Work in Progress: The Threshold of Historicity

One of the most important ideas to come out of the Annales school of historiography was the study of mentalities (mentalités in the French). One could observe that there is a connection between the study of mentalities and the idea that history is the re-thinking of past thoughts (a position associated with Collingwood and many others), even if this connection hasn’t been much investigated. I’m not going to pursue this, but I wanted to note it in any case, as it could be an interesting rabbit hole to go down for someone. (If anyone knows of a paper that already pursues this, please let me know of it.) This connection especially comes out in a quote attributed to Marc Bloch:

“Social realities are a whole. One could not pretend to explain an institution if one did not link it to the great intellectual, emotional, mystical currents of the contemporaneous mentality… This interpretation of the facts of social organization from the inside will be the principle of my teaching, just as it is of my own work.” (quoted in “The Fate of the History of Mentalites in the Annales” by Andre Burguiere)

Collingwood used the spatial metaphor of “the inside of history” to express the idea of re-enacting the thoughts of the past; for Collingwood, human history has an inside, a subjective side, and natural history does not, and this is the differentia. I have my differences with this view, but, as I said, I’m not going to pursue this here.

R. G. Collingwood

The history of mentalities has been bound up with other doctrines of the Annales school, with microhistory, with cultural history, with the history of ideas, and so forth. Despite the amount of ink that has been spilled over this topic, I don’t think anyone has come close to doing justice to it, especially when it comes to employing quantitative concepts, which I think is the real opportunity here. The reader will immediately understand my interest in this if I say that the history of mentalities is the history of the conceptual framework, understanding that the conceptual framework is part of the intrinsic institutional structure of civilization.

Given the interest of the Annales school in the longue durée, and in the slow pace of social time in contradistinction to the rapid pace of political time, the emphasis has always fallen upon collective mentalities, but a lot of the power of the idea of a history of mentalities (as I see it) can be seen in considering the interaction of the mentality of the individual and the mentality of the age. The mentality of the age is what one imbibes with one’s mother’s milk, or what Alfred North Whitehead called the “climate of opinion.” But the relationship between the creative individual and the mentality of the age is one of give-and-take. One borrows one’s language, one’s ideas, one’s culture and so on from the historical context into which one is born, but one can also generate one’s own ideas and contribute these in turn to the historical context, and, if these ideas have any traction, they will be passed in their turn to others and become part of the climate of opinion for the next generation.

Being an influential individual in history does not necessarily mean that one has any influence over the shaping of the conceptual framework, and it may well mean the opposite.

It is true, of course, that probably the majority of individuals live entirely derivative lives when it comes to their mentality: even if they are great generals, or great kings, or great entrepreneurs, they may contribute nothing whatsoever to the conceptual framework that they did not themselves get from that framework, being successful not because of their conceptual innovation, but only because they were able to optimize something already present in their environment and successfully exploit it. Also, obviously, most unsuccessful people contribute nothing whatsoever to the conceptual framework.

Prior to the advent of recording technologies, the most important and decisive of which is written language (but language itself prior to the invention of writing is also a recording technology of a kind), the collective conceptual framework was limited by the capacity of the individual human mind. Without the possibility of recording experience and knowledge, no conceptual framework could exceed the capacity of the individual mind. This framework might change over time, with new ideas being introduced, but since the human mind has limits to its ability to memorize material, once the capacity of the individual mind is reached, any new idea must mean the abandonment of an old idea. Thus prior to written records collective human mentalities were not larger than the mentality of any one individual. These mentalities probably slowly evolved over time, but they could not become absolutely larger because of the limitations of the human mind.

Recording technologies may do more than merely record history, they may also create history.

A possible exception to the above would be the introduction of new organizing ideas that would allow for a greater number of ideas to be maintained in the mind due to better organization, but even here there is a limit that, once met, means that the mentality of the group cannot be much larger than the mentality of the individual, and the mentality cannot become absolutely larger over time. Also, from what we know of early human thought, and early human language, most early concepts were highly concrete; abstraction comes very late in the development of human thought, so that the possibility of abstract ideas of organization employed to increase the total content of the mentality prior to record keeping technologies is somewhat unlikely, even if not impossible.

With the advent of written language (and, in a weaker sense, much earlier with the advent of spoken language), it becomes possible for individuals to record significant quantities of their experience and knowledge, and to pass this down to succeeding generations. As the written record grows, it grows beyond the capacity of any one individual to hold the entirety of the mentality of an age in their individual mind, so that the mentality on the whole is only jointly maintained through the work of an entire society seeking to preserve the experience and knowledge they have been able to record. Thus with the advent of written language, a gap opens up between the mentality of the individual and the mentality of the social whole, and the mentality of the social whole can become absolutely larger. Thus also the mentalities of social groups with written language grow significantly beyond the limits of mentalities of peoples who did not develop written languages, so a gap also opens up between literate peoples and non-literate peoples.

