On History, Chaos, and Carlyle

By Taylor, Jonathan | CLIO, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

On History, Chaos, and Carlyle


Taylor, Jonathan, CLIO


What the ... sciences are discovering today ... literature has always known. (Roland Barthes, "Science Versus Literature") (1)

In his Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1812), Pierre-Simon Laplace sets out one of the most frequently cited views of a deterministic universe and a formulaic history. According to Laplace, history might be known by one "vast intelligence" and analyzed in terms of a single formula. He writes thatwe ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it--an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis--it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes. (2)

Clearly, this is a Newtonian view of the universe and time; as James Gleick notes, "Laplace [was] the eighteenth-century philosopher-mathematician who caught the Newtonian fever like no one else." (3) Still, Laplace's essay is only one extreme example of a rather common, Newtonian notion of the universe predicated on determinism and, therefore, predictability. For scientists like Laplace, one implies the other; because the universe is deterministic, the future can be extrapolated from a minute study of the past and the present: "the revolution in scientific thought that culminated in Newton," writes Ian Stewart,

  led to a vision of the universe as some gigantic mechanism,
   functioning "like clockwork" ... In such a vision, a machine is
   above all predictable.... An engineer who knows the specifications
   of the machine, and its state at any one moment, can in
   principle work out exactly what it will do for all time. (4)

The "vast intelligence" dreamt of by Laplace, which knows "all the forces by which nature is animated" and can predict the whole universe's future from the past, is, then, that of a superengineer or superphysicist.

It is also that of a historian-cum-prophet. Strangely enough, in Laplace's clockwork universe, his omniscient engineer-physicist is also, by definition, both historian and prophet for whom "the future, as the past, ... [is] present before ... [his/her] eyes." If this seems a rather peculiar intellectual melange to a twentieth-first-century reader, Laplace is actually gesturing towards an overwhelmingly important trend in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought in which history, prophecy, and science were often rigorously combined or casually mixed up. Their combination is particularly apparent, for example, in some of the most influential nineteenth-century theorizations of history, including those of G. W. F. Hegel, Thomas Macaulay, Auguste Comte, J. S. Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, G. H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, and even Karl Marx. As John Schad remarks, "to a quite unprecedented extent, mathematical terms and principles were applied [in the nineteenth century] not just to the physical world but the whole life of man. Witness, in historiography, the efforts of Ranke, Comte and Taine both to study the past for 'statistical patterns' and to formulate thereby 'laws of history'" (5)--and, of course, many of these thinkers extrapolated from their deterministic "laws of history" future history: Comte, Hegel, and Marx are obvious examples in this respect.

If, though, many of these historians-cum-prophets and their predictions have proved rather fallible in retrospect, perhaps what Laplace is really looking forward to are the vast, infallible intelligences of modern computers. Computers can obviously command and analyze both individual formulae and the massive amounts of data to which Laplace refers, and on which so many nineteenth-century writers come to rely. …

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