Work in Progress: The Problem of Ahistorical Societies

Hugh Trevor-Roper

I have been writing material for my philosophy of history space on Quora by writing profiles of philosophers of history and historians. When a birthday of someone I wish to profile comes up, I write my profile the same day, without much thinking about it first. I was a bit concerned when the birthdays of Hugh Trevor-Roper and Ferdinand Gregorovius recently came up, as I wasn’t sure that I would find enough material to write a portrait of these two in relation to philosophy of history, but both efforts came out more successfully than I initially expected. As it turned out, Trevor-Roper had written a critique of Toynbee that had been somewhat influential, though, as I pointed out, Trevor-Roper’s critique of Toynbee is not historical, but rather moral, and this is ironic given that what most find to criticize about Toynbee is his moralizing.

I mostly wrote about Trevor-Roper’s attack on Toynbee, but while skimming over some Trevor-Roper materials I found that he had some rather controversial things to say about ahistorical societies, and this material is of considerable philosophical interest, although it is framed — and Trevor-Roper is attacked in his turn — in vaguely political terms, and this many decades before the open politicization of academia that is so familiar today. When we go back to these quarrels of the 50s and the 60s we can find much of the contemporary debate in embryo.

Arnold Toynbee

Trevor-Roper’s controversial remarks were originally made in a television interview, as far as I can figure out, and then eventually found their way into his book The Rise of Christian Europe. Among other purple passages we find this:

“It is fashionable to speak today as if European history were devalued: as if historians, in the past, have paid too much attention to it; and as if, nowadays, we should pay less. Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.”

It has been pointed out that Trevor-Roper was saying much the same thing as Hegel when Hegel said in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

“At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it — that is in its northern part — belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.”

The Trevor-Roper quote led me to a 1992 paper by Finn Fuglestad, “The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay.” While this paper is taken up with some parochial concerns of African vs. European history, if we read this paper in the appropriate philosophical spirit there is a great deal in it of interest to the philosophy of history.

G. W. F. Hegel

Anyone who has read enough of my newsletters knows that I like to find definitions and tease whatever I can out of them (I guess that’s the deconstructionist in me), and Fuglestad finds an implicit definition of history in Trevor-Roper’s dismissal of African history, and this is history defined in terms of “purposive movement.” Here is a paragraph from Fuglestad:

“I shall argue later that the very notion of ‘purposive-movement’ history is to my mind absurd. But first I wish to make it clear that I find any distinction between ‘barbarians’ and ‘non-barbrarians’ highly questionable. By accepting such a distinction one also accepts the establishment of a sort of hierarchy or ranking list between cultures and civilizations; that is, one transforms history into a sort of Championship or Olympic Games. The problem here is twofold: first, such a viewpoint of history hinders any attempt to understand and/or acquire insight into a society or civilization within the framework of its own values and notions. Second, once one begins to evaluate societies and civilizations the question becomes on which norms and values should such an evaluation be based? The answer is all too obvious: the norms and standards pertaining to the dominant culture or civilization of the time. And the dominant civilization has been for the last five hundred years or so — and still is, of course — that of the West. Finally, it is all too easy to dismiss phenomena one cannot make head or tail of — for instance, the past of cultures one has difficulty deciphering — by qualifying them as the ‘unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes’.”

There is a lot packed into this paragraph, and a lot packed into the paper. I will not attempt to unpack it here. But the idea of defining history in terms of purposive development is an interesting one. Trevor-Roper does not make this explicit — he doesn’t actually write that history is defined by purposive movement — but it is clear enough that that is what he was getting at. I would love to find a methodological essay by Trevor-Roper in which he took on these questions explicitly and gave them his own explicit formulations, rather than having to rely upon what others have tendentiously derived from his work.

Johan Huizinga

When I worked on my profile of Johan Huizinga I was quite pleased to find that Huizinga had in fact written an explicitly methodological essay and had given his own definition of history. This essay continues to resonate with me, and I am returning to it regularly. Huizinga was a contemporary of Spengler, and, having written his most famous work about the decline of medieval civilization, one can readily understand that Huizinga would have appreciated Spengler’s The Decline of the West; unlike a lot of historians, Huizinga was respectful of Spengler and one can see the influence of Spengler on Huizinga in the twenties (a hundred years ago now, when there was great ferment not only in the philosophy of history but also in the philosophy of logic and mathematics).

Another methodological essay by Huizinga is “The Task of Cultural History” (included in Men & Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance) in which Huizinga explicitly formulates four theses on cultural history, the last of which is this: “The chief task of cultural history is the morphological understanding and description of the actual, specific course of civilizations.” Here in the use of “morphological” he is giving away his debt to Spengler, but one might also see a similarity with Trevor-Roper’s later criterion of purposive movement; insofar as morphology in human affairs is purposive, or at least revelatory of purpose, and the course of civilizations is movement, we have purposive movement. The similarity is loose, but it is there.

Oswald Spengler

And now I will come back to that old bugbear of whether history is an art or a science — a question many historians disdain, but I think it is disdained because no one has had an adequate response to it. The greatest works of history are works of great literary style, but does that matter? Should it matter? What would be the best way to go about the morphological understanding and description of the actual, specific course of civilizations? Is it by writing narrative expositions of this actual and specific course of civilizations, or it is by formulating our understanding and description in more abstract terms? And how would we do the latter? I would suggest that we do the latter by formulating explicit theses about history and defending these theses in a quasi-Scholastic format. I know that this is not likely to be a popular answer.

It has recently occurred to me that what we have conventionally called history, in which literary style plays a significant role in the narrative, ought properly to be called “history communications” rather than history sensu stricto, and analogous to the rather recent discipline of “science communications,” which is distinct from science sensu stricto. With science, science proper came before science communications; strange though it is to say, history communications came before history proper. If history ever becomes truly scientific, it will advance on the basis of scientific research programs that are set out in scientific papers, and the popular histories that are written on the basis of these papers will be history communications. And we are already seeing this be the case in many areas of history, though it is not recognized as such. Indeed, traditional historical “monographs” are research papers in a tightly confined area of history, and those with a talent for history communications draw on these dry monographs for the content of their histories.

Monographs, and not journalism, are the first drafts of history.

According to the above distinction between history and history communications, history properly speaking is an almost miniscule discipline, though growing, and while it has ancient roots, it is an essentially modern discipline. History communications has dominated the history of history, and this dominance has come at a cost to the recent appearance of history properly speaking. Ironically, one of the spurs to the formulation of history proper has been the study of pre-literate societies by the methods of archaeology and scientific history (and we note that many historical traditionalists have been disdainful of scientific history). Using the methods of the natural sciences to reconstruct past societies that left no written records has followed the methodology of the natural sciences: formulating an hypothesis, seeking evidence that would confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis, and presenting the results in research papers. After the papers are written, someone writes a survey paper, and then a popular writer (a writer in history communications) stumbles across the survey paper and puts the whole story into a narrative form for a popular audience.

As against Trevor-Roper, then, pre-literate societies have a great deal to teach us, as we reconstruct their histories, but our reconstruction is itself a function of the same civilization that Fuglestad criticizes for imposing its own historical template on every other society. Thus one can disagree with Trevor-Roper while also disagreeing with his critics on the question of pre-literate and ahistorical societies. Now, I might reach this conclusion simply because I am a disagreeable person who always finds himself orthogonally situated, but I reach this conclusion not out of pure cussedness; I actually think I am right on this point, and everyone else is wrong.

Archaeology contributes to the reconstruction of ahistorical societies.



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