Monday, September 28, 2020

Marc Bloch's phenomenology

Marc Bloch's Historian's Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It is challenging to read, in part because it is not exactly what it seems to be. The English title suggests it is a handbook of sorts on the art and practice of historical research. But this is not quite right. In fact, the suggestion is partly the result of an unfortunate choice by the translator; the French title Apologie pour l'histoire, ou Métier d'historien might with equal justice be translated as "A discourse on history: The historian's calling". It is not a finished manuscript, as Lucien Febvre explains in a preface to the English edition. But it is certainly not organized as a treatise on methods. Instead, it is an extended reflection by Marc Bloch about his own thought processes as a creative, imaginative historical researcher. It includes many examples from Bloch's own research as a medieval historian, and it illustrates the ways in which he interrogates and contextualizes these "tracks" of medieval historical life.

Throughout the text Bloch questions some of the most basic assumptions that both historians and educated readers often make about the past -- periods, social systems, the significance of centuries (twelfth century, nineteenth century history); historical categories such as serfs and servitude; and many other fascinating assumptions that are shattered by Bloch's careful dissection of the examples he considers.

I am inclined to think of this book as a "phenomenology" of the practice of historical research -- a careful, detailed reflection on the particular thought-processes and question-posing that Bloch undertakes in investigating a particular historical problem. It is analogous to the reflections of a great biologist, reflecting upon and analyzing her efforts over decades to solve empirical puzzles in the laboratory and in the field, and to make sense of the phenomena under study. It is as if Darwin had used his notebooks to reveal to the reader the thought processes through which he arrived at various fundamental ideas of the theory of evolution. Brilliant!

The intellectual activities that Bloch illustrates through his phenomenological self-reflection are both "skills", learned through the training associated with becoming a historian, and "creative acts", exercised by an innovative and intelligent inquirer who is probing history to uncover some of its processes, mechanisms, and anomalies. Here is just one small example:

  • I have before me a Roman funerary inscription, carved from a single block, made for a single purpose. Yet nothing could be more variegated than the evidences which there await the probing of the scholar’s lancet. (145)

And Bloch proceeds to identify the numerous angles we can take on understanding and situating this inscription: linguistic, beliefs, political history, economics and trade, …

Some of the particularly important topics that Bloch considers in the later chapters of the book include: identifying and evaluating historical evidence; arriving at appropriate and useful historical concepts and classifications; making appropriate selections of aspects and topics for study within the infinite texture of the past; and synthesizing the phenomena that have been studied into comprehensible statements about the past.

On the topic of historical evidence Bloch is especially emphatic in casting doubt on the primacy of documents as sources of definitive historical truth. He discusses a number of strikingly contemporary issues -- the perennial possibility of lies and deception, the cognitive limits of direct participants and observers, the common fact of "fake news" and rumors (yes, he was concerned with fake news!), and the likelihood that some of the documents one considers are deliberate fabrications. The "critical methods" of historians of the previous several generations are specific and logical techniques for evaluating the truthfulness of documents: comparing with other documents, considering spelling and orthography, considering the paper and ink of the document, and considering the consistency of dates and persons mentioned in the documents. Documents certainly have their role in the "epistemics" of historical knowledge. But Bloch emphasizes that many other sources of historical knowledge are equally valuable from an epistemic point of view: monuments, place names, urban geography, excavations, and garbage dumps. All these sources can provide the historian with important traces of the social and economic realities of the past.

But Bloch suggests that these problems concerning historical evidence are less difficult than a second group of problems confronted by the historian, the problem of arriving at a vocabulary for classifying and analyzing the past. He emphasizes that the use of familiar concepts can seriously mislead the historical researcher. The familiar concept may involve the importation of background assumptions that are profoundly misleading about the social and institutional realities of the past. His example of “family law” (148 ff.) is illustrative.

Take the family — whether it be a question of the small matrimonial family of today in a state of perpetual expansion and contraction or of the great medieval house, that community consolidated by such a lasting network of feelings and interests … (148)

These two instances are dramatically different, and the historian needs to reflect upon these differences. The "family" is not the same social entity or arrangement in the two settings. Bloch makes a similar point about the names of things that are used in historical documents. For example, he comments on the use of "aratrum" ("unwheeled plow") and "farruca" ("wheeled plow") (159), a pair of terms whose use is often confused in medieval documents and is highly consequential for anyone studying technological change in agriculture. Likewise, he comments upon the changing associations that the Latin term "servus" has had, leading eventually to the French term "serf" (159). Bloch notes that similar language implies similar social realities, but that this is fundamentally misleading in this case; “the differences between the serves of ancient Rome and the serf of the France of St. Louis far outnumber the similarities” (160). 

Another set of concerns in a similar vein bridge between language and social ontology, when Bloch underlines the problem of identifying large social systems in history. 

Even among historians, custom tends to confuse the two expressions, “feudal system” and “seigneurial system,” in the most troublesome manner. This is arbitrarily to equate the complex of dependent ties characteristic of a warrior aristocracy with a type of peasant subjection which not only was very different by nature but had arisen very much earlier, lasted much longer, and was far more widespread throughout the world. (171)

Bloch also casts doubt on the historian's common predilection for identifying distinctive historical periodization, presupposing a qualitative and substantively important difference between the activities, processes, and institutions of the distinct periods. Against this presupposition he shows that “the Middle Ages” and the “Renaissance” are arbitrary constructions. Here is what he has to say about the "Middle Ages":

In truth, the term “Middle Age” has no more than a humble pedagogical function, as a debatable convenience for school curriculums, or as a label for erudite techniques whose scope is moreover ill-defined by the traditional dates. A medievalist is a man who knows how to read old scripts, to criticize a charter, to understand Old French. Unquestionably that is something. It is certainly not enough to satisfy a real science in its search for accurate periodization. 181

Even centuries are a misleading historical construct. There is no distinctive historical content or explanatory importance in the designation of "eighteenth-century culture" or "twelfth-century urbanization"; the fact that an event or process occurred between 1700 and 1799 is completely irrelevant from an explanatory point of view.

