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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

It will have occurred to some readers that the notion that the key pedagogical principles of history can be stated in the form of five “I“s is a little too convenient, if not downright gimmicky. Nonetheless, the principles are what they are, and they happen to each start with the letter “i.” (Those readers who adhere to a code of rational egoism may find this fact mildly amusing.)

I consider the three Is introduced thus far to be the cardinal values of history. They are forms of that which by means of history we seek to gain and or keep: powerful knowledge.  I have discussed these three Is with my students at various junctures, and so it may have surprised some of you to find that the number of them had expanded from three to five.   The reason for the expansion is that the next two key Is in the Powell History method are the means to those ends, which I’ve come to recognize as being as crucial as the ends themselves.

In evaluating the successes of my courses for adults and children over the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to confirm without a doubt that in the pursuit of powerful knowledge about the past, the fundamental challenge is epistemological.

History is a plethora of facts. When presented in an un- or dis-integrated manner, its vast constellation of facts are impossible to understand or remember. Only by brute-force rote memorization do professional historians manage to do so within their subspecializations, but for normal (and psychologically healthy) human beings, who lack the motivation to pursue useless information, the past is an insurmountable overabundance of information.

That is why integration is the key to learning history.

Integration,” in the words of philosopher Ayn Rand, “is a cardinal function of man’s consciousness on all the levels of his cognitive development. First, his brain brings order into his sensory chaos by integrating sense data into percepts…His next step is the integration of percepts into concepts, as he learns to speak. Thereafter, his cognitive development consists in integrating concepts into wider and ever wider concepts, expanding the range of his mind.”

By means of historical integration, one’s awareness can expand to include 5000 years of recorded human experience across the full spectrum of human civilizations.

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IN THE PURSUIT OF POWERFUL KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE PAST, THE FUNDAMENTAL CHALLENGE IS EPISTEMOLOGICAL.”

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Powell History integrates history like never before. The secret of the Powell History method is called “periodization.” Properly understood, periodization is not merely the breaking up of history into periods, but an abstract process of differentiation and integration, where the ultimate aim is the organization of history into a conceptually coherent whole. It is only in this form that history can optimally deliver the values of instruction, insight, and inspiration.

Students of the A First History for Adults series are already familiar with this technique to some extent.  It has actually been applied with far more rigor, and with fantastic results in the junior high and high school classes of History At Our House — which has allowed me to learn that much more about it and thus permitted me to study and communicate history with an ever greater efficiency.  (The power of this method will be demonstrated to a new degree in the upcoming A First History for Adults Part 5: Japan, China, and India, coming this summer.  Registration opens in April, so stay tuned!) 

Part of the purpose of the PHR newsletter, is to help my students and all adult learners of history better understand this method by acting as a forum to publish information about the ongoing development of this method, including the application of the method to specific examples from ancient, European, American, and world history, which brings us to the fifth “I”…

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“Knowledge is Power.”

–Sir Francis Bacon

Powell History operates on five key pedagogical principles, based on the fundamental conviction that a proper study of history targets not merely the retention of facts about the past, but powerful knowledge that connects to life in the present.

This philosophy of history runs counter to the two dominant trends in modern historiography.

A still powerful theory among academic historians is the  nineteenth century ideology promoted by the German historian Leopold von Ranke.  This approach to history insists that it is a scientific pursuit of the highest intellectual order, modeled after Newtonian physical science.  The pursuit of knowledge in such a domain, “Rankeans”  hold, requires an intrinsic appreciation of facts about the past, which are to be observed and related dispassionately. In Ranke’s words, the past must be shown “wie es eigentlich gewesen” — “as it really was.”  To seek instruction from the past, in the Rankean view, is to collect and deploy information for a preconceived purpose, which necessarily corrupts one’s factual orientation.   Fearing such subjectivity, Ranke–and modern academic antiquarians–insist on the suppression of one’s conscious values in order to attain some measure of “scientific” objectivity.  Thus, of course, history is not to be studied in order to achieve benefits in the present and future.

