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Historicism II

by proximity1 Thu May 4th, 2006 at 02:54:01 PM EST

Historicism is a tendency, more or less pronounced, to see history as an unfolding process which is directed and informed by some fundamental principles or laws and which, when correctly discerned by the careful observer, not only reveal a kind of ordering sense to all that has happened in humanity's past, but which  also, just as much and more importantly, must reveal the direction and, with it, the meaning « behind » what unfolds in the present and in what is to come, in what, indeed, must come next.   The ways in which such a tendency of thought can express itself are quite varied.  It entails more than a search for patterns in the past or present, more than an attempt to draw « lessons » from a selection of historical facts.  It assumes, rather, that there is a general meaning and direction of all human existence--or even, for some, of all existence, human and otherwise--which, once grasped, should help inform us  as to what our destinies are to be as societies, as a civilization.  


Historicism ( II )

    Some preliminary cautions and notices to begin: I do not claim to be an expert on either the work of Karl Popper [1902-1994] as a whole or on historicism as a concept.  My commentary here is an informal one based on a reading of Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies, The Poverty of Historicism and Conjectures and Refutations.  Thus, others in this forum with a greater knowledge of Popper's work can certainly augment and improve anything I'm able to offer here -and I hope that they would.   I'm also unable to discuss historicism in light of a reading of other philosophers who have critiqued it since Popper.  

I have relied on these editions in drafting the following :

  The Poverty of Historicism
(c) 1957, 1960, 1961, Karl Popper,
(c) 2002 Estate of Karl Popper;
 Published 2002, Routledge Classics/ Taylor & Francis Group, Abingdon,OX, U.K. & New York
(isbn: 0 415 27846 5)

 and

The Open Society and Its Enemies ,

Vol. 1: "The Spell of Plato",
Vol. 2: "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath"
(c) 1966, 5th Ed. Revised, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

 and for the biographical information,

  Karl Popper: un philosophe heureux; essai de biographie intellectuelle by Michelle-Irène Brundy
(c) Paris, 2002, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle

This is still in the form of a rough draft.  But I'm now so annoyed with  myself for not having gotten farther along that I'm posting it as it is and letting the discussion pick out the faults and smooth out the rough spots.
    ________________

    Popper's  youth and education -- briefly.  

    Karl Popper, the third child and only son of Jenny Schiff and Simon Popper, was born at Ober St. Veit, a suburb of Vienna.  Karl had two older sisters,  Emilie Dorthea  (Dora), eight years  his senior, and Anna Lydia (Annie), four years older.  Karl's father, Simon, was a lawyer who ran a successful and influential law practice.   He was also a Doctor of philosophy and an accomplished student of history.  He translated Greek classics and read widely in history and the humanities.  His extensive library contained, among much else, all of Freud's works as these appeared in their first editions.   Dr. Popper was also a leading figure in several charitable associations providing relief to the poor in Vienna.

 Simon's death in Vienna in 1932 was followed six years later by that of Jenny.  Dora worked as a nurse during the war (1914-18) and later as a civil servant.  Stricken with a grave and incurable illness, she took her own life in 1932.  Annie became a dancer and a professor of dance, eventually settling in Ascona, in Switzerland.

    As Popper explains in prefatory notes, The Poverty of Historicism (PoH) came from work which extended from the end of 1919 until February, 1936, when it was first presented as a scholarly paper.  The impulse for The Open Society and Its Enemies (OS&E) came two years later in March of 1938, when Hitler's forces invaded Austria.  Its first English edition was published in 1945 by Routledge & Kegan Paul publishers in London.

    Behind that cursory description lie the varied events which marked Popper's youth and intellectual development.  These included, as a back-drop, the continuing tangled and messy confrontation between burgeoning socialist movements and an established capitalist political and economic order.   That over-simplified dichotomy belies the contending social, political and economic beliefs which, as in all times, can be found to cut across the gamut of society and divide opinion within groups of peers and thus frustrates any complete or easy division between the usual picture  of economic classes.  The backdrop also included the war of 1914 and the upheaval and hardships which followed defeat.  For Popper, it meant a secondary-school education which was punctuated by changes from one school  to another, by his extended  absences due to illness and by his boredom with the rote character of the teaching.

