Wolf Schäfer, 1993. "Global History: Historiographical Feasibility and Environmental Reality."

I. Historiographical Feasibility

The urge to understand it all is a universal condition. But the wish to understand it all by seeing it all in one sweeping glance has certainly become very strong in the tradition of Western "man."[1] Lucian's Icaromenippus improved on Daedalus and Icarus and securely attached the right wing of an eagle and the left wing of a vulture to his shoulders, and flew up to the moon. He peered down from on high and saw

the traders, the soldiers, the farmers, the litigants, the women, the animals and, in a word, all the life that the good green earth supports… Whenever I looked at the country of the Getae I saw them fighting; whenever I transferred my gaze to the Scythians, they could be seen roving about on their wagons: and when I turned my eyes aside slightly, I beheld the Egyptians working the land. The Phoenicians were on trading-ventures, the Cilicians were engaged in piracy, the Spartans were whipping themselves and the Athenians were attending court. As all these things were going on at the same time, you can imagine what a hodge-podge it looked (Lucian, 1988: 289 and 297).

The satirist from Samosata on the Euphrates who settled in Athens in the second century A.D. and Leften Stavrianos, the world historian from Vancouver who settled in Chicago in the twentieth century, both wanted to see it all and all at once. Lucian adopted a lunar point of view to mock the "comical little creatures" on earth. Stavrianos, however, called for a more serious view from the moon in 1964.[2] He proposed to adopt a lunar perspective in order to gain "a higher, unifying vision of the whole human past" (Allardyce, 1990: 40). With Lucian, we can laugh about human vanity, but with Stavrianos, or, better, with the concept of a "unifying vision of the whole human past," we must struggle. It was meant well, but I believe that it was and is impossible, and, as far as I am concerned, neither desirable nor acceptable as a goal.

In what follows, I will try to explain this opinion. The goal of creating a unifying vision of the whole human past strikes me as very alteuropäisch (old-European); it tries to compute the sum total of every-thing, which creates an epistemological dinosaur. Le grand récit a perdu sa crédibilité ("The grand narrative has lost its credibility"), declared Jean-François Lyotard in La Condition Postmoderne (1979: 63; 1984: 37). I would like to emphasize that for the scheme of Global History. What must be resisted is the temptation to create a new grand narrative for our time, which lurks in deep ecology,[3] new wave holism,[4] the "comprehensive self-organization paradigm,"[5] and other currents of thought.

The word for "too global" is globaloney, used in 1951 by the Chicago Tribune to ridicule the idea of using World History as a means to advance world peace (Allardyce, 1990: 28). I think one should try to avoid this epithet. Therefore, I would like to endorse the writing of petits récits (little narratives) in an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and multinational research field, which would be thematically organized much like women's studies or science studies and might, in turn, be called global studies.

World History has been called Universal History and, occasionally, Ecumenical History — historians are notorious for their terminological generosity. All these terms are functionally equivalent despite their semantic nuances and different conceptual histories. The idea that World History has to "unite the whole human past and be total, global, and universal in time and space" (Allardyce, 1990: 67) captures in a nutshell, unfortunately with approval, what I mean by traditional World History.

World History and Global History are often used interchangeably. This can be seen best in the editorial statement in the first issue of the Journal of World History, which began publication in spring 1990. The editorial ran under the title "A New Forum For Global History."[6] The term global history, however, is not new. As early as 1962, Stavrianos coauthored a successful high school World History textbook under the classic prefeminist title A Global History of Man (Stavrianos et al., 1967). As Gilbert Allardyce wrote, "Stavrianos's ideas connected him with those advocating the 'global approach' to international education, and the work of his Global History Project at Northwestern University largely coincided with the rise and decline of the globalism idea in American learning between 1957 and 1975" (1990: 43). According to Allardyce, "The term global history was simply a modish, space age name for world history" (ibid.).

