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.

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.)

A new history of China

James Lee and Byong-Ho Lee have created a remarkable new course on Coursera titled “A New History for a New China, 1700-2000: New Data and New Methods, Part 1”. This production is a genuinely important contribution to Chinese history. The course is not designed as an up-to-date summary of the history of early modern China, along the lines of Fairbank’s China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition. It is not a survey of Chinese history as traditionally treated.  Instead, it is a clear and logical presentation of a very different way of thinking about China’s history: not as a chronology of events, dynasties, revolutions, rebellions, and notable individuals, but rather as an analytical study of the forces underlying pervasive social realities in China over this three-hundred year period. The key topics are privilege, wealth, power, and health, and the methodology is solidly quantitative. The analysis depends on a number of large data sets of sub-populations that James Lee and colleagues have assembled in the past thirty years. And Lee and Lee use advanced statistical and quantitative methods to probe the associations that exist within these datasets that would cast light on topics like political power, social mobility, and the workings of institutions. Most importantly, Lee and Lee are determined to probe the large sociological questions on the basis of demographic and social data about historical individuals.

The Lee-Campbell research group has created eight data sets with millions of unique individuals from specific places and periods in China over the past three centuries. These sets include population registers for over 500,000 distinct individuals. These datasets constitute the empirical core of the course.

The course is organized in three large segments:

  • Part I. Who Gets What? social structure, mobility, distribution
  • Part II. Who Survives? mortality, fertility, marriage
  • Part III. Who Cares? religion, gender, ethnicity, nationalism

Part I is underway now, and later parts will be produced in the near future.

Lee’s organizing questions are sociological and demographic. In Part I the key questions are these:

  • Why do some people rise to the top while others do not?
  • Why is wealth more unequally distributed in some societies than in others?

The approach taken here, and pervasively throughout the research of the Lee-Campbell research group, is quantitative.

We present the results from a new scholarship of discovery based largely on the creation and analysis of big social science data from historical and contemporary China…. [This allows us] to construct a new sort of history from below that contributes to a more global understanding of human history and human behavior.

So what are the statistical foundations of their analysis? Here are the datasets that are used in the course:

  1. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Liaoning (1.2M records for 260K individuals)
  2. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Shuangcheng (1.5M records for 125K individuals and 19K land plots, 1870-1906)
  3. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Imperial Lineage (250K individual life histories 1640-1935)
  4. dataset of 350K+ individuals with university academic records or civil service examination results
  5. dataset of 75K successful Imperial Examination Juren and Jinshi, 1371-1904
  6. dataset of 120K Chinese university graduates, 1902-1951
  7. dataset of 175K Peking and Suzhou university students, 1952-2004
  8. dataset from Chinese collectivization, 1947-48, Shuangcheng County

It is plain that there are a large number of individuals included in these datasets. These bodies of data permit a very precise and rigorous level of analysis by the researchers in probing various kinds of causal associations. But it is also plain that they offer very focused and specialized points of observation of the social processes taking place across China and across time. So there is a background premise that seems credible but also seems to require more explicit discussion:

  • there are identifiable and pervasive social processes at work in China, and detailed study of Liaoning or Shuangcheng can identify some of these processes. 

The discoveries about the causal factors involved in Chinese social mobility that can be drawn from dataset #3, for example, are most interesting if we can infer that the contours of causation that we discover here are roughly similar to social mobility processes in other parts of China in the Qing period. On the other hand, it might turn out that mobility in the Lower Yangzi region is based on factors having to do with commerce and wealth to a greater extent than was true in North China’s Liaoning.

It is also interesting that Lee and his collaborators take a somewhat structural approach to social causation:

The driving factors of history are not just the ideas or actions of Great Men (or Women), but also from society as a whole, and that socio-economic forces including social stratification and wealth distribution together with politics are important factors that “push and pull” on actors and actions to create historical change.

This description singles out socio-economic forces as objects of study.

Another thing that strikes me is that the work presented here is “comparative historical sociology” rather than traditional historical research. (Lee sometimes refers to his discipline as “historical social science”, and he emphasizes that the course is “explicitly comparative”.) The approach seeks to evaluate hypotheses about how these large variables are influenced (wealth, power, longevity, health status, education). The opening comments James Lee makes in the introductory lecture about intuitive and anecdotal historical interpretation, and the comments about analytical rather than chronological organization, underline the point: this is not traditional history.

Our class eschews the standard chronological narrative arc for an analytic approach that focuses on specific discoveries and on how these new facts complicate our understanding of comparative societies, human behavior, and the construction of individual and group identities.

Unlike traditional history which focuses largely on the biographies and actions of specific historic figures, A New History for a New China seeks to write a history based on the experiences of all people, elites and non-elites.

