Saturday 7 December 2013

Particulars and Universals

Reflecting a bit on the conversation recently about probability, emergence and ‘black swan’ events. I encountered an idea put forward by Soren Kierkegaard (and, probably a few others) about history. Now, I’ve never really considered the philosophy of history, probably because I am, at heart, a physical scientist, but this seemed to hit a chord when it comes to wargaming.

Firstly, of course, Kierkegaard (translated, his surname means ‘churchyard’, which is interesting in a sort of random way), is one of those philosophers of the western canon who is very hard to categorize. There is even an argument as to whether or not he was a philosopher at all, rather than a theologian, or just a pain old writer of some interesting stuff. Actually, so far as I know, theologians treat him a bit like an unexploded bomb, as well. So he is rather a difficult bloke to get a grip of.

Fortunately, for the purposes of this post, I do not need to grapple with the complexities of the authorship, his view of Hegel’s thought and the Danish Golden Age. I do not even have to deal with Kierkegaard’s actual view of irony and its use in industrial Europe. But he does have a certain view of the history of irony which I would like to make use of here.

Effectively, Kierkegaard criticises Hegel for his view of the history of irony for being too conceptual. He also praises Hegel for not focussing too much on the particulars of the history of irony, as Hegel’s predecessors did, at least according to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s view, thus, is that you need both the particulars, in this case an understanding of Socrates, Athens of the period when he was active, the thought of the ancient Greek world, the historical context against which Socrates spoke, came to trial and was executed, and so on. But you also need the conceptual, the universal, by which he means an understanding of the idea of irony which Socrates used.

 Kierkegaard’s point against Hegel was that he rushed too quickly from the particular circumstances of Socrates to the universal conception of irony, that Hegel did not spend enough effort actually grappling with ancient Greece and its world of thought before generalising.

Now, this is not the place to delve into the question of whether Kierkegaard was right or not. Whole tomes have been written on the subject, even though, as I hinted a little above, Kierkegaard is regarded as being a bit of an oddball in western philosophy. In my view (for what little it is worth), Kierkegaard has a lot going for him and is becoming one of my favourite really annoying philosophers of the moment. After all, you do not read philosophers with whom you agree, as that is intellectually flabby. Read the ones with whom you have a beef and explain why you disagree.

But I digress.

Anyway, these concepts of the particular and the universal seem to me to have a bearing on the discussion of probability, emergence and black swan events. All we have in history is a series of events, more or less well known, more or less well interpreted by our current historiographical tools. However, as humans and, perhaps, more specifically, as wargamers, we are conscious that a particular series of events is contingent, perhaps we might say radically contingent (the word ‘radical’ being very popular nowadays).

So, in Kierkegaard’s terms we have something that is particular, the stream of events of, say, a battle. We also know that this stream of events is contingent, in that it could have happened differently. For example, if Prince Rupert had not retired to his coach for supper immediately before Parliament attacked at Marston Moor, his right may not have caved in quite so quickly. We would then have a different battle, as indeed we would if the pistol ball which wounded Cromwell had been an inch or so further over.

As wargamers, however, we rely on abstractions from these contingent events. These are the concepts, the universals which we include in our rules, which we pepper our history and games with. Thus, as was pointed out in the discussion, we prefer rules which evolve modestly, which are not peppered with totally disruptive black swans. And it is here that the distinction between the universal and particular starts to bite.

We only have the one stream of history to deal with, the one set of particular events which make up a battle, a war, a series of wars for which we wish to write a single set of rules. We have to determine, within that set of particular events, which are the concepts we are going to use for our rules. Which of the events are reasonable, sensible, are not going to upset players of the game, and so on.

Some rule sets decide to incorporate as much of the particular as possible. A battle was lost because the troops ran out of water? Incorporate it in the rules: troops in hot weather in dry places suffer such and such a penalty if they are more than x moves from water. Is this, really, a sensible abstraction to a universal rule of war? I am unconvinced.

Such examples could be multiplied, but I will not bother here. You can, I am sure, supply copious examples of your own, or, perhaps, I have just had a tendency to buy that sort of rule set. Anyway, in my experience, such particular rules are usually wisely ignored by the players, and only go to thicken up the rule book, make the rules more complex (how often, after all, do you need to read ‘-1 if thirsty’?) and show off the writer’s historical erudition, if not their ability to decide what is important conceptually.

This is, then, I think the crux of the matter. Given a single set of events, how can we sensibly decide which of them are concepts, universals, for inclusion in the rule set, and which are the oddball, unusual, specific events which need not be covered? And, I suppose, how do we spot the real black swan ones? My hunch is that the two latter would be claimed as ‘scenario specific’ items. But how do we tell, really?


  1. I prefer to roll black swan events into the dice without explaining why or even what unlikely event just happened. If the rules tightly control the range of possible results you won't tend to get any while if they rules allow too random a range, they will happen all the time.

    an example, When puttering away on home rules for the "horse and musket" era, one of my test events is the rout of the French Guards by the English Guards at Fontenoy. We have some idea of what happened physically but not really why (eyewitness accounts are contradictory and not clear enugh) as so often the morale impact of the events is in the realm of speculation. It was a rare event in life and one by most rule sets should not happen unless you perhaps you downgrade the French guard to rabble while telling the player they are the best troops in his army or by introducing a special scenario rule.

    Attempts to have it possible but not likely have been a real challenge for me however, there is a venerable old rule set from the 60's, "Charge!", that does it organically and simply. Infantry roll a 6 sided die for each 8 figures with the score indicating the number of 'hits' 2 full regiments facing each other at close range in the ooen, as was the case at Fontenoy, will on average inflict around 21 casualties on each other but it could be as low as 6 which will have negligible effect or as high as 36 which would rout the enemy. (or anywhere inbetween). I'll leave it to a statistician to work out the odds of rolling a total of greater than 30 on 6 dice especially at the same time that the enemy rolls really low. Suffice it to say that it doesn't happen often but the possibility looms in your mind every time you trade fire at close range.

    The fly in some people's ointment is that there is no explanation of why the result occurred ( a bit like real life), little player control (other than not standing in the open and not attacking) and under the rules, in an historical refight, it could just as well be the British Guards which are shattered (the historically expected result).
    Looking at the broad picture over centuries of warfare it does reflect the old military saying "s*it happens".

    1. I suppose that some of the problems arise from something of a lack of finesse in our normal dice rolls. Real life has many more than six or thirty-six possible outcomes. throwing more and more dice will tend to average out, but can also, as you note, throw up the occasional outlying result.

      It seems to me that there are various parties lying behind the 'explanation' and 'ignorance' camp. Some seem to want complete control of the battlefield (c.f. Chris' comments on Taylor's rules the other week) and some will accept more easily the 'wild card' outcomes. I guess that this is simply a case of an individual outlook or preferance.