A new and more promising, i.e., less total, version of World History was implied in the editorial foreword to a series of "Essays on Global and Comparative History," published by the American Historical Association since 1987. Michael Adas, the editor of these pamphlets for college and secondary school teachers, remarked in his prefatorial note:

Though the current interest in global history reflects a continuing fascination with the broad patterns of human development across cultures that were the focus for earlier works on world history, the "new" global or world history differs in fundamental ways from its predecessors. Writers of the new global history are less concerned with comprehensiveness or with providing a total chronology of human events. Their works tend to be thematically focused on recurring processes like war and colonization or on cross-cultural patterns like the spread of disease, technology, and trading networks.[7]
I find two interesting points in this quote: The easy interchangeability of World and Global History, on the one hand, and the support for a non-traditional World History, on the other.[8] Yet it is hard to appreciate fully the achievement that this inconspicuous arrival of a new World History constitutes without a fair deconstruction of the traditional approach to world history. If we want to promote a new Global History that is modest and small as well as epistemologically up to date, we must first discuss the lingering legacies cum fallacies of grand (old) World History.

The bequest of traditional World History that is most troubling is the anachronistic desire for totality. Old World History revolves around a false trinity of (1) the whole playground of historical action, (2) the whole span of historical time, and (3) the whole of humanity as the subject of history. How could anyone ever expect to cover this much? The answer must be historical or clinical. At least some sort of megalomania inspired the young Arnold Toynbee, who wrote in 1911, "As for Ambition with a great screaming A, I have got it pretty strong... I want to be a great gigantic historian... and become a vast historical Gelehrte" (McNeill, 1989a: 31). However let us try the historical answer.

First, the whole playground of historical action started out conceptually large but comparatively small in square miles. The "whole world" of World History was nonglobal most of the time. The Greek historian Polybius, for instance, who became a voice of his masters after he was brought to Rome as a political hostage, wrote Ecumenical History. Awed by what he had witnessed during his lifetime in the second century B.C., Polybius presented the violent transformation of a multipolar political arena into the Orbis Romanus as world history. He could do that because the circle of Roman power enclosed a whole world. The civilizational horizon of this world was local, however, and did not reach too far beyond the Mediterranean rim.

The egoistical Greek word for the "inhabited lands" of the known world — oikumenê — was used in the bilingual Greco-Roman period to distinguish between civilized and non-civilized parts. Toynbee adopted it later for the whole "habitat of mankind," noting that "the true extent of the Oikumenê is much larger than the area of the 'civilized' world known to the Greeks and Romans, but ... this comprehensive Oikumenê is nevertheless much smaller than the biosphere" (1976: 28). McNeill, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association (1985), spoke of the need for World History to develop an "ecumenical history, with plenty of room for human diversity in all its complexity." He went beyond Toynbee and pointed out that any one person is a full member not only of the human race but also of the "wider DNA community of life on planet Earth" (McNeill, 1986b: 7). World History after McNeill is completely ecumenical and ecological or 'ecumenological' and covers the whole planet, with all its living beings in each and every niche of the globe, micro- and macroparasites as well as human beings (McNeill, 1980; McNeill, 1989b). That much input, however, is a mixed blessing. It changes the original equation between one particular world and "the" world and makes the task of writing world history very complicated if not impossible.

The ancient totality of World History was based on civilizational arrogance and geographical ignorance. It allowed the more or less undisturbed side-by-sidedness of numerous self-centered worlds, theoretically with a homegrown world historian for each one of them. All these Polybiuses could write local world history, but none of them could write global world history. Toynbee and McNeill tried to correct this. But they preserved the old concept of totality and tried to make world history coextensive with global history. They paid tribute to the advancement of knowledge in history, geography, ecology, medicine, and molecular biology. But the World History that worked was not global, and the Global History that might work will have to sacrifice totality. The fields of historical action have not only grown rather numerous with the unveiling of the face of the earth, they have become ever more complex due to other advances of knowledge. The world's geometry has become fractal; totality is a nonentity. We experience worlds within worlds within worlds — far too many for any grand narrative.

Second, the whole span of historical time accumulates with the increasing production of historical literature. "It has been calculated," wrote F. R. Ankersmit in a recent article on historiography and postmodernism, "that at this moment there are more historians occupied with the past than the total number of historians from Herodotus up until 1960."[9] And well over 90 percent of these historians, I could add without much computing, are specialists. They may be classified as African, American, or Asian historians, for example, but the actual research work they do is much more narrowly focused. Professional expertise is limited in terms of historical approach, area, and period. Research historians understand what it means to know a field — it means to feel bold enough to identify the flaws and review the merits of new work in that field.

