The messy theory of history
Welcome to the Age of Mess
There has been a suggestion for a meet-up in London to discuss Mill’s Autobiography. Let me know if you are interested.
The next bookclub is on 26th November, 19.00 UK time. We are reading Darwin. Selected Letters and The Origin of Species. For letters, any edition will do, and it’s less essential than Origin.
On November 9th, I am running my final salon in the ‘How to Read a Poem’ series.
In case you missed it—some recent articles on the Common Reader
What if there is no explanation for what’s going on?
What could explain the evidence of the current UK Covid Inquiry better than to say that the whole thing was a muddle? When you see that many Trump and Biden policies are more similar than their rhetoric, does it make sense to say that a nation is at a crossroads with only two clear options? What if Liz Truss had come in a few weeks later, when energy futures were dropping—would she still be prime minister?
These three questions show us that history may often be morally simple—Johnson screwed up, Trump is bad, Truss was wrong—but the stories we tell rarely fit all of the data. We talk about living through an era of neoliberalism, wokeism, or any other ism. But it’s never so clear cut. There’s too much going on. Things happen and we retrofit a narrative. We believe our stories, and we forgot that life doesn’t have to make sense. Politics and history are long tales of contradiction. Sometimes, there isn’t an explanation so much as a muddle.
In Genius Creativity & Leadership Dean Keith Simonton reports data gathered by Pitirm Sorokin about the balance of different ideas—materialism and non-materialism—throughout history. The finding was that there is rarely, if ever, a pure zeitgeist.