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May/June 2005 Historically Speaking 21 HlSTORICIZING NATURE OR "SCIENTIZING" History?: A Forum THE HISTORICITATION OF NATURE HAS BEEN UNDER WAY ever since the emergence ofhistorical consciousness in the 16th and 1 7th centuries, but like so many other things it is accelerating today. The most striking example ofthis process is the recent emergence of thefield of "big history, " the attempt to offer a grand universal history from the Big Bang to the present. This ambitious effort to place human history in the largest ofcontexts results in something akin to a modern scientific creation myth. A parallel development—what could inelegantly be called the "scientizing" ofhistory—is also occurring. Historians increasingly borrow scientific notions (from environmental science, climatology, evolutionary biology, etc.) and appropriate science metaphors (especiallyfrom thefield ofcomplexity theory). At the 2004 Historical Society conference in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, three sessions dealt with these matters. Two were devoted to big history with several ofthefield's leading scholars participating. In a third session historians discussedthe applicability ofchaos theory to historical inquiry. We publish revised versions ofsix ofthese papers below along with solicited responses from two senior scholars, William H. McNeill and Bruce Mazlish. The forum received generous support from the John Templeton Foundation. Bridging the Two Cultures: History, Big History, and Science David Christian Big history tries to place human history in context, by seeing it as part of an even larger story that includes the past of the Earth and the entire universe.1 It therefore provides a natural bridge between history and sciences such as biology, geology, and astronomy. So teaching and writing about big history forces us to revisit the ancient issue of whether history can be regarded as a science; or, to put it more cautiously, it forces us to consider whether there is an epistemological continuum between the sciences and the humanities. Now is a good time to reopen this debate because changes in the nature of both history and the sciences suggest new ways of resolving this ancient conundrum. In the 17th century science distinguished itself from other forms of knowledge by its practical success in manipulating the material world. Its success rested on two major shifts in approaches to knowledge. First, science handled its raw data with exceptional skepticism . It introduced stringent truth tests, and ruthlessly discarded information and hypotheses that failed. Galileo's experiments with telescopes and falling objects provide the textbook model of this aspect of science. Second, scientists discovered that from this purified body of information they could construct laws that provided powerful new ways of understanding the material world. Most striking of all, they found that some of these large ideas survived the most important truth test of all: they worked. Eventually, they would enable humans to extract energy and resources on an unprecedented scale, to fly, to communicate instantaneously across the world, to determine the age of the universe. They transformed the human relationship to the material world and held out the promise of rapid progress toward accurate and verifiable forms of knowledge that could be used to create a better world. Newton provided the most influential example of such laws by constructing a single set of rules to explain motion in both the earthly and heavenly realms. Since the Enlightenment the rising prestige of science has encouraged practitioners in other fields ofstudy to emulate its methods in the hope of matching its achievements. In this spirit, historians began to construct a "scientific" account of human history.2 This was characterized, first, by a scientific concern for the accuracy, precision, and objectivity of the data from which historians constructed their accounts ofthe past. Historians developed strict rules for the use ofdocumentary evidence and new testing grounds for ideas such as historical journals and university seminars. Second, historians began to seek out large, general laws of human history, analogous to those ofNewtonian physics. The search for general laws of history was pursued most optimistically in the 18th century but eventually a certain pessimism set in. Attempts to discover such laws persisted for much of the 19th century, particularly within Marxist historiography and Comtean sociology. But by the early 20th century, most professional historians had abandoned the search, preferring, instead, to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 21-26
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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