The fundamental premise(s) of our age

From a discussion at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference between the US and the UK about what was to be done about rising Japan.

It could not be denied that they were a growing nation who had industriously exploited their own territory and needed room to expand. They were refused outlets in ‘any white country,’ in Seiberia and in Africa. Where were they to turn? ‘They had to go somewhere.’ Balfour did not question this fundamental premise of the age. Dynamic populations needed space into which to expand.

The Deluge‘ by Adam Tooze

What is so enjoyable about Tooze’s history is how it forces the reader to take the assumptions and beliefs of historical figures seriously. In doing so he shakes off the inevitability with which events can appear in retrospect and shows history full of contingency.

A similar point is made at a more profound level in a wonderful review piece in the LRB on the ontology of history. In short the author argues that historians should abide by the truth standards of the world’s they study:

an ontological turn would require historians to abide by very precise truth standards, albeit those of the particular worlds they are studying, not those of our own Western modernity

He uses the example of the supernatural in Ancient Greece. Instead of starting from our own assumptions about the supernatural and assuming that the Ancient Greeks were easily duped, saw their gods as symbolic entities or were cynical believers, we must imagine:

If one of us was approached by what appeared to be a god, chances are that we would want to carry out a few reality checks, so we tend to imagine the Athenians would have too. But perhaps we should consider more closely what the world would have to be like such that episodes of this sort didn’t appear silly or insipidly metaphorical.

The question is what are the fundamental beliefs of our time? As a starting point, some of the differences with Ancient Greece:

the oppositions public/private, nature/culture and sacred/secular, or the idea that the material world is objective, or that the primary way to understand human beings is as distinct individual entities rather than as transient parts of bigger entities such as ‘the family’, ‘the inhabitants of Athens’ or ‘the people’.

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