Tuesday, November 11, 2008

quigley's critique of the clerks of history

I've already posted my summary of Carroll Quigley's narrative of historical development here, and now I'll move straight to the end, where Quigley concludes the Evolution of Civilizations with takeaways for students of the social sciences to better frame inquiries into the past and present. Quigley is disturbed by the inconsistencies and contradictions running rampant in historical study, which he attributes to students focusing on knowing every detail of their area of historical expertise, while failing to carefully consider a deliberate analytical framework from which to understand their historical area.

The eager student would be slower to make bold assertions about the past if he appreciated the complexity of the system he studied. Understanding civilization, and social phenomena more generally, is intrinsically very difficult, as human experience is not static but dynamic: it is a continuum:

"A continuum is a heterogeneous unity each point of which differs from all the surrounding points but differs from them by such subtle gradations in any one respect that no boundaries exist in the unity itself, and it can be divided into parts only by imaginary and arbitrary boundaries."
We are left to cope with the past the same way we deal with the colors of the rainbow, drawing arbitrary lines between red, orange, and yellow. These artificial categories or labels are necessary for discussion, but we must realize they are arbitrary.

Quigley asks students to be ‘executives’ of history, rather than simply its clerks. The distinction is that the clerk concerns himself with knowing the details of history, while the executive is interested in understanding history. The executive’s understanding is only as good as his analysis, and to this end he uses deliberate techniques to provide a systematic understanding of historical development.

These techniques will not be perfect – a fact Karl Popper and Nassim Taleb would insist upon more forcefully than Quigley – but only through the deliberate choice of one technique or another will the student be aware of the potential blind spots of his understanding. That is to say, every understanding of historical development depends on assumptions, whether the student deliberately makes them or remains blissfully unaware.

It is a tremendous err, however, to not deliberately pick a set of assumptions from which to interpret. By unknowingly operating off whatever assumptions make sense at the time, the student ends up with a contradictory and inconsistent assumptions (and interpretation of history). What's more, he never even understands the assumptions implicit in his own garbled understanding.

Quigley also takes issue with the how historical phenomena are compartmentalized into incomprehensible units, such as “nations” or “the middle class.” For the purpose of studying historical development, it is necessary to study distinct groups; a nation-state may have more than one distinct group, or may contain part of a distinct group that exists in another nation-state as well. Defining distinct groups is not easy, but it necessary for rational study.

Quigley also objects to the language of history. Historical terms should be selected to correspond to the process being studied and the technique being employed. Instead, historical development is explained in a language devoid of consistency or meaning, e.g., periods classified as “medieval” and “classical.” At best, terms are descriptive, at worst they are highly misleading. The exact lines drawn to classify different periods or peoples will always be somewhat arbitrary, but that doesn’t excuse sloppiness.

For another example, the time period between 400 and 1400 AD is referred to as the middle ages, medieval period, and the dark ages (for the beginning). The first term provides the student with the knowledge that this period is in the middle of two other periods. Medieval describes the period as “outdated,” which provides the student with the knowledge that this period is less up-to-date than more recent periods. The dark ages provides the student with a similar perception.

None of these terms convey how the events within this period figure in the process of historical development. If anything, they suggest that historical development stopped for 1,000 years. Quigley breaks down the same time period into four parts – mixture, gestation, expansion, and conflict. Quigley deliberately chooses a set of consistent and relevant labels for historical phases that correspond with the process of historical development and the on-the-ground reality; therefore, his technique is better able to explain supposed exceptions to the dark ages or medieval period, such as the Carolingian Renaissance. This periodization is more than a small nuisance: it has led to a high degree of specialization limited within these arbitrary designations. Now the most fruitful studies are likely to come from those who study the gaps and borders of these false categories.

In sum, Quigley joins Arnold Toynbee in arguing for the importance of analytical technique in historical and social analysis. A systematic technique not only provides a more coherent historical narrative, but also provides the self-awareness needed to understand one’s own potential blind spots. Toynbee properly identified these problems in his studies, but failed to provide proper definitions for his own terms and indeed fell prey to the same sloppiness he condemned.

It would be silly to argue that Quigley’s technique of understanding the rise and fall of civilizations is perfect, but with the ubiquitous disclaimer to handle all post-hoc narratives with care, he offers a superior history, an insightful critique of popular history, and a sound reminder for students of history to carefully choose a technique - even if it's not Quigley's.

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