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.