John Cobb on History and Our Future

Columns of the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Bacchus in the background at Baalbek, Francis Bedford, 1862. Courtesy Rijksmuseum.

John Cobb on History and Our Future

By   |  May. 24, 2023

We try to sit down with Pando’s founding Chair John Cobb as often as we can to talk about the big ideas related to creating a more sustainable world. This conversation, held over Zoom and edited for clarity and length, focuses on history and its importance to the future of the world.

John Cobb has been called the most significant philosophical theologian of our time and is the leading authority on the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Pando: Hello John! It’s always a pleasure to hear and learn from you. How are you doing today?

John Cobb: Well, all is well over here. So, what are we discussing today?

Today’s Zoom is all about history – and the place for history in creating a brighter future. It’s paradoxical for us, because Pando is all about looking forward and innovating new possibilities. But it begs the question: where does looking back fit into this picture? In terms of  building a more sustainable world, does history matter? Or, does it just get in the way? How does this sound as a discussion topic for today? 

Sure. Well, I’ll begin with my sense of the importance of history. It’s interesting that history has now been extremely marginalized in our educational program. 

I do not mean that there’s no study of the past, but the study of the past is simply in order to have more factual information about the past. 

Historical study, on the other hand, is to understand how we are, what we are, and how we got to be this way. There’s little room anymore for that broad, historical interest and it’s a tragedy I think, with disturbing implications for our practical work of building a better world. 

Much of the formal history we get treats the study of the past almost scientifically, as if moments of history were discrete, analyzable things, instead of a living entity still affecting us. It’s history as dead detail as opposed to history as ushering us to the doorstep of the present moment. Do I have that right? 

I would say yes. Let me further explain by talking about two types of knowledge: historical knowledge and scientific knowledge.

Historical knowledge is knowledge of the non-repeatable – knowledge of actions taken based on choices that were made according to purposes that the actors decided. Scientific knowledge is knowledge of the repeatable. So, there is a close connection between deterministic thinking – where human choice and purpose doesn’t play any role – and scientific thinking. 

If the only causes you are interested in are efficient causes – say, how one thing directly affects another, in succession – you will end up with a deterministic vision of the world with little interest in broad historical knowledge. Wall Street is interested in the history of stock prices, for instance, but not in history reflecting on the role of finance in modern culture. Our educational system now largely reflects that sort of emphasis and approach. 

History, on the other hand, has a great deal to do with final causes – that is, causes that include purposes. This is history in the broad sweep, about choosing this path over that. It assumes that humans are not robots, mindlessly following a predetermined path, but that each moment in life is new and never been seen before, with choices we can make for better or worse. History in this sense should inform and inspire those choices 

In my view, if scientists studied the history of science so that they could better understand their work within a broader sweep, we would be much better off. 

I can be shown to be wrong. And I hope that there are still many departments in the field of sciences that have a study of their own history, but I’m sure many do not. 

Why is this so? 

Treating scientific knowledge as the only important part of any equation implies that you’re not factoring in purpose. It implies that you are not trying to discover meaning but rather facts which may currently just be hidden.

When we asked why did Napoleon do what he did, we were asking with the assumption that Napoleon had purposes, and that those purposes played a role in shaping things. In modern science, purpose is excluded. Now, we are told that the only source of knowledge that is reliable is science and repeatable data. And, this is really disastrous. 

The Greeks, who thought historically, certainly would have never said that. So it’s an impoverishment of the Greek side of our history. 

Science has little capacity for taking matters such as meaning, value, and purpose seriously – as “really real.”  And yet these are the bedrock assumptions of historical thinking.  And historical thinking underlies the work any of us hopes to do in shaping the future.

Science promises to give us an understanding of the world as it “really is.” But a “fact” is an abstraction about the world, and abstractions – however good – always distort from the whole picture.   

History should be useful in helping us to understand this, and, say, to put modern science into its historical perspective – which means understanding how contingent it is on the large, overarching assumptions of the culture in which it’s embedded. 

But because the value of historical knowledge itself has been undercut, it’s difficult to build this case – because you need an understanding of the historical context in order to build it. That is, you need the tools that have been taken away. 

I illustrate the problem by referencing science, yet it’s obvious that questioning fundamental assumptions – about the way things are done, how and why they are done, and how they are valued – is critical to building a more just and sustainable world. 

Historical consciousness is what you’re calling for.

Conscious interest in, knowledge of, and reflection on the past. 

​I have a suggestion of how to illustrate the difference made by what I call “historical consciousness.”  Those with historical consciousness think that  the descendants of slaves who were long denied education need to be singled out for help to overcome the negative consequences of that past.  We consider ignoring this history to be “racism.”  Those who do not have historical consciousness think that giving advantages to members of one race, say, black, over another race, white, is clearly explicitly racist and should be illegal.  After a period in which well meaning people awoke to the effects of slavery and segregation, we are returning to a period in which the idea is treating people equally regardless of their history. Those with historical consciousness consider this racism.  

This is very much in the news these days, but the whole conversation only makes sense within the context of a sweep of history. It’s not so much a conversation about data points as it is a conversation about how we’ve gotten to the present moment and how this history should affect our contemporary choices. 