    Eventually, Popper abandoned his formal secondary school studies and joined a recently-formed association of socialist high-school students, a circle created by Paul Lazarsfeld and Ludwig Wagner.  He divided his time between his own studies, his political activism and working at manual labor.  His Marxist political activism would twice place him at the scene of confrontations between police and demonstrators, during the second of which there were people in the crowd killed and injured by the police.  The event marked Popper profoundly.  

    He gained his high-school diploma by exam and took up an eclectic group of courses as an independent auditor in 1919 at the University of Vienna and, three years later, joined as a formally- enrolled student.  He soon narrowed his studies to mathematics and physics.  In 1925, in the middle of his university courses, he concluded that, due to his Jewish origins, he could not expect to obtain a post teaching in a university.   He then supplemented his university classes with courses at a new teacher's college established by the city of Vienna and he followed a curriculum intended to provide him with the credentials to teach science and mathematics in secondary school.  It is there at the teaching college that he met Anna Josefine Henniger (Hennie), daughter of a middle class Catholic family, and married her after a six year courtship.   Popper's parents had converted from Judaism to Catholicism two years before Karl was born.  By 1936, Popper saw that remaining in Austria placed him and his wife in peril of the mounting anti-semitism--from which his parents' conversion would not spare them.  In November of the same year he resigned from a teaching post and, after seeking a refuge in Britain and New Zealand, he and Hennie left for New Zealand in early 1937, going by way of London.  He spent the war years teaching at the University of New Zealand and he finished work on OS&E there.  After the war, Popper and his wife went to London where he had obtained a teaching position at the London School of Economics.

    ________________________

   

« ...[T]here are some sound elements in historicism; it is a reaction against the naïve method of interpreting political history merely as the story of great tyrants and great generals.  Historicists rightly feel that there may be something better than this method.  It is this feeling which makes their idea of 'spirits'--of an age, of a nation, of an army--so seductive.  
    Now I have not the slightest sympathy with these 'spirits' ... yet I feel that they indicate, at least, the existence of a lacuna, of a place which it is the task of sociology to fill with something more sensible, such as an analysis of problems arising within a tradition.  There is room for a more detailed analysis of the logic of situations.  The best historians have often made use, more or less unconsciously, of this conception....  Beyond this logic of the situation, or perhaps as a part of it, we need something like an analysis of social movements.  We need studies, based on methodological individualism, of the social institutions through which ideas may spread and captivate individuals, of the way in which new traditions may be created, and of the way in which traditions work and break down.  In other words, our individualistic and institutionalistic models of such collective entities as nations, or governments, or markets, will have to be supplemented by models of political situations as well as of social movements such as scientific and industrial progress. (A sketch of such an analysis of progress will be found in [Popper's] next section.)  These models may then be used by historians, partly like other models, and partly for the purposes of explanation, along with the other universal laws they use.  But even this would not be enough; it would still not satisfy all those real needs which historicism attempts to satisfy. »
-- Popper, The Poverty of Historicism , Ch. 4,  (Section 31: Situational Logic in History) pp. 137-138.

    My ambition and my project here in this series intended to discuss Popper and his views of historicism is to help encourage some wider consideration of those studies--and what they'd consist of--which, though they have perhaps been pursued within the confines of academic research, seem still not to have made any discernable progress in piercing and settling into the work-a-day consciousness or unconsciousness of those of us outside of professional scholarship.  

    Historicism is a tendency, more or less pronounced, to see history as an unfolding process which is directed and informed by some fundamental principles or laws and which, when correctly discerned by the careful observer, not only reveal a kind of ordering sense to all that has happened in humanity's past, but which  also, just as much and more importantly, must reveal the direction and, with it, the meaning « behind » what unfolds in the present and in what is to come, in what, indeed, must come next.   The ways in which such a tendency of thought can express itself are quite varied.  It entails more than a search for patterns in the past or present, more than an attempt to draw « lessons » from a selection of historical facts.  It assumes, rather, that there is a general meaning and direction of all human existence--or even, for some, of all existence, human and otherwise--which, once grasped, should help inform us  as to what our destinies are to be as societies, as a civilization.  

