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May/June 2005 · Historically Speaking 43 Big History, Little Critique Bruce Mazlish 11 six ofthe papers presented here are A concerned with a number ofcommon questions: is history a science (or can it be made one), what role do metaphors from natural science play in history, can mathematics and modeling advance the practice of history , and, lastly and implicitly, what is the proper level at which to "do" history? In general , four of the papers espouse "big history" as the scale and wish to treat it as on a spectrum with natural science, while two of the papers are skeptical of such large claims and have in mind a different continuity in regard to the natural and human sciences. Christian, Spier, Mears, and Chaisson all argue that history is or can be made a science along the lines of the natural ones. (Indeed, Chaisson's presentation, with its mathematical formulae, might more readily find its place in a physics than a historical journal.) Emphases are different—Christian speaks of "collective learning" as the equivalent ofnatural selection, Spier of ecological and social regime changes, Mears of transmutations, and everyone is concerned with energy as an organizing principle—but they all take history back to the beginning of time, thus breaking the narrow constraints ofmore traditional approaches. They also agree that history must be interdisciplinary. Christian is obviously the leader and inspirer of big history. He deserves much of the credit for having pioneered this particular break past the Eurocentric and exclusively "humancentric" view of most traditional historians . It is his name that is most frequently invoked in semi-reverential terms. Thus, given the limited space at my disposal, I will simply raise a few questions in regard to his paper, asking forgiveness from the other three contributors to big history. Before doing so, I want to say that it is important for friends of the approach to be critical. If it is not to be a cult but a group of forward-thinking individuals , it needs to push its own ideas in a skeptical manner. In his well-written and knowledgeable paper, Christian argues for history as a science , claiming this is a sustainable position especially now that natural science has itself become less deterministic. As he puts it, natural science is "moving closer to history" rather than vice-versa. At this point, he invokes Kuhn and his paradigm, having already spoken of the two-culture problem and about to speak of E.O. Wilson and his book, Consilience. We need to pause, however . While Kuhn is fashionable, his theses have not stood up well to criticism. Historians of science have questioned his work. Kuhn himselfexpressed doubts after its publication. We who follow upon his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions should do likewise. Indeed, it can be argued that the Scientific Revolution of the 1 7th century incorporated not only the novel theories of Galileo and Newton, but established the basic outlines of scientific method, which, suitably modified, would amend the initial paradigms. Adherence to scientific method still persists. So, too, with Wilson and Consilience. This noteworthy effort to unify the sciences suffers from a false understanding of the notion of consilience as introduced by William Whewell and then exemplified in the work of Darwin. Clearly, invocation of such figures as Kuhn and Wilson from the natural sciences must be accompanied by a constant critique. The same is true for metaphors. When Christian mixes them as he does speaking of "a huge super-organism consisting of all humans," and a few sentences later of the "super-continent of modern humanity," we must ask which is the one that is most valid as we try to do history. Or else, what purpose does each serve that the other does not? Of such nature are the internal criticisms that need to be raised. The papers by F. Kagan and K. Kagan raise what may be called external criticism. F. Kagan organizes his critique of big history by asking "what role do individual decisions and events play in shaping the course of history?" In his attempt to answer this question, he, too, appeals to work in the natural sciences. Invoking chaos theory , he tells...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 43-44
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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