The death of History

Photo: Yusuf Dündar / Unsplash

Doing Ancient History is a difficult job. You may be thinking about the lot of hard work historians have to perform in order to learn just a little bit of what happened millennia ago, but I would like to invite you to consider another more fundamental obstacle in a discipline like this: the fact that basically all the most relevant empirical evidence we might collect about those events has already been collected long ago, as well as studied, analysed and disputed. We cannot expect to discover, say, a big amount of unpublished documents (nor perhaps just a few additional lines) nearly contemporary of Julius Caesar, providing us with totally unknown information about the events of the time; nor can we expect that future archaeological discoveries about the classical civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean can be as illuminating and mind-changing as the pioneering findings of the 19th or early 20th centuries were. Of course, there are still a lot of small details waiting for us, but the big picture of what more or less happened in those days has already been constructed, and we can expect no big deletions or additions to it. Ancient History is one of those scientific disciplines in which specialist have to work under the certainty of having already all the data on the table (of course, I mean all the data we can possibly get, not all the data we wished to have). This, by the way, is a situation similar to that of other apparently ‘more scientific disciplines’, as I commented here about the case of theoretical physics. And, in the same way, here applies the ‘law’ that tells that the amount of relevance that philosophical reasoning plays in an academic field is inversely proportional to the amount of new empirical data the field practitioners can expect to learn: as I explained there, if the plausibility of a theory or conjecture cannot be made to grow thanks to new amazing predictions they may help to advance, then the only route to ameliorate that plausibility is by using ‘philosophical’ (or ‘rhetorical’?) arguments, that show that the theory/conjecture is coherent, or even mandated, by some ‘ontological’, ‘methodological’, or other kind of philosophical ‘principles’.

The idea that Ancient History is a nearly dead field (from the point of view of empirically-based growth of knowledge about the ‘big questions’) was revived in my mind a few days ago, when I came across Greg Anderson’s recent book entitled The Realness of Things Past. Ancient Greece and Ontological History 1. In a nutshell, the book is an attempt to apply the paradigm of so called ‘Post-Colonialism’ to the field of Ancient History, and more particularly, to the study of the classical Athens (around 5th-4th centuries BCE). The history of places like Africa, India, China or (indigenous) America has been traditionally carried out not only from the point of view of European or Western history, but, most importantly, with the help of conceptual categories that only make sense (according to Anderson and the post-colonialist historians) from the point of view of our post-Enlightenment culture; I mean categories such as ‘economy’, ‘democracy’, ‘state’, ‘ideology’, even ‘religion’ (as a field of experience or of social life totally separate from the ‘secular’). The study of non-Western societies should be done with non-Western categories.

Exactly the same, according to Anderson, is what we have to do when approaching the classical Athenians: we should not explain nor describe their society using our own mental framework (‘translating’ it to our own language, so to say), but we have to aim, instead, to reconstruct their world in their own terms (‘transcribing’ that world into ours, to say it with the words the author uses). This may hardly sound new: since more than one century ago (at least), specialists are very cautious about avoiding one of the most mortal sins a historian can commit, anachronism. What Anderson adds is that actually all the questions modern historians have been putting about classical Greece are unavoidably ‘anachronistic’, for they wouldn’t make any sense at all for a contemporary of Pericles or Xenophon. As another critic summarily explains 2:

To understand the Athenians properly, we must recognise that it isn’t just that they perceived the world differently, but that the world itself was different. What’s needed, (Anderson) believes, is an ‘ontological turn’ in how we write histories of Athens.

Anderson, hence, invites us to completely rewrite Ancient History, not simply trying to imagine ‘how those millennia-dead people saw the world’, but trying to capture how their world really was. Just by way of example: it is not only that we should not impose the categories of our liberal political philosophy (like ‘democracy’, ‘power’, ‘institutions’…) on our description of that world, but use their categories (their understanding of their words) instead. No, it is even that, when doing Ancient Greek History, we should not assume that Greek gods do not exist, just because we live in a ‘modern’, post-Enlightenment world in which we ‘know’ that the universe is made of matter and energy that obeys precise mathematical physical laws. Assuming the truth of our world (which includes our corpus scientific knowledge, as well as our ideas about how real, ‘legitimate’ scientific knowledge is produced and validated) when approaching the people of Antiquity “engages in a kind of retrospective political violence” (Anderson, 2018, p. 102).

This message combines two ingredients that, if when consumed in isolation are unsafe, mixed are certainly dangerous: the post-modern ontological relativism according to which there is nothing like an objectively existing world (nor better or worse ways to discover how things really are), but only the worlds ‘made’ by each culture, society, tribe, etc.; and the post-post-modern ethical fundamentalism according to which everything that sounds like ‘Western’, ‘Enlightened’, ‘Liberal’, ‘Capitalist’, ‘Dualist’ (wtf?) or (scream!!!) ‘Positivist’ is not only mistaken, but immoral. Anderson’s arguments along the book (which often is very pleasant to read, thanks to the freshness and detail with which the author makes you realize how Athenians saw the world) turn perpetually around this idea that we are ‘harming’ or ‘insulting’ the peoples of the past when we simply try to understand them without accepting that they were basically right in everything they said and thought. But, is a science of history along those lines even possible? Even Anderson would accept (I guess) that other historians can try to do exactly the same he is trying (‘transcribing the Classical world’), but failing, because of some they have misunderstood, or for whatever reasons. After all, he surely prefers to perform his job well rather than poorly. But, if he, or other historians, may fail, may be mistaken, why have we to assume that the Athenians of the Classical Age were right about everything they fancied (no matter how well that system of assumptions ‘functioned’ at the time)? Moreover, isn’t the goal of science to help us to better understand things that are beyond the grasp of ‘common sense’ (not only ‘modern’ common sense, but whichever ‘common sense’ that happens to have existed)? But, of course, in the world of post-modern, post-colonial studies, these are probably nasty assumptions that only a despicable positivist would dare to make.

Lastly, there is a section at the beginning of the book where one starts hoping that what one is reading is a kind of Sokalian joke: when Anderson barefacedly starts explaining to you that his new ontological or ‘world-making’ historiographic paradigm is plainly justified by none other than… quantum physics! For, does not quantum theory tell us that an objective world does not really exist ‘out there’, but only the multifarious ways in which the observed phenomena are entangled with their observers? (Short answer: no, quantum physics does not tell that; long answer: no, the reasonable interpretations of quantum physics more similar to what Anderson very wrongly describes do not allow to infer something as weird as the thesis that everything some people have ever thought was real was really real at the time; quantum mechanics, for example, does not allow to infer that Ptolemaic epicycles were really real by 200 CE; no quantum experiment allows to conclude such a crazy, stupid claim). Unfortunately, one ends discovering that the quantum sections of Anderson’s book were not a joke. And it is a pity.

References

  1. Anderson, Greg, 2018, The Realness of Things Past. Ancient Greece and Ontological History, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  2. Hall, Claire, 2020, “The Day a God Rode In”, The London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 4.

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2 comments

  • Yes, Anderson’s use of the word ” reality” is very dangerous. Common “beliefs” at a point of time can be very different across the ages, and let civilisations to prosper! But as we all know, we only need to get enough right, to support a particular way of life, not get everything right! Saw his talk in Ted X and was frightened at how much credence he is being given!

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