Alternatively, post-Marxist historiography treats history as useful, but only as a rationalization for attacking the dominant Enlightenment narrative of western civilization.  Pure Marxism may not have any vital power left, but its fundamental premises of subjectivism and class warfare have mutated into many forms.  History is no longer solely  about the struggle of the proleteriat vs. the bourgeoisie; it’s about women vs. men, “native Americans” vs. European  conquerors, blacks vs. whites, homosexuals vs. heterosexuals, the insane vs. the sane, voodoo vs. medicine, environmentalists vs. industrialists, etc.  It’s about any and every subordinated collective identity rising up to assert itself against the “dead white men” whose essential contribution to civilization was supposedly to oppress others and then unfairly write a past that covers it up.

So if you’ve got an axe to grind or a chip on your shoulder about society, the modern study history is for you.  However, if you value individual rights, capitalism, science, industry, or anything one might associate with the core values of Western civilization, you’re part of the problem that this kind of history wants to “solve.”

Historians ask us to choose between “science” and useful knowledge or between the some form of “rage against the system” and the story that underpins our right to the pursuit of happiness. Is it any wonder that history has sunk to the status that it has in modern society?

Powell history takes a different view, adopting the foundational values of history first proposed by the ancient Greeks, and building upon those with modern insights in epistemology.  The five key pedagogical principles I call the Five “I”s are:  Integration, Inspiration, and Insight–the cardinal values that history rightly seeks to secure, and Integration and Iteration–the means to those ends.  In subsequent posts, I will elaborate on each of these in turn, so stay tuned!

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In my historical research on the Islamist Entanglement, I have been examining the intellectual undercurrent that runs through Middle Eastern history during the Western Ascendancy of 1683-1839 and subsequent Western Supremacy over the region. It has been a fascinating project, with far greater rewards that I had suspected. Among the most interesting characters I have found on this journey has been an Islamic intellectual named Jamal ad-Din “Al-Afghani.”

Al-Afghani, so called because he claimed Afghan lineage at one point in his life, though historians are quite convinced he was actually of Persian descent, is one of the wellspring intellectuals of modern Islamic reaction against the West.

Jamal ad-Din, known as “Al-Afghani”

Predictably, Al-Afghani’s intellectual work contains primarily denunciations of Western imperialism and various calls to Muslims to build a proper apparatus to match the West’s superior power, such as through the creation of a Pan-Islamic union. As a reactionary and Pan-Islamist, Al-Afghani occupies a unique place in the intellectual history of Islam as a mentor of key Islamists, such as the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and through them to Osama Bin Laden.

It is thus especially surprising to find in his writings passages that would thrill the most rational among us and show incredible insight into reality. For instance:

“It is philosophy that makes man understandable to man, explains human nobility, and shows man the proper road. The first defect appearing in any nation that is headed toward decline is in the philosophic spirit. After that deficiencies spread into the other sciences, arts, and associations.”

What is so striking about this statement is that it is true and profoundly insightful, especially when you consider that Al-Afghani would have learned about scientific history from the West when the science of history was devolving into Marxist materialism and Rankean antiquarianism. How many modern Western philosophers uphold such a conviction?

Why does philosophy have such power? Al-Afghani explains:

Philosophy is the escape from the narrow sensations of animality into the wide arena of human feelings…In general, it is man’s becoming man and living the life of sacred rationality. Its aim is human perfection in reason, mind, soul, and way of life….It is the foremost cause of the production of knowledge, the creation of sciences, the invention of industries, and the initiation of the crafts.” (emphasis mine)

This are some of the most eloquent passages I’ve read from any philosopher, including Nietzsche (when he’s exalting the individual) and Ayn Rand.

If only these were the answers Al-Afghani had stuck with, and the message he had transmitted exclusively to his progeny!

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“A man does not attain to the universal by abandoning the particular, nor to the everlasting by an endeavour to overleap the limitations of time and place.  The abiding reality exists not somewhere apart in the air, but under certain temporary and local forms of thought, feeling, and endeavour.  We come most deeply into communion with the permanent facts and forces of human nature and human life, by accepting first of all this fact — that a definite point of observation and sympathy, not a vague nowhere, has been assigned to each of us.”– E. Dowden

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The Discovery of America is not merely the name of an event; it is a historical abstraction.

