In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

40 Historically Speaking · May/June 2005 wished to maintain that linearity—the idea that no person ever has a greater impact on the course of history than any other—then there would be no way for him to reconcile his view with complexity theory, which embraces the unpredictable and disproportionate effects of interacting components. If, on the other hand, he asserted the linearity of history because the infinitesimals of the calculus analogy suggested it, then he might have been intrigued by the possibilities that chaos theory has to offer. Simple equations can govern a chaotic system, but we cannot determine those equations from their results. If we know them, however, we can plug in values and generate results. How might Tolstoy have reacted to the idea that there is a single but indiscernible principle governing the infinitely varied patterns of human behavior? Historians have used scientific metaphors to describe human affairs for centuries. Newtonian mechanics is a less satisfactory analogy to human affairs than Enlightenment optimists believed. Though we, as 21st-century historians, might scoff at the idea of seeing history as a science and trying to derive its laws, the lure of scientific metaphors for human affairs remains powerful. Can the ongoing revolutions in mathematics, biological , and physical sciences provide new metaphors for understanding history? Yes and no. New scientific metaphors can further the discussion about what history is and how to present it, focusing historians on new theoretical questions and more fundamental problems that will require still newer ways of looking at the world. But new metaphors, like their Newtonian predecessors, will not resolve all questions or provide universal solutions to the problem of understanding people. Chaos theory, for example, hardly renders irrelevant Tolstoy's discussion of human free will. Whether or not we view history as a complex, iterative flow, human beings are not particles, or fluids, or substances apparently acted upon. Chaotic systems are definitionalIy deterministic, but not predictable. Metaphorically, they speak ofcomplex causation , not free actors making independent decisions . Often, what we label "chance" is the product of interactions too complex to measure . Tolstoy thought that "[fjree will is for history only an expression for the unknown remainder ofwhat we know about the laws of human life."6 Chaos theory suggests a similar definition. Perhaps one day biologists, psychologists , and chaologists will be able to discover whether or not the human mind is fully deterministic, or whether true randomness exists. Until then, what free will is and how historians should present it ought to remain at the heart of philosophical discussions within our discipline. After all, free will is one ofthe things that we think makes us unique as humans, and which convinces us as 21st-century historians that scientific metaphors have limited applications within the discipline of history. Kimberly Kagan is an OHn Postdoctoral Fellow in Military History and Strategy at Yale International Security Studies and the author o/The Eye of Command, forthcomingfrom the University of Michigan Press. 1 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 2nd ed. (Norton, 1996), 732; the translation does not capture the phrase quite accurately, as it substitutes "individual " for "uniform," "odnorodnye." The phrase is discussed in Jeff Love, "Tolstoy's Calculus of History," Tolstoy Studies Journal 13 (2001): 2337 . 2 Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1067. 3 Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1069. 4 Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1066. 5 One of the characteristics of a linear system is that it can be analyzed—broken into its component parts, which can be studied individually and reassembled to recreate the whole. A core characteristic of complex systems is that they cannot be analyzed—breaking them into their separate parts destroys them. 6 Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1072. Bringing History and Science Together William H. McNeill These essays show that something big is astir among the small circle of scholars who have begun to participate actively in the central intellectual accomplishment ofthe 20th century—the historicization ofnature in its entirety, and ofthe natural sciences in particular. Astronomy and physics led this unexpected transformation, surrendering the notion of a uniform, mathematically predictable, and retrodictable universe that was the crown jewel ofNewtonian science. Instead, first quantum mechanics and then Big Bang cosmology portrayed a universe...

pdf

Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 40-42
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.