The Problem of Meaning of History Revives
History always was and evidently will be one of the main fields in the struggle between various political, religious, ethnic, class, gender, and other ideologies. History is the human past, that’s why a definite interpretation of historical events forms some special evaluation, self-identity, structures of loyalty and solidarity – the bases for political mobilization in wide sense.
In the modern ideological struggle mostly PR-technologies are used. Here history serves as a cards pack in hands of a professional player. The religious vision of the world and history was rather adequate for an illiterate population before transit to secularization and mass education. Now one can expect that mass higher education in developed countries leads to some new social and intellectual situation when previous primitive PR-technologies including falsification and misinterpretation of history are discredited. New forms of more critical, more intellectual, more valid historical discourse will emerge. It means appearance of new forms of debates on meaning, role and evaluation of various historical events (wars, revolutions, secessions, alliances, victories and failures). The discredited and almost forgotten problem of meaning of history comes back.
Between Dogmatism and Negativism
There are two dominant poles in modern comprehension of meaning of history: dogmatic and negativist ones. According to dogmatic view there is some unique absolute and true meaning of history which is already known (say, presented or covered in a sacred Book) or can be revealed once and forever.
Nowadays much more popular is the negativistic (= constructivist and relativist) position: there is an endless diversity of subjective opinions on meaning of history none of which have any validity or objectivity. Beyond these free floating games of mind there is nothing.
Via media that I try to develop here is for the first glance more close to the second — negativist view. The meaning of history is by no means any objective platonic idea (logos, substance, thought, symbol, praphenomenon, concept, principle, etc.) intrinsically and immanently hidden in the very historical reality.
Generally the meaning of history is (as any meaning) a mental construction of some ‘observer’>> (Fuchs 2001). The point is to reveal the nature of this construction, its needed features, and to know who this observer is.
The last question is the clearest one. According to general liberal and democratic principles of open society (compare with Habermas’s ideals of free equal communication) the set of possible ‘observers’ (=creators) of meaning of history must not be restricted anyhow but it involves potentially any community, group or individual who gives some impact into discourse about comprehension of history (universal, national, ethnic, provincial history, etc.).
This freedom to propose own ‘meanings of history’ leads to competition between interpretations and necessarily raises the issue of standards and criteria. Here we can see the double role of philosophers of history: formal and material (in terms of German, Kantian philosophical tradition).
‘Formally’ a philosopher of history elaborates epistemologically prescriptive rules, criteria, and standards of intellectual competition (compare with norms of correct and meaningful propositions, clear concepts and strict logic in the Vienna Circle and following analytical philosophy), criticizes ideological falsifications of history, can accept the role of a discussion moderator and an arbiter in intellectual conflicts.
‘Materially’ a philosopher of history is responsible more than others to reveal (create) meanings of history. In this case he (or she) acts already not as an arbiter but as one of main players in the discursive arena (compare with intellectual impacts of Herder, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Teillard de Charden, etc.).
The status of the following ideas is intermediate. I do not try to propose standards for any interpretations of history (that is probably impossible). I do not also suggest some new precise formula — what should be meaning of history for everybody. Instead I try to provide some conceptual frames and methodological means that make possible any community to create some distinct, rational meanings of own history. These meanings as cognitive constructions should be comparable, falsifiable and justified in some degree.
Historical Self-identification as a Trial:
the Conceptual Frame
The adequacy and validity of historical interpretations depend both on subjective values and worldviews (that are diverse and always can be questioned), and on the knowledge of objective deep historical trends and regularities that can be tested by theoretical history and historical macrosociology (that are based on standard scientific justification)>>.
According to value-loaded approach the general frame for historical self-identification can be defined as a test or a trial (more precisely, a self-test, a self-trial) of some group, community, society to survive and to accomplish its basic values and goals in given historical circumstances. The main frame of such historical trial includes:
a) some human community (a group, an ethnos, a society like nation-state, a civilization, the international community, the humanity as a whole);
b) conscious world-views, values, and goals of this community;
c) goals - a state and qualities of social system that are objectively necessary for accomplishment values (b);
d) deep transformations, relevant laws and regularities which are necessary and sufficient for this accomplishment (c); possibilities for action;
e) real actions, interactions, events and their results;
f) assessment by the community (a) of the actions and events (e) from the viewpoint of the values (b), the goals (c), and the regularities (d).
