The Divine Interpretation of History

Posted: February 7, 2012 in Divinity, Historiography, History, Theology
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Eschatology for Historians

By Michael Black, Blackfriars Hall, Oxford

Who will believe my verse in time to come,

If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?

Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb

Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts. 

– Shakespeare, Sonnet XVII

What constitutes good history?

Every historical narrative is an abridgement of a larger untold story. What is missing in the abridgement is not just the incompleteness of facts, relics, and reports, but the particularity of what might be important now and, conversely, what we believe doesn’t need questioning or explaining or even merely emphasizing. Our tale may grow. But it doesn’t just grow on the soil of new historical data or even of new interests. It grows mainly as shoots and leaves on the tales we have already told. So much is obvious.

Less obvious is what constitutes a ‘good’ abridgement. What are the rules of historical editing that determine what counts as a relevant fact, what experiences these facts might represent and whose experiences are significant at all?

Herbert Butterfield was one historian who came up with a powerful analysis of the issue. He alerted us to what he called the “Whig interpretation of history” which keys all historical narrative on our present circumstances.[1] What is relevant in history according to this method is whatever it is we have at the moment – democracy, global capital, corporate institutional dominance, or liberal culture for example. These are the facts to be explained, in terms which are useful for our understanding of how we arrived and where we are going within these analytic categories.

Butterfield criticized the Whig interpretation as essentially parochial, conservative and self-serving. Its narrative, he claimed, tends to justify and embed our current circumstances. The story line is one of progress. It’s moral one of the continued use of power, and how to keep it, by those who have it at the moment.

The alternative for Butterfield was an historical method which did not privilege the present as the norm for the interpretation of the past. The job of the historian is to uncover not the origins of the present in the past but the past in its own terms – its concerns and interests, factual knowledge and narrative genres. The relevance of history is precisely in the difference it discovers in these from those of the historian himself. History enlightens because the story it tells is revelatory of the hidden presumptions, prejudices and mistakes of the present.

Butterfield’s point has great merit. If we presume the world remains the same we will find a sameness which appears not just perennial but natural, an aspect of some inevitable order. For example in my own field on research, the commercial corporation, the modern institution is often connected with the Roman corporatio on the basis of etymology. In fact Roman civil law had no institution comparable or genetically related to the modern corporation. Looking for something with the structural or functional characteristics of today’s corporation is more than merely misleading. It provides a legal rationale for corporate authoritarianism. Such false friends exist not just in language but in any similarity upon which we can impose an erroneous identity.

But Butterfield’s solution doesn’t solve the problem he identifies His intention seems reasonable enough: to release history from the powers of the present. But his suggestions about method seem to condemn the historian to a sort of he said/she said story in the manner perhaps of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History but told from an infinite number of disconnected individual perspectives. The consequences are fatal, for example:

    – any attempt to enter into the historical ‘mind-set’ lacks an unambiguous starting point; who is it who could represent an entire historical epoch, if such representation is possible at all?

    – judgment among alternative accounts, historical or contemporaneous, becomes impossible; which accounts can be privileged if all are equal?

    – difference has no other significance than that it differs; does even a credible description of the past provide anything except an alternative to the present?

    – all institutional conclusions become suspect; since there are no better or worse accounts, can there be any implications at all for social institutions?

    – better understanding of ourselves seems unachievable; better is the comparative for nothing in particular.

History under the Butterfield regime would seem to become irrelevant except as an aesthetic exercise – an improvement perhaps over history as a force for domination, but hardly a vocational imperative for the historian.

The American logician, Charles Sanders Peirce, shared Butterfield’s central issue: the proper criterion of investigative ‘editing’. But Peirce suggested a very different solution. For him, the correct method for all sciences (in which he included all forms of organized inquiry such as history), is keyed on the future. Every claim, observation, measurement and judgment of the scientist has a claim to truth based solely on a comparison with the ultimate findings of the inquiring community.[2]

For Peirce, the scientist implicitly subjects himself to the process through which this community operates. Throughout the scientific process, the criteria of correctness in method or the acceptability of results may vary (for example what Einstein thought was important and the details of his experimental method vs. Newton’s views on the same). Ultimately however the goal of inquiry is that all scientific findings, all the individual interests, even all apparent inconsistencies from all relevant inquiry – past, present and to come – will be reconciled and included in the final conclusion arrived at by the community. This overriding criterion of all-inclusiveness is not something we can know much less achieve in practice. Yet it exists as a presumption of the scientific effort.  In fact Peirce knows that it will never be achieved. But he runs out of philosophical language to express his insight effectively. What he is indicating is what is called the eschatological, a theological term indicating ‘the last things’. This term needs some explaining to see how it is a necessary part of Peirce’s conception.

Eschatology is the study of the final story told about the universe. Peirce presumed an infinite life of the scientific community in order to make his point in purely philosophical terms. Perhaps we are more aware than he that the last story we could hear may be told tomorrow just before asteroid 1011L impacts in Southern California and destroys all scientific thought on earth. In fact Peirce’s ‘infinite’ is merely a euphemistic term for the eschatological. He is not concerned with the ‘last’ scientific observation taken before the asteroid strikes. This is actually the ‘next to last’. The really final act of inquiry is an ideal which is beyond time entirely. This ultimate act is the abiding criterion even for the very final act of the last investigator on the planet. In short it is a story which can only be told by God, and it is a story which reconciles all other stories in itself. An infinite, timeless, God-told story which both allows valid but finite human stories to be told within time and draws these stories towards itself beyond time.

One need not be a theist, at least not a Christian theist, to recognize and appreciate Peirce’s criterion of the ultimate ideal. His inspiration comes from neo-Platonism (likely Augustine), through medieval scholasticism (probably Bonaventure), and Enlightenment philosophy (particularly Leibniz). Using his own method Peirce viewed each of these historical stories as material for his larger story which includes them all. In doing so he does a fair job of reconciling even Aristotelianism, which has no use for relationships at all, with the communal character of inquiry. He thereby demonstrates the superiority of this ‘eschatological method’ through the inclusion of all these approaches as ‘special cases’ within a larger conception.

The crucial intellectual move made by Peirce therefore is his recognition that the ultimate, eschatological criterion implies a present, immediate criterion: the more inclusive is to be favoured to, considered better than, the less inclusive. This allows valid inquiry in the present even though the ultimate ‘verification’ of such inquiry will never be achieved by life on earth or any other material being. Inclusiveness does not refer to individual investigators. It refers to the explanatory power as determined within and by the members of the inquiring community of an idea, theory, conclusion, observation or measurement. In short, the ‘better’ in any of these activities is that which incorporates all available views in their own terms and  accounts for any anomalies that these views leave unanswered.

So for example Relativity Physics is superior to Newtonian Physics because the latter is explained as part of a ‘bigger picture’ which also accounts for Newtonian problems like action at a distance. Similarly more precise measuring instruments ‘include’ the measurements of the less precise. The story told by Einstein in his theory is a better story than that told by Newton in his theory because the latter is validated in its own terms and superseded. In my own field of corporate history, again, a story which includes economics and religious belief as well as sociology, showing the necessary dependence of each category upon the others, is superior to any more narrow account.

Peirce was not the first to notice this epistemological criterion. But he was the first to notice that it had its own dynamic logic, which he termed abduction.[3] To abduce a from b and c involves determining that a is sufficient (or nearly sufficient), but not necessary, for b (let’s say Newtonian Physics) and c (Newtonian anomalies). Neither induction nor deduction, abduction has several interesting characteristics of its own.

In the first instance abduction can only be established a posteriori, that is after a has been articulated, proposed, and tested. Second a may not be unique as an outcome of b and c; any number of conclusions may meet the abductive conclusion. Therefore any abduction may provoke further abduction to determine what other conclusions (d,e,f…) may be incorporated. The development from abduction to abduction cannot be considered as ‘progress’ because new anomalies, perhaps more difficult ones, will continuously arise (Einstein of course contributed to a whole new set of anomalies to be dealt with, e.g. quantum entanglement). Finally, abduction is by its nature synthetic rather than analytic in the manner of induction or deduction. In this sense it s a surprise, requiring the exercise of intuition.

Perhaps the clearest example of historical abduction appears in the doctrinal development of the Catholic Church.[4] The Church’s claim to infallibility puts a rather important constraint on how it tells its own story. By insisting that its tradition is true it is forced to find a larger truth if doctrine is to develop at all. Thus the doctrine of Original Sin, which states that all human beings are born in a state of separation from God, would on the face of it be incompatible with the doctrine that Mary the mother of Jesus is Theotokos, God-bearer. Mary could hardly be separated from God in Christian thinking since her body is part of the body of the God-man Jesus, and vice versa. The additional doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was consequently abduced from the two apparently conflicting doctrines. It states that, unlike the rest of humanity, Mary was born without sin. In a sense history has been re-written by the Church, but in such a way that all previous histories are maintained.

So while abduction provides an immediate criterion for distinguishing the best explanation available at any moment in an inquiry, it is based on a final, actually an eschatological, state of all inquiry. As later developed by Peirce’s friend and colleague, Josiah Royce, the method grew from a methodological norm in formally organized scientific groups to a general ethic for society.[5] Royce developed a sort of eschatological ethic in which all opinion is not so much tested as incorporated within each other. For him, humanity itself is the inquiring community, its goal the kingdom of heaven, its method that of listening and dialogue, its crime that of dominance and power. Clearly a divine interpretation of history.

[2] Cf. for example in history Peter Seixas ‘The Community of Inquiry as a Basis for Knowledge and Learning: The Case of History,’ American Educational Research Journal , Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 305-324

[3] Cf. Arthur W. Burks ‘Peirce’s Theory of Abduction’,  Philosophy of Science , Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1946), pp. 301-306

[4] Another strictly historical version of abduction is provided by Alasdair MacIntyre in his Three Rival Version of Moral Inquiry, University of Notre Dame, 1990. The main advantage of the doctrinal example above is its conciseness.

[5] Cf. The Conception of Immortality. 1904, London, among  many of Royce’s works

About the author

After a career in business (mostly other people’s and mostly in strange places), Michael Black is now a Fellow of the smallest Oxford college, Blackfriars Hall, where he lectures, tutors and tends the library. Surrounded by a number of very tolerant and forgiving Dominican friars, he is attempting to reconcile his worldly experience with his eschatological expectations. He holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School, and a doctoral degree from Oxford in Theological Ethics. Several children with his name, all more talented than he, inhabit urban and rural locations in distant parts to which he no longer travels except through coercion. He also likes poetry, particularly by T. S. Eliot and John Donne.

  1. Roger says:

    A key determinant in evaluating scientific experiments, as well as understanding economic and business issues, is Ceteris Paribus. A simple constant to explain the finite. In actuality, there are influences that extend far beyond what can be explained within a controlled situation.

    We as humans may be able to extrapolate curent conditions to its penultimate conclusion, but only God gets to fill in the full story.

  2. Doesn’t the Virgin Mary being born without sin require the same of her mother, and so on, all the way back to Eve? Ok, I see how it applies to Eve, but what about all the intervening generations of women?

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