These kinds of observations add up to a theory of “cognition of historical reality”, or what we might call a “philosophy of historical language”.

Careful re-reading of The Historian's Craft makes it seem that the real importance and significance of Bloch's book have not been fully understood. The book deserves a monograph of its own, to unpack the many threads of commentary that are relevant to the philosophy of history today. The book is a rich expression of the intelligence and mental processes of this great historian. It is an important contribution to the philosophy of history, and to the philosophy of language in the context of historical analysis.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Marc Bloch's philosophy of history

Marc Bloch wrote The Historian's Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. after the defeat of France in 1940. The title suggests that the book is a "how-to" manual for doing historical research, authored by one of the great historians of the twentieth century. But this would be to misunderstand the book. It is something better, more ambitious, and more important than a "users' guide" to becoming a historian. Instead, it is a thoughtful, innovative historian reflecting on fundamental questions in what we can correctly describe as a philosophy of history. It is a reflective book that considers and reflects upon some of the great historians of France and Belgium, often praising but also often criticizing and correcting.

Bloch begins with a fundamental question: what is history? And of course, this is not an easy question to answer. Is history no more nor less than "the past" -- everything that happened? This is not a particularly informative answer. Or more selectively, is history the sequence of important events, kingdoms, leaders, wars and revolutions, inventions, literary innovations, all set within a chronological framework? Even more abstractly, is history the study of great epochs -- feudalism, ancient Rome, the absolutist French state, the Industrial Revolution?

Bloch does not like any of these answers to the fundamental question. Instead, he offers a simple answer of his own: history is "human beings in time". He chooses this answer for several reasons. History is not simply "temporal sequence"; rather, it is the actions, creations, meanings, and life experiences of concrete human beings. Further, human beings are themselves historically conditioned; medieval serfs were different in deep ways from American farmers or contract software coders. They are different, in particular, in their mentalities, their mental frameworks through which they understand themselves and their relations to others. These differences are profound; they involve differences in beliefs, dispositions, ways of framing the world, attitudes towards neighbors, strangers, the gods, and their families. Their "histories" have shaped them into different sorts of human beings.

So for Bloch, the study of history is the study of individuals and groups in social settings in the past, striving, interpreting, and cooperating or competing with each other. Further, it is the study of some of the practices, structures, institutions, belief systems, and inventions that emerged from these forms of human action and interaction. There is no fundamental break between "the past" and "the present" -- rather, human beings and their actions and social relations create and propel change, whether in the year 1000 or the year 1940. And distinctively, Bloch underlines the fact that human actions influence the physical environment; for example, the silting of the river port of Bruges changed the nature of water-born commerce in that great market town.

If human beings and their actions are the key stuff of history, then Bloch is also dismissive of the importance of traditional "periods" of history. Periods are created by historians, not by the ebb and flow of historical events themselves. In Bloch's view of history, change is of fundamental interest to the historian; words change their meanings, place names change, patterns of habitation change, social relationships change, and it is a central task of the historian to chart and seek to understand these various processes of change.

Also of special interest are the creations of human beings throughout our histories. Ideas and ideologies; religious beliefs; social practices; technologies and scientific methods; social structures; and even wars and revolutions are all creations of human beings that the historian is especially interested in probing and investigating.

Bloch links the past and the present in an especially intimate way. The historian needs to be deeply immersed in the ordinary processes and activities of the present, if he or she is going to be ready to understand the actions and thoughts of the actors of the past. Bloch's own experiences of war in 1917 and 1940 provided him with forms of knowledge and understanding that enhanced his ability to understand the medieval world.

Another key question posed by Bloch is whether history is "useful". Can we "learn from history"? Can the study of history improve our chances for a happy and peaceful future? Bloch's view is that the central value and use of history is its intellectual interest for us as human beings, and the significance we human beings attach to our histories. We are historical beings, in the sense that we understand ourselves in terms of the stories and narratives we tell about ourselves. We understand ourselves in the present in terms of the ways that we have constructed and interpreted the steps of human action and meaning that led us to this point. So the key values of history include the intellectual interest we take in understanding the past and the meanings we create for ourselves by discovering and interpreting aspects of our history.

We want to understand the past. And in fact, this is what Bloch regards as the central challenge for the scientific historian: to understand and explain aspects of the past. Historians should discover the pathways and causes through which various historical features came to be. Why did the actors behave as they did in the circumstances? What were they trying to accomplish? What social structures or circumstances influenced their choices, and thereby caused some aspects of the outcomes we are interested in?

Bloch's philosophy of history is an inclusive and open-ended one. He encourages the historian to be multidisciplinary; not confined by periods or places; not focused on "great events and great persons: and to focus historical research on the circumstances of ordinary human beings. His approach is a "human-centered history". And of particular importance, Bloch argues for a wide range of kinds of evidence that are relevant to historical inquiry. He doubts the privileged position of "contemporary documents and narratives," and points as well to the value of non-text sources of historical insight -- ruins, inscriptions, monuments, archeological discoveries, place names, and other apparently mundane and unremarkable "markers" of historical meaning.

