One of the liabilities of modern culture is the
way in which theories proliferate to influence action in
misleading ways, in the process disguising elements of
ideology. At one and the same time any project of
Universal History is rejected, this itself often in the name of
rejecting theories. Postmodern critiques of metanarratives are
one source of this rejection. The basic question is clear:
we can't make a theory the basis of action, only the basis of
science. This is an issue we can take up starting with Karl
Popper's classic critique of historicism. But we
will solve this problem of theory by adopting an new approach to the
whole question of theories. The way we do that will be follow a strategy of
Kant, the real source of Popper's critique, and, most of all, to do this in the context of the data of the eonic effect. The
eonic effect suggests its own methodology. First
we need to consider that data on its own and some awareness of the eonic effect will
be the starting point, and a look at the tutorial series might be helpful since we won't
linger on the details.
Limits of Theory
Darwin's theory of evolution, based on
the claims for natural selection, has provoked a nearly endless debate, and one
reason for that is the faulty character of the theory itself, speaking in
general terms about theories. Darwin worked at a time when scientific research
began to spread into many fields, armed with a mindset inherited from physics.
The positivistic and reductionist character of these initiatives contained a
hidden methodological weakness, one that had been extensively addressed in many
of the writings of German classical philosophy from the period of Kant onwards.
the equal problems that arose in that philosophical world the distinction of the
human and natural sciences was standard fare. But the tide of positivism
bypassed this phase of critique and proceeded with a determination to learn
nothing and make a series of classic mistakes all over again. It is worth
considering this history whenever anyone in the field of biological theory
starts claiming that natural selection can resolve the issue of ethics, or
proposes a genetic basis for religion. The amnesia enforced by narrow science
education is remarkable, and is an indication of the way the 'paradigm'
phenomenon takes hold.
It is interesting to consider the influence
of Herbert Spencer on evolutionary thought. Largely rejected now, he nonetheless
approached questions of evolution in their essential difficulty, in the process
no doubt seeding the field with the persistent confusions between social and
biological evolution. He is often blamed for thinking that pervades Darwinian
thought implicitly, unconsciously. In Spencer the issue of ideology becomes
center stage, but the same, after a close look, is also true of the Darwinists.
Spencer, at least, grappled head on with the issue of applying evolutionary
thought to social systems, in the process provoking the hidden crisis of all
There is a kind of clumsiness about all these
theories, because they make assumptions about the 'right way to do science' that
end up the wrong way to do 'evolution'. We are left to ask the meaning of
evolution, and the exact place of a science of evolution in the context of
greater culture. It was Kant who suspected the limits of theory, and of theories
of evolution. Is it really possible to produce a theory of evolution in closed
form? It is taken for granted in a mood of naive scientism that the problem is
not only solvable, but solved by Darwin's theory. The presumption is
considerable, and the indelicate charge of propaganda haunts the whole field of
Historicism, and The Philosophy of
Even as Darwinism began its illustrious career,
notwithstanding its brief eclipse at the end of the nineteenth century, the
legacy of the philosophy of history remained as a background challenge to the
rise of positivistic thinking. Here the influence of Hegel, a world in itself,
has been so dominant that the whole genre of the philosophy of history seems to
ride on his system. But that is unfair, and in any case we tend to see Hegel
through the lens of Marxism, to the extent Marxist thought still has credibility
at all in contemporary cultural discourse. The famous critique of Marxism by
Karl Popper in his The Poverty of Historicism contains a classic
challenge to all philosophies of history, and expresses the crux of the problem
that arises with theories cast in the scientific mould. Popper's use of the term
'historicism' is very idiosyncratic, but can be taken for our purposes as the
critique of misapplied causal thinking seeping into the social sciences.
or at least the Marxism that passes under his name, was a victim of this kind of
ambiguity, and yet his thinking contains at one and the same time important
elements of the right approach to social theories, especially in so far as these
tend to reflect social ideology. Marx exhibits the whole symptom set of period
of Darwin, and shows in action the way in which the philosophy of history,
behind the mask of scientism, remains alive and well in any attempt to approach
issues of social evolution. It is little appreciated that Marx's critique of
capitalist ideology and Popper's critique of Marxist ideology both share
Popper's critique of historicism is one-sided
in the sense that it makes the case against any form of Big History. The grand
theme of the philosophers of history is seen to fail inherently, and there the
question of 'historical laws', and their fallacies, are given center stage.
the key to our own approach is to embrace Popper's critique of historicism, but
proceed to the observation that this critique was the original source of the
whole subject in the work of Kant! Thus what Popper calls the flaw of
historicism is for us the gateway to Big History done right.
