A History of Humanity is the definitive symbolic history of the world. The methods of symbolic history revolve around (1) an account of the human endowment taking up thought, feeling, and behavior from fruitful new perspectives, and (2) a correspondingly new account of global history from the point of view of the degrees of retention, surrender, and deformation of fundamental elements of the human endowment over time.
Among the new perspectives informing the account of the human endowment are semiotics, neuroscience, and palaeoethnobotany. They combine the classical modes of analysis: social anthropology and social history, political anthropology and political history, economic anthropology and economic history, and cultural anthropology and cultural history, that are gathered and unfolded under the aegis of symbolic history, bringing to the narrative a unique clarity.
Original source materials from the Neolithic world and from South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Western civilizations illustrate and challenge the narrative, which is unbroken but not dogmatic. Both the narrative and original sources are accompanied by a two-level marginal commentary: the first keeps the reader located in time and space, while the second brings insights from other observers of the world to the reader's attention. The aim of the commentary is to help the reader think about the human world, without, however, closing the question of the nature of the human world.
Marvin Bram is Professor Emeritus of History at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, USA. He constituted 'symbolic history' as a new discipline in five articles for the journal Semiotic. Professor Bram was one of the original appointees to the ten-member National Humanities Faculty in the USA. He was named in the Galantine College Book as one of eight Americans—former President Jimmy Carter was another—with national reputation as teachers.
This is a very short book to be dealing with so gargantuan a subject as the history of humanity. The book cannot but be extremely selective; it is therefore full of unexpressed personal judgments about what should and should not be included. Of what is included, not lists of facts—the substance of mere chronicles—but historical judgments and explanations will be what matters. It is not that facts are not vital to understanding. One begins to fill in a picture of the past by establishing the when and where of events. But the more interesting questions follow knowing the when and where; they aim to explain the how and why of things having happened as they did. A History of Humanity lays out a set of linked historical facts and explanations of such facts—one set, justified as perspicuously as the author can justify it, among many possible sets.
What are historical explanations? Philosophers of history differ on how a historian should go about explaining not only the how and why, but even the when and where of events. There are three different styles of historical explanation which may be found instructive—the styles of the lawyer-historian, the physicist-historian, and the physician-historian.
One sort of historian looks at the past as a lawyer might. This historian knows that an event occurred of which she was not a witness, just as a criminal lawyer knows that a crime was done of which there was no witness. The historian searches, like the lawyer, for all the evidence her ingenuity suggests to her: documents, testimony, physical objects associated with the event, and much else. Both the historian and the lawyer are also trained readers. Both follow rules painstakingly drawn up by their professions for gathering, interpreting, and evaluating evidence. The more intellectually and intuitively penetrating the lawyer-historian is, the larger a conception she will have of what can stand as evidence. What non-professionals may see as a meaningless object, she will see as an important part of a complex puzzle. After the lawyer-historian has gathered and thought through all the evidence she can think of looking for, she, like the lawyer, faces the job of putting it all together.
For lawyers and lawyer-historians a single, objective past cannot be recaptured. Evidence, for lawyer and historian alike, is fragmentary on principle. However fragmentary the evidence may be, it must still be woven into a continuous fabric. A coherent historical narrative must be constructed out of the evidence and the competence of the lawyer-historian. A coherent reconstruction of a crime must be constructed similarly by the criminal lawyer. In both cases, all the evidence must 'fit', and the criterion of plausibility must be applied to every detail of historical narrative or reconstruction of the crime.
There seem to be similarities between what lawyers do and how novelists work. Several of the principles of narrative construction are the same. A lawyer's summation must be 'a compelling narrative, moving plausibly, step by step, to her conclusion. A jury follows her narrative with its whole attention—if the narrative meets the principles of narrative construction adequately. Novelists must hold the attention of their readers with similar means. The ends of the lawyer and the novelist are different, of course. A summation involves real persons and actual evidence, to the end that a jury agrees with the lawyer's reconstruction and final judgment. A novel involves imagined persons and events, to the end that a reader enjoys an aesthetic experience. The historian, like the lawyer and the novelist, constructs a narrative that moves forward free of inconsistencies. In fact, continuous, believable movement forward is a necessary condition of historical explanation. The historian, moreover, has a special responsibility to her profession: her historical narrative must be published so as to take its place in a long tradition of historical narratives. She must know that tradition, and her new history must fit into it; it must contribute in some way to building a composite picture of the human past. If her history is a significant one, it will fill in a blank space in the record of the past, or correct an incorrectly described space, or supply a new context for understanding an important aspect of the past.
Criticism of the lawyer-historians' orientation toward the past and its reconstruction is not lacking. One line of criticism imagines two historians equipped with the same evidence embarking on an explanation of the same event. Both historians apply their knowledge of the record and their powers of inference to the evidence, and they produce two different accounts of the event. Both accounts adequately cover the evidence and they are both plausible. Which is the 'history' of the event, then? The lawyer-historian may well reply that both accounts are in a sense its history, since one can never know with certainty what happened. The two accounts may stand until better accounts are written, `better' implying the discovery of new evidence, perhaps, or the application of new theories related to human motives or the nature of the forces connecting events.
A physicist trained to find one and only one truth about a laboratory event would be unsatisfied with multiple explanations of historical events. For a physicist-historian there has to have been one and only one historical past. Furthermore, while skill in the construction of narratives may be an important attribute for a novelist, it has little place in practicing history, a social science, a science. When a physicist-historian is confronted by a problem of explanation, he must turn to a scientific model of explanation. If he does so properly, competing explanations will be ruled out and a single historical past will straightforwardly be revealed.
