Category: philosophy of history

The Ecology of History: Time, Contingency, and Substance

We think intuitively in linear terms: it limits us.

One of the key questions in philosophy is whether or not we (each of us) have free will. It is often referred to as the problem of determinism: are our actions pre-determined? Alternatively put: do we in the exercise of our will define our lives, and change the world? The knee-jerk reaction for the post-modern reader of this essay will invariably be ‘yes’! So let’s take two examples of me having exercised free will, determining my own future, one big and one small. I chose to go to college, and as a result I got a good job and had a successful career. And for the small example – I just lifted a pen from the desk. Are these choices entirely made by me?

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The Folly of Causation

David Hume’s challenge to the philosophy of science – the problem of induction – has never properly been addressed. In essence, it argues that it is impossible to predict the future, because no matter how many experiments we can do, or examples we can take from history, we can never be sure that something we didn’t know might happen – like the emergence of a black swan, first discovered (or so named) in Australia in 1790, and prior to which – in Europe at least – it was presumed that all mature swans were white. We can deduce that if A = B and B = C then A = C. But just because every car we have ever observed has four wheels it does not mean that the next car will have four wheels. It may have only three. Instead of throwing our arms up and saying that none of modern rationalism can really make sense any more, a combination of pragmatism, wilful ignorance and theology have conspired to sweep the inconvenient position under the carpet.

This has profound consequences for the basis of modern thought and epistemology. In particular, it has particular consequences for history and the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of time. It also has a profound and immediately practical bearing on the criminal justice system, and how we attribute blame.

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The Contested Space of Truth and History

The Abu-Ghraib image arguably defined that history far more than documentary evidence or subsequent investigations.

The Chinese appear to have fabricated an image to support a narrative that Australian soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan. In the modern media dominated world, negative stories are quickly suppressed and ignored where they can be confidently denied by a robust and well-disciplined communications strategies. However, when there’s a picture, it is more difficult. Audio and video make the story even more difficult, as they lend themselves to blind sharing, hot takes, and indiscriminate proliferation.

In the post-event / post-allegation battle for control of the narrative, and for a definitive version of events, truth becomes defined. The immediate aftermath is the most important time. Witness Bill Barr’s decision to release his (inaccurate) version of the Mueller Report in the US several weeks before the actual report was released; even though it was wrong, and ultimately provably so, the narrative was sufficiently blunted to as to protect his ‘client’, the American president.

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The Politics of Posterity

Titus Livius, or simply Livy, Historian of Rome. The question is why did he write his histories?

In assessing the battlefield casualties Rome suffered in the first thirty years of the second century BC, Livy (c59 BC – c17 AD) estimates 55,000. The classicist Mary Beard distrusts the figures – and that number, she suggests, is far too low. In the first instance, ‘there was no systematic tally of deaths on an ancient battlefield; and all numbers in ancient texts have to be treated with suspicion, victims of exaggeration, misunderstanding and over the years some terrible miscopying by medieval monks.’ In addition, she continues, ‘[t]here was probably a patriotic tendency to downplay Roman losses; it is not clear whether allies as well as Roman citizens were included; there must have been some battles and skirmishes which do not feature in Livy’s list; and those who subsequently died of their wounds must have been very many indeed (in most circumstances, ancient weapons were much better at wounding than killing outright; death followed later, by infection).’ (SPQR, p.131-2)

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