassoon whom Fussell analyzes, and by Fussell himself, in trying to work out the relationships that exist between experience, language, and poetry in our efforts to make sense of the Yossarian-like things we are often subject to in the crises of modern life.

Thai politics and Thai perspectives

One of the benefits of attending international conferences is meeting interesting scholars from different countries and traditions. I had that pleasure while participating in the Asian Conference on Philosophy of the Social Sciences at Nankai University in June, where I met Chaiyan Rajchagool. Chaiyan is a Thai academic in the social sciences. He earned his undergraduate degree in Thailand and received a PhD in sociology from the University of Manchester (UK). He has served as a senior academic administrator in Thailand and is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Phayao in northern Thailand. He is an experienced observer and analyst of Thai society, and he is one of dozens of Thai academics summoned by the military following the military coup in 2014 (link). I had numerous conversations with Chaiyan in Tianjin, which I enjoyed very much. He was generous to share with me his 1994 book, The rise and fall of the Thai absolute monarchy: Foundations of the modern Thai state from feudalism to peripheral capitalism, and the book is interesting in many different ways. Fundamentally it provides a detailed account of the political and economic transition that Siam / Thailand underwent in the nineteenth century, and it makes innovative use of the best parts of the political sociology of the 1970s and 1980s to account for these processes.

The book places the expansion of European colonialism in Southeast Asia at the center of the story of the emergence of the modern Thai state from mid nineteenth-century to the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s. Chaiyan seeks to understand the emergence of the modern Siamese and Thai state as a transition from “feudal” state formation to “peripheral capitalist” state formation. He puts this development from the 1850s to the end of the nineteenth century succinctly in the preface:

In the mid-nineteenth century Siam was a conglomerate of petty states and principalities and did not exist as a single political entity…. Economically Siam was transformed into what may be termed, in accordance with our theoretical framework, peripheral capitalism. Accompanying this development was the transformation of old classes and the rise of new classes…. At the political level a struggle took place within the ruling class in Bangkok, and new institutional structures of power began to emerge. As a result the previously fragmented systems of power and administration were brought under unified centralized command in the form of the absolute monarchy. (xiii-xiv)

This is a subtle, substantive, and rigorous account of the politics and economy of modern Siam / Thailand from the high point of western imperialism and colonialism in Asia to the twentieth century. The narrative is never dogmatic, and it offers an original and compelling account of the processes and causes leading to the formation of the Thai state and the absolutist monarchy. Chaiyan demonstrates a deep knowledge of the economic and political realities that existed on the ground in this region in the nineteenth century, and equally he shows expert knowledge about the institutions and strategies of the colonial powers in the region (Britain, France, Germany). I would compare the book to the theoretical insights about state formation of Michael Mann, Charles Tilly, and Fernand Braudel.

Chaiyan’s account of the development of the Thai state emphasizes the role of economic and political interests, both domestic and international. Fundamentally he argues that British interests in teak (and later tin) prompted a British strategy that would today be called “neo-colonial”: using its influence in the mid-nineteenth-century to create a regime and state that was favorable to its interests, without directly annexing these territories into its colonial empire. But there were internal determinants of political change as well, deriving from the conflicts between powerful families and townships over the control of taxes.

The year 1873-4 marks the beginning of a period in which the royalty attempted to take political control at the expense of the Bunnag nobility and its royal/noble allies. I have already noted that the Finance Office, founded in 1873, was to unify the collection f tax money from the various tax farmers under different ministries into a single office. To attain this goal, political enforcement and systematic administration were required. The Privy Council and the Council of State, established in June and August 1874, were the first high level state organizations. … With the creation of a professional military force of 15,000 troops and 3,000 marines … the decline of the nobility’s power was irreversible, whereas the rise of the monarchy had never before had so promising a prospect. (85, 86)

Part of the development of the monarchy involved a transition from the personal politics of the feudal politics of the earlier period to a more bureaucratic-administrative system of governance:

Of interest in this regard was the fact that the state was moving away from the direct exercise of personal authority by members of the ruling class. this raises questions about the manner of articulation between the crown and the state. If direct personal control of the state characterizes a feudal state, the ruling class control of the state in a peripheral capitalist society takes the form of a more impersonal rule of law and administrative practice through which are mediated the influences of the politico-economic system and class interests. (88)

Chaiyan makes superb use of some of the conceptual tools of materialist social science and non-doctrinaire Marxism, framing his account in terms of the changes that were underway in Southeast Asian with respect to the economic structure of everyday life (property, labor, class) as well as the imperatives of British imperialism. The references include some of the very best sources in social and historical theory and non-doctrinaire Marxism that were available in the 1980s: for example, Ben Anderson, Perry Anderson, Norberto Bobbio, Fernand Braudel, Gene Genovese, Michael Mann, Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas, James Scott, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, and Immanuel Wallerstein, to name a few out of the hundreds of authors cited in the bibliography. Chaiyan offers a relevant quotation from Fernand Braudel that I hadn’t seen before but that is more profound than any of Marx’s own pronouncements about “base and superstructure”:

Any highly developed society can be broken down into several “ensembles”: the economy, politics, culture, and the social hierarchy. The economy can only be understood in terms of the other “ensembles”, for it both spreads itself about and opens its own doors to its neighbours. There is action and interaction. That rather special and partial form of the economy that is capitalism can only e fully explained in light of these contiguous “ensembles” and their encroachments; only then will it reveal its true face. 

This, the modern state, which did not create capitalism but only inherited it, sometimes acts in its favor and at other times acts against it; it sometimes allows capitalism to expand and at other times destroys its mainspring. Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state…. 

So the state was either favorable or hostile to the financial world according to its own equilibrium and its own ability to stand firm. (Braudel Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism, 64-65)

It is interesting to me that Chaiyan’s treatment of the formation of a unified Thai state is attentive to the spatial and geophysical realities that were crucial to the expansion of central state power in the late nineteenth century.

