Using Human History as a guide Could Our Present Civilization Fall Into a New Dark Age?

sknox

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>what got recorded was about the rich and famous
This isn't actually true. It's what got written by certain kinds of writers, but there's a *ton* of material about ordinary folks. My dissertation, to take an example where I feel confident, was about millers, shoemakers, joiners, and bathhouse keepers--four guilds in early modern Augsburg. The raw material consisted of hundreds of petitions from guildsmen to the City Council. There wasn't a lot of daily life stuff there, but it certainly wasn't all nobles and royals. I cite the many "daily life" and mentalite' books as another example of how history is not always (or even mostly) written by the winners.

Anyway, I just wanted to explain about this. And it is certainly true that one has to go quite a ways in academic courses before one gets down to the daily life level. This has always struck me as silly. I'd rather make an intro class on daily life in the Middle Ages than "Intro to ..." courses. Oddly, curriculum committees never consult with me.
 

sknox

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@Nozzle Velocity makes some excellent points. I'll reply in detail.

>It should be the job of the historian, much like the scientist, to explore, reveal, and make linear, causal sense of the chaotic patterns in human history.
Historians have had a long, running argument on this one. Each of those verbs are significant. The historian should explore ... that's research. The historian should reveal ... that's the writing of history (an art form rarely discussed). The historian should make sense ... ah, there's the rub. Everything from positivists who really do see a line running clearly from past to present, to deconstructionism who argue the line doesn't exist or perhaps that all lines exist. The longer I've been in the field, the more convinced I am that the arguments reflect not so much the merit of one position or another as the temperament of the person holding it.

>I don't suppose there's anything wrong with the joy of simply collecting data points. I've heard many historians say this is the only kind of history they enjoy reading. Fair enough.
I've not heard this. No historian merely collects data points. Collecting is just research. It becomes history once that research is communicated to others. Perhaps what's meant here is what is sometimes called micro-history--the study of a single event or small group to see what it can tell us.

And now I know I'm going beyond what Nozzle said, but here goes anyway. I'm the sort of historian who studies the past in order to understand the past. Those people back then, in whatever place and time I look at, fascinate me. I want to understand them in their own terms. There's another kind of historian--one who studies the past in order to understand the present. I distrust this sort because too often I find they distort those people I love to study in order to construct their argument. They fit the past into a modern mould and proudly declare (to quote one of my old professsor's jokes) "these are the conclusions on which my data are based." I'm reasonably sure those modernist historians (my name for them [TM]) have their own jokes to make about me.

>But I'm utterly unconvinced that the study and teaching of history has no "utility". The endeavor doesn't have to serve as propaganda. I believe the search for a narrative synthesis is vital.
Absolutely. It's so vital, in fact, that human societies have always done this, despite having no historians in the village. We humans love to see patterns. We demand the world make sense; more, we demand that it make *our* kind of sense. We are constantly re-making and even inventing the past as a way to justify or understand or explain ourselves to ourselves. It has almost nothing to do with scholarly history. We will have our narrative synetheses (because just one is never enough), and historians be damned.

This is how I explain to myself why it is that generation after generation of historians have carefully pointed out that the RCC was not all-powerful in the MA, or that just because there are merchants doesn't mean that's capitalism, or that the Roman Empire didn't fall in the 5th century, and so on and on. Generation after generation, and yet still every new generation of bright young students drag these misunderstandings with them into the classroom. It is emphatically not the influence of movies or TV.

It's that narrative synthesis thing. All the odd stereotypes about the MA are there because they're part of a story we tell ourselves, and we believe it's important to tell ourselves. Getting everyone to realize that plate armor was not the standard in the 12thc is beside the point when considered in the context of the cultural narrative. Academic history isn't going to "fix" that. And socieities don't need historians to create those narratives. In fact, we're rather a nuisance to them, and that's fine by me.

And finally, value. I have to make a pitch here. Value is valuable! Utility is merely useful. Both are needed, of course, but I hate to see value dismissed out of hand. Literature has value. Art has value. It raises the useful to the important. So when I say history has value more than utility, I'm really arguing for its importance. But the importance--as with any art--is going to vary from one person to the next, and will vary even over the course of one individual's lifetime.
 

sknox

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And one more. Sorry for the post blizzard.