This might imply that Lee and his colleagues mean to replace traditional historiography of China with the “big data” approach. But James Lee and others in this research group make it clear (outside this course) that these researchers are in fact pluralistic about historical research; they don’t mean to say that historians who are more interested in the specific circumstances leading to change in a largely chronological structure are doing shabby history. There is a great deal of very exciting new historical research on China that has come forward in the past twenty years, and much of that research takes the form of organized narratives. (Peter Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia is a very good example.) These are good pieces of rigorous historical knowledge creation as well, though not based on large quantitative data sets. So this sociological, “big data” approach is one important new contribution, but not a replacement for all other historiographical approaches.

This course is well worth following. It does an excellent job of tying together the diverse and rigorous work that the Lee-Campbell research group has been doing for thirty years, and it provides a coherent framework and scheme of presentation for that work. In this sense I think it illustrates a virtue of the MOOC format that hasn’t yet been discussed very much: as a platform for the presentation and dissemination of specialized ongoing research programs for a broader specialist public. The lectures are downloadable, and when completed they will represent a highly valuable “new media” presentation of some very interesting and challenging results in the historical sociology of China.

(James Lee and his colleagues have published quite a number of books relevant to this course. Particularly significant are One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000, Fate and Fortune in Rural China: Social Organization and Population Behavior in Liaoning 1774-1873, Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History), each with co-authors.)

World history


World history is more timely today than ever. “Globalization” is almost a cliché, from “The world is flat” to “the homogenization of cultures” to the “commodification of place.” Everyone recognizes the fact of globalization in the contemporary world. But we need to understand the many ways in which many parts of the world were deeply and systemically interconnected long before the post-World War II wave of revolutions in communications networks, rapid travel, containerized shipping, and military power contributed to the current interconnectedness of most countries and peoples. We need a strong historiography for the global world. And we need better and more detailed understandings of the histories of many of the regions of the world, taken in their own terms.

To be most productive, however, we need to approach the tasks of global history with some fresh thinking. There are several key points that have emerged as fundamental.  The first is to be vigilant about making Eurocentric assumptions about development and change.  Whether in the domains of politics, economics, or culture, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that Europe set the model for developments in key areas of historical change.  New historiography of Eurasian economic development illustrates the power of an approach that avoids Eurocentrism, including Bin Wong (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience), Ken Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.), and Prasannan Parthasarathi (Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850).

A second is to expect variation rather than convergence. There are many ways that human societies have found to solve crucial problems of coordination, order, production, and the exercise of power. Global historians need to be alert to the development of alternative institutions of politics, economics, culture, or social cohesion in different locales. In particular, it is important to take note of divergences as well as parallels in the political and economic development of great civilizations like those of India, China, Southeast Asia, or West Africa.

Third, it is important to avoid the conceptual schemes of nationalism and states. “France,” “Indonesia,” and “India” are places with diversity and internal variation, and they each followed distinct rhythms of consolidation as states and nations.  It is often more revealing to look to regions that cross the boundaries of existing states; we learn much by looking at the dynamics of change in regions that are smaller than nation-states (the American South, for example, as an economic and racial regime that had little in common with Northern cities); and it is sometimes the case that we are best off considering the histories of dispersed peoples and activities (Zomia (James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Agrarian Studies Series)), diasporic histories (Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia), bandits (Bandits, Revised Edition)).

Fourth, the way in which we consider historical time sometimes needs more critical reflection. Victor Lieberman’s focus on the punctuated patterns of consolidation that took place from Burma to Kiev is one aspect of this reflection; the world’s clock was synchronized in a pattern that was quite distinct from the internal patterns of change in each of the affected countries.  And the historian needs to be attentive to both clocks. Likewise, world historians need to be open to considering temporality on a range of scales — from the months of the Terror to the decades of contention that preceded and followed the French Revolution, to the century and a half that separated the French Revolution from the Chinese Revolution.

Fifth, the global impact of environmental factors needs to be given the emphasis it deserves. Climate change, exhaustion of woodlands, extension of mining and extraction — all these processes and factors influence human activity at a range of levels, and their impact needs to be assessed carefully on the basis of historical and physical data. Mark Elvin’s environmental history of China is a great example (The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China).

Finally, world historians need to pay particular attention to the mechanisms of influence through which places exchanged cultural and economic material in the long centuries from the development of substantial Mediterranean trade in the ancient world to the shipping lanes of the contemporary world. Trade, the diffusion of ideas through cultural contact and migration, the effects of the book trade, the military logic of colonialism, the advent of organized long-distance communication and travel, the creation of international governance institutions — these mechanisms of social exchange constitute many of the pathways through which global integration occurs, and their dynamics are worthy of close attention by historians.

Significantly, almost all these factors find their way into the work of many recent historians who are taking on the challenge of making sense of the history of the modern world. World historiography is on a very promising trajectory.