A geophysical map, not a political one, would serve us better, for such a map reveals the mainly geophysical barriers that imposed constraints on the extension of Bangkok power. The natural waterways, mountains, forests and so on all helped determine how effectively Bangkok could claim and exert its power over townships. (2)

In actual fact, owing to geographical barriers and the consequent difficulty of communication, Bangkok exercised direct rule only over an area within a radius of two days travelling (by boat, cart, horse, or on foot). (3)

Here is a map that shows the geophysical features of the region that eventually became unified Thailand, demonstrating stark delineation between lowlands and highlands:

This is a topic that received much prominence in the more recent writings of James Scott on the politics of southeast Asia, and his concept of “Zomia” as a way of singling out the particular challenges of exercising central state power in the highlands of southeast Asia (link, link). Here is a map created by Martin Lewis (link) intended to indicate the scope of the highland population (Zomia). The map is discussed in an earlier post.

And here is a map of the distribution of ethnic and language groups in Thailand (link), another important element in Chaiyan’s account of the consolidation of the Thai monarchy:

It is an interesting commentary on the privilege, priorities, and limitations of the global academic world that Chaiyan’s very interesting book has almost no visibility in western scholarship. In its own way it is the equal of some of Charles Tilly’s writings about the origins of the French state; and yet Tilly is on all reading lists on comparative politics and Chaiyan is not. The book is not cited in one of the main English language sources on the history of Thailand, A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, published by Cambridge University Press, even though that book covers exactly the same period in chapter 3. Online academic citation databases permitted me to find only one academic article that provided substantive discussion or use of the book (“Autonomy and subordination in Thai history: the case for semicolonial analysis”, Inter‐Asia Cultural Studies, 2007 8:3, 329-348; link). The author of this article, Peter Jackson, is an emeritus professor of Thai history and culture at the Australian National University. The book itself is on the shelves at the University of Michigan library, and I would expect it is available in many research libraries in the United States as well.

So the very interesting theoretical and historical treatment that Chaiyan provides of state formation in Thailand seems not to have received much notice in western academic circles. Why is this? It is hard to avoid the inference that academic prestige and impact follow nations, languages, universities, and publishing houses. A history of a small developing nation, authored by a Thai intellectual at a small university, published by a somewhat obscure Thai publishing company, is not destined to make a large splash in elite European and North American academic worlds. But this is to the great disadvantage to precisely those worlds of thought and knowledge: if we are unlikely to be exposed to the writings of insightful scholars like Chaiyan Rajchagool, we are unlikely as well to understand the large historical changes our world has undergone over the past two centuries.

Amazon comes in for a lot of criticism these days; but one thing it has contributed in a very positive way is the easy availability of books like this one for readers who would otherwise never be exposed to it. How many other intellectuals with the insights of a Tilly or a Braudel are there in India, Côte d’Ivoire, Thailand, Bolivia, or Barbados whom we will never interact with in a serious way because of the status barriers that exist in the academic world?

*   *   *

(It is fascinating to me that one of the influences on Chaiyan at the University of Manchester was Teodor Shanin. Shanin is a scholar whom I came to admire greatly at roughly the same time when I was engaged in research in peasant studies in connection with Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

Retelling US history

images: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (from Jill Lepore, These Truths)

People who mostly learned American history through their high school education have a limited view of the topic. It was a view that paid little attention to the concrete social issues of race, gender, or class in American history. Fortunately there is now a very good way of updating our understandings of the history of our country that rebalances our knowledge of the past. Jill Lepore’s outstanding 2018 book These Truths: A History of the United States provides crucial reading in these troubled times where racism, nationalism, and sexism are proclaimed at the very top of our government. (The book is also available as an audiobook, read by the author (link).)

The book has many virtues. But most importantly, Lepore shows how the reality and legacy of slavery played a fundamental and debilitating role in the evolving history of the United States, from the writing of the Constitution to the political conflicts preceding the Civil War to the politics of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The realities of race are an essential part of American history.

More broadly, the book gives a full and broad account of disenfranchisement and discrimination in our history. Native Americans, women, freed slaves, and immigrants all find their voices and their struggles in this book — not as secondary walk-on characters, but as shapers of history and actors in the narratives that made us the nation we are. Here is a passage early in the book in which Lepore makes clear the intertwining of liberty and slavery before the American Revolution:

Slavery does not exist outside of politics. Slavery is a form of politics, and slave rebellion a form of violent political dissent. The Zenger trial and the New York slave conspiracy were much more than a dispute over freedom of the press and a foiled slave rebellion: they were part of a debate about the nature of political opposition, and together they established its limits. Both Cosby’s opponents and Caesar’s followers allegedly plotted to depose the governor. One kind of rebellion was celebrated, the other suppressed—a division that would endure. In American history, the relationship between liberty and slavery is at once deep and dark: the threat of black rebellion gave a license to white political opposition. The American political tradition was forged by philosophers and by statesmen, by printers and by writers, and it was forged, too, by slaves. (64)

And the issue of slavery continued to be the key dividing political issue through the Civil War, masked under the rhetoric of “states rights”:

Southern slave owners, a tiny minority of Americans, amounting to about 1 percent of the population, deployed the rhetoric of states’ rights and free trade (by which they meant trade free from federal government regulation), but in fact they desperately needed and relied on the power of the federal government to defend and extend the institution of slavery. The weakness of their position lay behind their efforts to silence dissent. (223)

There are fascinating turns to the story Lepore tells. One concerns America’s most famous poem by its most famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1849, and the change he introduced into the final version of the poem. Staunchly anti-slavery, Longfellow was deeply concerned for the fate of the Union.

By 1849, Longfellow, like most Americans who were paying attention, feared for the Republic. He began writing a poem, called “The Building of the Ship,” about a beautiful, rough-hewn ship called the Union. But as he closed the poem, he could imagine nothing but disaster for this worthy vessel. In his initial draft, he closed the poem with these lines: . . .

where, oh where, Shall end this form so rare? . . . Wrecked upon some treacherous rock, Rotting in some loathsome dock, Such the end must be at length Of all this loveliness and strength!

