big is back


Big history in all its guises has been inhospitable to the questions of meaning and intention so central to intellectual history. This is not simply for the banal reason that the big historians usually scrutinize such a superficial slice of recorded history at the end of their grand sweeps: the skin of paint on the top of the Eiffel Tower, in Mark Twain’s marvellous metaphor. Nor is it just because human agency dwindles in significance in the face of cosmological or even archaeological time. It is due, for the moment at least, to the essential materialism of the two main strains of big history, what we might call the biologistic and the economistic tendencies. The biologistic tendency is neurophysiologically reductive: when all human actions, including thought and culture, can be explained by brain chemistry, reflections approximate to reflexes. In the economistic strain, intellect is assimilated to interests. Each age simply “gets the thought that it needs”. For instance, whether it’s Buddhism, Christianity or Islam in the Axial Age, it’s all the same in the end: simply the product of the problem-solving capacity of some rather clever but needy chimps. In these regards, at least when it treats the questions of most concern to intellectual historians, deep history can appear to be somewhat shallow.

more from David Armitage at the TLS here.