Intellectual history as history?

How do fields like the history of art or the history of philosophy relate to history simpliciter? Are there similar problems and methods in the history of ideas to those facing social or economic historians? Or is the idea of examining a series of events possessing temporal order the only thing these fields have in common?

Take the history of philosophy as an example. When philosophers analyze and present the history of their discipline for undergraduates, there is a fairly standard narrative in Anglo-American philosophy. The narrative begins with the pre-Socratics, with a set of questions about the nature of reality and some examples of how to reason about such questions. It moves then to classical ancient philosophy and considers the questions, theories, and methods of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Here a broader range of questions come into play, including the nature of knowledge, the nature of reality, and the nature of virtue and justice. The medieval philosophers come next, including Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and perhaps Maimonides. Theological questions are center stage. Sometimes the Islamic world is given credit for maintaining knowledge of the ancients, especially Aristotle, through the upheavals of the post-Roman Empire dark ages. Then we come to “modern” philosophy, including the empiricists (English-speaking) and the rationalists (Continental).  Kant generally gets a page of his own, seeking to reconcile these two traditions, and then we hurtle into Hegel and the nineteenth century philosophers.

This narrative is largely structured around topics, theories, and methods, and the named philosophers are characterized in terms of their distinctive contributions to these items. When the historian of philosophy invokes change or dynamics, it is founded on the dialectic of the ideas and theories. Empiricism developed through as series of intellectual problems and inadequacies in earlier treatments. So in a typical history of philosophy, the narrative takes an internalist perspective — an argument about how one set of theories and methods led logically or dialectically to another. The biography and historical setting of the philosopher is considered to be irrelevant, with occasional exceptions. (The setting of civil war is sometimes considered relevant to the development of Hobbes’s theory of the state.)

An externalist approach to the history of philosophy would take a different tack.  The historian of philosophies might look at philosophy as a grounded intellectual practice, thoroughly embedded in a certain set of social and political activities. The philosopher’s system of ideas would not be viewed as a purely autonomous intellectual activity, but rather a set of formulations that are responsive both to earlier arguments and social and political realities and assumptions. The circumstances and settings of particular philosophers would be highly relevant for the historian on this approach. This approach might look at the systems of thought created by philosophers as ideologies — idealized expressions of more widespread systems of social ideas that serve the interests of various powerful groups. This is roughly speaking the approach taken by CB McPherson in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (link). And it would be a variation of the approach taken by current work within the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (link).

The internalist approach to the history of philosophy doesn’t really seem to have much to do with history in any genuine way. And perhaps this applies to internalist approaches to other fields as well — literature, painting, cuisine. And yet ideas do play important roles in history — they have consequences and they ate influenced by social and material conditions. The challenge for the historian is how to make these connections through careful investigation while at the same time giving systems of thought and creativity the degree of autonomy they also possess.

Here are a few threads that are relevant to these questions. First, in the history of ideas we can always ask questions about the social conditions or influences on ideas. We might argue, as TJ Clark does in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers and Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, that social conditions in the 1830s in rural France made the realism of Courbet possible.  This brings social and intellectual history onto the same canvas.

Second, we can use tools of sociological analysis to provide a framework for thinking about art and philosophy. Bourdieu’s concept and theory of field are relevant: an art tradition develops within a field of artists and a set of cultural institutions (The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field). This too provides a social and material context for the history of ideas.

Third, it is both legitimate and necessary for social historians to take the development and currency of ideas seriously. Certain instances of popular politics, for example, may not make sense unless we explicate the religious or cultural ideas of the population.

So a truly insightful history of ideas and thought shouldn’t be either purely internalist or purely externalist. Rather, the historian needs to be able to both respect the discipline while at the same time tracing the material processes through which it develops. An in fact, we do have examples of scholars who have managed to do both; a good example is Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change.

Who was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky was something of a hero for a part of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s through at least the 1970s. Sidney Hook and John Dewey offered substantive support to Trotsky and his reputation during and after the end of his life through Dewey’s role in the “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials”. Trotsky was a theoretician of communism, a strategist, a man of letters, and the merciless chief of the Red Army immediately following the success of the Boshevik Revolution (represented by the character of Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago!). Expelled from the USSR by Stalin in 1929, he spent the rest of his life in exile in a series of countries and was assassinated by Stalin’s agent in 1940 in Mexico City. The Trotskyist left opposed Stalin’s policies long before other segments of the European left did so.

There is a narrative that places a lot of the history of the USSR into the framework of personality and character of its early leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. The legend is that Trotsky was a principled revolutionary but a poor street fighter, and that Stalin was a power-hungry and ruthless opportunist who out-maneuvered his primary opponent after the death of Lenin. And Trotsky was too full of amour-propre to fully engage in the battle with Stalin. But it wasn’t all about personality; Trotsky and Stalin differed substantially about the future course of Communism, and Trotsky’s was the more radical view (permanent revolution versus socialism in one country). So who was Trotsky, and how would we know?