A scientific model of historical explanation would look like a deduction. The physicist-historian would gather (a) the proper set of universal statements, statements that are true at all times and in all places and (b) the proper set of particular statements, statements that are true at one time and in one place only, in order to obtain, entail, (c) the one and only sought-for event, the conclusion of the deduction. The universal and particular statements together are the explanation of the sought-for event. The deduction is locked tight, clear, and unambiguous. The ambiguity of the lawyer-historian's explanations is overcome and the scientific ideal achieved.
The real reason that there are doubts about explanations, asserts the physicist-historian, is that the full deductive explanations of historical events are not available—yet. Only partial explanations exist, and these naturally appear ambiguous. But as historians discover and apply more universal statements, and as they surround known events with the necessary and sufficient particular statements, explanations will become more and more adequate. They will finally have all the certainty of explanations in physics.
Critics of the absorption of history into the natural sciences point to certain assumptions about deductive historical explanations. First, the assumption that universal statements relevant to history exist; that the social and natural sciences supply them, or will in time; that there may be things that could be said about human motives and acts that are true under all possible conditions. Second, the assumption that one can identify all the pertinent conditions surrounding the event to be explained in order to provide the necessary and sufficient particular statements to plug into the deduction. A physicist-historian would find nothing controversial about these assumptions. But the first assumption alone, that universals for human acts exist, raises grave doubts in some historians' minds. These doubts throw the whole deductivist enterprise into question.
Are there universal statements about people and events that are always true? Whether or not there are, most people fall back on what they think is universal statements all the time. They are almost always unstated, and often they are unconscious. Imagine that one were reading a text that argues for worldwide technological progress. Universal statements of some kind undoubtedly lie implicit in the text's claims. One set of mutually consistent universal statements might include, regarding psychology and behavior, that human beings are naturally aggressive (at all times, in all places) and regarding economics and behavior, that human beings compete with one another for available goods, especially when scarce (at all times, in all places). Universal statements like these may lie so deep in the historian's beliefs about humanity that he does not know that he uses them in selecting his evidence. The crucial question is: Are they true?
If one were to produce instances disconfirming a universal statement, one would disconfirm the deduction of which the universal statement is an element. It appears that disconfirming instances have been brought forward for most or all universal statements pertaining to human beings and historical events. A history of technology based on the unstated universal statements 'human beings are naturally aggressive' and 'human beings compete with one another for available goods, especially when scarce' may be no more acceptable than a history based on the unstated universal statements 'human beings are naturally cooperative' and 'human beings share available goods, especially when scarce'. Disconfirming instances can be proffered for all these so-called universal statements. So it may be impossible to produce deductive historical explanations.
Historical explanation thus opens up. Competing explanations become possible, and one is back to the situation faced by the lawyer-historian. Physicist-historians have not given up the deductive model, however; the influence of their training and the overall cultural force of the natural sciences are too great. For them, genuine universal statements will come as the social sciences become more like the natural sciences. For 'quasi-physicist-historians', strictly universal statements may not be available or available yet, but other, 'universal-like' statements can be appealed to in their place. It is not unusual for a universal-like statement to take a statistical, probabilistic form. The deductive model, perhaps featuring a weaker entailment of a conclusion, would then be saved.
A historian may choose to describe those events that appear to her to disclose symptoms of an illness. For the physician-historian, a particular culture, or a period in the history of a culture, can be judged to reveal a large-scale social pathology. This historian would be obligated to make the case that the place and time in question showed clear social-pathological signs, defining 'pathology' in a significant way. Then the most revealing symptoms would be laid out in a fluid narrative, which would stand as a diagnosis. A therapeutic programme, implied or explicit, might follow from the diagnosis.
The orientation of the physician-historian not only decides what events and actors to describe, but how to describe them. The example of warfare, one of the most troubling manifestations—symptoms, perhaps—of many civilizations, comes quickly to mind. The physician-historian might criticize both lawyer- and physicist-historians for writing colorful accounts of ancient and modern wars, explaining their military, economic, political, and social features with relish, in so doing conferring special status, even a species of glamour, on them. 'How very interesting that war was', the intrigued reader might think. A physician-historian would be saddened by such a response, particularly in a young reader.
Physician-historians, in their turn, would meet with criticism from both lawyer- and physicist-historians. The latter two might claim that diagnosis and prescription are not the proper responsibilities of the historian. The scholarly conventions created by the historical schools of Europe in the nineteenth century, conventions still honored in universities, exclude such considerations in the name of value-free narratives of the historical past. The physician-historian's counter-claim would probably point to the impossibility of value-free accounts of anything at all—all human perspectives being formed, or at least modified, by unrecognized values—and go on to question the hoary Western conventions that bar their diagnostic and therapeutic interests. 'If we do not use knowledge of how people have actually lived and have injured each other in the past as a starting point for understanding how we might limit or stop injury', they might say, 'then on what bases will efforts to prevent future tragedy be made? Surely history ought to provide one basis, perhaps a privileged one. It may be time, in the twenty-first century, cognizant of global interests rather than Western interests alone, to practice history diagnostically and therapeutically.'
The differences among the lawyers, the physicists, and the physicians have not been reconciled; in the meantime, histories are written. It may be useful to readers of historical texts to be attuned to the differences, to appreciate what sort of work reconstructing the past is, and how human in their aspirations and their fallibility historians are.
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