Bloch was a founder, along with Lucien Febvre, of the Annales school of historical writing and research. It is not surprising that The Historian's Craft captures eloquently some of the most important and innovative commitments of the Annales school in this important testament of the great historian.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Uyghurs and cultural genocide

In the last several weeks I've been thinking a lot about the twentieth century and its unimaginable crimes against humanity on an almost inconceivable scale. The Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the mass starvation of prisoners of war, the executions and murders of vast numbers of innocent people; the reckless, unbounded cruelty of totalitarian states against their own citizens and innocent people who fell within their grasp; and largely, the world's indifference and willful ignorance of these state-authored crimes while they were underway. These are nightmares from the twentieth century, and a central thrust of the posts in the past two months has been the urgent need for honest, careful study of these periods of human history. (Quite a long time ago I wrote a post called "Koestler's nightmares" that described Arthur Koestler's personal integrity in trying to see and record honestly the horrors that surrounded him in the 1930s; link. Here was my summary opinion of Koestler: "I am drawn to Koestler's writings -- both his fiction and his autobiographical writings -- in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to "understand society" -- to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.")

We might like to think that deliberate state policies to extinguish a whole ethnic population within its borders is thankfully a thing of the terrible past. But today the world is forced to contemplate the systematic and brutal efforts the Chinese government is making to subdue, confine, and reduce the Muslim population of western China, the Uyghurs. Using mass surveillance, forced sterilization, confinement in "reeducation camps", and other tools of repression, the Chinese government is engaged in an all-out effort to suppress the Uyghur population of Xinjiang. This campaign has been called a policy of "cultural genocide" -- an effort to erase the culture and identity of this people. Sean Roberts' forthcoming book The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority promises to provide a great deal of detail about China's illegal campaign of persecution against its Muslim citizens. (Here is an interview with Roberts in The Diplomat (link).)

Human Rights Watch curated a major report on the war against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in 2018 (link). Here is a haunting summary:
This report presents new evidence of the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and details the systemic and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life there. These rampant abuses violate fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, and protections from torture and unfair trials. More broadly, governmental controls over day-to-day life in Xinjiang primarily affect ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities, in violation of international law’s prohibitions against discrimination.
Mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment; pervasive controls on daily life; violation of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy ... these are horrific conclusions by a world-respected voice in support of human rights worldwide. And their conclusions are supported by interviews and other direct empirical evidence.

A few lines later the report provides more summary devastating observations:
The human rights violations in Xinjiang today are of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The establishment and expansion of political education camps and other abusive practices suggest that Beijing’s commitment to transforming Xinjiang in its own image is long-term.
It is also evident that China does not foresee a significant political cost to its abusive Xinjiang campaign. Its global influence has largely spared it from public criticism. And its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council means that it can deflect international action, whether sanctions imposed by the council or criminal prosecutions brought at the International Criminal Court, to which China is not a party.
This is a detailed, rigorous, and evidence-based report about China's "Strike Hard Campaign". It presents a devastating picture of China's brutal repression of Uyghur people.

Since 2018 it has been widely reported that China holds at least one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslim people in detention and re-education camps (link). In February 2019 Freedom House issued a joint appeal calling for urgent investigation of these reports, representing 19 human rights organizations around the world (link). Here are the opening paragraphs of that appeal:
We, a diverse set of human rights and civil society organizations, urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently adopt a resolution establishing an international fact-finding mission to investigate credible allegations that up to one million Turkic Muslims are being arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps across Xinjiang, a region in northwest China.
Over recent months, UN officials, human rights organizations, and independent journalists have painted an alarming picture of the conditions endured by ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. According to these reports, the Chinese authorities have detained people outside any legal process in “political education” camps for their perceived disloyalty to the government and Chinese Communist Party. In these camps they are subjected to forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and in some cases torture. They are denied contact with family members.
It is important to notice what is in common between this twenty-first century war against a large ethnic minority and those of the 1930s and 1940s: an all-powerful authoritarian state with ample ability to impose its will against powerless men, women, and children within its reach. Like Stalin's Soviet Union, China today is an authoritarian communist state. But it is its authoritarianism and unrestrained single-party rule rather than its communism that fosters its lawless treatment of the Uyghur minority. Communism has little meaning in China today. But authoritarian rule is alive and well. The regime has political goals, and there are virtually no limits on its use of the power of the state in pursuit of those goals. In some ways its powers of repression are greater than those available to Stalin or Hitler -- constant electronic and video surveillance, control of the internet, inspection of communications and social media, .... Crimes against humanity and repression of its own people are the result. The Chinese state is not murdering the Uyghurs in vast numbers; but it is repressing and controlling them in a completely remorseless, tyrannical, and purposeful way. It is endeavoring to extinguish the culture, freedoms, and identity of this minority population. The world must take notice.

