HISTORY AS AN INCREASINGLY
CARLOS EDUARDO MALDONADO
The study of complex systems stands at the cross-border of various
sciences, disciplines, methodologies and even logics. It has given birth,
indeed, to border sciences and precisely, border problems. Complex
systems, however, have mostly been studied and understood as part of the
physical, mathematical, biological and computer sciences. Even though
little attention has been paid to social sciences as complex systems in
precisely the terms of the sciences of complexity, the number of books and
articles on human social systems as complex systems has been raising in the
last few years1. Nonetheless, there is almost no work concerning the
relationship between complexity and history. Perhaps the most conspicuous
text in this direction is I. Wallerstein‘s (1987), a short and cautious work.
Even though we can encounter several articles and a few chapters in books
dealing with history and chaos, there is no consensus so far as to the
relation between history and chaos and, additionally and most important,
there is no real and deep understanding of the relationship between chaos
and complexity and, henceforth, between complexity and history. As for the
rest, the links and matches between history and complexity are timid or
avoid facing history as science vis-à-vis the question of complexity. At
most, the writings available so far deal with history as a tool, for instance in
treatments such as: “the history of complexity”, “complexity and economic
history,” and the like.
1 As an example, the first book on sociology and complexity was
published in 2006; in fields such as anthropology and even archeology a recent
strand of papers and discussions have started and are growing and being
enriched. In politics the contributions from complex sciences is already
considered steady. In economics various works can me cited after Arthur
Brian´s pioneer work; perhaps the most conspicuous work linking complexity
and economics are the books by Paul Ormerod; among philosophers a couple of
books by Mario Bunge and Nicholas Rescher should be mentioned. Yet, in
most of the social and human sciences there still seems to be a reluctant if not a
skeptical attitude towards approaches dealing with self-organization, dynamic
equilibrium, chaos, fractals, catastrophes, non-predictability, and so forth.
However, these are just a few indications of the work being done. My aim here
is not to write a critical bibliography on complexity and the human and social
sciences; that is still to be done in the near future.
130 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
Moreover, in some of the top centers around the world devoted to
the study of complexity almost, no attention has been given to history as a
complex problem in the terms used to speak about complex systems in
various other domains2. Perhaps the reason is that complexity sciences deal
more with phase space (= imaginary spaces) and, philosophically speaking,
much more with the possible rather than with past. Here I shall argue
precisely that history can and should be considered as a complex dynamic
A good part of the reason for this sort of blindness regarding
history and complexity has certainly to do with the normal understanding
already set in the late 1980s, according to which complexity is a
quantitative measure of nonlinear systems. If so, the problem for the social
sciences is found in their (in)capacity to quantitatively measure their own
systems, and behaviors. Several critiques run along this line, and, I believe
very reasonably. However, I further believe that complexity is not to be
reduced to just a quantitative measure or unpredictable and unstable
phenomena and behaviors. Such an understanding of complexity provides a
weak service to the task of grasping the kind of phenomena characterized as
complex and not just as complicated, hard, tough, or difficult.
Thus very little, if any, attention has been put to the relations
between history and complexity. With this text I shall argue that history
can, indeed, be taken as a complex system, and I shall mention four
arguments, all having an “if…so” structure; that is, they are conditional
arguments. They are the following: i) History as science does not reduce
itself to just human phenomena and scale. The human scale can indeed be
taken as the scale one (1) and, hence, as the encountering point of both
greater and lower scales. If so, then history can “dialogue”, so to speak,
with complex sciences; ii) History can and should be viewed as an open
system or field. More particularly, the past which is the proper domain of
history is an open system. If so, then history is to be assumed by and as (a
part of) the complexity sciences; iii) As is well known, history does not deal
with human time as such, but only with historical time. However, historical
time can and should be viewed in terms of time density. Time density, I
argue, is nonlinear; iv) History is a shifting point between nature and
culture. If true, then historiography, and more particularly philosophy of
historiography enriches and complements the very philosophy of the
natural, social and human sciences.
To be clear, my contention, when studying history as a complex
system is against determinism, namely, the theory that the history of the
world could only unfold as it did. As I shall have the opportunity to show,
2 I particularly refer to the work being carried out at the Sante Fe Institute
in New Mexico (www.sfi.edu) and the Necsi (New England Complex Systems
Institute) in Massachusetts (www.necsi.org), the Technical Institute in Vienna
or the Free University in Brussels. Even if we take a look at what is being done
at the Max Planck Institute, the same can be said.
History as an Increasingly Complex System 131
assessing history as a complex system means that we can and should take
history as an open system. My own position here will be from an
epistemological point of view but also from the standpoint of philosophy of
history. I shall argue that history can be taken as a complex system, namely
a system of increasing complexity.
THE PROBLEM CONCERNING THE DEFINITION OF
In a specialized bibliography, we can find several articles dealing
with a dynamic comprehension of history, including history and chaos.
However, there is no clear understanding as to the relationship between
chaos and complexity and most of the articles dealing with chaos and
history miss the point. Perhaps the first and up until now the most complete
study relating both history and complexity is I. Wallerstein, (1987). It is
indeed an insightful paper, and yet short and cautious. Wallerstein deepens
his comprehension of history in the frame of complexity in a collection of
papers published in 2004 under the common denominator of The
Uncertainties of Knowledge. But what he writes remains valuable as an
indication of a path to transit through, rather than a sort of systematic
development. It should be noted, however, that Wallerstein’s own insights
depend, to some extent on I. Prigogine’s work. Be that as it may,
Wallerstein remains the best source for a further development concerning
the relationship between history and complexity.
McCloskey’s article from (1991) bridges engineering, particularly
the use of differential equations, to history and narration by showing that a
chaos-like language and approach can be complementary. While engineers
specialize in metaphors, historians focus on stories. His frame, though, is
chaos and not complexity. G. Reisch’s article from (1995) comes closer to
chaos while criticizing a kind of inferiority complex some historians and
social scientists may have vis-à-vis empirical sciences. Of a quite different
take, R.K. Sawyer (2004) sheds some new light about emergence, a
different approach to causality which is and remains the historian’s most
valuable task about past events and phenomena. M. Shermer, writing in
1995, produced a harsh attack against scientism and the need to relate chaos
and history. In spite of his strong and inclusive critique, it is a valuable and
clear analysis of problems about history and chaos.