    In subtlety and in seductiveness, historicist thinking is so powerful an orienting manner of seeing things that it is something which almost everyone engages in from time to time.   Thus, as a sort of common persistent error, it is a malady for which there is treatment but so far no reliable cure.  The best defense is in recognizing as many as possible of the common traits of historicist thinking.  Those characteristic traits can be found in points of view from all parties, they can corrupt the perceptions of those in any social and economic group, tripping up the most erudite, as well as the least instructed.  

    When sweeping programs of radical social changes are demanded, when long-standing human characteristics which are blamed as being at the root of various evils are targeted for complete eradication, you are in the presence of historicist thinking.  Historicist thought often takes the position that, in analysing social phenomena and looking for their meaning, it is essential that   we consider these holistically rather than as collections of discrete constituent elements--though they may be composed of such.  Holistic change which has as its object the establishment of utopian ideals is another hallmark of historicist thought.  

    Popper begins his account by describing historicism's roots in the thought of Heraclitus and Plato.  With Heraclitus and Plato, a change in or departure from the earliest traditions meant decline and decay.   Only by fierce and constant adherence to established traditions in all aspects of life, could people avoid the dangers which any and all change posed.  All things were pure and perfect in their original forms and they remain so in another ideal existence, where, according to Plato, each material object has its ideal and incorruptible original example.   Human existence, being inherently removed from the ideal, is subject to and suffers from the tendency of things to deviate from their ideal forms.  

 ----------

  That, I hope, can launch some discussion and I'll post some further parts of Popper's argument and  examples with some comment of my own in subsequent posts.

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Thank you for turning attention to Popper and his ideas. My own exposure has chiefly been through his work in the philosophy of science as expressed in his books Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge and Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. From what I see in the journals, it is fair to say that Popper is the scientists' favorite philosopher of science. His central argument is that a finite set of observations can never prove (or even support) a universal law, but can instead only disprove one. Although knowledge is always uncertain, it is linked to reality by the possibility of disproof. Theories evolve to survive under the pressure of evidence.

An extension of his ideas by his chosen biographer, W.W.Bartley, III is yet more satisfactory and more thoroughly evolutionary. Bartley, however, was a curious character and little known in part because he marketed his epistemological ideas poorly, in the context of a critique of Protestant theology presented in a book not even mentioned in his Wikipedia biography.* (Popper outlived his student Bartley; his project for an authorized biography of Popper -- and one of Hayek -- passed on.)

* Now fixed.
--------

Regarding historicism, Popper's concept strikes me as useful and his critique of it seems generally sound. Nonetheless, I go partway down what the historicist path that you describe, though these aren't the words I'd feel most comfortable with:

...a tendency, more or less pronounced, to see history as an unfolding process which is directed and informed by some fundamental principles or laws and which, when correctly discerned by the careful observer...reveal a kind of ordering sense to all that has happened in humanity's past...

The really solid laws are the physical laws that shape biology and technology: these provide an enduring framework for all that human beings have done and will do. (How well we know these laws is a separate question.)

A less solid yet still strong principle is that competitive pressures tend to push technological capabilities toward limits set by physical law. This is an evolutionary principle, and as such it cannot really be described as "directing and informing" the unfolding process of history: How fast capabilities expand, in what directions, and with what application are all undetermined. Even regress can happen, though it is apt to be local or in specialized capabilities. Nonetheless, despite its limited predictive value, this evolutionary principle does make sense of important aspects of human history.

Today, the forces that drive the evolution of technology seem to be strengthening and pushing closer to physical limits; this circumstance makes these principles more effective in suggesting what to expect and (perhaps more important) what not to expect.

It is this not-quite-historicist perspective that informs many of my posts here.

------

(And by "Truth first", I of course mean truth as best we can honestly discern it, always understanding that we may be wrong. The point is, "Politics second", to make it less likely that policy will be based on false premises)

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 04:08:55 AM EST
 You're very welcome.  It's a pleasure to prompt some consideration of Popper's thought which, for me, is still new and fascinating.  Your acquaintance is with the works he considered his most important; while for me, with my interests in social sciences, it is his PoH, OS&E and Conjectures and Refutations which are most interesting.

