Monday, September 12, 2011

A Reluctant Historicist

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

I have grown up reading that quote. But what should we learn from history? Should we just learn about what happened in the past or should we learn from the actions that were provoked because of what happened in the past? Everything there is to learn from history gives us a chronological story of when & how the events took place. This can breed in us a misplaced arrogance of probably identifying a pattern or a trend in which history proceeds to become the present. We might get tempted to say, "of course, that was going to happen anyway, what else could happen?" These patterns might very well exist, but each of these patterns is tainted by our own way of looking at it. 

Karl Popper, in Open Society & its Enemies calls this imagination of a historical trend as Historicism. Although this term predates Popper it's a good place to start thinking about history. A historicist looks at the past & starts drawing conclusions based on facts & interpretations to come up with a theory of historical development/evolution. It is akin to irresponsibly use a spreadsheet to drag a trend to eternity. This so called knowledge of the evolution of history seems mystical but at the same time is an important part of the fabric of assumptions of how any society grows. 

For a long time I assumed that the system that we are living in is a good one. I mean, the democratic system, where anyone can do what we want to do under the common context of the law. I still think it's a great system. But perhaps due to lack of any major turbulence in my life or perhaps sheer ignorance about what's happening around 'my' world, I began to believe in its obvious permanence. It seems obvious, only due to a lack of understanding of how it feels to be in any system other than my own experience. Now I begin to question, if this experience was worth anything at all! The ignorance, the assumption of permanence & taking the system's function for granted. One of the major traits of an historicist is to passively assume that the system will remain the way it is & it will have a DNA of its own. All the good & bad things about it will continue to be so (within an assumed historical trend) but with minor modifications as the social context changes with time. So my assumptions about political, social, educational, economical & the capitalist system that it is the way it is & will remain the way it was, were based on nothing but a Thanksgiving turkey like assumption. I believed that I am safe because I was fed & taken care of all year long. Well what will happen when my Thanksgiving day arrives & my theory of this world is roasted in a big fat oven? 

My assumptions about the complex adaptive nature of the universe are also based on a similar mix of arrogance of knowing too much but not knowing the full importance of what I already know. I tend to assume that when things are in a flux, they very well might remain in flux until a trigger brings them back to their so called, Mean Value. But this is one man's stupidity speaking. Imagine a world of people where we each have our own opinions of our systems around us & we each approach them in our own way. Some of us will be allowed & applauded to think on our terms where as the less dominant (popular) ideas will be suppressed. Democracy.

If we see a nation coming together to protest against something as hard to prove & easy to prosecute as corruption, we can observe the anti-historistic attitude in the minds of these people. They seem to assume that they can control their system's fate (which ideally they should be able to, in a democracy) & steer it into a direction of corruption free growth & prosperity. How many of us have honestly visualized the after effects of this, in a country like ours? There are various models to refer in other countries, but what about a model state of affairs for our nation? What will it finally mean to take charge of the course of this nation's future history? Do all the people standing with a candle in their hand & cap on their heads actually understand the economic, political, social impact of their actions when they face the same incentives & threats as the people they wish to prosecute? I don't know the answer.

I have begun to believe that there are two types of historicists. One who truly believes in his version of historical evolution & hopes that the cycle will repeat the way it has in the past. The other type of historicist is a reluctant one, who has to accept that without a movement as viral as the current protest against corruption & without serious resources to protect against personal vendetta from the affected parties - it is nearly impossible to get the system to move one way or another. In short, become a fish big enough so that other fish can't hurt me & my cause. I guess I have become a reluctant historicist, which deeply bothers me since I believe in taking charge of my own life & not succumb to any patterns or trends that I am 'supposed' to follow. That's a weird contradiction to live with, but this time I can't seem to figure which of my assumptions is wrong?

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