Trotsky himself addresses these topics in his autobiography, and indicates that he thinks they are unimportant: personality and character have less to do with his life than theory and the inevitable currents of history, in his own telling of his story. Here are a few lines from My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography:

My intellectual and active life, which began when I was about seventeen or eighteen years old, has been one of constant struggle for definite ideas. In my personal life there were no events deserving public attention in themselves. All the more or less unusual episodes in my life are bound up with the revolutionary struggle, and derive their significance from it. This alone justifies the appearance of my autobiography. But from this same source flow many difficulties for the author. The facts of my personal life have proved to be so closely interwoven with the texture of historical events that it has been difficult to separate them. This book, moreover, is not altogether an historical work. Events are treated here not according to their objective significance, but according to the way in which they are connected with the facts of my personal life. It is quite natural, then, that the accounts of specific events and of entire periods lack the proportion that would be demanded of them if this book were an historical work. I had to grope for the dividing line between autobiography and the history of the revolution. Without allowing the story of my life to become lost in an historical treatise, it was necessary at the same time to give the reader a base of the facts of the social development. In doing this, I assumed that the main outlines of the great events were known to him, and that all his memory needed was a brief reminder of historical facts and their sequence.

I am obliged to write these lines as an émigré— for the third time— while my closest friends are filling the places of exile and the prisons of that Soviet republic in whose creating they took so decisive a part. Some of them are vacillating, withdrawing, bowing before the enemy. Some are doing it because they are morally exhausted; others because they can find no other way out of the maze of circumstances; and still others because of the pressure of material reprisals. I had already lived through two instances of such mass desertion of the banner: after the collapse of the revolution of 1905, and at the beginning of the World War. Thus I know well enough, from my own experience, the historical ebb and flow. They are governed by their own laws. Mere impatience will not expedite their change. I have grown accustomed to viewing the historical perspective not from the standpoint of my personal fate. To understand the causal sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one’s own place —that is the first duty of a revolutionary. And at the same time, it is the greatest personal satisfaction possible for a man who does not limit his tasks to the present day. (preface)

So it is all about ideas, political commitments, and the march of history (as well sometimes as the personal weaknesses of others). But biographers need more than this.

A key source for the past fifty years has been the magnificent biography of Trotsky in three volumes by Isaac Deutscher, beginning publication in 1954 (The Prophet: Trotsky: 1879-1940 (Vol. 1-3)). Deutscher was a Polish writer and historian who was more or less miraculously posted to England at the time of the Nazi conquest of Poland; so he spent the rest of his life in England, while almost all of his family perished in the Holocaust. Deutscher’s work is an admirable piece of historical writing, with appropriate attention to historical detail and available historical sources, including a major archive at Harvard University. The book is favorable to Trotsky as a tragic and outcast leader, but is not sycophantic. It weaves together the biographical narrative with the great struggles in the USSR and Europe that took place during Trotsky’s life and to which he was an important contributor. (Here is the Google Books link to the first volume, The Prophet Armed.)

Deutscher puts the arc of Trotsky’s revolutionary leadership at the end of the Civil War in 1919 in these theatrical terms:

At the very pinnacle of power Trotsky, like the protagonist of a classical tragedy, stumbled. He acted against his own principle and in disregard of a most solemn moral commitment. Circumstances, the preservation of the revolution, and his own pride drove him into this predicament. Placed as he was he could hardly have avoided it. His steps followed almost inevitably from all that he had done before; and only one step now separated the sublime from the sinister — even his denial of principle was still dictated by principle. Yet in acting as he did he shattered the ground on which he stood. (486)

This step was the decision to establish a system of dictatorship by the Communist Party. And this step led to some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, including Stalin’s war on the Kulaks.

When Trotsky now urged the Bolshevik party to ‘substitute’ itself for the working classes, he did not, in the rush of work and controversy, think of the next phases of the process, although he himself had long since predicted them with uncanny clear-sightedness. ‘The party organization would then substitute itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee would substitute itself for the organization; and finally a single dictator would substitute himself for the Central Committee.’ The dictator was already waiting in the wings. (522)

In these three volumes Deutscher provided a detailed account of Trotsky’s actions and theorizing as well as their impact on history. But what were Trotsky’s motivations? Not much of the character, personality, or singularity of Trotsky emerges from Deutscher’s treatment.