But instead of ending on this note of despair and inspired by the political campaign of his friend Charles Sumner under the Free-Soil Party, he wrote:

Sail on! Sail on! O Ship of State! For thee the famished nations wait! The world seems hanging on thy fate. (259)

Close to the end of the Civil War that Longfellow so dreaded, Lepore quotes the equally poetic and compassionate words of President Abraham Lincoln, from his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (304)

The third large part of the book is titled “Of Citizens, Persons, and People”, and is very relevant to our current political morass. It tells much of the story of the struggle for full citizenship and voting rights for women, African-Americans, and other disenfranchised Americans. Equally it tells the story of the determined efforts of powerful racist, nationalist, and misogynist parties to prevent this from occurring. And it chronicles the rise of powerful corporations and economic interests which had their own political agendas and which so often worked against the wellbeing of working people.

Finance capitalism had brought tremendous gains to investors and created vast fortunes, inaugurating the era known as the Gilded Age, edged with gold. It spurred economic development and especially the growth of big businesses: big railroad companies, big agriculture companies, and, beginning in the 1870s, big steel companies. (335)

Lepore’s account of the rise of populism and its ambiguous relationship to fundamental progressive values is worth the price of the book all by itself, given the ominous turn that populism has taken in the past few years.

Populism entered American politics at the end of the nineteenth century, and it never left. It pitted “the people,” meaning everyone but the rich, against corporations, which fought back in the courts by defining themselves as “persons”; and it pitted “the people,” meaning white people, against nonwhite people who were fighting for citizenship and whose ability to fight back in the courts was far more limited, since those fights require well-paid lawyers. (348)

And the conservative willingness — even eagerness — to discredit scientific knowledge emerges as a century-old impulse, not something invented in the climate-change-denial generation. In general, it is striking how consistent the anti-progressive voice is throughout the past century and more, and how deeply it informs the conservative agenda today. Further, it is hard to miss the nationalism and racism that have historically been part of that rhetoric. William Randolph Hearst seems strikingly contemporary, and McCarthyism, Nixon, weaponized media, and the decades-long struggle against universal health care resonate with today’s headlines as well.

These Truths is an excellent work of historical synthesis that does not oversimplify, and distinctly does not portray US history as a steady march of progress. It makes it clear, really, that the values of equality, liberty, and mutual respect that many of us value so profoundly have been contested throughout our history, and that durable institutions embodying democracy and equality are still to be made, not simply celebrated.

(A good resource for high school history teachers who want to do a more adequate job of bringing difficult issues of race into their curriculum can be found at Facing History and Ourselves.)

James Scott on the earliest states

In 2011 James Scott gave a pair of Tanner Lectures at Harvard. He had chosen a topic for which he felt he had a fairly good understanding, having taught on early agrarian societies throughout much of his career. The topic was the origins of the earliest states in human history. But as he explains in the preface to the 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, preparation for the lectures led him into brand new debates, bodies of evidence, and theories which were pretty much off his personal map. The resulting book is his effort to bring his own understanding up to date, and it is a terrific and engaging book.

Scott gives a quick summary of the view of early states, nutrition, agriculture, and towns that he shared with most historians of early civilizations up through a few decades ago. Hunter-gatherer human groups were the primary mode of living for tens of thousands of years at the dawn of civilization. Humanity learned to domesticate plants and animals, creating a basis for sedentary agriculture in hamlets and villages. With the increase in productivity associated with settled agriculture, it was possible for nascent political authorities to collect taxes and create political institutions. Agriculture and politics created the conditions that conduced to the establishment of larger towns, and eventually cities. And humanity surged forward in terms of population size and quality of life.

But, as Scott summarizes, none of these sequences has held up to current scholarship.

We thought … that the domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture. It turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared. (xi)

The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state — life as a “barbarian” — may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization. (xii)

There is an element of “who are we?” in the topic — that is, what features define modern humanity? Here is Scott’s most general answer:

A sense, then, for how we came to be sedentary, cereal-growing, livestock-rearing subjects governed by the novel institution we now call the state requires an excursion into deep history. (3)

Who we are, in this telling of the story, is a species of hominids who are sedentary, town-living, agriculture-dependent subjects of the state. But this characterization is partial (as of course Scott knows); we are also meaning-makers, power-wielders, war-fighters, family-cultivators, and sometimes rebels. And each of these other qualities of humanity leads us in the direction of a different kinds of history, requiring a Clifford Geertz, a Michael Mann, a Tolstoy or a Marx to tell the story.

A particularly interesting part of the novel story about these early origins of human civilization that Scott provides has to do with the use of fire in the material lives of pre-technology humans — hunters, foragers, and gatherers — in a deliberate effort to sculpt the natural environment around then to concentrate food resources. According to Scott’s readings of recent archeology and pre-agriculture history, human communities used fire to create the specific habitats that would entice their prey to make themselves readily available for the season’s meals. He uses a strikingly phrase to capture the goal here — reducing the radius of a meal. Early foragers literally reshaped the natural environments in which they lived.

What we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create, over time, a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking. (40)

Most strikingly, Scott suggests a link between massive Native American use of fire to reduce forests, the sudden decline in their population from disease following contact with Europeans and consequent decline in burning, and the onset of the Little Ice Age (1500-1850) as a result of reduced CO2 production (39). Wow!

Using fire for cooking further reduced this “radius of the meal” by permitting early humans to consume a wider range of potential foods. And Scott argues that this innovation had evolutionary consequences for our hominid ancestors: human populations developed a digestive gut only one-third the length of that of other non-fire-using hominids. “We are a fire-adapted species” (42).