In my view, after Wallerstein‘s works just mentioned, the most
important work has been carried out by W. H. McNeill. McNeill (1998 and
2001) shows both openness and long range vision concerning history and
historiography. The most salient feature in McNeill’s two papers is,
doubtless, his call to bring together history and evolutionary theory, as well
as the importance of framing both history and the historians’ own work
within the ongoing scientific worldviews that are being developed and
discussed by the scientific community. While he does not deal with
132 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
complexity directly, what he says remains completely valid within the
frame of complexity sciences, whether or not he is aware of it.
Nonetheless, perhaps the best study regarding the use and
interpretation of chaos and/in history is Lindenfeld’s article (1999) in which
he takes as a guideline Turner’s Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power”. Valuable
as it is, complexity sciences remains out of the scope of his concern.
However, his work may be taken as an inspiration to move forward along
the path that leads from history and historiography to complexity.
Three articles can be mentioned as a tentative and careful
rapprochement between history and chaos, namely, Reddy’s paper (2001)
on the logic of action in which he highlights the importance of
indeterminacy, a most valuable complex notion. Stewart’s article (2001)
does not consider directly history or historiography and, at the same time, is
rather critical of the common usage of complex theory language,
methodology and tools. Concerning the relationship between history and
complexity, this paper remains vague. Further on, Tucker’s article (2001) is
full of insights for a study on complexity and history, even though it
appears she is not directly concerned about chaos or complexity as such.
And yet, what she says about the philosophy of historiography is, I believe,
to be taken into account for further developments in the context of complex
J. L. Gaddis‘s (2002) wants to be set in the same wave length, so to
speak, as Collingwood‘s and Carr‘s major books on history and the
philosophy of history. Gaddis devotes one chapter (pp. 71-89) to chaos and
complexity. As it is, Gaddis acknowledges McNeill‘s clear understanding
and insights as to the need to open history (very much as Wallerstein
himself talks about opening the social sciences in his Gulbenkian
Commission Repport (2004)). The opening of history and, en passant, of
historiography to the physical and mathematical sciences will certainly
enrich and broaden mankind’s own comprehension of time, the world, and
of the very scientific endeavor, as it happens. However, Gaddis offers no
clarity on the distinction or relationship between chaos and complexity,
giving thus the impression of two common and non-distinct concepts or
As for the rest, I may say that among the community of experts in
complex systems, there has been little concern for the comprehension of
history as a complex system. At most, there are works on history from an
analytical point of view, gathering data, constructing and re-constructing
periods, and the like. No attention has been set to what could be called as a
reflective or even a speculative use of history. From this point of view, the
use of history by researchers on complex systems has been an analytical
rather than a reflective or theoretical one. With this text, I wish to go into
what can be named as a complex comprehension of history in terms of a
dynamic complex system. I shall argue that history can be viewed in terms
of a complex dynamical system when taking complexity as a nonlinear
system. Such a comprehension, however, brings to the fore a serious debate
History as an Increasingly Complex System 133
against causality, regularity and continuity as being the common and
dominant patterns of history. I shall argue in favor of an evolutionary
approach to history.
When studying complex systems, one of the difficulties is that
there is no one definition or comprehension of complexity. Instead, various
comprehensions and approaches have been reached. However, the most
basic understanding of what a complex system is comes out of the
identification of some of the features of complexity. Complex systems
stand at the edge of chaos, are sensitive to initial conditions and respond to
a nearby strange attractor in the sense pointed out by chaos theory. They
exhibit emergence and self-organization, with a high degree of
connectedness and synergies, and, most important, the arrow of time plays a
crucial role. Thus, we can safely say that complex systems are those
systems marked by the arrow of time, namely irreversibility. In one word,
complex systems are basically characterized by an increasing though
unpredictable process of complexification. Such a complexification means
that the more complex a system is the more degrees of freedom it has, as
these have been defined in mathematical or physical terms, e.g. the number
of independent pieces of information on which a parameter estimation is
based. In other words, it is the measure of how much precision an estimate
of variability has. The more degrees of freedom a system has, the more
complex it is.
Even though there has been no agreement on the definition of a
complex system, the most generalized comprehensions are the following:
Gell-Mann defines a complex system by its capacity to adapt and, hence, he
calls them “complex adaptive systems” (CAS). S. Kauffman claims
complex systems to be self-organized systems, and thus, self-organization
is believed to be the most salient feature of complexity. For Bar-Yam, a
complex system can be best understood in a meso scale, i.e. neither big
enough nor too small, but rather having enough elements so that what
becomes relevant is not so much the elements that compound a system, but
their interactions. Prigogine prefers not to talk about complex systems, but
rather about complex behaviors, and they are characterized by a mixture, so
to speak, of contingence and necessity. For Prigogine, complex behavior is
characterized by a dynamic equilibrium, and he calls such a system far-
from-equilibrium systems, i.e. complex behaviors.
Here I shall adopt a different perspective, more in accordance with
history and historical processes and events. Thus, I shall prefer to take a
complex system as a nonlinear system, a comprehension which somehow
runs tacit in the works of Kauffman, Bar-Yam, Gell-Mann and Prigogine, to
mention but some remarkable authors, but this issue is not explicitly
considered by them.
Whereas an equation is said to be linear because it has one (and
only one) solution, a problem is defined as nonlinear since it has more than
one solution; for instance when a problem exhibits squares, bifurcations,
and non-steady patterns. History and historiography are much more
134 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
concerned with critical events and encounters in the study of crisis arousing
motives for study and interpretation, analyses and narrative, explanation
and evaluations. Crises depict nonlinearity precisely due to a strong short-
term and long-term connectedness, to the interaction of both constant and
inconstant agents, and by the very recognition of some events as having
definite beginnings whilst others have vague beginnings. Likewise, for
example, some have clear endings whereas others have indefinite endings.
