Essay 34: Arguments Without End: Are They Good or Bad?

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (died in 1966) coined the phrase “argument without end” to get at the constant reappearance of old arguments or viewpoints. One gets the impression that arguments are either persistent or perhaps permanent. One simplistic example could be argument about socialism: Sweden is “good,” but Venezuela (or Cuba) is bad. This book takes the view that “arguments without end” are not the end of knowledge but rather a potential beginning: it could be that some issues cannot be captured by one school of thought: the awarding of the 1974 Nobel Prize to both Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) is an example of this need for hybridity. Both Hayek and Myrdal are each seeing something valid and it’s a “fool’s errand” to decide who is “eternally” correct.

Let’s apply this thinking to a deep “argument without end” within and about history.

Michel Foucault (died in 1984) following Nietzsche, argues that history seems “linear” but is more random and non-linear than the “linear” historians see or admit.

There’s an aphorism in Nietzsche, (from his The Dawn) which Foucault uses…history is made by the “iron-hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.”

In other words the world we know, traveling somehow from the assassination of Kennedy (November 2, 1963) to the impeachment hearings of Trump in October 2019, must be thought of as a kind of “random walk” behind which are trends, cycles, so that one gets a fusion of structure and surprise. If you emphasize surprise you’re closer to Foucault than to those narrative historians who think they can show you the exact threads which connect “then and now.”

Here’s an example of such a historian, the celebrated G.R. Elton of England, whose classic The Tudor Revolution in Government is a masterpiece of orthodox analysis. The book centers on the administrative revolution in the 1530s in England which implied, says Elton, “As regards political and social structure, the sixteenth century produced something quite new in England—the self-contained sovereign state in which no power on earth could challenge the supremacy of statute made by the crown in parliament.”

“In this revolution, in this making of a new kind of state productive of a new kind of society, administrative reforms played their part. It is against this background of controlled upheaval that they must be seen and understood.”

(Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government, Cambridge University press, 1966, page 426/427)

Orthodox historians see history as a “nail-down-able” system of storylines and the controlled upheavals have a direction (teleology) which allows you to use—in this case the 1530s in England—as a beginning, an origin, a “datum line,” and once you have this clear starting point you can follow the story to now and include comparative developments in France or Germany or China.

The orthodox “explain strategy” starts with an origin, a “starting gate” like a horse-race.

The FoucaultNietzsche view is that these starting points are not entirely useless but in the end don’t help you because history is in the end governed by “the dice-box of chance” even if it is held by “the iron-hand of necessity.” History is more “upheaval” than “control” more surprise than structure. “Determinism” such as perhaps based by pinning down a starting point from which one can “build out,” is a wish-dream since history is nonlinear and nondeterministic. Even Elton’s phrase “controlled upheaval” is full of questions and problems.

Modern “complexity theory” in mathematics tries to get at these differences analytically. A “meta-intelligent” student would go from this historians’ “argument without end” to the analysis of complexity in math as a way of rounding out the exploration.

An “argument without end” can thus be useful if the student does not insist on some final “apodictic” or certain-forever answer.