That Black studies have become part of schools along with women’s studies means there has been a great advance in historical thinking. But because the university in general does not give status to historical consciousness, even these studies are pushed to conform to the dictates of objective factual information rather than to the broader purpose of fostering an understanding of ourselves and our society.  

Ironically, the only major source of historical consciousness in the West has been the Bible, and as we accept scientism as normative, that is excluded.  

Many would say excluded for good reason, as it’s filled with historical errors. 

Here, I’m not talking about looking to the Bible as a critical source of historical data. I’m talking about it’s approach to history, and how it places us within a sweeping narrative that makes history itself vitally important to understanding and interpreting who we are and what we do.  

One thing that I always tell people is that I love reading history not to find the “truth” of a matter, but rather to understand the narratives that other people maintain. With this in mind, one reads the history of another country to understand how those people came to think about their place in the world and not necessarily the exact events which took place.

When I talk about historical thinking, I’m not saying that historical thinking is always accurate. In fact, when we understand what the total actuality of all the events are, any selection of those events we make in weaving a narrative, even if every element in it were accurate, would already be a distortion. Distortion doesn’t have to be blatantly wrong, but can come simply from highlighting this over that. So, I don’t think that people who think historically look for certainty. At least they shouldn’t.

I often wonder, as education becomes more and more geared towards employment, if we will lose this process of self-reflection and understanding in the name of trying to get things “right.”

An exercise in understanding one’s self and others is a great way to put it. When I talk about historical thinking, it implies a search for meaning, purpose, inspiration. 

For example, almost all movements think historically. They don’t appeal first and foremost to science. They appeal to human purposes. Science alone doesn’t help them in that. 

How do you relate this to what you said earlier about scientific thinking and science in general?

I don’t think historical thinking and purpose should be excluded from science. I think that the rejection of what are called “final causes” in modern science – that is, causes attuned to overarching purposes – turned out to be a brilliant move in the 16th century onward that allowed for immense progress. I nevertheless think it’s a mistaken move. 

You’re an intellectual who has planted himself in the middle of movement-building for justice and sustainability over many years. So, you’re saying that it’s not enough to focus on scientific facts alone – say, the fact that an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere has a negative effect on climate. We must ask the bigger historical question of how and why we have gotten to a place of thinking about our beautiful world as if it were nothing other than a meaningless machine grinding its gears in an obscure corner of the cosmos. You’re saying that historical thinking, which we could call big-picture thinking or framing, is necessary to the movement-building work we’re all doing. And, even more, that we can’t even understand the world if we don’t understand the way we have historically framed it. Do I have that right? 

Yes. I think some elements of historical thinking are just absolutely indispensable to human life. 

There is some interest in one’s own ancestors and one does tell some stories about that. Those stories can be wonderful and motivating, to the extent they get passed on. But this personal history, however important, is more shallow than the histories of culture and histories of civilizations. 

We’re more interested in facts – say, the facts of how to make money, to use the finance example, or the facts of how to build a better bomb, to use a military one – than we are interested in reflecting on the intellectual history of how and why we’ve gotten to the point to where our military and business doctrines might unwittingly take us to the doorstep of global suicide.  

It is an extraordinary thing to be committing suicide and be cut off from the intellectual resources needed to reflect deeply on that. 

The reason has deep cultural roots, and it’s not just the modern, scientific worldview that is uninterested in historical thinking. 

If you ask, what did the people in India do when they became most deeply concerned — say, to the challenges they were facing in their lives and culture — the answer lay in meditation. But their meditation was not about what happened in the past or about telling a story. Meditation is about focusing on the present moment. It offers enormous insight and power, but it is different than historical consciousness.  

Jewish and biblical thinking was different. Christianity and Islam picked up on that style. Both of them have synthesized it to a greater extent with Greek thinking. And I think that it’s a good project. 

Perhaps talk a bit more about the importance of historical thinking to bringing about change.

Of course. I think a central figure who embodies this is Martin Luther King Jr. It is easy to forget, but he was a pastor with theological training who experienced a call to ministry. And purpose, not science, was his main motivator. That purpose had to be situated historically. So when he spoke about justice, he situated his work in cosmic history.

Among his many famous quotes is “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

That’s historical thinking. It’s also very biblical. But as most are uninterested in the Bible anymore, our interest in historical thinking itself suffers because the Bible is uniquely focused in this way. 

It is about how people have responded to the meaning and value they’ve intuited in the world. 

Historical thinking wasn’t incidental to King’s work but essential. 

King called us to think of ourselves historically and to place our lives within the cosmic sweep of things. I doubt he could have accomplished what he did without doing that sort of framing. 

And today, we’re hobbled in creating the change we need to see without being able to competently think of our challenges and work in deep historical terms. 

​Incidentally, historical consciousness can help us become aware of how deeply materialistic ways of thinking control our culture. But since the culture itself is uninterested in historical consciousness, our job in mounting a critique is difficult. 

Thank you for your time, as always, John.

You are most very welcome.

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.