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Three bad ways of thinking about History
"The Gotcha School", "The Black Box" & "Bad Vibe Theory".
The Humanities are in crisis! Who hasn’t heard about this? Replication crises, degree inflation, the abolition of requirements, insane curricula - we all know about the problems in the Artes Liberales. But that’s not what this post is about, at least not primarily.
I want to talk about the public discourse surrounding history, especially “popular science” & non-academic perceptions. Let us be clear: Knowledge of history is dead. At first glance, this statement seems strange, given the number of students in history departments and the historical pop science books being published every year. But I’m talking about a classical historical education and serious literature - the first is very difficult to get nowadays, the second is read by a microscopic audience. As far as I can see, in the vast majority of countries, in public life, politics, the media, the entertainment industry, business and even in the academic world it is very, very difficult to find people who know something about history in the sense that "to know history" was understood even 100-150 years ago.
There is very little discussion of real history in most people's lives - so little that even if they manage to get some kind of historical education at school and university, they instantly forget everything, because in "real life" no one is interested in it. Until the early twentieth century, Greek and Latin were considered the foundation of any liberal education; the main events and characters of the Greco-Roman world (especially those described by the great authors of Antiquity) were known to all educated people and were regularly used in a variety of comparisons, metaphors, references and images, including art and literature. This regular use of images allows more people to absorb these images - and, therefore, the lessons and knowledge associated with them. Without reference and repetition, historical knowledge dissolves into nothingness and has weight only in the battle of wits among internet autists.
But even they are very often very wrong. And that’s what I want to discuss.
Aside from all methodological and philosophical questions, there are three ways of looking at history that strike me as exceptionally wrong. These ways of thinking, or “theories”, if I may borrow the term, have some things in common; in other ways they are very different.
What’s important is that they all aim to kill your curiosity. They produce thought-terminating clichés.
I hope you will learn to recognize these strategies, understand why and how they are wrong and build up an arsenal of retorts to use whenever you are barraged by adepts of these semantic stop-signs disguised as insights.
Let us begin.
The Gotcha School
"The nuclear family was invented in the 50s by advertising companies.”
"People in the Victorian era did not feel love for their children because of high infant mortality."
"There was no conception of the Self until the 4th Lateran Council.”
You may have encountered these takes in the wild, or ones that were very similarly structured. What do they all have in common?
First of all, they are derivative from a broader phenomenon that one might call fun fact culture. It is a very simple concept: no one bothers with reading or learning about stuff outside of a very narrow set of “fun facts” that can be dropped in a conversation to appear smart or knowledgeable. During any discussion about Buonoparte among normies someone will chime in to say, hey, did you know that Napoleon wasn’t actually short? The purpose of this is also very simple; signaling deep knowledge that goes against common assumptions. There is nothing wrong with pointing out mistakes in public conceptions per se, of course. Historical knowledge gets distorted to a frightening degree through propaganda or honest mistakes and helping people correct these wrong assumptions is, at first glance, a noble endeavour. However, as with any behaviour that raises one’s social status within a specific situation, this can easily spiral out of control. That’s where the Gotcha School of History comes in.
Some common characteristics include the following:
These takes are always presented in an isolated fashion, never as part of a broader theory or system. They are very often myopic and oblivious to even the most glaring logical errors, not to mention actual history.
They are often very deterministic - either technologically or economically, in an almost Marxian manner.
It's almost always people with STEM-adjacent educations who repeat them, less often people with a background in the less rigorous humanities (literature, poli sci, sociology, etc).
These takes are often based on sloppy scholarship from the 60's and 70's, highly relativistic in nature, and far more generalizing than any historical theory with such a small scope has any right to be.
People who say these things often feel gleeful about disrupting "romantic notions" with "real talk."
These things are vague by their very nature, so we will have to do with an ostensive definition. The main points are, I would say, 2. and 5. The point of the Gotcha School is to claim that everything you believe about X is wrong, while at the same time coming up with a reason why X is monocausal.
There were two grand precursors to the modern Gotcha School, and I will outline them.
