Quick post. This NY times op-ed by Piers Brendon really got me thinking about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and his invention of “psychohistory”. Basically, that history as a social science that can accurately predict future events, remains at this moment just what it is in the Foundation series: a pseudoscience concept of science fiction.
The quote I’ve absolutely detested the most in my life and makes me cringe every blessed time I’ve heard it is “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. As if that was the only reason to engage in study of history. As if there was such a possibility of history actually repeating itself. I agree with Twain that it does not repeat, but at “best it often rhymes”.
I know I do the quote no credit by reacting only to those who have misinterpreted it; that the author meant only to make a pithy statement to the wisdom that can be gleamed through the exposure to experiences of previous generations. Yet, whether its a neo-con citing Neville Chamberlain for the umpteenth time or Paul Kennedy and the fates of empires, it’s useful to remember how history works as a useful guide in decision making and when its just a gimmicky crutch of the intellectually weak.
Explaining when it is useful is a meditation that deserves more than this blog post, but some signs that historical precedent is being used as a gimmick:
A) One to one analogy. By this I mean, a type of logic that is very similar to people look for and find “signs of the beast” or who share the same superstitious understanding of the laws of probability as a gambler. Basically, they mistake present coincidence with past events as a legitimate way to make prophecy.
B) They mention Hitler or the Roman Empire. Usually a clue just because of their overuse
C) An insistence that if something has failed in the past, that it cannot work in the future, no matter the change in circumstances. We have far more to fear from this attitude then those who say “we do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”. Even if human progress is itself a delusory, historical intellectual construction, those who would use historical instruction as an argument for stagnation are missing the point of endeavoring in its study in the first place.
This last point is the most important for this blog. Stagnation of thought and deed are things to guard against, and in my negative appraisals of things like Great Society era public works architecture I never wish to convey the idea that the past should be read as one long warning. Rather, I believe it to be inspirational, especially in revisiting failures.