Much in history is a matter of perspective, focus, and orientation. So many things are not wrong, but can be more right, or if seen at a different angle, become mere fragments of larger movements or fade away to insignificance altogether.
What if we step way back from history? Further than looking at the Crimea Crisis as rooted in the events of WWI and WWII; or even deep Russian history. Further than classifications like ‘modern’ ‘early modern’ ‘renaissance’ ‘middle ages’, ‘ancient’ and ‘pre-historic’. Or even say, Chinese History or European History.
Let’s look at global history, from say, 10,000 BC, to the present day. What do we see?
The first thing to notice is that the ‘subjects’ change. At the earliest time frame, of the past century or so, it’s highly political. The eras like the ‘renaissance’ designate more of a cultural or a society; a time period of a way of living in the world. Chinese history I mean to refer to civilizations themselves, based on massive geographic areas. The lesson to draw here is that politics, culture, civilization are all transient ‘place-holder’ terms that are always a bit arbitrary.
The more you look at a concept, the more weaknesses and flaws one can find in it. Simple dating for epochs or time periods, for example. When did the modern era start? That’s a good question? There seems to be good reasons to think that now, in 2014, things are quite different than in the years 1014. It really depends on what you find to be notable. But changes tend to be constant, and one can quickly identify any number of reasons for why the date for the start of modernity should be 1860 as opposed to 1793, etc. My personal favorite is whether the ‘postmodern’ era started after WWII or some time in the 70’s, or in 1990.
Obviously, any date is arbitrary, and will come with its own advantages and drawbacks. This is why ‘zooming out’ helps. We can look at human history as a sum totals. The French Revolution (1793) has been seen as many things. Can it be ultimately just that monarchy is simply just not sophisticated enough to manage a complex economy, civil society, politics, culture etc? And so we can imagine situations like the current US political climate as simple that a two party system is not sophisticated enough for our contemporary, increasingly global society.
But we can zoom back even further. Joseph Campbell, in his famous (yes, famous!) books on mythology posits the modern, scientific world as ‘male’ with the ‘female’, which was once supreme, as slowly returning. I think that this is most useful as a perspective that sheds light on how we live now today. And while maybe not wrong, it can certainly be more right. It is so vague and mythological an idea itself as to be useless.
What if we were to think in terms of thought processes? A thinker named Adorno talks about everyday human thinking and communication in terms of cognitive-instrumental (claims about the objective, natural world), the moral-practical (claims about the social world), and the aesthetic-expressive (our selves in our own little universe).
I wonder if human history (that is written, recorded history) does not start with the growth of the cognitive-insturmental reasoning. The wheel. Writing. Soap. These are all examples of instrumental reasoning. Whereas our ideas and ability to talk and communicate ideas of moral and aesthetic value have eroded away, replaced by an overwhelming dependence on instrumental reasoning.