Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

TheCroppyBoy

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In his book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker makes two basic claims; firstly, that the world is a better place than it used to be by reference to various metrics such as quality of life, hunger, poverty, violence etc; secondly, that the reason for this improvement is enlightenment values such as reason, science, progress and humanism.

It is very hard to deny that he has a point in relation to the first claim, though there may be arguments to be made that this is a qualitative question in addition to just being a quantitative one. We will return to this at a later point.

In relation to the second claim, Pinker's approach is nakedly ideological if not embarrassingly naive. In the Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield wrote about a tendency among historians to attribute the rise of modern British liberal democracy to a sort of instinct towards progress, a will to progress even, that had its roots in the Reformation. Whig historians saw history as a struggle between the progressive instinct and the reactionary reflex.

Pinker is very clear that when he speaks of progress, he is not referring to any metaphysical teleological force. That is, it has happened because of human action and will only continue to happen if humans make it so. There is no inevitability to it - it is contingent rather than necessary.

Like the Whigs though, Pinker still sees the modern world as being a tug of war between two broad sets of values. He sets up a binary opposition of Enlightenment versus Counter-Enlightenment. All of the good progress is down to Enlightenment values and has happened in spite of the counter-enlightenment. If we can just concentrate on the former, the world will get better.

And like any true ideologue, certain concepts and events, regardless of their occurrence in time and space, are put into the Enlightenment category with the contra being put into the other.

So, for example, humanism, science and reason are all put into the Enlightenment category. Unreason, exemplified by religion, is a counter-Enlightenment phenomenon. The same goes for anti-humanism, again exemplified by religion's pro-occupation with soul, but also nationalism's subordination of the individual to the tribe. (And Pinker makes it clear that he includes nationalisms "fused with Marxist Liberation movements").

In the second decade of the 21st century, he speaks of populist movements that are "tribal rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future." (p29) He attributes this general counter-enlightenment to the Romantic movement of the early 19th century that "pushed back hard against Enlightenment ideals". (p30)

Unfortunately for Pinker this thesis is full of holes, big and small.

1. First of all, there are the usual tricks with time and space you get with ideologues. He lists Rousseau and Herder amongst the romanticists, even though they were clearly active before the romantic period and are much closer in time and actual relation to the Enlightenment. He suggests that fundamentalist religion is part of the counter-enlightenment, even though that has its origins in the Reformation which predates it by a couple of hundred years. He claims science for the Enlightenment even though the scientific revolution took place in the 17th century, and arguably had its roots in medieval times as historians of science now accept.

It could be argued that Enlightenment is a state of mind rather than a specific event, but then we are in the realms of Whiggish-style teleology, where events are explained by reference to later events or timeless concepts.

The same point can be made about reason more generally. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval philosopher, insisted on the importance of reason in the field of theology. Not content to depend on revelation alone, Aquinas felt that any truth must also be supportable by rational argument. The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, criticised Aquinas' approach to reasoning, arguing that it was not conducted in the spirit of free inquiry, with a willingness to follow it wherever it lead, but with the intention of only using to arrive at a pre-conceived conclusion, and to fall back on revelation in any case should the argument fail. Russell's critique of Aquinas is adequately dismantled here. The fact is that it is very questionable whether any reasoning is conducted in a truly free spirit that is independent of any belief systems or value assumptions. More importantly, though, it doesn't matter because the reasoning will stand or fall on its own merits anyway. The takeaway is that Aquinas, and other medieval thinkers, placed a clear emphasis on reasoning which could only have served to increase its value.

2. Secondly, we have lazy mischaracterisations, such as the idea that romanticism was anti-humanist or anti-individual. Romanticism was a very broad and complex movement. It took place against the backdrop of political, social and economic upheaval. Certain elements of romanticism certainly sought to re-discover and re-empower the individual in a quickly changing world. The same goes for nationalism, which played an important role in the rise of modern democracy in the 19th century and formation of the nation-state as we know it. Nationalism was the key ingredient in conferring political and popular legitimacy on newly expanding states and economies.