In 2011 Robert Service published a new biography of Trotsky (Trotsky: A Biography), making use of sources that were not available to Deutscher in the 1950s. This book of more than 600 pages presents itself as the most historically authoritative treatment of its subject yet.  But the book has created great controversy about some of its most basic claims. Service has previously published biographies of Lenin and Stalin.  But the Trotsky book has generated huge criticism. A well documented but scathing review of the book was published by Bertrand Patenaude in the American Historical Review (AHR (2011) 116 (3): 900-902), and the review is summarized in Inside Higher Education (link).  Patenaude asserts that Service makes dozens of important errors of fact in the course of the book, and that it sets out to “thoroughly discredit Trotsky as a historical figure;” and Patenaude concludes that the book falls woefully short of the standards of historical rigor that it should have met. “[The publisher] has placed its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical scholarship.” (902)  Patenaude also reviews David North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky. North is himself an American Trotskyist and Patenaude was prepared to find a hatchet job in North’s treatment of Service. Instead he finds a powerful and well founded critique of the many errors, distortions, and bias in Service’s treatment of Trotsky. So the partisan gives a more faithful account of the facts than the professional historian!

Patenaude’s own treatment of Trotsky’s life in Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary is restricted to the Mexico years, and is very detailed and interesting.  His narrative moves back and forth between Mexico and earlier periods as needed, but is focused on the final years of Trotsky’s life. Trotsky’s personality and behavior are made very clear in the narrative: socially difficult, harsh to those closest to him, dogmatic, committed, egoistic, and courageous. (Patenaude provides details of Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo that were unknown to Deutscher at the time of writing The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940. Deutscher doubts the existence of the affair, whereas Patenaude provides the evidence.)

So thousands of pages have been written, but we still don’t really have a clear answer to the question, “Who was Leon Trotsky?”. The Service biography appears to be thoroughly discredited for the most basic faults a historian can possess: lack of attention to the historical facts, and bringing an axe to grind to the subject matter. The Deutscher biography is less about the person than the actions he took. And the controversies about Trotsky persist.

Here is a fascinating discussion with Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service about Trotsky’s life and impact.

(There are many other reviews of Service’s book, and some are more favorable and some even more negative. Here is a detailed discussion by Paul Le Blanc in the International Journal of Socialist Renewal (link), and here is a review by philosopher John Gray in Literary Review (link). Baruch Knei-Paz’s The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky is a generally respected treatment of Trotsky’s thought as an organized system.)

Hempel after 70 years

Carl Hempel published his sole contribution to the philosophy of history in 1942, almost exactly 70 years ago. The article is “The Function of General Laws in History” (link), and it set the stage for several fruitless decades of debate within analytic philosophy about the nature of historical explanation. Hempel argued that all scientific explanation has the same logical structure: a deductive (or probabilistic) derivation of the explanandum from one or more general laws and one or more statements of fact. Explanation, in Hempel’s view, simply is “derivation of the explanandum from general laws.” Here is the opening paragraph of the essay.

It is a rather widely held opinion that history, in contra-distinction to the so-called physical sciences, is concerned with the description of particular events of the past rather than with the search for general laws which might govern those events. As a characterization of the type of problem in which some historians are mainly interested, this view probably can not be denied; as a statement of the theoretical function of general laws in scientific historical research, it is certainly unacceptable. The following considerations are an attempt to substantiate this point by showing in some detail that general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, that they form an indispensable instrument of historical research, and that they even constitute the common basis of various procedures which are often considered as characteristic of the social in contradistinction to the natural sciences. (35)

And here is the logical structure of such a “covering law” explanation, according to Hempel:

(1) a set of statements asserting the occurrence of certain events C1, . . . C, at certain times and places,
(2) a set of universal hypotheses, such that
(a) the statements of both groups are reasonably well confirmed by empirical evidence,
(b) from the two groups of statements the sentence asserting the occurrence of event E can be logically deduced. (36)

He is emphatic, moreover, in insisting that valid explanations in history must have this form:

We have tried to show that in history no less than in any other branch of empirical inquiry, scientific explanation can be achieved only by means of suitable general hypotheses, or by theories, which are bodies of systematically related hypotheses. (44)

Hempel concedes the point that few existing historical explanations actually look like this, with explicit law statements embedded in a deductive argument; but he argues that this shows only that existing explanations are elliptical, incomplete, or invalid. And often, he finds, what is offered as a historical explanation is in fact no more than an “explanation sketch” (42), with placeholders for the general laws.

What kinds of general laws does Hempel think that historians have in the back of their minds when they offer elliptical explanations? He refers to regularities of individual or social psychology (40), regularities of collective behavior (“groups migrate to regions which offer better living conditions”), or at the macro level, regularities linking growing discontent to the outbreak of revolution (41). Further:

Many of the universal hypotheses underlying historical explanation, for instance, would commonly be classified as psychological, economical, sociological, and partly perhaps as historical laws; in addition, historical research has frequently to resort to general laws established in physics, chemistry, and biology. (47)

This set of assumptions leads to big trouble for historical explanation if we accept Hempel’s account, however, because it is hard to think of a real historical research question where there might be a set of social or individual regularities sufficient to deductively entail the outcome. Bluntly, the social and behavioral sciences have never produced theories of individual or collective behavior that issue in statements of general laws that could be the foundation for a covering law explanation. And given that social phenomena are formed by actors with a range of features of agency and decision-making, we have very good reason to think that this lack of regularities is inherent in the social world. The social world is simply not governed by a set of social or individual laws. Let’s look at that point at several levels.

