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World History in Context
Christian, David, 1946-

Journal of World History, Volume 14, Number 4, December 2003, pp. 437-458 (Article) Published by University of Hawai'i Press DOI: 10.1353/jwh.2003.0048

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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jwh/summary/v014/14.4christian01.html

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World History in Context *
david christian
San Diego State University

all about and Margaret written, “what historians best is to H istory isJacob havecontext. AstoJoyce Appleby,doLynn Hunt,make connections with the past in order illuminate the problems of the present and the potential of the future.” 1 That is why historians so often complain about fields such as international relations that focus almost exclusively on current events and issues. However, historians haven’t always been so good at putting their own discipline in context. Oddly enough, this applies even to world history. One of the virtues of world history is that it can help us see more specialized historical scholarship in its global context. But what is the context of world history itself? This is a question that has not been sufficiently explored by world historians. 2 Yet it should be, for all the reasons that historians * This essay is based, in part, on a paper given to the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities at their 250th anniversary symposium in Haarlem in May 2002: “Maps of Time: Human History and Terrestrial History” in Symposium ter Gelegenheid van het 250-jarig Jubileum, Koninklijke Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen: Haarlem, 2002. My thanks to the Society for permission to reproduce some passages from that paper. 1 Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1995), p. 9. 2 Exceptions include William H. McNeill, whose article “History and the Scientific Worldview,” in History and Theory, 37, no. 1 (1998): 1–13, places world history within the context of other historical sciences, including biology and cosmology; and Fred Spier, The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996). There have also been some remarkable books by scientists that set human history in its cosmological context; they include Nigel Calder’s remarkable chronology Timescale: An Atlas of the Fourth Dimension (London: Chatto and Windus, 1983) and John Gribbin, Genesis: The Origins of Man and the Universe (New York: Delta, 1981), both of which are now slightly dated. Fred Spier has compiled a fuller bibliography of such works by historians and scientists. It can be found at . Journal of World History, Vol. 14, No. 4 © 2003 by University of Hawai‘i Press

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understand so well when we criticize other disciplines for neglecting context. One of the aims of world history is to see the history of human beings as a single, coherent story, rather than as a collection of the particular stories of different communities. It is as much concerned with nonliterate communities (whether they lived in the Palaeolithic era or today) as with the literate communities that generated the written documents on which most historical research has been based. World history tries to describe the historical trajectory that is shared by all humans, simply because they are humans. Understood in this sense, world history is about a particular species of animal, a species that is both strange and immensely influential on this earth. So, to ask about the context of world history is to ask about the place of our particular type of animal, Homo sapiens, in the larger scheme of things. This question encourages us to see world history as a natural bridge between the history discipline and other disciplines that study changes in time, from biology to cosmology. Modern Cosmologies often seem to Decenter Human...
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