Charles Montesquieu (1689 - 1755) was the first to propose that the products of human culture should be explained in a similar way as physicists explain mechanical processes. He presented the idea in the treatise Esprit des lois (1748). First essay to write a history of art (in antiquity) in line with these targets was made by J. J. Winckelmann (1717 - 68).
The great amount of material made it necessary to find or invent a model which could bind together all the discrete artists or their works. One of the first proposals was Johann Gottfried Herder's (1744 - 1803) analogous model for historical evolution, presented in the book Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1791). He explained that human history is to be regarded as a set of independent "cultures" which are born, grow up, bloom, decay and die.
Another model, the "dialectic process" was then presented by G.F.W.Hegel (1770 - 1831). According to him, a historical development ("thesis") tends to continue until it goes too far and generates an opposing reaction ("antithesis"). In the third phase both become combined to a "synthesis" which in turn may serve as the "thesis" of the next development.
Hegel recommends studying all simultaneous developments of local culture together because they all assist in characterizing the "Zeitgeist" (the "spirit of the age"). This recommendation has since been misused by many writers who, for example, write: "Because of general Zeitgeist, the artist N.N. included often motives from plants in his works." Such a sentence should instead be written: "N.N. included often motives from plants in his works, like most artists of the period." Zeitgeist is a useful label for all the simultaneous features in culture and the various arts of an era, but if you then declare that it is also the reason for these features or an influencing factor, you make the mistake of reciprocal reasoning.
In the 19 century particularly French researchers continued on empirical and objective lines. One of the pioneers was Auguste Comte, whose target was to create a "physics of society". Research should uncover the "laws" of social processes and these laws could then be used for predicting future political events. (A famous modern utopia of such a science is The Foundation by Isaac Asimov.)
Notable followers of Comte were Charles Sainte-Beuve (1804 - 1869) and Hippolyte Taine (1828 - 1893). According to the latter, the principal factors for explaining works of arts were the artist's race, circumstances and point of time (in French: race, milieu et moment; quoted from Philosophy Of Art, 1865).
Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) in turn maintained that economic power and ownership constitute the "basic structure" which then determines the development of culture, all the products included. Indeed, economy is very often taken as one explaining variable in the studies of products by modern researchers, Marxist or not. An example is seen in the diagram on the right, by Gripenberg (1948 p. 31) where the vertical axis indicates workers' average hourly pay in Europe, divided by the coincident price of grain. The horizontal axis marks time and also gives the dominant architectural styles (Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Functionalism). It seems that low cost of manpower has some correlation with elaborate styles of architecture and can thus be taken as (one) explanation for them.
Another list of determinants in the evolution of products (here especially of architecture) can be quoted from Banister Fletcher's History Of Architecture (Preface):
The factors which have since antiquity brought about changes in costume fashions have been enumerated by Hurlock (1929, pp. 213...) as follows:
The two studies quoted above enumerate several discrete determinants which have brought about changes in the products. In other words, in these studies the factors which explain the evolution have had little to do with each other. However, there have also been attempts to find one single underlying determinant which alone could explain the development. One of these proposals is the functional theory of Bronislaw Malinowski, 1944. According to it, development starts in primitive cultures from the basic human needs which aim at securing food and shelter, sexual satisfaction etc. Once these needs are fulfilled other needs arise, and they may also arise from the very arrangements that have been done to fulfil the basic needs listed above. For example, the co-operation that was necessary to obtain food creates a need for common language and for a system of mutual interchange of services. Again, the arrangements for these call for a system of education, of administration and of law. Thus, evolution of society awakens continually needs for new arrangements and also for new products.
Modern histories which aim at explanation. Today, the factors used for explaining the development of products include typically changes in the conditions and organizations of manufacture, inventions, political decisions, international treaties, social reforms, changes in education and in the attitudes of customers. Stabilizing factors, which nevertheless can vary from country to country, are climate, the availability of raw materials and other natural resources, transportation system, and local preferences of people.
An example of a history of products which aims at explaining the development is Ulla-Kirsti Junttila's (1986) study of lighting fixtures and other street installations. Junttila describes historical sequences of products like the one above, and moreover she explains the reasons of this evolution. They are:
Similarly, Päivi Hovi studied how the pictures in advertisements developed in Finland from 1890 to 1930. She found that to understand the development, you have to study the object from four viewpoints or contexts which are illustrated in the diagram on the left.
In the examples above it is the society which causes the development of products, but the opposite direction of causality can also be possible. "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us" stated already Winston Churchill (1943). Artefacts which have generated great historical changes in communities include, among others, those products which improve communication, such as vehicles for transport and in modern times the technology of information.
Modern explanatory models used in the historical study of products and production are discussed on the page Analyzing Development: Explaining a Development.
August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi