Ideologies, policies, and social complexity


The approach to social and historical research that I favor is one that pays attention to the heterogeneity and contingency of social processes. It advises that social and historical researchers should disaggregate the large patterns they start with and try to identify the multiple underlying mechanisms, causes, motivations, movements, and contingencies that came together to create higher-level outcomes. Social research needs to focus on the micro- or meso-level processes that combined to create the macro world that interests us. The theory of assemblages fits this intellectual standpoint very well, since it emphasizes contingency and heterogeneity all the way down. The diagram above was chosen to give a visual impression of the complexity and interconnectedness of factors and causes that are associated with this approach to the social world.

According to the premises of this approach, we are not well served by imagining that there are simple, largescale forces that drive the outcomes in history. Examples of efforts at overly simplified explanations like these include:

  • Onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles caused the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
  • The Chinese Revolution succeeded because of post-Qing exploitation of the peasants.
  • The Industrial Revolution occurred in England because of the vitality of English science.

Instead, each of these large outcomes is the result of a large number of underlying processes, motivations, social movements, and contingencies that defy simple summary. To understand the Mediterranean world over the sweep of time, we need the detailed and granular research of a Fernand Braudel rather than the simplified ideas of Johann Heinrich von Thunen in the economic geography of central place theory.

In situations of this degree of underlying complexity, it is pointless to ask for a simple answer to the question, “what caused outcome X?” So the Great Depression wasn’t the outcome of capital’s search for profits; it was instead the complex product of interacting forms of private business activity, financial institutions, government action, legislation, war, and multiple other forces that conjoined to create a massive and persistent economic depression.

This approach has solid intellectual and ontological foundations. This is pretty much how the social world works. But this ontological vision about the nature of the social world is hard to reconcile with the large intellectual frameworks on the left and on the right that are used to diagnose our times and sometimes to prescribe solutions to the problems identified.

An ideologue is a thinker who seeks to subsume the sweep of history or current events under an overarching narrative with simple explanatory premises and interpretive schemes. The ideologue wants to portray history as the unfolding of a simple set of forces or drivers — whether markets, classes, divine purposes, or philosophies. And the ideologue is eager to force the facts into the terms of the narrative, and to erase inconvenient facts that appear to conflict with the narrative.

Consider Lenin, von Hayek, and Ronald Reagan. Each had a simplified mental framework that postulated a set of ideas about how the world worked. For Lenin it was expressed in a few paragraphs about class, the economic structure of capitalism, and the direction of history. For von Hayek it was the idea that free economic activity within idealized markets lead to the best possible outcomes for the whole of society. For Reagan it was a combination of von Hayek and the simplified notions of realpolitik associated with Kennan, Morgenthau, or Kissinger.

There are two problems for these kinds of approaches to understanding the social world. First is the indifference ideologues express to the role of facts and empirical validation in their thinking. This is an epistemic shortcoming. But second, and equally problematic, is their insistence on representing the social world as a fundamentally simple process, with a few driving forces whose impact can be forecast. This is an ontological shortcoming. The social world is not simple, and there are not a small number of dominant forces whose effects overshadow the myriad of other socially relevant processes and events that make up a given situation.

Ideologues are insidious for serious historians, since they denigrate careful efforts to discover how various events actually unfolded, in favor of the demands of a particular interpretation of history. It is not possible to gain adequate or insightful historical knowledge from within the framework of a rigid and dogmatic ideology. But even more harmful are policy makers driven by ideologies. An ideological policy maker is an actor who takes the simplistic assumptions of an ideology and attempts to formulate policy interventions based on those assumptions. Ideology-based policies are harmful, of course, because the world has its own properties independent from our theories, and interventions based on false hypotheses about how the world works are unlikely to bring about their intended results. Policies need to be driven by theories that are fact-based and approximately true. And policy makers and officials need to be rejected when they flout science and fact-based inquiry in favor of pet theories and ideologies.

A hard question that this line of thought poses and that I have not addressed here is whether policies can be formulated at all within the context of a fundamentally heterogeneous and contingent world. It might be argued that policy formation requires fairly simple cause-and-effect relationships in order to justify the idea of an intervention; and complexity makes it unlikely that such relationships exist. I believe policies can be formulated within this ontological framework; but I agree that the case must be made. A few earlier posts are relevant to this topic (link, linklink, link, link).

What is “conceptual history”?

The post-war German historian Reinhart Koselleck made important contributions to the theory of history that are largely independent from the other sources of Continental philosophy of history mentioned elsewhere in this blog. (Koselleck’s contributions are ably discussed in Niklas Olsen’s History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (2012).) Koselleck contributed to a “conceptual and critical theory of history” (The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (2002), Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (2004)). His major compendium, with Brunner and Conze, of the history of concepts of history in the German-speaking world is one of the major expressions of this work (Staat und Gesellschaft im Deutschen Vormarz 1815-1848 (Industrielle Welt I Schriftenrihe des Arbeitskreises fur Moderne Sozialgeschichte) (1972-97).

Koselleck believes there are three key tasks for the metahistorian or philosopher: to identify the concepts that are either possible or necessary in characterizing history; to locate those concepts within the context of the social and political discourses and conflicts of the time period; and to critically evaluate various of these concepts for their usefulness in historical analysis.

Here is how Koselleck distinguishes between social history and conceptual history in The Practice of Conceptual History:

The claim to reduce all historical utterances concerning life and all changes in them to social conditions and to derive them from such conditions was asserted from the time of the Enlightenment philosophies of history up to Comte and the young Marx. Such claims were followed by histories that, methodologically speaking, employed a more positivistic approach: from histories of society and civilization, to the cultural and folk histories of the nineteenth century, up to regional histories that encompassed all aspects of life, from Moser to Gregorovius to Lamprecht, their synthetic achievement can aptly be called social-historical.

By contrast, since the eighteenth century there have also been deliberately thematized conceptual histories (Begriffigeschichten) — the term apparently derives from Hegel — which have retained a permanent place in histories of language and in historical lexicography. Of course, they were thematized by disciplines that proceeded in a historical-philological manner and needed to secure their sources via hermeneutic questioning. Any translation into one’s own present implies a conceptual history; Rudolf Eucken has demonstrated its methodological inevitability in an exemplary fashion for the humanities and all the social sciences in his Geschichte der philosophischen Tenninologie. (21)

A large part of Koselleck’s work thus involves identifying and describing various levels of historical concepts. In order to represent history it is necessary to make use of a vocabulary that distinguishes the things we need to talk about; and historical concepts permit these identifications. This in turn requires both conceptual and historical treatment: how the concepts are understood, and how they have changed over time. In “The critical theory of history: Rethinking the philosophy of history in light of Koselleck’s work” (link) Christophe Bouton encapsulates Koselleck’s approach in these terms: “[It is an] inquiry into the historical categories that are used in, or presupposed by, the experience of history at its different levels, as events, traces, and narratives” (164).

What this amounts to is the idea that history is the result of conceptualization of the past on the part of the people who tell it – professional historians, politicians, partisans, and ordinary citizens. (It is interesting to note that Koselleck’s research in the final years of his career focused on the meaning of public monuments.) It is therefore an important, even crucial, task to investigate the historical concepts that have been used to characterize the past. A key concept that was of interest to Koselleck was the idea of “modernity”. This approach might seem to fall within the larger field of intellectual history; but Koselleck and other exponents believe that the historical concepts in use actually play a role as well in the concrete historical developments that occur within a period.

A good example of this kind of historical-conceptual treatment is Koselleck’s account of the history of the German concept of “bund” in Futures Past (87-88). “A history of the meanings of the word Bund is not adequate as a history of the problems of federal structure “conceptualized” in the course of Reich history. Semantic fields must be surveyed and the relation of Einung to Bund, of Bund to Bündnis, and of these terms to Union and Liga or to Allianz likewise investigated” (88).

Here is how Koselleck opens chapter 5 of  Futures Past, “Begriffsgeschichte and social history”:

According to a well-known saying of Epictetus, it is not deeds that shock humanity, but the words describing them. Apart from the Stoic point that one should not allow oneself to be disturbed by words, the contrast between “pragmata” and “dogmata” has aspects other than those indicated by Epictetus’s moral dictum. It draws our attention to the autonomous power of words, without whose use human actions and passions could hardly be experienced, and certainly not made intelligible to others. This epigram stands in a long tradition concerned with the relation of word and thing, of the spiritual and the lived, of consciousness and being, of language and the world. Whoever takes up the relation of Begriffsgeschichte to social history is subject to the reverberations of this tradition. The domain of theoretical principles is quickly broached, and it is these principles which will here be subjected to an investigation from the point of view of current research.

