Linear Narrative, Rhizomes, and Causality

It’s interesting that Luhmann writes a great deal about the 17th and 18th centuries because the concept of centuries, along with the division between BC and AD, only became common in the 17th century. Marking events on a linear timeline seems natural today, but it hasn’t always been so. According to historians Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift,

linear narrative is associated with absolute dating systems which are
themselves historically and culturally specific artefacts arising in part from the spread of a particular form of clock time.

Much of the timing system that we now regard as a part of standard historical practice is of relatively recent vintage. For example, the BC/AD system (which is gradually being replaced by the BCE/CE system) dates only from the seventeenth century. A Jesuit scholar, Domenicus Petavius, published the first formal work setting out the BC/AD system in 1627. His system came slowly into use in the seventeenth century, but with many chroniclers still preferring the older system, the so-called Julian Period. The use of centuries dates from much the same period.

Glennie, Paul, and Nigel Thrift. Shaping the Day : A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2009.

As for the concept of centuries,

Though it appeared during the Reformation, the concept of centuries did not come into widespread use before Newton’s time. Not until the seventeenth century did most literate contemporaries identify the epoch in which they lived as their ‘century’, and only in the course of the Enlightenment did the term take on the epochal significance we now attach to it. . . . .

for historians before Newton the time frame did not include a group of events; a group of events contained a time frame. This perspective led them to use a variety of relative dating systems, none of which had an absolute temporal significance apart from the group of events that gave it its meaning. Since we use an absolute time line as a basis for our synthetic understanding of the past, modern scholars have often viewed the relative time lines of early historians with condescension, calling relative time simple and primitive.

Wilcox, D.J. (1987) The Measure of Times Past: Pre-Newtonian Chronologies and the Rhetoric of Relative Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The modern dating system was invented to deal with the complexity of explosion of new knowledge in the new age of print. As more knowledge emerged about the past, a more sophisticated dating system was needed. It’s like the invention of the geological time scale. As geologists learned how old the earth is (not just the 6,000 years of the Bible), they needed a new time semantics. On the other extreme, advances in physics led to the invention of a time semantics features nano seconds, etc. Regarding the historical development of these different semantics, we return to the 17th century:

In the late 17th century Nicholas Steno (1638–1686) pronounced the principles underlying geologic (geological) time scales. Steno argued that rock layers (or strata) were laid down in succession, and that each represents a “slice” of time. 


Regarding timelines and causality, we can distinguish between linear narrative and rhizomatic narrative. In the latter, we can never trace an effect back to a single, discrete cause. Laboratories were invented to try to isolate particular causal relationships, but in life outside the lab we can never account for all the variables. Also, in tracing causes, how far back should we go? And as for effects, how far forward should we go? They are all contingent selections. Here is a passage from a John Cheever short story that illustrates this problem:

Nine times out of ten, Francis [the father] would be greeted with affection, but tonight the children are absorbed in their own antagonisms. Francis had not finished his sentence about the plane crash before Henry plants a kick in Louisa’s behind. Louisa swings around, saying, “Damn you!” Francis makes the mistake of scolding Louisa for bad language before he punishes Henry. Now Louisa turns on her father and accuses him of favoritism. Henry is always right; she is persecuted and lonely; her lot is hopeless. Francis turns to his son, but the boy has justification for the kick–she hit him first; she hit him on the ear, which is dangerous. Louisa agrees with this passionately. She hit him on the ear, and she meant to hit him on the ear, because he messed up her china collection. Henry says that this is a lie.  

John Cheever, “The Country Husband”

How far back do we go in attributing blame? Attribution will always be arbitrary.

We can think of causality as structural. Rather than thinking (in a mechanistic way) of one object hitting another object, like billiard balls, we can think of the structural properties of the second ball—the ball that is hit. The first ball does not cause the second ball to move in a certain way; it is the structure of the second ball that determines its response. For instance, the mass of the second ball may be decisive. This was the Stoic’s view of causality. We need to look within systems for causality.


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