Scott makes an intriguing connection between grain-based agriculture and early states. The traditional narrative has it that pre-farming society was too low in food productivity to allow for sedentary life and dense populations. According to Scott this assumption is no longer supported by the evidence. Sedentary life based on foraging, gathering, and hunting was established several thousand years earlier than the development of agriculture. Gathering, farming, settled residence, and state power are all somewhat independent. In fact, Scott argues that these foraging communities were too well situated in their material environment to be vulnerable to a predatory state. “There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone taxed” (57). These communities generally were supported by three or four “food webs” that gave them substantial independence from both climate fluctuation and domination by powerful outsiders (49). Cereal-based civilizations, by contrast, were vulnerable to both threats, and powerful authorities had the ability to confiscate grain at the point of harvest or in storage. Grain made taxation possible.

We often think of hunter-gatherers in terms of game hunters and the feast-or-famine material life described by Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics. But Scott makes the point that there are substantial ecological niches in wetlands where nutrition comes to the gatherers rather than the hunter. And in the early millennia of the lower Nile — what Scott refers to as the southern alluvium — the wetland ecological zone was ample for a very satisfactory and regular level of wellbeing. And, of special interest to Scott, “the wetlands are ungovernable” (56). (Notice the parallel with Scott’s treatment of Zomia in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)

So who are these early humans who navigated their material worlds so exquisitely well and yet left so little archeological record because they built their homes with sticks, mud, and papyrus?

It makes most sense to see them as agile and astute navigators of a diverse but also changeable and potentially dangerous environment…. We can see this long period as one of continuous experimentation and management of this environment. Rather than relying on only a small bandwidth of food resources, they seem to have been opportunistic generalists with a large portfolio of subsistence options spread across several food webs. (59)

Later chapters offer similarly iconoclastic accounts of the inherent instability of the early states (like a pyramid of tumblers on the stage), the advantages of barbarian civilization, the epidemiology of sedentary life, and other intriguing topics in the early history of humanity. And pervasively, there is the under current of themes that recur often in Scott’s work — the validity and dignity of the hidden players in history, the resourcefulness of ordinary hominids, and the importance of avoiding the received wisdom of humanity’s history.

Scott is telling a new story here about where we came from, and it is a fascinating one.

Cold war history from an IR perspective

Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History is a fascinating counterpoint to Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. There are some obvious differences — notably, Westad takes a global approach to the Cold War, with substantial attention to the dynamics of Cold War competition in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as Europe, whereas Judt’s book is primarily focused on the politics and bi-polar competition of Communism and liberal democratic capitalism in Europe. Westad is a real expert on East Asia, so his global perspectives on the period are very well informed. Both books provide closely reasoned and authoritative interpretations of the large events of the 1950s through the 1990s. So it is very interesting to compare them from an historiographic point of view.

The feature that I’d like to focus on here is Westad’s perspective on these historical developments from the point of view of an international-relations conceptual framework. Westad pays attention to the economic and social developments that were underway in the West and the Eastern bloc; but his most frequent analytical question is, what were the intentions, beliefs, and strategies of the nations which were involved in competition throughout the world in this crucial period of world history? Ideology and social philosophy play a large role in his treatment. Judt too offers interpretations of what leaders like Truman, Gorbachev, or Thatcher were trying to accomplish; but the focus of his historiographical thinking is more on the circumstances of ordinary life and the social, economic, and political changes through which ordinary people shaped their political identities across Europe. In Westad’s framework there is an underlying emphasis on strategic rationality — and failures of rationality — by leaders and national governments that is more muted in Judt’s analysis. The two perspectives are not incompatible; but they are significantly different.

Here are a few illustrative passages from Westad’s book revealing the orientation of his interpretation around interest and ideology:

The Cold War originated in two processes that took place around the turn of the twentieth century. One was the transformation of the United States and Russia into two supercharged empires with a growing sense of international mission. The other was the sharpening of the ideological divide between capitalism and its critics. These came together with the American entry into World War I and with the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the creation of a Soviet state as an alternative vision to capitalism. (19)

The contest between the US and the USSR over the future of Germany is a good example.

The reasons why Stalin wanted a united Germany were exactly the same reasons why the United States, by 1947, did not. A functional German state would have to be integrated with western Europe in order to succeed, Washington found. And that could not be achieved if Soviet influence grew throughout the country. This was not only a point about security. It was also about economic progress. The Marshall Plan was intended to stimulate western European growth through market integration, and the western occupation zones in Germany were crucial for this project to succeed. Better, then, to keep the eastern zone (and thereby Soviet pressure) out of the equation. After two meetings of the allied foreign ministers in 1947 had failed to agree on the principles for a peace treaty with Germany (and thereby German reunification), the Americans called a conference in London in February 1948 to which the Soviets were not invited. (109)

And the use of development aid during reconstruction was equally strategic:

For Americans and western European governments alike, a major part of the Marshall Plan was combatting local Communist parties. Some of it was done directly, through propaganda. Other effects on the political balance were secondary or even coincidental. A main reason why Soviet-style Communism lost out in France or Italy was simply that their working classes began to have a better life, at first more through government social schemes than through salary increases. The political miscalculations of the Communist parties and the pressure they were under from Moscow to disregard the local political situation in order to support the Soviet Union also contributed. When even the self-inflicted damage was not enough, such as in Italy, the United States experimented with covert operations to break Communist influence. (112)

Soviet miscalculations were critical in the development of east-west power relations. Westad treats the Berlin blockade in these terms:

The Berlin blockade, which lasted for almost a year, was a Soviet political failure from start to finish. It failed to make west Berlin destitute; a US and British air-bridge provided enough supplies to keep the western sectors going. On some days aircraft landed at Tempelhof Airport at three minute intervals. Moscow did not take the risk of ordering them to be shot down. But worse for Stalin: the long-drawn-out standoff confirmed even to those Germans who had previously been in doubt that the Soviet Union could not be a vehicle for their betterment. The perception was that Stalin was trying to starve the Berliners, while the Americans were trying to save them. On the streets of Berlin more than half a million protested Soviet policies. (116)