The association of Begriffsgeschichte to social history appears at first sight to be loose, or at least difficult. For a Begriffsgeschichte concerns itself (primarily) with texts and words, while a social history employs texts merely as a means of deducing circumstances and movements that are not, in themselves, contained within the texts. Thus, for example, when social history investigates social formations or the construction of constitutional forms—the relations of groups, strata, and classes—it goes beyond the immediate context of action in seeking medium- or long-term structures and their change. Or it might introduce economic theorems for the purpose of scrutinizing individual events and the course of political action. Texts and their attributed conditions of emergence here possess only a referential nature. The methods of Begriffsgeschichte, in contrast, derive from the sphere of a philosophical history of terminology, historical philology, semasiology, and onomatology; the results of its work can be evaluated continually through the exegesis of texts, while at the same time, they are based on such exegesis. (75)

So Koselleck has in mind a methodology that focuses on the formal semantics of historical concepts — what he refers to here as “the sphere of a philosophical history of terminology, historical philology”.

It is worth noticing that history comes into Koselleck’s notion of Begriffsgeschichte in two ways. Koselleck is concerned to uncover the logic and semantics of the concepts that have been used to describe historical events and processes; and he is interested in the historical evolution of some of those concepts over time. (In this latter interest his definition of the question parallels that of the so-called Cambridge School of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and John Pocock.) More generally, Koselleck’s aim is to excavate the layers of meaning that have been associated with key historical concepts in different historical periods. (Whatmore and Young’s A Companion to Intellectual History (2015) provide extensive and useful accounts of each of the positions mentioned here.)

Numerous observers emphasize the importance of political conflict in Koselleck’s account of historical concepts: concepts are used by partisans to define the field of battle (Pankakoski 2010). Here is a passage in Futures Past that makes this point clearly:

The semantic struggle for the definition of political or social position, defending or occupying these positions by deploying a given definition, is a struggle that belongs to all those times of crisis of which we have learned through written sources. Since the French Revolution, this struggle has become more acute and has undergone a structural shift; concepts no longer serve merely to define given states of affairs, but reach into the future. (80)

Conceptual history may appear to have a Kantian background – an exploration of the “categories” of thought on the basis of which alone history is intelligible. But this appears not to be Koselleck’s intention, and his approach is not apriori. Rather, he looks at historical concepts on a spectrum of abstraction, from relatively close to events (the French Revolution) to more abstract (revolutionary change). Moreover, he makes rigorous attempts to discover the meanings and uses of these concepts in their historical contexts.

Christophe Bouton also argues that Koselleck also brings a critical perspective to the concepts that he discusses: he asks the question of validity. To what extent do these particular concepts work well to characterize history?

More precisely, its methodology lays claim to an autonomous sphere which exists in a state of mutually engendered tension with social history. From the historiographic point of view, specialization in Begriffsgeschichte had no little influence on the posing of questions within social history. First, it began as a critique of a careless transfer to the past of modern, context-determined expressions of constitutional argument; and second, it directed itself to criticizing the practice in the history of ideas of treating ideas as constants, assuming different historical forms but of themselves fundamentally unchanging. (81)

Koselleck’s work defines a separate space within the field of the philosophy of history. It has to do with meanings in history, but it is neither teleological nor hermeneutic. It takes seriously the obligation of the historian excavate the historical facts with scrupulous rigor, but it is not empiricist or reductionist. It emphasizes the dependence of “history” on the conceptual resources of those who live history and those who tell history, but it is not post-modern or relativist. Koselleck provides an innovative and constructive way of formulating the problem of historical representation and knowledge.

Hofstadter on the progressive historians


I’ve frequently found Richard Hofstadter to be a particularly compelling historian of American politics and ideas. He is one of the writers from the 1950s and 1960s who still have insights that repay a close reading as we try to make sense of the swirling complexities of culture, politics, and ideas. His earliest book is The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made it, and there were many more to come in his short career. (Hofstadter died at 54 in 1970.) 

In 1969 Hofstadter published a book on American historical writing with the intriguing title, Progressive Historians. The book is a study of three important American historians from the first few decades of the twentieth century, Frederick Jackson Turner (The Frontier in American History), Charles Beard (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), and Vernon Parrington (Main Currents in American Thought: Volume 1 – The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800).

Here is a quick précis of progressive issues at the turn of the century, as expressed by Richard Hofstadter in his account of Charles Beard’s development as a historian:

Beard’s years at Columbia coincided with the Progressive era in national politics. He had come back to a scene of political and social reform that compared in the intensity of its intellectual ferment with the scene he had left in England. The first outburst of muckraking came during the years of his doctoral work, and by the time his book on the Constitution appeared, the national mood had grown so suspicious, that, as Walter Lippmann put it, the public had a distinct prejudice in favor of those who made the accusations. The political machines and the bosses were under constant fire from political reformers and muckrakers, and all the problems of popular government were being re-examined. Though it had no clear idea what to do about them, the country was in full cry against the great industrialists and the big monopolies. It had become aware too of the pitiful condition of many of the working class — particularly women and children — in the factories, mines, and sweatshops, and was making halting experiments at the legal control of industrial exploitation. Almost every aspect of American life, from sex, religion, and race relations to foreign policy, the regulation of business, and the role of the Courts, was being reconsidered…. There was no better moment than the zenith of the Progressive movement for a book dealing with the Constitution as the product of a class conflict, dwelling at great length upon the economic interests and objectives of its framers and advocates, and stressing their opposition to majoritarian democracy. (181-182) 

The title itself raises interesting questions of historiography: what is a “progressive” historian? Does this phrase build an unacceptable degree of normative commitment into Hofstadter’s understanding of historical writing? The big question here is this: how should a historian think about the two axes of “what happened?” and “was it part of a good thing or a bad thing?” in constructing a program of research in a historical topic. Are the two questions inseparable, or is a dispassionate and discovery of the events and causes of the history in question, without an attempt to theorize how that narrative fits into a set of political values?


Here is what Hofstadter has to say about the commonality across these three historians:

In grouping these three as Progressive historians I do no more than follow the precedent of other recent writers on American historiography. Not one of them was, to be sure, an easily classifiable partisan in the day-to-day national politics of their time, but all of them took their cues from the intellectual ferment of the period from 1890 to 1915, from the demands for reform raised by the Populists and Progressives, and from the new burst of political and intellectual activity that came with these demands. They were directed to their major concerns by the political debate of their time; they in turn contributed to it by giving reform politics a historical rationale. It was these men above all others who explained the American liberal mind to itself in historical terms. Progressive historical writing did for history what pragmatism did for philosophy, sociological jurisprudence for law, the muckraking spirit for journalism, and what Parrington called “critical realism” for letters. If pragmatism, as someone has said, provided American liberalism with its philosophical nerve, Progressive historiography gave it memory and myth, and naturalized it within the whole framework of American historical experience. (xii)

So their status as “progressive” thinkers does not derive directly from their political views, or at least the political views expressed in their historical writings; but rather from the background assumptions on the basis of which they proceeded. They were historians within the idiom and mental frameworks of the Progressive era. They were oriented by the conflicts of interest that existed in the United States — in politics, in universities, in letters — and they believed that ideas and interests unavoidably intersected. And they sought to understand important elements of political culture in terms of those conflicts.

So what about the other part of the phrase, “history”? Hofstadter recognizes that there are several different purposes served by historical writing. But one crucial role is the establishment of public memory as a foundation for civic identity.

MEMORY is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity. Men who have achieved any civic existence at all must, to sustain it, have some kind of history, though it may be history that is partly mythological or simply untrue. That the business of history always involves a subtle transaction with civic identity has long been understood, even in America where the sense of time is shallow. One of our early nineteenth-century promoters of canals and public works was also a promoter of historical collections because he understood with perfect clarity that there was some relation between the two. “To visit a people who have no history,” he wrote, “is like going into a wilderness where there are no roads to direct a traveller. The people have nothing to which they can look back; the wisdom and acts of their forefathers are forgotten; the experience of one generation is lost to the succeeding one; and the consequence is, that people have little attachment to their state, their policy has no system, and their legislature no decided character.” (3)

This is a view of history that emphasizes the committed nature of the genre — the need to tell a story that inspires identity and admiration. But what about objectivity and facticity? Hofstadter refers to “scientific” history, but he doubts that this genre succeeds in excluding a normative stance from the interpretation of a people’s history.

Most of these writers were affected to some extent by the idea of “scientific” or critical history: there would be no more bowdlerization like that of Sparks, no more historical orations or rearranged quotations as in Bancroft. But they did not relinquish the idea of history as a forum for moral judgments: they were deeply concerned with such questions as Who was right? or Which principles were correct? when they dealt with the background of the Revolution, the adoption of the Constitution, the struggles between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, or Jackson and the Whigs…. In short, what the conservative nationalist historians did was to was forge a view of the past that needed only to be inverted point by point by the Progressive historians to yield a historical rationale for social reform. (26-27)

Several key ideas are found in all three historians: the power of large propertied interests in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America (robber barons, exploitation, food adulteration, corruption); the role of individualism in the American political identity; and the role that majoritarian institutions should play in a modern society. In his discussion of Turner’s interpretation of America’s western frontier Hofstadter teases out four different meanings of “individualism” that have very different implications for political philosophy:

There are at least four senses in which [individualism] can be used. First, a culture may be called individualistic if it offers favorable conditions for the development of personal assertiveness and ambition, encourages material aspiration, self-confidence, and aggressive morale, offers multiple opportunities for advancement and encourages the will to seize them. Second, it may indicate the absence of mutuality or of common and collective effort, in a society that supposedly functions almost as a conglomerate of individual atoms. Third, it may designate a more or less formal creed in which private action is at a premium and governmental action is condemned — as a synonym, in short, for laissez faire. Finally — and I believe this usage can be quite misleading — it may be used as though it were synonymous with individuality, that is with a high tolerance for deviance, eccentricity, nonconformity, privacy, and dissent. (141-142)

Since individualism is so central to the American political identity that Turner addresses, these distinctions are critical.

