Presidential Lecture Series


Cosmologies-World Views
Limits of Performance
Special Effects

NOVEMBER 5-6, 1999

[Detailed Schedule of Events] [Topic Description] [Participant Biographies]

Organizing Committee:

Lanier Anderson (Philosophy)
Keith Baker (Humanities Center)
Niklas Damiris (Xerox Park)
Roger Noll (Economics)
Haun Saussy (Asian Languages and Literature)
Kathleen Sullivan (Law)
Robert Weisberg (Law)

Hans Gumbrecht (ex officio)


Ricardo Benzaquen
Niklas Damiris
Robert H. Frank
Peter Goodrich
Avner Greif
David Harvey
Gary Hatfeld
Jochen Hörisch
Joseph Raz
Richard Posner
Charles Rosen
Denise Schmandt-Besserat
Elizabeth Spelke
Bin Wong

Topic Description:

History, Fate, and Path Dependence
The questions to unite and jointly vex humanists and social scientists: Why does the past matter? How does the past matter? Liberal theory has a problem with pastness, because of assumptions about the role of consent in forming and preserving of societies. Pastness can be the enemy of rationality, but it seems inescapable. Is it inescapably a limit on our rationality? Or happily a tool of our rationality? Have we traded theological notions of fate for "constructed" historical paths? Should we recur to the neo-Marxist notion of "relative autonomy" to understand "fate" in the modern world? Is it meaningful to speak of social organization without history? Indeed, can there be a nation without a history, and if not, can there be a "free" nation?

Law depends on and struggles with pastness. Legal institutions, as analyzed by Hegel and those before and after, seem to require pasts, narratable pasts, for their authority. How does the "constitution" (pun) of a society exploit, finesse, and escape the problem of the pre-constitutional past? How does it pre-arrange for citizens to rely, or to have to rely, on precedent? How do communitarians use the past to enhance the solidarity of a society in the present? What use does a society make of its history, or of History? If we are not in any formal sense bound by the past, why do we use the actual (or assumed to be actual) past to guide, inspire, or command virtuous actions in the present? If we are seeking sources of guidance, inspiration, or command, what is the special advantage of any factual or actual pasts in this endeavor? How are our values strengthened by having an actual past? Does a society need a teleology? If so, can a modern state have a functional teleology without lapsing into myth, the mind of "useful" past of traditional societies that modern liberal states supposedly eschew? Do we owe debts to our ancestors? All of us--and to all our ancestors?

In terms of liberal social structure, economics might seem to present the most striking challenge. If one dominant logical path of economics is social choice, does not social choice necessarily assume past-less preferences as the basis for social decision? Can economics logically assume any constraints from the past? If not, what are we to make of the increasing importance of path-dependence analyses.

Is it possible, from any of several liberal perspectives, to have or develop a self without having or composing one's own history? Is it meaningful to say that we are free to compose our histories? Can clinical psychology or psychoanalysis precede without some sense of fate? On the other hand, do the challenging lessons of experimental social psychology show how helplessly (and foolishly?) we are constrained or fated by the past in the sense that we see all reality with distorting frames? Do organizations like big businesses have lives? Or narratable selves?

In examining these questions, we might consider the rough differences in approaches between the Humanities and social sciences along a continuum. At one end, as in, say, literary history, we impute to, or assume in, the goals or objects of the discipline a sure importance and meaning. What we study, then, is the internal development of the discipline or art, how it changes the form of or criteria for these objects. We are appreciators of the struggles and the acts of imagination by which the practitioners develop their objects. At the far end of the continuum, with reductive and explanatory social science, the "object" of study is human behavior, whether social or individual, and we do not assume in or impute to the object anything very meaningful except perhaps irreducible preference or rational self-interest. By an external approach, then, we then observe how the human actors deal with pastness in formulating or reaching their goals. We are not appreciators here, but behavioral scientists, and we can even criticize or evaluate the success of the actors' struggle with pastness in terms of the rational linkage of means and ends. Needless to say, many parts of both the Humanities and social sciences lie in various points along this continuum.

The very existence of the "externalist" end of this continuum calls into question the traditional assurance of humanists that History is somehow the special preserve of the Humanities, and their intuitive methods. The externalist, social scientific approach redescribes the objects of humanistic inquiry as "mere" behavior, or causal products of behavior. Once we can begin to see art objects, literary texts, judicial decisions, or theoretical achievements, as caused, we can also begin to search for the laws of that causality, rather than for the meanings of these individual cultural products. Traditional or "internalist" interpretive method must henceforth justify itself, and its approach to (and conception of) history, against a powerful alternative. Whether a "reductive" approach to such objects, or even less extreme forms of externalist analysis, in fact loses anything important, will be one of our questions.

