History Need Have No Logic Conceivable to Us, Research Time, 04/09/2013

I don’t think Jean-Paul Sartre gets the credit he deserves as one of the most flexible thinkers in the last hundred years. In the middle of an otherwise uninspiring discussion of the nature of socio-economic classes that no longer exist in the form they did in the mid-20th century, he throws down a brilliant conception of how historical development works. 

It rests on distinguishing the historical development of a set of social relationships from the logic of those relationships. In other words, social classes and groups can exist in a variety of forms. We can examine the internal structure of these groups in intense detail, and the relation of these groups to each other. We would discover a particular logic of their relationships, and we can often deduce the history by which these groups would have arisen based on this logic. 

If Sartre could have seen through time
to know what kind of man he would
become, would he have liked what
he saw? Would any of us?
Sartre’s insight is that this kind of reasoning is quite misguided. There is much to learn from studying the present relationships by which various groups of society interact with each other. We can think of these as the political logic of modern groups. Consider, as an example, the various ways in which Christian fundamentalist churches relate to major business interests through their common interaction in the political circles of the United States Republican Party. They are lobbying organizations jockeying for influence over legislative agendas that can increase their political influence, economic impact and capacities, win new members, and oppress groups that oppose their agendas. But the relationships between them in the present don’t have anything to do with the historical path of their development. The logic of their relationships is extrapolated from a snapshot of the present moment. 

History is the transformations of a variety of presents to constitute successive presents. This temporal dimension is not part of the analyses of how contemporary groups interact. No thought is given in discussions of present relationships among groups, people, and peoples to the temporal aspects of those relationships. Indeed, identifying them as being in the present automatically precludes consideration of their temporality. We’re concerned only with a snapshot. But with history, the entire continuity of change must be considered as well as the snapshots of relationships among groups at various points in time.

The difference between the relationships of groups at present and their development over history is as profound as the difference between a two dimensional photograph and a three dimensional sculpture. It isn’t that we can learn nothing about the latter from the former, but it is a critical mistake to believe that we can learn everything about the latter from the former. At the very least, we would need thousands of photographs of the sculpture to get anything approximating a genuinely complete photographic account of a three-dimensional object. 

Now imagine how much extra work we’d have to do in the three-dimensional world to get an accurate account of a four-dimensional object, like the historical development of a society. And consider how little of that work we can actually do with any ease, considering our incredibly limited access to that fourth, temporal dimension. At least when we take a million photographs of an ancient building, we have our three-dimensional experience of that building to compare the resulting mosaic. 

To do the same with the flow of time affecting a group of people or a society at a larger scale, we’d need the temporal sense of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, or the time-splintered ghost of Douglas Adams’ first Dirk Gently novel (or its original version, Scaroth the Jagaroth in the Doctor Who story, City of Death). As it is, our historical knowledge is flying blind, trying to approximate the detail of an experience with a succession of photographs. 


  1. I'm currently trying to write a chapter about the Vietnam War, and this is painfully true. Ironically, I'm trying in part to reconstruct the war from snapshots -- combat photographers' work. Starting with Yankee Papa 13 by Larry Burrows, moving through the work of Army photogs, and so forth. Having spoken with some of these guys, my own failure to "get" the era is endlessly humbling and indeed depressing -- but someone's going to define the past, so I guess I'd rather it be me than someone else.

    1. It's more appropriate to the metaphor than ironic.

      Seriously, though, that sounds like an amazing project. It reminds me of some conversations I've had in class with students this winter. I was a tutorial leader for an introductory class on social and political philosophy, and one of the topics the course covered was arguments for the surveillance state and the acceptability of torture. The readings were all from 2004-7. So of course it was about Sept. 11 and Iraq.

      My students were all less than 12 years old when the WTC was destroyed. So I had to get them into the mind-set of the horrifying paranoia that made judicial murder and the torture of crime suspects not only morally acceptable, but enthusiastically supported. As well, I had to explain the pervasive (and completely socially accepted) racism against Muslims that was contagious at the time. When I told them about some of the vigilante actions against mosques and Sikh business owners in the United States and Canada in the months after the attacks, and that shoulder-shrugging was a widespread response, their jaws hit the floor.

      I went through the same process of thought when Thatcher died. I've always loved the art and music that came out of Britain in this era, but never quite understood what was so repulsive about her. I read many accounts of people who had lived through her era and seen the currents her popularity represented throughout British culture. I could understand, so it is possible. But it took me a very hard think.