I find several aspects of the book particularly interesting. One is the remarkable level of detail and context that Hofstadter is able to provide for the positions and interpretive orientations of the three primary historians whom he discusses. This is a level of scholarship that seems remarkably deep by contemporary standards. Second, Hofstadter spends a good deal of effort towards making sense of each historian’s career in terms of his social and geographical origins. The fact that each of these men were born in the “West” — really the Midwest — is an important part of their intellectual development and the ways in which their thought unfolded. Finally, Hofstadter takes each historian seriously but critically; he gives rigorous efforts to the work of tracing out the ways in which their views go wrong, as well as the valid insights that they express.
Another interesting aspect of Hofstadter’s approach is the emphasis he gives to “modernity” as a theme for these early twentieth-century historians.

What was happening, in effect, was that a modern critical intelligentsia was emerging in the United States. Modernism, in thought as in art, was dawning upon the American mind. Beard’s book on the Constitution fittingly appeared in the same year as the New York Armory show — an event that was far more shocking to the world of art than Beard’s book was to scholars….The rebels against formalism were trying to assert, above everything else, that all things are related, that all things change, and that all things should therefore be explained historically rather than deductively. And for the most part, they were concerned with knowledge as a rationale for social action, not for passivity. (185)

Of the three historians I find Hofstadter’s discussion of Charles Beard the most interesting. Beard’s approach to the framing and adoption of the Constitution is in terms very consistent with Marx’s economic interpretation of politics and the state — perhaps even more mechanistic than Marx himself, who leaves room for substantial nuance between interest and political ideas in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Beard traces the workings of financial interests on the positions of various of the Founding Fathers of the constitutional process, and gives the clear implication that interest prevails. Here again, the point is that interests and ideas cannot be fully separated. Hofstadter writes:

In 1913 Beard found nothing in the ideas of the Founding Fathers that made him feel as close to basic realities as the old Treasury Department records he had enterprising lay turned up. For all the amplitude and moral intensity of political thought in the Revolutionary era, he seems to have believed it’s residue was not fundamentally important for the Constitution. (246-247)

The topic of scientific objectivity mentioned above comes up as well in Hofstadter’s discussion of Beard’s early struggles with this issue:

Historical science demanded that the historian, whatever his role as a citizen, should be a detached investigator, seeking the truth for truth’s sake. Beard was rationalist enough to respond to this scientific note in Powell, and even in his Oxford days we can see in him an uncomfortable duality that was always to haunt him — a duality between the aseptic ideal of scientific inquiry and his social passions. (179)

Beard’s own passions were clear:

Beard had sworn in 1900 that he would never stop agitating “till the workers who bear upon their shoulders the burden of the world should realize the identity of their own interests and rise to take possession of the means of life”. (179)

The book warrants close reading. This is another of the books published a half century ago that still have light to shed on our current predicaments in understanding our own unfolding history — not antiquarian but very contemporary.

(Here is a good piece by David Greenberg from the Atlantic on Hofstadter’s work (link).)


Samuel Dill on the late Roman Empire

An anonymous reader responds to my short discussion of Patrick Geary’s treatment of the late Roman Empire to recommend Samuel Dill’s treatment of this process 100 years ago in Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire and Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age, books written in 1898 and 1926 respectively. In the anonymous reader’s opinion, many of Geary’s insights are already there in Dill’s books.

Surprisingly enough, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire is available in digital editions; so it is easy enough to consult it. (I can’t locate a digital copy of the Merovingian Age book.) How sophisticated was the understanding of the late Roman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century? Does a book of history written over a century ago have the potential for giving us new insights into its subject matter? Or are we always better off turning to the most recent scholarship when it comes to history and historical social science?

The thrust of Dill’s Last Century is quite different from Geary’s approach one hundred years later (not surprisingly). Dill’s approach is more categorical about the abruptness and distinctness of the changes that took place during the century under treatment. His evidence is drawn largely from classical historians, whereas Geary’s approach takes advantage of the most recent archaeological evidence. Much of this method and style is expressed in the preface to the first edition:

The limits of the period covered by this study of Roman society have not been arbitrarily chosen. The last hundred years of the Western Empire seem marked off both by momentous events, and, for the student of society, by the authorities at his command. The commencement of the period coincides roughly with the passage of the Gothic hordes across the Danube, the accession of Gratian and Theodosius, the termination of the long truce between paganism and the Christian Empire, and the reopening of the conflict which, within twenty years, ended in the final prohibition of heathen rites. It closes not only with the deposition of the last shadowy Emperor of the West, but with the practical extinction of Roman power in the great prefecture of the Gauls. Perhaps even more obvious are the lines drawn by the fullest authorities for our subject. The earliest extant letters of Symmachus, which describe the relations of the last generation of great pagan nobles, belong to the years 376-390. The literary and political activity of Ausonius coincides with the same years, and from his poems we derive an invaluable picture of a provincial society in the reigns of Gratian and Theodosius. A searching light is thrown on the same generation by some of St. Jerome’s letters, by the Saturnalia of Macrobius, and by many Inscriptions. At the other end of our period we are almost equally fortunate in our information. The works of Apollinaris Sidonius of Auvergne are a priceless revelation of the state of society, both in Rome and in Gaul, from the accession of Avitus till the final triumph of the Visigothic power.

As historiography, in other words, Dill’s scholarship suffers from the “great men, great dates” problem of nineteenth century historians more generally. His book is very much about the individuals who made this history — at the top — and the chronology of their actions and effects. This impression is born out by the extensive table of emperors, kings, and dates that Dill includes in the opening matter of the book:

A related observation is the cultural and normative commitments that are exposed by the narrative. The work is deeply etched by its normative attitude towards Christianity:

In spite of the moral force which ensured the future to the Christian faith, its final triumph was long delayed. Religious conservatism is, of all forms of attachment to the past, probably the most difficult to overcome. It has its seat in the deepest and most powerful instincts of human nature, which, when they have once twined themselves around a sacred symbol of devotion, are only torn away after a long struggle. (3)

This passage illustrates the moral entwinement of Christianity into the historian’s apperception of the period; it also reveals a kind of teleological thinking about history that would no longer find support among academic historians. Dill denounces “heathenism” and paganism repeatedly.

In the final stand which paganism made against imperial edicts and the polemic of the Church, many different forces were arrayed. Sensuality and gross superstition in the degraded masses clung to the rites of magic and divination, to the excitement of the circus, and the obscenities of the theatre. (70)

Few inquiries should be more interesting than the attempt to form a conception of the inner tone and life of society in Western Europe on the eve of its collapse. Was society as corrupt and effete as it has been represented? Were its vices, as Salvianus insisted, the cause of the triumph of the barbarians? (115)

But Dill also finds an underlying current of monotheism pushing its way through the thought of the ancient world: “More than five centuries before Christ, Greek speculation had lifted men’s minds to the conception of a mysterious Unity behind the phantasmagoria of sense” (8). This seems to illustrate the teleological bent of Dill’s thinking.

Dill is centrally preoccupied with the moral and intellectual character of the period about which he writes. He wants to know about the morals, the spirituality, the religious piety, and the poetry of the prominent people who made up Western Europe during these centuries; and he wants to view these characteristics as having crucial causal force in the direction of change that occurred. Here is how he begins a chapter late in the book (“Relations of Romans with the invaders”):

In the previous chapter an attempt has been made to collect the views and feelings of persons, representing various localities and differences of circumstance and character, about the condition and future of the Empire in the face of its assailants. (347)

And earlier he emphasizes the moral decline of Roman civilization:

A careful study of the Code will correct many a popular and antiquated misconception of that great event. It will reveal the fact that, long before the invasions of the reign of Honorius, the fabric of Roman society and administration was honeycombed by moral and economic vices, which made the belief in the eternity of Rome a vain delusion. The municipal system, once the great glory of Roman organising power, had in the fourth century fallen almost into ruin. The governing class of the municipalities, called curiales, on whom the burdens of the Empire had been accumulated, were diminishing in number, and in the ability to bear an ever -increasing load of obligations. (245)

Further, unlike contemporary approaches to history that emphasize obscure social actors, Dill explicitly excludes the plebeian class from his treatment.