After designating nationalism as a bad concept, he writes that it should not be confused with "civic values, public spirit, social responsibility, or cultural pride". (p31) Of course, this sophistic sleight of hand misses the point, namely that the whole utility of nationalism is that it has provided, historically, an emotional imperative to do these very things. It cultivates practical patriotism. It's like saying, love of your town should not be confused with having an anti-litter ethic; but loving your town will give you more motivation not to litter.

Furthermore, nationalism or at least the rise of the nation-state was a key vehicle by which the power of the Catholic church had been pushed back in the centuries preceding the Enlightenment. This is rather inconvenient for Pinker's thesis as it disrupts the idea that nationalism and religion are cosy bedfellows with regards to the values that the Enlightenment is supposed to own. A local example also supports the point; the Catholic Church in Ireland generally opposed all Irish nationalism throughout the 19th century, whether it be expressed constitutionally or otherwise. Only with liberation theology in South America in the 20th century did we see any kind of meaningful partnership between the Catholic Church on some clerical level and nationalist movements.

3. This leads us nicely onto another set of holes, namely Pinker's selection bias. He is keen to point out the Enlightenment's first and proudest offspring, the American revolution and speak about the enlightened nature of both its founding documents and fathers. In relation to its second, but not so proud, offspring - the French revolution - he is unsurprisingly a little quieter. Suffice to say, the French revolution exalted reason as a virtue and brought that logic to its very violent and bloody conclusion. Not that the American revolution is completely clean from Pinker's point of view either. At the time, it had a clear nationalist component to it, and one that was clearly more tribal (i.e. anti-British, if not other ethnicities too) than the dispassionate social contract he approves of.

Another blatant case of elision is his favourably citing of David Hume and Immanuel Kant in defence of reason. Hume famously said that reason is the slave of the passions and that it cannot give rise to moral motivation. This is a direct contradiction of what Pinker is calling for - the prioritisation of reason as a virtue as opposed to just a tool. Kant was influenced by Hume and also warned about the limits of reason. Pinker claims to follow the example of Hume and Adam Smith by saying he starts with an honest appraisal of human nature and goes from there. But in bluntly dismissing romanticism, nationalism and religion (on faulty grounds) he really isn't. There's no real attempt to marry human nature with the principles he advocates in a practical way. Instead he just ignores that point, doubling down on the point about needing reason, science, humanism. Ironically, he advocates humanism yet seems distinctly uninterested in humanising these subjects.

His discussions on humanism and religion also elide the important role of Quakers in the abolition of slavery.

In summary, Pinker has failed to make the case that reason, science or humanism are direct products of the Enlightenment. They have disparate roots. In his book, Butterfield argued that British liberal democracy was the accidental outcome of the clash of Catholicism and Protestantism. Its the same story here. The modern world, good and bad, is a product of the clash of many intellectual strands and traditions. Democracy and freedom owe as much to romantics and religion as they do to the enlightenment thinkers. This also causes him to go wrong in his belief that science, reason, humanism on their own can be of benefit to us.

In this area, Pinker has all the hallmarks of someone who has stepped out of his academic comfort zone and has found himself out of his depth. He still refers to the Dark Ages, a term that is now largely discredited amongst historians. He cites the case of Galileo as an example of religion's incompatibility with science, totally ignorant to the nuances of that case and the other elements it involved. I think Pinker will come to be seen as a very overrated and over-achieving public intellectual in time.
 


Lumpy Talbot

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I'm not sure that I should be arguing with Pinker, and I'm not sure I could argue with TCP's OP too well either as it is a very erudite and thoughtful OP and a high standard of criticism of Pinker's position in my opinion.

Does he really claim that the American Revolution was the first and proudest offspring of the enlightenment? I'd have though the American Revolution quite late in that process.

Venice, although a sort of grim Essex-boy city when it came to culture provided some fuel as a mercantile city so some quality was inadvertantly inevitable. Florence much earlier with its surprisingly early de facto Republic and fierce independence in the arts.

That is a bit grim if US historians are now having to claim to have kick-started the Enlightenment when to my mind the Enlightenment was in full swing arguably with the emergence of people like Giordano Bruno, and the counter-Enlightenment was when the church burned the man alive for having a forbidden academic book in his possession. Pretty sure that was the guts of 170 years before the American Revolution. Yes, nearer 180 years. Bruno was burned to death in 1600 in Rome. Sounds pretty counter-enlightened to me.
 

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The old cultural shift... everyone deserves their very own Year Zero.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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The United States didn't produce a writer of note until Melville and Mark Twain. And those lads died as late as 1890 and around 1910. It isn't as if there was a huge contribution to the arts after the American Revolution either. That was more of an interlude before the Civil War.
 

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The big step change for humanity was the industrial revolution, but not in the opinions of philosophers and revolutionaries.
 

TheCroppyBoy

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I'm not sure that I should be arguing with Pinker, and I'm not sure I could argue with TCP's OP too well either as it is a very erudite and thoughtful OP and a high standard of criticism of Pinker's position in my opinion.

Does he really claim that the American Revolution was the first and proudest offspring of the enlightenment? I'd have though the American Revolution quite late in that process.
Ok - so his exact words are that the constitution of the USA and the declaration of independence are the most famous products of the Enlightenment.

See here at 13:13.

Venice, although a sort of grim Essex-boy city when it came to culture provided some fuel as a mercantile city so some quality was inadvertantly inevitable. Florence much earlier with its surprisingly early de facto Republic and fierce independence in the arts.

That is a bit grim if US historians are now having to claim to have kick-started the Enlightenment when to my mind the Enlightenment was in full swing arguably with the emergence of people like Giordano Bruno, and the counter-Enlightenment was when the church burned the man alive for having a forbidden academic book in his possession. Pretty sure that was the guts of 170 years before the American Revolution. Yes, nearer 180 years. Bruno was burned to death in 1600 in Rome. Sounds pretty counter-enlightened to me.
Pinker is actually an "experimental" psychologist but in recent years has begun to dabble more in history, philosophy and general politico-intellectual discourse.
 

owedtojoy

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As an aside, there have been embarrassing revelations about links between Pinker and Jeffrey Epstein, the notorious rapist of young women, and sex trafficker.

Nothing sexy or salacious (so far), but Epstein funded the work of some scientists, possibly Pinker's too. Pinker helped with Epstein's defence in 2007. Epstein (a billionaire) seems to have had crackpot eugenic notions, and was looking for ways to spread his genes around.



It is not clear how much Pinker and others knew - perhaps they fooled themselves about the age of the women who everyone says were never far from Epstein. But he may have pandered to him (with some intellectual flattery) for help with funding. That is ethically questionable.
 
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Lumpy Talbot

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The big step change for humanity was the industrial revolution, but not in the opinions of philosophers and revolutionaries.
One thing about the Industrial Revolution is that lots of people can tell you when it started, with the advent of the spinning jenny and so on but no-one can say when it ended.

We always seem to talk about it as a sort of defined period but a squirrelly patch in the brain says we're still in it.
 

TheCroppyBoy

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The big step change for humanity was the industrial revolution, but not in the opinions of philosophers and revolutionaries.
Fair point - but what caused the industrial revolution then?

There is an argument that the Enlightenment had some input. Or more specifically, Adam Smith was an enlightenment intellectual and his arguments in favour of free trade economics vs mercantilism are sometimes thought to have contributed.
 

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Probably the guild system, large building projects such as Salisbury cathedral, craftsmen emerging as a sort of proto-middle class. The guilds of Florence pretty much ran Florence as a Republic at least for a while.