The Human Rights Watch report quoted above closes with detailed recommendations to the Chinese government, other governments, and businesses and non-profits that have relationships in Xinjiang. Here are the recommendations from Human Rights Watch to the Chinese government:

To the Government of the People’s Republic of China
  • Close immediately all political education camps in Xinjiang, and release all individuals held;
  • Cease immediately the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang, including the “fanghuiju” teams, “Becoming Family” and other compulsory programs aimed at surveilling and controlling Turkic Muslims;
  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and culture to ensure that Turkic Muslims are able to engage in peaceful activities and raise concerns and criticisms;
  • Impartially investigate Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other senior officials implicated in alleged abusive practices associated with the Strike Hard Campaign, and appropriately hold those responsible to account;
  • Review all cases of those detained or imprisoned on state security, terrorism, or extremism charges and drop all wrongful charges, and seek fair retrials in cases in which those convicted did not receive trials that met international due process standards;
  • Suspend the collection and use of biometrics in Xinjiang until there is a national and comprehensive law that protects people’s privacy; delete biometric and related data that has already been collected under current policies;
  • Refrain from the collection and use of biometrics unless according to law and demonstrated as necessary and proportionate for legitimate government aims;
  • Cease the operation of the big data program, Integrated Joint Operations Platform;
  • Return immediately passports to Xinjiang residents and cease the policy of recalling passports;
  • Stop pressuring Turkic Muslims abroad to return or collecting information about them. Stop pressuring host governments to forcibly return Turkic Muslim nationals abroad unless pursuant to an extradition request for legitimate law enforcement purposes;
  • Provide prompt and adequate compensation, including medical and psychological care, for people arbitrarily detained and mistreated under the Strike Hard Campaign; and
  • Grant access to Xinjiang as requested by several United Nations special procedures.
These recommendations have direct parallels with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China is a signatory to the UDHR and participates in United Nations human rights organizations; but it shows little evidence of conforming its behavior to the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his review of Ann Kent's China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance Greg Moore offers a very careful summary of China's history of relationships with the United Nations and international human rights regimes; link. This 2012 Chatham House report by Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin provides insight into China's relationship to the UN human rights regime; link.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Mass murder in the borderlands

The facts of mass murder in eastern Europe in the 1930s through the 1950s are simply too horrific to fully absorb. These decades include the mass killings of millions of Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi state and military and their collaborators in territories they conquered in eastern Europe -- the Holocaust. And they include the murder by Stalin and the deliberate policies of the Soviet state of further millions of peasants, Poles, and other ethnic minority populations in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states -- the Holodomor. Anne Applebaum's recent Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine chronicles Stalin's war of starvation against the small farmers of the Ukraine and the deaths by hunger of almost four million people, the Holodomor. Applebaum's Gulag: A History provides a vivid and horrific account of the story of Stalin's prison camps and labor camps where his regime sent millions of "class enemies" to labor and often to die (link).

An earlier post discussed Tim Snyder's 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which treats the almost unlimited mass killings of eastern Europe. Alexander Prusin's 2010 book The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992 treats roughly the same region over a longer time period (1870-1992), largely the same regimes of killing, and a somewhat different historiographic orientation.

Prusin describes his historical methodology in these terms.
The main methodology employed in this study can be dubbed 'integral' -- namely, it neither attempts to provide a detailed description of each borderland region, nor to illuminate all political and socio-economic changes that transpired in the borderlands as a whole. Rather it intends to create a larger synthetic narrative and analytical framework that encompasses all the borderlands as a specific region, giving it the appearance of a particular zone, within a specific time-frame and across whatever arbitrary and usually quite provisional international borders that had been determined by external or internal forces. (7)
Thus Prusin (like Snyder) defines his subject matter as a region rather than a nation or collection of nations. The national borders that exist within the region are of less importance in his account than the facts of ethnic, religious, and community disparities that are evident across the region. He chooses the concept of "borderlands" to capture the region he treats.
The term 'borderlands' here is applied in a geographical rather than in an ethnographic sense and implies as a spatial concept, a zone of overlapping, co-habitation, and contact between different polities, cultures, and peoples. In comparison, the more ideological term 'frontier' would denote a fluid zone within or outside of the state-organized society, even if bounded by clearly marked political boundaries. (10)
By the turn of the twentieth century approximately 16,352,000 people lived in the borderlands, including 10,809,000 on the Russian and 5,542,000 on the Austro-Hungarian side of the border. Situated on the fringes of the empires, the borderlands were 'incomplete societies', where modernity coexisted with the outdated socio-economic structures and socio-economic inequalities coincided with ethno-cultural categories, often defined in terms of religion. (38)
Snyder emphasizes the breakdown of state institutions in these "borderland" nations as a crucial determinant of the regimes of mass killing that ensued. Prusin too looks to the states -- Germany and the USSR -- and argues that these states, and their leaders and bureaucracies of killing, were the "main instigators of violence". The two views are complementary: when intact, state institutions in Ukraine, Poland, or Lithuania had some autonomous ability to subvert or ignore the murderous policies of the Nazi and Soviet states. Once destroyed, the local impulses of lethal anti-Semitism and the organized strategies of the German military occupiers spelt doom for millions of Jews and other victims.
The Soviet and German rule in the borderlands followed the same methods of eradicating 'class-enemies' or the racially 'inferior' ethnic groups. Both states greatly facilitated internal conflicts by encouraging latent hostilities and creating an environment in which inter-communal violence was conceived as a legitimate means and could assume a genocidal character. This study, accordingly, accentuates the role of the state as the main instigator of violence. (Prusin, 5)
Here is Prusin's map of the borderlands in 1920-1939:

Snyder's map of the bloodlands picks out essentially the same region as the "borderlands" delineated by Prusin.

