"Braudel and Interscience:

A Preacher to Empty Pews?"

by Immanuel Wallerstein

© Immanuel Wallerstein, 1999. (Iwaller@binghamton.edu)

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[paper for Vth Journées Braudeliennes, Binghamton University, Oct. 1-2, 1999]

The Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales groups the courses that it offers each year under categories, most of which are quite like those used by most other universities: anthropology, economics, and so forth. For a long period, they also had a category called "Interscience," and Fernand Braudel regularly gave his seminar under this rubric. I do not know who invented the category, but I suspect it was Braudel himself.

But what is interscience? To my knowledge, it is not a term that Braudel has explicated anywhere in his writings, except briefly in an interview he gave in 1984, the year before his death(1). However, one can perhaps reconstruct what the term must have meant to him by looking at a series of texts he published in 1958-1960, at a moment when he had just recently become President of what was then called the VIe Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, to which he was giving very active intellectual leadership.

The first text is the very famous discussion of the longue durée in Annales.(2) Its opening sentence is: "There is a general crisis of the human sciences," and he ends the first paragraph suggesting that "one can envisage today [the] necessary convergence [of the human sciences]" (1969a: 81). Following his long discussion of multiple temporalities which constitutes the heart of the article, he ends it with a peroration:

On the practical level - for this article has a practical intention - I would hope that the social sciences stop for the moment arguing so much as to what their reciprocal boundaries are, what is or is not social science, what is or is not structure. Let them rather try to spell out, through their investigations, the elements (if elements there are) that could orient our collective research, the themes that would permit us to achieve a preliminary convergence. Myself, I believe these elements are: mathematization, narrowing in on (réduction à) locality, longue durée. But I would be curious to know what other specialists propose....These pages are a call for debate (1969a: 83).

This is a striking paragraph in several ways. First, it is clear that what I would call the restructuring of the social sciences was very much on Braudel's mind in the midst of this, his most theoretical, text. He has, he says, a practical intention, and of course his entire career bears witness to how seriously he took this intention. Secondly, the text is a call for debate, a debate for which Braudel makes some preliminary suggestions. And thirdly, his suggestion of elements for a convergence cuts across the epistemological divide that has informed the social sciences for a good 150 years. He calls for mathematization, dear to the heart of quantitative, and usually positivist, social scientists. He calls for an emphasis on local specificity, dear to the heart of those who are most critical of quantitative positivists. And he insists of course on the longue durée, which neither of those two quarreling groups tends to emphasize.

This paragraph is very open in spirit, but it does not deal per se with the knotty issue of resistance. Two years later, Braudel published an article on "the unity and diversity of the social sciences" in a journal dealing with higher education.(3) He starts out by noting that it is the diversity and not the unity of the human sciences that strikes the observer on first look. They seem to constitute different "fatherlands" (patries), speaking different languages and, to be sure, lodged in separate career channels. In this article, Braudel criticizes rather even-handedly all sides for their narrowness of spirit, insisting that if there is to be convergence, the definition of who is to be included should be very wide:

I maintain that, in constructing our unity, all kinds of research are of interest to us, Greek epigraphy as well as philosophy, or the biology of Henri Laugier, or public opinion polls, if they are carried out by someone imaginative and wide-ranging (homme d'esprit) like Lazarsfeld. We too need an ecumenical council (1969b: 95).

Braudel concludes this article with the hope that the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, which he would come to preside and which was not yet functioning at that time, would incarnate the beginnings of this ecumenical council.

All these young forces, all these new methods are within arm's reach, since we have assembled, perhaps uniquely in the world, the indispensable scholarly resources coming from all the "classical" human sciences, something that is extremely precious and without which nothing decisive is possible. Let us not fail to take advantage of this doubling or tripling of the odds. Let us hasten the movement that is tending, everywhere in the world, to move forward to unity. If necessary, let us skip stages, whenever this is possible and intellectually useful. Tomorrow, it will be too late (1969b: 96).

Finally, let us look at his piece on history and sociology. Braudel always gave a special place to discussing the relation of these two classical disciplines, supposedly opposite in their styles. His concern took the form of a lifelong discussion with France's then leading sociologist, Georges Gurvitch, and he wrote this piece for a textbook in sociology that Gurvitch was editing.(4)

In this piece, Braudel is quite radical in his argument. Unlike Gurvitch, as he explicitly notes, he categorically rejects the idea that history and sociology are different disciplines. He says that they constitute "a single adventure of the mind, not even just the obverse sides of a single cloth, but the entire cloth itself, in all the complexity of its threads" (1969c: 105). In this article, too, he ends with a peroration:

There can exist no social science, of the kind that interests me, without reconciliation, the simultaneous practice of our multiple métiers. Setting the social sciences one against the other is easy enough to do, but all these quarrels seem quite dated. We are in need of new music.