Like all historical abstractions it has unique characteristics that make it a particular type of cognitive tool, akin to concepts, but distinct.

Historical abstractions–like the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the Civil War–are mental integrations of historical information into a mental whole.  They represent the adoption of a relational perspective with regards to the concrete data about the past, which emphasizes the similarities between a certain group of entities and events in concert with the differences from the rest of the past that set them apart. Once that relational perspective is hardened into a historical abstraction, the facts it subsumes cease to be disparate atoms; they become units within a sum. 

When integrated into “the Renaissance,” Michelangelo’s David, for instance, ceases to be a single artistic datum in an unintelligible flux; it becomes a representative of a wider European cultural reawakening following the suppression of classical ideals.  When George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware becomes a part of “the American Revolution” it no longer exists merely as a miscellaneous military factoid; it becomes a pivotal action connected to a chain of revolutionary events giving rise to the birth of a new nation. Seen in the context of “the Civil War”, the Gettysburg address becomes more than a speech for the dedication of a cemetary; it becomes one of a number of steps forward in the violent, climactic overthrow of slavery in America.

To possess the perspective afforded by a historical abstraction is empowering.  The fundamental advantage it represents is unit-reduction.  When faced with the plethora of historical facts–even about a single place in a single year–the mind boggles.  Man’s past is an overwhelming mass of information.  Like concepts, historical abstractions allow one to condense that vast sea into manageable components.  They allow multiple lines of development from c.1300 to c.1648 to be captured by one term: “The Renaissance.”  They permit one to hold the work of all the Founding Fathers in the mental span of the expression “the American Revolution.”  They facilitate the wielding of every inch of soil won by Sherman and Grant, and every sleepless night spent by Lincoln and Seward (and Davis), and every ounce of blood shed by brothers on both sides, as a single thought: “the Civil War.”

When history exists in this form, it becomes intelligible as a whole. “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” results in “The Dark Ages,” which give way to “the Renaissance.”  “The American Revolution” creates the scene for “the Founding Era,” but also “The Growth and Decline of the Union,” and ulimately the tragedy of “the Civil War.” 

How can such a power fail to be appreciated and investigated?  The answer is two-fold.  First, it is not entirely true to say that historians have remained ignorant of the power of historical abstractions. Sadly, it is the subjectivists in history who have best understood this power and wielded it most effectively. Kant’s offspring have taken up the philosophical tools he provided to dismantle the historical identification of key developments in Western civilization, including Columbus’s unmatched efforts.

With regards to that particular issue, for example, they have labored to elevate the irrelevant wanderings of the Vikings to a status equal to or greater than Columbus’s discovery, and they are striving to raise awareness of the even more nonessential narrative of America’s pre-Columbian neolithic primitives in people’s minds.  This shift in emphasis to a new groundwork of facts is designed to permit the fostering of a new perspective on the history of America, where every element of progress is underplayed and the focus is then placed on America’s brutal conquest by Europeans.  The ultimate purpose of this revision is a general historical indictment of Western civilization that includes the characterization of Europe’s discovery and colonization of America as the greatest example of “genocide” in history.

This is a preposterous charge, but how can it be stopped?

“Scientific” historians, for their part, have been caught in the wake of complacent skepticism that followed Kant,  and they have refused to treat of historical abstractions like the “Discovery of America” in any serious way.  They have instead buried their heads in the archives in the hope that the truth and value of history can somehow be dredged from the facts themselves.

A proper assessment and celebration of Columbus’s work, however, cannot be validated by more research or the uncovering of a still more detailed picture of the past. It can only be defended by grasping on an abstract level that “the Discovery of America” is the objective term necessitated by the full context of the Story of World up to that point and–of equal importance–by the context of developments beyond it.

