To what extent can we use what we know to explain the past?
Since knowledge is increasing all the time the way we understand the world is also changing, and so is our culture. Part of the answer to the old exam question “why does each generation re-write its history?” must be that each generation applies its own ideas to the interpretation of the past. Just how valid it is to do this the subject of debate about historical methods.
The human activity system of the past (or one of its sub-systems), is a snapshot of what it was like at that point in time, it no longer exists. We are observing evidence (archives, reportage, diaries and the like) which tell us about the emergent behaviour as it played out, through the nature, body, mind, culture and knowledge of the people then. Of course the historical human activity system was also dynamic and changed over time. The history of longer periods, revolutions and upheavals needs to address change as well.
The conclusion I have come to is that using current knowledge to highlight and explain things that would not be apparent to the actors is legitimate and necessary for full understanding, but it is difficult, we must be careful only to apply knowledge and not hindsight. We can deploy knowledge (as well founded belief) but not our own personal beliefs or cultural frames of reference.
We need to look at the big picture to see what is actually going on, bringing in factors which the historical actors themselves were unaware off. Systems thinking should change the way we tell our history and a holistic view yield some fresh insights. What insights and what are the political implications of their telling?
This is not a world history. Professional historians can supply those, and lots of compelling accounts going into what we know in detail for any period. Here I am trying to capture the salient factors that give shape and context to our shared human story.This is what history teaches me when I look at the big picture and take a step back.
Human beings are new to the earth and in a very short time have completely populated it. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by our success. The rate at which development is taking place is outstripping the ways of coping with it and transmitting knowledge that we learned through our evolution. We are inquisitive social primates, we are not going to stop inventing. Since we cannot stop we must learn control. This means we need new institutions, a new political economy that fits in with our evolutionary heritage but is capable of dealing with the challenges we face. A new political economy needs to be inclusive (we are all citizens and share the same fate) and it must be capable of much faster adaption. The current political-economy is just not delivering.