Of the three great classes into which Roman society was divided, the plebeian class, composed of traders, free artisans, etc., who possessed no property in land, may, for our present purpose, be left out of consideration. The other two classes must, from their ownership of the land, and from their relations to one another and to the treasury, engage our sole attention. Of the tone and character of the highest order in the social hierarchy we have attempted to give some account in a previous chapter. They have left us literary materials which enable us to form a tolerably clear idea of their spirit and manner of life; but they seldom speak of their material fortunes or of the classes beneath them, and on these subjects our information must be drawn chiefly from the Code. (248)

So social history, and careful documentation of the role of ordinary people in the events of the time period, plays virtually no role in Dill’s approach. By contrast, Geary and other contemporary historians of the ancient world pay substantial attention to the material constitutes of governance, migration, taxation, agriculture, and war — topics which Dill mostly ignores.

Finally, the evidence that constitutes the foundation of Dill’s research is entirely textual and literary. Unlike Geary, who gives substantial weight to archeological evidence, but also unlike Theodor Mommsen, who in mid-nineteenth century made innovative use of inscriptions and steles and won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1902 for his historical writing (The History of Rome Vol. 1-5), Dill’s account is almost exclusively literary. Dill tells a story, and it is an interesting story; but it has very little of the efforts towards uncovering underlying social structures and realities that are defining features of much contemporary historiography.

So it is hard to see that reading Dill today would enlighten us much about the causes and dynamics of change in the late Roman Empire. The history is antiquarian and personalist, it proceeds with a background commitment to the moral superiority of Christianity, and it provides no insight into the kinds of material and structural factors that are of primary interest today. Reading Mommsen sounds like a much better investment.

Large structures and social change

The relationship between feudalism and the origins of capitalism was of great interest to Marx. Here is one way that Marx puts the idea in The Poverty of Philosophy:

M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (chapter 2)

The question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism remained central for subsequent Marxist thinkers. Consider the view offered by Maurice Dobb in 1946 in Studies In The Development Of Capitalism. Dobb offers an account that corresponds closely to the classical Marxian interpretation offered in Capital: the emergence of the great classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), primitive accumulation, the dynamics of industrial revolution in England, and the inexorable logic of capital accumulation. Dobb offers a very classical definition of capitalism:

Thus Capitalism was not simply a system of production for the market — a system of commodity-production as Marx termed it — but a system under which labour-power had “itself become a commodity” and was bought and sold on the market like any other object of exchange. Its historical prerequisite was the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of a class, consisting of only a minor sector of society, and the consequential emergence of a propertyless class for whom the sale of their labour-power was their only source of livelihood. (7)

Dobb doesn’t much care for the notion that there are “many capitalisms” — many pathways and many institutional variants of market, profit-based economies:

In the case of historians who adopt this nihilistic standpoint, their attitude seems to spring from an emphasis upon the variety and complexity of historical events, so great as to reject any of those general categories which form the texture of most theories of historical interpretation and to deny any validity to frontier-lines between historical epochs. (1)

One thing that is striking about Dobb’s book is how “first-generation” the field of economic history is that he consults. So much has been established about European and Eurasian economic history since 1946 that it is unsurprising that Dobb’s reconstruction feels a bit monochromatic. New thinking about Europe’s population history has emerged (link, link); new ideas about Asian and Chinese economic history have been developed (link, link, link); and a very substantial literature comparing European and Asian economic history has emerged (link, link). So the fairly straight lines that Dobb extends from property relations to technology to capitalist manufacture have a somewhat caricaturist feeling to them. What was schematic and mono-causal in Marx’s hands is now substantially more complex and multi-causal in contemporary world economic history.

More recent views of the origins of capitalism have merged Marxism and some of the key ideas of post-colonialism. An interesting current example is Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu’s How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism, a 2015 book from Pluto Press.

Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer an account of the transition to capitalism that emphasizes the international character of the transition from the start. Their story differs in some important ways from the classic Marxian account, according to which European feudalism possessed its own dynamic of conflict between forces and relations of production, eventuating in the emergence of a new social order, capitalism. Anievas and Nişancıoğlu reject a “Eurocentric” approach to the emergence of capitalism and industrial revolution; rather, international trade, war, and colonialism were essential components of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production. Here is their description of Eurocentrism:

So what exactly is Eurocentrism? At its core, it represents a distinctive mode of inquiry constituted by three interrelated assumptions about the form and nature of modern development. First, it conceives of the origins and sources of capitalist modernity as a product of developments primarily internal to Europe. Based on the assumption that any given trajectory of development is the product of a society’s own immanent dynamics, Eurocentrism locates the emergence of modernity exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socioculturally coherent geographical confines of Europe. Thus we find in cultural history that the flowering of the Renaissance was a solely intra-European phenomenon. Analyses of absolutism and the origins of the modern state form are similarly conducted entirely on the terrain of Europe, with non-European cases appearing (if at all) comparatively. Dominant accounts of the rise of capitalism as either an economic form or a social system similarly place its origins squarely in Western Europe, while non-Europe is relegated to an exploited and passive periphery. (4)

The second feature they identify as crucial to Eurocentrism is the idea that “Europe is conceived as the permanent ‘core’ and ‘prime mover’ of history” (5), and the third is the idea that “the European experience of modernity is a universal stage of development through which all societies must pass” (5).

Their globalism and internationalism derives from their rejection of each of these premises. The development of capitalism is not “internal” to Europe, but instead was influenced by forces and influences from many parts of the world. The “core” of capitalist development is not Britain or Europe. And there is nothing universal about the sequence of developments that led from “feudalism” to “capitalism” (a point Marx himself insisted upon in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich (link)).

How the West Came to Rule challenges these assumptions by examining the ‘extra-European’ geopolitical conditions and forms of agency conducive to capitalism’s emergence as a distinctive mode of production over the longue durée. (5)

They are open to the idea that there are multiple “capitalisms” rather than a single essence (8); but they argue that there is nonetheless such a thing as capitalism:

We argue that there is a certain unity to its functioning that renders necessary the study of the capitalist mode of production as an intelligible (albeit contradictory) object of analysis. (8)

The core they identify has to do with the “ways in which multiple relations of domination, subordination and exploitation intersect with and reproduce each other”.

From this perspective we argue that capitalism is best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation. (8-9)

Robert Brenner’s treatment of the emergence of English capitalism is particularly instructive (link). (Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer considerable criticism of Brenner’s approach.) In two important articles in the 1970s and 1980s Brenner cast doubt on the classic Marxian derivation of capitalism from feudalism; he argued that it was precisely differences in feudal regimes that accounted for the different trajectories taken by English and French capitalism. Ironically, the social power held by French peasants impeded the emergence of managerial farming, which was itself an important step on the way to industrial revolution. As a consequence the proletarianization of English peasants proceeded much more rapidly than French society.

There is an important historiographical issue here that is illustrated in these works by Dobb, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, and Brenner: to what extent is it feasible to look for large macro-processes and transitions in history? Should we expect large social and economic factors writing out social change? Or is history more contingent and more multi-pathed than that? My own view is that the latter approach is correct (link). Neither technology (link) nor population (link) nor class conflict (link) suffices to explain large historical change. Rather, large structures and small innovations add up to contingent and variable pathways of historical development. We’ve gotten past the “agent-structure” debate; but perhaps we still have the “large factor, small factor” debate standing in front of us (link). And the solution may be the same: both large structures and contingent local arrangements are involved in the development of new social systems.

Historical vs. sociological explanation

Think of the following matrix of explanatory possibilities of social and historical phenomena:

Vertically the matrix divides between historical and sociological explanations, whereas horizontally it distinguishes general explanations and particular explanations. A traditional way of understanding the distinction between historical and sociological explanations was to maintain that sociological explanations provide generalizations, whereas historical explanations provide accounts for particular and unique situations. Windelband and the historicist school referred to this distinction as that between nomothetic and idiographic explanations (link). It was often assumed, further, that the nomothetic / idiographic distinction corresponded as well to the distinction between causal and interpretive explanations.

On this approach, only two of the cells would be occupied: sociological / general and historical / particular. There are no general historical explanations and no particular sociological explanations.

This way of understanding social and historical explanations no longer has a lot of appeal. “Causal” and “nomological” no longer have the affinity with each other that they once had, and “idiographic” and “interpretive” no longer seem to mutually imply each other. Philosophers have come to recognize that the deductive-nomological model does a poor job of explicating causation, and that we are better served by the idea that causal relationships are established by discovering discrete causal mechanisms. And the interpretive approach doesn’t line up uniquely with any particular mode of explanation.  

So historical and sociological explanations no longer bifurcate in the way once imagined. All four quadrants invoke both causal mechanisms and interpretation as components of explanation.

In fact it is straightforward to identify candidate explanations in the two “vacant” cells — particular sociological explanations and general historical explanations. In Fascists Michael Mann asks a number of moderately general questions about the causes of European fascism; but he also asks about historically particular instances of fascism. Historical sociology involves both singular and general explanations. But likewise, historians of the French Revolution or the English Revolution often provide general hypotheses even as they construct a particular narrative leading to the storming of the Bastille (Pincus, Soboul).