So there it is. Interscience is the totality of what has been paraded under the labels of the social sciences or the human sciences and indeed well beyond. It is the whole of them not in the form of some confederation of principalities each of which is defending its domain against too much encroachment by the inclusive category, but as an interwoven cloth with countless threads. See how he put it in his 1984 interview:

For me, there is only a unitary interscience....If one tries to marry history and geography, or history and economics, one is wasting one's time. One must do everything, at the same time.... Interdisciplinarity is the legal marriage of two neighboring disciplines. I myself am in favor of generalized promiscuity. The devotees who do interscience by marrying one science with another are too prudent. It is bad morals that must prevail: let us mix together all the sciences, including the traditional ones, philosophy, philology, etc. who are not as dead as we claim (p. 22).

It is the final design that is of interest to Braudel and nothing else. In 1960, he called on us to rush forward to an ecumenical unity, for tomorrow will be too late. Is 1999 tomorrow? Are we too late? It might seem so on first look. One sees precious few signs today of Braudel's passion to create a truly unified, singular social science in the very institutions that Braudel built and wherein he labored. Is the picture any better in the United States? I fear not. I take as testimony a piece published in September 1999 by an eminent American historian, President of the American Historical Association, and someone who knows France and the Annales well, since he is a distinguished historian of France, Robert Darnton. Darnton has written a "Letter" to all members of the AHA that he entitles "History Lessons."(5) Hear his voice:

After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and Social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws....Instead, we concentrate on the particular and sometimes even the microscopic (microstoria, as it is known in Italy) - not because we think we can see the universe in a grain of sand but because we have developed an increased sensitivity to the complexities that differentiate one society or one subculture from another....

Historians generally distrust the notion of parallels in the past or refuse to believe in their existence....
Twenty years ago, professional historians fell under the spell of the so-called Annales school - a group in Paris who attempted to write "total history" by studying shifts in the structure of society over long periods of time. That Olympian view no longer seems sustainable today....

What then does Darnton offer us? He says that the world is "loaded with meaning, meaning shaped by past experience...." This offers us "perspective." But, it seems, no one is listening. Most college students "increasingly neglect history to concentrate on economics, politics, computer science, and other varieties of systems analysis."

I will not take the time to analyze the fallacy in virtually every line of Darnton's text. I merely note that this statement is virtually the anti-Braudel, as indeed it seems meant to be. We have come full circle. Febvre and Bloch started Annales to combat the histoire historisante of Seignobos and the French historical Establishment. And Darnton, in spectacular vieux jeu, brings us back to the starting-point - and affects to feel besieged at that.

So have we missed Braudel's golden opportunity - in France, in the United States, in the world? Perhaps yes, but then again perhaps not quite. Still, we should analyze why it is that the headlong rush towards a unidisciplinary historical social science that Braudel was not merely preaching and promoting, but believed was in process, has belied his optimism. There has been first of all, perhaps foremost of all, the defensive posture of all those, in all the various loci of petty power in the realm of academia, who have resisted good ideas for bad reasons. Of course, Braudel himself was well aware of this phenomenon, having run into it personally throughout his career. Braudel was perhaps less inclined than we may think he should have been to analyze the forces outside of academia who had every interest in maintaining the inefficacy of the world's social scientists to explicate in analytical depth the realities of the world in which we live, and who therefore underpinned with their undoubted power the stance of the petty conservatives within academia.

Still, we should not content ourselves with arguing that Braudel's hopes and intentions for world social science were simply frustrated by its opponents. For the opponents have done less well than we may fear and that they may think. Consider what has happened in the structures of knowledge since 1960. There was first of all the world revolution of 1968. Its principal consequence in the political arena is closely allied to its principal consequence in the world of academia.