If it is our "great and solemn duty" to "construct the best possible portrait of the whole human adventure on earth," as McNeill affirmed with authority in his defense of World History (1982: 86), then I am afraid we cannot but fail. Modern historiography constantly deconstructs by sheer cumulative effect any one portrait of the whole human past, even the best. Individual historians may not want to be iconoclasts, but their contributions add to the maze of history and are bound to offset other contributions; they function like the poor Christian sinner who is born to sin. We are no longer in the privileged position of Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, who could proceed with blessed simplicity through a straightforward and lucid past. A Bossuet could tell his readers — the dauphin and his father, the Sun King — that history deals "only with the deeds that concern princes," that rulers can learn from history "without any risk" (Bossuet 1976: 3), and that World History spares the royal mind the confusion which arises from "scrupulous attention to minutiae" (109).

This kind of universal history is to the history of every country and of every people what a world map is to particular maps. In a particular map you see all the details of a kingdom or a province as such. But a general map teaches you to place these parts of the world in their context; you see what Paris or the Ile-de-France is in the kingdom, what the kingdom is in Europe, and what Europe is in the world. In the same manner, particular histories show the sequence of events that have occurred in a nation in all their detail. But in order to understand everything, we must know what connection that history might have with others; and that can be done by a condensation in which we can perceive, as in one glance, the entire sequence of time. Such a condensation, Monseigneur, will afford you a grand view (4).

World historians have continued this explanation about the understanding of the whole ever since Bossuet with additional good words about the appropriate historical perspective, the parts and the whole,[10] the forest and the trees.[11] Bossuet, however, was in a much better a position than we are to cover "the entire sequence of time." He started with Adam and quickly moved through the epochs of Noah, Abraham, Moses; continued with the fall of Troy, Solomon, Romulus, Cyrus, Scipio, and arrived in due time at the "last age of the world." The last age began with the birth of Jesus Christ in the year 1 A.D. and encompassed the epochs of Constantine, Charlemagne, and Louis XIV. The bishop's history of the world emerged not from secular darkness but from the Lord's almighty linguistic workshop. "The first epoch begins with a grand spectacle: God creating heaven and earth through his word and making man in his image (1 A.M., 4004 B.C.). This is where Moses, the first historian, the most sublime philosopher, and the wisest of legislators, begins" (9).

It is important to notice that this grand narrative commenced with the first "year of the world," year 1 anno mundi or 4004 B.C. Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire universelle (1681) covered exactly 5,685 years (4,004 plus 1,681). For millenarian thinking, this was rather close to the end of the world. Indeed, the world was expected to last 6 world days (until ca. 1996); thereafter, on the seventh day, the kingdom of God would be erected.[12] The great Isaac Newton, who spent much of his time in the 1670s correlating biblical prophecies with historical data, was not the only one who tried to calculate the date for the end of the world (Westfall, 1983: 319ff.). Bossuet and his contemporaries thought that historical events were "already established and immutable and not the result of research and analysis by the historian."[13] The future, though hidden, was certain until the Enlightenment, not a multiplicity of possible futures but one written down in the book of destiny, preexistent and inflexible.