There seem to be two important grounds of explanation that cut across all these variants of explanations of human affairs. It is always relevant to ask about the meanings that participants attribute to actions and social events, so interpretation is a resource for both historical and sociological explanations. But likewise, causal mechanisms are invoked in explanations across the spectrum of social and historical explanation, and are relevant to both singular and general explanations. Or in other words, there is no difference in principle between sociological and historical explanatory strategies. 

How do the issues of generalization and particularity arise in the context of causal mechanisms? In several ways. First, explanations based on social mechanisms can take place in both a generalizing and a particular context. We can explain a group of similar social outcomes by hypothesizing the workings of a common causal mechanism giving rise to them; and we can explain a unique event by identifying the mechanisms that produced it in the given unique circumstances. Second, a social-mechanism explanation relies on a degree of lawfulness; but it refrains from the strong commitments of the deductive-nomological method. There are no high-level social regularities. Third, we can refer both to particular individual mechanisms and a class of similar mechanisms. For example, the situation of “easy access to valuable items along with low probability of detection” constitutes a mechanism leading to pilferage and corruption. We can invoke this mechanism to explain a particular instance of corrupt behavior — a specific group of agents in a business who conspire to issue false invoices — or a general fact — the logistics function of a large military organization is prone to repeated corruption. (Sergeant Bilko, we see you!) So mechanisms support a degree of generalization across instances of social activity; and they also depend upon a degree of generalization across sequences of events.
And what about meanings? Human actions proceed on the basis of subjective understandings and motivations. There are some common features of ordinary human experience that are broadly shared. But the variations across groups, cultures, and individuals are very wide, and there is often no substitute for detailed hermeneutic research into the mental frameworks of the actors in specific historical settings. Here again, then, explanations can take the form of either generalized statements or accounts of particular and unique outcomes.
We might say that the most basic difference between historical and sociological explanation is a matter of pragmatics — intellectual interest rather than fundamental logic. Historians tend to be more interested in the particulars of a historical setting, whereas sociologists — even historical sociologists — tend to be more interested in generalizable patterns and causes. But in each case the goal of explanation is to discover an answer to the question, why and how does the outcome occur? And this typically involves identifying both causal mechanisms and human meanings. 


M I Finley on the dynamics of the Roman Empire

One of the books I found influential in graduate school in philosophy was M. I. Finley’s The Ancient Economy, which appeared in 1973. Finley’s book sought to explain important parts of the Roman world by piecing together the best knowledge available about the economic relations that defined its socioeconomic foundation. And the book proposes to consider economic history in a new way:

There is a fundamental question of method. The economic language and concepts we are all familiar with, even the laymen among us, the “principles”, whether they are Alfred Marshall’s or Paul Samuelson’s, the models we employ, tend to draw us into a false account. For example, wage rates and interest rates in the Greek and Roman worlds were both fairly stable locally over long periods … , so that to speak of a “labour market” or a “money market” is immediately to falsify the situation. (23)

Finley’s point here is that we need to conceptualize the ancient economy in terms that are not drawn from current understandings of capitalist market economies; these economic concepts do not adequately capture the socioeconomic realities of the ancient world. Finley argues that the concepts and categories of modern market society fit the socioeconomic realities of the ancient world very poorly. (In this his approach resembles that of Karl Polanyi, who was indeed an important influence on Finley.) One thing that is interesting in this approach is that it is neither neo-classical nor Marxist.

Finley addresses a question that is particularly important in the human sciences, the problem of how to handle heterogeneity within a social whole.

Is it legitimate, then, to speak of the “ancient economy”? Must it not be broken down by further eliminations…? Walbank, following in the steps of Rostovtzeff, has recently called the Empire of the first century “a single economic unit”, one that was “knit together by the intensive exchange of all types of primary commodities and manufactured articles, including the four fundamental articles of trade — grain, wine, oil, and slaves”. (33)

This is to take a regionalist perspective on defining an economic region: we emphasize not homogeneity and self-similarity, but rather systemic interconnections among the parts. But to conclude a set of places fall in a single “economic region”, Finley argues something else is needed:

To be meaningful, “world market”, “a single economic unit” must embrace something considerably more than the exchange of some goods over long distances…. One must show the existence of interlocking behaviour and responses over wide areas. (34)

So what distinguishes the “interlocking behaviour and responses” of the ancient world? Finley’s view is that the dominant ethos of the ancient world is not one of producing for accumulation, but rather maintaining status and the social order. And these imply a society sharply divided between haves and have-nots — nobility and the poor. Finley takes issue with the “individualist” view (43) as applied to the ancient world, according to which each person is equally able to strive for success based on his/her own merits. What he calls the prevailing ideology is one of the moral legitimacy of inequalities, social and economic. Hierarchy is normal in the order of things, in the world view of the ancients. Even the heterodox insistence in the modern world on the concepts of class and exploitation, according to Finley, have little grip on the ideologies and values of the ancients. The idea of the working class fails to illuminate social realities of the ancient world because it necessarily conflates free and bonded labor (49). (Finley quotes Lukács on this point: “status-consciousness … masks class consciousness” (50).)

There are only a few “structural” factors in Finley’s account of the ancient economy. The structure and social reality of property is one — the ownership of land and labor in the form of estates, small farms, and slaves conditions much of productive activity. Another is the availability of roads and water transport. Production largely took place within one day’s transport from the consumers of that production. “Towns could not safely outgrow the food production of their own immediate hinterlands unless they had direct access to waterways” (126). Finley summarizes the “balance of payments” through which towns and cities supported themselves under four categories: local agricultural production, the availability of special resources like silver; the availability of trade and tourism; and income from land ownership and empire (139).

It is interesting to compare Finley’s intellectual style in The Ancient Economy with his writing in an earlier book, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies, published in 1968. Here Finley takes up many topics in a broadly chronological order. And he is more declaratory in his analysis of the broad dynamics of social development. One chapter in particular is an interesting counterpoint to The Ancient Economy, “Manpower and the Fall of Rome”. The time is the late fourth century, and the circumstances are the impending military collapse of Rome. Finley estimates the population of the empire at about 60 million, noting that it is impossible to provide anything like a precise estimate. This population supported an army of about 300,000 in the time of Marcus Aurelius (d. 180), and rising to perhaps 600,000 in in the coming century. But increasingly this army was incapable of protecting the Empire from the encroaching Germanic tribes.

Roman armies still fought well most of the time. In any straight fight they could, and they usually did, defeat superior numbers of Germans, because they were better trained, better equipped, better led. What they could not do was cope indefinitely with this kind of enemy [migratory tribes]. (150)

Finley offers what is essentially a demographic and technological explanation for Rome’s failure to defend itself: it simply could not sustain the substantially greater manpower needs that the Germanic warfare required, given the nature of the agrarian economy.

With the stabilization of the empire and the establishment of the pax Romana under Augustus, a sort of social equilibrium was created. Most of the population, free or unfree, produced just enough for themselves to exist on, at a minimum standard of living, and enough to maintain a very rich and high-living aristocracy and urban upper class, the courts with its palace and administrative staffs, and the modest army of some 300,000. Any change in any of the elements making up the equilibrium — for example, an increase in the army or other non-producing sectors of the population, or an increase in the bite taken out of the producers through increased rents and taxes — had to be balanced elsewhere if the equilibrium were to be maintained. Otherwise something was bound to break. (151)

And this leads to a general causal conclusion:

In the later Roman Empire manpower was part of an interrelated complex of social conditions, which, together with the barbarian invasions, brought an end to the empire in the west…. It was the inflexible institutional underpinning, in the end, which failed: it could not support the perpetual strains of an empire of such magnitude within a hostile world. (152,153)

This is perhaps a sober reminder of the limits of imperial power for the contemporary world.

(For readers interested in the ancient world, here is a related post on agrarian history in Weber’s scholarship. And here is a video interview of M. I. Finley that touches on the key influences in his development as an historian.)

Understanding the Chinese Revolution

source: Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, frontispiece

The Chinese Revolution is one of the world-historical events that has set the stage for the modern world. And, unlike the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it is sufficiently contemporary that there are very substantial sources of data and informants about its occurrence. Several generations of China historians have sought to provide explanations and elaborations on the occurrence of the Chinese Revolution (link, link). The Revolution set the course for a population of over 1.1 billion people, it affected the economic and international development of the rest of the world, and it established a government that continues to rule the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, vast amounts of scholarship have been written in attempting to describe and explain the course of the Revolution.

So we might imagine that the story has been written, and that we know everything we need to know about the causes, events, and main directions of the Revolution. However, this would be a mistake. As earlier posts have shown, there continue to be new questions, renewed debates over old questions, and deep uncertainties about the best ways of understanding the occurrence and development of this momentous series of events.