Hugh Trevor-Roper

I visited this idea last week (in newsletter no. 168) when I discuss Hugh Trevor-Roper’s attitude toward non-literate, and therefore ahistorical societies. Finn Fuglestad in his criticism of Trevor-Roper contrasted history as purposive development to what he called “ebb and flow” history. Presumably what Fuglestad meant by ebb-and-flow history is the history of ahistorical societies in which one tribe annihilates another, takes over their land, and then they in turn are annihilated and another tribe takes over their land. Thus there are always events occurring, but nothing that amounts to directional development. Now, what I have above called the absolute increase in size of a social mentality possible with written language is one possible form of directional development, and it is a directional development peculiar to literate societies.

There is a lot more that could be said about this, but it threatens to become a barren (and, dare I say, ahistorical) ebb-and-flow controversy, and I would like to move these ideas forward a bit. So let me return to my analysis of individual vs. social conceptual frameworks.

Written language allows a conceptual framework to grow beyond the limits of an individual mind.

Even when an absolutely larger conceptual framework develops in the wake of written language, the individual is still limited in their conceptual framework by the limits of their own mind, but because the conceptual framework is stored by recording technologies and only maintained socially, the individual can specialize in one area of experience and knowledge and push this much farther than was ever possible in a non-literate society, in which the total conceptual framework had to include fundamental knowledge about how to stay alive, like what plants are edible, how to hunt game, how to sew clothing, and so on.

With specialization, the specialist need not master any of these practical tasks, and therefore need not take up any of their personal conceptual framework with such matters, and therefore has greater freedom for conceptual innovation. In circumstances such as this, more abstract concepts can be introduced and be shown to be useful in a specialized conceptual framework, and if they become sufficiently widely adopted, they pass beyond that specialized conceptual framework and can become abstract ideas employed by ordinary folks to improve their cognition. An example of this is the introduction of the concept of zero, which was once advanced mathematics, but is now taught to children in elementary school and considered to be within the grasp of any mentally competent individual.

Some of what I have written above about specialization also holds true of earlier pre-literate societies, almost all of which involved a sexual division of labor in which men hunted and women gathered, so that experience and knowledge of hunting was largely specialized within the male community while experience and knowledge of gathering was largely specialized within the female community, and the community as a whole benefitted from this division of labor. However, we know that division of labor advanced to a much greater degree once human beings began to live in cities (even before the advent of written language), so that the benefits of specialization were already increasing the absolute size of the conceptual framework of those peoples who developed the greatest specialization of labor, which went the farthest in cities. (There is something of a reflection of this at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in the post-apocalyptic society described, in which books are memorized by individuals so that libraries can be saved without the need of printed books, exhibits a kind of division of labor in maintaining a memorized record, though Bradbury doesn’t go into this in enough detail to show how it could work in practice. When I read the book I wondered how anyone could appreciate another book being recited to them if they were also trying to memorize and recite the volume they had chosen to preserve.)

There is, then, more than one way to augment a conceptual framework. I’ve had this in my back of my mind for a few months now (I recorded my first notes on this in November 2021), and I was going over this again last week while I was walking in the woods near my country home. I came up with a thought experiment that provided me with another tool for probing the idea of a central project as a defining feature of a civilization, although I got to this realization about central projects by a round about route, by way of my reasoning about conceptual frameworks that I have been describing above.

Incan quipu

Suppose that a people embark on a project (perhaps even a central project) of augmenting their conceptual framework to the greatest extent possible, even though they never invent written language. Human history offers many interesting examples of such devices that, while related to written language, aren’t exactly written language, unless we expand the concept of written language to such a degree that it ceases to be meaningful in designating a particular human activity to the exclusion of any other activity (which latter is a criterion of meaningfulness).

As we have seen, specialization is one route to an increased conceptual framework, so that the potter’s guild knows a lot about pottery but little or nothing about baking, while the converse is true for the baker’s guild. There are also what we may can mnemonic devices or artifacts, like the Incan quipu and Polynesian stick charts. One might also consider an abacus to be a non-linguistic artifact that allows for more advanced mathematics than could be accomplished by means of memorization without any aids. A variety of different kinds of abacus might proliferate, and if an abacus were made to stick in a single position (most are made for rapid calculation and therefore to minimize friction), an abacus could be placed on the door of a storehouse to record the amount of grain or whatever it held, and then these figures could be systematically recorded on a quipu or similar. Thus relatively significant degrees of record keeping could be attained without written language.

Polynesian stick chart

There are also strictly cognitive mnemonic techniques, like that of memory palaces, also called the method of loci, which also might undergo significant development in the absence of written language, but nevertheless in the presence of a more complex society of the kind usually enabled by written language. In the universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune, cognitive techniques play an important role because of the absence of computers in this universe; individuals like mentats specialize in cognitive techniques that allow them to perform mental tasks beyond the ordinary, so here we once again see specialization as a mechanism for the augmentation of conceptual frameworks under limitations of recording technologies (depriving a society of computers after having had use of them would be as cognitively traumatic as depriving a society of written language after it had had the use of it).