In 1962, Lynn Townsend White Jr., a distinguished medievalist, wrote a book called Medieval Technology and Social Change. In this book, White claims that the period of early feudalism was a direct result of the introduction of stirrups in Europe. According to his theory, the invention of stirrups in the 8th century AD is what led to the development of heavy cavalry, the widespread usage of knights and, thus, the implementation of feudalism proper: stirrups led to armored warriors on horseback, armored warriors on horseback led to the reorganization of Carolingian territory according to feudal principles, which, in turn, led to the Middle Ages as we know them. I think this is a perfect example of the early Gotcha Theory.
It is extremely reductionist. There’s this tiny thing - stirrups -, and it led to everything we know about medieval history. It is monocausal. Manorialism? Deurbanization as a consequence of trade route disruption? Forced enserfment (e.g. the Stedinger Crusade)? These things all don’t exist in White’s world, or are also made possible due to some specific technology. It’s never, to borrow the words of Bismarck, “blood and iron” that move history; it’s not the economic, cultural, political or religious life; it’s just a little metal frame. Is it even true? The Eastern part of the Roman Empire had been using heavy cavalry for half a millennium by the time the Carolingians reorganized their territory.
Thinking about this can overwhelm you, if you don’t have a broad foundation in medieval studies. You might accept this thesis just so, out of sheer surprise. And then you’ll tell it to others the next time you go to a party. - “You think the economic model in early medieval Europe had anything to do with the Arabs blocking Mediterranean trade routes or Augustinian theology? Gotcha, it was actually just the stirrup.”
Actually, even the term “feudalism” is highly contested; there was no single system that could be called “feudalism”. It all depended on hundreds of factors and varied a lot by era and region.
Another example is the so-called “Bicameral Mind Theory”. If you are not familiar with it, a little background: the German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term Axial Age to describe a specific period between ca. the 8th and the 3th century BC. It was a time where various cultural and intellectual developments happened almost in parallel (or so it is claimed) over vast distances; Homer was composing his epics, Zarathustra was wandering the land with his teachings, Confucianism and Judaism were organized into coherent belief systems. Assuming these things did happen more or less at the same time, and assuming there is a common thread - what could it be?
Well, American psychologist Julian Jaynes had the answer in 1976: all of our ancestors before the Axial Age were schizophrenics and by the 8th century BC they gradually became sane. That’s it. That’s his theory.
According to the Bicameralist hypothesis, humans did not have a consciousness before a couple thousand years ago. Their brains were divided between a part that gave orders and one that accepted these orders. The breakdown of this neurological system is what introduced spiritual beliefs: people heard the voice in their head, and thought they were speaking to the ghosts of their ancestors, or natural spirits, or gods.
Jaynes’ is another good example of the Gotcha School. The claim that modern human neurobiology has almost nothing to do with how people's minds worked a couple thousand years ago is extraordinary. It is not just a random thought experiment, and it isn’t usually presented as such. It means that philologists have been idiots for hundreds of years & didn’t understand that Babylonian, Greek & Chinese literature clearly shows that people didn’t have a consciousness and didn’t understand that they were individuals.
There is an even worse offender, one that I cited at the beginning of this chapter. A very bad misreading of Jacques Le Goff's oeuvre leads some people to claim that the reforms of the 4th Lateran Council - the introduction of regular confession, etc - are what lead to the emergence of an individual consciousness. So, until the mid-13th century people did not have the conceptual framework to imagine what an “individual” is. [Joe Rogan voice] This is crazy, man!
The most important implication here is that there can be no explanation for the religious feelings of the ancients that are not biological (i.e. medical) or economic in nature. The same goes for wondrous takes like "actually, they took psychedelics during the Eleusinian Mysteries!”. As if that explains everything, or even anything.
At the core of all Gotcha Theories lie several fundamental errors. Firstly, their inventors and proponents rarely cite primary sources. They rely on retellings from secondary or even tertiary sources and almost never can back up their extraordinary claims with solid proof. Secondly, these hypotheses are very much incurious. People look for easy explanations; as I’ve said before, this type of pseudo-historical thinking is prevalent among STEM / Silicon Valley types who, for some unfathomable reason, feel qualified to comment on such matters. They do not have what it takes to engage in historical thinking, which is foremost a monstrous will to discover, to analyze, to find, to describe, to understand. They think they “got it all figured out”, and they will just slap their bad takes in your face any chance you get, because you’re some kind of old-fashioned person who comes up with historical interpretations by reading books. Sometimes these books are even old. Ew! Didn’t you know there’s a machine learning algorithm for that, man? Have you tried microdosing? Haven’t you watched Mad Men? Gotcha.