Individuals. The social sciences provide a good basis for advancing theories of agency, which in turn support certain generalizations about action. For example: People act out of self interest. People act morally. People pay attention to the example of others. People care about their families and friends. People follow charismatic leaders. People follow the precepts of their religious beliefs. People are emotional and short-sighted. People make decisions based on specific heuristics and rules-of-thumb. Each of these statements takes the form of a generalization. And each is true — of some delimited groups of agents some of the time. But there is no generalization about agency that is true of all agents all the time. Rational choice theory attempts to provide a single theory of agency and decision making that replaces all of these variant grounds of action. But rational choice theory has proven notoriously unsuccessful as a foundation for explanation of a large and complex event — war, revolution, economic crisis. 

Groups. Here too we can identify some partial regularities: Groups tend to coalesce in action when they have prominent shared characteristics.  Groups are more prone to panic than individuals. Groups tend to fail to accomplish collective purposes. Groups are hyper-sensitive to racial and ethnic markers.  And so forth. It is evident that these are partial, tendential, exception-laden, and inexact; not at all like the generalizations that characterize metals, liquids, or proteins.

Organizations and institutions. What about mid-level social arrangements like labor unions, congregations, and terrorist cells? It’s not that there aren’t any generalizations to be had concerning items at this level; it is that there are too many, and they are highly contingent, conditioned, and contradictory. Certain types of organization are more prone to accidents than others. This is true; but we have more confidence in our analysis of the most important features of the high-safety organization than we have in the corresponding generalization.  So there isn’t a stockpile of laws that might be produced to apply to a social situation and then turn the crank and derive the deductive consequences. 

Finally, what about large-scale events and structures — wars, revolutions, civil conflict? Here too there are some generalizations that social scientists have asserted. For example: Democracies don’t go to war with each other. War is made more likely when two powers have conflicts of interest over important resources. Wars create propaganda.  Revolutions don’t happen when the general population is satisfied. But generalizations about these sorts of social entities too are bounded and unreliable. They are conditional, we recognize immediately that they have exceptions, and they don’t permit prediction.

So the strong, governing generalizations that would be needed for a covering law explanation do not exist. As I argued a number of years ago, social regularities are phenomenal, not governing (link); they reflect characteristics of the actors rather than governing the behavior of the ensembles.  Does this mean that historical explanation is impossible?  No.  But we need to turn our attention from regularities to causal mechanisms and powers in order to see what a good historical explanation looks like.  A good historical explanation identifies a number of independent mechanisms and processes that are at work in a particular circumstance, and then demonstrates how these mechanisms, and the actions of the actors involved, lead to the outcome.

Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Chuck Tilly advanced a boldly different approach to analyzing and explaining complex historical phenomena, with special application to social contention.  They rejected the idea that there might be “laws” of revolution, civil unrest, or ethnic cleansing. They argued instead that there are a number of recurring “social mechanisms” of contention that can be identified in many instances of contention, and whose influences can be traced out to result in the observed outcomes.  Here is how McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly proceed in Dynamics of Contention.

We begin with a question: What led normally accepting accepting African-Americans both in Montgomery and throughout the South to risk their livelihoods and their lives in support of civil rights? Recall from Chapter I that in the “classical social movement agenda” the following factors come into play:

  • Social change processes initiate a process of change and trigger changes in the political, cultural, and economic environments.
  • Political opportunities and constraints confront a given challenger. Though challengers habitually face resource deficits and are excluded from routine decision making, the political environment at any time is not immutable; the political opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action vary over time. These variations shape the ebb and flow of a movement’s activity.
  • Forms of organization (informal as well as formal) offer insurgents sites for initial mobilization at the time opportunities present themselves and condition their capacity to exploit their new resources. Despite some evidence to the contrary (Piven and Cloward 1977), a large body of evidence finds organizational strength correlated with challengers’ ability to gain access and win concessions (Gamson 1990).
  • Framing, a collective process of interpretation, attribution, and social construction, mediates between opportunity and action. At a minimum, people must both feel aggrieved at some aspect of their lives and optimistic that acting collectively can redress the problem (Snow, et al. 1986; Snow and Benford 1988). Movements frame specific grievances within general collective action frames which dignify claims, connect them to others, and help to produce a collective identity among claimants.
  • Repertoires of contention offer the means by which people engage in contentious collective action. These forms are not neutral, continuous, or universally accessible; they constitute a resource that actors can use on behalf of their claims (Traugott, et al. 1995). The use of transgressive forms offers the advantages of surprise, uncertainty, and novelty, but contained forms of contention have the advantage of being accepted, familiar, and relatively easy to employ by claimants without special resources or willingness to incur costs and take great risks.