It is interesting, therefore, to return to one of the earlier efforts at historical explanation of the Chinese Revolution, the widely read book by Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949. The book first appeared French in 1967, and therefore much of what we now understand to be the development of modern China was yet to occur. The Great Leap Forward and attendant famine had occurred in 1958-1959, the Cultural Revolution was just getting underway, and of course the major reorientation of the Chinese state in the direction market reform was decades in the future. In a meaningful sense, Bianco was writing the history of a revolution that was still underway.

The title of the book captures Bianco’s central goal in his treatment of the Revolution: to identify the large factors that explained the occurrence and characteristics of the success of the CCP’s struggle for mobilization and power. Ideology and doctrine play an important role; Bianco spends a lot of attention on the question of whether Chinese communism was heterodox or orthodox in relation to classical Marxist theory. Another key question in Bianco’s treatment is the role of the peasantry in Mao’s strategy for creating revolution. The ideological frameworks brought forward by Nationalist and Communist leaders play a large role in Bianco’s account.

Bianco organizes his analysis around the role of Marxist ideology and theory, the role of the Comintern in attempting to “manage” Communist activism in China, the role of the Japanese war of aggression against China, and the economic and social circumstances governing the agrarian world that brought Chinese peasants into a state of latent revolutionary activism, just needing the mobilization efforts of the CCP to ignite a social conflagration. And he takes up the nationalism thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson in Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 just a few years earlier (1962; link), treating Johnson’s work respectfully but critically. In other words, he raises the central explanatory ideas that observers of the time thought potentially important: ideology, exploitation, war, nationalism, and military competition between the Guomindang dictatorship and the Communist Party.

Three large factors emerge as being the most important sources of revolution in Bianco’s account: the tactical effectiveness of the CCP in mobilizing the peasantry, the crushing exploitation and poverty of the countryside, and the military realities created by the three-sided conflict between the GMD, the CCP, and the Japanese army. Of these, the poverty of agrarian China was the most pervasive:

The source of the revolution, the real strength of the CCP, must be sought in the living conditions that prevailed from one end of rural China to the other, where poverty, abuse, and early death were the only prospect for nearly half a billion people. (87)

Bianco’s greatest contributions to Chinese history are focused on pre-revolution peasant politics. These writings are exemplified in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China, “Peasants and Revolution: The Case of China” (link), and “Peasant Movements” in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13: Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Here is a summary offered in Origins:

To the extent that the non-Communist peasant movements I have studied can be characterized in general terms, they seem to me diffuse, sporadic, and lacking in coordination and firm leadership. Above all they seem defensive: peasants may arouse themselves to protest an assault on the status quo, but they almost never attack the deeper causes of their exploitation and misery. (107)

Bianco incorporates his own study of earlier peasant rebellions into his account of the politics of mobilization, and he highlights the non-revolutionary character of those earlier movements (107). As he had argued in his research on China’s peasantry, it was the organizing and mobilizing role of the CCP that turned peasant discontent from local unrest to sustained revolutionary action.

One thing I find interesting in rereading the book today is the fairly general level at which it is written. Bianco essentially summarizes his perceptions of the main elements of the complicated economic, political, and military events that transpired in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in China. He was a highly expert observer, and was intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the Comintern, the Guomindang, and the CCP. But the work is offered at a very high level of discourse, not really intending to provide new historical understanding of the politics of nationalism and the social program of the party.

This contrasts with the level of historical detail and richness of Bianco’s own primary research on peasant movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in China. Here his work is archival and detailed, and offers genuine new insights into the particulars of the phenomena. And it contrasts as well with the level of detail and precision of the treatments of various parts of the revolution in China that were written in the following thirty years.

Origins was influential and widely read. That said, it should be understood as a work of historical synthesis rather than a contribution of original discovery. It remained for the next generation of historians — people like Mark Selden, Yung Fa Chen, and Odoric Wou — to push the historical inquiry more deeply into the mechanisms and variations of these processes of revolution. In his forward to English edition in 1976, Mark Selden attempts to summarize the key issues for future research posed by the book: the need to give a more fine grained taxonomy of the peasantry (rich, middle, poor), the effects of the rapid commercialization that were underway in the twenties and thirties, and the relative importance of domestic and foreign factors in the occurrence of the Revolution. Selden himself takes up some of these issues in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). And historians like Chen and Wou have given substantially greater detail about the specifics of mobilization, strategy, and military tactices in the base areas than was possible in 1967 when Bianco wrote his book.

The historian and the archives


Generally speaking everyone understands that one important kind of research conducted by historians takes place in archives — repositories of records and documents that have been preserved by governments or organizations for some purpose, in which documents are preserved that shed light on the past. But it is common to imagine that the trip to the archive is instrumental and wholly focused on the gathering of information that sheds light on the activities of individuals and organizations in the past. The purpose and value of the visit, on this account, is the gathering of information.

Arlette Farge is one of France’s leading contemporary historians and is the author of Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Her recently translated book The Allure of the Archives casts archival research in a very different light. Her use of archival materials is of course aimed at learning some of the details of the activities and practices of the past. But she very eloquently expresses the idea that archival work goes well beyond the mundane gathering and noting of facts. In fact, much of this short book reads as an almost poetic expression of the experience of engaging with old documents and scraps of paper in archives across France.

The taste for the archive is rooted in these encounters with the silhouettes of the past, be they faltering or sublime. There is an obscure beauty in so many existences barely illuminated by words, in confrontation with each other, imprisoned by their own devices as much as they were undone by their era. (kl 605-607)

The archive’s allure, nonetheless, lives on. The taste for the archives is not a fashion that will go out of style as quickly as it came in. It comes from the conviction that the preservation of the judicial records has created a space of captured speech. The goal is not for the cleverest, most driven researcher to unearth some buried treasure, but for the historian to use the archives as a vantage point from which she can bring to light new forms of knowledge that would otherwise have remained shrouded in obscurity. (kl 668-672)

The book can be read as a counterargument against the idea that historical research can be done almost entirely in a digitized world of scanned documents available on the Internet. For Farge, the tactile and practical experience of spending hours, days, and weeks in direct contact with the documents of the past is an irreplaceable part of the historian’s art. (Robert Darnton takes up this aspect of the book in his fine review of The Allure of the Archives here in the New York Review of Books.)

Farge provides a nuanced explanation of the unavoidable need for interpretation when the historian confronts a set of documents. This involves selection: “Purposefully focusing on a particular theme (drunkenness, theft, adultery) creates a specific viewpoint that requires explanation, because the space is necessarily reorganized by the research objective” (kl 778-780). And it involves reconstruction: It is necessary to be able to mentally reconstruct some of the context in which the documents were collected. But more, it is necessary to find ways of “hearing” the voices of the men and women whose moments of experience are captured on these scraps of paper. (As she points out in her description of the writings of the mad Thorin, it was literally necessary for her to vocalize the words and letters he had written to be able to guess the intended sentences. “Thorin might have been illiterate, but his writings, in their clumsy calligraphy, transmit what no ordinary text can: the way in which they were pronounced and articulated” (kl 750).)

Farge has written a personal book, almost an ethnographic book about the experience of using and learning from the miscellaneous documents of an archive (a judicial archive, in her case). But some of her own sensibilities as an interpreter and writer of history come through as well: an emphasis on the centrality of conflict in historical settings, a concern for the material and meaningful lives of ordinary women, an interest in the particulars of home and work for ordinary people, attention to the strategic intelligence of ordinary people in their interactions with police and the judicial apparatus.  Like Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, she is interested in finding small clues in the evidence of the archive that shed light on aspects of ordinary social interactions and meanings in eighteenth-century Paris.

In particular, Farge is insistent that historians should not treat the archive as simply a source of interesting or surprising singular stories (the surprising discovery of a letter from one man to another about the charms of his wife, the marvelous discovery of report of a traffic incident involving the Marquis de Sade, a sword, and a horse). Her goal, and the goal of historians more generally, is to find ways of extracting a narrative from the material that somehow honors both the singularity and the thematic:

Our task is to find a language that can integrate singular moments into a narrative capable of reproducing their roughness, while underlining both their irreducibility and their affinity with other representations. We need a language that is capable of reconstructing and deconstructing, playing with the similar as with the different…. If we aim to “defend stories” and bring them into history, we must commit ourselves to demonstrating in a compelling manner the ways in which each individual constructed her own agency out of what history and society put at her disposal. When examined in this way, interrogations and testimonies shed light on the spaces where an individual entered into both peaceful and tumultuous relationships with different social groups, while at the same time struggling to preserve her freedoms and defend her autonomy. (kl 1073-1075)

And she steers a careful course between objectivity and subjectivity in telling history — between “one truth about the past” and “all perspectives are equally valid”:

The archive is a vantage point from which the symbolic and intellectual constructions of the past can be rearranged. It is a matrix that does not articulate “the” truth, but rather produces, through recognition as much as through disorientation, the elements necessary to ground a discourse of truth telling that refuses lies. Neither more nor less real than other sources, the archival documents display the fates of men and women whose surprising and somber actions crossed paths with an authority that had many faces. (kl1121-1125)

She finds that there are “foundational events” in history — the Holocaust, the French Revolution — whose features can and must be known. And the archive plays one important role in helping us know those facts:

It is important to understand that outside of certain rare exceptions, archival documents cannot be definitive proof. But they are reference points we cannot ignore, whose meaning must be constructed through rigorous and precise questioning. As historians we must recognize that “the validity of the knowledge depends on the validity of the purpose,” and that we must carefully navigate between recognizing the influence of our choices and the impossible theory of history as an objective compilation of facts. (kl 1164-1168)

These many documents and the voices they imperfectly capture give the historian a way of discerning some of the realities that underlay the grand events:

Through the archive we can glimpse what became of these people who were constantly in movement, and whose agency was composed of a continual combination and recombination of action and reaction, change and conflict. We must seize on to what happened, recognizing that in the facts we find in the archive something was always going on inside social relationships. As we abandon abstract categorizations, we can bring to light something that moved, arose, and fulfilled itself through continual change. (kl 1309-1312)

It is interesting to compare the central thrust of this book with some of the comments Farge made about archival research in Fragile Lives (first published in French in 1986, three years before the publication in French of Le gout de l’archive):

This book [Fragile Lives] was born out of the archives — not from a set of documents, nor from chronicles, memoirs, novels or treatises of a judicial, administrative or literary nature. No, none of the above.