The Black Box
Oh, you know this kind of thinking.
To study social relations or money flows is "problematic" because all events in history are either "very complex and have many causes" (i.e. they are essentially black boxes, "things just happened") or have "structural" causes. "Structural causes" is such a very clever term to abstract the study of an event away from specific personalities or factions and their conscious actions. What are you, a conspiracy theorist?
The Black Box kind of stands out here because it’s more or less the mainstream approach to academic history, at least in the Anglosphere.
What exactly does “black box” mean?
Let’s use an example to illustrate: the French Revolution. A black box theorist has an “input” - the socio-economic situation in late 18th century France - and an “output” - the Revolution itself. The black box theorist might tell you about salt taxes, or the drought of 1788, or the degree of urbanization right before the Revolution. He will tell you about “macroprocesses”, push your face into spreadsheets & explain how the situation couldn’t not lead to a Revolution. What he will not tell you about are the actions of specific people; he will not tell you about which salons Louis Philippe II frequented, or which theories the Girondists based their political platform on; he will talk about debt from the Seven Years’ War and the Anglo-French War, but he will not talk of statesmen and generals. Because that would be Great man theory, which is bad.
“Great man theory”, the assumption that the actions of individuals influence history, is the great boogeyman of Black Box History. In a way, the black box is the exact opposite of the Gotcha. Where the latter tells you that a small detail is actually the only important thing, the former says that specifics don’t matter at all. Only “objective” “material” “conditions” have any bearing on History. That these material conditions are created or used by people or groups of people is irrelevant and impossible at the same time.
Thus, the enemies of the Black Box: the Great man and the Conspiracy. Another enemy of the black box is sort of a combination of both: Elite theory.
This is what people sometimes call “social history”: the belief that you can explain events by putting numbers into a program and plotting a linear regression.
The study of specific groups of people is called prosopography. It used to be very important to look closely at, for example, ruling dynasties, or important courtiers, or circles in the highest echelons of the military, to find out why certain things happened or didn’t happen. Nowadays you only get prosopography of commoners, which is in itself problematic; but that’s another question.
You can derive a theory of e.g. the American Revolution by looking at taxes and production in the Thirteen Colonies. But how will that theory stand up to one that is based on the actions of the Founding Fathers and the groups connected to them? You will be left with a barren spreadsheet that tells you that if you tax group X at a percentage of Y for Z years without doing A you will get a Revolution. That might be a correlation, but it sure as hell isn’t an explanation, which should be the goal of every theory of history.
This is, in part, politically motivated. The Black Box obfuscates the fact that things never just happen; that people do things, and that these people have names and addresses that you can look up to try and understand why they did one thing or another.
One could say a lot about the Black Box, especially because it’s the dominant paradigm not only in history, but also in political science, sociology and economics; basically all of the social sciences. But let it suffice that it is a deeply reductionist view, one that posits “structural processes” and “global trends” that should be taken as is and not questioned. This is also a varian of thought-termination. If you’re busy enough combing through spreadsheets and scatterplots, you won’t think about what you’re really looking at. Politics doesn’t matter, elites don’t matter, individuals don’t matter - and when something or someone doesn’t matter, when you have no way of studying someone’s motivations, you will never understand what happened. What doesn’t matter might as well not exist. And that’s what they want you to think. Because otherwise you might draw dangerous analogies.
They don’t want you to look what’s inside of the Black Box.
Bad Vibe Theory
Many people feel the need to moralize history, and the easiest way to do this is guilt by association, however vague that association might be. The Bad Vibe theory is the most politically charged abuse of history. The need for moralization leads to the inability to conceptualize history without imaginary ley lines that carry over "bad vibes", i.e. guilt and responsibility. A good example of this is the CIA mythology that permeates a huge part of the modern Hard Left. The Bad Vibe theory of American history is based on a mythologization of Operation Paperclip.