Bigger workforces heading off the land and to the cities in the hope of a better life. Migration and trade have always gone hand in hand. Shipping along international trade routes becoming more reliable, lending further impetus to trade and competition, leading to ways for the business interest to save labour costs by turning to corner-cutting machinery.

The printing presses used for the Guttenberg bible and the demand for printed materiel from both scriptorium and early universities probably had some influence on early machine use in a factory style setting.
 

owedtojoy

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One thing about the Industrial Revolution is that lots of people can tell you when it started, with the advent of the spinning jenny and so on but no-one can say when it ended.

We always seem to talk about it as a sort of defined period but a squirrelly patch in the brain says we're still in it.
One thing about the Industrial Revolution is that lots of people can tell you when it started, with the advent of the spinning jenny and so on but no-one can say when it ended.

We always seem to talk about it as a sort of defined period but a squirrelly patch in the brain says we're still in it.
I think the Industrial Revolution was inseparable from the Enlightenment, and the men who performed the midwifery on it were heavily informed by Enlightenment ideas.

One of the main men, James Watt, was a member of the Lunar Society, a group of men who met every month on the night of the full moon. Others were Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgewood and Matthew Boulton. Boulton & Watt steam engines were the workhorses of the early industrial revolution.

But the Lunar Society discussed other matters also - Priestley, one of the discovers of oxygen, identified with the cause of the American rebels. A mob burned down his house, and he fled to the US, where be became a friend of George Washington.
Wedgewood (patriarch of the pottery family) became heavily invested in the cause of anti-slavery, a movement that was one of the positive products of the Enlightenment.

In religion this men were Unitarian, in that they denied the Trinity, and were open to new ideas. But the limits of the Enlightenment was clear also - anti-slavery never quite took off in America. Though (in fairness) many American revolutionaries did live up to their ideals, and freed their slaves.

Many of the Enlightenment philosophers were scientists or associated with scientists. Descartes was one of the great mathematicians of his era. Leibnitz was a brilliant mathematician, who had a fierce intellectual quarrel with Newton over their claims to discover differential calculus. Newton and John Locke were close, and Locke's Theory of Knowledge was influenced by Newton's discoveries..

But these are ambiguities also. Descartes was associated with the militant Catholic Jesuits, Locke owned shares in a slave-trading company, and Newton conducted secret research on alchemy and the Bible.

The Enlightenment was a period of great intellectual ferment - with ramifications in science, technology, politics and religion.
 
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Lumpy Talbot

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Love to have a library with the proceedings of the Royal Society tidied up for the modern reader. Newton was a weird fish alright with the whole alchemy thing. Supposed to have been all sorts of rumours about him and a connection to the occult world via John Dee if I recall my reading correctly.
 

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Apropos nothing at all I can give you a conspiracy theory that involves the Federal Reserves, the Jesuit, numerology and the principle of sub judice. Sub-Judice originally meaning 'Under the judge' was intended only for the published or printed word. Not it covers speech and any communication. Almost like a legal vow of silence.

SJ are the initials of course of the Society of Jesus, the letters corresponding to 19 and 10 in the alphabet. One of the most infamous conspiracies of the modern era surrounding the jesuits is an alleged cartel meeting between the order's superiors and 7 bankers including JP Morgan. In 1910. This is where the Federal Reserve really took on its modern aspect, it is asserted.

You can have great fun inventing your own conspiracies out of history much more easily than you can discern insights from it.
 

owedtojoy

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On balance, I support Enlightenment ideas, in fact those ideas are under attack today.

So I would be less concerned about Steven Pinker being not correct in his history, and he is not, than about his spreading complacency that Enlightenment ideas are embedded and beyond challenge.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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In the creative world the framed landscape gave way to the frameless abstract, the introspective prog-rock gave way before the advent of the three chord wonders of punk, the lavish begets the minimalist.