In the political arena, it brought about the end of the world liberal consensus, which had culminated in the period after 1945 in a belief in the certainty of progress, the inevitability of socio-economic convergence of the world's populations, and the central role of state reformism in achieving these ends. By breaking down this consensus, the world revolution permitted the reemergence of genuinely conservative forces and of genuinely radical forces. It thereby broke down the stultifying underlying conformism of the political and intellectual arena. It did this, however, without replacing the previous consensus with any clearly dominant integrating view. The world political arena has become one of great confusion and of large-scale popular withdrawal of legitimacy from the state structures. This has been one major element in a general structural crisis of our existing world-system. We have entered into an extended chaotic bifurcation with all its intrinsic uncertainties of outcome.

The impact of these stresses in the political economy of the world-system, which I cannot further analyze here, has been immediate and profound on the structures of knowledge. Braudel's vision of the interscience that was coming was essentially correct, but he didn't take into account the rocky perturbations of the crisis in the world-system, a crisis about which he would start to write after 1973 and which preoccupied him in the last decade of his life.

To appreciate what has been happening in the academic arena, we have to move back in time and understand how this arena had gotten to the point that Braudel was trying in these early writings to reorient it fundamentally. We need to start the story in the nineteenth century with the creation of the modern university system, initially in western Europe and North America, and then by diffusion throughout the rest of the world. The modern university system is a structure of professional, salaried scholars, organized within sub-units called departments which are united around what have been called disciplines. We need to remember that, as recently as 1850, hardly any of this existed anywhere.

Actually, the various departments that constitute the central core of the university, what in the United States we usually call the "arts and sciences," the disciplines that offer the Ph.D. as the culminating point of student training, have come to be organized by and large within superdomains usually called faculties. There are almost always at least two, and sometimes three of these faculties. There exists virtually everywhere both a faculty of natural sciences and a faculty of the humanities (although the exact name of each varies somewhat in different places). In some universities, there is in addition a third faculty, the faculty of the social or the human sciences. Braudel himself tried hard to establish such a faculty at the Sorbonne. And when he failed, he placed his hopes in the VIe Section and even more in the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme to play this role.

But why are there two (or three) faculties? Why not one? Before the nineteenth century, there was only one. It was called the faculty of philosophy (which is why, to this day, the highest degree, even in departments of physics, tends to be called the doctorate of philosophy). The idea that the single faculty should be divided in two (sciences and humanities) is the result of the so-called divorce between science and philosophy, and the reification of modern science as a separate method, a different theory of knowledge than philosophy, the only route (according to the scientists) to achieve truth. Science, as it was now being defined, was more than merely another form of knowledge. It was the anti-philosophy, because philosophy was speculation and hence had no claims to be truth.

This is a culmination of a long process that absorbed European thought during early modern times, the steady ghettoization of theology as irrelevant to knowledge of the natural world, and the restriction of the concept of causation from the four Aristotelian categories to that of efficient causes alone. It is not the place here to recount this story, except to note that it was the under-pinning of the structure of two faculties, which represented com-peting, indeed contradictory, epistemologies.

Science was universalist. The argument was that there existed laws of the natural world that were true across time and space, and that the object of the investigator was to discern and demonstrate these laws. The process was a cumulative one. These laws were said to be linear, deterministic, and time-reversible. The best law was the most general and the most economical in statement. The humanities were particularistic. The argument was that they were concerned with moral and aesthetic values. While there was some claim that these values were general (as, for example, the Kantian categorical imperative), their actual expression took an infinite number of forms, and the object of scholars was to understand, hermeneutically, these various forms. One could not infer from one situation to another, since each situation was the result of its own particular history.

For the past two centuries, we have built our academic structures on the assumption that never the twain (science and philosophy) shall meet. They were the "two cultures." The social (or human) sciences were caught in-between. The various disciplines tended to choose sides in the great epistemological debate. The so-called nomothetic disciplines (particularly economics, political science, and sociology) tended to be scientific, or at least scientistic. Anthropology, Oriental studies, and history affected more humanistic, or hermeneutic epistemologies. They emphasized variety, not similarities, in human social behavior.

What Braudel was trying to do - and of course he was not alone - was to overcome the gulf within the social sciences, to assert that both epistemologies were mistaken, to call for a reunification or, as he said, an ecumenical congress. If he seems today not to have succeeded, it is because he succeeded too well, attracted too much support, and there came to be a backlash - in France, in the United States, and elsewhere - against what were perceived as his heresies. But his harshest opponents can do little better than reassert the old tunes against the call for new music. Darnton's "Letter" is nothing but a reassertion of all the old "humanistic" themes.

