Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ontology of History


The pageant of all that has happened is, to begin with, a blooming buzzing confusion.   Historically, one aim of the chronicler has been to slice up some of it, and dress it up into a narrative that will be entertaining or edifying for the audience.  More analytically-minded historians (such as Ibn Khaldun and his successors) have set themselves an additional task:  To make sense of it.

ابن خلدون


One classic move is to organize the ever-mingling, ever-onrushing flow of events  into coherent thematic chunks;  as:  the Dark Ages; the Renaissance; the Reformation;  the Enlightenment.   Some refer to calendric stretches but, if so, normally must modify the defining termini a quo and ante quem  to reflect actual historical development:  thus, “the long nineteenth century” (which lasted into the Edwardian autumn, and winked out forever at Sarajevo), and “the Sixties”,  which  in the good sense  began with JFK’s election, and  in the bad sense  with his assassination;  and then petered out ignobly in the early seventies.

Anyhow, huge subject, won’t treat it here, but merely serve up a couple of quotes specifically related to Islamic historiography -- thus posting at least a place-holder for the topic, in our wildly successful “Ontology of …” series (soon to be featured on bubble-gum cards, suitable for trading).

“Classic” or “classical period” is likewise a construct, all the more obviously so  since it is being borrowed from one phenomenon, Greek and Roman antiquity, and used to somehow periodize another quite different one, Islam.
-- F. E. Peters, preface to A Reader on Classical Islam (1994)

History is a seamless garment;  periodization is a convenience of the historian, not a fact of the historical process.  By choosing casefully, one can slant histopry without any resort to actual falsehood.  For example, a writer on relations between the United States and Japan can start with Hiroshima, or he can start with Pearl Harbor.
-- Bernard Lewis, “In Defense of History” (1997/1999), reprinted in From Babel to Dragomans (2004), p. 389

He goes on to make an exact parallel with the historiography of the Crusades, of intense current relevance, but too hot to handle in this space;  consult the (excellent) original article.

[Afternote] We sometimes also find explanatory periodization, not by historians, but by the people themselves:

The Aztecs … sought relief … from the oppressive idea of eternity, by breaking it up into distinct cycles … each of several thousand years’ duration.  There were four of these cycles;  and at the end of each, by the agency of the elements, the human family was swept from the earth, and the sun blotted out from the heavens, to be again rekindled.
-- William Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), p. 53


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Glanced at above is the internal ontology of historiography -- its structure and staffage.  There is also the matter of its external ontology -- how it fits in with other disciplines.

“History is an art, like the other sciences,” a felicitious paradoxical epigram crafted by Veronica Wedgwood.
--John Lukacs, The Future of History (2011), p. 81

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