So it is hardly surprising I think that the Enlightenment would beget a counter-enlightenment. I favour the idea we are still in the Industrial Revolution and that historians of the future will I suspect be able to date the end of that Revolution by pointing to a breakthrough in the confluence of robotics, AI and the quantum computer.

Maybe the next part of the Enlightenment. Maybe a dystopia. Probably one of the few areas where you cannot rely on lessons from history too much.
 

TheCroppyBoy

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On balance, I support Enlightenment ideas, in fact those ideas are under attack today.

So I would be less concerned about Steven Pinker being not correct in his history, and he is not, than about his spreading complacency that Enlightenment ideas are embedded and beyond challenge.
I think Pinker also argues that such ideas are under attack. He considers the recent rise of populism to be the latest incarnation of so-called counter-enlightenment thinking. I think he would argue against a similar complacency.

As per OP, I'm not at all convinced by this narrative of enlightenment vs counter-enlightenment as an explanation as to where are and how we got here, and I'm very skeptical of this notion of Enlightenment values that need to be upheld.
 

owedtojoy

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I think Pinker also argues that such ideas are under attack. He considers the recent rise of populism to be the latest incarnation of so-called counter-enlightenment thinking. I think he would argue against a similar complacency.

As per OP, I'm not at all convinced by this narrative of enlightenment vs counter-enlightenment as an explanation as to where are and how we got here, and I'm very skeptical of this notion of Enlightenment values that need to be upheld.
I have not read this book of Pinker's but I did like his earlier books of popular science like Words and Rules, about how humans learn to use words.

Also, I read his other "progress" book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It uses a lot of data to more or less make the case for progress, which seems to be more or less repeated in his latest work.

There are a lot of criticisms of this book out there - maybe the human race (or most of it) have had a good three-quarters of a century, so this is just a lucky period. I am sure the Romans in the reign of Antoninus Pius were high-fiving too and saying "Isn't this great?". Still his book has some basis in reality - billions of people have been released from poverty thanks to the economics of Adam Smith, and the science that the Enlightenment enabled.

One criticism I have is his dismissive view of environmental issues and climate change. It may rather be that the human race has utilised its worse angels (greed and violence) against the natural world, driving species to extinction, destroying the oceans, and changing the climate on which we all depend. His "progress" may be something for which future generations still have to pay the full price.

As for a weakening of Enlightenment values, there is evidence for a sapping confidence in democracy world wide, and a continuing advance of authoritarian leaders to power. Some of these leaders glorify violence and even rape, like Bolsonaro of Brazil, or Duerte in the Phillipines. These are worse than even the worst "benevolent despot" of the Enlightenment.


Climate change denial represents a rejection of Enlightenment science in favour of magical thinking.
 

TheCroppyBoy

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I have not read this book of Pinker's but I did like his earlier books of popular science like Words and Rules, about how humans learn to use words.

Also, I read his other "progress" book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It uses a lot of data to more or less make the case for progress, which seems to be more or less repeated in his latest work.

There are a lot of criticisms of this book out there - maybe the human race (or most of it) have had a good three-quarters of a century, so this is just a lucky period. I am sure the Romans in the reign of Antoninus Pius were high-fiving too and saying "Isn't this great?". Still his book has some basis in reality - billions of people have been released from poverty thanks to the economics of Adam Smith, and the science that the Enlightenment enabled.

One criticism I have is his dismissive view of environmental issues and climate change. It may rather be that the human race has utilised its worse angels (greed and violence) against the natural world, driving species to extinction, destroying the oceans, and changing the climate on which we all depend. His "progress" may be something for which future generations still have to pay the full price.

As for a weakening of Enlightenment values, there is evidence for a sapping confidence in democracy world wide, and a continuing advance of authoritarian leaders to power. Some of these leaders glorify violence and even rape, like Bolsonaro of Brazil, or Duerte in the Phillipines. These are worse than even the worst "benevolent despot" of the Enlightenment.