People get worked up about this. Not just here; I've seen it elsewhere. I took a step back to consider why this is so and I wonder. This is pure speculation, tossed out to this community for consideration.

History--never mind of what particular sort--matters to people because it's a tool for making sense of the world. This is important, because we have very few of those. Psychology had a day on the field. Various social sciences have waved their flag but I don't think any have been very convincing.

Science is a big dog in the What Is Going On field, but scientists usually pull back when it comes to the squishy, human stuff. There's some reason to think that the brain scientists along with the geneticists may eventually offer explanation and guidance for a narrative synthesis, but those guys spook as many people as they comfort, at least so far. But science is definitely a contender.

The other big one is religion. I'm a medieval historian, but it's late MA and I wandered into the Reformation era, so religion and its social role has been an unavoidable topic for me. For all that I'm a social and economic historian, religious history fascinates me. One thing religions do is provide that narrative synthesis. How did we get here? Where are we going? How do I fit into it all? Religion has the answers. More importantly, it provides a context, a way to think about the world. That's powerful stuff. Stronger, even, than science, which steadfastly avoids moral issues or philosophy.

So. Science and religion. History may be a third. History not as academic study but history as cultural narrative. History as that understanding of the past that we all seem to simply absorb without being able to pinpoint quite where and when we learned it. Various sub-groups within a culture will have their own narrative, their own historical understanding, but for each that understanding provides a way to explain the world and their place in it.

If I look at it that way, then the passion of some of the arguments ... er, debates ... er, discussions ... about history make sense to me. And that leads me to make a major amendment to my "history is not a hammer" argument (that is, a hammer merely has a use). It's not that history has value more than utility, it's that *scholarly* history has value. The academic discipline of history has value. You could abolish all the departments of history worldwide and cultures would still go on much as before, inventing their own narrative syntheses. I have to remember that when I say history, I'm really only talking about my field, a specific profession and discipline. If I make broad statements about "history" outside of that field, I have to remember that others may not see the word in the same way.

Eh. Sometimes it takes me a few decades, but I get there.
 

Dave

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@olive I didn't consider what you asked @sknox to be an "argument", so how could I think that you would take my comments to mean that I did. It was just your question that I didn't understand and wished to understand.

@sknox We need to reference exactly what period we are discussing. I admit that was being extremely broad. Most people here are interested in the Middle Ages and that is your own period of research. I know more about Early Modern.

There are records for sure of millers, shoemakers, joiners, and bathhouse keepers. There are Polls and Valuations of property. There are Wills if you have possessions. Diaries from travellers. Family reconstruction can be done from parish registers. That is the kind of social history research being done today and with which I'm very familiar with. You would think that everyone produced some written record of their existence, but in the 1600's there were "idle poor" and "vagrants," existing outside of towns who were not being recorded because they had no property, received no poor relief, and were not born or buried in the city, and they produced nothing of value. Not just a few people either, but impossible to say how many. I may not have explained myself well before, but they have no voice at all.

The further you go back, the less there is about ordinary or poor people. Bede's An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, just for example, is about Caesar's invasion of Britain and the martyrdom of St Alban, it is not about millers and shoemakers. Written hundreds of years after the events, it hardly contains contemporary accounts and is mostly about dates and places. My point is that is how history still used to be written, and how it was taught too, until quite recently.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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'Truth' is wholly in the eyes of the beholder. That certainly is about how humans work.
I'm sorry, that's something I personally can't accept as a premise. I'm not trying to be confrontational or anything--it's just that the existence of absolute truth, whether accepted or denied, is really going to be a fundamental part of any argument. If one person believes there is, and the other believes there is not, there's no way they're going to get something like the importance of history nicely sorted out without first figuring out where they stand on whether there's any such thing as non-relative truth in the first place! So cheers and respect to everyone, I'm just going to stand down and watch how this thread goes now. You guys are great.
 

