Darwin-L Message Log 1:183 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<1:183>From BROWNH@CCSUA.CTSTATEU.EDU  Mon Sep 20 18:53:23 1993

Date: Mon, 20 Sep 1993 19:54:47 -0400 (EDT)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: RE: Classification in mineralogy


	As an amateur mineralogist, I can't resist reflecting upon your
comments.  I note that you stress observable characteristics.  Since
what is observed is a function of the instruments of observation (if
humans were color-blind, the color of the mineral would not be taken
into consideration), and what is considered to be significant is a
function of subjective bias (generally, a small crystal is not classi-
fied as a different mineral than a large crystal of the same substance).
	So, if I may, your "observable qualities" might be elaborated.
First, there is a tendency to classify persistent qualities as essential
and short range qualities as accidents.  The former serves to distin-
guish classes (mineral species) from individuals (two specimens of the
same species).  Also, there are entities that have non-observable quali-
ties, such as magnetic fields.  So perhaps we can say that there are
qualities that distinguish things, either as classes or individuals, and
these distinguishing things are what we call empirical qualities.
	But now the fun begins.  If we start out with the assumption
that what persists is essential and what changes is accidental, ephemeral,
insignificant, then we bring in a profound bias in favor of stability
and uniformity.  Obviously, persistence is a matter of scale.  At the
small scale of daily life, we must assume persistence of empirical quali-
ties so that we can function in a predictable environment and communicate
with others.  But in world history, diversity and change is far more
evident than continuity and uniformity.  Arguably, units such as "civili-
zation" is inappropriate in the study of world history because it makes
change and diveristy problematic for a reality that has them in its na-
ture.  The obvious unity in world history would be a "process," not an
empirically-defined unit such as culture, society, or civilization.  To
conceive things as processes can be done, but that takes me away from
the subject.
	I bring this up because various classifications may not be right
or wrong, but suited to our purposes to various degrees.  If the unit of
world history should be represented as a process rather than defined
soleyl in empirical terms, that is because we start with the knowledge
that world history is in fact complex and changing.  With minerals, that]
is quite a different situation.  Traditionally, our aim has not been to
explain why some beryl is green and some yellow, but to impose order on
a complexity; frankly, to arrange things on museum shelves (pace, curators,
I know this view is justly frowned on today); in long range processes
in which change and complexity is of their essence, what becomes signifi-
cant for us changes.  We seek to explain why things occurred as they did,
and for the historian, explanation is always tied time, place and cir-
cumstance (as Lenin used to say).  For the mineralogiest, general classi-
fication suffices.

Haines Brown (brownh@ccsua.ctstateu.edu)

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