12 June 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: How useful is history?

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing; How useful is history?

It is quite ironic that 100 years ago Europe was passing through some
very serious turmoil that changed the course of the world. Since then,
European leaders have learnt that it's more fun getting rich together
rather than fight each other. And although we don't expect another world
war we do have a lot of economic war causalities. In my essay I ask how
feasible is it for us to learn from history? But in the meantime here is
the link for Ruel's essay:

Hello Lawrence,
Here's the link to the essay I wrote on the next PhiloMadrid topic:
Thanks and see you on Sunday.

----from Lawrence
How useful is history?

If history is to be useful it must have a purpose and if human history
has a purpose we, as biological creatures, must have a purpose. It is,
however, very unlike that we have a purpose beyond survival and
reproduction. But for the purpose of this essay I will assume that
"useful" means we can learn from history.

In English, history means past events of human beings (let's limit
ourselves to humans beings) and the study of these events. But where
does the past stop being the past and becomes history? There is no doubt
that the First World War is today history, but what about the Second
World War; is that history or still the past? I grant you that WW2 is
fast becoming part of history. This distinction seems to have a very
practical effect. We can still try and fix or make amends with errors
from the past, but history seems to be set in the metaphorical stone of
time. As I will try to show for our philosophical discussion it really
does not matter because we are concerned with human beings and not
events. And human events are the product of human actions and decisions.
In this respect human history is not about events but human actions or
omissions and therefore always relevant. Relevant certainly, but how useful?

Our subject is also undecided amongst commentators on whether history is
useful. For example, on the one hand Hume thinks that history is our
experience from whence we can acquire knowledge. But then he proposes
the "induction problem" suggesting that there is no necessary connection
between how things were in the past and how they ought to be in the
future. Aldus Huxley argued: "That men do not learn very much from the
lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history
has to teach." Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays.

On the other hand Machiavelli and Marx were more convinced that we can
learn from history and therefore, making history useful. Machiavelli is
more pragmatic about the lessons from history; observing history and
learning from history could be quite useful especially in a chaotic
environment such as Italy at the time where survival is not always
guaranteed. Marx seems to view history as some ongoing process with
cycles each time ratcheting the demise of oppression whilst getting
closer to that historical event of communism.

A lot depends on whether we view history as some deterministic process
with the belief that history is not only the effect of causes but that
maybe history is determined that it will repeat itself. Or whether
history is a process of acts of free will by people who had a choice to
decide otherwise. Priest* in his lecture at Oxford University describes
this as the "libertarian" view of history.

Indeed, we are inclined to believe that people act from a free will,
thus not only do we ascribe causality to the main characters of the
historical event but also hold those people morally accountable for
their actions. Indeed we do hold people accountable and morally
responsible for their actions (sometimes), for example the Nuremberg
trials of the leadership of the Nazi dictatorship, after the Second
World War. And Napoleon's exile to Elba is another example holding to
account an historical actor believed to be responsible for turmoil in

However, there is a serious drawback for our purposes of the topic in
focusing on accountable and moral responsibly of actors in history
because of our belief in free will. The danger is not that we might
erroneously hold the wrong person accountable, or not hold all those
responsible accountable, but that in seeking moral accountability we
might miss the real lessons from history. Once we have moral
accountability covered we might be inclined to stop investigating
further as to the real causes; the very same mistake we make with
criminal law.

An example from the Second World War will illustrate my point. Today we
know that Hitler had a clear chance of winning the war in Europe at the
beginning of the conflict by defeating the British; a blockade is an
island's strategic weak point. And later towards the end of the war to
reach a stalemate or conditional surrender. The first was Hitler's
belief that capital battleship (I wrote about this in previous essays)
could win the sea war, whereas if he channelled these resources to
building U-boats the British wouldn't have lasted more than a few months
on their own. Again the decision to use the Me262 the first military jet
as a bomber rather than a fighter enabled the allies to bomb Germany
into destruction.

My point here is that the defeat of an enemy (or an outcome of a
historical event) might be interpreted as a success of the victor's
strategies rather than failures in the enemy's strategy (at least
partially). To put this in more abstract terms, acts of omission can
have as much a causal effect in history as acts of commission. The
implication is of course that if we are to learn anything from history
we need to take into account what people did and what they did not do.
This is very difficult because 1) by instinct we look for acts of
commission and 2) how do we scientifically model acts of omission?
Assuming, in the first place, we can establish what acts of omission we
should take into account; Hitler did not act on many things but none or
(maybe) none that we know off had such a deterministic effect on the
outcome of the Second World War.

I should also make it clear here, that this is not a sort of "what if
analysis"; what if Hitler had built 10,000 U-boats? We know what
happened here since it was always an option for him to build a very
large number of U-boats. The "What if question" would probably be
something like: what if he built 20 capital ships like the Bismarck?
This was never an option since the treaty of Versailles prohibited the
Germans from building Bismarck class ship before the war. Thus learning
from acts of omission is not the same as theorising about "what if"

I am therefore not convinced that it's an either-or sort of debate about
the process of history: deterministic (causal process) or libertarian
(free will). I am more inclined to argue that very few people have the
luxury of acting purely from free will, but causality is not as
tyrannical as determinists want us to believe. The problem for me is
that by looking at history as a series of events we fail to give these
events a context. Indeed I would go so far as to argue that history
without context is as useless as language without context. Hence, the
starting point for us is that for history to be useful we must
understand it beyond the belief that history is a series of events. We
must first look at these events in context before we can decide if they
are useful. And by useful I mean, as I said, we can learn from them to
the extent that we can shape our social and political structure by
taking these lessons into account.

Even if we can agree that there are some things we can learn from
history and that we can overcome the philosophical stumbling blocks I
mentioned above, there is also the question of whether it is "feasible"
to learn from history. How easy is it for us to learn from history and,
more importantly, can we draw the right lessons for our present age and
circumstance? As Alfonso Vallejo reminds us, Kant, Marx, Plato and the
like did not have an iPhone (or Smart Phone) with access to the
internet. Hence their importance today is subject to certain limitation.
Presumably Roosevelt, Churchill but hopefully not Hitler could have made
the best use of having access to an iPhone but they didn't. The Vallejo
effect can be interpreted in 1) a strong form, that past philosophers
have very little to contribute today given they did not have access to
the information we have now, or 2) the soft interpretation, we should be
cautious when attributing lessons from past philosophers for us to apply
today. What is clear is that the Vallejo effect is a modern reminder
that before history (or philosophy) can be useful we must first be able
to extract the relevant lessons for the time and circumstance of their
application and not the time of the events.

As I said earlier, one of the issues we have to deal with is modelling
these historical events and even history itself. When we model a
situation we are trying to understand this situation by being able to
predict future events. Of course, when we apply the scientific modelling
method to history we are not necessarily trying to predict our future,
but rather to predict future events within the timeline of history; for
example economic cycles, civil wars etc. Only then can we seriously
claim that we understand the causal and human actions of an event and
thence look for lessons.

When we study history at school we are usually thought about kings and
queens, prime ministers, presidents, wars and disagreements between
neighbours, and if we're lucky we might get to find out about the Great
Depression in the 1930's. Except that it's not only kings and queens who
influence history, ordinary people do as well.

Despite the uncertainty of the "history" process we can still see the
historical process taking place underneath the top glamorous tier of
history. I am thinking here of the changes we see throughout history
that are "caused" by people who happen to be at the centre of their
circumstance. For example, the invention (at least credited) of the tin
can by the Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, who in the space of a few
years had been developed into a commercially viable product to preserve
food. The Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis who changed the lives of
humanity by recognizing the importance of hand hygiene; not to mention
Florence Nightingale who pioneered nursing and health care on the
battlefield and beyond. Moreover, the development of the motor car and
our understanding of the principles of flight have all served as game
changers in modern history. And of course in today's context, Steve Jobs
with the iPone and the revolution of the mobile phone into a smart(ish)
phone. There is more to history than kings and queens and dates!

But if science and technology are responsible for some of the
progressive changes in history, economics is also sometimes the cause of
misery and some would say wars. And whilst we understand what Huxley
said about history teaches us that history cannot teach us anything, we
can safely say that whenever we find economic greed in history we also
find strife and turmoil. For example the French and Russian revolutions
are two cases in point. And the reparations and economic squeeze Germany
had to face after the defeat in the WW1 led directly to the Second World

In more recent years we have become the victims of yet another property
bubble that directly led to the unacceptable austerity programmes of
many governments. But bubbles go back at least to the mid 17th Century
(1637) of the Dutch tulip mania. But these economic shocks are well
understood within modern and classical economics. Thus economic events,
at least, are regular enough to question the Huxley belief.

Indeed the biggest mistake Marx made was to assume that the proletariat
will always want to strive for equality. It never occurred to Marx that
the working class would one day dream and strive to be capitalists and
creators of their own wealth simply because modern technology makes
production so easy and efficient. Between the indoctrination of the
"American Dream" and the exercise of the magical powers of the credit
card, workers today are more like to want to be rich rather than communist.

In all these shenanigans Machiavelli and Hume win the day: the
pragmatics of Machiavelli has led to the European Union when for once
European leaders have realised that it's more profitable getting rich
together, at least for the chosen few, than being petty and cheat each
other like alley tom cats in the dead of night. And finally, the
cautious approach advocated by Hume has today, as I write, made
Scotland a key force in British politics rather than the traditional
role of being the "charwoman" of the Union. Humean scepticism means that
those who striven to be communists in past are today probably trying to
be rich and hence the Marxist cycle of history broken.

If Huxley's statement about history has its limits, Churchill's supposed
claim that "history is written by the victors" (alternative quote:
"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.") has today been
demonstrated not to be universal. I am of course referring to the events
of 11th September 2001 and the supposed terrorist attacks in New York
and other cities. With the power of the internet today, independent
access to scientific tools and a sense of freedom and right to
information we can question the official historical events of that
fateful day in September. There are now enough independent studies to
doubt the official version of events: and although I don't think that
this independent evidence establishes the official version to be false
"beyond reasonable doubt" (criminal standard) it is certainly false on
the "balance of probability" (civil standard). The victors might write
history but today this can be refuted within twenty-four hours on the

Once we exclude history as a source of intellectual stimulus, as Hume
suggested, and exclude history as a fertile source for the entertainment
industry, what else is left? There is certainly a heavy burden to
formulate a model of factual historical events that is maybe close to
impossible to achieve. However, it is not that difficult to understand
certain phenomena in history, for example the effects of economic
collapse or economic cycles, understand the effects of new technologies
and the role played by second and third level historical actors, such as
scientists or visionaries. History, as I said, is not just about kings
and queens and this is what makes history difficult to establish,
understand and learn from; history is also about people like us.

I still think that history is useful, but very difficult to establish
what is useful for us; and usefulness seems to have a built in
sell-by-date. But that's not to say it is not important or interesting.
In the meantime let those two political giants of the 19th and 20th
centuries have the last say about the value of history: Otto von
Bismarck, "The main thing is to make history, not to write it." And
Winston Churchill, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write
it." The lesson from these two historical figures is that if you make
history don't subcontract your autobiography.

*Philosophy of History Lecture Stephen Priest Oxford University

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com <mailto:philomadrid@gmail.com>
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: How useful is history?

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