I don’t want to give the impression that Westad’s book ignores non-strategic aspects of the period. His treatment of McCarthyism, for example, is quite astute:

The series of hearings and investigations, which accusations such as McCarthy’s gave rise to, destroyed people’s lives and careers. Even for those who were cleared, such as the famous central Asia scholar Owen Lattimore, some of the accusations stuck and made it difficult to find employment. It was, as Lattimore said in his book title from 1950, Ordeal by Slander. For many of the lesser known who were targeted—workers, actors, teachers, lawyers—it was a Kafkaesque world, where their words were twisted and used against them during public hearings by people who had no knowledge of the victims or their activities. Behind all of it was the political purpose of harming the Administration, though even some Democrats were caught up in the frenzy and the president himself straddled the issue instead of publicly confronting McCarthy. McCarthyism, as it was soon called, reduced the US standing in the world and greatly helped Soviet propaganda, especially in western Europe. (120)

It is interesting too to find areas of disagreement between the two historians. Westad’s treatment of Leonid Brezhnev is sympathetic:

Brezhnev and his colleagues’ mandate was therefore quite clear. Those who had helped put them in power wanted more emphasis on planning, productivity growth, and welfare. They wanted a leadership that avoided unnecessary crises with the West, but also stood up for Soviet gains and those of Communism globally. Brezhnev was the ideal man for the purpose. As a leader, he liked to consult with others, even if only to bring them onboard with decisions already taken. After the menacing Stalin and the volatile Khrushchev, Brezhnev was likeable and “comradely”; he remembered colleagues’ birthdays and the names of their wives and children. His favorite phrases were “normal development” and “according to plan.” And the new leader was easily forgiven a certain vagueness in terms of overall reform plans as long as he emphasized stability and year-on-year growth in the Soviet economy…. Contrary to what is often believed, the Soviet economy was not a disaster zone during the long reign of Leonid Brezhnev and the leadership cohort who came into power with him. The evidence points to slow and limited but continuous growth, within the framework provided by the planned economy system. The best estimates that we have is that the Soviet economy as a whole grew on average 2.5 to 3 percent per year during the 1960s and ’70s. (367)

By contrast, Judt treats Brezhnev less sympathetically and as a more minor figure:

The economic reforms of the fifties and sixties were from the start a fitful attempt to patch up a structurally dysfunctional system. To the extent that they implied a half-hearted willingness to decentralize economic decisions or authorize de facto private production, they were offensive to hardliners among the old guard. But otherwise the liberalizations undertaken by Khrushchev, and after him Brezhnev, presented no immediate threat to the network of power and patronage on which the Soviet system depended. Indeed, it was just because economic improvements in the Soviet bloc were always subordinate to political priorities that they achieved so very little. (Judt, 424)

Perhaps the most striking contrast between these two books is the scope that each provides. Judt is focused on the development of postwar Europe, and he does an unparalleled job of providing both detail and interpretation of the developments over these decades in well over a dozen countries. Westad is interested in providing a global history of the Cold War, and his expertise on Asian history and politics during this period, as well as his wide-ranging knowledge of developments in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, permits him to succeed in this goal. His representation of this history is nuanced and insightful at every turn. The Cold War unavoidably involves a focus on the USSR and the US and their blocs as central players; but Westad’s account is by no means eurocentric. His treatments of India, China, and Southeast Asia are particularly excellent, and his account of turbulence and faulty diplomacy in the Middle East is particularly timely for the challenges we face today.

*        *         *

Here are a couple of interesting video lectures by Westad and Judt.

Experiencing the Holocaust

When we think we know about an historical event — the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Jim Crow years in America — generally what we know is a limited and miscellaneous set of facts, impressions, interpretations, and summaries we have gathered through many avenues — monographs, novels, films, poetry, historical lectures in college. No one now living has had direct experience of the French Revolution. And even if we came across a time-traveling Parisian from the relevant dates, we would probably quickly learn that this person’s perspective on the events he or she lived through is highly limited and perhaps even misleading.

What do most American adults know about the Holocaust? Here are some core beliefs that most people could probably recite. It was a horrible crime. It was a deliberate program of extermination. Over six million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered. Other groups were also targeted, including Roma people, homosexuals, and Communists. It was the result of racist Nazi ideology. There were particular agents of this evil — Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Hess, … There were countless ordinary people across the face of Europe, in Germany and many other countries, who facilitated this evil — the “banality of evil”. There were some heroes who fought against the killing — Wallenberg, Schindler, Bonhoeffer, Marc Bloch, the villagers of Le Chambron. There are noted tragic victims — Anne Frank, Maximilian Kolbe. And the Allies could have done much more to disrupt the killing and to facilitate escape for the Jews of Europe.

But notice how thin this body of beliefs is. It is barely thick enough to constitute “knowledge of the Holocaust”. It is encapsulated in just a few sentences. If it has emotional content it is a hazy version of the emotions of pity and sorrow. Is this knowledge adequate to the realities it represents? When we repeat the words, “Never again!”, do we know what we are saying? And how can a more full and satisfactory level of knowledge of this horrifying and defining event in the twentieth century be achieved?

Here is one possible answer. There is a different way of gaining a more personal and nuanced understanding of the Holocaust — an extended visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau (link). It is a museum, an historical site, a killing ground, a place where one and a half million people were systematically murdered.  A visit to the concentration camps is a very different avenue of knowledge — knowledge through personal, empathic understanding of the vastness and horror of the crimes committed here.

So, for example, one can see the photographs of individual prisoners, their life stories encapsulated by the date and place of their arrest and the date of their death in the gas chambers. One can read a very personal family tragedy in these photographs.

 
There are mountains of human hair. There are piles of kitchen goods, shoe polish, clothing, combs, and other items of daily life, all carried through their final days of desperation and transit, all stolen from the dead. There are the drawings by child prisoners found on the walls of the barracks, depicting scenes of concentration camp life through the eyes of children. These children too mostly did not survive. 
 

