Ahistorical Siblings

I’ve been thinking about the word “ahistorical”. Some definitions I found googling around include:

lacking historical perspective or context

not concerned with or related to history, historical development, or tradition

ignores or disregards the history or tradition that came before it

conceived or done without consideration of history or historical context

not showing any knowledge of history or of what has happened before

There are other uses, but most commonly it’s a criticism, arguing by implication that a historical perspective is necessary to properly understand the thing in question. Wikipedia says:

Charges of ahistoricism are frequently critical, implying that the subject is historically inaccurate or ignorant (for example, an ahistorical attitude).

It’s not just that somebody or something ignores or is oblivious to history, but also that this is wrong and ruins the point made.  There’s a specific word for “wrongly not taking history into account” — two conditions at once, implying they belong together[1]. Why do other disciplines not have words like this? Why does history in particular hold a special position as by default relevant to everything[2]?

Sure, the word “unscientific” exists and I grant that the use is somewhat similar. It’s not quite identical, since it tends to mean that something is itself not science — not subjected to scientific method and rigor — rather than that it ignores relevant scientific knowledge. However, even if admitted, it’s rather remarkable that a single field like history shares this exalted position with science as a whole.

It strikes me as an unjustified claim of authority, and using it sometimes strikes me as an attempt to suggest one’s own superiority by virtue of having essential knowledge someone else doesn’t — by asserting the essentialness of knowledge one happens to have. Language cooperates with this social maneuvering (as it sometimes does), when it comes to history but not other fields.

What if it wasn’t so? What if other disciplines had this right to insert themselves into everything? Off the top of my head (note that I don’t necessarily endorse all the example claims):

Apsychological means ignoring the psychological aspects of things. It might mean treating people as behavior machines who either do as they are told, rationally follow material incentives, or in other ways can be reduced to a representation where internal psychological structure, complexity, contradiction, and illegibility is abstracted away. For example, you could call the narrow self-interest of the homo economicus model apsychological, or that many institutions are designed with an apsychological conception of motivation. I tend to think of the concept of revealed preference as apsychological in a bad way. I might even go as far as to say there’s something apsychological with the entire construct of economic value.

The homo economicus model and revealed preference concept are also asociological, in that it removes social factors from its account of human behavior. Libertarian politics is similarly largely asociological (in addition to somewhat apsychological).

Abiological means (for example) treating biology as irrelevant to understanding why people are the way they are. To belive that family bonds are learned behavior that can be undone by collectivizing child rearing is abiological. So is believing that people like sweet, fatty foods because advertising tells them so, or that people’s sexual orientation is a product of how their parents raise them. The entire field of gender studies appear fundamentally, even aggressively, abiological. There are also abiological understandings of evolution, for example, like that it has a goal or inherent direction that goes from “lower” to “higher” life forms and there’s some “next step” in human evolution where we ascend to a “higher level of existence” or whatever bullshit.

Something aphysical eschews the need to account for physical mechanisms through which things happen. Astrology, for example, is aphysical. How does the position of Mercury in the sky possibly affect a person’s personality? Many philosophers’ conception of free will also seems to be aphysical (you could probably say that a lot of philosophy is aphysical, which frustrates me to no end).

A close cousin is achemical, which is, you guessed it, uniformed by chemistry when it shouldn’t be. Most people’s understanding of cooking, for example, is achemical. It still works fine as a set of behavioral rules though. In medicine it’s worse, where stuff like homeopathy is achemical in a destructive way.

The linguistic deck is stacked against aaesthetic (aaësthetic?) but I’ll try. It doesn’t mean ugly, it just means unconcerned with or oblivious to the aesthetic dimension of things (“utilitarian” sometimes means this). Or possibly just aggressively mundane and unromantic. Far too many graphical user interfaces, public transport systems and office environments are aaesthetic, for example. Times New Roman is the most aaesthetic of typefaces. I hate how aeasthetic most road signs and street lights are. You could even say I’m emotionally repulsed by the aaesthetic, which is costly when I do things like remodel the house, because every little detail needs to be given attention and consideration. Speaking of that, do not get me started on how frustratingly aaesthetic electrical wiring and outlets always are.

The aeconomic lacks any grounding in economic principles. The anarchist who lived next to me when I was a student relayed to me a worldview that came off as completely aeconomic. The idea (once uttered by a semi-fringe Swedish politician) that “there’s enough money in society already, it just has to be distributed more equally” is pretty aeconomic. Similary, the conception of society in Star Trek is suspiciously aeconomic, which explains why they avoid discussing it in detail.

