Friday, February 07, 2014

Thoughts as I begin Reading Gaddis on the Writing of History,

I have just started reading The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis. As I start to think about reading history, I am again taken by the passionate beliefs that people of the past have so often had in ideas that we now understand to be completely wrong. It is obvious that history should teach us that our own ideas may be wrong; consequently some modesty about our beliefs is probably justified not only by our own unrecognized limitations, but also by the fact that our ideas are formed by those with whom we associate, the ideas current in our time -- the zeitgeist, if you will. History suggests that the zeitgeist is almost always wrong.

If throughout history most people were wrong about most important things, perhaps we should treat our contemporaries who we believe to be wrong now with a some respect and more than a little courtesy. Hard as it is to believe, they may be right and we may be wrong.

Emotion in History

Gaddis points out that historians often try to get their readers to recognize the emotions felt by historical actors, not just what they thought. Daniel Kahnemann, the psychologist, has a model describing two kinds of thinking:
System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. (Wikipedia)
I assume that most of us read history using System 2, the more logical and less emotional kind. It may be very difficult to convey emotion to a reader in system 2 mode. (Perhaps those who wrote epic poems, who could use the rhythm of language and metaphor had a better idea on how to convey historical fact and emotion.)

Time and Space

Gaddis points out that historians manipulate time and space in writing histories.

We think of space in terms of maps, or these days the GPS which tells us the mileage and expected duration of a trip as we start out and along the way. But that is not the only way to think of space. A couple of hundred years ago, our American founding father's would probably have been concerned about how long an overland trip would take on horseback; how long a sea voyage would last. A voyage across the Atlantic might take six weeks or two months, or much longer if the weather was bad. The trip would take different times in different seasons. It might be important to consider the danger involved in different routes. Thus a person setting out on a long trip in 1776 might better consult a list of options with pros and cons for each, rather than a map.

The Romans built a road system that enabled their legions to move with unprecedented speed. Roman roads didn't get muddy, and provided rapid transport in the Mediterranean climate in all seasons. They had mile markers so that distances could be accurately understood in planning and managing a march. (The word "mile" comes from the Latin word for 1000, since it was the distance traveled by a legion making 1000 of its measure paces on the march.) For the Roman legion, space would have been conceived of in terms of distances moved by sea, by Roman Road, and cross country.

We think that the distance from A to B is equal to the distance from B to A. In 1776, the trip by boat up the Hudson River (and travel often would have been by water rather than land) would take more time than a trip down the river. Measuring the distance by time required for the trip from New York to Albany would be longer than the trip from Albany to New York.

With the development of the transcontinental railway and telegraph, by the second half of the 19th century, people could travel relatively rapidly over long distances by rail, and could communicate even faster over the telegraph. There are stories of people traveling by train, impressed by the speed of their journey, who were amazed to get a telegram on arriving at their destination with news of events from home that had happened after their departure. While people and information traveled relatively quickly along the rail lines and parallel telegraph lines, as one moved away from those lines, speed was reduced again to that of a horse or walking man. Thus distance measured in time was anisotropic, depending on the direction in which the measurements were taken.

I have just read The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid. (See my post on the book.) The book illustrated the fact that, while we know a lot about the times at which some events too place two millenniums ago, that information is very spotty. For important Alexandrian scholars and intellectuals, we know very little about when they worked in Alexandria, or even if they did in fact live and work there. In fact it may suffice to know that Alexander the Great founded a city late in the fourth century BC, and that it was conquered by Rome in the middle of the first century BC, and conquered by Arabs in the late seventh century AD.

Theory of Relativity

If there are two events, A and B, we think that either A preceded B, A and B were simultaneous, or B preceded A. Einstein in his theory suggested that that appearance depends on the relative positions of A, B and the observer, and the motion of the observer. There is a analogous historical situation, which seems little studied.

Let us return to the period of the Revolutionary War. A Tea Tax was passed into law in London in 1773. Americans learned of the new law in September many weeks after they passed, when ships were already under way for America with cargoes of tea. In Boston, local leaders raised public anger at the new law for a period of a couple of months, and in mid December a mob dumped the cargo of tea from a ship in the Boston Harbor. It then took many weeks for the word of the word of the "tea party" to get back to London. Note that information about the law and the Boston response affected Bostonians much closer in time to each other than they did to Londoners. If you will, the two events appeared more nearly simultaneous in the minds of Bostonians than in the minds of Londoners.

It you think about the slow and perilous communications in the 18th century, news from London, Madrid and Paris could take quite different amounts of time to arrive in Philadelphia. It would be possible that events would occur simultaneously in Paris and Madrid, with news of the Paris event arriving before that of the Madrid event in London, and that of the Madrid event arriving before the Paris event in Philadelphia. Notions of causality might be quite different in the various capitols.

How We Understand the Past Depends on the Questions We Ask

I began to wonder about the radically different way we now conceive of time and distance, due to technological change, as compared with people in the past. I made my first trip by air in 1945, and it took 24 hours to travel from Boston to Los Angeles. I understand that at that time it was hard to make a long distance telephone call, and that one would contact an operator, who would put the call through, getting back to the person who had initiated the call, sometimes after a period of hours. Today the flight from Boston to Los Angeles is much faster, and the psychological cost of a few hours on a plane is much, much less than that of 24 hours with intermediate stops and little sleep. An internet call via Skype gives you instantaneous connection with imagery as well as voice. The distance is much less.

My father, who immigrated from Europe to the USA in the 1920s never saw his parents again, not able to return to Ireland until after his long-lived parents had passed away. Today I exchange messages on Facebook with cousins in Ireland, England and Australia several times a day; many are in real time, others, like our emails, are asynchronous but done usually within hours. Time used to be a function of the local sunrise and sunset; today, we communicate with whoever is online whenever we are online, no matter where we are located geographically. Call centers in Asia operate night shifts to handle calls from the other side of the globe where it is daytime.

Thus, our current view of time and space is radically different than that of historians of the mid 20th century and earlier, and even more radically different that that of the subjects of history of earlier centuries. Will we ask interesting questions of history from our new perspective? For example, considering the relativity of perception of events described above, did it make a difference? Might. for example, World War I have been averted had information flows been different?

Before railroads and telegraphs, there were a number of means used to signal information over distance faster than a man or horse could ride: smoke signals, mirrors, semaphores, etc. There were also systems such as the royal roads of ancient Persia, the roads and runners of the Incas, and the Pony Express developed to use muscle power to transport information more rapidly than otherwise available, especially for use by the state. Have historians explored the costs and benefits of achieving more timely information via these channels?

Process and Structure

Gaddis provides a chapter on Process and Structure in history, noting that (like some of the physical and life sciences) history often focuses on the processes that led to the development of structures found as a specific point in time. He separates the continuous processes --- those which reoccur with sufficient frequency to be predicted -- and the contingent events, such as earthquakes and plagues that land unexpected in history and change the course of events. Fundamentally, however, historians often seek to discover some kind of process which is going on which explains a sequence of events. Their work is to intuit the process, find the evidence that convinces them of the reality of the existence of the process, and then subject their case to peer review (and of course to the judgement of future generations).

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