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Perspectives on history with Professor Paul Dover

In today’s blog we visit with Dr. Paul Dover, who received his PhD at Yale University and is currently professor of history at Kennesaw State University.

David: Can you tell us something about your background, education, and interests?

Paul: I am the son of English academics. My father was a professor of business, marketing to be specific, while my mother was a professor of French medieval language and literature. We were a family that loved books and loved a good argument. Dinner time would often extend for an extra hour or two as we debated some issue or another. Sometimes it got really heated but five minutes after we were finished we were all hugging it out. I lived in many countries growing up: New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, England, and The United States. As a child I was a great collector of things, like rocks and insects, and spent hours staring at the stars, trying to make out planets and constellations. I long thought I was going to become a scientist. In fact when I arrived at college my intention was to study chemistry. I had always loved the empirical and experimental aspects of science, the abiding sense of curiosity and discovery that is inherent to science. I soon discovered upon enrolling in physical chemistry my freshman year that I was not sufficiently gifted in math to pursue a career in science, at least in the physical Sciences. In the second semester of my freshman year I was transported by a lecture from my professor on the Second World War, and that is when I decided that I wanted to study history. After college I tried out business for three or four years. I was a banker in London and then a management consultant in Boston, but I really felt like I was going through the motions. I had no passion for it. I decided to pursue a PhD in history and focused on early modern European history. I taught at two institutions, a small liberal arts college and a Sisters of Mercy institution, before coming to Kennesaw State fifteen years ago. I have taught and published widely in the political and cultural history of the Renaissance period, but over the last several years I have become particularly interested in the history of information. I have a book coming out in a couple of months on what I call the Information Revolution of Early Modern Europe. It's basically a book about what happens to western society when everyone starts to record information on paper. Now that that's done, I intend to write a book tentatively entitled Information: a Human History, which will both historicize and humanize the story of information across the millennia, at a time when I believe information and the information industry have become detached from the human, to the extent that people have become commoditized as vessels of information.

David: There is a sense in which history and physics are similar disciplines: They are both attempts at making connections between, and predicting, space-time events. While the latter focuses on the behavior of simpler configurations of matter, the former deals with the most complex level, that of humans. Would you agree?

Paul: Yes and no. Historians do not, or should not, predict. This is because good historians recognize that there are an infinite number of interdependent variables at play in the unfolding of the human experience. Social scientists spend their time trying to identify the Independent variable but we historians recognize that that is like looking for a Unicorn; it doesn't exist. That being said, I do think that history and many physical Sciences have much in common methodologically. But perhaps for counter intuitive reasons. I mean that the Sciences are far more like history then is often acknowledged. We historians generalize from particularities rather than establishing our particularities based on generalizations. There are very few laws, at least iron laws, in history. The OFT repeated phrase that history repeats itself (which is actually Marx talking) is in fact a falsehood. Historians perceive patterns in human experience but because there are no laws, history provides no predictive power. Instead it offers informed perspectives which allow us to regard both the present and perhaps the future in ways that offer fresh insight. My amateur gaze upon the cutting edge of science today suggests to me that science is in fact considerably less “scientific” than we might have assumed it to be. It involves depictions, speculation, and guesswork. It is far more human and less antiseptic than we habitually imagine. Thus there is something of a convergence between the discipline of history and the physical Sciences. I sense this particularly when I read about geography and astrophysics, two disciplines that necessarily process the traces left to the practitioners from the deep past and require them to paint a picture of what was. I am fascinated with both the content and the methodology of geology and astronomy and I can't help but think that it is because they are kindred disciplines with my own stomping grounds of history. I believe that they both capture, perhaps even in a greater sense than does history, that sense of wonder that Immanuel Kant described in addressing the sublime. I find myself moved by the descent into deep time.

David: Physics has a much longer timescale over which to glean understanding and one clear pattern that has emerged in Nature involves cycles. Despite only a few thousand years of recorded history, is cyclical behavior a clear pattern of human behavior?

Paul: The linear model of the human past is actually a reasonably new one. And not only that it is a distinctively western one. The ancients, including the first recognized historian, Herodotus, largely subscribed to a cyclical view of history. They believed that patterns repeated themselves and expected things to unfold according to already established cycles. Aristotle, as well as the historian Polybius, for example, believed that polities developed according to a reasonably predictable pattern whereby one form of government would inevitably transform into another. Vedic cultures, as well, largely subscribed (and still do) to a cyclical view of the human past.

My take on a cyclical view of history is mixed. If you employ it to establish with certainty what is going to happen, then I reject it. If, however, you examine the patterns that repeat themselves throughout human history and then draw upon them with an ample degree of epistemic humility in order to prepare yourself for what might come, then I think you are confirming the great utility of history itself.

David: Thank you Professor!

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