Fernand Braudel and the Art of Summary

Fernand Braudel‘s A History of Civilizations deservedly remains a classic. The edition I read and re-read is the Penguin one, translated from the French by Richard Mayne and published in 1993.  Obviously, if one is successfully to write a one-volume history of most civilizations that have inhabited the Earth, one has to have a measure of learning and a dollop of confidence, as well as the ability to move quickly. Summary aids quickness in such writing.  Here is Braudel’s one-paragraph overview of Marx v. Hegel:

“Marx’s dialectic (the search for truth through contradictions or statement and counter-statement) was inspired by Hegel, although it spurned his philosophy. For Hegel, thing of the spirit dominated the material world (‘mind over matter’), and consciousness was humanity’s essential trait. For Marx, by contrast, the material world dominated things of the spirit. ‘The Hegelian system,’ he wrote, ‘stood on its head; we have set it on its feet.’ This did not prevent Marx’s dialectic taking over the terms or successive stages of Hegel’s: (1) the thesis or statement; (2) the antithesis or negation; (3) the synthesis or negation of the negation, i.e. the statement of an evolving truth taking account of both thesis and antithesis, and reconciling them.”  (Quoted from page 548).

Of course, such a summary will entice readers of Marx and Hegel to quibble and professors to complicate the issues.  As their students know only too well, professors love to “complicate” things.  (Additionally, one might wonder why Thomas Aquinas [to pluck just one predecessor from history]  isn’t seen as a main purveyor of “dialectic”, given his constant dialectical method throughout the Summa Theologica).  Also, Braudel can have his maddening traits, including the one that leads him not to cite sources. So after reading a summary such as the one above, one must go in search of Braudel’s sources, something I’ve not done in this case, wherein I’ve chosen to trust Braudel.

With regard to Hegel’s view that consciousness is humans’ essential trait, one might consider C-SPAN’s broadcasts of Congressional speeches, the level of discourse in the current health-care-reform “debate,” and the image of American males lying on a couch watching football (for instances), and be moved to quibble with Hegel.

Quibbling aside, it’s nice to have in one’s possession a book like Braudel’s and the gifts of summary.  Complication is important, but to begin the complication from the starting point of a crisp summary is most advantageous.

I shall leave it to Wild Bill to ponder (if he so chooses) the etymological relationships between Summa and summary.


One Response to “Fernand Braudel and the Art of Summary”

  1. wildbillhaltom Says:

    Dr. O is a brave man to invite my etymological derring-do. Since Thomas is my middle name because he was my mother’s favorite saint, I pick up the gauntlet with Aquinas and move to academics and politicos.

    “Summa” was and is the superlative of the Latin for “situated above.” “Summary” derives from the same Latin root that gave us “sum” as the result of adding.

    So far so prosaic. Now we get to the perversity.

    We call the result of our adding a column of numbers a “sum” even though it falls at the bottom of the column. After all, we “add up” by adding downward. A sum is, we sometimes say, “the bottom line.” Hence, what is in our arithmetic beneath some “bottom line” we call by a term derived from the Latin for highest.

    Moreover, when academics summarize, the verb “to summarize” may suggest that they are looking at ideas or arguments from on high. That is, the summary should be at some highest degree of generality or abstraction. It scarcely challenges this academic to see intellectuals dropping sand or firing the burner to get their balloons to such a height that they can see what they want to see and fuzz up what they cannot explain.

    In like manner, when a politico summarizes, he or she selects a height from which advantageous points may be discerned [with assistance from the spin artist’s spyglass, of course] and from which disadvantageous points will be less obvious, especially amid the spin artist’s misdirection [“look, there’s an illegal alien signing up for a presidential primary!”.

    In sum, those who summarize in politics or in academe are getting high.

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