FOM: explicating the epochal

Neil Tennant neilt at
Sun Aug 2 09:57:29 EDT 1998

How is the term "epochal" warranted in descriptions of events or
achievements or developments in human affairs? Below are some "things
to note", illustrated with tentative examples. Readers might wish to
quibble over the status of some of these examples; one cannot expect
universal agreement on the choice of such things. Tastes and standards
of judgement do differ. The examples are drawn from the 20th century,
but occasionally we venture into the late 19th century for
particularly good ones. No claim is made for the completeness of any
list of examples in any given category. But obviously readers on fom
might wish to discuss a canonical list of examples for f.o.m. in the
light of the considerations to follow.

1. The first thing to note is that the term "epochal" can apply to a very
broad range of things or events: musical works, paintings, novels (and
to the musical, artistic, or literary "movements" which they inspire or
to which they belong); historical events or movements; technological
innovations; medical breakthroughs; institutional designs; scientific
hypotheses; mathematical results; philosophical schools of thought.

Some examples: 

Classical Music: Mahler's 2nd Symphony; Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du
Printemps"; Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"

Popular Music: the Cole Porter era; Scott Joplin and ragtime; Miles
Davis; Sinatra; the Beatles; the Rolling Stones; Bob Marley and reggae

Novels: Joyce's "Ulysses"; F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby";
Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" 

Philosophy: Logical Positivism; Linguistic Philosophy; Philosophical
Naturalism; Quineanism; possible worlds semantics 

Historical events: the Holocaust; the Normandy landing; decolonization
of Africa; the Vietnam war; the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the
assassination of Martin Luther King; Watergate; the fall of the Berlin
Wall and the break-up of the USSR; the ending of apartheid in South
Africa; the rise of ethnic nationalisms in Europe; the death of Diana,
Princess of Wales

Technological breakthroughs: the internal combustion engine; mass
assembly lines; powered flight; refridgeration; radar; the atomic
bomb; television; lasers; the microprocessor and the personal
computer; the internet; DNA testing

Medical breakthroughs: anaesthetics; X-ray; vaccines; transplant
surgery; laproscopy; test-tube babies; cloning 

Institutional: pension funds; insurance companies; the United Nations;
NATO; the IMF; the World Court; the secondary mortgage market; markets
in futures and derivatives

Scientific: relativity and quantum theory; discovery of DNA and the
genetic code; theory of plate tectonics

Mathematical foundations: arithmetization of analysis; Frege's
Begriffsschrift; higher infinities; set theory; Gentzen's analysis of
proof; Tarski's theory of truth; G"odel's completeness and
incompleteness theorems; G"odel-Cohen independence of continuum hypothesis.

2. The second thing to note is that the epochal character of something
can usually be appreciated by an intelligent, reasonably widely
educated lay person without the specialist skills that would be needed
to enter into niggling debates over the exact level of achievement
that would be assessed by the relevant community of experts. Indeed,
in some areas of creative endeavour, there is a split between the
"producers" of the epochal items, and the "assessors". Such is the
case in literature. Authors write their novels, and then it is mostly
literary critics (and/or librarians and the intelligent reading
public) who assess them and pronounce on their epochal
character. Sometimes there is overlap; but in general authors are
sub-optimal critics and critics are sub-optimal novelists.

3. The third thing to note is that judgments as to the epochal character
of some product/achievement/event/movement/innovation/breakthrough/
invention etc. became firmer and more warranted, and more consensual,
with the benefit of historical hindsight. It usually takes time for
the innate potential of the item to be realized, both metaphorically
and in the awareness of those who would judge of it. Sadly, many a
figure in the history of ideas has had to go relatively unsung and
unrecognized during his or her lifetime, for a contribution that is
only later appreciated as truly epochal. Example: Frege.

4. The fourth thing to note, however, is that sometimes this is not
so. Sometimes it is possible to just feel in one's gut that something
momentous has just happened or is happening. One just knows that
history will prove one right---or at least, that is how one
feels. Examples: the first performance of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du
Printemps"; the assassinations and deaths referred to above; one's
first listening to the Sgt. Pepper album; the fall of the Berlin wall;
the first elections in the new South Africa.

5. The fifth thing to note is that some items can be epochal without
their resulting in good or competent imitations or imitators. They can
be epochal without giving rise to a new school of practice or
practitioners. Most examples here would be drawn from the creative
arts or intellectual disciplines.

6. The sixth thing to note, correlatively, is that some developments
can be epochal without their having resulted from the efforts of any
one individual, and without requiring any great degree of genius or
inspiration. They can come about because of collaborative effort, good
teamwork, hard work, grit, common-sense application of known
technologies. Example: putting men on the Moon; making a space
station. A possible future example: working out that a signal comes
from extraterrestrial intelligences.

7. The seventh thing to note is that "epochal" carries no moral
implications or overtones. Events can be epochal because of their evil
and savagery. A work of art can be epochal because of the moral
lessons its teaches. It can go either way.

8. The eighth thing to note is analytic: an epochal occurrence helps
to define a new epoch. Things can no longer be as they were
before. There has been an upheaval, which affects the consciousness of
those able to comprehend it. It affects the future direction of human
effort. It conditions future human awareness. It affects the human
condition, even if many human beings are unaware of it.

These reflections might be useful for future use, on fom, of the term
"epochal". As far as f.o.m. is concerned, the main questions suggested
by the foregoing are: how does one determine the truly epochal results
or developments in f.o.m.? Is there privileged epistemic access to
this quality? Is it necessary to allow time to elapse before
pronouncing on the presence of this quality in any instance? Does it
require widespread consensus in the relevant community of experts?
Must one be able to anticipate and predict the changes, both in human
consciousness and in directions of future human endeavour, that any
given epochal result or development will effect?

Neil Tennant

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