Image: Snyder, Bloodlands

Prusin gives a great deal of attention to the ethnic groups and relationships (as well as antagonisms) that existed across each of the national jurisdictions of these borderland nations ("the amazing heterogeneity of the borderlands"; 15), as well as the empires (Russian and Austrian, and earlier, the Ottoman) that dominated the region for a century prior to the shattering associated with the end of the Great War into the 1930s. Prusin finds that the borderlands were exceptionally violent when it came to war and largescale conflict:
The frontier wars displayed the appalling combination of extreme violence such as pogroms, massacres, the murder of prisoners of war, and collective reprisals. Violence thrived within and without clear ideology foundations and it was committed in the name of ideology as well as base human instincts. Its most disturbing aspect, and arguably its most profound cause, was that in many instances the state structure ceased to exist. (87)
Mass killings and pogroms were familiar in the borderlands. But the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 led to killings of many groups, including especially Jews, on a huge scale.
Since the mechanisms of the Holocaust in the different regions of the borderlands are discussed in numerous studies, this chapter focuses on the attitudes of the local population towards the situation of the Jews.... Local volunteers constituted a fraction of the populations in which they lived, but their involvement cut across social status, educational level, creed, and age, and entailed a variety of motives. While the political aspirations of the nationalist groups that were particularly active in the initial stages of the war diverged from the Nazi ideological objectives, their interests effectively converged in the elimination of the Jews as ideological enemies or socio-economic rivals. (150)
Writ large, Prusin's account of German invasion and occupation mirrors that of Jan Gross in Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (link). He notes, for example, that the mass executions of prisoners and class enemies committed by the Soviets as they retreated in face of the German armies were attributed to the Jews, and led to horrific reprisal mass killings of Jews. Prusin believes that the massive killings of Jews that occurred in the region were the result of the intersection of Nazi strategic aims (elimination of the Jews) and local antagonisms towards the Jewish population in these countries that could be triggered into a frenzy of mass killings.
It can be argued, however, that the combination of these factors was at the core of the pogroms. Since the annihilation of Jews was inseparable from the Nazi military and ideological preparations for the war, the invasion of the Soviet Union created a particularly murderous environment -- aptly named the 'Jedwabne state' by a prominent Polish historian -- whereby anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence were officially structured and integrated into the emerging pattern of the Holocaust. Where the Germans and Romanians did not partake directly in the pogroms, they acted as organizers and overseers, guiding and encouraging native-driven violence as long as it was directed against the specific target -- Jews. (154)
The initial period of "spontaneous" attacks on Jewish communities was followed in areas of Nazi occupation with organized systems for mass killing. These systems depended upon German leadership and organization, but also depended on large numbers of local volunteers who populated units assigned to eliminating Jews.
With the front moving eastward, the offices of the security and the Order Police commanders oversaw the reorganization of the native police forces that were to be deployed for regular duties, anti-partisan operations, and ultimately for the liquidation of Jews.... The constant shortage of German manpower was but one problem that the native auxiliaries helped resolve. As important was their ability and willingness to carry out the murder of thousands of men, women, and children, at least partially reducing the psychological stress and physical fatigue endured by the German police and security functionaries deployed in carrying out such tasks. Indeed, in any place where the 'Final Solution' was carried out, the role of the native policemen was crucial.... Some of the native police details smoothly mutated into proficient and zealous killing squads such as the notorious Arājs commando, which drove through Latvia and murdered at least 26,000 Jews." (169-170)
There is one striking topic where Prusin's book differs from Snyder's Bloodlands: the mass starvation in Ukraine in 1932-33 created by Stalin as a way of destroying "class enemies of the Soviet state" -- the Holodomor. This is a central topic in Bloodlands, but it receives no meaningful treatment in The Lands Between. Why is this? It seems as though it is a result of the way that Prusin defines his topic. Prusin's book addresses mass killing in the borderlands region; but its primary focus is on mass-killing and extermination as policies by states at war. Prusin provides detail about the wartime policies and actions of the Nazi military and the Soviet Union and Red Army in its treatment of the peoples of the Baltics, Ukraine, Poland, and the other parts of this tormented region, but the internal use of mass killing through starvation by Stalin is not part of his definition of the scope of the book -- apparently because at the time of this event, the people and territory were part of the Soviet Union. Prusin refers to a later period of famine in Ukraine caused by German military commanders (166), but he refers to the much larger Soviet famine of 1932-33 in just a single sentence: "By controlling food supplies, the state had at its disposal a powerful weapon to combat potential resistance, and in the early 1930s the Soviet government demonstrated its willingness to use this weapon to starve millions to death" (215). Here is a map of the extent of starvation in 1932-33:

The omission is perplexing. This region falls squarely within the borderlands that are the focus of Prusin's book. So why was it not part of the story that Prusin tells? Apparently simply because it was at that time a part of a powerful nation, the USSR, and not the result, directly or indirectly, of inter-state war. Ukraine was no longer a borderland but a national possession.

Prusin's book is an important contribution, and it is a good complement to Snyder's Bloodlands. In a very real sense each book sheds light that the other does not choose to discuss at all.

*    *    *

Prusin offers a quotation from Nicholai Bukharin, leading figure/victim in the Moscow show trials, that is grimly ironic eighty years later:
In the words of a prominent Soviet theoretician, Nicholai Bukharin, "however paradoxical it sounds, proletarian oppression (принуждение) in all its forms from executions to forced labour, is a method of the separating and forging the communist humankind from the capitalist epoch." (141)
So tovarishch [comrade] Bukharin, you pronounced your own death sentence under the banner of принуждение ... a term that is also translated as compulsion, coercion, constraint, duress, and forcing. In Moscow 1938 it meant a bullet in the back of the neck (link).