The Universal Model of Historical Dynamics
For conceptualizing conditions and actions the universal model of historical dynamics is used. The model consists of several phases which form three main loops (fig.1). Each loop begins from the phase of social stability - an organic system of effective regimes that allows influential groups to achieve their values and goals. Stability is disturbed by so called basic factors of historical dynamics (demographic, ecological, resource, social and cultural ones). Critical force of disturbance leads to a challenge – strong discomfort of influential groups which now must give a response i.e. must change essentially everyday behavior and/or organize some large-scale mobilization activity. The phase of response is the main point of divergence (bifurcation) where according to type of response one of main loops evolves.
The first loop just returns to the phase of stability. The response in this case is adequate and compensator one. New stability minimally differs from previous by minimal amelioration of some functions, institutions, regimes that temporally softens or neutralizes the destructive effect of historical dynamics factors. This is the path of step-by-step evolution (L.White, R.Carneiro).
The second loop is the most dramatic one. The non-adequate response usually leads to conflicts and enforcement of challenge. If inadequacy of the response prolongs escalation of conflicts and destruction leads to a crisis. If no fresh effective response appears, this loop proceeds “working” as a self-destructive way to a social abyss. Conceptually it is a special kind of positive cycle where each destructive trend leads to next destructive trend and all they enforce each other. Such structure was called the megatrend “Well” (or “Abyss”). If the social system is an empire or a state, this megatrend leads to a social revolution, state breakdown and territorial fragmentation.
Fig.1. The Universal Model of Historical Dynamics.
Breakdowns of Ancient and Medieval empires, of old regimes in modern social revolutions, recent Soviet collapse can serve as examples of such a historical pattern (J.Tainter, Th.Skocpol, J.Goldstone, R.Collins).
The third loop is the effect of series of adequate and prospective responses (here the model is rather close to the Toynbean original explanation of growth of “cultures” – local civilizations). How long such social resonance can continue? It depends on the given resource basis and ability of new cooperative community to find new sources, i.e. to give new adequate responses for new deficiency challenges. If new mobilizing community is successful in providing necessary resource basis for more than 1-2 generations, the specific historical phenomenon evolves – dynamic strategies>>. Here it means a bunch of cooperative activities with general objective direction that prolongs for two and more generations and uses each significant result as a base for new movement in the same direction. Seven main groups of dynamic strategies include coercive, commercial, technological, resource-transit, socio-engineer, demographic, and cultural ones.
Usually effective strategies are connected also into bunches. In cases of resource abundance and new effective responses to deficiency challenges they form a megatrend “Lift” (or “Escalator” - a positive cycle of factors but now factors of rise, growth and development). Such megatrend always includes significant institutional reforms that open new space for effective regimes development. These structural changes lead to a system transformation — the irreversible ongoing transit to some new social stage. Sic! Here historical dynamics is connected with crucial shifts of social evolution>>(K.Marx, M.Weber, W.Rostow, I.Wallerstein, E.Jones, S.Sanderson, I.Diakonoff, etc.). Sooner or later some new balance establishes and this new stage becomes a new social stability (the beginning of all three loops within the model).
Status of the Model —
the Ontological Paradigm for Theories of Dynamics
What is methodological status of the presented model? Let’s consider the classical discussion on objectivity and interpretation. “Naturalists” defend full objectivity of their statements while “constructivists” (also adherents of hermeneutics, phenomenology, relativism, postmodernism, etc.) insist on inevitability of interpretations. It is true that all general propositions on history, historical phenomena, processes, and trends are interpretations (“the truth of constructivism”). But not all interpretations are equal in adequacy and validity. Some of them can be justified by various empirical methods and logical means (the systematic comparison of historical cases, formulating and testing hypotheses, statistics, etc.) and can be considered as objective theoretical knowledge (“the truth of naturalism”). Also there is a wide range of helpful preliminary ontological, conceptual, logical, and methodological concepts and propositions that can not be tested and proved directly but serve as a necessary intellectual basis for theoretical and empirical research.