New Approach to Theory
Contemporary culture needs to be
liberated from theories! Especially theories of evolution. Such theories blind
us to the nature of social action, and inflict a false perspective that
threatens the whole basis of secularism with religious reaction. The
reason for this is not hard to find. Religious, or at least monotheistic,
thought conceals a disguised version of the philosophy of history in packaged
form that automatically resolves, in however primitive a fashion, the
contradictions of scientism applied to social discourse. That's
embarrassing but true. Religions don't promote theories, but projects of action.
The answer lies in the original response to the contradictions in scientific
methodology proposed by such figures as Kant. There the idea of freedom, to
summarize a complex subject, is matched to the substrate of causal analysis in a
way that can harmonize, or at least, conjoin as a working hybrid, the inherent
contradictions generated in the wake of the rise of science.
kind of model we will create will help us to find a practical way to combine
systems thinking with the gist of the philosophy of history to produce a
two-level construct that can finally show what's going on with Spencer and
Darwin, and the reason they consistently get the question of theory all wrong.
and The Oedipus Effect
The position of Popper is a misleading
one in the context of modern science. His use of the term 'historicism' shows
that his legacy is a hybrid of the human and social sciences, and that his
eccentric definition of the term echoes the classic critique of scientism that
we have indicated already. The history of the term 'historicism' is complex
indeed, but it is useful to consider Popper's definition, which resembles the
issues raised by Isaiah Berlin on 'historical inevitability'.
I mean by ‘historicism’ an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical
prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is
attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the
‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history.
Because this criticism was applied in a contentious ideological
context to Marx's predictive theories of the inevitability of socialism we tend
to forget its generality and conveniently forget the problem when a scientist
declares the social sciences colonial terrain for next reductionist
generalization. Scientists will not lightly give up the attempt to produce
'historical laws' with their inherent predictions, and the fate of Marx in this
regard is apparently considered some vice of the revolutionary Left.
also has a variant of this thinking in his description of what he calls the
The idea that a prediction may have influence upon
the predicted event is a very old one. Oedipus, in the legend, killed his
father whom he had never seen before; and this was the direct result of the
prophecy, which had caused his father to abandon him. This is why I suggest
the name ‘Oedipus effect
’ for the influence of the prediction upon the predicted
This is the gist of the historical inevitability problem, where
the freedom to choose a course of action conflicts with any claim on the future
by a theory. This is no small matter, since the question of Oedipus Effects
stalks Marxist theories of revolution and the stages of history. Early Marxists
are on record confusing what they thought predicted by theories with what was
really their own contingent strategies of action.
But this problem
is pervasive in any theory that does not carefully delimit is field of action,
the theory of Darwin being no exception. The historicist character of Darwinism
is concealed behind its statistical mask, but the point is clear. Darwin's
theory tends to declare itself tacitly a 'law of evolution', not often however
in so many words, and it does this whenever it claims, directly or by
innuendo, that higher complexity, speciation, and all the features of
organisms, etc, arise via selectionist adaptation. Darwinists also seem free of
the fallacies of prediction. But the question is not so simple.
the point: if you think natural selection is behind the evolution of the brain,
for example, then, even if you make no explicit predictions about the future,
you assume that 'this is the way things are', hence 'will be'. There's the
hidden prediction. Either you think natural selection produced Big Brains or you
don't. If you do, you implicitly assume that other explanations don't work, and
that what was once the case would by the nature of things happen that way again
in the future, other things being equal.
Once again this is no
quibble. Almost immediately in the wake of Darwin (and Spencer) this 'Oedipus
Effect' of the theory spawned the legacy of Social Darwinism. No use denying it.
If you think survival of the fittest spawned Big Brains, the smart thing to do
must be to compete and survive. This thinking was an underground fallacy of a
whole generation of people, many of them dangerous politicians. So Darwin joins
Marx in the theoretical lineup for proponents of botched theories.