World history

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World history is the study and teaching of the connections within the global community. It is not merely the collections of local or regional histories. The World History Association publishes the quarterly Journal of World History. every quarter since 1990. The H-World discussion list serves as a network of communication among practitioners of world history, with discussions among scholars, announcements, syllabi, bibliographies and book reviews.


In college curricula, it became a popular replacement for courses on Western Civilization, beginning in the 1970s. Professors Patrick Manning at Northeastern University and Rosee Dunn at San Diego State are leaders in promoting innovative teaching methods.[1]

Theoretical and scholarly studies

Herodotus (5th century BC) was a world historian as well as founder of Greek historiography.[2] His History presents insightful and lively discussions of the customs, geography, and history of Mediterranean peoples, particularly the Egyptians. However, his great rival Thucydides promptly discarded Herodotus's all-embracing approach to history, offering instead a more precise, sharply focused monograph, dealing not with vast empires over the centuries but with 27 years of war between Athens and Sparta. In Rome, the vast, patriotic history of Rome by Livy (59 BC-17 AD) approximated Herodotean inclusiveness;[3] Polybius (c.200-c.118 BC) aspired to combine the logical rigor of Thucydides with the scope of Herodotus.[4]

Divine intervention

Chinese, Muslim, Indian and Christian traditions of learning emphasize that God determined history and humans played only supporting roles. Thus Saint Augustine City of God (413-26 AD) distinguished sharply between divine purpose and disjointed human history. In Christian Europe narrative writing was replaced by annals and chronicles that often stressed the trivial and the miraculous.

In China Ssu-ma Cheng-chen [Sima Qian] circa 100 BC presented a model of Chinese history that assumed Heaven choses virtuous hereditary rulers, then arranges events so that they were overthrown when a ruling dynasty became corrupt.[5] Each new dynasty begins virtuous and strong, but then decays, provoking the transfer of Heaven's mandate to a new ruler. The test of virtue in a new dynasty is success in being obeyed by China and neighboring barbarians. After 2000 years Ssu-ma Chen's model still dominates scholarship, even among westerners who do not believe that the ruler's personal virtue assures divine support.[6]

One Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) broke with traditionalism and offered a strikingly modern model of historical change in Muqaddimah, a brilliant exposition of the methodology of scientific history. Ibn Khaldun focused on the reasons for the rise and fall of civilization, arguing that the causes of change are to be sought in the economic and social structure of society. His work was largely ignored in the Muslim world.[7] Otherwise the Muslim, Chinese and Indian intellectuals held fast to a religious traditionalism, leaving them unprepared to advise national leaders on how to confront European imperialism as it reached into Asia after 1500.


While the Chinese, Muslim, and Indian traditions continued their theocentric historiography, there was a radical challenge to it in Christian Europe during the Renaissance. Historians such as Machiavelli ignored divine intervention and stressed that men made their own history, and that rulers should study history in order to shape the future. European scholars began a more systematic study of history. Voltaire (1694-1778), the leading intellectual of the French Enlightenment used comparative history, as in Essay on Manners (1753), to ridicule Christian folly and promote the rule of reason. Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) introduced the perspective of the Scottish Enlightenment in An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767).

Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) in Italy broke new ground with his Scienza nuova seconda (The New Science) in 1725. Vico saw history as the expression of human will and deeds. He argued that men are historical entities and that human nature changes over time. Each epoch should be seen as a whole in which all aspects of culture—art, religion, philosophy, politics, and economics—are interrelated (a point developed later by Oswald Spengler). Vico showed that myth, poetry, and art are entry points to discovering the true spirit of a culture. Vico outlined a conception of historical development in which great cultures, like Rome, undergo cycles of growth and decline. His ideas were out of fashion during the Enlightenment, but influenced the Romantic historians after 1800.

A major thoeretical foundation for world history was given by German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who saw the modern Prussian state as the highest stage of world development.

20th century writers

Influential writers who have reached wide audiences including H. G. Wells, Oswald Spengler, Arnold J. Toynbee, Pitirim Sorokin, Christopher Dawson,[8] and Lewis Mumford. Recent scholars working the field include Eric Voegelin,[9] William H. McNeill and Michael Mann. Most of them (except Wells, Mumford and Mann) have been political conservatives.[10]

Spengler's Decline of the West (2 vol 1919-1922) compared nine organic cultures: Egyptian (3400 BC-1200 BC), Indian (1500 BC-1100 BC), Chinese (1300 BC-AD 200), Classical (1100 BC-400 BC), Byzantine (AD 300-1100), Aztec (AD 1300-1500), Arabian (AD 300-1250), Mayan (AD 600-960), and Western (AD 900-1900). His book was a smashing success among intellectuals worldwide as it predicted the disintegration of European and American civilization after a violent "age of Caesarism," arguing by detailed analogies with other civilizations. It deepened the post-World War I pessimism in Europe, and was warmly received by intellectuals in China, India and Latin America who hoped his predictions of the collapse of European empires would soon come true.[11]