Climate change denial represents a rejection of Enlightenment science in favour of magical thinking.
I agree with a lot of what you are saying I just don't see this "enlightenment" tag as being accurate or relevant. Climate change denial is a rejection of science full stop. Per the OP, there was a passion for science in the west long before the enlightenment.

Furthermore, a healthy dose of romanticism which Pinker likes to chastise also encourages a bit of grá for the environment. That seems to be the root of his lukewarm reaction to environmentalists.

What has really caused our climate crisis is runaway capitalism (and runaway science too). That is, capitalism unfettered by values. Apparently, the only value the enlightenment has vis a vis capitalism is that free trade is good. That's not much use to us.

Finally, it should be noted the alt-right can also be subscribers to the this Cult of Enlightenment. Mainly because the whole "freedom of speech" thing.
 
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owedtojoy

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I agree with a lot of what you are saying I just don't see this "enlightenment" tag as being accurate or relevant. Climate change denial is a rejection of science full stop. Per the OP, there was a passion for science in the west long before the enlightenment.

Furthermore, a healthy dose of romanticism which Pinker likes to chastise also encourages a bit of grá for the environment. That seems to be the root of his lukewarm reaction to environmentalists.

What has really caused our climate crisis is runaway capitalism (and runaway science too). That is, capitalism unfettered by values. Apparently, the only value the enlightenment has vis a vis capitalism is that free trade is good. That's not much use to us.

Finally, it should be noted the alt-right can also be subscribers to the this Cult of Enlightenment. Mainly because the whole "freedom of speech" thing.
It is a good point about the Romantic roots of environmentalism, and has a great deal of truth. Theodore Roosevelt (and others), who preserved so much of the USA in National Parks, were also nationalists and often racists (in our terms).

However, the scientific study of nature comes from a different ancestry. Josiah Wedgewood, pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, had a friend in the Lunar Society called Erasmus Darwin, himself an amateur biologist and doctor. Both men were grandfathers of Charles Darwin, and the Wedgewoods had as much influence on him as the Darwins. He was anti-slavery, like the Wedgewoods, for the whole of his life.

Pretty much modern environmentalism (a love of the natural world + bio-ecological sciences) is indebted to both.

I think it is fair to label the intellectual spirit of the 18th century as "the Enlightenment", and of the 19th century as "the Romantic Era", despite both names containing value judgements. But that does not mean one had a monopoly on the good ideas. The Enlightenment saw the start of scientific racism, while the Romantic Era saw the rise of modern anti-semitism. Both together led to the Holocaust.

Adam Smith may have "invented " capitalism, but it is argued (and I think it is true) that the brand of capitalism we see today is not the same as Adam Smith's. OTOH, Fascism is often typified as Hegel + Le Maistre, and Communism as Hegel + Marx. Hegel being considered a "Romantic", or Idealist philosopher,

If Pinker is saying that the Enlightenment had all the good ideas, and the Romantic Era was full of misguided reactions to them, then he is completely wrong. The history of ideas is much more nuanced than that.

PS I disagree about Science and the Enlightenment, but maybe that is for another day.
 

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Excellent post, most newly promoted Sublime One. Serious point though is that the best historians I can think of will note times and dates of course but I'm not sure they would put such things as the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution or indeed the Romantic period in cultural terms in neat boxes labelled by year, decade or century.

The best thing about the study of history from all my wild reading has been that realisation beyond the schoolboy rote learning of dates when this happened or your man won a battle or whatever, but the ebb and flow of dynamics which erupt into events in the human consciousness.

My definition of art as distinct from production would be; 'That activity which seeks to convey, question or comment on the human condition'. Haven't found a work of art yet that falls outside that description, nor have I ever found a template production in manufacturing which fits easily into it.

So adapting that I'm going to say that proper studies in history are 'political dynamics over time where the human collective is conscious of those dynamics'.
 


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