Monday, April 4, 2016

Is Something Trying to Dawn on Historians?

Alexej von Jawlensky, Self-portrait, 1912

THE above image of a painting by Alexej von Jawlensky is helpful today because the figure looks a bit like a Teutonic philosopher in super-serious mode, who thus perhaps can serve as an amusing "guardian" standing before this post and with mock severity warning readers: "O beware! You who would read today's posting! If you find philosophical discussion of historical knowledge a bore, the next post may suit you better!"

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The last post noted that after the 1970s there emerged among some groups of historians a new emphasis on exploring various forms of cultural history. The new emphasis arose partly as a reaction against the profession’s previously prevailing tendency to focus on economic and political structures as the most fundamental realities.

The last posting also referred to Stephen Morillo’s 2014 Frameworks of World History because it appears to be the first textbook to attempt to focus systematically on the nature of the three-way interaction between cultural life, economic life, and political life throughout the course of human history. Morillo’s attempt at a balanced triple focus may have been made possible in part by the post-1970s cultural historians’ refusal to subordinate cultural history to economic and political history.

The present post was originally slated to look at a bit of Morillo’s presentation of world history, but that will be postponed for the sake of a gander at the evolution of assumptions in the historical profession and at how that evolution has increasingly allowed not only economics or politics, but culture also, to be treated as a major causative force behind historical events.

Morillo’s world history is underpinned by physically observable evidence, such as old documents, archaeology, genetic markers, and so on. In some respects (but only in some) his work tends toward a materialist interpretation of history. That tendency however does not appear to be based on any definite philosophical position Morillo holds, but on a more pragmatic concern: in scholarly circles, consensus today is much more widespread with regard to the meaning of material evidence than with regard to the meaning of cultural and spiritual evidence.

Morillo can of course only discuss what he knows. As a historian, when he discusses the creations of spiritual and cultural life, he takes no position on their ultimate significance, but this does not seem to be due in his case to a positivist belief that only “purely factual” data are to be taken seriously. On the contrary, a large part of the historical profession in recent decades has grown to varying degrees aloof from the assumption that one can gain unmediated access to something “purely factual.”

Indeed, to produce what some mistakenly consider a pure “fact,” thinking first selects and isolates a portion of the perceptual field while ignoring other portions of the field or other ways of delineating it. Thinking furthermore is often unconscious of its own creative activity in coordinating with and imitating portions of perceptual or noumenal fields in order to then become aware of them conceptually.

It seems relevent then to recall that William James famously pointed out that we would experience just a blooming, buzzing confusion around us if we had no thinking. To Kant, without thinking there would be no “experience” at all, since every conscious experience must be structured at least minimally by some form of thinking, even if we carry out that thinking before we are quite aware we have done so.

Some kinds of activity very like thinking often go on habitually and entirely unnoticed in adults, because those modes of activity were learned in infancy, when the child developed the ability to make sense of perceptions, and learned to think as it were with its eyes.

Just as adults find it much harder than babies do to learn a new language, and generally end up speaking with an accent, formerly blind adults, if they were blind all their lives, have great difficulty learning to make any sense of what they see after a surgical operation restores their vision. Although there is no longer anything physically wrong with their sight, the difficulty of learning to "think with their eyes" is such that, according to researchers, adults who must learn to see sometimes give up and start wearing a blindfold or otherwise covering up in order to shut out the invasion of perplexing and seemingly chaotic perceptual input.

As historians have struggled to determine what, if anything, they can know with certainty about history, it has gradually become clear to many that every “fact” is inescapably mediated and structured by often habitual and unnoticed thinking, and conceptual, time-bound, and cultural lenses; that even when one tries to sweep all paradigms away in order to get to some “rock bottom level,” what remains is still not “pure fact,” but rather a phenomenon mingled seamlessly and invisibly with that which various forms of thinking have brought to it.

The recognition by many historians in recent years that conscious perception is inextricably mediated by culture, language, and thought does not require however that one believe the mind is some kind of subjective trap that, like the Matrix in the well-known film of that name, separates one from the real world. Instead of leaping to a belief in subjectivism when one discovers thought inextricably penetrating perception, it seems more reasonable to conclude that mind and thinking are somehow an integral aspect of the world.

Thus thought can be recognized as something non-physical living in us that merges with nature’s and the physical world’s own non-physical formative processes. In that light, we can discover that the world thinks itself within us. When our thinking makes contact with hitherto unexperienced aspects of the world, those new aspects, with our assistance, voice themselves within us as our developing thoughts. We are not cut off from the world.

Of course professional historians in writing history rarely commit themselves to metaphysical conclusions. Nevertheless, many historians have gone so far as to acknowledge in some way that we cannot step entirely outside all paradigms and conceptual and cultural lenses into a “purely factual” world without losing the ability to recognize anything at all. Among historians this has been a form not of metaphysics but of modesty about what it is possible to securely know about history.

But along with such modesty, it seems to be at least vaguely sensed among substantial portions of the historical profession that part of the reason that thought of one or another sort is so inextricable from experience is that thinking may be part of the objective world itself. Historical debate has come to a point where a dim suspicion seems to be arising in various places that there are no exclusively physical facts, and that any portion of any thing that one might isolate for attention harbors inexhaustible depths only thinking can experience.

If one focuses on anything, no matter what it is, it can inform one that it is somehow related in its own unique way to everything that exists. Thus a unique cosmic ocean of relationships can be found living in whatever part of our perceptual field we choose to isolate for attention. To perceive that those relationships are not merely abstract, but connect everything to a living, evolving, spiritual world of non-physical creative beings is a further step that some will not wish to take, but which Rudolf Steiner tried to teach through the systematic cognitive disciplines he developed and referred to as Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition. Steiner argued and demonstrated that ordinary thinking could be gradually transformed so as to become a higher experience within experience.

That, however, is another story. At a more mundane level, the point to be made here is that for several decades something seems to have been dawning or trying to dawn on historians, namely that they can no longer treat culture, religion, and ideas as secondary to material phenomena when there are no exclusively material “facts” and when all phenomena, including economic and political realities, are inescapably mediated to our awareness via culture and thought.

Such inklings may be part of Morillo’s willingness to acknowledge cultural life (which includes religion and spirituality) as a causal force in history just as much as he credits causality to economic and political life. In the wake of generations of fruitful discussion among historians about what they can and cannot know with certainty about history, parts of the profession seem to have grasped, or to be on the cusp of grasping, that there is something profoundly irreducible and real about spiritual and cultural life.

The next post will probably take up the postponed project of looking into some of the concrete content of Morillo’s world history.

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