21st Century Kropotkin II: The Continuity of History, Research Time, 08/07/2014

A few years ago, I presented some of my work in environmental philosophy at the Summer Institute for American Philosophy, a short version of a paper about the usefulness of John Dewey’s ontological thinking for environmentalist ethics and ecological metaphysics. The paper, in longer form, was eventually published in Environmental Ethics

At the conference, I met the ageless Joseph Margolis, who was the keynote speaker. One of the interesting conversations he and I had over the week was about the nature of time, and history in particular. He and I disagreed over what could properly be called history. With his Hegelian influence, Joe understood history as an entirely human affair. With my ecological way of thinking, I understood history as a function of change itself, which means that everything in the universe has a history, and all our histories affect each other. 

An advantage to Kropotkin's view of history is that he
doesn't separate the pre-history of humanity from the era
of civilizations that left detailed records.
Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid offers a take on history similar to mine, but arrives there for different reasons. The book, as I’ve said in previous posts, is weird. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before, which is a commendation as far as I’m concerned. It understands the political associations of mutual aid and communal life as evolutionary adaptations of self-conscious social beings. He explains how this is so by situating the human race in an unbroken continuity of evolutionary history.

Now, Kropotkin’s evolutionary chronology has distinct disadvantages. It’s extremely brief, covering essentially just under two chapters of a book that does largely concentrate on human history. Since the book was written over the 1890s, Mutual Aid doesn’t have nearly the depth, breadth, and detail that contemporary accounts of the evolution of life on Earth can muster. While our own knowledge does remain incomplete, today we do have a better grasp of what kinds of creatures dominated the past epochs of Earth’s biosphere, and rely less on the notion that contemporary animal and plant species can be extrapolated back in time with little change because of their ‘hierarchically’ ‘lower’ place on the ‘scale’ of evolution.*

* I include these terms in scare quotes because hierarchical concepts don’t even really make sense in contemporary evolutionary theory. Kropotkin uses them because they are the terms contemporary to his own time. 

Henri Bergson was one of the most popular philosophers of
the early 20th century, but he remains a cult figure today.
But despite these failures of the technical aspects of evolutionary knowledge, Kropotkin offers a vision of Earth’s history and biological evolution as a single duration. Writing in the 1890s, he was already articulating in his scientific and political writing what Henri Bergson was doing in his concurrent philosophical work. Time and Free Will developed the basic concept of duration, and his subsequent books put it to work. A duration was a single continuous flow whose internal changes were a unified process, affects affecting affects (if I can make a reference to stoic philosophy, causes causing causes causing causes). Each duration was qualitatively different.

The boundaries between durations were sketchy in Bergson’s philosophy. In some contexts of his writing, a duration was an absolute, but in other analyses, what constituted a duration depended on what a thinker herself chose to examine as such. 

I don’t know how much of Bergson’s work Kropotkin was exposed to, and I don’t know if anyone has ever taken the question seriously. But if Kropotkin could be said to analyze human history in any way, I would understand him as conceiving of human political history as the later stages of a duration that encompassed all that was known of the changes that constitute the history of animal life itself, from his genesis to his own day.

It’s a very novel way to think about human history, and I think we could all benefit from taking this point of view more often.

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