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Wang Gungwu and Histories of the Unique

There was a very nice write up about Wang Gungwu in the Straits Times today. I was struck by the following:

ST: His first love was literature… (but) he was left to choose between economics and history… Economics, with its abstract models, he found too theoretical. “I was more  interested in unique things and things that actually happened,” he explained. So he chose history.

This resonates with some points I’ve been thinking about regarding ‘assemblage’ theory. We in the social sciences create an overly sharp divide between abstract models and singular events; but the difference is important. If we take the idea of ‘assemblage’ to include temporality and not only spatiality, then history in the sense that Gungwu is talking about refers to assemblages across time (which are very important to understand; and which the Deluzean metaphor of “territoriality” in describing the structure of assemblages does much to obscure). Descriptive history (so badly and wrongly dismissed by some who fetishize hypothesis testing methods of knowledge) provides us with invaluable “assemblages” of events over time. This is unique and important knowledge, irreducible to “systems” (which are a necessary condition for and limit to hypothesis-testing itself… just because you can’t hypothesis-test a unique event doesn’t mean it is not ‘a thing that actually happened’!).

One of the most important contributions of the Complex Adaptive Systems revolution in systems theory is that it makes the systemic approach of “social science” entirely compatible with the reality of unique things and events (and texts and such) of the “arts” or “humanities”. A fundamental way in which dynamical (complex) systems work is that they produce unique things (unique gene sequences; unique individual humans; unique books; unique works of art; unique world leaders). Our understanding of reality can be reduced NEITHER to the system NOR to every unique event, person, or thing.

Example 1: The Malaysia political system is very likely to produce a Malay Prime Minister. The Singaporean political system is very likely to produce a Chinese Prime Minister. It is important to understand the system and to understand why. But no matter how detailed one’s understanding of the system, there would be no way to predict (except with a very short time horizon) that the system would specifically lead to Mahathir or Lee Kuan Yew being Prime Minister of  Malaysia and Singapore respectively. A purely systematic (e.g. hypothesis-testing-science) approach to knowledge will never allow one to fully understand the important influence of those unique individuals. At the same time, a purely interpretive or descriptive approach (e.g. political biography) will not provide a complete (or even very good) understanding of the systemic processes of Malaysia or Singaporean politics.

Example 2: The Sejarah Melayu or Shakespeare’s plays would never have appeared as such without the systemic regularities and patterns out of which were produced Malay court chronicles and Elizabethan theatre. Each of those general fields is well worth studying as a system (or assemblage, if you like). At the same time, it is of particular value to read the Sejarah Melayu or “Romeo and Juliet” specifically – one will never understand their importance fully just by understanding the “systems” that produced them.

So, those are just a few thoughts for the day…

Kudos to Professor Wang Gungwu on his award of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Cambridge University (the main subject of the ST article).


June 10, 2009 Posted by | Random Walks | Leave a comment