In these terms the following description of the universal model of historical dynamics has the status of the ontological paradigm for various theories of historical change. As far as the theories of step-by-step evolution (L.White, R.Carneiro), collapses, state-breakdowns and revolutions (J.Tainter, B.Moore, Th.Skocpol, J.Goldstone, R.Collins), mass mobilization, dynamic strategies (Ch.Tilly, G.Snooks), systemic transformations and modernizations (K.Marx, M.Weber, W.Rostow, I.Wallerstein, E.Jones, S.Sanderson, I.Diakonoff, A.Przeworski, etc.) and other dynamic theories can be tested and proved — they all support this covering ontological model.
I admit that justification of any social ontology (including our universal model of historical dynamics) belongs to the second-order context (Gorman 2007, p.41-49)>> and is directly depends on capacity of this ontology to serve as a basis for ‘good’ explanatory theories. Are theories ‘good’ or not is a matter of justification within the first-order context. I showed elsewhere>>. that in spite of all bulk of analytical sophistication, almost all contemporary theoretical knowledge including ethnology, experimental psychology, political sciences and historical sociology successfully apply standards of the Popper-Hempelian tradition especially in the version of research programs by Imre Lakatos. So the second-order justification of these standards is also based on the wide and blossoming practice of theoretical research>>. The majority of historians (with seldom exclusion of several great ones such as F.Braudel and W.McNeill) practicize traditional empirical research of some narrow field. They are usually fully incompetent in the very theoretical approach. They do not know and even don’t want to know what is a general hypothesis and how it is possible to test it by systemic comparison of historical cases. That’s why their constant idiosyncrasy towards Hempelian standards of historical explanation still proceeds to confuse analytical philosophers of history who restricted themselves from beginning and forever to a subordinate analysis of only traditional empirical historiography).
The model of historical dynamics presented above is not just a mere ‘interpretation’ (a voluntary one among dozens of others) but a general cognitive scheme which both incorporates previous dynamic theories with some range of objectivity (justification, validity etc.) and serves as an heuristics for further formulations of hypotheses and theories.
From Self-trial and Universal Model
to the Meaning of History
How the presented model can be used? The meaning of history occurs to be a rather complicate cognitive construction that integrates two conceptual frames (historical self-identification and the universal model), empirical data to fill cells in these frames, and the relevant theories of historical dynamics.
For some community to reveal (= to establish) the historical meaning of self-existence is:
1) to identify its actual position on the basis of an empirical data as a phase in the universal model of historical dynamics (stability, challenge, crisis, conflicts, social resonance, dynamic strategies, transformation,);
2) to explicate own values and goals;
3) to know what deep objective changes are relevant to these values and goals taking into account the known theories of historical dynamics;
4) to reveal what activities, responses, strategies correspond to these changes;
5) to establish (both discover and construct) the historical meaning of self-existence as a specific trial to reach the values (2) by the strategies (4) in the specific conditions (1) and according to theories of historical dynamics and regularities (3).
6) to reveal the meaning of past relevant history as a series of trials in the context of objective social changes and subjective changes of the values and beliefs.
This construction integrated both the descriptive elements (1 and theories in 3-5), the pure prescriptive elements (2) and the prescriptive elements based on both prescriptive and descriptive ones (3-6).
The viewpoint of global international community should take into account real and potential conflictness of goals of nation-states (especially neighbors and competitors). Here the social stability is treated as the international stable peace and cooperation. Conflicts, crises and megatrends “Well” are considered as a slip to wars, in extreme cases – world wars.
Are there any invariant values and goals that can serve as normative standards? Yes, there are so called the minimal values, or the values of general significance (VGS) which include human life, non-violence, freedom, human rights, justice, etc.>>
From this viewpoint the Meaning of World History is a permanent global trial for all communities (groups, societies, international alliances): if they manage or do not manage (in what degree and how) to accomplish the values of general significance while solving their own problems, giving responses to their own challenges.
Presented above universal model of historical dynamics and approach to comprehension of historical meanings can serve as a conceptual and methodological base for new highly intellectualized debates on history. These debates will still be actual and significant for ideological struggle but they will be based already not on PR‑tricks and cheating but on the systematic philosophical analysis of value-ethical, ontological, and epistemological problems, testable theories of historical dynamics and social evolution, supported by valid empirical research.