Barbara Tuchman

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (30 January 1912–06 February 1989)

Today is the 110th anniversary of the birth of Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (30 January 1912–06 February 1989), who was born on this date in 1912.

In A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Tuchman develops the theme of what is called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, which may be compared to many other posited crises, such as what Hugh Trevor-Roper called the general crisis of the 17th century (in his 1959 paper “The General Crisis of the 17th Century”). If one placed all crises in history end-to-end, one would find that the whole of human history is a crisis, which would mean that there is nothing distinctive about a crisis so history and crisis are convertible and there is no reason to use “crisis” instead of “history” because all history is crisis.

Nevertheless, it is often useful to use a theme such as crisis or renaissance to organize knowledge of a period, but Tuchman goes a step further: in calling the 14th century a “distant mirror,” she is suggesting that the violence and instability of the 14th century resembled and thus mirrored the violence and instability of the 20th century, which in turn suggests that large historical periods can display analogous structures with other historical periods. Perhaps all periods of crisis resemble other periods of crisis, and all periods of renaissance resemble other periods of renaissance, and, if this is true, it would be useful knowledge. If we could determine that we are in the midst of a crisis or a renaissance, we could look to past crises and renaissances in order to understand how events are likely to unfold.

Such are the dangers and the opportunities of what Geoffrey Elton called “thesis-dominated history,” and the problems seem at times to be such as to recommend Elton’s alternative, thesis-free history, which seeks no theses at all in history, but seeks rather, in the Rankean spirit, to simply say what really happened. This, too, is a fine idea, but in practice it works out about as well as thesis-dominated history.

Tuchman has become known for another thesis, sometimes called Tuchman’s Law, such that, “Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts,” but I want to focus on yet another thesis in Tuchman that I have not seen discussed elsewhere, and it is of particular interest from the point of view of philosophy of history.

In the Foreword to A Distant Mirror, “The Period, the Protagonist, the Hazards,” Tuchman observed that all periods of history display a contradictory character:

“It may be taken as axiomatic that any statement of fact about the Middle Ages may (and probably will) be met by a statement of the opposite or a different version. Women outnumbered men because men were killed off in the wars; men outnumbered women because women died in childbirth. Common people were familiar with the Bible; common people were unfamiliar with the Bible. Nobles were tax exempt; no, they were not tax exempt. French peasants were filthy and foul- smelling and lived on bread and onions; French peasants ate pork, fowl, and game and enjoyed frequent baths in the village bathhouses. The list could be extended indefinitely.”

Tuchman elaborates this idea in more general terms in the immediately following paragraph:

“Contradictions, however, are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity. No aspect of society, no habit, custom, movement, development, is without cross currents. Starving peasants in hovels live alongside prosperous peasants in featherbeds. Children are neglected and children are loved. Knights talk of honor and turn brigand. Amid depopulation and disaster, extravagance and splendor were never more extreme. No age is tidy or made of whole cloth, and none is a more checkered fabric than the Middle Ages.”

Since “Tuchman’s Law” is already taken, I am going to call this “Tuchman’s Thesis on the Absence of Uniformity in History,” or, for short, just Tuchman’s Thesis.

In philosophy, the idea that contradictions can be true is sometimes called dialethism, or paraconsistent logic, and Graham Priest is especially known for the development of these ideas. One could use the logical framework developed by Graham Priest to employ paraconsistent logic as the logic of historical narrative, or one could seek to preserve the dignity of traditional logic by asserting that no formal contradiction is to be found in history, only the appearance (not the reality) of contradiction that stems from a tendentious formulation of the narrative.

This denial of contradiction introduces a metaphysical distinction into history, as whenever we introduce a distinction between appearance and reality we find ourselves engaged in metaphysics of one sort or another, whether we like it or not. Tuchman’s principle is already metaphysical in denying the uniformity of history, as the principle of the uniformity of nature is an ancient philosophical idea. If nature is uniform but history is not, then a gap is opened up between nature and humanity (the nature-culture dichotomy), and such a gap has been a familiar feature of the philosophy of history, especially among those philosophers who insist that the methods of natural science are inapplicable to history because history is, in at least one sense, non-naturalistic. How we choose to treat the problem is partly a matter of how much emphasis we place on non-uniformity, and how much emphasis we place on contradiction.

Hegelians and Marxists, of course, find contradiction everywhere in history. For the Marxists, it is not just any contradiction that moves history forward, but a particular contradiction, that represented by class conflict. Hegel’s conception of contradiction is more nuanced, and he uses a botanical metaphor to make his point:

“The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.” (Phenomenology of Mind, section 2)

The same could be said, mutatis mutandis, for starving peasants in hovels alongside prosperous peasants in featherbeds: one could be said to refute the other, but they are rather differentiated phases in the life of the peasantry, which together constitute the whole. Thus Hegel in the passage belongs to those who, despite embracing contradiction, ultimately assert that these apparently contradictory phases in the natural history of a flower are actually necessary and not at all contradictory.

One could group together the Hegelians and the Marxists and all who follow Tuchman’s Thesis in repudiating uniformity in history as being part of a paraconsistent tradition. In a strictly philosophical sense, this tradition is at least as old as Heraclitus, and continues to the present day, but this thread of Western thought has not been well represented in the philosophy of history.

While I would not place myself in the paraconsistent tradition, in my Space Development Futures essay, while not consciously drawing upon Hegel or Marx, I developed the idea that it is not just conflict per se that defines a period of history, or the movement of history, but rather the particular kind of conflict, and how that conflict is resolved, that defines a period of history and moves that period of history forward, thus exhibiting what Hugh Trevor-Roper called “purposive movement.” In a creative period, antagonisms drive competition, so that each pole of the antagonism expands to a more comprehensive conception of its age, while in a destructive period, antagonisms drive conflict, often resulting in the catastrophic failure of a society burdened by more conflict that its institutions can survive.

The antagonisms themselves, which could also be called contradictions, are different in every civilization, so every age appears to be non-uniform in its own way. Probably a thorough survey of historical antagonisms would allow us to identify broad categories, and maybe even produce a taxonomy of antagonisms that afflict societies, which would get us closer to understanding the ways in which our age is unique and the ways in which our age is not unique, so that we could avoid making the obviously unhelpful observations either than all conflicts are ultimately the same (such as class conflict) or that all conflicts are so different that it is not even possible to compare and contrast them. Philosophers of history have, so far, resisted this kind of detailed examination of history, but this is where the future of fruitful approaches is to be found.

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