Saturday 25 January 2014

The Two Blades

In the philosophy of science, there is a concept of having two blades to attack any given problem with. The first blade, normally considered to be the lower one, is empirical data. By this we mean the stuff experimenters generate. The upper blade is theory, the results of what Galileo described as the ‘mathematization of nature’ (I am sure it is more elegant in Latin).

So, for example, the concept of the Higgs boson was from the upper blade, that is, it was a theoretical construct, derived from a mathematical model of the universe, or some small (or very small, in this case) part of it. The lower blade required the construction of an extremely large, expensive and complex experiment at CERN, the efforts of hundreds of scientists and engineers and a good deal of media coverage.

Fortunately for all involved, the two blades met and a bit of the model of the universe was verified, to cheers and mutual backslapping all around and the dishing out of Nobel prizes to everyone.

Science, however, is a bit more complex than that. For example, the derivation of the theoretical model of the Higgs boson was based on the standard model of sub-atomic particles, which had been experimentally verified, in smaller but still hugely complex experiments, which were based on theories which in turn were based on experiments. And so on, back to Aristotle dropping stones and noting that they all fell downwards.

Of course, there are oddities and unexplained phenomena abounding in science. The fact is that these anomalies tend to be parked on a shelf until there is the interest and resource available to investigate them. I am, in fact, the proud possessor of such an anomaly, although I do not expect that anyone is going to be interested enough to try to resolve it in the next century or so. However, it is still there, in the literature, should anyone be interested enough to give it a go.

History, too, could be suggested to have this twin blade effect. We do have historical data, in the forms of documents and artefacts from past times. For example, we have Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon. We also have some archaeology from the site of the battle, we have some bits of accounts of the paintings in Athens of the battle, possible a few Persian like objects from Delphi, and so on. Data is in existence, it just is not very complete.

We also have a set of expectations about humanity in general. We know, for example, that soldiers need to eat, and so some provision needs to be made for this. We also know that horses need feeding as well, and are rather less good at not eating for a cause than humans are. Thus, theoretically, we have our upper blade. The Persian army at Marathon needed feeding, as did the cavalry which was present. This leads to constraints on the numbers of horses that could be present, and also on where the cavalry camp was positioned in order to provide grazing. Furthermore, of course, humans can carry their own water; it is better if horses are led to it.

Thus, the two blades of history start to close a bit. The data gives us, working upwards, as set of possibilities for what happened. How we interpret this data is constrained by how reliable we think the writer is, how close to the action, how likely to be misinformed, and so on. Similarly, artefacts, while useful, can be misleading. However, these items form the lower blade. The upper one is constrained by our outlooks as historians. So, for example, I mentioned before Christopher Hill who would have us believe that the English Civil War was a result of class conflict. Well, maybe, but if that is our perspective as a historian, it will colour how the data lands up in our writing. Not that I am accusing anyone of dishonesty, it is just that a given perspective will inform how the data is interpreted.

Of course, as wargamers, we are not quite so interested in how history is done. We would like historians to give us orders of battle for different armies, detailed investigations about weapons and so on. Unfortunately, we are more likely to get another article about homosexuality in Greek antiquity than Alexander’s campaigns in India. The Academy simply is not interested in the nuts and bolts of warfare.

As rules writers and consumers, of course, this gives us a bit of a dilemma. We have some older works, the upper blade of which is assumptions common to the time about history, imperialism, civilisation and so on. The lower blade is pretty much what we have, barring a few manuscripts and archaeological finds.

Thus, while we can make our rules on this basis, some of the core interpretations might not square well with modern interpretations of what happened. Our rules might reflect some of the older assumptions, such as the Romans were the good guys and brought civilisation to much of Europe, or even that the pilum was a super weapon, a cross between a longbow and a machine gun.

So, as wargamers and wargame rule writers, we are forced back towards examining our own assumptions about history, and how they might form the upper blade of our historical analysis. To be sure, so single synthesis will cover all the historical contingencies of the real world. Some bits, as with some results of science, will simply have to be shelved until the next new concept comes along to provide an interpretation. But, in the world of wargamers in Western liberal democracies we need to examine some of the assumptions that underlie our own worldview.

Just as an example, it is common in history just now to talk more about the common people and their experience than the elite. In wargaming terms, does this mean that the rabble is given more power than the historical record allows, because we have picked up a prejudice in their favour? The original writers of chronicles and accounts would have been elite, after all, and biased against the rabble. Have we over compensated?


  1. Good analogy. The lower blade means little without the upper blade - a relative of mine, years ago, worked as a student on a dig at the battlefield of Prestonpans, and they found a pile of stuff, including a surprising number of Bic pen tops and a frisbee. Without an informed upper blade of understanding of the period, these might have led to some radical changes in our idea of the battle.

    The upper blade - in the absence of hard evidence - is where the crazy stuff can self-propagate. It's a balancing act.

    As for overcompensation, we can't move for the stuff. That's why every TV documentary series about Napoleon's campaigns has to have one complete instalment devoted to his sexual habits, and where Josephine got her hair cut. I recently visited Denbigh Castle, and was interested to note that the (very expensive) visitor information set up is almost exclusively aimed at primary school parties, describing what life was like for the ordinary people in medieval times, what the kitchens would have smelt like etc. All well and good, but I had to go to the town library to find anything substantial on the actual history of the place. Most odd.

    1. Ah, yes, the crazies. That is the problem with the 'upper blade', of course, such as the ideas that Roman legionaries were Roman, ECW musketeers carried rests and that pikemen could fight in woods.

      History from below is terribly popular, these days. Unfortunately, it seems to miss the point that history from above affects the below. I guess the pendulum will swing again. The academy, whatever else it may bem, is a dedicated follower of fashion.

  2. As someone who has recently returned to the academy, and found it a changed place than the last time I went to grad school in the 1980s, I would say that we probably have overcompensated. It seems to be the case that in the absence of grand theories or ideas of historical progression, history is now largely done in micro-slices. Twenty five years of post-structuralist, feminist, and Foucauldian-inspired theory mean that deviance, subversion, resistance, and underclasses are the default modes of inquiry for many academics. That's not to say that all history of interest to war gamers is bad or unhelpful, but one has to know where to look. The situation is not helped by popular history at the other end of the pendulum, where books about how X saved Y (how the Irish saved civilization, how the Germans saved sausage, etc) still seem to fill shelves at the mass-market bookstores.
    As a final thought, one of the laments I hear on the academic nets, such as MilHNet, is that military history as a discipline is a dying speciality in universities. This may be an exaggeration, but Is suspect that this sub-discipline will be relegated to military think tanks and certain centres at select universities, or to specialized networks such as the synthesis between, say, Civil War historians in the US and the National Parks Service.

    1. I am often surprised as to how far post-modernism (etc) has penetrated into history, as it seems to suggest that nothing can really be said about it. As someone trained in the sciences, it seems to me that some of this stuff is simply sawing off the branch upon which the subject is sitting.

      I think that military history has simply got an image problem. it was re-invented in the 1980's as the study of the formation of early modern states, but that was of little help to the wargamer. Our culture is probably swinging very anti-military at present. I suspect that you are right, and it will become even more a specialism, relegated to obscure places or viewed as an offshoot of political and international studies (and hence ignored by historians).