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History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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History, theory, Popper, and evolution

June 18th, 2010 · 1 Comment

A post sent to the History & Theory listserve, in a discussion about historical theory.

Subject: RE: Postkantian history (the history that theory can explain)

Before pursuing postkantian history, it might be well to ask, what was Kantian history? We cited one paragraph, the first, from Kant’s famous essay on history which was essentially a question about finding an historical dynamics that is also an expression of the issue of free will. But, for sure, if you can manage to not sink in postkantian quicksand there are any number of approaches to history in German Classical Philosophy.

That ‘challenge’ from Kant was a question in search of an answer. But that is a very hard question.
Actually, we can suggest a series of answers to that, at least in principle, and I cited
a number of examples: situations where the element of ‘choice’ (which may be more general than free will, i.e. with possible causation) is built into a system. The example we cited was that of a causally deterministic computer versus a computer with an element of input via some device like a mouse. Choice is built into that situation. That doesn’t prove it is a question of free will or non-causal, only that choice is built in, and intrinsically in contrast to causal elements. Now it may be that choice is itself causal in a different way, but the appearance/reality of choice is real, and is reflected in the beautiful computer code which deals with mouse input. This shows that in principle the idea of choice can have intrinsic status in an otherwise causal system.

More generally the search for historical laws, pace Popper/Isaiah Berlin, is problematical, as noted here many times in this set of threads. These critiques flourished in an era of critique of Marxism, but were less applauded when reapplied to subjects closer to home, like economic models of market economies, where the same paradoxes applied. But the profession of economics survives in splendid self-deception here thinking nothing of applying the differential equation to economic systems. The reigning mathematical ideology, I must suppose. I guess it is not surprising markets collapse in clouds of bad theory periodically.

In any case there is a solution to the problem of history, which is that it is the kid brother of evolution (or vice versa) and must share a class of ideas in common. Hopefully non-Darwinian. For we can see that world history does not advance by natural selection. If anything Darwinian mechanisms degrade history, social darwinism. A good example is the data of the Axial Age: in one key snapshot world history advances due a spontaneous and quite mysterious macro factor that operates on the highest elements of culture.

We need another approach to the unity and difference of history and evolution.
We can see that history and evolution are connected and therefore must provide commentary on each other.
We can pursue that in another set of posts.
But it is worth asking, before connecting, history and evolution, if Darwinian theory, thought to apply to deep time, is really the key to human evolution. A number of desperate issues plead exception to the current Darwinian regime. The free will question, as noted, consciousness/self-consciousness, ethical evolution, religion, etc… Unfortunately the style of critique of Popper never managed to find an application to evolution (despite intimations of Popperian dissent). Figures such as Dennett think nothing of ascribing free will to natural selection and adaptationist scenarios. In that environment we cannot really proceed without an immense amount of disputation.
But so what. A variant of Popper and Berlin apply.

We have the spectacular example of an ‘evolution of some kind’ in the data of the Axial Age, for example, suggesting something quite different.
In any case, the question of a science of history fails on issues of causality and freedom, but the answer is to consider what we mean by the ‘evolution of history’, and to consider the answer or answers in terms of putative ideas of the ‘evolution of freedom’. More anon.

Meanwhile, something from Schelling on historical theory sounds terrific, but the postkantians tend to go off the deep end, or end up in the leaky boat of Hegelian dialectic.

John Landon

Tags: History · The Eonic Effect

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