Karn's Return

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We definitely can fall into another dark age, especially since we're entering into a Grand Solar Minimum, which has been shown to have brought civilizations to ruin. Other problems we have, of course, are things like climate change, population issues, environmental destruction, anti-vaccinators...
 

olive

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Absolutely! --As long as all the lessons are true, though. I think it's entirely possible to learn wrong lessons from something. Even a single little novel can teach a hundred different people a hundred different things about reality. And history is better than even lots of novels--it's three-dimensional.

Yes, there are practically infinite amount of lessons to learn from history. I want to learn my lessons, and your lessons, and everybody else's if I can (which I simply don't have the capacity to). If they're all true lessons, they won't be contradictory. They will merely be fantastically complex.

Anyway, I'm sorry if it sounded like I was trying to debate history with a historian. It struck me more as debating philosophy with a historian. :) More like arguing with Rowling over the character of Gandalf.
Yes, mam! I can't be objective to that name though you know that right? I love your name.
 
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olive

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We definitely can fall into another dark age, especially since we're entering into a Grand Solar Minimum, which has been shown to have brought civilizations to ruin. Other problems we have, of course, are things like climate change, population issues, environmental destruction, anti-vaccinators...
I apologise for that?
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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Yes, mam! I can't be objective to that name though you know that right? I love your name.
Thanks! (I didn't know....) Frightfully sorry if it's distracting, though--I certainly didn't pick it for any potential advantage in future philosophical arguments! It'd be cool if it was my real name, now, but sadly it's not.... :cry:
 

sknox

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>Grand Solar Minimum, which has been shown to have brought civilizations to ruin.
Source? I'm curious to know which civilization(s).
 

J Riff

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History is all wrong so maybe, sure, I don't know, yes, possibly. But we could test people's theories - by hurling them into a lake. If they sink, they were right, if they float, they were wrong, and should be done away with.
 

Dave

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I'm sorry, that's something I personally can't accept as a premise. I'm not trying to be confrontational or anything--it's just that the existence of absolute truth, whether accepted or denied, is really going to be a fundamental part of any argument. If one person believes there is, and the other believes there is not, there's no way they're going to get something like the importance of history nicely sorted out without first figuring out where they stand on whether there's any such thing as non-relative truth in the first place! So cheers and respect to everyone, I'm just going to stand down and watch how this thread goes now. You guys are great.
Well you did ask for a philosophical argument!

But again, the above isn't quite what I'm saying. I'm not promoting "alternative facts" here at all. I'm not saying that Red is actually Blue, or that 1 is 2. There are, however, many subjective opinions on which people will constantly differ, and will differ quite vehemently over, but which none can prove is true. There is a reason why we have stopped having political discussions on this forum. Just say that you disagree with me over some political decision. Which of us is correct? From our own particular political viewpoints we probably both would be. There is no magic formula that can be used to prove that one of us is correct. These are often arguments of ideology.

Let me put it another way by using the analogy I made earlier:

...when people watch Football on TV and there is a goal scored from inside the box, even though it is recorded on TV for all to see and re-watch, then you will still get different views about the match - the referee was blind, the ref is biased or incompetent, the goalkeeper was asleep or incompetent, the striker was on form, the striker was lucky, the manager is at fault - all depending on which team you support.
If the final score in the match is 2-1 then that is an undisputed fact. No one can change that fact. Even if the referee made a poor decision then it is still true that one team won and one team lost. However, that doesn't stop us from arguing that one team 'deserved to win,' or that one team 'played much better,' or over who was the man of the match. Those subjective views may be true, or they may not be.

It is these kind of arguments that historians can and do have frequently, just as we all do.

On the other hand, I have confidence in science and in the scientific method. If I was to propose the hypothesis made above that "Grand Solar Minimums result in civilisations being brought to ruin," then I have absolute confidence that using the historical record and statistical analysis, that I would be able to prove conclusively that this was either true or untrue.

If think that much earlier in this thread, the question set by this thread, "Using Human History as a guide Could Our Present Civilization Fall Into a New Dark Age?" was already answered as a "no." I only entered back into this conversation again because the Robert Harris book that I read actually used this as a premise, but that is obviously a work of fiction, and Richard Harris' views on the subject are no more the truth than anyone else here.
 
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