We could also imagine poetic, musical, and theatrical performances that are used as mnemonic devices to rehearse knowledge in a dramatic fashion that makes it cognitively accessible. It is often argued that the Homeric poems, written during the Greek dark ages when the invention of writing was largely lost, were memorized performances that were ultimately retained in the culture until writing recovered and the epics could be recorded in written language.

The method of loci

With all these techniques, and more and better besides, it might well be possible for a society to approximate the complexity of societies that possess written language without however having invented the specific record keeping technology of written language. In a sense, such a society would become historical, not by writing its history (because it has no written language), but because it preserves an account of itself for itself (Huizinga’s definition of history) by means other than written language. Is this a sufficient condition for becoming historical, or does the development of historical consciousness require something more, or something different?

Here the thought experiment returns us to the problem of ahistorical societies and also gives us a tool with which to probe the concept of a central project. I do not know of any actual society that has maximized its record keeping potential in the absence of written language, though all of the ideas I have mentioned above are present in some historical society — just not found together, or systematically exploited. This is why this remains a thought experiment instead of an actual experiment or a study of some specific society from history. In a thought experiment we can set aside certain problems and simply choose not to deal with them — this constitutes a form of scientific abstraction, and may be considered a precursor to the formation of an abstract concept that is useful to science — and in this context we simply set aside the question of how or why a given society would make this choice to maximize their record keeping, that is to say, to become historical without becoming literate. However, the question intrudes back on us when we ask what such a society would record.

an abacus

We can formulate a purely mundane account, such that a complex society arises as imagined in the thought experiment; say, like Egypt, they have a river that floods annually, and they keep records of the floods to assist in agriculture, they plan for the future, storing up provisions in warehouses and parceling them out as need be, making sure there will be enough food for the population, enough weapons produced for the army, and so on, and so forth. Records like this could be produced indefinitely, and a society like this could survive as long as it could adapt to its local environment. One could even imagine such a society enduring for thousands of years, and sending out missions of exploration that would expand their non-literate civilization to other parts of the planet.

Such an expanding and exploring civilization would give such a society directional development, and give it something to record other than the mundane facts of life that would allow such a society to continue in existence. Indeed, merely a growing population and the foundation of new cities would give such a society a directional development. In other words, it would have a kind of history to record — a kind of history for a kind of record keeping, even if it is a bit different from our history and a bit different from our record keeping.

What came first — the chicken or the egg?

But this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem: did the society become sufficiently complex to be considered historical because it developed record keeping technologies, or did the development of record keeping technologies make it possible for the society to become sufficient complex to pass the historical threshold? Could a society adopt record keeping as a central project if it effectively had no records to keep? Could a central project emerge from record keeping, almost as if it were epiphenomenal? Is the threshold of historicity the moment at which the true central project takes over from mere record keeping?

Without some kind of directional development as part of the social context, there is nothing to record except that Fuglestad called ebb-and-flow history, which would become repetitive and eventually indistinguishable from cyclical history. The years of flood and the years of drought, the interactions with neighboring peoples, the details of commerce and war, would be like the cycles of night and day, the phases of the moon, the seasons, and the cycles of the year.

Should history be defined in terms of its directionality?

Directional development is usually (or perhaps always, as a matter of definition) the result of a central project that gives that the society in question its directionality. Without this directionality, there is nothing to record, no motivation for record keeping. In effect, nothing happens, so there is nothing to record, nothing to memorialize. Again, this is a chick-and-egg problem: did the origination of recording technologies make central projects possible, did the adoption of a central project force societies to adopt or invent technologies of record keeping, or was it a process of mutual escalation in which events were recorded, improving recording technologies, which then led to somewhat more complex events, which required more complex record keeping, and so on?

It has been argued that record keeping came about through a desire to preserve singular historical events, like the sighting of a supernova in the heavens — there is a pictograph in Chaco Canyon that is believed to record a supernova of 1054 AD — or an especially impressive volcanic eruption — a wall painting was found in Catal Huyuk that is believed to represent the eruption of a nearby volcano. Individually such events might inspire monuments of one kind or another, but a sufficient number of impressive events might help to push a society in the direction of historicity.

Petroglyph at Chaco Canyon believed to be of the 1054 AD supernova.

We could even make a distinction between societies prodded into historicity by exogenous events, and societies that endogenously developed recording technologies and used these to expand their conceptual framework, thus expanding their world and eventually passing the threshold of historicity.

PS — It is interesting to note that spoken language appeared (more or less) about 50,000 years ago, written language appeared about 5,000 years ago, printed books appeared about 500 years ago, and the internet appeared about 50 years ago, so that inflection points in the introduction of recording technologies have appeared almost evenly spaced over at least four orders of magnitude (that is to say, evenly spaced in a logarithmic time scale).

Mural at Catal Huyuk believed to be of a volcanic eruption.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store