That classical agenda made three enduring contributions to the study of social movements. First, it made strong claims regarding the close connection between routine and contentious politics, helping to reframe the study of social movements as the proper province of both sociology and political science. Second, calling attention to the role of “mobilizing structures,” it represented a powerful challenge to the stress on social disorganization and breakdown in the older collective behavior paradigm. Third, it produced a credible picture of mobilization into social movements that was supported by a good deal of empirical evidence correlating the factors outlined above with increases in mobilization.

There are low-level generalizations offered throughout this series of statements. But all those generalizations are soft and exception-laden.  What MTT are interested in doing when they attempt to explain what they call “episodes of contention” is rather to identify the occurrence and interaction of a number of common mechanisms of contention.  And in fact, they explicitly repudiate the covering law model:

Our emphasis on recurring mechanisms and processes does not mean that we intend to pour all forms of contention into the same great mold, subjecting them to universal laws of contention and flattening them into a single two-dimensional caricature. On the contrary, we examine partial parallels in order to find widely operating explanatory mechanisms that combine differently and therefore produce different outcomes in one setting or another. To discover that third parties influence both strikes and ethnic mobilization by no means amounts to showing that the origins, trajectories, and outcomes of strikes and ethnic mobilization are the same, any more than identifying similarities in memory processes of mice and men proves mice and men to be identical in all regards. To discover mechanisms of competition and radicalization in both the French Revolution and in the South African freedom movement is not to say that the Jacobins and the African National Congress are the same. We pursue partial parallels in search of mechanisms that drive contention in different directions. Only then, and in Part III, do we examine how mechanisms combine in robust political processes.

Sixty years after Hempel’s classic article, the covering law theory is now generally regarded as a fundamentally wrong-headed way of thinking about historical (and social) explanation.  Logical positivism is not a convenient lens through which to examine the social and historical sciences.  There is too much contingency in the social world. Rather than being the result of law-governed processes, social outcomes proceed from the contingent and historically variable features of the actors who make them.  So the attention of many people interested in specifying the nature of historical and social explanation has focused on social mechanisms constituted and driven by common features of agency.

(Renate Mayntz’s discussion of causal mechanisms represents one of the best current treatments of the subject; link.)

Global history?




A question that arises in historiography and the philosophy of history is that of the status of the notion of “global history.”  I’ve addressed the topic several times here in a limited way — often by making the case for Eurasian history rather than French history or Japanese history. There the view is that expanding the scope of vision from the separate nation states of Europe or Asia to the broader panoply of multiple peoples, cultures, and structures is helpful when it comes to understanding the past four hundred years.  But what are some of the more general concerns that make thinking about global history an interesting or important topic? 

One important reason for thinking globally as an historian is the fact that the history discipline — since the Greeks! — has tended to be eurocentric in its choice of topics, framing assumptions, and methods.  Economic and political history, for example, often privileges the industrial revolution in England and the creation of the modern bureaucratic state in France, Britain, and Germany, as being exemplars of “modern” development in economics and politics.  This has led to a tendency to look at other countries’ development as non-standard or stunted.  So global history is, in part, a framework within which the historian avoids privileging one regional center as primary and others as secondary or peripheral.

Second is the apparent fact that when Western historical thinkers — for example, Hegel, Malthus, Montesquieu — have turned their attention to Asia, they have often engaged in a high degree of stereotyping without much factual historical knowledge.  The ideas of Oriental despotism, Asian overpopulation, and Chinese stagnation have encouraged a cartoonish replacement of the intricate and diverse processes of development of different parts of Asia by a single-dimensional and reductive set of simplifying frameworks of thought.  This is one of the points of Said’s critique of orientalism.  So doing “global” history means paying rigorous attention to the specificities of social, political, and cultural arrangements in other parts of the world besides Europe.

So a global history can be expected to be more agnostic about patterns of development, and more open to discovery of surprising patterns, twists, and variations in the experiences of India (and its many regional differences), China, Indochina, the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, and Sub-saharan Africa.  Variation and complexity are what we should expect, not stereotyped simplicity.  (Geertz’s historical reconstruction of the “theatre state” of Bali is a case in point — he uncovers a complex system of governance, symbol, value, and hierarchy that represents a substantially different structure of politics than the models derived from the emergence of bureaucratic states in early modern Europe.) A global history needs to free itself from eurocentrism.