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Gulag

The ruthless authoritarianism and tyranny of Stalinist rule depended on a leader, a party, and a set of institutions that worked to terrorize and repress the population of the USSR. The NKVD (the system of internal security police that enforced Stalin's repression), a justice system that was embodied in the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, and especially the system of forced labor and prison camps that came to be known as the Gulag were the sharp end of the stick -- the machinery of repression through which a population of several hundred million people were controlled, imprisoned, and repressed. And, like the Nazi regime, Stalin used the slave labor of the camps to contribute to the economic output of the Soviet economy.

Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History is a detailed and honest history of the Gulag and its role in maintaining Soviet dictatorship. Here is her summary description of the Gulag:
Literally, the word GULAG is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. Over time, the word “Gulag” has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths. (13)
Here is a map of the locations of thousands of camps in the Gulag, according to the museum (link). (This site is worth visiting and exploring.) It is remarkable how many of the camps are in the borderlands or bloodlands of eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Baltic states as defined by Prusin and Snyder.

Applebaum estimates that roughly two million prisoners inhabited the camps at a time in the 1940s, and that as many as 18 million people had passed through the camps by 1953 (13). And the economic role of the Gulag was considerable:
By that time the camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. They produced a third of the country’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of almost everything else. In the course of the Soviet Union’s existence, at least 476 distinct camp complexes came into being, consisting of thousands of individual camps, each of which contained anywhere from a few hundred to many thousands of people. The prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable—logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery—and lived, in effect, in a country within a country, almost a separate civilization. (13)
Applebaum makes a crucial and important point about historical knowledge as she frames her attempt to put together the history of the Gulag: the inherent incompleteness of historical understanding and the mechanisms of overlooking and forgetting that get in the way of historical honesty. She notes that public knowledge of the camps outside the Soviet Union was available, but was de-dramatized and treated as a fairly minor part of the reality of the USSR.
Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.” (16)
The reality -- that the USSR embodied and depended upon a massive set of concentrations camps where millions of people were enslaved and killed -- was never a major part of the Western conception of the USSR. She comments, "far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror" (18), and she quotes the odious Jean-Paul Sartre, apologist for Stalinism to the end:
“As we were not members of the Party,” he once wrote, “it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of the system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” On another occasion, he told Albert Camus that “Like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.” (18)
It is interesting though not surprising to know that there were a number of major rebellions in large camps in the Gulag, which Applebaum describes in a chapter called "The Zeks' Revolution". The largest of these was the Kengir uprising in Kazakhstan. This rebellion occurred in spring 1954 (after the death of Stalin) and was put down some 40 days later by overwhelming military force, including tanks. Solzhenitsyn provided an extensive description of this uprising in the third volume of Gulag Archipelago in a chapter titled "The forty days of Kengir" (link). (Here is an analysis of the Kengir uprising by Steven Barnes in Slavic Review; link.)

Wide knowledge in the West of the scope and specific human catastrophe of the Gulag was first made available by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, first published in Russian and English in 1973. And he wrote, not as an investigative journalist, but as a former prisoner, a zek. While serving in the Red Army in 1945 Aleksandr Isayevich was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 and sentenced to eight years of forced labor. He spent the full eight years in several different camps in the Gulag, from 1945 to 1956. Following his release he lived in internal exile in Kazakhstan for several years before being pardoned by Nikita Khrushchev.

Here are the opening lines of The Gulag Archipelago:

How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it-but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination. And at ticket windows or at travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you were to ask for a ticket to go there. They know nothing and they've never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of anyone of its innumerable islands.

Those who go to the Archipelago to administer it get there via the training schools of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Those who go there to be guards are conscripted via the military conscription centers.

And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.

Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity?

The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: "You are under arrest."

If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?

In 1978 -- thirty-three years after his own arrest at the German front while serving as a decorated combat officer in the Red Army -- Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University, and he offered these important words about hard truths:
Harvard's motto is "VERITAS." Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.
Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
The primary truths that Solzhenitsyn addressed that afternoon in Cambridge concerned the realities of colonialism and the Cold War and the moral failures of Western intellectuals and political leaders to confront authoritarianism and injustice. These are important words for us in the United States today; both truth and courage are called for. But beyond the present, these ideas underline the importance of the honest historical writings of scholars like Snyder, Judt, Applebaum, Gross, and Prusin in describing the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Solzhenitsyn himself demonstrated that courage and that commitment to revealing the truth about a gigantic and secret system of repression.

source: Russia Beyond

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Analytic philosophy of meaning and smart AI bots

One of the impulses of the early exponents of analytic philosophy was to provide strict logical simplifications of hitherto vague or indefinite ideas. There was a strong priority placed on being clear about the meaning of philosophical concepts, and more generally, about "meaning" in language simpliciter.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World and Pseudoproblems in Philosophy:
The present investigations aim to establish a “constructional system”, that is, an epistemic-logical system of objects or concepts. The word “object” is here always used in its widest sense, namely, for anything about which a statement can be made. Thus, among objects we count not only things, but also properties and classes, relations in extension and intension, states and events, what is actual as well as what is not. Unlike other conceptual systems, a constructional system undertakes more than the division of concepts into various kinds and the investigation of the differences and mutual relations between these kinds. In addition, it attempts a step-by-step derivation or “construction” of all concepts from certain fundamental concepts, so that a genealogy of concepts results in which each one has its definite place. It is the main thesis of construction theory that all concepts can in this way be derived from a few fundamental concepts, and it is in this respect that it differs from most other ontologies. (Carnap 1928 [1967]: 5)
But the idea of absolute, fundamental clarity about the meanings of words and concepts has proven to be unattainable. Perhaps more striking, it is ill conceived. Meanings are not molecules that can be analyzed into their unchanging components. Consider Wittgenstein's critique of the project of providing a "constructional system" of the meaning of language in the Philosophical Investigations:
12. It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. There are handles there, all looking more or less alike. (This stands to reason, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank, which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two operative positions: it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brakelever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder the braking; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.
Here Wittgenstein's point, roughly, is that it is a profound philosophical error to expect a single answer to the question, how does language work? His metaphor of the locomotive cabin suggests that language works in many ways -- to describe, to denote, to command, to praise, or to wail and moan; and it is an error to imagine that all of this diverse set of uses should be reducible to a single thing.