This drawing by a child depicts something the child must have seen — the arrival of prisoners and their separation at the platform into those who would perform slave labor and those who would die immediately.

So an intensive visit to Auschwitz is very powerful at the level of emotion and empathy. It makes the horror of the Holocaust both personal and particular. The visitor is led to imaginatively place himself or his loved ones on the platform, in the barracks, in the changing room. The Holocaust is no longer just a set of numbers and facts, but am invitation to vicarious empathic understanding — and then a mental multiplication of that experience by a factor of millions. 

The museum and grounds of the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau receive over two million visitors a year, from dozens of countries. Some number of these visitors are perhaps unaffected by what they see. But surely large numbers of visitors are profoundly affected, and come to have a much more nuanced and personal understaffing of what happened here. And surely this is a more important way of influencing our collective understanding of the Holocaust than any number of monographs.
 
There is a practical consequence of this kind of more personal experience of an historical horror. This experience strongly pushes the person to consider how the currents of hate that led to this historical crime are present in the world today. It leads one to care in a more particular way about the Rohingya people today, or about the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the United States at Charlottesville. And it brings one to see the danger implicit in anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and other countries today.

In other words, we may speculate that the more particular experience of the Holocaust afforded by a meaningful visit to Auschwitz contributes to creating a different kind of twenty-first century citizen, one who has a deeper visceral appreciation of what these crimes of the Nazi period involved in human terms, and a better and deeper understanding of the enormity of this experience. Equally important, it helps to create a much more specific emotional experience of pity and sorrow that honors the humanity of these millions of human beings who were murdered during this period. 

 
(I offer special thanks to Teresa Wontor-Cichy, a senior researcher and educator at the museum, for the very intensive tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau that she provided.)
 

Dynamics of medieval cities

 

Cities provide a good illustration of the ontology of the theory of assemblage (link). Many forms of association, production, logistics, governance, and population processes came together from independent origins and with different causal properties. So one might imagine that unexpected dynamics of change are likely to be found in all urban settings.

The medieval period is not known for its propensity for innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, or dynamic tendencies towards change. One thinks rather of the placid, continuing social relations of the English countryside, the French village, or the Italian town. There is the idea that a stultifying social order made innovation and change difficult. However, studies of medieval cities over the past century have cast some doubt on this stereotype. Henri Pirenne’s lectures on the medieval city in 1923 were collected in Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, and there are numerous clues indicating that Pirenne found ample features of dynamic change in the medieval city from the eleventh century forward. Here are a few examples:

The eleventh century, in fact, brings us face to face with a real commercial revival. This revival received its impetus from two centers of activity, one located in the south and the other in the north: Venice on one side and the Flemish coast on the other. (82) 

Trade was thus forced upon them [Venice] by the very conditions under which they lived. And they had the energy and the genius to turn to profit the unlimited possibilities which trade offered them. (83)

 Constantinople, even in the eleventh century, appears not only as a great city, but as the greatest city of the whole Mediterranean basin. Her population was not far from reaching the figure of a million inhabitants, and that population was singularly active. She was not content, as had been the population of Rome under the Republic and the Empire, to consume without producing. She gave herself over, with a zeal which the fiscal system shackled but did not choke, not only to trading but to industry. (84)

The geographical situation of Flanders, indeed, put her in a splendid position to become the western focus for the commerce of the seas of the north. It formed the natural terminus of the voyage for ships arriving from Northern England or which, having crossed the Sound after coming out of the Baltic, were on their way to the south. (97)

It was only in the twelfth century that, gradually but definitely, Western Europe was transformed. The economic development freed her from the traditional immobility to which a social organization, depending solely on the relations of man to the soil, had condemned her. Commerce and industry did not merely find a place alongside of agriculture; they reacted upon it…. The rigid confines of the demesnial system, which had up to now hemmed in all economic activity, were broken down and the whole social order was patterned along more flexible, more active and more varied lines. (101-102)

Large or small, [cities] were to be met everywhere; one was to be found, on the average, in every twenty-five square leagues of land. They had, in fact, become indispensable to society. They had introduced into it a division of labor which it could no longer do without. Between them and the country was established a reciprocal exchange of services. (102)

So trade, finance, manufacturing, and flexible labor led to a dynamic of change that resulted in real economic and urban development in medieval European cities. Pirenne emphatically does not give a rendering of the medieval city that features a rigid social order impeding social and economic change.

A recent study provides modern evidence that the stereotyped impression of social stasis in the urban world of the middle ages is incorrect (link). Rudolf Ceseretti and his co-authors of “Population-Area Relationship for Medieval European Cities” provide a strikingly novel view of the medieval city (link). Their key finding is that there is an unexpected similarity of behavior with modern urban centers that can be observed in the population and spatial characteristics of medieval cities. They have collected data on 173 medieval cities across Western Europe:

Here is how they frame their finding in the Introduction:

This research suggests that, at a fundamental level, cities consist of overlapping social and physical networks that are self-consistently bounded by settled physical space [55–57]. Here, we investigate whether the relationships between settlement population and settled land area predicted by scaling theory—and observed in contemporary cities—also characterized medieval European cities.

In this paper, we analyze the relationship between the extent of built-up area and resident populations of 173 settlements located in present-day Belgium, France, England, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, ca. AD 1300. Previous scholarship has produced population estimates for a large number medieval European cities [58,59]. We build on this work by linking population estimates with estimates for the built-up area compiled from historical and archaeological sources.