This step away from eurocentrism in outlook should also be accompanied by a broadening of the geographical range of what is historically interesting.  So a global history ought to be global and trans-national in its selection of topics — even while recognizing the fact that all historical research is selective.  A globally oriented historian will recognize that the political systems of classical India are as interesting and complex as the organization of the Roman Republic.

Another aspect of global history falls more on the side of how some historians have thought about historical structures and causes since the 1960s. HIstory itself is a “global” process, in which events and systems occur that involve activities in many parts of the world simultaneously. Immanuel Wallerstein is first among these, with his framework of “world systems”.  But the basic idea is a compelling one.  An effort to explain the English industrial revolution by only referring to factors, influences, and experiences that occur within England or on its edges (western Europe) is inadequate on its face.  International trade, the flow of technologies from Asia to Europe, and the flows of ideas and peoples from Asia, Africa, and the Americas have plain consequences for the domestic economy of England in 1800 and the development of machine and power technologies. And a “globally minded” historian will pay close attention to these trans-national influences and interdependencies.  This aspect of the interest of global history falls within the area of thinking about the scope of the causal factors that influence more local developments.

An important current underlying much work in global history is the reality of colonialism through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the equally important reality of anti-colonial struggles and nation building in the 1960s and 1970s.  “The world” was important in the capitals of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium because those nations exerted colonial rule in various parts of Africa, Asia, and South America.  So there was a specific interest in gaining certain kinds of knowledge about those societies — in order to better govern them and exploit them.  And post-colonial states had a symmetrical interest in supporting global historiography in their own universities and knowledge systems, in order to better understand and better critique the forming relations of the past.

Then there is the issue of climate and climate change.  The “little ice age” had major consequences for population, nutrition, trade, and economic activity in western Europe; but the same climate processes also affected life in other quarters of the globe.  So to have a good understanding of the timing and pace of historical change, we often need to know some fairly detailed facts about the global environment.

A final way in which history needs to become “global” is to incorporate the perspectives and historical traditions of historians in non-western countries into the mainstream of discussion of major world developments.  Indian and Chinese historians have their own intellectual traditions in conducting historical research and explanation; a global history is one that pays attention to the insights and arguments of these traditions.

So global history has to do with —

  • a broadened definition of the arena of historical change to include Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas
  • a recognition of the complexity and sophistication of institutions and systems in many parts of the world
  • a recognition of the trans-national interrelatedness that has existed among continents for at least four centuries
  • a recognition of the complexity and distinctiveness of different national traditions of historiography

Dominic Sachsenmaier provides a significant recent discussion of these issues in Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected World.  Sachsenmaier devotes much of his attention to the last point mentioned here, the “multiple global perspectives” point. He wants to take this idea seriously and try to discover some of the implications of different national traditions.  So more than half his book is devoted to case studies of global historical research traditions and foci in three distinct national contexts — Germany, the United States, and China.  How do historians trained and en-disciplined in these three traditions think about the core problems of transnational, global history? Sachsenmaier believes that these differences are real, and that they can be productive of future historical insights through more sustained dialogue.  But he also believes there are conceptual and methodological barriers to these dialogues, somewhat akin the the “paradigm incommensurability” ideas that Thomas Kuhn advanced for the physical sciences.

The idea that in the future, global history may experience more sustained dialogues between scholars from different world regions leads to deeper theoretical challenges than may be apparent at first sight.  Most importantly, there is the question of how to conceptualize “local” viewpoints in today’s complex intellectual and academic landscapes. (11)

And he does a good job of articulating what some of these conceptual barriers involve:

In almost all world regions university-based historiography is at least partly an outcome of epistemological discontinuities, outside influences, and shared transformations…. These also had an impact on the conceptions of space underlying world historical scholarship in the widest sense. Prior to spread of history as a modern academic field, forms of border-crossing histories were typically written from a clear perspective of cultural, religious, or even ethical centricity, which means that they tended to be tied to distinct value claims. This situation changed decisively during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when either colonial rule or nation-building efforts had a profound impact on what elements were selected into the canon of academic historiography and many earlier forms of knowledge were rendered subaltern. (13)

Certain hierarchies of knowledge became deeply engrained in the conceptual worlds of modern historiography. Approaching the realities and further possibilities of alternative approaches to global history thus requires us to critically examine changing dynamics and lasting hierarchies which typify historiography as a global professional environment. (17)

It will become quite clear that in European societies the question of historiographical traditions tended to be answered in ways that were profoundly different from most academic communities in other parts of the world. (17)

So Sachsenmaier’s attention is directed largely to the conceptual issues and disciplinary frameworks that are pertinent when we consider how different national traditions have done history.  What he has to say here is very useful and original.  But he also makes several of the points mentioned above as well — the need to select different definitions of geography in doing history, the need to put aside the stereotypes of eurocentrism, and the value in understanding in depth the alternative traditions of historical understanding that exist in the world.

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