It came quite simply from the judicial archives — the odd scrap, snatch of a phrase, fragments of lives from that vast repository of once-pronounced words that constitute the archives — words emerging from the darkness and depths of three successive night-times: of time and oblivion; of the wretched and unfortunate; and last (and most impenetrable for our ow stubborn minds), the night of guild and its grip…

Historians who find themselves caught up with original sources become so fascinated by the archives that involvement with them makes it almost impossible to avoid self-justification through them or to resist the temptation to suppress any doubts these might cast on their own perceptions and systems of rationality or those of others. The impact the archives have on the historian (scarcely ever recognized explicitly) sometimes has the effect of actually denying their value. Fine though they might be, they are nonetheless full of pitfalls, and the corollary of their beauty is their deceptiveness. Any historian taking them on board cannot but be wary of the improbable outlines of the images they conceal. (1)

Here, it seems, Farge takes a somewhat more cautious view of archival research.

(Chuck Tilly refers to his first visit to a French archive in his preliminary phase of research on The Vendee: A Sociological Analysis of the Counter-Revolution of 1793 in the interview he did with me a few years ago (around minute 3 in the clip below). His excitement about that first visit persisted for almost fifty years.)

Discussion with Mervyn Hartwig and Dan Little on historical ontology

Mervyn Hartwig is an important exponent of the classic version of Roy Bhaskar’s theory of critical realism. He has contributed a great deal to the interpretation of Bhaskar’s thinking through a number of publications, including The Formation of Critical Realism: A Personal Perspective and Dictionary of Critical Realism, and he is the founding editor of the Journal of Critical RealismHartwig raises a series of criticisms of some of the claims offered in my recent book, New Contributions to the Philosophy of History, and I find these very interesting and revealing. The exchange reproduced here is interesting in its own right, in that it highlights some important disagreements between us about the way that historical ontology ought to be formulated, and it problematizes the status of large entities like capitalism or the French Revolution. Hartwig wants to treat these entities and events realistically, whereas I want to treat them as particular and contingently constituted ensembles. Mervyn, thank you for engaging in this dialogue.

Mervyn Hartwig:

Dan, although you reject transcendental arguments in theory, it would seem you sometimes accept them in practice:

This chapter takes up a specific task: to identify and analyze some of the ontological and conceptual conditions that must be satisfied in order for historical analysis and inquiry to be feasible. (New Contributions to the Philosophy of History 41, my emphasis)

Daniel Chernilo has recently argued, very persuasively I think, that the transcendental is indispensable to modern social theory in practice, if not always in theory. See his The Natural Law Foundations of Modern Social Theory: A Quest for Universalism (New York: CUP 2013). But it’s precisely the universal that Daniel Little’s ‘methodological localism’ tends to leave out, in theory.

There’s a review of Chernilo coming up in Journal of Critical Realism.

Notwithstanding my sharp disagreement, I do very much appreciate that this issue is being aired. It is ‘out there’ and should be discussed. I look forward to your next post. Also, I should perhaps say there’s much I can agree with in New Contributions.

Dan Little:

This is very helpful, Mervyn; thank you. You are right that I do myself admire the type of philosophical reasoning that is associated with transcendental arguments, and I use this style of argument in my philosophy of history. I regard it as an exploratory tool that is useful for uncovering the presuppositions of certain kinds of intellectual activities. But of course I don’t regard it as an “infallible” avenue towards discovering truths about history. (My reason for citing Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense is that Strawson takes transcendental arguments into unexpected directions.) But your several comments have made it clear that you believe that “fallibilism” is a deep and essential component of the spirit of critical realism in any case; so in this my approach is perhaps similar to that of critical realism and Bhaskar.

For myself I think it is possible that Bhaskar’s philosophical jargon is part of the problem of interpretation for me; I “hear” many of his stretches of argument as building up a system of philosophical thought. So perhaps I need to dig deeper and find the underlying fallibilism in his thinking.

I’m not sure that methodological localism leaves out the universal so much as the actually existing global.

Mervyn Hartwig:

The charge of infallibilism doesn’t stick, but now you make another one that could also have the effect of discouraging people from reading Bhaskar: he uses “jargon” and is “building up a system of thought”. What’s wrong with systems of thought? Despite claims to the contrary, there are very few neologisms in Bhaskar. He uses words that are already in currency, in rigorously defined ways. What’s wrong with conceptual precision?

The “actually existing global” is currently dominated, I’d say, by the deep structures of capitalism. You say that capitalism doesn’t exist. Like feudalism etc., it’s just a construct, a ‘nominalist grouping’, an ideal type rather than a real one. I don’t find your localism coherent here. Why can structures exist and causally affect people only at a more or less local level? It seems arbitrary to restrict their scope a priori – especially when you yourself claim to avoid “the hazard of a uselessly a priori approach” (New Contributions, p. 4). On a CR account all philosophy can demonstrate is that social totalities are real. Which ones actually exist in the world can only be revealed a posteriori by empirically based research, and a lot of that will tell you that capitalism exists all right and has a global dynamic that is only too real and profoundly affects all of us locals.

Other than that, I find your emphasis on the historically specific, the local and the grassroots important and refreshing.

Dan Little:

Mervyn, my view that “capitalism doesn’t exist” is actually a view about social kinds, not about concrete particular structures. I do believe that high-level social and economic structures exist, though they are embodied through processes that comply with the idea of social action at the level of methodological localism. What I don’t think exists is a “kind” that is “capitalism in general”, essentially similar across 18th century Britain, 19th century Germany, and 20th century Japan. I like the idea of “assemblage” as a way of capturing the reality of higher-level bundles of institutions and structures that constitute “actually existing 21st-century capitalist global economy”. So I think what you are expressing here as “capitalism and its global dynamic” can be equally expressed in terms of the concrete institutions of trade, regulation, population movements, information flows, etc., that in the aggregate make up that big social whole you mean to refer to. I just don’t want to reify the large social structure as a social entity with an essence. Current capitalism is an amalgam of institutions, practices, and structures that shifts over time.

Mervyn Hartwig:

Many thanks for explaining this. I think that wherever you have economic life arranged on the basis of private ownership of the means of production and generalized production for the market, certain deep tendencies are set up, such as the increasing commodification of everything commodifiable, and the generation of power, winning and instrumental rationality as supreme values; and so I think capitalism is a social kind in the sense you mention. Deep structural continuity is perfectly compatible with far-reaching change and regional differentiation. But this view stems from empirically based research programmes rather than philosophy as such. My essential point is that, although you started out with a complaint about Bhaskar’s apriorism, when it comes to specifying which structured social wholes there are in the world you are more apriorist than Bhaskar because you rule out the existence of wholes that are kinds a priori, whereas he thinks that only empirically based research can settle the matter.

It’s not clear to me whether the (current) capitalism that you do allow to exist – as an amalgam, bundle, agglommerate or assemblage – exerts, at the level of the whole, constraining and enabling power on people. If it doesn’t, it actually doesn’t exist on a causal criterion and we’re back with a nominalistic grouping and the problem of arbitrariness: explaining why it is that structures, although real at other levels, can’t be real at the level of the global.

Dan Little:

Thanks for your thoughts about this. Interesting turn of events — I’m more aprioristic that Roy Bhaskar!

I think my view that there is no “social kind” of capitalism or liberal democratic state is in fact an empirically based view, not the result of an apriori argument. I think we can observe the causally important differences that exist between the various “capitalisms” I mentioned and we can identify the differences in historical and agentic change that they stimulate; so we can observe that there is a lot of variation within the nominalistic category “capitalism.”