In real life, Operation Paperclip was part of the plundering of Germany after their unsuccessful WW2 gambit. The Americans more or less enslaved hundreds of German scientists and forced them to prop up the American economy. In many fields, Germany was the most advanced country in the world; these fields involved not only the notorious sphere of rocket engineering, but also agriculture, organic chemistry, optical equipment and much more. The Bad Vibe theory states that the United States imported the intellectual elite of the SS and made them a part of NASA & CIA.
Actually, the scientists that were, let’s be honest here, kidnapped, had only the vaguest connections to each other, and sometimes none at all; they were experts in many fields and their skills were used in those fields. The Americans took home every single patent that had been filed in Germany; they disassambled and stole whole factories, they brought microscopes and voice recorders. Rockets were not even a priority. American agricultural technology was propelled 10 years into the future after the introduction of stolen German patents.
But all this doesn’t matter, because making crops grow faster doesn’t make anyone look guilty.
Thus, the bad vibes followed. A bunch of German nerds turn into a functioning Nazi army. Not because this actually happened, but because bad vibe theorists need it to have happened that way: they need a reason to hate America, but the only way they can think about history is people having bad vibes from associating with the wrong people.
There was no objective reason for the Nazis to exist: they were a result of bad vibes from reactionaries, or Luther, or whatever. The CIA cannot commit war crimes on their own merit. They need to have bad vibes from the Nazis they kidnapped, like a miasma. The current political opponents of the Hard Left need to have bad vibes from the CIA. There must be a direct line from bad people to the people they need to discredit because this mix of bad faith historicism & moralism is the only way they can understand history. It’s voodoo. It is a secular theological framework for minds that cannot think in systems.
Of course, you can also apply this to the other side; it’s not hard at all. I just chose the simplest illustration. American conservatives also love to engage in Bad Vibe theory by claiming a radical communist ideological genealogy for their opponents; it’s the same principle at work. And the principle just sucks, because it stops you from ever being able to understand history and turns you into a schoolmarm.
If the only way to deal with history is to come up with a scapegoat, you will find that scapegoat by any means necessary; the flimsiest association will be enough. This distorts any attempts at actual prosopography, or actual elite theory, or actual Great man theory, or actual anything.
Lesson № 1 at the Noetic School of Piracy: there are bad vibes in theology, but there are none in history. History is made by people, by groups of people and their environments, not by vibes and sure as hell not by some kind of defective idea of “guilt” that is based on 2021 moral trends.
The loss of proper history deprives society of one of its basic pillars. It is not quite like the loss of cultural traditions, like festivals, games, songs, and other folklore. Such fleeting phenomena are only part of the ever-changing surface of culture, which says little about the culture itself. But history - or the loss of history - is an entirely different matter. A society cannot be governed well if its ruling class and the educated classes as a whole do not know and are not interested in history. It does not matter so much whether or not the lower classes possess historical knowledge; as a rule, excerpts from school textbooks, propaganda images, and popular books (nowadays, movies, TV shows, video games) are enough for them; but even those shouldn’t be based on the bad conceptions I outlined above.
Knowledge of history has always and everywhere been considered a matter of critical importance - primarily for the formation of the class of those who are called upon to govern society.
The study of history - particularly classical history - provides tangible advantages in modern life. In addition to moral exemplars and insights into human nature, it is difficult to become entangled in ideological webs, knowing that the lovers of olives and wine had tried every sensible and crazy idea about the structure of society and the state as far back as 2500 years ago. He who knows the ancient Mediterranean well will not be surprised by anything in the politics of his own time. To paraphrase the famous quote attributed to either Pericles, Bismarck or Trotsky, "you may not be interested in history, but history is interested in you.”
Thus our first venture into bad history is concluded. We came up with three distinct categories of bad historical theories that are all too common nowadays. We looked at what they say and how they work; and why they are bad.
These things need a name, and they often don’t.
Don’t let bad faith actors bully or swindle you into accepting defective premises. Study history on your own. Be not among those who walk through the shadows blindly.