But wherever we are on the continuum, we observe individuals or groups at times knowingly acquiescing in the supposed constraints of the past and at other times trying to escape the constraints and even denying the constraints. In the latter case, we deny that our values and institutions are merely "coping mechanisms."

In the case of law, for example, mainstream legal scholars believe that legal rules and principles are capable of intellectual coherence and practical utility at some general level independent of particular historical circumstances, yet scholars perennially confront the contingency of these rules and principles on specific human events at specific times. Rationalizers or apologists of law adopt a variety of strategies for finessing the tension between abstract authority and historical circumstance. Thus, some deny the apparent historical contingency of law, by stressing the great subtlety of universal legal principles; others invoke a kind of Cartesianism that treats law as a universal set of policy algorithms for addressing apparently different but essentially generic social needs; still others are adaptionists for whom the timeless element of law is a method for identifying and enhancing the rationality of varying societies; finally there are those resigned to contingency but who view law as an existential strategy for sustaining some notion of meaningful order in the face of change.

The purpose of the colloquium is to unite scholars ranging from economists to social or clinical psychologists to historians to philosophers to literary critics to contemplate what we do with our pasts, whether we think of them as fate, teleology, self-selected goals, structures of pre-committed decision-making, and so on. As a very tentative, utterly non-binding start, we suggest the following categories of "past dependencies" (conceding that the categories are surely highly overlapped or entangled).

First, there is past dependency as precedent: Here we are not interested in jurisprudence for its own sake so much as seeing how this basic concept of Anglo-American law offers an adaptable model for conceiving the past. Judges say they are constrained by precedent, and critics of law often disbelieve that claim of restraint, but all would agree that precedent helps us decide whether a new action is legitimate or illegitimate. If nothing else, precedent suggests an earlier categorical decision which reduces the possibility of - but also the agony of - complex discretionary judgment in later cases. We can use this legal concept to understand how precedent works in families (as in naming rituals or other customs). And we often see it invoked as the guide to or constraint on actions within academic institutions, and a means for these institutions to confer distinct identities on themselves.

Next, consider the past as a condition or a form of determination. Here we view the past as neither guiding nor constraining so much as causing. But cause can be a very soft determinism, as where we mean that a past event is necessary or helpful but not sufficient for a future event to occur; where past events are determinative, we mean that certain events are sufficient to ensure a future event or action. Here we move closer to what some in the social sciences call path-dependence, either as chain of events that cause later events, or at least point to future events in such a way as to "cause" us to follow our own logic for the sake of consistency. These notions apply in many historical contexts, but they seem intriguingly pertinent to the workings of institutions like corporations. Perhaps the new small flexible companies, like technology start-ups using "just-in-time-inventory" and non-hierarchical teams, reflect an effort to soften the perceived hard determinism of large old monoliths.

Then there is past as Fate. This may refer to a traditional theology or cosmology that insists on absolute determination by higher authorities, but in modern literary, existentialist, religious terms, it suggests determinism combined with the feeling that choice should be (but is not) possible. Machines are conditioned or determined--but they do not feel that they should function differently. Humans, however, do--and they do more so the more they feel that a certain determination is inescapable. Tragedy, after all, is about this motif; so is Heidegger's conception of time--hence his call for "composure" and "piety of thinking." Thus, fate may mean cause that we have the power to regret, and cause that we attribute to a willful power, not a natural force. To return to law for a moment, a tragically resigned constitutionalist may say sincerely (not strategically) that the precommitting values of the originators of her constitution give her no power to decide a case the way her values would require.

Finally, there is past as orientation. By this measure, history, or historiography, gives us a way of conceiving or characterizing the past that enables us to imagine a desirable future. It is, in this sense, not cause, not fate, and not really precedent, but rather moral and aesthetic inspiration for imagining our lives. By this reckoning, the Enlightenment wrenched history away from theological or cosmological fate, and we were left with the need (and opportunity) of making our own future history as an unfolding of our interpreted past. Before we conceived Progress, the past might hold little interest, except as a source of practical lessons, because the future would be no different. Once personal experience is torn from the past and Progress tempts us, we need creative history to re-imagine the past so as to help us invent a future.

We hope you find these thoughts helpful in planning your own contributions to this fascinating subject, and to this exciting event.


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