Historiography

Nature is full of purposes or quasi-purposes, but any appearance of pre-existing purpose or predetermination in history is an artifact of our story-telling.

Telling such a story is a delicate enterprise. There is no invisible hand guiding temporal succession, nor is there inherent unity unfolding in successive events. The raw material of history is strictly an accumulation of accidents. As much as possible, we should let the details speak for themselves. Yet we almost cannot help giving it a plot. This helps us orient ourselves. Inevitably, we select certain details as important and ignore others. We tend to give it direction and shape.

Independent of purpose, though, there is a kind of quasi-material accumulation of forms associated with temporal succession. (I mean that the accumulation associated with succession is independent of purpose, while the forms accumulated may themselves be purposeful.)

Succession has materially inherent directionality to it. Time only flows forward. Successive forms get superimposed on one another so to speak and become indistinct, resulting in something new and unintended, but cumulative. This is not progress, and there is nothing normative about it. It is a quasi-material analogue of arithmetic addition, indifferent to considerations of what is better or worse. But we may experience it as better or worse. And because it does have a materially inherent direction (the pile gets thicker, so to speak), it is possible for us to take that direction in some purposeful way. We look at a raw accumulation of forms, and imagine a story that has some basis in the actual development.

It’s a bit mythical to speak as if there were two distinct phases to this. We don’t ever have the pure or original thing in a philosophical sense. But various kinds of accumulation are one of the significant features of temporal succession in a world, and we do have actual material cultural artifacts to which we can refer. (See also Freedom and Free Will; Influence; Genealogy; Mutation of Meaning; Languages, Books, Curricula; Renaissance; Modernity, Again; Hegelian Genealogy; History of Philosophy; Archaeology of Knowledge; 1968.)

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