The authors focus on a common belief about medieval cities — the idea that social interactions among residents are structured by powerful social institutions. Guilds, ethnicities, family groups, and religion provide examples of such institutions. If the net effect of social institutions like these is to reduce the likelihood of interaction of pairs of individuals, then medieval cities should display different patterns of spatial distribution of population and growth; if this effect is not significant, then medieval cities should resemble modern cities in these respects. This study finds the latter to be the case. Fundamentally they are interested in the topic of “scaling of settlement area with population size”. Here is a plot of area and population for the cities they studied, separated by region:

Their central finding is that the data about population density and spatial distribution do not support the hypothesis that medieval social institutions substantially inhibited social interactions to an extent that hindered urban growth and development. Rather, medieval cities look in their population and spatial structures to be very similar to modern cities.

Table 1 shows that the point estimates of the scaling coefficients for all four regional groups and for the pooled dataset fall within the 2/3 ≥

a

≥ 5/6 range predicted by the social reactor model… Thus, medieval cities across Western Europe exhibit, on average, economies of scale with respect to spatial agglomeration such that larger cities were denser on average. This pattern is similar to that observed for modern cities. 

Even though medieval cities were structured by hierarchical institutions that are ostensibly not so dominant today, we interpret this finding as excluding a strongly segregating role for medieval social institutions. This would suggest that the institutions of Western European urban systems ca. 1300 did not substantially constrain social mixing, economic integration, or the free flow of people, ideas, and information. We take these findings as an indication that the underlying micro-level social dynamics of medieval cities were fundamentally similar to those of contemporary cities. (discussion)

This study presents a fascinating contemporary test of a thesis that would surely have interested Pirenne almost a century ago: did medieval cities develop spatially in ways that reflect a reasonable degree of freedom of choice among residents about where they lived and worked? And the data seem to confirm a “yes” for this question.

(I haven’t attempted to summarize the methods used in this study, and the full article bears reading for anyone interested in the question of interpreting urban history from a quantitative point of view.)

Contingency and explanation

 
 

Social change and historical events are highly contingent processes, in a specific sense: they are the result of multiple causal influences that “could have been otherwise” and that have conjoined at a particular point in time in bringing about an event of interest. Contrast this situation with what we are looking for when we seek an explanation of a change or event. When we explain an event, we show how and why it was not random or accidental; we identify a set of circumstances that made it necessary or likely in the given circumstances. Contingency and explanation therefore seem to be in tension with each other: a wholly contingent world is perhaps one in which explanation of particular occurrences is impossible.

The appearance of contradiction lessens when we realize that “contingent” is not the same as “random” or “uncaused”. (See an earlier post for an effort to disentangle a number of related causal concepts; link.) When a uranium atom decays at a particular moment, this is a truly random event. There is no underlying cause that brought about the decay of the nucleus at this particular moment. When a race riot occurs in in Detroit on July 23, 1967, this was a contingent occurrence — it did not have to happen; but it was not random, spontaneous, or uncaused. Rather, there were multiple causal factors and processes, along with a number of accidental and spontaneous events, leading to a pathway of social actions that resulted in largescale confrontation, arson, violence. Here is how the Kerner Commission described the occurrence of major race riots in the United States (link):

Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident–in itself often routine or trivial–became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.

We can understand this account as depending on a distinction between proximate and distal causes; distal causes (a pattern of police brutality, say) set the stage for racial tension, which makes an outbreak of violence more likely; and a precipitating (proximate) event triggers the outburst. The point in this paragraph is that the triggering cause is not the sole cause, or even the most important cause. But all these factors are causally relevant to the outcome. We say that the riot was contingent because there are many ways in which the tensions created by the background conditions could have been defused — a progressive mayor could have enacted a police reform along with a jobs program, a charismatic leader like Dr. King could have emerged in Detroit who helped to channel tension into electoral politics rather than an outbreak of violence, the Federal government could have been more successful in its civil rights reforms and its War on Poverty. Or the raid on the blind pig could have happened in a driving rainstorm, with the result that no crowd gathered. So the outcome was not preordained. It was contingent, but it was caused.

So it is not the case that a contingent world is one in which nothing can be explained. A chaotic and random world has that property; but contingency is not chaos. Rather, for many historical and social events we can identify a set of background or standing conditions that elevated the probability of the event, we can sometimes identify independent causal processes underway at the same time that interact to further elevate the probability of the event; and we can identify one or more unrelated and random events that served as a trigger to the occurrence of the event of interest.

This is one reason why the strategy of seeking out causal mechanisms in the social world is an appealing approach to social explanation. Appeal to causal mechanisms allows us to make sense of both important features of the social world: that processes and events are contingent, and that many processes and events are amenable to causal explanation.

When researchers set their goals on identifying general causes for groups of social phenomena, they often have in mind the idea that there are similarities in the background standing causal conditions that serve to increase the likelihood of a certain kind of event — revolution, riot, economic crisis, or period of rapid innovation. And indeed, there are credible hypotheses about such conditions; this is the underlying rationale for the application of Mill’s methods to causal reasoning in the social sciences. It is indeed perfectly credible that there are pervasive social conditions that make certain kinds of social events more likely — a good university system and rapid technological innovation, a defeat in war and political turmoil, the pervasiveness of Protestantism and the hockey stick of market activity.

This insight is closely related to the distinction that Bhaskar and critical realists draw between closed and open systems. In an open system we cannot predict future states of the system because we cannot achieve causal closure; there is always the possibility of another kind of causal influence or mechanism that can offset the workings of the known mechanisms.

The page from the Washington Times above draws attention to an event that was itself highly contingent and yet explicable (the bungled but eventually successful effort to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand); leading to an important historical event (the outbreak of World War I) which was also both contingent and explicable.

Snippets from the Roman world

image: Arch of Septimius Severus, Forum (203 CE)

The history of Rome has a particular fascination for twenty-first century readers, especially in the West. Roman law, Roman philosophy, Roman legions, and Roman roads all have a powerful resonance for our imaginations today. Mary Beard’s recent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is an interesting recent synthesis of the long sweep of Rome’s history.