Speaking of that, I’ve also noticed that often (more often than before?) mainstream science fiction shows and movies (e.g. Star Wars and Star Trek) seems to have not been written by actual science fiction writers because they are disturbingly and annoyingly aastronomical (as a Swedish person I cannot accept aästronomical). By aastronomical I mean an apparent lack of understanding and consideration of the scale and nature of space, like how big a galaxy is, how far apart stars and planets are, how fast light and information travels compared to this and that you can’t actually see a different star system in real time etc. Often it doesn’t just apprear to be a case of missing some specific knowledge, but rather that being at all able to make a certain kind of mistake reveals a fundamental lack of cultivated intuition about space and scale[3]. Yes, you can have tech that circumvents this but you need to know and show that you have some tech to do it. It’s like how you make mistakes in foreign languages you wouldn’t make in your mother tongue.

Perhaps a little controversially[4], saying things like “tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable”, “you can’t end a sentence with a preposition” or “it’s ‘data are’ not ‘data is'” is alinguistic, because these convictions result from a lack understanding of the fundamentals of what language is, how it really works, and how it changes over time.

Finally, many beliefs are aphilosophical in that they’re unexamined by philosophical analysis. Moral and political convictions are typicallly aphilosophical and far too many scientists, engineers, doctors and lawyers take an aphilosophical approach to their work. The purely instrumental is aphilosophical, and so is the dogmatic.

There are certainly more of these, and my selection probably reveals a lot about which perspectives I think are unjustifiably ignored. I encourage everyone to come up with their own suggestions.

• • •

Notes

[1]
I.e. “wrongly not taking history into account” is a cat coupling, albeit not spelled out in this case.

[2]
The word “apolitical” does also exist, but it doesn’t mean the same thing as “ahistorical” does with regard to history. It’s usually not a criticism. Rather, people say it about themselves or things they support, likely because “political” in most cases doesn’t mean “informed by political knowledge”, but “with political motivation or implication”. If that meaning wasn’t there, hogging the space, we could use apolitical to mean “lacking in political understanding”.

[3]
There’s a similar aphysicality in some (supposed) science fiction where the writers appear to lack intuition for basic things like conservation of mass.

[4]
Sure, you might understand language but still insist on some of these rules because not all language change is an improvement. I do think alinguistic reasoning is often a major factor.

10 thoughts on “Ahistorical Siblings

  1. Apolitical?

    A stance which is widely touted as, ironically, political.

    Another casualty of libertarianism emerging out of the enlightenment era. Carl Schmitt had a lot to say about this. Libertarianism encourages political apathy, leaves people politically uninformed and derides attachment to any religious, political or national identity. Instead, it pushes for global consumerism

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  2. I think you might be getting hung up on ahistorical as somehow being directly related History, as in the formal study of history, such as by people in a History department at a university. I interpret ahistorical to not be closely related to the formal study of History in that sense at all, but basically someone ignoring the path-dependent evolution of a topic or the perhaps the history of that specific topic. Using this definition (or not so much definition, but context for the definition) I think ahistorical is a lot broader of a concept and makes more sense.

    That being said, I actually really like some of the other terms you mentioned, specifically achemical. Too many of my relatives are against “Chemicals” as if “natural” products aren’t made of chemicals too. And many natural things are incredibly toxic, this is where having a suitable baseline of knowledge and proper context is critical.

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    1. I don’t think I’m necessarily hung up on that, I mean “history” in a broad sense similarly to how you mean it. I guess I equivocated a bit between “field of study”, “discipline” and “area/form/topic of knowledge”, which are admittedly distinct. But I think psychological/economic/chemical/aesthetic perspectives in general can be compared to historical perspective, broadly.

      Agreed about many people’s understanding of substances being achemical in ways that lead to some bad beliefs.

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  3. Yeah, it’s interesting to compare “ahistorical” to “anachronistic”: if I call something anachronistic in Hamilton, say, that’s compatible with the thing being a conscious aesthetic choice, but if I call it ahistorical instead, then I’m saying it betrays a lack of understanding.

    Also, this ancient Greek prefix gets an n- when it precedes a vowel (as in anarchy, anonymous, etc.), so you’d have “anastronomical” and “anaesthetic” (LOL), which do sound better. Also, you could have “anethical” (not taking ethics into account), which I’m sure would promptly become confused with “unethical” just like “amoral” and “immoral” are confused with each other. 😀

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  4. “the conception of society in Star Trek is suspiciously aeconomic…”

    Explaining what happened after replicator technology effectively eliminated material scarcity is something the shows could have had a lot of fun with.

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  5. “not all language change is an improvement”

    THANK YOU.

    (Tying in another of your points: I often hear recent changes in language defended as “its evolution”, with the implication that denotes betterment.)

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  6. Illogical? Illiterate? I’d suggest there could be a myriad additional examples but that argument might be considered innumerate.

    Perhaps this is all rhetorical, or an act of sophistry?

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