To be sure, nonlinearity entails unpredictability and low control of
situations, at least during certain times. Nonlinear situations and
circumstances may have the appearance that agents seem to be at odds and
passive in front of several forces and other subjects, but in reality it simply
means that the available cognitive tools are not sufficient for agents to
understand and explain what s going on at that time. Hence, nonlinearity
calls for creativity, imagination and new insights concerning the very
capability of knowledge, i.e. science and life. Several examples, both
contemporary and historical could be mentioned here as illustrations. As it
is often said, that happens when history faces so-called “bottle-neck”
situations. Complex systems and complex behaviors exhibit erratic motion.
After these clarifications, I now turn to the arguments supporting
why history can be claimed to be a complex system.
THE HUMAN SCALE OF HISTORICITY AND MULTISCALE
Determinism is the philosophy according to which there is always
a privileged standpoint over others and the world exhibits a necessary and,
by definition, unique center out of which any other perspective is secondary
and derivative. If true, then the world is meant to have a singular scale that
determines and even undermines and makes impossible other perspectives,
scopes and scales.
Complexity sciences, in contrast, have highlighted the very fact
that the world both implies and leads to a multiscale approach, when
appropriately understood. Put in simple terms, world history exhibits
various levels, layers, nuances and perspectives which are to be taken even
though the whole picture is not always coherent and ambiguous. Ambiguity
is a central feature of human events that cannot be overthrown; such
recognition is possible when studying history under the light of relevant and
para-consistent logics. Ambiguity is a necessary and active feature in
human history. It is not ambivalence which is negligent and passive.
History, indeed, does not exhibit any exact solution and certainly
not a definitive solution. Over against postmodernist approaches that claim
a kind of relativism and eclecticism, the complex approach to history is
much closer to Heraclitean philosophy, rather than to the Eleatic school
(Prigogine, 1980). History is, indeed, the realm of the unstable, dynamic
and flowing experiences, whether viewed in short-term or in long-term
scopes. Narrative as a valuable tool of both historians and philosophers of
History as an Increasingly Complex System 135
history faces us continuously with open-ended explanations and provisory
conclusions, as it were.
One way historians deal with multiscale analysis is by considering
individual, social, and natural levels, the local and the foreign, the short-
term and the long-term, the singular and universal, for example (this last in
exactly the sense of the Annales school) always in their interdependence
and reciprocal feedback. If so, where does the originality of multiscale
analyses lie? Throughout the passage and combination of various scales a
phenomenon that is being studied exhibits a wider, deeper and more
enriched dimension, so much so that no scale is privileged.
The following can serve as both an illustration and an explanation
of what I am referring to here. There is no one story in history, i.e. no one
voice. On the contrary, history consists of a variety of voices, a polyphony,
literally speaking or else also a polimorphy. Thus, for example, whereas it
has been sufficiently stressed, history has been mostly the voice of the
conquerors and the winners, there should be, though, also space for oral
history—as, for example the not-yet-written-history-, for the voice of the
excluded, the oppressed, the ones that suffer at the same time that there is a
voice of the those who flourish and win. The play Rosenkrantz and
Gilderstein Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is a fantastic example of what I
mean here; one more good example is, of course, Akira Kurosawa’s movie
Rashomon. In music the recent explorations led by Yo-Yo Ma can be
mentioned as outstanding examples where he combines both Western music
along with traditional, non-Western or indigenous music. A relevant
example in historiography is M. de Certeau‘s La possession de Loudun. Of
ten the arts seem to be far ahead of the sciences—in this case Philosophy
and the Social Sciences.
The consequence, though, is crucial and unavoidable: there is no
one truth in history, no one past, no one future either. Instead, history is to
viewed as a crossing-up of experiences, all which compound a certainly
complex fresco of human experience.
Such a polyphony of history, however, should and cannot be taken
in any syncretic, relativistic or eclectic sense as if, then, “anything goes” in
history, though it brings to the fore the question about human ambiguity3.
In this sense, I believe, history can be a taken as wise complementary tool
vis-à-vis politics—taken in any wide and broad sense- which most of time
claims the prevalence of one voice. Perhaps the sort of wisdom history
brings about is possible when we consider events in and as a longue durée.
From a philosophical point of view, I would like to highlight here
the Socratic dialogues of Plato in which it is clearly set that truth is not a
property of any of the participants, but the outcome of interchange and
openness to the others’ questions and arguments4. Thus, truth comes, as it
3 See A. de Whaelen’s book on Merleau-Ponty, Philosophie de l´
4 See Guthrie.
136 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
is, at the end of the dialogue, if at all; for most of the time the result is an
astonishment, a rejoice, a paradox or a feeling of pursuing the (everlasting)
quest. In the age of globalization, this insight can set the conditions for
further research projects. The historian’s intelligence and sensitivity
consists exactly in pointing out with the tools he or she has such a
dynamics. Truth, indeed, is a movement and, why not, a tempo, in a
Perhaps one of the most meaningful tasks historians may have
consists in uncovering truths that have been silenced in history, while
carefully appraising and reappraising the ones that have been already set
and constitute valuable hints in the evolution of human culture. This does
not mean, however, that they should not care for voices alive that strive to
survive and indeed manage to succeed. In other words, historians must be
capable of reaching an holographic view of history, so to speak.
Let me put it straightforwardly, even though in mathematical terms
for the sake of precision and brevity, precisely what I refer to above as
“polyphony” and the like is eventually simply a matter of combinatory
analysis and of combinatory. If true, then we must turn our sight briefly to
combinatory analysis, namely the understanding of those processes,
structures and dynamics compound by many elements in such a way that
from their interactions further new structures and forms emerge. Perhaps
the most conspicuous historical essay in this research line has been set by
Hölscher (1997), even though in his article, he seems to know very little
about complex system.
Nevertheless, the past should be considered from a multiplicity of
points of view in order to establish the coherence of all different features of
a certain period, whether, for instance, these are social, cultural, political,
philosophical or religious. Hence, the complexity of history consists in
As it is easy to see, expanding the scale of observation of a subject
implies an integral cognitive approach that can be called by some as holism
(Rozov, 1997, p. 342), and by others as complementary—taking in view
Bohr’s principle of complementarity, for instance. However, it is important
to stress that complex systems study does not pretend to be a coherent
approach, as it is in Ramsey’s or in Rescher’s philosophy. In this sense, it
has nothing to do with systems theory approach (von Bertalannfy, von
Foester, Bateson and others).
On a quite different note, Rozov (1997, pp. 343-44) traces several
distinctions that can be taken into account in a wider study concerning
multiscale levels of work related to history, thus:
Nominative scale, by which things are distinguished and supplied
Scale of order, according to which objects are distributed in
accordance with the relative degree of expression of a chosen parameter
that can be assigned a number, but only the order is significant.
History as an Increasingly Complex System 137
Scale of intervals, where numbers assigned to objects specify not
only their order, but also “the distance” between them in a chosen
Scale of relations, that shows how much more a parameter is
expressed in one object than in another.
The absolute scale which makes it possible to measure a parameter
independently in single objects and to employ the entire series of real
The behavior of a system is governed by several factors being the
most salient ones, its initial conditions, and the rules of transformation that
govern the system’s behavior. (Now, the debate about the truth of some
counterfactuals or other is a debate about the initial conditions which are
obtained. Perhaps for this reason, the use of modal claims in history is often
obscured. The debate may appear to be only about actual facts, but at stake
are important modal implications (Bulhof, 1999, p. 165).
A multiscale analysis is, indeed, though it should by no means be
reduced to, the recognition of the importance of counterfactuals. As one
author puts it, “A counterfactual claim is the result of a mere manipulation
of the initial conditions of a system, or of the outside influences of the
system. We simply plug in different values, apply the same rules of
transformation, and get certain results” (Bulhof, 1999, p. 168). The matter
of multiscale and modal thinking is but the question regarding determinism
in history from a quite different perspective and valuing it as a question
rather than as a statement.
HISTORY AS AN OPEN SYSTEM
There are no closed or isolated systems. The belief that the world
consists of closed or isolated systems is called a zero-games world in game
theory. Such is a world in which when there is one player who wins, then
the other player necessarily loses. A winner implies a loser, it is claimed in
accordance to such a belief. Complexity sciences, instead, claim that all real
systems are open—for they have an environment that both encompasses
and disturbs the system. The traditional and common way of considering
the environment is as a spatial dimension. In this section I shall argue that
the environment is not just to be considered in its spatial dimension, but it
also has a temporal dimension. History is a way of dealing with the
temporal dimension of the environment, very much like paleontology,
archeology, and paleobiology. In other words, the world can be viewed as a
non-zero game according to which when someone wins somebody else
wins, too, even with differences, and when someone loses others lose too,
even with differences. That is what history is all about when understood as
a complex nonlinear system, hence open.
The concept of environment is essentially indeterminate. Indeed, as
part of my environment belongs not only to the airplane that is passing by
138 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
right now in the sky, the kids that are playing in the backyard with their
shouting and laughing, for instance. This environment can go on depending
on the influence, and disturbance or affection of spatial circumstances upon
me. However, to my environment the Egyptians, the Summarians, the
Mayans, for example, are also integrated to some extent. The very depth
and width of history depends very much on my knowledge, my intelligence
and my (historical) sensibility. History is a presence as large, deep and wide
as both the spatial and temporal dimensions that can be seen, and intertwine
with each other. Historical time affects me according to my historical
sensibility, my intelligence and my knowledge5. If so, then a society, a
culture or a nation’s own intelligence and sensitivity to their temporal
dimension of the environment depend very much on the very knowledge
and care with which historians deal with the past.
Past is an open system, for it is always susceptible of being re-
written, re-interpreted and re-signified, albeit not an open system as such or
in itself. Past is an open dimension, indeed, depending on the actions and
moves of the present, for it is the present which sees past as an open or a
closed system. When it is seen as a closed system, history is reduced to one
tradition at the cost of other traditions and experiences. It is also possible to
find a fundamentalism towards the past and not only in past times. This,
however, should not be understood as if the past was just susceptible of
such re-interpretations, for historians can be viewed as the “carers”, so to
speak, of the past. Past is indeed only what historians define it to be and tell
us the way it was. If so, then semiotics plays an important role in this sense.
If history can be said to be an open system it is because we, living
human beings, make history complex. This assumption makes an important
point, I believe. Complexity depends on the observer, who sees and
introduces varieties, nuances, layers, scales into what is fixed or has been
set to be fixed. From this perspective, complexity is a feature introduced by
the observer into the historical time, and then history becomes complex, as
it were, allowing us to see new structures and textures in the historical
events. Thus, for example, we can retrospectively gain new insights into
history and make it more complex by studying and discovering the
everyday life of the Aztecans, or the Egyptians, or the Greeks, not to speak
of the Middle Ages. From a different take, history can be seen
retrospectively as a matter of genre, minority groups, and the like. The
contributions by the Annales, from the Past and Present group or from the
Bielefeld school are, in this sense, both illustrative and conspicuous, their
disagreement and differences notwithstanding.
Historians, though, are that part of society that has the task, so to
speak, of veiling and unveiling the past. In other words, society trusts to
5 I could even argue that future is included in my temporal dimension of
environment as, for example, when we consider sustainability—but that is a
different concern from a historical perspective. For history is human experience
History as an Increasingly Complex System 139
historians the care for the past, even though it knows that historians
construct a dynamic unity, as it were. Kuhn’s concept of “scientific
community” with its pros and cons is also to be found here and understood.
The various temporal modes of history are—in English and in fact
in most Western languages- past tense, perfect tense, past continuous tense,
including the modes past conditional, past subjunctive tense, and so forth.
Indo-European languages know basically three modes: indicative,
conditional and subjunctive. So far, we have to learn to speak of past in
these modes. Time and logic have worked meaningfully on these tenses,
and moreover on the distinction between time, tense and modality6. History
and historiography are then a matter of how to write history “forwards”, and
not just “backwards”, and certainly in a nonlinear way and scale.
I wish to highlight the consequences of environment as being both
spatial and temporal, i.e. geometrical and historical. History implies and
demands, henceforth, a cross-disciplinary approach. In other words, we find
here the call, so to speak, for thinking beyond history and geography. When
Hegel claimed that there were peoples with more geography than history—
thinking about America, of course, most theoreticians have easily also
found that the opposite can be true. Beyond that dispute, my point is that
history can be conceived ecologically, namely as the articulation of a space
and time that goes beyond the usual classification and work splitting natural
sciences from social and human sciences. History, I claim, when
appropriately understood, can be on the same wave-length, so to speak, as
ecology. There is one name for such an encounter, namely evolutionary
theory. Therefore, history focuses on men and mankind but in the frame of
the intertwining of natural and human systems, which is what precisely
defines a system as complex.
I want to make my point here: history is an open system, which
means not only that history is made out of various traditions, some alive,
some definitely past, and some others in emergency rooms. History is an
open system that becomes increasingly complex as the flow of present
enriches, widens and deepens it in accordance with the very evolution of
science and culture.
If true, then history is revealed as the field of indetermination or
indeterminacy, as it were, in spite of mankind’s quest for roots, answers,
identity and the like in past or backwards. History and evidence—
historiography are therefore called to the fore, and the subject that
immediately arises concerns history theory and philosophy of history as
well as their relationship. The importance of a philosophy of historiography
lies in how to make of history not just a story and a matter of
interpretation—often wild, wish-full and subject to manipulation by fear,
power, publicity and propaganda. The fact that history is an open system
6 Concerning modality, the crucial subject is the relationship between the
actual world and the possible worlds. This point, however would take us too far
afield for the present.
140 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
does certainly not undermine the importance of evidence and, hence, of
historiography. Instead, the very claim of history as an open system means
that the construction, study, and interpretation of the sources must not be
regarded only as a matter of narrative and metaphor, but also of explanation
Thus, the old discussion about “Clio, muse or science?” can be re-
framed as a complementary result of the dynamic balance between narrative
and theory and, à la limite, logic; more particularly non-classical logics7. I
think that we all must be concerned about the dilemma involving the two
cultures (after Snow’s classic book) and the sincere effort of some to
overcome that duality. There is, to be sure, no hierarchy of knowledge and
discourse in spite of what traditional scholars have taught us. If history is
open and hence a matter of both story-telling and explanation, then the
question regarding the “two cultures” can be posed for history and
historiography in terms of a complementary space between muse and
science, but not as an exclusive either—or.
TIME DENSITY IS NONLINEAR
History, very much like life, is made up from different time
structures and textures, different time rhythms and speeds. This is exactly
what constitutes the complexity of history, namely the complexity—
diversity of time and temporal orders. Such recognition, however, has not
been sufficiently stressed or highlighted in the course of both history and
philosophy of history. Instead, most of history has been presented as
governed by a unique or a single time scale, reducing significantly the
density of time, sometimes due to political, religious, and ideological
interests. By reducing or eliminating the density of time, history has been
conceived and worked out as a linear system where events have had one
and only one voice, as it were. Often such a history and historiography is
called “official” history leading to a canonical time interpretation and
The question of what an event means in history, I argue, can never
be answered completely by telling a certain story about it, since there will
7 By non-classical logics—also known as philosophical logics and even as
alternative logics—we can understand those logics that either are
complementary or alternative to classical formal logic, and hence deal with
problems left aside, but the classical formal logics that derive from Aristotle on,
such as time, contradiction, context, multi-deductive systems, modality, the
existence of many values, and so forth. Examples of such non-classical logics
are: para-consistent logic, relevant logic, time logic, quantum logic, fuzzy logic,
many-valued logic, modal logic. To be sure, it would be important for both
historians and philosophers of history to cope with such alternative logics. The
reasons are numerous and meaningful. Yet, they remain out of the scope of this
paper. These themes are planned for discussion in a future volume.
History as an Increasingly Complex System 141
be stories to be told about it in the course of time. One major task of the
philosophy of historiography consists exactly in positing the polyphony of
history, so to speak.
A matrix can be outlined as an indicator of the variety sketched
Rhythm Speed Direction Intensity
This matrix can be filled by assigning either arithmetical or
algebraic values (as one pleases) to reveal an interesting, wonderful
problem of combinatory analysis8, and as an exercise for valuing the
various processes and paces in historical time.
History, like society, is compounded of people, institutions and
practices some of which work slowly, whereas others work more quickly,
some in one direction and others with a different vector, some having
certain expectations and hopes, whilst others resign and give up, and so
forth. The complexity of society consists in the variety of time orders, time
scales and time speeds.
Let us take an analogy from ecology and biology: in the same way
as we cannot assess whether there are key species and redundant species,
we cannot affirm whether some time speeds and time orders are more
fundamental than others.9 The best we can say is: “we do not know”—we
do not know whether there are key species or not as, indeed, we learn from
evolutionary biology or from ecology. In accordance, we do not know
whether some time order is crucial or necessary at the cost of others.
Therefore, a more prudent attitude can be outlined by stating that history is
made of various threads, just as a rug is made of various textures.
8 Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement can also be stated as
positive feedback and negative feedback (more used by experts in complex
studies), or even for increasing returns and decreasing returns, as economists
might express it. The meaning of this footnote is to set bridges with various
9 From an ethical point of view we should never forget that perhaps the
most fundamental activities for mankind have been traditionally carried out by
“inferiors”, such as cleaning and hygiene, feeding and cooking, transportation
and vigilance (security). After all, complexity theory is very perspicacious
against the Platonic-Aristotelian view of a hierarchy of knowledge, as well as
society. Complexity thinking is nodal and non-centralized. See Y. Bar-Yam
(1997) and K. Mainzer (1998).
142 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
The problem of history is the problem of change, i.e. evolution;
more accurately the issue is about the change of history, and not just the
change in history. How can history change? What is a historical change?
This is where the three basic sides make up a jerky or fuzzy triangle:
history, historiography, and philosophy of history (as well as philosophy of
historiography). Most probably, historical change is to be found far more in
the change of the way we observe the same object at two different points in
time—for history cannot be changed in re, only de dictum. Throughout
such a triangle, a liberation can occur. According to one author, “Liberation
emerges out of being able to criticize the destructive myths of our ancestors
without either ignoring the past, losing cultural depth and historical
perspective on our lives, or just relativizing fraudulent narratives without
really criticizing them” (Tucker, 2001, p. 56). An historical change, instead
of being defined as the change of an “object” within a set of given
parameters, has to be perceived as the change of parameters related to a
given historical object (Hölscher, 1997). In other words, the change of
history is carried out by our contemporaries, not by past human events.
As Marx has pointed out, men make history, but they do not
always make it as they please. Moreover, most of the time, they cannot
make it as they please. This becomes clearer the more we focus on change,
i.e. historical change. For history, as opposed to politics, is made and read
in the long run. (“Long run”, though, is a vague and indeterminate
measure). This same idea can be stated differently, thus: “We are at one
with our predecessors, immersed in a process we do not control and can
only dimly understand—a process, nonetheless, that has made us and our
agreed-upon systems of meaning the most disturbing, changeable, and quite
extraordinarily power factor in upsetting the multiple levels of physical,
chemical, and social equilibria within which we exist” (McNeill, 2001, p.
Gould has insistently called our attention to the pace and the
motives for change: “Do large effects arise as simple extensions of small
changes produced by the ordinary deterministic causes that we can study
every day, or do occasional catastrophes introduce strong elements of
capriciousness and unpredictability to the pathways of planetary history?”
(quoted in Shermer, 1995, p. 69). Whether we find or prefer small changes
or catastrophes is precisely a matter of one of the components and the very
matrix of time density. Historical time, therefore, is the outcome of a time
density throughout which we can see events, processes, and phenomena in
history that are useful as hints, landmarks or just tips of what can be
overlapped from past to present.
If it is, indeed, hard to obtain a long-range view, the reason is
based upon the pace and variations of the historical paths and motives we
find or strive to encounter in history. Such is exactly the very complexity of
History as an Increasingly Complex System 143
a universal history, for the more we dig into history, the more diverse and
dense are the orders, scales, and rhythms of human experience10.
To be sure, history is not useful to predict events and processes, for
its value is just as an indicator or a reference. But history does not
necessarily tell us that things should be in such and such way. At most it
can tell us how things might be possible—and that is already a matter of
modal thinking. Modal thinking, though, leads us again to nonlinear time
density—very much in the same tenure, for example, as counterfactual
logic and time logic. The question then shifts to the relationship between
history and the possible, and not just history and the past.
Thus, we go from history to politics and back to history in the
sense that after acting, deciding, or organizing—or at least after considering
what has been done, or what could have been done—we re-do, so to speak,
history and change again. We bring, if you wish, its openness to the present.
In other words, working on history becomes very much a matter of
traveling in time backwards and then forwards to the future which is
present. We travel in time towards the future when we decide—a decision is
an action that is taken towards the future—but with the past in mind. Yet,
this has not been sufficiently recognized and what mainly passes for history
today is a variety of case studies from various parts of the world—Asia,
Africa, East Europe, and Latin America, etc. We lack an integrative theory.
History seems, in such a view, to be more a subject for government and
international affairs schools11.
HISTORY AS A SHIFTING POINT BETWEEN NATURE AND
A shifting point in human knowledge is currently taking place.
Such a turn goes hand in hand with the uncertainty, unpredictability and
sort of indeterminacy of the present and the short-term future; let us say, the
immediate foreseeable future. The long term consequences are being
simulated, discussed, projected in as many ways, languages and modes as
possible. We have discovered, for the first time in human history, that we
have, indeed, put all our eggs in one and the same basket. Moreover, in
10 On this cross-point there is much to discuss, namely the relationship of
information and memory as regards history. I believe memory has been taken
more as a question and even as a sort of dialectics between memory and
forgetfulness (as in Nietzsche´s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life).
Indeed, we must see history more in terms of offering us information rather
than memory. Moreover, history is the very story through which we gain
information, but not from memory. However, this discussion is beyond the
scope of this article.
11 As a conspicuous example, see S. P. Huntington, “Political Conflict
after the Cold War”, in History and the Idea of Progress, ed. Arthur M. Melzer
et al. (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995), 137-154.
144 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
historical terms, we have been playing with the basket. In social and
political terms, we are still currently playing with the basket.
In similar circumstances human beings, specially in the Western
world, have traditionally turned their heads to culture and to history. The
examples and cases are numerous and well known. I shall leave culture
aside for the time being. As for history, it can be useful only as a hint, a tip,
or an indicator, nothing more, nothing less.
The course of human history is, indeed, strongly influenced by the
growth of human knowledge, and human knowledge is a living system,
indeed (Wallerstein, 1987; Maturana and Varela, 1990). Human knowledge
not only evolves, it also develops12. If so, then we ought to bring history
into convergence with other sciences. I take this to be both an intellectual
and a moral imperative in the future to come. History, historiography and
philosophy of history, I would argue, can benefit from a cross-disciplinary
approach13—which is indeed another way for understanding what
complexity sciences are all about.
