Chaos, Clio, and Scientistic Illusions of Understanding

History and Theory 34 (1):30-44 (1995)

Authors
Paul A. Roth
University of California, Santa Cruz
Abstract
A number of authors have recently argued that the mathematical insights of "chaos theory" offer a promising formal model or significant analogy for understanding at least some historical events. We examine a representative claim of each kind regarding the application of chaos theory to problems of historical explanation. We identify two lines of argument. One we term the Causal Thesis, which states that chaos theory may be used to plausibly model, and so explain, historical events. The other we term the Convergence Thesis, which holds that, once the analogy between history and chaos theory is properly appreciated, any temptation to divide history from the rest of science should be greatly lessened. We argue that the proffered analogy between chaos theory and history falls apart upon closer analysis. The promised benefits of chaos theory vis-à-vis history are either fantastic or, at best, an extremely loose heuristic which, while retaining nothing of the considerable intrinsic interest of nonlinear dynamics, easily seduces the unwary into taking at face value terms and concepts that have a specifically precise meaning only within the confines of mathematical theory
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DOI 10.2307/2505582
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