Date: Wed, 12 Apr 1995 08:45:55 PCT
Sender: H-NET List for World History <>
Subject: Defining World History

Defining World History

By Haines Brown, 12 April 1995

Editorial note: This is a response to David Christian on the H-NET list for world history. The English has been cleaned up a bit.


I honor your courage to define world history, for despite your hesitation regarding the "fetishism of definitions," which I don't quite understand, I think it is a very necessary thing to attempt by anyone concerned for world history.

However, you seem to presume that world history implies dealing with “all areas,” rather than world history as a whole, as if the whole were the sum of its parts. The question has long been posed whether world history is merely a sum of its parts, or if it is something more than that. I have a suspiction that most historians would like to see world history as something more than history everywhere, which soon becomes overwhelming in its encyclopædism and necessitates subjective judgements of the relative importance of topics or regions.

I don't want to launch a dissertation on an alternative to this, but let me just make a comment or two.

First, it seems to me that the unity of world history cannot rest on its empirical dimension. As our knowledge increases, so does our awareness of the world's empirical diversity. In any case, the positivist model of explanation based on empirical generalization (covering law explanation) is in this century open to challenge. After all “empirical” means the qualities that distinguish things, and so how can distinctions serve as the basis of unity?

Second, I don't think that empirical diversity causes the ship of world history to flounder. There is another dimension: the abstract dimension which is the causal relation of things. If this dimension is given the same ontological weight as the empirical dimension of things, I believe we can then represent world history as a unitary process, not as a collection of “things” such as states, cultures or certain aspects of life.

Third, I believe that a representation of world history as a process escapes the initial problem of world history being reducing to the sum of its local processes. First, the contradictory relation of all people with their natural environment (which defines "economic production," implies an increase in world entropy, and so all people at all times are joined in that one process. I would argue as well a more controversial point, which is that the modern working class is the only universal class in history, by which I mean that its development (a process, again) is a function of the extent of its universality, its global solidarity. In other words, the capacity of the working class to shape history is a function of its engaging the whole of history at all times and places. So the unity of world history finds its realization through class struggle today. Unfortunately, this is not a view for which I expect much sympathy!