To examine merely one thread that indicates the validity of the term, one can consider the history of geography. In no geographical construct did any person anywhere in the world prior to 1492 conceive of the existence of the continent of America as a component of the world’s geography understood in relation to all the others.  The Indians who lived on it were eons removed from the scientific understanding of geography that would be required; the Vikings–though expert sailors–applied no more sophisticated a geographical concept to their findings than “land” (vs. water); and the greatest thinkers of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe each had only a decent grasp of their own immediate continental surroundings. The most accomplished map-maker of the pre-Columbian period, Fra Mauro, would collect all known data to produce a map of the world in 1459, not essentially different than the Medieval world-view of the Muslims (then the most advanced geographers), which proves the point.

Then a watershed moment occurred.  Columbus sailed West in search of Asia, and reached the Caribbean in 1492.

Subsequently, thanks to his own later voyages, and the follow-up work of Cabot, Vespucci, Cabral, Verrazano, de Leon, Balboa, de Soto, and especially Magellan, the full extent of the new finding was appreciated.  Europe’s scientific geographers then processed the expanding context of information to present it on a world-wide plan. The later work, however, all springs from one source, one wellspring, which deserves more than simply a concrete identification.  To enumerate the fact that Columbus discovered the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola on his first trip; the Lesser Antilles and Jamaica on his second; Venezuela on his third; and Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama on his fourth; is to fail to rise beyond the merely factual data to an abstract appreciation of their unique place in the overall development.

By means of his philosophic system, however, Kant established a terms of reference that prevented that type of appreciation from every flowering.  Though historians had long been accustomed to using abstract historical terms such as “the Discovery of America” when he came along, because of him they failed to identify just what cognitive purpose these terms serve and to use them with confidence.   Since, as previously pointed out in this series, Kant also empowered Columbus’s assailants, this means he both armed Columbus’s enemies and disarmed his defenders.   Indeed, I can think of no one who has played so pernicious a role when it comes to any important historical question, and I’m inclined to view Kant as Columbus’s most fundamental enemy.

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Kant’s philosophical assault on man’s faculty of reason paved the way for the historical assault on Columbus by preventing a key avenue of development from ever occuring in Western historiography.  By aborting the general study of abstractions as cognitive tools, Kant prevented historians from adopting the epistemological stance necessary to define and defend the most crucial instrument in the systematization of history: historical abstractions.

During the eighteenth century, history had been dominated by rationalism. The French Enlightenment thinkers had created the “philosophy of history,” which proposed to find in all historical developments a kernel of progress, driven by reason.  Following the pattern of Christian thinkers who reduced everything to God’s will, or “providence,”they proposed to express all of history’s irregular gyrations in terms of a single determining principle.  It was historical thinkers such as these, who advocated using historical abstractions to summarize the past.  They used the expression “the Dark Ages”to capture an era where reason was suppressed, the “Renaissance” to propose a general reawakening of reason, and “the Enlightenment” to denote a period in history where the power of reason was widely manifested.  To use these terms, however, required emphasizing certain facts at the expense of others, tracing certain causal progressions rather than others, and ultimately, viewing the whole story of man’s past as the variegated expression of one basic cause.

Empirical historians could not accept this apparent oversimplification.  While progress might be occurring in one area, such as science, they reasoned, decline might be evident in another part of a culture, such as politics.  Similarly, progress in one country, such as in late seventeenth century England, where parliamentary limitations on the monarchy reached new heights, might be paralleled by decline in another country, such as France, where absolutism evolved to new oppressive levels. Or, along a different vein, an element of progress–say a great invention like the steam engine–might propel men forward in one sense, but also contain a negative dimension, such as the rise of new hardships for laborers, social tensions, and political struggles.  In the name of an allegiance to the facts in all their Heraclitean complexity, the empiricists of history rejected casting the past in abstract terms.

History was faced with the same basic dilemna as philosophy: to find the principle in the plethora.

But before historians could even begin to take the question seriously, Kant revoked their license to do so.  He announced that even the “facts” were subjective–”phenomenal”–and that all efforts to build upon this foundation could never penetrate to “things in themselves.” 