The concept of time has changed since the late seventeenth century and not in favor of traditional World History. The "famous Bossuet" was removed from the Royal Library in Paris in L'An 2440 (1771), Louis-Sébastien Mercier's futurist utopia. Mercier was among the first to cross the timeline drawn at the year 2000.[14] Many have followed him, and we are close now. Indeed, the tremendous growth of modern historical scholarship has turned "the" past into a plurality of worlds. Only semantic inertia allows us to speak of the past as if it could be grasped in one piece. The past has, in effect, become a welter of pasts, approached from different ideological perspectives, and analyzed with the interpretive tools and gauges of over two dozen historiographical schools. All these pasts carry their own temporal horizons with futures past, presents past, and pasts past. And research historians are bound to complicate the already overcomplex picture by reconstructing these pasts within pasts.[15]
Third, the whole of humanity is a noble idea as long as it is understood as a regulative principle, i.e., as a safeguard against exclusive particularism. The whole of humanity is put to good use if, like Micah, we believe that everybody shall have the right to sit in peace "under his vine and under his fig tree" (Micah 4:4-5). But we enter treacherous ground when we begin to speak about the whole of humanity as if it were an existing entity. The whole of humanity is a project, not a reality. As a project, it serves to criticize human affairs in which, for instance, only men are allowed to sit under vines and fig trees. The project version of humanity keeps one's eye on the fact that we are operating with a telos and not an achievement. If, however, the utopian and critical function of the idea of the whole of humanity is replaced by a hypostatization of what we like to think about ourselves and all other human beings at the time, then we leave the open realm of critical historiography and enter the darker domains of "mythistory."

[Oct. 2001: It could be argued that the whole of humanity is becoming a reality in the Global Age, in fact, I believe that this momentous change is occurring now. Now, we must investigate and describe the circumstances that led from religious and philosophical fictions to a complex reality. But that does not mean that historians should serve as eulogists or guides of humanity.]

McNeill has taken the risk of redefining History as "mythistory" and the historian as a "truth-seeking mythographer."[16] Serious myth-history is, in McNeill's view, "a useful instrument for piloting human groups in their encounters with one another and with the natural environment" (1986b: 10). The idea of humanity as a whole is certainly a prime candidate for modern myth-history. But we must ask, Which humanity? Do we refer to the one that is said to be a whole or the one that is but a promise? I read McNeill as coming close to saying that humanity was always out there in the world as a whole.

Humanity entire possesses a commonality which historians may hope to understand just as firmly as they can comprehend what unites any lesser group. Instead of enhancing conflicts, as parochial historiography inevitably does, an intelligible world history might be expected to diminish the lethality of group encounters by cultivating a sense of individual identification with the triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a whole (1986b: 7).

Oswald Spengler rejected the whole idea of humanity as an empty category for World History.[17] McNeill, by contrast, regards the ideal supergroup of humanity as the moral gravity center of world history. He more than follows the lead of his teacher Carl Becker toward an affirmation of socially honorable ideologies; he speaks in favor of "collective self-flattery," i.e., a "flattering historiography," requesting "an appropriately idealized version of the past." He understands World History as an effort to "allow a group of human beings to come closer to living up to its noblest ideals."[18] Thus, McNeill puts the world historian in a very responsible position for the "right" course of history.

Living up to the universalistic ideal of humanity as a whole, however, has already meant many things: Catholic theology, Christian mission, Enlightenment philosophy, Marxian revolution, European imperialism, and so on. It is not an easy task to speak for the whole with legitimacy, especially when the whole is not a live subject but a compliant macroconcept of metahistory. Spengler ranted against the "West European scheme of history, in which the great Cultures are made to follow orbits round us" and rightly ridiculed it as the "Ptolemaic system of history" (1965: 13). Yet his own "Copernican discovery" of the morphological laws of world history could not identify more than eight world cultures, and that short list contained only two cultures of which he knew something: the Greco-Roman and West European (Faustian) ones. Stavrianos' World History "of man" was designed to speak for the whole of humanity but left half of it out.

Our situation might be different if the first decades of the "atomic age" had led to one all-encompassing world state or a new, truly unifying world order. Toynbee,[19] Jaspers (1953), and many other great thinkers about the big picture in the 1950s believed that they were experiencing an end of history and predicted some kind of world unity "either by force in a despotic world-empire or through mutual agreement in a world order based on the rule of law" (Jaspers, 1953: 24). None of this has come true, but all of it can be a topic in the origins of global history. Today, the whole of humanity is no less a fiction than it was yesterday. Humankind is neither uniform nor united. To be sure, the universalistic concept of one humanity can still be helpful, but only if it is applied to the abundant misery of human history in a deconstructive way, that is, as a radical critique à la Marx of all circumstances "in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised."