Or consider Paul Grice's theory of meaning in terms of intentions and conversational implicatures. His theory of meaning considers language in use: what is the point of an utterance, and what presuppositions does it make? If a host says to a late-staying dinner guest, "You have a long drive home", he or she might be understood to be making a Google-maps kind of factual statement about the distance between "your current location" and "home". But the astute listener will hear a different message: "It's late, I'm sleepy, there's a lot of cleaning up to do, it's time to call it an evening." There is an implicature in the utterance that depends upon the context, the normal rules of courtesy ("Don't ask your guests to leave peremptorily!"), and the logic of indirection. The meaning of the utterance is: "I'm asking you courteously to leave." Richard Grandy and Richard Warner provide a nice description of Grice's theory of "meaning as use" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).

This approach to meaning invites a distinction between "literal" meaning and "figurative" or contextual meaning, and it suggests that algorithmic translation is unlikely to succeed for many important purposes. On Grice's approach, we must also understand the "subtext".

Hilary Putnam confronted the question of linguistic meaning (semantics) directly in 1975 in his essay "The meaning of 'meaning'" (link). Putnam questions whether "meaning" is a feature of the psychological state of an individual user of language -- whether meanings are "mental" entities; and he argues that they are not. Rather, meanings depend upon a "social division of labor" in which the background knowledge required to explicate and apply a term is distributed over a group of experts and quasi-experts.
A socio-linguistic hypothesis. The last two examples depend upon a fact about language that seems, surprisingly, never to have been pointed out: that there is division of linguistic labor. 'Ve could hardly use such words as "elm" and "aluminum" if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. (144
Putnam links his argument to the philosophical concepts of sense and reference. The reference (or extension) of a term is the set of objects to which the term refers; and the sense of the term is the set of mental features accessible to the individual that permits him or her to identify the referent of the term. But Putnam offers arguments about hypothetical situations that are designed to show that two individuals may be in identical psychological states with respect to a concept X, but may nonetheless identify different referents or extensions of X. "We claim that it is possible for two speakers to be in exactly the same psychological state (in the narrow sense), even though the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the one is different from the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the other. Extension is not determined by psychological state" (139).

A second idea that Putnam develops here is independent from this point about the socially distributed knowledge needed to identify the extension of a concept. This is his suggestion that we might try to understand the meaning of a noun as being the "stereotype" that competent language users have about that kind of thing.
In ordinary parlance a "stereotype" is a conventional (frequently malicious) idea (which may be wildly inaccurate) of what an X looks like or acts like or is. Obviously, I am trading on some features of the ordinary parlance. I am not concerned with malicious stereotypes (save where the language itself is malicious); but I am concerned with conventional ideas, which may be inaccurate. I am suggesting that just such a conventional idea is associated with "tiger," with "gold," etc., and, . moreover, that this is the sole element of truth in the "concept" theory. (169)
Here we might summarize the idea of a thing-stereotype as a cluster of beliefs about the thing that permits conversation to get started. "I'm going to tell you about glooples..." "I'm sorry, what do you mean by "gloople"?" "You know, that powdery stuff that you put in rice to make it turn yellow and give it a citrous taste." Now we have an idea of what we're talking about; a gloople is a bit of ground saffron. But of course this particular ensemble of features might characterize several different spices -- cumin as well as saffron, say -- in which case we do not actually know what is meant by "gloople" for the speaker. This is true; there is room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, and misidentification in the kitchen -- but we have a place to start the conversation about the gloople needed for making the evening's curry. And, as Putnam emphasizes in this essay and many other places, we are aided by the fact that there are "natural kinds" in the world -- kinds of thing that share a fixed inner nature and that can be reidentified in different settings. This is where Putnam's realism intersects with his theory of meaning.

What is interesting about this idea about the meaning of a concept term is that it makes the meaning of a concept or term inherently incomplete and corrigible. We do not offer "necessary and sufficient conditions" for applying the concept of gloople, and we are open to discussion about whether the characteristic taste is really "citrous" or rather more like vinegar. This line of thought -- a more pragmatic approach to concept meaning -- seems more realistic and more true to actual communicative practice than the sparse logical neatness of the first generation of logical positivists and analytic philosophers.

Here is how Putnam summarizes his analysis in "The Meaning of "Meaning"":
Briefly, my proposal is to define "meaning" not by picking out an object which will be identified with the meaning (although that might be done in the usual set-theoretic style if one insists), but by specifying a normal form (or, rather, a type of normal form) for the description of meaning. If we know what a "normal form description" of the meaning of a word should be, then, as far as I am concerned, we know what meaning is in any scientifically interesting sense.
My proposal is that the normal form description of the meaning of a word should be a finite sequence, or "vector," whose components should certainly include the following (it might be desirable to have other types of components as well): ( 1) the syntactic markers that apply to the word, e.g., "noun"; (2) the semantic markers that apply to the word, e.g., "animal," "period of time"; ( 3) a description of the additional features of the stereotype, if any; ( 4) a description of the extension. (190)
Rereading this essay after quite a few years, what is striking is that it seems to offer three rather different theories of meaning: the "social division of labor" theory, the stereotype theory, and the generative semantics theory. Are they consistent? Or are they alternative approaches that philosophers and linguists can take in their efforts to understand ordinary human use of language?