Beard affirms the continuing importance of Roman history in these terms:

Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it…. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond. The main reason that London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province Britannia – a dangerous place lying, as they saw it, beyond the great Ocean that encircled the civilised world. Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from ‘senators’ to ‘dictators’. (15)

Much of Beard’s treatment is deflationary: she demonstrates that Rome’s reality in the first five hundred years was substantially more ordinary and less grand than Roman historians from the time of the Republic and Empire wanted to believe. The population of the city was in the tens of thousands; the armies were more often the retainers of local “big men” (and as often as not ran away when confronted with superior forces); and law and political institutions were very little developed. And yet by the end of the period of the Republic in the first century BCE, Rome had in fact become grand: grand in population (more than a million inhabitants), grand in military power, and grand in the scope of control it exercised over other parts of the known world.

One of the events that Beard deflates is the slave rebellion of Spartacus.

In 73 BCE, under the leadership of Spartacus, fifty or so slave gladiators, improvising weapons out of kitchen equipment, escaped from a gladiatorial training school at Capua in southern Italy and went on the run. They spent the next two years gathering support and withstanding several Roman armies until they were eventually crushed in 71 BCE, the survivors crucified in a grisly parade along the Appian Way. 

It is hard now to see through the hype, both ancient and modern, to what was really going on. Roman writers, for whom slave uprisings were probably the most alarming sign of a world turned upside down, wildly exaggerate the number of supporters Spartacus attracted; estimates go as high as 120,000 insurgents. Modern accounts have often wanted to make Spartacus an ideological hero, even one who was fighting the very institution of slavery. That is next to impossible. Many slaves wanted freedom for themselves, but all the evidence from ancient Rome suggests that slavery as an institution was taken for granted, even by slaves. If they had a clearly formulated aim, the best guess is that Spartacus and his fellow escapees wanted to return to their various homes – in Spartacus’ case probably Thrace in northern Greece; for others, Gaul. One thing is certain, though: they managed to hold out against Roman forces for an embarrassingly long time. 

What explains that success? It was not simply that the Roman armies sent out against them were ill trained. Nor was it just that the gladiators had discipline and fighting skills developed in the arena and were powered by the desire for freedom. Almost certainly the rebel forces were stiffened with the discontented and the dispossessed among the free, citizen population of Italy, including some of Sulla’s ex-soldiers, who may well have felt more at home on military campaign, even against the legions in which they had once served, than on the farm. Seen in these terms, Spartacus’ uprising was not only an ultimately tragic slave rebellion but also the final round in a series of civil wars that had started twenty years earlier with the massacre of Romans at Asculum that marked the beginning of the Social War. (pp. 248-249). 

Her view is, apparently, that there was a great deal of hype surrounding the revolt of Spartacus even among the ancients — embellishment of the size and ideological purposes of the revolt and the heroism of the gladiators. She wants us to understand the ordinary significance of the uprising. But in turn she gives the revolt a larger social significance — it was a part of the “civil wars” that had wracked Rome for twenty years prior.

From the tragic to the comic — Beard spends a few pages on the bar scene in the early Empire.

Elite Romans were often even more dismissive – and anxious – about what the rest of the population got up to when they were not working. Their keenness for shows and spectacles was one thing, but even worse were the bars and cheap cafés and restaurants where ordinary men tended to congregate. Lurid images were conjured up of the types of people you were likely to meet there. Juvenal, for example, pictures a seedy drinking den at the port of Ostia patronised, he claims, by cut-throats, sailors, thieves and runaway slaves, hangmen and coffin makers, plus the occasional eunuch priest (presumably off duty from the sanctuary of the Great Mother in the town). And writing later, in the fourth century CE, one Roman historian complained that the ‘lowest’ sort of person spent the whole night in bars, and he picked out as especially disgusting the snorting noise the dice players made as they concentrated on the board and drew in breath through their snotty noses.  

There are also records of repeated attempts to impose legal restrictions or taxes on these establishments. Tiberius, for example, apparently banned the sale of pastries; Claudius is supposed to have abolished ‘taverns’ entirely and to have forbidden the serving of boiled meat and hot water (presumably to be mixed, in the standard Roman fashion, with wine – but then why not ban the wine?); and Vespasian is said to have ruled that bars and pubs should sell no form of food at all except peas and beans. Assuming that all this is not a fantasy of ancient biographers and historians, it can only have been fruitless posturing, legislation at its most symbolic, which the resources of the Roman state had no means to enforce.

Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower orders congregate, and – though there was certainly a rough side and some rude talk – the reality of the normal bar was tamer than its reputation. For bars were not just drinking dens but an essential part of everyday life for those who had, at best, limited cooking facilities in their lodgings. As with the arrangement of apartment blocks, the Roman pattern is precisely the reverse of our own: the Roman rich, with their kitchens and multiple dining rooms, ate at home; the poor, if they wanted much more than the ancient equivalent of a sandwich, had to eat out. Roman towns were full of cheap bars and cafés, and it was here that a large number of ordinary Romans spent many hours of their non-working lives. (pp. 455-456)

There is much to enjoy and to reflect upon in Beard’s narrative. It is a thought-provoking book. But it is worth asking — what kind of history is SPQR? Essentially it is the product of a deeply learned historian, a distinguished classicist, who has set out to write an engaging narrative telescoping the history of a thousand years of Roman life into a single volume, necessarily providing a very selective set of stories and themes. It is not a detailed work of scholarship itself; rather, it is a selective narrative presenting description and commentary on some of the outlines of this world-historical tapestry. A large portion of the book takes the form of stories and snippets of ordinary life, intended to give the reader a more vivid engagement with the lives of these long-dead Romans. And the reader can bring a degree of confidence to the reading, knowing that Beard is a genuine expert bringing to bear the most recent historical and archeological evidence to the main questions of interpretation. Many of the powerful themes that have interested observers for a century are there — the social conflicts, the emerging institutions of governance, the arrangements of military power — but none are treated in the detail that would be expected of a monograph. Instead, the reader is offered a story with many strands, interesting and engaging, but an appetizer rather than the main course for a thorough study of Roman history.

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