The Scope and Scale of History

We can think of the “big” in “big history” in at least two senses. There is “big” in the sense of scale, so that big history is big in virtue of treating the entire history of the universe, from the big bang through the present and into the future, insofar as we can know the future. We can also express this idea by noting that the scale of time in big history is cosmological, or by saying that big history is diachronically comprehensive. Another sense of “big” is the sense of scope, or what we could also call comprehensiveness. In addition to being comprehensive as regards the scale of time, big history also can be comprehensive in the sense of drawing from every available source of knowledge.

Big history is already comprehensive in this way in virtue of its interdisciplinary approach: the knowledge of the special sciences is employed to give a complete historical picture of the universe — as complete as we can now make it, in any case. There will be always be ellipses and unresolved problems, and this is what makes research interesting: tracking down the missing connections, or whatever has disappeared from the historical record, and restoring it to its rightful place as part of our story.

The big historian need not refuse any perspective on history, least of all the perspective of microhistory — presumably the antithesis of big history — and the micro-historian’s jewel-like studies of particular times, places, communities, and even individuals, seen in all the detail of human experience as we know it in our own lives, and which we recognize in the lives of others, including others long dead or not yet born. That is to say, although big history and microhistory are apparently antithetical, they are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. Insofar as microhistory has been characterized as “large questions in small places” (as was said by Charles Joyner) the large questions of microhistory naturally align with the large questions of big history.

An entire big history could be assembled from a closely-woven tapestry of microhistorical studies, brought together and into relationship with each other through a larger framework that demonstrates the connections among these times, places, communities, and individuals. Indeed, one could argue that big history is entirely dependent upon such close studies, which form the ultimate constituents of the historical world that big history seeks to comprehend within its comprehensive scope and scale, and for which it furnishes the framework and the synthesis. Part of the comprehensiveness of big history is its ability to subsume within itself every possible microhistory: there is a place for everything, and everything can be put in its proper place, in big history.

Esther Quaedackers’ concept of “little big histories” is entirely consonant both with the approach of microhistory and simultaneously with the approach of big history. This aspect of big history might be summarized as William Blake expressed himself in the opening lines of Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Art history, military history, environmental history, legal history, history of religion, etc. (all of which Hegel called the specialized forms of “reflective history” in the Introduction to his Lectures on the Philosophy of History) — all find their place, or could potentially find their place, within the comprehensive framework of big history.

Perhaps more importantly, big history is comprehensive without being merely eclectic: it brings with it a particular perspective on history that gives a particular shape to all those historiographical traditions from which it draws, so that big history is itself history changed through its engagement with the special sciences, at the same time as the special sciences are changed, if they are changed at all, through their integration into a big history context.

We could formulate two alternative historical disciplines, one with the scale of big history, but which rejects on principle the scope of big history, and one with the scope of big history, but which rejects on principle the scale of big history. The former would be an overview of the totality of history, with no place for microhistorical interludes to fill in the concrete details of historical events; the latter would be a detailed synchronic history, bringing in the world entire, but comprising only a relatively short duration, and therefore diachronically incomplete.

These permutations of history imply yet another permutation: a history that rejects on principle both the scale and scope of big history. Thus the four permutations of scope and scale:

  1. Synchronically limited, diachronically limited (traditional history)
  2. Synchronically comprehensive, diachronically limited (microhistory)
  3. Synchronically limited, diachronically comprehensive (scientific history)
  4. Synchronically comprehensive, diachronically comprehensive (big history)

Once we have formulated these four permutations on the scope and scale of history, we can postulate yet another permutation that is the conjunction of all four permutations — a bigger big history, if you will. And if we make qualitative distinctions within the scope and scale of history, rather than merely quantitative distinctions, these permutations become both more complex and more interesting. Traditional history makes qualitative distinctions, since it has traditionally relied upon written sources and has been slow to recognize the reconstruction of history carried out by scientific history. There is a qualitative difference in evidence between the texts historians dig out of archives and the artifacts of material culture that archaeologists dig out of the ground. Both can be used to reconstruct past societies, and scientific history can reconstruct the history of societies that left no written records, therefore increasing the comprehensivity of history in an absolute sense.

I hope to eventually be able to show how the qualitative permutations of history suggest a range of histories, some more comprehensive while others less comprehensive, when we schematically differentiate evidence and methods.

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Nick Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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