[1] For a feminist interpretation of the visual logic of Western thought, see Evelyn Fox Keller and Christine Grontkowski (1983).

[2] Cf. Leften Stavrianos (1964: 617): "What does this new [global] perspective mean...? It means the perspective of an observer perched on the moon rather than ensconced in London or Paris or Washington."

[3] For a critical review of deep ecology and related works, see Alan Wolfe (1991).
[4] For a taste of this, see James Lovelock (1990). On p. xvi, he wrote, "Gaia theory forces a planetary perspective. It is the health of the planet that matters, not that of some individual species of organisms. This is where Gaia and the environmental movements, which are concerned first with the health of people, part company."

[5] The self-organization concept is indeed comprehensive; see the statement by Erich Jantsch (1981: v) that autopoiesis "encompasses all levels of reality, from the cosmic or physical through the biological, ecological, and sociobiological to the sociocultural."

[6] Journal of World History 1, no. 1 (Spring 1990), iii. The journal is published by the University of Hawaii Press.

[7] Michael Adas, "Foreword," in The Columbian Voyages, the Columbian Exchange, and Their Historians, by Alfred W. Crosby (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1987), v.
[8] For some of the books that could count as "new" World History, mainly comparative and cross-cultural studies, see Philip Curtin (1991).

[9] F. R. Ankersmit (1989: 138). The late Derek de Solla Price did a calculation of this kind in the 1960s for scientists, but who did it for historians? See his Little Science, Big Science, where he wrote, "we can say that 80 to 90 percent of all the scientists that have ever lived are alive now" (1963: 1).

[10] Leften Stavrianos (1964: 618).
[11] William McNeill (1982: 82f.).

[12] G. J. Whitrow (1989: 81): "Millenarian belief arose from combining the idea expressed in Psalm 89:4 that 'A day with the Lord is as a thousand years' with the interpretation of the Sabbath, or seventh day, as a symbol of heavenly rest in accordance with Hebrews 4:4-9." So, if 6 times 1,000 years are to be expected and 5,685 years of world history are gone by, 315 years are left. Adding these remaining 315 years to 1681, the publication date of Bossuet's Discourse, the year 1996 is the predetermined end of human history.

[13] Orest Ranum in his introduction to Bossuet (1976: xix).

[14] Immanuel Kant was one of them; he wrote in Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (1755): "Die Schöpfung ist nicht das Werk von einem Augenblicke... Es werden Millionen, und ganze Gebürge von Millionen Jahrhunderten verfließen, binnen welchen immer neue Welten und Weltordnungen nach einander, in denen entfernten Weiten von dem Mittelpunkte der Natur, sich bilden, und zur Vollkommenheit gelangen werden" (A 113). (The creation is not the work of an instant... millions, and whole mountains of millions of centuries, will elapse in which new worlds and world orders will form and come to perfection one after another in the remote distances from the center of nature.)

[15] Reinhart Koselleck (1979). Translation by Keith Tribe, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985.

[16] McNeill (1986a). I must admit that I am deeply troubled by McNeill's marriage of myth and history, not least because of my German background and my familiarity with the Myth of the 20th Century by Alfred Rosenberg. I know that McNeill advocates mythmaking for humanity and not for particularistic groups, but I also know that humanity is a lofty abstraction and that deadly competition among human groups is very real. Myth-history, I am afraid, is likely to serve the interests of real people more than the imagined community of the whole. This is not to say that the writing of history should only respect scholarly concerns — our trade serves all sorts of non-scholarly interests, to be sure. However, this is a question of the right proportions. "Mythistory" throws the doors wide open to all sorts of uncritical interests in history. This, I think, is dangerous.

[17] Cf. Oswald Spengler (1965: 17): "'Mankind'... has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids. 'Mankind' is a zoological expression, or an empty word."

[18] McNeill (1986b: 6). For the strong influence that Becker's much debated relativism (as expressed in "Everyman His Own Historian") had on McNeill, see Mythistory and Other Essays (1986a: 162-65). However, there is an important difference between Becker and McNeill: Becker was content with myth-preservation as the function of History, whereas McNeill advocates mythmaking.

[19] Pieter Geyl (1958: 185).