Meanwhile, two important intellectual developments have occurred, neither of which was yet visible in 1958-60. On the one hand, within the natural sciences and mathematics themselves, there has arisen a new intellectual movement, these days usually called the sciences of complexity. These natural scientists are challenging the classical Baconian-Cartesian-Newtonian epistemology, codified in the nineteenth century by Laplace. They are rejecting determinism, linearity, time-reversibility, and the eternal return to equilibria. They are arguing that not merely humans but atoms and galaxies are to be analyzed as the result of the "arrow of time." They are saying that the universe is intrinsically uncertain, and therefore that all matter operates creatively. Ilya Prigogine has extended Braudel's calls for ecumenicism. He not only wants to reconcile history and sociology; he wants to reconcile history and physics. See, for example, the 1994 conference of which he was the key figure, sponsored by the Departments of History and of Physics of the University of Pavia, and entitled "Con Darwin al di là di Cartesio: la concezione «storica» della natura e il superamento delle «due culture»." Nor is this the old idea of the Vienna Circle that knowledge should be reunified via everyone's acceptance of the primacy and sole legitimacy of Newtonian science. Rather, it is the open hand of equal to equal. If anything, it is being argued that the natural sciences need to relearn their paths by incorporating the accumulated wisdom of the historians.

And in the humanities, there has arisen in the last three decades that very strong and controversial movement we call cultural studies. Cultural studies is a much misunderstood movement. One of the reasons is that so many of its practitioners themselves misunderstand what it is they are doing. The fundamental intention of cultural studies is not a sort of nihilistic destruction of knowledge, the total solipsistic relativism peddled by a few extremists. Rather its historical mission has been twofold. On the one hand, it has demonstrated that the so-called canons of good taste put forward by so many within the humanities are socially constructed and therefore truly particularistic. And on the other hand, the fact that particularistic canons have been put forward as universal norms is a product of the unequal hierarchies of the modern world-system, and has served to sustain those in power in this system.

Now note what has been happening. At the time Braudel was writing these texts, the social sciences were still fighting for their legitimate place in the university (remember his failure to create such a faculty at the Sorbonne), and were being torn apart by the contending claims of the two superdomains, each saying "choose us, or your are worthless." It is in this ambiance that Braudel preached reunification of the social sciences. It was a call for intelligent reflection; it was a call too to self-confidence. The social sciences did not need to prove themselves by false standards, whether they were called scientific or humanistic standards.

Today, however, as a result of the emergence of these two vigorous movements of the sciences of complexity and of cultural studies, those "young forces" that Braudel celebrated which are located in these two arenas are moving centripetally towards the middle arena, that of the social sciences, rather than pulling away from each other centrifugally as was for so long the case. To be sure, the "young forces" are not unopposed. The nostalgics of another era, the defenders of a sterilized status quo, the fearful of the possibilities of creative change, are shouting haro! They are launching science wars and culture wars, and seeking to intimidate us all back into silence.

They are trying to ignore Braudel's call for a radical conception of interscience - in France, in the United States, and elsewhere. Since we are living in an age of transition, where outcomes are uncertain, I will not say that they cannot succeed. But they need not succeed. It depends on us. And the battle within the academic arena is part and parcel of the larger battle within the world-system about the kind of successor world-system we wish to create. We shall only be able to contribute to these battles if we see them lucidly and not allow the "dust" of irrelevant vieux jeux to cloud our vision. We should return to Braudel's three elements that would permit a preliminary convergence of the human sciences: mathematization, narrowing in on locality, and longue durée. From there we may move forward to a more sophisticated restatement of the common epistemology that should inform all exercises in knowledge. It will take time and effort.

1. "Une vie pour l'histoire," Magazine Littéraire, no. 212, nov. 1984, 18-24 (propos recueillis par François Ewald et Jean-Jacques Brochier).

2. "Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée," Ecrits sur l'histoire, Paris: Flammarion, 1969a, 41-83 [Originally in Annales E.S.C., No. 4, oct.-déc. 1958, 725-753].

3. "Unité et diversité des sciences de l'homme," Ecrits sur l'histoire, Paris: Flammarion, 1969b, 85-96 [originally in Revue de l'enseignement supérieur, No. 1, 1960, 17-22].

4. "Histoire et sociologie," Ecrits sur l'histoire, Paris: Flammarion, 1969c, 97-122 [originally ch. IV of Traité de sociologie, publié sous la direction de Georges Gurvitch, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2 vol., 1958-1960].

5. Robert Darnton, "History Lessons," Perspectives, Sept. 1999, 2-3.


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