As for whether the large structures that constitute big social realities like the world trading system or capitalism have causal powers — on my view, they do; and part of the task of sociology is to show how these work through what kinds of pathways to influence actors in various nodes of the system. That’s the purpose of my notion of methodological localism — it is an important task of social science to work out those causal pathways through which causation influences the actors.

Mervyn Hartwig:

You also say that large-scale events such as the French Revolution weren’t real/didn’t happen, they’re an intellectual construction of historians. I’d say that that the French Revolution happened qua large-scale event is a pretty well attested finding of the historical sciences. As you know, some empirically based work agrees with you that it’s a construction, quite a bit doesn’t. From a CR perspective, the made-by-historians view is very Kantian, involuting the real structured processes of history at the level of the large-scale inside the heads of historians. It collapses the distinction at this level between epistemology (TD) and ontology (ID). I think this view is less empirically based than driven by methodological localism, underpinned by an implicit (postmodernist rather than realist) ontological localism that proclaims that events cannot occur at the level of the large-scale and that large-scale strutures have a very tenuous existence, and social kinds none, so they must be human constructs. That is what I mean by apriorism. It has its source I think in an implicit underlying philosophical ontology.

I agree with William Sewell Jr. (Logics of History, Ch. 8) that the French Revolution was a ‘transformational event’ (ID), a very significant and large-scale one because it transformed, rather than reproduced, key structures of the old order. (Of course, I should probably say ‘is’ to leave open the possibility that the Revolution is still going on).

Doubtless we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m writing an introduction to The Possibility of Naturalism at the moment and have found the discussion particularly useful in conveying a sense of the kinds of issue (out of the many possible) I should comment on.

Dan Little:

I am very pleased to have your feedback. It demonstrates to me the value of having serious exchange with people about big ideas — there is a lot to discuss on each of the points you’ve raised. This is true of your comment about large-scale events like the French Revolution. SOMETHING happened in the eighth decade of the eighteenth century; and I don’t have a problem with calling that complex, geographically and temporally extended set of events a “revolution”. But I do have a caution about reifying these multivaried events into a “kind” — a social revolution. This leads us to want to say a number of erroneous things — that this mega-event was unified; had typical causal characteristics (upstream and downstream); had a role in history that can be accommodated to Marxism or Hegelianism or liberalism. And yet I don’t think any of these impulses is a good one, from a comparative historical sociology point of view. Better is to look at the French Revolution (or the Chinese or the Russian or the Iranian) as a mixture of different confluences, motives, organizations, contingencies, groups, and meanings that don’t add up to a simple “entity”. And this is a point of view that isn’t unique to me; it is the view that Tilly, McAdam, and Tarrow take in Dynamics of Contention, that Simon Schama takes in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and lots of others I could mention. I do see the relevance of this topic (and your parallel question about my doubt that capitalism exists as a transhistorical, transcontextual phenomenon) to critical realism. It is certainly an ontological position — one that I refer to as the unavoidable contingency, compositionality, and heterogeneity of complex social phenomena like structures, classes, or revolutions. I also draw an ontological maxim from these points — one that stands as a heuristic rather than a firm metaphysical finding: that we are better off looking to the heterogeneity and contingency of large phenomena, and better off looking for the complicated ways in which these singular events and structures are composed at various points in time.

Do you think anything important turns on the question of whether we look at the Revolution as one large event or a composition of a number of sub-processes and uprisings? Sewell is one of the people who demonstrated, after all, that the Revolution had different characteristics in Marseilles than Paris; and Tilly who demonstrated that the political dynamics in the Vendee were very different from those in Ile de France! It would appear to me that anything that can be said about the Revolution writ large can also be said about the somewhat separate processes that unfolded in the Vendee, Burgundy, and Marseilles, and that interacted and aggregated in often surprising ways.

And, by the way, I don’t look at either of the views you question (“capitalism is a construct”, “the French Revolution is a construct”) as being anti-realistic. I am perfectly realist about the various dynamics of contention that were involved in the two decades leading up to the sometimes bizarre events of 1789; perfectly realist about the structures of fiscal limitation that forced crisis on the French monarchy; perfectly realist about the long structures of trade between England and India that constituted some of the sinews of the “modern world system”; and perfectly realist about the socio-economic realities that created the Manchester that Engels analyzed and described so well; etc. A realist of any stripe — critical or scientific or historical — needs to be discriminating about what gets included in the ontology. I might include water droplets but not clouds, and I might have excellent reasons for thinking that clouds lack the persistence of traits that is needed for an object to count as such. That doesn’t mean I’m not a realist, does it?

Mervyn Hartwig:

OK, but now you’re speaking as a historical sociologist rather than a philosopher. My main concern here has been to defend Bhaskar the philosopher against a charge of infallibilism and excessive a priorism, because I think he’s a really important thinker and I’m in the business of encouraging people to read and engage him. He makes a rigorous distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontology (each science – sociology, history, etc – will have an ontology specific to its own subject-matter and cycle of discovery). His philosophical ontology is arrived at by a process of a priori (transcendental) argument and immanent critique. It’s highly abstract, conditional and relative. It’s intended as an orientating meta-theoretical guide only in relation to the social sciences. It doesn’t tell them what their more concrete ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies can and cannot be. So sociology is mainly concerned with internally related and irreducible social practices, but nothing is said about specific practices (other than to illustrate a point), which are explanatorily the most important, etc. And it doesn’t say whether these constitute social kinds, only that kinds can’t be ruled out a priori – it’s down to social science to reveal any social kinds there may be in the world.

When you say the French Revolution isn’t a kind or real type, I guess you’re speaking as a sociologist or philosophically minded sociologist, and it’s fine to make that argument. A key difference between you and Bhaskar may be that you don’t distinguish clearly between philosophical and scientific ontologies. I think you say in your philosophy of history book that you’re operating as a philosopher at the more abstract end of the historical sciences. I’m sure much useful work can be done there, but it seems to me to run the risk of dissolving philosophy into science and leaving the business of critiquing bad science exclusively to science itself. For Bhaskar, philosophy is relatively autonomous from science, and may fallibly discover conditional synthetic a priori truths – but only relatively autonomous, because if over the longer run its discoveries were not borne out by science, it would have to look again at the arguments.

I’m not wanting to say you’re anti-realist or not a realist, only that you’re not a realist about some things. I’m not a realist about unicorns (other than at the level of discourse), you’re not a realist about social kinds and types. I do think that methodological localism has probably been significantly influenced by postmodernism with it’s emphasis on difference etc., and that’s fine and healthy, but it does seem to bias you towards scepticism about the reality of higher-level social entities and processes. These are real for you in some sense (though you do urge a nominalist approach), but it seems to me that your larger social whole always reduces causally to its ‘component’ parts – the whole is in effect nothing more than the sum – or you come very close to such a position. I think the whole question of social kinds is an open one and I don’t think your arguments against their possibility stack up – they’ve not derived from a consensus in the social sciences and the only more philosophical argument I can detect is that human agency necessarily brings change. True, but we know from history that this is quite consistent with the stability of social structures over long periods – there’s change, but it may be only very slow.

Dan Little:

Mervyn, thanks!

I think you have expressed very clearly the feature of Bhaskar’s method that Cruickshank and Kaidesoja are most concerned about:

“[Bhaskar] makes a rigorous distinction between philosophical ontology and scientific ontology (each science – sociology, history, etc – will have an ontology specific to its own subject-matter and cycle of discovery). His philosophical ontology is arrived at by a process of a priori (transcendental) argument and immanent critique. It’s highly abstract, conditional and relative. It’s intended as an orientating meta-theoretical guide only in relation to the social sciences. “

And you correctly note that my own efforts at historical ontology reject this distinction between philosophical and scientific ontology. Instead, I want to engage in ontological discovery within the intellectual space of the social and historical sciences — to be “a philosopher at the more abstract end of the historical sciences,” not a philosopher outside the domain of scientific thinking altogether. The critique we have been discussing expresses doubts that there is a substantive field of ontological discovery outside of the domain of scientific reasoning and fully within the field of philosophical theorizing; or in other words this critique would reject the rigorous distinction to which you refer.

So critical realism naturalized (as Kaidesoja advocates) would eliminate the philosophical apriorism of CR while preserving many (all) of the ontological conclusions; but it appears that you (and Bhaskar) are opposed to that strategy. This also makes me think that Bhaskar’s original phrase, “transcendental realism”, perhaps better described the theory than “critical realism” does. And the version of realism that I would associate myself with is best described as “scientific realism.”

Again, thanks so much for spending the effort to think these issues through together with me.

Mervyn Hartwig:
Well, many thanks to you too Dan. It has really helped to clarify some key issues, I think.

You now introduce Tuukka Kaidesoja as an interlocutor of Bhaskar. I think his book has several Achilles’ heels. First, the very science with which he casts his lot deploys transcendental reasoning centrally (as do you), so how can he reject transcendental arguments without rejecting science? His position that science proceeds entirely a posteriori is false – an empiricist illusion. And if you accept the conclusions…

%d bloggers like this: