OF NORTH AMERICA
PROLEGOMENA TO ITS HISTORY
ByJames C. Malin
The area of the earth's surface chosen for this study is that part of the United States designated usually as the Trans-Mississippi West. In its natural state, the feature that gave character to most of the landscape, in contrast with the area east of the Mississippi river, was the vegetational cover of grass rather than forest. Incidentally, the term natural state, as used here, means the condition in which it was found by the European at the opening of the sixteenth century. This rules out of direct consideration the condition of the continent at different periods of geological time, or of anthropological time.
The method employed in the study of this chosen area recognizes the ecological, agronomical, pedological, and geographical factors that provide the areal setting for its history. The sciences bring to the aid of the historian new tools and new methods whose possibilities have been little explored. One purpose of this book is to bring together summaries of the literature in the several borderland fields that seem significant to history, and to give them some application to this specific problem. There is no attempt here to present a formal history of the grassland of North America. There are many works in which aspects of that history are well treated, and, for present purposes, there is no point in mere restatement of such material. The things put into this book are those that seem most pertinent to the main purpose; new methodology, different points of view or emphasis, syntheses of materials not hitherto brought to bear upon this field of history, and some illustrative products of original research. From one point or view, the book may be considered as a series of essays on historiography, materials and methods, together with sample case studies. A book on fuel and housing in the grassland, as well as other studies, will continue the theme. At some future time, a formal history of the area, based upon these broader considerations, may be in order.
Other aspects of general historiography and of methodology have been discussed in Essays on Historiography (Privately printed, Lawrence, 1946).
These two books were originally a single project completed in 1945. The advisability of the separation into two books need not be debated here, but for perspective on some of the terminology used in the present book, attention is called to the Essays. Among other things, the third and fourth of the essays introduce the problem of the adaptation to social theory by physical scientists of certain terminology and concepts of quantum physics.
In physics, the behavior of the individual particle is treated as uncertain, but the behavior of large numbers of particles is treated as predictable according to the principle of probability. Historians have held that the individual fact may be established, if not absolutely, often with a relative degree of certainty, but that generalizations from a large body of facts in apace and time are always uncertain. Are physicists and historians talking about the same thing, and if so, are not their points of view contradictory?
If they are not talking about the same thing, then it is necessary to define the questions more accurately and to reconcile the apparent contradictions.
The issues involved are more than the differences between actuality and the record of actuality, because the physicist's data on the behavior of a particle are available to him only as record. Both the physicist and the historian are dependent upon records. There are some differences in the nature of the records, however, because the physicist has prepared in advance his measuring and recording devices, and can repeat experiments and draw conclusions from large numbers or cases. Such a distinction should not divert attention from the fact that it does not get at the whole of the issue of differences or of comparability in facts and methods. Are individuals or events in history comparable in behavior with the particles of physics? If not, then some physicists have blundered in formulating social theories on that assumption. In any case, the emphasis upon the physical sciences in this mid- period of the twentieth century calls attention to the importance of an exchange of ideas on the social applications of thinking derived from, or inspired by, the physical sciences.
The division or the material into two books resulted also in removing altogether from the present book the essay on F. J. Turner, and Halford J. Mackinder, which appears as the first chapter in the volume of Essays on Historiography, and the discussion of the relation of the Turner hypothesis to the four Delphic freedoms, which is included in the fourth chapter. The brief treatment of Shaler in this book is printed in expanded form as the second chapter of the Essays. The discussions of science and of social theory were divided, part appearing here, while other aspects were treated in the third chapter of the Essays.
The importance of the sciences to the work of the historian is a feature of both books, but it is imperative to challenge the misuses to which the sciences have been put in making social applications. At most, science can only describe how, it cannot explain why. Even the how descriptions are of limited validity. The only justification for continued scientific research is to discover more adequate descriptions. In their enthusiasm over planned society, some advocates of statism, implemented by scientism, disregard facts. Between World Wars I and II, and since, too many people in academic life have acquired a vested interest in partisan public policies, many of which are based upon social uses of the sciences that go beyond the facts.
The challenge to these abuses is based upon general principles, equally valid in any time or place, and consequently any political implications involved in such a challenge are only incidental to what is necessary to defense of general principles and of intellectual freedom. There can be no compromise in this psychological warfare. To criticise merely the details of particular measures is to indulge only in a futile sniping around the fringes of conflict. To pursue a policy of appeasement is to surrender piecemeal. The course of events in Europe has demonstrated that, once indoctrinated with the ideologies of the totalitarian forms of society, people lose their will to resist. In America, totalitarian ideologies have already acquired a substantial following. Freedom cannot be safeguarded merely by exposing the ideologies hostile to freedom. That is negative. Freedom can be defended only by positive action; by presenting constructively the principles of history to serve as guides along the path of freedom. There can be no concessions on principles; to compromise is to betray freedom
Three aspects of science, or levels of thought associated with science, may be recognized as of social significance: The subject matter of science, together with its technological applications, is the most obvious and direct in its social impact; the social theories and applications derived from, or allegedly derived from, science, in which science is invoked as authority for social policies; and metaphysical speculation about science which appears in various guises, particularly under the name of philosophy of science. Boundary lines do not separate these necessarily into definite compartments, but the distinctions serve as a convenience for purposes of analysis. Every academic discipline possesses a body of social thought, whether or not its practitioners are aware or it Apparently, the rank and file of those classed as scientists, have not, until recently, interested themselves directly and extensively in the social implications of science as such. Their awakening to social consciousness found them unprepared, and too often they became victims of thought inimical to the freedom which the sciences profess. It is important that the social significance of all disciplines be recognized explicitly, and that more generally, scientists become acquainted with the body of social thought, not only in their own fields, but especially in its historical setting. Unfortunately, the rank and file of historians seem quite unaware of the body of social thought in the literature of science. That, also should be remedied. Scientists might profitably address themselves to the problem of how scientific knowledge can be presented in order to make it more effectively available to the uses of the historian. Irrespective of the academic discipline with which the individual is identified, social thought should arrive at a common ground of fundamental principles. The converging approaches should contribute to an enlargement of understanding. It is not a matter of one encroaching upon the field of another; all who are concerned with social thinking are engaged upon a common objective.
Since these books were first written, much interest has developed in the United States in atheistic existentialism, primarily a post-war French cult. The argument of this point of view, as distinguished from Soren Kierkegaard's Christian existentialism, is expounded most conveniently in a handbook by Jean-Paul Sartre, L'existentialisme est un humanisme, (Paris, 1946). He asserts that without God, man is condemned to freedom, and that in that state there is no certainty, or standard of values. Man is only what he makes of himself through action. Irrespective of what that action may be, only action possesses meaning and value. Although there is no direct connection between existentialism and the American uncertainty-frame of reference theory of history discussed in the Essays, the general kinship of thought is evident. Both are based upon a denial of certainty, and find values only in making choices as an act of faith. In so doing, both contribute to an ideological background for totalitarian dictatorship. A critique of between-wars thought in the United States, as presented in the Essays, is convincing that the response of Americans of 1947 and 1947 to existentialism should occasion no surprise. (See also John Chamberlain, American writers, Life, September 1, 1947).
Some readers of this book may prefer to read Chapter 15 first, and for some purposes that may by desirable, but the author decided that perspective is better maintained by the present arrangement. The review of the several sciences in Part One is the first attempt anywhere at such a task. To put it differently, scientists have not made such a survey, even for their own use.
The bibliography is extensive, but includes only the more pertinent literature consulted. This is the first time such a bibliography has been compiled anywhere, and this in itself is a justification for printing it.
The one compiled by C. C. Adams would be most nearly comparable. Both the survey and the bibliography thereby become available to those who are interested in pioneering in the borderlands of history, ecology, agronomy, and geography. There is no pretense of perfectionism, but if a project of this kind is to serve any useful purpose, the accumulation of materials and thinking over a period of years must be brought to some conclusion and publication. At best, any historical work is only a progress report on the enlargement of knowledge.