In Praise of Speculative History


Frank Palmeri is a professor of English at the University of Miami and the author, most recently, of State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and the Origins of Modern Social Discourse (Columbia University Press).

How much can we know about pasts that are not documented? The past 20 years have seen a resurgence of conjectural thought in fields such as political theory, the history of religion, paleoanthropology, deep history, and climate studies. Thinkers working in this vein push back their inquiries to times that precede the written records of civilization, approximately 4,000 years ago. Many push their explanatory narratives forward, beyond the present. Their work bears the impress of Enlightenment speculative histories such as Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (1755), Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1757), and Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795). Like those predecessors, the new conjectural histories provide naturalistic accounts of the earliest forms of human social life; they trace the stages by which first societies came to take later forms; and they occasionally conclude by speculating about the history of the future.

Many factors contribute to this return to conjecture. The year 2000 provided an occasion for considering history in millennia rather than centuries. New evidence based on carbon dating and genetic analysis has become available, and the number of excavations dating to around the time of the most recent ice age (10,800-9500 BCE) has increased significantly.

Whatever the contributing causes, these new conjectural works share a method and a project: to broaden the scope of historical understanding beyond the thin span of written rec­ords by speculating on the basis of the available evidence, however fragmentary and uncertain it may be. The alternative is to say almost nothing about relations between prehistoric, preliterate (or future) times and the present.

Resistance to conjectural history comes from positivists and scientistic thinkers, who enshrine facts as truths. Darwin, who wrote a classic conjectural history in The Descent of Man (1871), understood that a theory is necessary and prior to the marshaling of facts, although, because of the dominance of empiricism in his time, he concealed his debt to speculative history. Most of the objections to conjecture today are expressed by historians who believe that specific factual errors invalidate the overall speculative project. However, as the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn and others have pointed out, a theory or paradigm cannot be disproved by a particular empirical finding; it can only be superseded by another theory that provides a stronger framework for understanding.

Conjectural history thus assumes a function comparable to that played by critical theory in the past 45 years: It can provide theoretical frameworks in fields of social thought to drive research agendas and attempts at understanding, in the way Kuhn’s paradigms function in the history of science. The new conjectural thinking can be used to speculate about the causes of the accomplishments, persistence, transformations, failures, and disappearances of societies in ancient and modern history and in the future; it can also provide frameworks for speculation on the direction of, and threats to, contemporary civilized society. ...

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