There is a great deal of diversity of approach, then, in the ways that analytical philosophers have undertaken to explicate the question of the meaning of language. And the topic -- perhaps unlike many in philosophy -- has some very important implications and applications. In particular, there is an intersection between "General artificial intelligence" research and the philosophy of language: If we want our personal assistant bots to be able to engage in extended and informative conversations with us, AI designers will need to have useable theories of the representation of meaning. And those representations cannot be wholly sequential (Markov chain) systems. If Alexa is to be a good conversationalist, she will need to be able to decode complex paragraphs like this, and create a meaningful "to-do" list of topics that need to be addressed in her reply.
Alexa, I was thinking about my trip to Milan last January, where I left my umbrella. Will I be going back to Milan soon? Will it rain this afternoon? Have I been to Lombardy in the past year? Do I owe my hosts at the university a follow-up letter on the discussions we had? Did I think I might encounter rain in my travels to Europe early in the year?
Alexa will have a tough time with this barrage of thoughts. She can handle the question about today's weather. But how should her algorithms handle the question about what I thought about the possibility of rain during my travels last January? I had mentioned forgetting my umbrella in Milan; that implies I had taken an umbrella; and that implies that I thought there was a possibility of rain. But Alexa is not good at working out background assumptions and logical relationships between sentences. Or in Gricean terms, Alexa doesn't get conversational implicatures.

Luca Gasparri and Diego Marconi provide a very interesting article on "Word Meaning" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link) that allows the reader to see where theories of meaning have gone in philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science since the 1970s. For example, linguists have developed a compositional theory of word meaning:
The basic idea of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach (henceforth, NSM; Wierzbicka 1972, 1996; Goddard & Wierzbicka 2002) is that word meaning is best described through the combination of a small set of elementary conceptual particles, known as semantic primes. Semantic primes are primitive (i.e., not decomposable into further conceptual parts), innate (i.e., not learned), and universal (i.e., explicitly lexicalized in all natural languages, whether in the form of a word, a morpheme, a phraseme, and so forth). According to NSM, the meaning of any word in any natural language can be defined by appropriately combining these fundamental conceptual particles. (36)
This approach is strikingly similar to that described in the Carnap passage above, in that it attempts to decompose meanings of complex concepts into "atoms" of meaning.

Some research on language in computer science and artificial intelligence has been striking and surprising. For example, OpenAI's GPT3 natural language text producer, grounded in massive machine learning on billions of pages of text, creates text that appears to be conversational and intelligent -- without a milligram of meaning (link). Here is a short (two paragraph) piece of philosophy text about freedom of speech, generated purely mechanically by Arram Sabeti using GPT3 as a demonstration of the capabilities of GPT3 (link):
There’s a concept that comes up often in debates about free speech called “shouting fire in a crowded theater”. The basic idea is that you can’t just say whatever you want whenever you want – especially if it’s likely to cause panic. And the reason for this is obvious: panic leads to violence, and violence hurts people. If you are causing panic, then your right to free speech ends where the other person’s right to not get hurt begins. 
But this isn’t really true. If shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then there wouldn’t be any actual fires in theaters, would there? How could there be? If everyone knew that shouting fire would get them thrown in jail, then they’d all keep quiet when they smelled smoke – and thus there would never be any fires at all. The only way someone could shout fire is if they were lying – but lying is also illegal. So if shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then theaters would never burn down, and no one would ever die from a fire.
The way I see it, the phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” should be replaced with “yelling ‘there’s an angry mob coming with torches and pitchforks’ in a theater”. This doesn’t sound quite as catchy, but it has the advantage of being true. And this matters because the whole concept of free speech is based on people getting the facts right. If you’re going to shout fire in a crowded theater, then you need to actually have seen a fire – not just heard about one from someone else. You need to have checked that there really is a fire before you warn everyone else that there’s a fire. Otherwise you’re just causing panic for no reason – and that’s not free speech, that’s just yelling “boo” in a crowded theater.
The passage is no argument at all -- no guiding intelligence, and obvious non-sequiturs from one sentence to another. The first four sentences make sense. But then the next several sentences are nonsensical and illogical. In sentence 5 -- what "isn't really true"? Sentence 6 is flatly illogical. In fact, it is as illogical as Trump's insistence that if we had less testing then there would be less COVID in the United States. And the statement, "... but lying is also illegal" -- no, it's not. The bot is misinformed about the law. Or more precisely: these are just words and phrases strung together algorithmically with no logical construction or understanding guiding the statements. And the second paragraph has the same features. It is kind of entertaining to see the logical flaws of the text; but maybe there is an important underlying discovery as well: machine learning cannot create or discover rules of logic that allow for argument and deduction. There is an analogy with Chomsky's argument that syntax cannot be understood as a Markov-chain process at the beginning of the generative linguistics revolution. The passage is analogous to Noam Chomsky's example of a syntactically correct but semantically meaningless sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". This GPT3 text is syntactically correct from phrase to phase, but lacks the conceptual or logical coherence of a meaningful set of thoughts. And it seems pretty clear that the underlying approach is a dead end when it comes to the problem of natural language comprehension.