Yet, there is one important proviso here: History is but what
historians think, do and write14. If true, then from this point of view the
complexity of history would include the complexity of semiotics,
hermeneutics and logic, not to mention archival research and the quest for
“real” evidence, i.e. historiography. From all this, I believe, a clear
consequence follows, namely a new concept of history arises: instead of
history being a metaphysical unity of space and time (the destiny of
mankind, the positivist’s world of facts), in which everything is linked to
everything, it is instead the product of historical judgment carried out by
those who design stories about their own past, present, and future, that is to
We can speak of history as a system that changes continually and
that knows equilibrium only in a few instances, for its very nature is change
and non-permanence. When. Ionesco—the father of the so-called “theater
of the absurd”-, complained that the only teaching of history he values, is
that we never learn from it, he was referring to the fact that human memory
is short-lived. We never seem to catch up to time. I think Ionesco is right in
that we separate memory from information. In this sense the matter of
history is like evolution, just as S.J. Gould said at the end of his life.
12 This remark is to be understood in the way we have recently learnt to
speak in terms of “Evo-Devo,” which stands for: evolution and development.
Evo-Devo can be said to be a new science emerging from the intersection
between evolution (and genetics) and genomics.
13 In this sense, see I. Wallerstein: The Gulbenkian Commission and
Report Open the Social Sciences.
14 So it is and so it has been sufficiently known since history started as a
science, around 1929-beginning of the 1930s, all the way long up to the 1970s,
according to P. Chaunu.
History as an Increasingly Complex System 145
Throughout history, I claim, we do not gain memory; we rather gain
If so, we are to distinguish history from tradition. Tradition is that
realm of social reality through which we preserve and even gain memory.
That is why tradition rests on rites, repetition, time cycles. History, on the
other side, does not rest on rites and the like, but it focuses on continuities
as well as discontinuities, time and space symmetries—for instance, geo-
politics- as well as on the breaking of time and space symmetries. More
particularly, history is about the arrow of time, and not just about time
cycles (in spite of Gibbon‘s The History of the Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire,1776, 1781, 1788)15 for instance.
The most important consequence of the assessment according to
which history teaches us about information rather than about memory is
that the very historical process is about the gaining of degrees of freedom.
Freedom is studied by the sciences of complexity, but certainly to
philosophers this may sound like a new type of Hegelian comprehension of
history. Nonetheless, history is an increasingly complex system, thanks to
the fact that we have been slowly, and exactly in a nonlinear way, gaining
information. Information becomes the process of gaining new degrees of
freedom in that time marks an irreversible arrow.
By claiming that history is not so much about memory as it is about
information, I intend to say that history is not exactly about remembering,
remembrance, recording, keeping records, etc. Such an interpretation of
history is laden with preconceptions and conflicts of interests. That view
can easily be called a conservative one, for it is supported by those who
want to reduce history to a determinate tradition. Instead, I am saying that
history is about communication—the basic stone for communicating is
information. Moreover, my claim is that because history is about
information and not so much about memory, history is, therefore, about
knowledge. And as it has recently been pointed out by the new biology,
knowledge is a biological feature rather than just an intellective structure
(Maturana and Varela, 1990; Kauffman, 1995; Kauffman 2000).
In other words, history, I argue, is not a cumulative matter. It is on
the contrary a question about creating possibilities and reading and telling
possibilities, albeit past ones.
Indeed, whereas memory implies a sense of permanence and even
presence—particularly sketched out in terms of the mémoire involontaire—
information theory reckons the importance of both information as such and
of noise. Moreover, information is considered not as the “other side” of
noise, but as the very outcome of there being noise. Finally, the problem
emerging here is about information and entropy and how noise and entropy
15 Perhaps the most conspicuous example of history as consisting of
stories about time cycles is E. Gibbon, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,
The Penguin Press, 1994. With reference to a philosophy of history in this same
line, we should mention Collingwood´s and E. H. Carr´s classic works.
146 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
sum up, as it were, the very information of systems, processes and
Most of the considerations of history and what might be called the
unstable deal only with chaos theory. In these terms, thinking in chaos and
history means considering an event’s sensibility to its initial conditions and
the further long-scale, unpredictable consequences of that event and that
sensibility. But this is only half of the story, so to speak. For the other half
consists in identifying a strange attractor that deviates the normal “current”
development of the event. Hence, unpredictability and the identification of
a strange attractor produce large unpredicted and long scale con- sequences,
indeed. The next step must be accomplished, I believe, from chaos to
complexity, in order not just to stress the existence of chaotic moments in
history but also, and mainly, to understand history as a process of
increasing complexity whereby information and noise, information and
entropy interact and act upon each other as a positive loop. That is to say, as
a process through which history can be seen as a living system and not just
as a reservoir of values, events, names, and data.
Complexity theory, i.e. science, does not explain everything, for
the very same reasons that the world is not complex. (A theory that explains
everything explains nothing, a fact well known from epistemology).
Complexity theory deals only with complex phenomena or complex
behaviors that exhibit (or consist in) unpredictability, emergence, self-
organization, strong interaction, and so forth. As for the rest, namely
causality, reductionism, control and predictability, etc., normal science
In other words, complexity arises when acknowledging the
intersection of contingency and large tendencies, wherein contingency is
but the action of non-rational and non-conscious forces and events in the
individuals and groups forging history. Contingency refers to the
everlasting presence of surprise and the unforeseen.
History, indeed, is made by human beings, although human beings
do not always act or behave as they think they do, most people act in most
situations in accordance with various forces: anger, love, hate, revenge,
desire, angst, etc. Emotions are the hidden force of history. The difficulty
for historians is to account for these emotions in the midst of evidence and
circumstances. Past actors did not always appreciate, see, or adequately
evaluate and channel their reactions. (Such is rather the working field of
psychology). In other words, history is a human feature, but human features
are not always susceptible of sheer logic, strategy, control, and plans. Along
with these, there is also a sense of opportunity, a contingency with salient
actions and reactions. As is well known, historians are aroused by studying
and explaining the kind of individuals that either respond to a certain
personal feature, or profit from social circumstances. They give to history a
direction not previously expected. Historians do not predict, they
“postdict.”. Nonetheless, perhaps part of the historian’s intelligence consists
History as an Increasingly Complex System 147
in predicting the “ex-post factum.” That is to say, in predicting in the past
what the past exposes to the future.
In times of global speed and anguish when the pace of life and
events seems to run amok—due to the rhythm of technology, finances, and
the like—history can provide a sort of wisdom. This wisdom comes from
acknowledging that while history is an open and nonlinear system,
everything is settled calmly and gently in the longue durée, after all. As
mentioned, history is made and read in the long-run as opposed to politics.
If so, then by digging into history we can gain more than knowledge,
memory and information. We can, indeed, gain wisdom: letting what will
This, however, does not lead to a passive attitude. Quite the
contrary, it leads to a work of reflection, of thought, gratitude, and
openness16 Let things be—that is, I claim, the call from history. If it is,
indeed, true that for want of a horseshoe the horse was lost, and eventually
the kingdom was lost, then we had better look for ultimate causes in
history, which is not the same as looking for first causes, as the Aristotelian
tradition claims. The quest for ultimate causes is, indeed, a subtle, quiet and
thoughtful work, enquiring about nonlinear causes and effects. Diamond’s
recent books on the collapse of cities and civilizations, as well as the
reasons why some societies are more powerful than others (Collapse: How
Societies choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, and Guns, Germs, Steel: The
Fates of Human Societies, 1999) are examples of the quest for ultimate
causes. And yet, I think Heidegger also, for a time, at least, seemed
sympathetic to this point of view.
Taking history as a complex systems, and hence as open and
nonlinear, I should stress, calls additionally for a re-enchantment of the
world, an expression first coined by I. Prigogine (1984). The re-
enchantment of the world consists in the very polyphony of the past. For
there is no one past, and no one gate to the past. There are, rather, various
gates, passages and labyrinths , as well as avenues and country roads to the
past. But also, there are various other ways of communication from past to
the present. Perhaps one of the most astonishing ones—a favorite one of
historians, writers and philosophers—is the mémoire involontaire—
presence. As it were, there is present and also past. But somewhere
lingering between the two is presence. Historians and philosophers know
about that “presence” and treat it with care.
To conclude, a few short remarks are in order. To be sure, history
is written history. Yet, history is not just writ past. There is also oral
history, as it is well known. But when the historian encounters oral history,
16 I recognize a similarity to Heidegger on this point, related to Was Heisst
Denken? Nonetheless, my own frame and aim are different from Heidegger´s.
148 Carlos Eduardo Maldonado
he or she is open to anthropology to philosophy to archeology to art. Such
is a good example of cross-disciplinary work on history, and an articulation
of a kind of border/problems work.
Thanks to, and sometimes even in spite of, the various historical
schools from Annales to Marxist historiography to the American social
science historians to the Past and Present group, to the Bielefeld school, we
have enriched, enlarged, and deepened history as never before. With each
effort, we take away new scientific achievements and research17. History in
fact has become more complex; an increasingly complex system, indeed.
By the same tenure, quoting P. Anderson’s famous paper from 1971 “More
Is Different”, history has gradually become different to us than what it was
to our elders. History, as we can readily see, calls us again to be open, for
history is a dynamic system—a living one, to be sure. No matter the
discussions against evolutionary theory, history has evolved and thus calls
our attention to information rather than to just memory.
With the previous arguments I claim the following: philosophers
should deal with history, talking and working with historians—as to how
they do research, how they write and come to decisions, etc. very much in
the same sense as they should work with scientists of any range or
specialty. Only, I argue, through this can a philosophy of history be
productive and suggestive, and not just sheer speculation—as it has
emerged over the centuries. One might think of Vico, Herder, Hegel, and
There are, to be sure, law-like events in history. There are large-
large consequences, too. There are also events that were to be postdicted
and even predicted in history. This is not, however, the history I am talking
about here. My point here is that we can and must look for the importance
of small events that had long-term effects—of contingencies that meant
great shifts—of unpredictable situations that made the present difficult at
that moment—of an unstable world that meant crisis and revolution.
History as a complex system is meaningful only when we
understand the world in terms of crisis and revolution, namely, great
changes and bottlenecks. In steady times complex analyses are not desirable
and not even convenient. This, of course, implies that the regular scenario
of history—birth, growth, and death- does not hold any longer. Instead, we
now seem to exist with the astonishing knowledge that we have come to
live in a non-zero sum world.
17 To mention but a few references, In 1650, James Ussher , Archbishop
of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, established the age of the universe based
on the Bible at nearly 6.000 years that result from summing up the years of the
Exodus, plus the years of Mathusalem, and so forth. Moreover, he proved,
based on the Bible the exact day of the creation: Sunday, 23 October, 4004
B.C. By the time of Kant and Laplace the universe was said to be a few million
years old. Currently the age of the universe is estimated at 13 to 15 billion
History as an Increasingly Complex System 149
Complexity—and chaos. Most of comprehensions have been so far
related to chaos theory. There is a big difference, though, between chaos
and complexity. To the question, What makes a system complex, there are
various answers, ranging from chaos to catastrophe theory to fractals to
non-equilibrium systems, and to non-classical logic. Hence, chaos (theory)
is only one way of answering what makes a system complex. Here I have
dealt with a different approach, namely nonlinearity, and I have argued that
history can be taken as a complex system when viewed as an open
As opposed to the majority of the comprehensions of history in
terms of a dynamic system linking just chaos theory, we can never assess
that history is a chaotic system. At most we can safely say that history
exhibits from time to time, and always in non-regular or periodic times,
chaotic behavior. My concern here has not been whether history depicts
chaos in various moments and places. Instead, I claim that history as a
whole can and should be viewed as a complex system, namely a system of
increasing complexity. The arguments for such a claim are: history is an
open system, history is a nonlinear system, history implies a complex
density of time, and history is a shifting point from social sciences to
natural sciences and back to social sciences but in a positive, self-correcting
There remains, though, a serious difficulty, namely the fact that
history deals with past events, whereas complexity deals with possible
events. The question then becomes about the relationship between past over
against possibility. Such a question, however, remains out of the scope of
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