In 1936-1954, Toynbee's ten-volume A Study of History came out in three separate installments. He followed Spengler in taking a comparative topical approach to independent civilizations. Toynbee's said they displayed striking parallels in their origin, growth, and decay. Toynbee rejected Spengler's biological model of civilizations as organisms with a typical life span of 1,000 years. Like Ssu-ma Cheng-chen Toynbee explained decline as due to their moral failure. Many readers rejoiced in his implication (in vols. 1-6) that only a return to some form of Catholicism could halt the breakdown of western civilization which began with the Reformation. Volumes 7-10, published in 1954 abandoned the religious message and his popular audience slipped away, while scholars gleefully picked apart his mistakes.,[12]

McNeill wrote The Rise of the West (1965) to improve upon Toynbee by showing how the separate civilizations of Eurasia interacted from the very beginning of their history, borrowing critical skills from one another, and thus precipitating still further change as adjustment between traditional old and borrowed new knowledge and practice became necessary. McNeill took a broad approach organized around the interactions of peoples across the globe. Such interactions have become both more numerous and more continual and substantial in recent times. Before about 1500, the network of communication between cultures was that of Eurasia. The term used to describe these areas of interaction differ from one world historian to another and include "world-system" and "ecumene." But whatever it is called, the importance of these intercultural contacts has begun to be recognized by many scholars.[13]

Academic historians, who increasingly specialize and demand the use of primary sources, tend to disparage scholarship in world history as attempting the impossible.

Recent themes

In recent years, the relationship between African and world history has shifted rapidly from one of antipathy to one of engagement and synthesis. Reynolds (2007) surveys the relationship between African and world histories, with an emphasis on the tension between the area studies paradigm and the growing world history emphasis on connections and exchange across regional boundaries. A closer examination of recent exchanges and debates over the merits of this exchange is also featured. Reynolds sees the relationship between African and world history as a measure of the changing nature of historical inquiry over the past century.[14]


  • Bentley, Jerry H. Shapes of World History in Twentieth Century Scholarship. Essays on Global and Comparative History Series. (1996)
  • Costello, Paul. World Historians and Their Goals: Twentieth-Century Answers to Modernism (1993).
  • Curtin, Philip D. "Depth, Span, and Relevance," The American Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 1 (Feb., 1984), pp. 1–9 in JSTOR
  • Curtin, Philip D. The World and the West: The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire. (2000) 308 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-77135-1. online review
  • Dunn, Ross E., ed. The New World History: A Teacher's Companion. (2000). 607pp. ISBN 978-0-312-18327-1 online review
  • Frye, Northrop. "Spengler Revisited" in Northrop Frye on modern culture (2003), pp 297–382, first published 1974; online
  • Hughes, H. Stuart. Oswald Spengler (1952).
  • Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. Palgrave Advances in World Histories (2005), 256pp, articles by scholars
  • McInnes, Neil. "The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered." National Interest 1997 (48): 65-76. Issn: 0884-9382 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • McNeill, William H. "The Changing Shape of World History." History and Theory 1995 34(2): 8-26. Issn: 0018-2656 in JSTOR
  • McNeill, William H., Jerry H. Bentley, and David Christian, eds. Berkshire Encyclopedia Of World History (5 vol 2005)
  • Manning, Patrick. Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (2003), an important guide to the entire field excerpt and text search
  • Mazlish, Bruce. "Comparing Global History to World History," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Winter, 1998), pp. 385–395 in JSTOR
  • Neiberg, Michael S. Warfare in World History (2001) online edition
  • O'Brien, Patrick K., ed. Atlas of World History. (2002)
  • Richards, Michael D. Revolutions in World History (2003) online edition
  • Roberts, J. M., The New Penguin History of the World (2007)
  • Roupp, Heidi, ed. Teaching World History: A Resource Book. (1997), 274pp; online edition
  • Smil, Vaclav. Energy in World History (1994) online edition
  • Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History (1998) online edition
  • Watts, Sheldon. Disease and Medicine in World History (2003) online edition

Primary sources

See also


  1. Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (2003); Ross E. Dunn, ed., The New World History: A Teacher's Companion. (2000).
  2. K.H. Waters, Herodotus the Historian (1985)
  3. Patrick G. Walsh, Livy: His Historical Aims and Methods (1961)
  4. Frank W. Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius, (3 vols. 1957-82)
  5. Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty (3rd ed. 1995) excerpt and text search; Burton Watson, Ssu-ma Ch'ien: Grand Historian of China (1958)
  6. S. Y. Teng, "Chinese Historiography in the Last Fifty Years," The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Feb., 1949), pp. 131-156 in JSTOR
  7. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History ed. by N. J. Dawood, Bruce Lawrence, and Franz Rosenthal (2004) excerpt and text search
  8. Bradley J. Birzer, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007)
  9. Michael P. Federici, Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order (2002)
  10. Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (1986) excerpt and text search
  11. Neil McInnes, "The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered." National Interest 1997 (48): 65-76. Fulltext: Ebsco
  12. William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee a Life (1989)
  13. William H. McNeill, "The Changing Shape of World History." History and Theory 1995 34(2): 8-26.
  14. Jonathan T. Reynolds, "Africa and World History: from Antipathy to Synergy." History Compass 2007 5(6): 1998-2013. Issn: 1478-0542 Fulltext: [ 1. History Compass ]