One major trend in subsequent historiography was to embrace subjectivity as a  fundamental truth, and simply construct competing perspectives.  The most influential exponent of this approach was Marx, who despite claiming a “scientific” status for his reasoning, basically cast history as a political weapon in the evolving class struggle.  His followers would adapt this approach and use history as a means of promoting their own political agendas, such as feminism (“herstory”) or multiculturalism (e.g. “black studies”).

The other important trend was an epistemological retreat, sounded by the leading German historian of the nineteenth century, Leopold von Ranke. If abstractions were avoided, he and his followers hoped, then the problem of relating them to the concrete data of history could also be avoided.  In this ostrich-like approach, the historian was to busy himself in historical archives, where he would find unprocessed, or “primary” sources.  And from these, assiduously avoiding any mode of interpretation, he might craft an unbiased narrative. The past as it really was–”wie es eigentlich gewesen,” in Ranke’s words–could be channeled without distortion, if one simply avoided trying to use if for some purpose other than simply knowing it for its own sake.

That neither Ranke nor any of his followers could actually practice what they preached merely provided the first point of attack by Kant’s progeny, who were wont to point out that even if one were to allow the existence of “facts” in history, the act of organizing them into a narrative itself constituted an act of logical processing which created an “artificial” structure no less corruptive than sorting facts into periods, such as “the Renaissance,” or deploying them to support a thesis such as progress.  Of course, on a deeper level, there were no “facts:” even “primary” sources involve human selectivity, and thus cannot be considered to represent “things as they were.” In the ultimate indictment, presented by Michel Foucault, both “primary” and “secondary” sources would be charged with being nothing more than the propaganda of whatever side happened to win each particular struggle in history.

In the context of such an epistemological debacle, it is hardly surprising that empirical historians progressively shyed away from the use of historical abstractions like “the Dark Ages” and “the Renaissance,” leaving the subjectivists room to attack them and concoct their own replacements, such as “the Carolingian Renaissance.” Nor is it surprising that abstractions of more limited scope, but ones enmeshed in a larger context of values, such as”the Discovery of America,” should also be besieged.

(Continued in Part 4.)

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In the nineteenth century, historians were desparately in need of a champion to clarify the nature of reason, and to guide them in the challenge of making sense of man’s complex past. Newton’s genius had shown the power of man’s mind to penetrate nature’s inner workings, but no one had been able to articulate on a more abstract level the nature of the Newtonian triumph in science, and explain how it could be reproduced in other areas.

If historians were to pattern their work on the succesful model of the physical scientists, they would need to find a means of transposing the methods of physics into the domain of history. The way to do this, however, was unclear. The historian, for example, could not create the controled conditions of a laboratory to test his ideas, nor could the actions of human beings be reduced to mathematical principles. And yet, the challenge of deriving general knowledge from historical data is in some ways the same as that of finding general laws from observed physical phenoma. It is the challenge of transforming a plethora of concrete information, by some process of abstraction, into an intelligible system. The importance of this project was evident to the more philosophical historians. If natural science could find laws and a natural order in the physical world, could a social science not achieve the same for civilization (and thus derive the proper foundation of social systems)?

Unfortunately, in their quest to give history a Newtonian clarity, historians found no worthy ally among philosophers. In the wake of the clash between the rationalists and empiricists, philosophy was at an impasse. The former group believed human knowledge was imprinted by some ineffable, non-experiential means. And sadly–despite the example of disciplined Newtonian thinking and the best efforts of John Locke–the latter group had been unable to articulate a proper alternative. Empiricism had degenerated into the skepticism of Hume.

Finally, instead of a champion, the Western mind met with an insidious assailant, Immanuel Kant, in whose assessment philosophy’s aims were pronounced unattainable and the achievements of science inconsequential. Man, said Kant, is flawed by nature–he is formed of “crooked timber.” Human consciousness, he explained, is by its nature divorced from reality. It perceives reality by certain means, and because this apparatus processes the incoming information, it prevents us from gleaning reality as it really is. Any thinking we do based on such a foundation, including, for instance, the derivation of “natural laws,” is thus completely subjective, and any claim we make to actually understanding the essential nature of things is merely presumption–unless based on faith (for which Kant infamously made “room”).

What then of history? More next time.

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