"A less solid yet still strong principle is that competitive pressures tend to push technological capabilities toward limits set by physical law."

"Today, the forces that drive the evolution of technology seem to be strengthening and pushing closer to physical limits; this circumstance makes these principles more effective in suggesting what to expect and (perhaps more important) what not to expect."

    How much competition is an absolute necessity for human existence?  How constant and omnipresent is intra-species competition over the entire scope of human history in all the social varieties of which we're now aware?  Is our modern industrial society typical in the extent and degree of the competition it manifests or are we moderns rather more or less competitive than pre-industrial societies?

Are we competitive in respects which are largely or entirely optional?  Could we, to our benefit, deliberately reduce certain competitive aspects of our social lives?  If so, how could we do this?

  Why are we as competitive as we are?  Is it due to something beyond us or is it rather a learned, acquired tendency which we could to some extent unlearn?

  Thus, in other words, are these "competitive pressures that drive the evolution of technology" really so fundamental that they nearly approach the level of a given of human existence--I leave aside the consideration of other non-human competition for the moment while hastening to point out that I am not among those who think of <homo sapiens</i> as somehow to be distinguished from other animal life.  That is, I regard <homo sapiens</i> as a species like any other rather than as what many apparently separate in the "human" versus "animal"-- or are they, after all, another set of tendencies which depend on what Popper calls initial conditions which may or may not obtain. ?


"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 06:44:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You raise the question

    How much competition is an absolute necessity for human existence?

I would focus on the related question, "To what extent can competition be avoided in human existence?" In principle, with an enormous and sweeping restructuring of the world, competition could perhaps be greatly reduced (partly for better, partly for worse). Even in the world as it is, almost anyone or any group can avoid the more visible sorts of competition, but the typical result is to become irrelevant to the emerging technological, military, and economic capabilities that shape the world. Dropping out of a race doesn't slow it down unless you're in front.

The above, however, addresses competition in only one sense. You raise broader questions regarding social competition, which surely depends strongly on culture, and need not be directly related to competition of the technological sort. Highly cooperative groups and cultures can excel.

I'd like to offer a perspective on economic competition --

Despite all their pushing and pulling over prices and quality, buyers and sellers share a cooperative relationship: suppliers need customers, and vice versa. In vertical integration, buyers and sellers become part of one organization, yet their activities and mutual dependence remain roughly the same. Real economic competition occurs between alternative providers of similar goods or services. And the key point is this: They are competing to be better at cooperating with their suppliers and customers. That is, competition within groups of similar economic actors acts to improve cooperation across the grand network of relationships that knits the economic world into a whole.

This is, I think, a fundamental fact regarding economic competition, despite all the surface warts of economic behavior and the deeper pathologies of powerful corporations, poisoned environments, and twisted price structures.


Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sat May 6th, 2006 at 02:05:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
 Please don't interpret my lack of a reply as ignoring your comments; rather, I've been considering how to reply to them and so far I haven't got a reply beyond the following sole point--

  I am skeptical about the adequacy of the formulation that,

 


"They [i.e. producers of goods and services] are competing to be better at cooperating with their suppliers and customers. That is, competition within groups of similar economic actors acts to improve cooperation across the grand network of relationships that knits the economic world into a whole.

  No doubt this is the case in numerous markets; I think, though, that the extent to which that assertion is valid depends very much on, among other things, the degree to which one or only a very few firms dominate a market or not.

  In consumer computer technology, for example, the overwhelming dominance of Microsoft Corporation software products has allowed it a power of which it has tried to take full advantage: the power to thwart, to preëmpt, other arguably better technology and software produced by competing firms which attempt to place their wares on offer in the marketplace but who are, by virtue of the ability of Microsoft to effectively threaten sanctions against those hardware makers who dare to take up and offer competing software products.  The shorthand name for such practice is "restraint of trade" and its noxious influences are everywhere to be seen in the consumer computer products industries.

  This is not intended as a definitive response to your post; I'll try to have something more interesting to add later.

  I'm pleased to see your comments.  If I can come up with some of William W. Bartley's writing, I may have something to add regarding it.  Of course, there remain many other points to take up concerning Popper's arguments in OS&E and PoH.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Mon May 8th, 2006 at 07:31:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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